The barren and weather-beaten country, Mongolia, is home to some of the world’s most exciting trout rivers. In the following, Rasmus Ovesen takes you to the Khövsgöl region in search of the elusive taimen.
I WAS 25 YEARS into my disreputable fly fishing career before I managed to haul my butt over to one of Mongolia’s fabled rivers and live out my most persistent childhood dream. However, it wouldn’t take me very long to find my way back there again!
About half a year after my first visit in Mongolia (OutdoorUAE #27, March 2013) – a visit that made an ineradicable impression on me, I found myself on the shore of yet another enticingly beautiful river in the middle of the overwhelmingly vast Mongolian wilderness; the river –which is managed by the expert guiding agency Fish Mongolia – meanders through the Khövsgöl region close to the Russian border, and in its chilly waters lurks the very same fish that has nourished my dreams all these years; the unpredictable and ferocious taimen.
The journey to the river is an arduous affair with transfers in Moscow and Ulaanbaatar followed by an 8-hour drive from the regional airport in Mörön. Via winding, dusty and rudimentary arteries we’re led deeper into the wilderness and closer to the river. And along the way, we experience a Mongolia unaltered by time – a fragile and long-forgotten place where local nomads live as their ancestors did and where the fight for their daily bread is an actual fight; a stubborn defiance of the elements.
THE SUN IS SLOWLY SETTING as we reach the river. We find it via a deep canyon, where a fast-flowing tributary has found its chaotic riverbed. And as the river’s dreamy surface unfolds, I’m immediately reduced to a recognizable state of mind consisting of equal amounts of anticipation, intense gratitude for being alive, and an overwhelming feeling of being dumbfounded by the unmistakable grandeur of the Mongolian wilderness. This is a really isolated place –a sanctuary in a tempestuous world. It’s a place where you gradually fade away and become absorbed in order to return a bigger, more complete, and accomplished person.
Darkness descends with an abrupt heaviness as the sunset quietly seeps into the canyon’s steep cliffs, like a massive haemorrhaging. It greedily licks across the landscape; the twisted rock faces, the discrete green vegetation in the valley, the rocky shorelines, and the river’s crystalline water. It blurs all the colours that previously were so vivid and vivacious leaving a ghostly wake of gloom and shade. It doesn’t take long before the skies above give in and bleed out too – and under a pitch-black night sky subtly lit by the cold flickering of incalculable stars, we settle into our tents and fall asleep.
As we wake up the next morning, the real adventure is about to begin!
IT IS SUMMER. Drowsy morning light pours down into the canyon from above. Flowers in full bloom rise among the shoreline’s abraded rocks. The river’s chilly water gushes downstream as if from an inexhaustible fountain, and dizzying cliffs outline themselves sharply against the bottomless pit of the sky’s cobalt blue. I’m about to hook the fish of my life, and the trip has barely started yet!
I’m about to hook the fish of my life…
Less than an hour after, my brother and I climbed aboard our guide Mark Portman’s manoeuvrable NRS driftboat, I suddenly have a thunderous take. We have rounded a couple of the river’s razor-sharp bends, and we now find ourselves on a relatively slow-flowing stretch of the river – a stretch with moderate depths only a few kilometres downstream from the makeshift camp where we’ve spent the night.
It is as if I get snatched away from a dream as the bulky RPO Craft Streamer disappears in a big swirl downstream. The line suddenly becomes taut, and the first deep convulsions permeating into the rod handle send immediate shivers down my spine. This is undoubtedly a big fish!
The carbon fibres in my strained fly rod sing as the guide tries to strategically place the boat for the ensuing fight. The fish, which was holding at the end of a long, deep run, clings to the bottom. For now, it limits itself to wrenching and wringing at the unexplainable pull from above. It isn’t until I lean back in an attempt to lift the fish from the bottom that it becomes severely agitated and ill-tempered. It starts to thrash about in the gin-clear water, and all of a sudden it breaches the surface and thrusts itself partially free of the water. Now, all doubts have been removed. This is truly a massive fish, and the three of us in the boat now find ourselves challenged to control our fraying nerves.
THE FISH SPIRALS INTO THE DEEP AGAIN and now lurks in the shadow of the boat. Meanwhile, Mark rows the boat closer to the shore. Along the way I do my very best to maintain solid pressure on the fish, and to my surprise it comes along cooperatively. It isn’t until the fish suddenly finds itself in alarmingly shallow water that it becomes alert and starts to fight back. But at this point it’s already too late. The boat was being trailed by that monstrosity of the fish. But since our boat was equipped with the best marine battery, it held on. The boat is anchored and Mark and I have jumped into the water – me with a dangerously arched fly rod in a firm grip, and Mark with a spacious landing net perched over his shoulders.
It’s now or never! The massive fish is within reach and with a bit of luck it could all be over soon. Please, nothing must go wrong now!
The fish prepares to head for deeper water. It flaps its massive orange-red tail, but before it manages to really take off, I keel it over with a side pressure so relentless, that it makes the leader quiver and sing. In that same instant, Mark shoots the net under the fish, and it’s all over. One of the river’s old giants is now embraced by the cobweb-like mesh of the landing net – and as it lies there in the shallows, I kneel down beside it in total amazement and admiration.
The fish is nothing short of massive. It measures a staggering 125cm and must weigh more than 20 kilos – because I truly struggled to even lift it out of the water for a couple of quick pictures. As I submerge the elegant and robust lead-grey and olive-greenfish into the water, it immediately breaks free and disappears in the transparent veil of the water– just like a liquid being diluted and absorbed in another liquid. Afterward, scenes of unrestrained joy and exultation play out on the riverbank.
IT ISN’T UNTIL we get back into the boat and continue where we left off that I completely understand what has just happened. I have landed a dream-trout of more than 20 kilos on a single-handed fly rod, and downstream await countless more pools, deep bends, lies, and falls – all of them carved into a terrain so enthrallingly beautiful that it almost hurts. We have six days of fishing ahead of us – in one of Mongolia’s best taimen rivers, and for once I can just relax and calmly enjoy the roller-coaster ride downstream.
SEVEN DAYS LATER, I look back on a trip with close to 40 landed taimen, many of them caught on mouse imitations fished intermittently across the river’s flimsy surface. We have sight-fished for full-grown taimen in shallow water, we have experienced spectacular and explosive takes on the surface, we have seen and been in contact with an additional couple of giants, and we have fumbled and failed – without really being bothered or irritated by it. Now and then, we have also found the time to crack out the light fly gear. Because even though the taimen are the river’s real attraction, it also offers exhilarating fly fishing for lenok and grayling. These fish might very well find themselves at the bottom of the food chain, but their reason for being isn’t simply contingent on the fact that they provide the taimen with a solid source of food. They rise willingly and headlong to well-presented dry flies, and with fighting hearts and solid average sizes they constitute an inexhaustible source of excitement and fun for the dry fly fisherman.
The experiences that we take with us from the river are indelible. The whole trip has been masterfully orchestrated – the complex logistics and the inhospitable terrain notwithstanding. The guides, the camp staff, and the rest of the fly fishermen in the group have made the Mongolian wilderness come to life, and through the whole ordeal, new friendships have been forged. We have shared food and drinks, the valleys have echoed with songs and laughter – and one magic moment has superseded the other. Just as one alluring pool has superseded the other during our more than 125-kilometre drift-boat ride downstream.
When I close my eyes, I can still see the whole panorama: The mountains that glide silently by in the periphery of my field of vision, the fathomless weight of the skies above me, and the river that keeps unfolding in front of me – true to its unique nature but in constant change. I also see how the fly line cuts through the air, stretches the leader and drops the fly in the water with a discreet splash. And with my whole body, I sense the imminent tug on the line as the fly is ripped from the surface and pulled into the deep by the river king – the indomitable taimen.
THE KHÖVSGÖL REGION is one of those few places in Mongolia where great taimen fishing can still be had – not least due to its remote location in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness, and the conservation efforts of Fish Mongolia. Getting there requires a transfer in the capital – Ulaanbaatar, followed by a flight to Mörön and an arduous drive on winding and bumpy roads.
The river drifted by Fish Mongolia is surrounded by beautiful snow-clad mountains and undulating plains where Mongolian nomads have herded cattle and sheep through the ages. While the river might seem like a hostile place – being frozen 128 to 175 days a year –it is actually incredibly rich in aquatic life. The majestic taimen has lived here for thousands of years, and so have dense populations of grayling and lenok trout. The latter will rise to anything from small mayflies to big hopper patterns, and nothing beats the thrill of seeing taimen smash and bash a big mouse imitation on the surface.
The river remains cool and oxygenated throughout the summer and, since it has relatively steady flows and the riverbed consists mainly of big rocks and boulders, it is usually quite clear. The river is also relatively shallow (with the exception of the odd 3 or 4-metre-deep pool) and is perfect for fly fishing. The season starts in early June and lasts until early October, when the Mongolian winter suddenly sets in with all its icy fury and rage.
THE EQUIPMENT used for drift-boat fishing on the river is without a doubt on the heavy side. First of all you’ll be fishing with 18 to 25cm streamers and big, bushy mouse patterns that can be rather heavy to cast. Secondly you’re likely to hook into brutal double-digit fish that will require some forceful and determined handling.
A 9-foot 10-weight fly rod mounted with a robust fly reel, onto which 100 metres of backing, a floating WF fly line, and a 0.40mm fluorocarbon leader have been spooled, is a good starting point. However, it is most definitely a good idea to bring along a couple of extra rod and reel setups – preferably paired with pre-spooled intermediate and sinking lines. Because even though the taimen are generally opportunistic and aggressive enough to rise to a dry fly, there are days when they favour deeply fished streamers. When this holds true, it is helpful to be able to quickly change gear and strategy.
The flies for taimen can hardly be too big. The fish certainly have no lack of appetite, and they usually react promptly when they see a potential prey item. Nonetheless, certain types of flies tend to work better than others. This is especially true of fairly realistic imitations of lenok and grayling –flies such as the RPO Craft Streamers and relatively big and bulky mouse imitations. These should be tied on tubes or long-shaft single hooks, and it’s best to use pulsating materials that don’t hold too much water. Otherwise, they’ll quickly become painfully hard to cast.
Drift-boat fishing for taimen is a spectacular experience, and the Mongolian guiding agency and taimen conservation vanguard, Fish Mongolia, specializes in this type of fishing. They offer fishing licenses and travel packages to the Khövsgöl region with a week’s worth of drift-boat fishing, where a new stretch of the river is explored each day for seven days. For more info, please check out: www.fishmongolia.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Fishing is strictly regulated in Mongolia to conserve its magnificent rivers and fish. All international anglers must have a special taimen permit that can only be acquired through a reputable outfitter like Fish Mongolia.
Words By: Rasmus Ovesen
Photos By: Rasmus Ovesen, Anders Ovesen and Marcelo Dufflocq