North American anglers have a long history of trying to save the fish they love. Think Delaware shad, Columbia steelhead, Yellowstone cutthroats. Think Trout Unlimited, the Federation of Fly Fishers, and Patagonia’s World Trout Initiative—which has recently joined a fledgling conservation movement in the fight to preserve Mongolia’s most charismatic salmonid: the taimen.
Though the family resemblance is obvious, this long-lived, slow-growing species boasts a personality more like a shark than a salmon. Taimen are apex predators, opportunistic feeders that occasionally hunt in packs. They’ll readily take rodents or ducklings, along with any fish smaller than themselves, and their voracious attacks on mouse imitations are the stuff of flyfishing dreams. [My stories about taimen appear in the 2008 Expeditions & Guides issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal and the March 2009 Fly Rod & Reel.]
In 2008, six local governments, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Mongolia River Outfitters formed a unique conservation partnership to protect the Onon River, which meanders through the still-unspoiled valley where Chinggis Khan was born. Since then, that partnership can take credit for establishing the world’s first taimen sanctuary and Mongolia’s first taimen-conservation trust fund.
To ensure that released taimen survive to strike again, all angling in the Onon—for any species—is by single barbless hooks. A “pliers program” supplies local residents with tools for crimping barbs and clipping trebles, while an innovative social marketing campaign sponsored by Rare encourages vigilant stewardship.
The campaign manager, Gankhuyag Balbar, is a former mayor of Dadal, one of the region’s larger towns, as well as a former Conservation Fellow at Georgetown University. According to survey results, the number of local anglers who strongly agree that a “taimen should always be put back into the river after it is caught” increased from 36.5 percent to 92.7 percent during the first two years of the campaign.