When you see one coming full length for the fly—the green jaws, the broad shoulders, the red tail—the conflict between what you think you know about trout and what you are about to learn provides an excruciating tension.
As you might guess, taimen prefer wild rivers and wild country. One of the rivers where I work, in the valley where Genghis Khan was born, is as undomesticated as they come. By long-term agreement with local, provincial, and national governments, there are no hatcheries, no hotels, no dams, no mines, no commercial logging, and no motorized boats along its banks.
In September 2013, when Sage Flyfishing’s technical service manager visited the river, the weather was far from tame. A series of cold fronts had frog-marched across northern Mongolia, and the leaves on the currant bushes gleamed damp and red. Although the once-in-a-generation flooding had mercifully subsided, the water was still high. In fact, a resupply vehicle from the capital Ulaanbaatar had become bogged down many miles from our first camp, while attempting to ford what is usually a shallow tributary.
On the atypically muddy steppe, upland buzzards, saker falcons, and marsh harriers hunted the mice that had fled their soggy burrows. And yet, after the second day of our trip, I wrote this in my journal: “An ordinary day of fishing. Meaning fun—with lots of action.”
Our log for the day shows that eight anglers hooked twenty-seven taimen, landing eleven. (This count does not include missed strikes, which happen more often than many anglers like to admit.) Of the sixteen individuals that escaped a photograph, one extremely large fish fought downstream for at least five bends of the river before the hook pulled. Another taimen, not nearly as large, was landed after the rod exploded into three pieces on the hookset. (Yes—it was a Sage.) We also were graced with a trio of Amur trout—an endemic species with thick, coppery flanks—and a solitary Amur pike.
In the dining ger that night, Handaa, our camp manager, presided over appetizers, dinner, and dessert. Between courses, she instructed us in the ritual style of toasting, in which each invocation is punctuated with a dip of your ring finger in the vodka: one for the sky, one for the earth, one for the winds, and one for yourself.
Later, some of us sipped red wine, while others (who should not remain nameless) indulged in extravagant concoctions like apple-tinis and lemon drops. Out of the din of conversation, I heard this twosome wisely dubbed “a hangover sandwich.”
A few guests at the table had been friends for many years, while some had just met. But the world of international flyfishing is small enough for coincidences to become routine. Because the guy from Sage has worked in Chile, he and two of our Chilean guides had several acquaintances in common. And because his father had been an industry rep, it was no surprise that one of our other guests, a former New England flyshop owner who has come to the river nearly every year since 2004, recognized the family resemblance.
We have a minimum of four guides on every trip and, in the service of fun, each guide tries to fish with every angler at least once during the week. On the day that I rowed for the Sage guy, he cast a 400-plus-grain sinking head and a huge epoxy fly that, together, cut through the wind like a ballpeen hammer and crashed the water like a depth charge. That rig drew strikes from two healthy taimen and we managed to coax both into the net. His fishing partner began with a floating line then changed to an ordinary sinking tip and went without a strike. By the end of the day, the wind was strong enough to drive the boat back upstream and the current lines were filled with willow leaves.
That unpredictability is part of what makes taimen fishing addictive. Like humans, they can be close-mouthed and sulky one minute, then irrationally exuberant the next. No matter what the weather conditions.
And though weather can sometimes feel like it’s happening specifically to us, cruelly and personally, it can also remind us of our collective smallness in the larger and more mysterious world. What does it mean when, on a morning so warm that you sit as far as possible from the woodstove, someone else says that he can feel snow coming?
Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, that season’s unusual weather will be a net positive. The surge of water tumbled many willows and poplars from the banks. More wood in the water means more nursery habitat. And more nursery habit could eventually mean more trout and more taimen.
To put it in geek terms, the flood was an outlier: a stray point in an expansive data set. As the planet warms, the resulting effects on individual drainages can vary considerably; given our current failure to foresee the bigger picture, I plan to devote myself to further close observation. The river is ancient and ever-changing. All I can say after ten seasons in Mongolia is this: it never gets old.
On the final afternoon of the trip, six days and many dozens of miles downstream, a harrier stooped on a mouse pattern just as the leader unrolled on the forward cast. The bird stuttered above the river, attempting to snatch the fly from the air. The angler exclaimed with surprise and I shouted with delight. Neither of us really wanted to hook a harrier, but we needn’t have worried—the bird made one last, half-hearted stab as the mouse hit the water, then wished itself back into the sky.