The River Time Forgot
We each flew thousands of miles to see something no westerners had ever seen. From the plane I could see Russia and parts of it were remote and beautiful. Others totally logged and clogged with industry. The land in China is almost totally utilized. No acre left untouched. Once over Mongolia, it opens out into the vest expanses of the Gobi. The desert is a barren but beautiful barrier that has protected Mongolia for centuries from the outpouring of China. The heart land of Mongolia is green and forested on the north slops of the many hills with native larch trees. Flying over almost the width of the entire country I didn’t see a single fence bigger than just a small horse corral.
There are very few places left on earth were you can experience true exploration. Northern Mongolia is one of the places that have remained under the radar and out of the guidebooks until recently when the Iron Curtin was finally lifted. This is why it is one of the last strongholds for native salmonids like the Hucho Taimen and Lennok, as well as other species like Mongolian Greyling, Chipock and Ameur Pike. It is these native fishes that still thrive in their native habitats that first drew me there two years ago. On our first expedition, Peter Mullett, Genevieve Villimizar and I discovered a little known river in the middle of nowhere that turned out to be a fisherman’s paradise. The water was clear, cold and undisturbed by meat hunting anglers and mine water pollution. The deep cold pools gave refuge to many large wild fish. The canyon walls were home to many eagles and other native wildlife. It was a wild landscape and intact ecosystem that westerners could only dream and reminisce about in this day and age. Each corner of the river we turned lead us to another beautiful pool and more healthy fish. Our limited time there left us each wondering what was just around the next corner?
Fast-forward two years and many hours of research later. When Peter called me to say he and his Mongolian partner had secured the necessary permissions and sussed out all the details to float the entire river system, of course I said I was in. We were going to attempt to be the first group to ever float and fish the river. The allure of native fish, majestic pools and unspoiled landscapes drawing me back like a magnet. It didn’t take long to assemble a group of adventurous anglers to accompany. Our team consisted of famous fly fisherman Jeff Currier and his long time fishing buddy from college Paul Cavanaugh. Peter and Gen of Mongofly Travel. Brent Dawson, a gifted fly designer from California, and myself. A skilled crew of Mongolia’s lead by Chimbat Chulumm, including a cook, interpreter and young Mongolian named Hugagaa, also accompanied us.
It is fall in Mongolia and the water is now low and clear. Armed with nothing more than fishing rods, cameras, camping gear and an inherent belief that everything would be o.k., we headed off into the wild. Over 120 miles of untouched river and 16 days of adventure laid before us. There is no paved roads, no bridges, no fences, no signs, no stores, no hatcheries and no rules.
The Mongolian countryside is vast and beautiful. The locals are nomadic herdsmen that keep careful watch over their flocks of sheep, goats, yak, camel and horses. Ancient traditions still prevail and a mix of Buddhism and Shamanism is the preferred method of connecting with god. Traditional food sources still abound, including many native plants that grow along the rivers bank, like potatoes, garlic, onion, mushrooms, rhubarb, mint and berries. If it weren’t for the solar panels on the Yurts and the occasional motorcycle, you’d think you had stumbled into the 1800’s or even earlier.
The fishing was awesome! The river was full of Lenok up the 25 inches. They are a hearty fish that bites flies well and could keep any angler entertained for hours. Once you get a taste of a Taimen on the end of you line though, its hard to go back to Lenok fishing. The Taimen is the top notch predator. They eat a fly well and pull out all the stops to get free. With a rock hard, and awesomely powerful jaw and a huge toothy mouth, the odds are more often than not, in their favor. It’s all you can do to just hold on when you finally do hook one. It wasn’t until day 3 that Brent finally landed one. Our group ended up boating around 60 Taimen on the trip, which is unheard of. Countless lenock, some greyling and even a few pike made up the rest of the catch. The fishing was by no means easy though. Taimen take a long time to grow and need a big section of river to support each large fish. Even the healthiest systems can only support so many of them. I don’t think we caught half the ones we saw!
I never thought I’d meet someone who is more turbo about fishing than me, but I now think that Jeff Currier may be that guy. He’s a real predator. From sun up to sun down Paul and him were out there getting after it. I spent much of my time rowing for Brent, climbing cliffs and spotting fish, and filming, but I did manage to get some quality fishing time in too. On about day 10 I managed to land the fish of the trip with a nice fat healthy Taimen that was hard to lift out of the water. It was a fine retribution for the monster I had lost on my last trip. Peter also had a whale rise to his popper, but couldn’t seal the deal.
Mongolia lends itself well to camping. Every night we set up a new camp along the river. Stories of the day’s events unfolded around the campfire over a nice big dinner and sips of beer or vodka. There’s nice dry wood everywhere and the only signs of anyone camping there when we left was a small pile of ash. I love nothing more than sleeping out under the stars, thought the nights there were bitter cold. Most of the mornings I woke up covered in ice. Much thanks to Patagonia for their generous contribution of warm gear before I left.
The locals were stoked to see us. They all come running out to see the stranger people in the fancy boats floating down the river waving sticks. Most of them tried to invite us into their yurts to feed us or show us their belongings. Many of them tried to get us to ride their horses. Paul gave the kid’s hakky sacks and the other Mongolian’s handed out candy. We gave many of them the ultimate treat by simply taking their photo. They are very nice people and curious about our western ways. And I was even more curious about their way of life.
Right now many parts of Mongolia remain unspoiled, but the country is rapidly changing. Luckily, Mongolia’s haven’t traditionally eaten fish, so the populations have remained relatively intact. Now, huge open pit mines are popping up and ruining rivers at an alarming rate. Also, a new and growing Chinese’s market for fish is putting huge pressure on the river in the form of winter poaching. Part of Peter’s program is not only to go out and catch fish, but also to educate the local people about what a wonderful resource they have and help spread the mentality of conservation. In addition to collecting data for research about Taimen, we also spend time trying to start the grass roots of a conservation movement in the area. With our photos and my film, Peter and Chimbat have arranged to do a big exposition around Northern Mongolia next year to help educate the locals about catch and release fishing and the over all long term benefits of eco tourism as a means of revenue, instead of the alternative of mining or commercial fish harvesting and unsustainable trophy hunting. At the end of our trip I attended a meeting with Peter at the department of environment in Mongolia and shared with them ideas for future preservation of their resources. Prospects for the future sound promising, but it’s going to take more than just legislation. We also met with Andy Parkinson of Fish Mongolia and he has some great ideas as well. The main and best form of grass roots conservation is empowering the local people to have a stake in the resource hence giving them an incentive to police their local areas and stop destructive poaching at the source. For more on Mongolia, fishing, or conservation, contact Peter Mullett at www.mongofly.com.