As we stood at the Ulaanbaatar airport counter in the early morning, prior to our flight out to the Mongolian steppes, we were told that between eight anglers we would be limited to a total gear weight of 60 kilos between us. Things suddenly got interesting. This was news to us. Frantic to make our flight on time, we all started going throughout packs making quick decisions about what would stay and what would make the strict flight restrictions. Following our instructions to bring only the bare essentials for the day of fishing we got to work. The remainder of our clothes and equipment were to be trucked out that morning via a 12-hour off-road journey to our first ger camp. After many weigh in attempts still overweight, we finally got down the bare bones of our equipment and got the green light to board our small twelve passenger aircraft. Soon after we took off over the rugged mountainous Mongolian landscape. An hour and a half later we circled down to land in a field outside the small Mongolian village of Binder where our guides and Mongolian support staff with a selection of Russian 4×4 vans and Landcruiser idling ready to drive us to the river a couple of kilometers away.
“Welcome to Mongolia. Let’s wader up!” was the greeting and direction head Mongolia River Outfitter fishing guide Peter Fong gave us as our off-road transportation screeched to a halt at the banks of the Onon River. Finding our gear was easy. We exited our transports took a quick look around the fire colored banks of the Onon River, our home and fishing playground for the next week. No time was wasted. After a brief round of handshake introductions, our guides had us gear up, throw on our waders, string up our 8 weight Sage and Orvis fly rods, tie on a large custom streamer pattern called a “Chilean Goat” and load up into the four Clackacraft drift boats awaiting riverside all under the watchful eyes of our curious Mongolian hosts. We were going fishing and the taimen awaited.
As we cast off of the shore and started casting we finally had a chance to take in our surroundings. For me, the Mongolia steppes had a familiar feel to it. At first glance, I could have sworn its resemblance was identical to landscape features found in my Montana home. Wide open prairie met steep rolling mountain hills. The differences between Montana and Mongolia are more apparent once you spend some time there. No fences, no houses just pristine wilderness. A rare thing to find back in the states. We couldn’t have timed our trip better. Fall was in full swing and the local Mongolia flora was in full force autumn. Bright yellows, oranges, reds, and greens of birch trees, honeysuckle shrubs, sedges, willows, popular and larch trees littered the surrounding hillsides and the river bank. It was gorgeous. I took full advantage of the color pallet and was constantly making photos as we floated downstream.
I immediately felt at home on this river. The upper Onon River is one of the areas that are claimed to be the birthplace and home where Genghis Khan grew up. The Onon River eventually meets up with the Shilka and Amur water systems to form one of the world’s ten longest rivers. Being aware of how old this land was and the Mongol history that occurred here definitely amplified the excitement of the trip. So was the fact that this pristine watershed held some of the largest salmonids on earth we were destined to catch.
Not even twenty minutes into our float we started to get some fish action.
SMACK!!! The impact of one’s first Mongolian taimen startles you and catches you off guard. My first was a big one that gave me just enough time to see it roll over in the water, see it’s big broadside (I estimated at about 40 inches), and play it for a few seconds before it flipped off the end of my line. Holy shit! I thought. This was no ordinary fish. The descriptions we had heard of them prior to the trip were very accurate. Mongolian Terror Trout…River wolves…The Siberian Taimen are the largest salmonid fish in the world and the reason that our crew has traveled to the other side of the earth to pursue them in Mongolia. The species has earned their nicknames. Capable of reaching sizes up to 60in this aggressive fish preys on just about anything that swims near them including ducklings, gophers, mice, and other taimens. Fishing for them stripping large streamers from the drift boat towards the riverbanks is a similar approach used for catching trout, but these beasts are far larger and much more aggressive than their smaller trout counterparts. They strike your fly like a ton of bricks and put up one heck of a fight. Often times a missed hook up meant we could throw our fly back to the spot where we lost it and often the fish would hit it again and again. Getting the hook to set in their mouths was tricky due to the thickness of their jaws. We missed a lot more than we actually landed which made holding one all the more exciting. Luckily we had seven more days of fishing for taimen along with the large pike, lennox and amur trout. Let the fun begin. -M