There's a few places in the world every fly fisherman dreams of going. Seychelle's, Kamchatka, New Zealand, MONGOLIA. Most never get the chance to persue these destinations but every once in a while an opportunity presents itself making dreams a reality. My dad has worked in Mongolia ever since I was a kid primarily focusing on geology and mineral deposits in the Gobi desert. Growing up he was in Mongolia near 3 weeks of every month but stopped traveling to Mongolia 10 years ago. He decided to travel back this fall as a good friend from his 45 total trips to Mongolia invited him to come to his fishing camp, as well as take a look at a property in the Gobi desert near the Chinese Border. He knew I had mentioned going to Mongolia ever since I had started fly fishing and after months of preparing and booking plane tickets we were off for 16 days of travel.
(If you don't care about 7 days of non fishing stories skip the next 5 paragraphs and go to ************ area.)
A flight to seattle, 3 hour drive with my mom to Vancouver (their home) a few hours of waiting, a 12 hour plane ride to South Korea, a few hour lay over, and a 4 hour flight later we were in the capital of Ulaanbaatar and 15 hours ahead of Bozeman's time. The first day consisted of acclimating myself to a different culture in which rules seemed non exhistant and crossing traffic was a life or death experience. We later met up with some of my dads friends who talked business while I talked Taimen fishing on the side. Hearing stories of the the camp we were going to such as 1.5 m taimen caught using 25 inch lenok as bait got me excited beyond belief. Lots of meat, vodka, and beer and the day was over and it was time for 2 full days of driving to the gobi desert.
We woke up, packed some of our bags and headed off in a land cruiser driven by a company driver and were fortunate to have all paved roads which was extremely rare for Mongolia standards. I must say I liked the dirt roads much more due to the paved roads having so many pot holes that breaking an axle was a legitamate fear at any moment, locals having the tendency of drinking a fifth of vodka while driving and no regulations for what is and isn't allowed on the road. Not having an ambulance service made it ominous too. Crashed cars abandoned on the side of the road was a common sight, and often times the parts would be stripped within hours of crashes.
Bumpy roads made tying flies tough but it was still managable and kept me sane knowing only a few more days and we would be heading north to the land of taimen.
After a long bumpy ride we arrived in a "large" town of Avaheer. The Mutton and mystery foods in many of the meals had caught up to me at this point but I guess it adds to the Mongolia experience. All im going to say is dysentery. Look up the symptoms if you want buts lets just say you don't want this while driving to one of the most remote parts of the world and many stops were had on the next 4 days of driving. The next day consisted of a 12 hour drive to the southern part of the Gobi desert entirely on "roads"/trails/open areas and over 4 or 5 mountain passes. Four hours into the drive and one of the land cruisers barreled off the trail into a gravel area after the bumpy roads broke a bold holding a tire rod in place. We were hundreds of miles from anywhere waiting and watching, as our drivers tried to fix the problem. They somehow thought hammering and taking apart the entire tire rod and then hammering it again with a rock hammer and pick was a good idea.
As imagined, this failed and we resorted to a satellite phone to call the company in which my dad was viewing their property. A few hand offs of the sattelite phone between non english and english speaking travelers to translate the problem and we had someone 4 hours away driving down with the necessary parts to the correct UTM coordinates. We continued on, leaving the drivers, knowing there were ger's (Mongolian yurt's) near by in which they could stay in an emergency. Eight rough and bumpy hours later we arrived to a small camp in the most remote part of one of the most remote countries in the world. Here, 200m deep core drill holes were being taken to see how much gold was in the area. The next day consisted of looking at the area and myself trying to feel better in the ger by taking it easy. A two day drive back to Ulaanbaatar through the camel and fat tailed goat hoards and we were that much closer to the main destination and catching a taimen if all went well. With drivers who only drove in 5th gear even going up hill at 5 mph, the drive took longer than expected but we made it alive which is all we really cared about.
6:30 am came. All the bags were packed and my dads good friend showed up in a nice Toyota Tundra with a topper and we headed the 12 hours to the Egiin Gol. Similar travel experience ensued but with slightly nicer roads. While I switched to drive, a police trap was in front of us and I managed to get a driving without insurance ticket which was pretty much a ploy to get money to the government any way possible. Luckily we had people in the car that could talk to the officer or it could have been much worse. A few local stops to get food and buy beer and the ever necessary vodka, a total of 8 hours of paved roads and 4 hours of dirt/mud roads with multiple river crossings and we arrived to the river in the dark which is not what we had planned. We picked up a local guy near the nearest town airport about 45 minutes from where the "river crossing" was and drove down the road as I had no idea what the plan was to get to the camp on the other side of the river. Upon arrival at the river I noticed it was nearly 3 times the width of the Yellowstone River. All in a days work for these guys. My dad's friend Enkhe mentioned the Sweetwater Fly Fishing Camp was a mile upstream from the crossing and then I knew we were in the right spot for big taimen. We talked for about 20 minutes under a cloudy dark sky about whether we should go for it or wait for a local boy on a horse to show up and walk across the river so we could compare the water marks on the horses ass to the height the water would reach on the front of the truck.
After several technical inspections of the horses ass we decided the horse and boy should find a shallower route. 3 more crossings of the river and I found myself in the back of the truck trusting Mongolian intuition and after 3 slow minutes of driving in 4 low following a horse across a river in the dark, found ourselves on the other side of the river with yelps of joy and horn honks from the truck. After a traditional shot of vodka for safe river crossing we headed to the camp where we unloaded the truck and had a non sleep filled night as I was anxious to wake up early and toss a rat in the nice inside bend of the river 100 ft from the camp. Waking up in a fog filled sky I ran to the river before everyone else.
First step in the water and was up to my chest. Biggest water I've ever fished.
Using a rat sized fly didn't work that morning and rendesvoused with the rest of the crew for breakfast.
Later walked upstream with my dad and fished a small hole in which I pulled 12 lenok and some grayling out on a tan home invader streamer. The trout fishing was some of the easist I've ever experienced but I hadn't flown for over 24 hours and driven 5 full days to catch trout the size of Montana and committed to throwing large streamers the rest of the trip.
After lunch Enkhe said jump on the motor cycles with the horse guy from the night before and his dad and they will take you to a good spot for catching lenok and taimen. Loading all my gear up and breaking rods into two pieces we jumped on the motorcycles and down stream 2 miles mostly on trails but occasionally through open fields and smaller creeks.
A perfect piece of water was in front of us and after countless casts of catching lenok Enkhe caught a taimen on his spin rod. (My dad and I were the only people fly fishing) A small one that was quickly released but it got my hopes up. Fished on and moved up on the motorcycles a mile to eat berries from a tree. During a small break my dad took a couple casts and too landed a taimen. (Lenok Pictured)
We headed back to camp for dinner and beers where my dad mentioned it had been his perfect day. I had no idea what the night would bring but Ankhe mentioned I should go out with Amahra who I will call "NIght Horse" due to my first experience meeting him. We raced the motorcycles up stream and before I knew it we were racing through a field screaming and honking the horn at a group of horses. After hearding them up and starting a stampede away from their stables we headed to the confluence only after scaring 3-4 grouse up out of the woods.
The sun was setting and I was throwing 5 inch mouse patterns into the night.
Night horse was spin fishing with a glow in the dark mouse the size of my head that rattled and right when it got pitch black I heard cannon balls crashing in the water. I ran up stream and he was hollering only to be silenced by the fish spitting the hook. He then proceeded to tie the near 1 pound mouse on my fly rod even though I tried telling him it wouldn't work. Him knowing 0 words of english and me knowing 5 of mongolian didn't help. After 2 failed casts just to try to please him I tried to teach him to cast a fly rod for the first time in the dark with a mouse. He got the basics down. No fish that night and as we headed out, Night Horse proceeded to drive his motorcycle in the shallow part of the river and spotlight grayling. For 30 minutes tried catching them with our bare hands with Night Horse sucessfully catching a near 10 inch grayling. Rode back only to see a flashing light while traveling 20mph in the dark in a field. Went to them and two hay cutters were sitting around a smoldering fire eating some goo out of a dirty bag. Not knowing what was going on, next thing I knew they were racing back to our camp at near 40mph in the dark passing each other back and forth. We arrived at camp and the random strangers stayed for the night as in Mongolia you have to let someone stay with you if they ask as it is in their culture. I joined my dad and his friend at the fire and saw two shooting stars followed by "two" or so shots of vodka. https://www.youtube.com/
The next was very similar to the first except at the same confluence from the night before I hooked and fought a taimen for near a minute on a large musky fly only to have him spit it before I could see him. Less fish due to using larger flies, but still caught many lenok as they were very agressive often eating flies half their size.
Same technique of fishing before sunrise all the way until an hour or two after dark with wolves howling in the background and no form of protection other that 21 year old Night Horse's local knowledge. No taimen after two days but before dinner we took a raft across the river to another confluence and my dad caught two over 40 inch pike on his spin rod but unfortunately the pictures are on a water logged camera.
All the mongolians kept telling me, "no fly rod" and to use a spin rod which I kept telling them was BS as taimen in my opinion will eat a fly more often than a lure. After the third day of no taimen and fishing in a downpour trying all of the options I was starting to doubt myself and think I was not going to catch any taimen and that I must have been doing something wrong. Enkhe had to drive the truck back across the river in fear of flooding and being stranded on the wrong side of the river from the dirt road. A smart decision in the end. While he did this, I tried covering every inch of the main runs with a mouse pattern on the spey rod, then repeating with various large streamer patterns.
Fishing into the night in a down pour with no success on the third day. Few fish were caught for anyone that third day and the more I thought I was going home to Montana with no taimen.
A make shift wood stove sauna existed at our camp and as it is mongolian tradition to sauna I thought it might bring good luck even knowing there was no shower other than rain water to clean the sweat off of me for the next few days. I mentioned to my dad while sweating near to death, if I catch a taimen the last day I'm going to give my 7 weight fly rod with sink line to Night Horse because he would help take me fishing to his local spots with no questions asked including having him tell me to wake him up the next day an hour before sunrise to have him take me fishing in heavy cloud cover and rain in the dark. I thought karma would be on my side.
After a good nights sleep did just as mentioned previously. Half awake, Night horse and myself ripped to an upper confulence.
A few hours in, and a few lenok later I hooked an average size taimen on a hand tied yellow and olive dungeon immitation with 5 articulations and a 3/0 hook. While walking it to shore had it spit the hook at my feel. No more fish for the morning and we headed back to camp for breakfast a bit discouraged. Enkhe mentioned one last ditch effort to catch an illusive taimen. He said Night Horse's father Bouell could take my dad and I up stream 4 or 5 miles on the motorcycles with an inflatable raft and we could float back to camp and fish our way down. A bumpy crammed ride later and about 20 minutes of inflation by foot pump and our 6 foot S.S. Dingy had set sail with 3 passangers, legs hanging in the water during a rain storm.
We immediately rowed accross to the confluence where my dad had caught large pike days earlier. First cast into a deep hole full of fallen tree structure and it felt like a freight train had grabbed the end of my line. "Big Fish" I yelled. Not knowing whether it was a big pike or a taimen I kept thinking knowing the last few days it would be another pike. Minutes of large head shakes doubling my rod over and runs across river and I finally saw a large red tail and trout shaped body hit the surface. I couldn't believe it was a taimen. Delicately playing the fish to the bank we neared the end of a peninsula where two rivers met. Had to get the fish in there or it would be a tough fight from a 6 foot boat. First attempt to land it almost ended up with it wrapped around a log. Last chance and the taimen was drug into the shallows and grabbed by Bouell with hoots and howls. The trip wasn't a bust and I could finally relax. My dad handed me a flask of scotch and the goal had been accomplished. A couple pictures and the 42 inch taimen had been released.
I would have been satisfied with a 20 inch one at this point and was luckily enough to catch a trophy sized one on a hand tied fly. We still had a 4 mile float ahead and a few lenok, small and 2 more 25-30+ inch taimen later and the trip had the icing on the cake.
Made it back to camp after fishing some of the most enjoyable holes of my life and it was time to relax eat some dinner and give Night Horse my rod for helping out so much. Although there was no language connection I could tell he would figure out how to use it as a new hobby.
Even taught him a new knot that was easily retained. Next morning woke up early packed up and strapped near 100 pounds of equipment and drove to a local cabin with a boat that was filled with dirt and a foot or so of water.
Waiting for the next motor cycle load to arrive we bailed the water out and the local owner of the boat came out with a 15 foot tall wooden pole for pushing the boat accross the river. Loading 7 people, a motor cycle, all our baggage and almost adding a horse to that we crossed to the other side powered by a wooden pole.
We were off for the 4 hours of muddy roads and 8 of paved roads to Ulaanbaatar and a plane the next morning filled with an adventure of a life time to ponder for the 2 days of travel back to Bozeman.
Mongolia is a place unlike anything I've experienced. The legal way to do it is to go through a private outfitter but if you can find a local connection and get the necessary governmental permits, you will experience the unimaginable. I'll leave you with some extra pictures from the trip.
Thanks for reading and for all the help from friends, families and companies that helped make this trip happen. Swing by the Bozeman Angler for all things fly fishing.