Mongolia is best known as the premier place in the world to catch a Taimen on a fly rod. Sweetwater first explored Mongolia in 1995 when Jeff Vermillion convinced a troupe of four anglers to join him on a exploratory trip. Within fifteen minutes of arriving to the river, Jeff’s party had broken a 9 weight rod and landed a 40 inch Taimen. As Jeff, who has spent his life in search of the next great fishing spot, looked up at the larch covered slopes and seemingly uninhabited river valleys, he realized he had discovered something very special.
Mongolia’s signature species, the Taimen, belongs to the genus Hucho which is within the Salmonid family. The Huchen has one of the largest ranges of any freshwater species, but, as humankind marches on, Huchen’s range is decreasing.
There are two primary species of Taimen; Hucho Taimen and Hucho hucho Taimen. The Hucho hucho Taimen are found in the coastal rivers of Russia. The Hucho hucho frequent both fresh and salt water and are known to follow salmon up coastal rivers. Hucho Taimen, or Taimen, are found throughout Eastern Europe, Russian Siberia, northern China, and Mongolia. Unfortunately, due to pollution, habitat encroachment, and poaching Taimen populations find themselves under a great deal of pressure.
The largest known Hucho Taimen was a 231 pounder which measured 84 inches and was caught in commercial net in the Kotui River in 1943. Mongolian Taimen probably do not reach this weight, but the nomadic herders all have stories reaching lengths similar to the Kotui monster. To date, the largest fish landed by a fly-fisherman at the Sweetwater Travel camps in Mongolia measured 62 inches. However, local lore describes fish reaching 80 inches in length which was found dead after choking on a 34 inch Taimen.
Taimen are aggressive surface feeders. During their feeding periods, they will eat prairie dogs, mice, ducklings, as well as grayling and lenok suspended on the surface as they feed on dry flies. We have developed a variety of lightweight patterns which provide a large surface profile to entice the Taimen without feeling like you are trying to cast a wet sock. Taimen typically sit in the back of the runs in the deeper water. However, if you are seeing good numbers of Lenok and Grayling feeding in the riffles, look for Taimen up in the shallow water waiting to pounce. . .
In addition to Taimen, Mongolian rivers are also home to Amur Pike, the Arctic Grayling, and the Lenok. Of these three incidental species, Lenok are the most prolific and appealing. Lenok are the oldest member of the trout family and reach ten to twelve pounds in the Mongolian waters. Their coloration most closely resembles the Rainbow trout, and their fight most closely resembles the Cutthroat trout. Lenok feed primarily on the mayfly hatches and terrestrial activity on the rivers. They are a great fish and anglers should not overlook them when they are in Mongolia. Who knows, while you are bringing in a Lenok, you might have Taimen eat the fish right off your line. . . .
Mongolians are Buddhist and generally do not fish in deference to the special status of the fish in the Buddhist faith. Mongolia’s people are warm and hospitable. Fishermen will have plenty of opportunity to visit nomadic families in their gers and will probably find themselves fishing in front of curious children and horsemen that inhabit the river valleys near camp.
The countryside will remind you of Montana. However, to be fair, Mongolia is more aptly described as beautiful in its own right. Nomads do not build fences. They do not leave many permanent structures. The country looks like it did centuries ago. The forests are home to bear, elk, deer, and wolves. The grasslands are home to partridge, grouse, and eagles. Any fisherman who appreciates beautiful country, must see Mongolia. It will answer the question that most fishermen on the Madison should ask: “I wonder what this looked like before subdivisions?”
Choosing an Outfitter
Fishing in Mongolia has attracted an increasing amount of attention over the past several years. Today, there are several outfitters that can host you on a Taimen expedition to Mongolia. Unfortunately, most Mongolian outfitters do not practice catch and release and spend most of their time catering to European and American hardware fishermen who, although they may intend to release fish, end up killing large numbers of fish with their treble hooks.
Sweetwater Travel has pioneered Taimen conservation in Mongolia. With funding from the International Finance Corporation (private lending component of the World Bank), Sweetwater established the Taimen Conservation Fund. TCF has undertaken a significant science project to understand the Taimen habitat and behaviors, has instituted catch and release fishing with barbless hooks throughout the Eg-Uur watershed. We encourage you to consider our conservation record when you decide upon your outfitter for your Mongolian adventure.
If you decide to fish with someone else, do not use outfitters whose website shows fish which are mishandled or are clearly dead.
Traveling to Mongolia is not as difficult as it appears. Most westerners access Mongolia the Mongolian capital, UlaanBaatar, via Beijing or Seoul.
UlaanBaatar is the gateway to Mongolia. It is a contrast in cultures and economic systems. On the outskirts of town, nomadic herders lead their livestock to market while billboards tout Mongolia’s first internet company. It is a wonderful cultural experience and a great way to spend a day before heading to the fishing camp.
A trip to Mongolia is not a small undertaking. However, Mongolia provides a very unique fishing experience which provides the angler with the opportunity to catch the world’s largest salmonid on a dry fly and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to experience one of the world’s great nomadic cultures. It is a long trip, but, as Justice Sandra Day O’connor stated, “The countryside was magnificent and the staff, both American and Mongolian, were tops. Where else can you catch a 50 inch fish on a dry fly?”
A Note of Caution
Mongolia does not lend itself to do it yourself fishing. Mongolia’s rivers are not open to fishing by foreigners without guides. Most outfitters have a specific they fish, and they have specific permits to fish their stretch of river. If an angler decides to fish on his own, he will most likely wake up one morning to a group of River Rangers who will, at a minimum, issue you a citation as well as confiscate your gear. Accordingly, fishing with a reputable outfitter that is licensed by the government is very important.0