Leo said it all, stumbling through he door of the hut, rubbing his hands, shuffling as close to the wood burner as possible for it does get cold early in Mongolia. "I’ve kept count of everything today. I never moved more than a hundred yards from ten o’clock till, what is it now, six or so. I’ve had a hundred and twenty one grayling – the biggest, I guess, three pounds. I’ve had twenty-four lenok, the biggest fourteen pounds and the average, I suppose, something like six pounds. And I’ve had two taimen, seventeen pounds and twenty-one pounds. All on the nymph. Every single one on a nymph, I tell you. This must be the best wild fishing there is anywhere in the world. Getting on for four hundred pounds of fish in eight hours on a size six fly rod. Stupendous."
True, for the nymph and dry fly fisherman, the rivers of northern Mongolia are an absolute paradise but there is much, much more…the moon is up and what a moon it is in the crystal clear atmosphere of this wild, unpolluted country. It throws a silver light over everything, over the snow-capped mountains, over the dark, hushed forest, across the plain and all along the sparkling river. We’re at the tail of a big, deep pool, just where the water is beginning to speed up before cascading down into rapids. Gamba, my Mongolian brother and guide, is beside himself with excitement as we stand on a rock some ten yards or so from the bank. On light salmon gear, I’ve tied a mouse pattern fly – a monstrous creation, perhaps four or five inches long. How the hell I’m going to cast it I just don’t know. I’m worried that it’s too big but Gamba says no. No way he says….the very biggest taimen prefer squirrels, even children’s teddy bears!
The mouse hurtles its way forty yards across the stream and lands with a splash eddying ripples of blackened silver outwards. I retrieve steadily, letting the mouse sometimes rest before spurting it backwards towards me. Third, possibly fourth cast a menacing ‘V’ appears from nowhere and closes in on the mouse. I pull faster and faster and the wall of water grows up ever bigger behind. It hits with a raw explosion, a silvering volcano. Twenty minutes later in a silence broken only by the river, a screaming reel and a distant howling of wolves we land the fish. It’s a taimen of forty-five perhaps fifty pounds. The oldest salmonid in the world. A creature from prehistory, a fish with menace writ large across it. A monster.
Of course, taimen fall to more conventional methods. These salmon-like fish prey heavily on the local lenok trout and spectacular form of grayling. Fish of four or five pounds are their staple diet and to catch them generally you use big bold working plugs. Taimen aren’t scattered everywhere around the river but prefer the big, deep pools and you’ll find packs of fish every mile or so where they lie in wait to ambush their prey. This means that a typical Mongolian day involves hard walking – I’ve often covered up to twenty-five miles in search of new, unexplored pools. Or you can go by horseback which cuts down on the physical effort and certainly overdoses on the adrenaline…these ponies may look only the size of Labradors but you try sitting on one when it smells the fires of home in the evening!
How big do taimen grow? Nobody really knows. It’s like everything in this huge, sparsely populated country. Virtually everything is dusted with myth and legend, superstition rather than fact. All you can do is say what you have seen and I’ve seen plenty. Over the eight years I’ve been going to Mongolia I’ve seen and caught sixty pounders, lost eighty pounders and seen taimen hunting that were probably ten or even twenty pounds bigger than that. Colossal fish indeed. But of course, it’s not just the fish that makes the fishing, is it? One of the great draws of Mongolia is the absolutely stunning landscape that you’re living in - mountains to ten thousand feet, snow-capped virtually the year round. Forests so dense and so thick that no one has ever penetrated them. Remote valleys with hidden tribes of nomads. And above all, this amazing river, the Shiskid, that before we arrived no other European had ever, ever fished. And there’s still hundreds of miles of it unexplored. We’re scratching the surface, edging out each year little by little along its banks in search of more fabulous pools. Yes, there’s so much mystery…in fact, even the grayling have their own story. Nowhere else does a sub-species quite like this exist. They’re unique and they’re stunningly beautiful and they mirror their environment to perfection.
Then of course, there are the people, the Mongolians themselves…the most open, honest and welcoming people I’ve come across in my travels around the world. Okay, there’s a bad apple everywhere but I’ve not met him or her, certainly not in my travel to the west of Ulan Bator. Because of these people, camp life is hysterical, never-ending fun. Sometimes you stay in one of their huts but more often in a ger, the traditional white, round tent. Whichever, you have a bed and a wood burner will blaze merrily away through the coldest of the hours. Food was terrible but is improving quickly…you simply can’t beat yak steaks and chips, let me tell you! And then the fun begins. We’ve introduced them to cricket. They’ll carve a bat from larch and the wickets too and we supply the tennis balls. I say balls because half of them end up in the river. So far, we’ve won one Test series and lost three…about par for English cricket I suppose anywhere in the world.
As the skies darken the stars begin to stretch out with a clarity you’ve never seen before. It’s like living in a planetarium. And then the vodka Toast after toast to be drunk. A fire started outside under the stars perhaps and dancing. Sometimes till dawn. Stories too and singing…endless singing. There’s hardly a Mongolian on the northern plains now that doesn’t know the chorus of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’!
And then the next day begins…breakfast accompanied perhaps by a bout of arm-wrestling and then away, on foot or hoof into an echoing, wonderful wilderness for a day you can never predict entirely, after fish hardly anyone else in the world has ever even seen. I write about Mongolia in glowing terms because, simply, there is no other adventure like it in the world today. It’s unique and it’s special and, believe me, it changes the entire way you look at your life thereafter.
For the lenok trout and grayling ordinary trout gear and flies will surface. A six pound leader is about right. For fly fishing for taimen, a fifteen foot salmon rod and matching reel and line is appropriate. Use big tube flies and streamers attached to a twenty pound leader.
For plug fishing choose a nine or ten foot spinning rod with a test curve of between two and a half and three pounds. Thirty or thirty five pound line throughout is necessary. It’s best to use a wire trace because taimen do have many small teeth. Any big, bold spinner or plug will work. My own particular favourites are Super Shads coloured gold. Surface working lures are also very popular. And also try to shoot yourself a squirrel or two!
The window is comparatively short. The rivers are frozen until round about May and then rain and snow melt fill the rivers till September. Winter comes back with a vengeance mid October. So, in essence, you have that period from late august to the first week in October to travel.
We generally fly to Moscow and then by MIAT Airlines to Ulan Bator. From Ulan Bator we travel northwest by helicopter. You can also fly to Beijing and thence to Ulan Bator.
Do take warm clothing. Day-time temperatures are frequently in the low twenties centigrade but, once night falls, they plummet to minus ten or even below that in a matter of minutes. Also, if a storm sweeps in from Siberia temperatures can drop ten or fifteen degrees in an hour.
Do observe Mongolian customs. Ask your interpreter how you should behave when visiting someone’s ger.
Do take small denomination dollars. Virtually everything that you will buy will cost one dollar and you’re unlikely to be given change if you hand over a twenty!
Do take everything that you are likely to need for your stay out there. There will be absolutely no chance of buying anything and so you must be totally self sufficient.
Do not stay on the river on your own after dark. This is important because the wolves begin to patrol at night fall.
Don’t take any risks. A broken leg is a very serious thing so far from civilisation.
Don’t fish by yourself. Always move around the valley in pairs.
Note: The only real British outfitters to Mongolia are Angling Travel 01263 761602, tel. and fax and Frontiers. I guess that’s important!