The day was blistering as it can be on the plains of Eastern Mongolia in the very late summer. Johnny and I left the camp and walked across the endless flat flood plain of the Onon river for more than three hours, covering well over ten miles in the broiling heat. The terrain was wild and marshy and we frequently found ourselves stumbling through swamp grass, in stale water up to our knees. Nor were the flies there any too welcoming. Eventually, as we’d been told, we came to a great lagoon formed, I guess, from an ox bow created by the river years ago. The water was crystal clear and rich in weed. Everywhere around the margins there were shoal fish, creatures almost identical to skimmer bream and roach. We tried rubber fish, plugs and spinners for hours without a take. It was as though the water was completely devoid of any serious predator. Using scraps from our lunch we tried to catch the little fish to use as live baits but again failed.
Johnny and I had all but given up, sleeping in the long grass when there was a call from down the bank. Our colleague, the professor, was shouting for us unintelligibly. Our walk broke into a run when we saw his rod bent over and that he was playing a fish. We looked at each other. Was this it? The fabled Amur pike? A fish we’d come six thousand miles and eight days of travelling to see?
We crowded round the professor, peering into the water, shielding our eyes from the light. No. Gut wrenching disappointment and the fish we saw coming through the water towards us was a simple straightforward ESOX Lucius. Perhaps six or seven pounds, the exact twin of any other jack pike we’d seen since our childhood. Then that fish broke surface, caught the sunlight and, I tell you, we positively screamed. This was a leopard of a pike. With its tawny spots set on a cream background this was our first, cherished, beautiful Amur. The walk back to the camp that evening was like an escalator ride. We were on air. Our mission had at least halfway been accomplished.
We moved further east, deeper into a vast region of unexplored lakes and lagoons where the only transport could be by boat. This is a piece of the world virtually off the map. It’s never been fished before by Westerners, of that we were assured. Mongolia is a deserted place even at its busiest and here there were no signs of any soul in the wilderness, no signs of any dwelling, any track, any livestock, any trace of man.
The fishing was dramatically good. We had good taimen and at least six or seven smaller Amur in the first day. Perhaps the textbooks were all correct. Perhaps it’s true that Amur just don’t grow large and that ten pounds or so is their maximum weight. However, over supper that night, our guide insisted this is not the case. "One metre. One metre twenty. One metre fifty. All is possible."
Johnny and I just listened, looked at each other and smiled. Somehow, none of this really mattered: we’d seen Amur anyway so a dream had been put to rest. And the wealth of the fish in this deserted place was simply amazing: red-tailed taimen, sturgeon, carp, outlandish trout species, all manner of white fish, asp, zander…piscatorial paradise is a term often overworked but here we felt we’d found it. Even before IT happened.
Late the following morning we found ourselves on a large lagoon some hundred metres or so from the Onon itself. Depth was about six or seven feet and after a couple of small taimen and an Amur, again around six pounds, my guide insisted I try a new technique. He fished around in my bag and came up with a huge silver spoon, some eight inches long and weighing perhaps three or four ounces. He took off the plug I’d been using and attached this monstrosity. He told me to cast out, let the thing hit bottom and then work it very slowly through the silt so that it just kicked up buffs of mud as it went. I explained to him that I would get snagged, that the spoon would just become a mud and weed encrusted lump of iron but he would have none of it and insisted I followed his instructions.
For fifteen or twenty minutes I humoured him and at the end of each cast it would take a good thirty seconds to clean the spoon of all the debris. And then, on the fifth or perhaps sixth cast, the lure was suddenly and gently held up. I can’t really describe the sensation – at the time I felt that it had just moved into the patch of dense, soft weed. This was obviously my undoing because I merely pulled as if to dislodge it rather than striking as if to set a hook.
In the best of fishing traditions, the weed pulled back! I couldn’t for the life of me decide what I was attached to but it was obviously much too slow for a taimen and far heavier than any of the Amurs we’d tangled with so far. Catfish obviously sprang to my mind. But after a couple of minutes it was quite apparent that this was no catfish. None of those heart-stopping runs or that manic head belting down the line. No, this fish just kept slow and deep and plodded its own way around the lagoon. After ten minutes it was weakening and, piling on pressure, I drew it into the shallows towards us. The sun was high, the water was clear and we could see everything: it was a crocodile of an Amur. The fish was at least thirty pounds and perhaps a lot more and we could see the spoon attached by the merest sliver of skin. You know what happens next: once the fish felt the water shallowing, it simply tail-walked, shaking his head and that was the end of that. Still, another point proved, Amur do grow big. Very big.
Ennich was my guide. He’d been a mining engineer, up studying geology at Ulan Bataar university, but the downfall in foreign investment had spelt the end. This intelligent, highly trained scientist was now guiding those few foreigners that came to these deserted areas of Mongolia. But his former occupation had necessitated travel right round Mongolia. As we studied his map, there wasn’t a region he couldn’t tell me stories about. Snow leopard here. Grayling of ten pounds there. Eight pound perch in this lake and taimen of one metre fifty in this river and that. But it was the Amurs that gripped us both. He pointed to four rivers, all home to fish of between thirty and fifty pounds, he said. But then, right on the eastern boundaries of Mongolia lies a lake virtually straddling the border with China. Ennich told me he’d been there in the mid eighties prospecting for a Czech oil company. Once again, the area is an absolute wilderness but there was one small fishing community on the shores of the big lake. Several times Ennich visited their huts to buy fish for himself and his Czech partners. All the usual varieties were laid out – zander, whitefish, trout and taimen. But, also, there were Amur pike. Many of them. And the average weight, Ennich swore, was twenty pounds or more. And the biggest? According those fishermen, many of the Amur there topped sixty pounds, seventy pounders were not uncommon and they’d even had a handful of eighty pounds or more. A fisherman’s tale? A hungry man with a family to feed who wanted clients to return next year? I don’t know. You can be sceptical if you like but my own belief is that if you’re a traveller, you’ve got to have hope in your heart.
TACKLE AND TACTICS
From my limited experience of Amur pike I would say that they are our own Esox Lucius in every single way apart from colouring and possibly size. This means that you don’t have to think about stocking up with different tackle or lures.
Well, this is highly debatable. The textbooks often disagree and certainly through long adventures in Siberia, Mongolia and even into China you do find many differing opinions. I think it’s fair to say that broadly speaking Amurs are found eastwards of Lake Baikal. I don’t think they’re in the vast Selenge system in the west of Mongolia but once the Onon river is reached they’re obviously there in numbers and, presumably, then throughout the Amur river range. They’re certainly found in places in eastern Siberia and in certain Chinese rivers but there is a great deal of misinformation and I think it wise to only state what I’ve actually seen.
Almost certainly, Amur fishing belongs to a very tight window. The rivers will almost definitely be frozen till May and the summers can be wet. This means, rather like taimen fishing, you’re looking at the very late summer and autumn for the best of the sport. Leave it too late, however, and you expose yourself to the full fury of the Mongolian winter. If I had to pick a month it would probably be September.
DO’S AND DON’TS