Photographs and text by Leonard Flemming
Pacing nervously across the dirty floor I was wondering how many of the shop staff had seen me, the grumpy white guy pushing his trolley up and down the Beijing airport, searching for a comfortable spot to rest. I had suffered through two nine hour flights without sleep to this point and wasn’t going to put up with it any longer. Food and shut-eye was all I could think of and I had thirteen hours to spare before my next flight departed for my final destination, Mongolia.
Twenty four hours later I was still looking for food and sleep, but this time in a ger (local nomadic house-tent) on the banks of the Delger Murun. I made the long 4×4 trip to the river after touching down in a tiny town called Murun, which is supposed to be the district hub. With sleeping pills and a sleeping bag pulled over my melon, I finally fell asleep to thunder and raindrops hitting the cover material. Although perhaps not the most comfortable situation I have been in, I was content, for earlier that afternoon I had landed two beautiful taimen in the camp pool.
The morning-after was guiding time although I was still shaking with excitement after a first-light sneak back down to the camp pool and a lovely 107 cm taimen. My focus shifted to the clients and their success. After the rods have been lined, a professional guide always gives the run-down of events when targeting a specific species and when doing so, one realises how much detail there is between the whole process of casting, fly action and strip-striking the take. “You will be fishing a heavy rod, so minimize casting to save your arm. Cast across the deep seam, slightly downstream and twitch the fly as the line swings rather than stripping it. Keep stripping the fly slowly back after the line straightens in the slack water, fish may follow and still take. When the line feels heavy, strip- strike hard and only then lift into it. Palm the rod butt at least twice to further set the hook as the fish moves off on a tight line,” the guide must explain. Somehow the explanation always seems more complicated than what it really is and butterflies went mad in my tummy when the first client shouted, “Fish on!”
The next day I unexpectedly joined Dan Bailey (head guide of FishMongolia) on the first rafting trip downriver after Andy Parkinson, guide and owner of FishMongolia, came jogging into base camp with a sore tooth. Andy headed back to Ulaanbaatar to get a crown from possibly the only dentist in Mongolia and I was driven downriver in an old, Russian 4×4 truck into the epic Delger gorge to take his place on the first float trip of the season.
Dan is a tall, scrawny and comical character from Montana. Apart from inherent fishing and guiding skills, he is also a great people’s person and although fishing and goofing around are his main ambitions in life, he was busy working on a social study with the aim to conserve taimen by educating foreign anglers and endorsing a permit-related recreational fishing programme. If you think that’s a mouth full, you need to hear his fishing tales from Alaska.
I watched Dan as he slid into the first grade 2 rapid of the trip, slick and easy like. I followed and bounced and shoved my way through the jumble of boulders that makes rafting so much fun, but uncomfortably tricky when you are rusty. The trip went well and a fair number of taimen were caught, tagged and released, with only the odd thunder storm wetting our luggage and clouding the river slightly. The last six kilometres of river before the take-out point is a lenok trout and grayling Mecca and watching large hoppers bob through shallow riffles only to disappear with a slap of a fish tail in the seams was as pleasing to watch as it were for the anglers on the rod.
While exiting the gorge we stopped over at the camp of a very hospitable nomadic family on the edge of the escarpment. After receiving yak yoghurt and goat’s milk curds in exchange for some Australian red wine (not mentioning which was more appealing to the palate) this became a regular place of rest. On every seventh day of a trip, we would visit the family and replenish our energy levels with their home made dairy supplements. The eighth was a rest day for the guides and besides washing rafts and clothes (which never took more than two hours), this meant time for fishing.
Back at base camp, the river was flowing beautifully clear and Dan and I set off with sore shoulders to improve on our personal tally. Dan hit the spot at last light (around 10 pm) and a cruncher of a taimen engulfed the green lenok streamer. Grayling and lenok trout are two of the other sportfish that inhabit the upper Delger and are everyday food for taimen. Flies imitating small lenok and grayling are thus the bomb. I tailed the taimen, which was longer than half my body length and Dan’s yodels echoed off the cliffs around us. It was a magnificent fish, but the only photos of the catch were lost further into the season when I misplaced one of my camera cards while swapping it out during a frantic session with a bunch of overly-keen Ozzie anglers.
That night the rain started and never stopped again ’till we pulled the rafts out at the take-out of the final trip in remnants of a snow storm that flash-flooded the banks of the lower Delger. The fishing got more and more challenging as the storm season pressed on, forcing us to spend 12 hours a day in waders while chewing our nails out of frustration. It was ironic but almost expected to have hit the once-in-a-decade storm season in Mongolia. My travelling luck had been too much in my favour on previous trips over far away oceans, so I easily accepted the downturn. The taimen disappeared and there was not much we could tell the disappointed clients. We had the odd lucky shot at fish that were forced to hold tight to the banks and in the slower tongues of large pools, but most were dropped due to a lack in concentration and confusion with getting hung on rock.
Then the Ozzies arrived for the final trip of the season. Competent as we were at finding fish and they were at casting, the taimen were nearly non-existent for the entire six days down the mucky, brown river. The Delger’s inhabitants had turned against us; even the lenok and grayling disappeared culminating in the toughest guiding session of my life. One could almost get nostalgic and spiritual about the whole thing; it had felt like we had been punished for intruding on the mythical Genghis Khan’s world where the water and its animals should be respected and left in peace.
The Ozzies reverted to drinking beer, I was more interested in climbing the red granite boulders lining the shore and Dan’s thoughts for once had turned to women instead of taimen. Ever optimistic as us anglers are, our spirits were lifted briefly by a large taimen that materialised on the second day. Our goal of landing at least a taimen a day suddenly seemed in reach but that fish was the last. When it rains it pours they say, which is what I thought about when one of the clients fell ill and had to be evacuated leaving behind two miserable guides and three desperate Ozzie fishermen. Then the mother of all thunderstorms closed in on us for the final day. The weather went from warm sunshine to frosty rain, hail and finally snow within an hour. The five of us sheltered from the lightning huddling under shrubs in the open river valley. Soaked to the bone, I rowed a fed-up, fish-less Ozzie the last six kilometres, billowing vapour from my lungs and took the boat out in white sleet that covered the banks.