Space, time and taimen in Mongolia. Story and photos of fly fishing in the middle of nowhere by James Topham, as featured in The Mission Issue 08.
The longest measure of distance is the Mongolian mile. Scientists will argue that it’s really a light year, but our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, is two million light years away which only works out to be about 23 Mongolian miles. I learned to love Country Rock while chewing away at a few of these infinite miles. The Steppes rolled by, only ever so often broken by a nomad settlement and their horses. There was the patchy plain, a deep blue sky and Ray LaMontagne.
The smooth asphalt road lasted for most of the steppes, but after a few hours it just sort of stopped, and from then on it was a muddy two track. I looked at my watch and noted we’d been on the road for 8 hours which meant that this 4×4 track we were on was going to take another 6. The fact that at the end of this dirt road was a river and in the river were very very large taimen quelled my initial fright.
“All I knew about taimen was that they were big and ate big things with reckless abandon.”
There is no need to feel shy about your lack of taimen knowledge. All I knew about taimen was that they were big and ate big things with reckless abandon. I find that quality- for a lack of a better word- endearing in a fish. I also saw pictures of a big beautiful freestone river, and the combination of the two was all I needed to throw myself in a car with complete strangers and travel across a country that was last on the newspaper headlines in 400AD when Genghis Khan was being aggressively ambitious. Even the world of science is still learning new things about these pre ice age fish, and to top it, everyone has their own way of pronouncing it- so your way will do fine.
As long as you don’t say something like “apparently they don’t fight very hard” because if you’re going to know very little about a fish, a horrible inaccuracy is not a good start. There is a reason why people will travel across the largest continent on the planet for a fish, and trust me if it fought like a wet sack of canine excrement, taimen would have faded into obscurity with the fall of the Soviet Union.
At least this is what I was telling myself. The road was starting to get muddy and we had begun sliding into a valley and if the Jeep were to break down I knew that Big Matt sitting next to me would eventually get hungry and eat me and none of it would make much sense if I was going to guide for a fish that was as useful as a parking attendant at a drive-through.
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While these thoughts whirred through my mind the scenery around us became more astonishing. No one had said a word for some time until the driver, Byra- a taimen guru and conservationist- said he needed a break and some fresh air. We ground to a halt on top of a grassy hill overlooking a beautiful valley. It was quiet and desolate and so we all found a prominent rock or grassy tussock and peed against it. Sometime during this particular pit stop, just as the blood was returning to my toes we heard a noise far in the distance. We could see the road wind steadily all the way down the valley. Soon we made out a heavily laden motorcycle. It sounded like a large capacity engine, but it was making a slow advance on the steep valley road.
Eventually it drew closer, and we could see its occupants. An old couple, traditionally dressed, perched atop of the groaning dirt bike. They looked like a National Geographic cover portrait; weary, wrinkled nomads. They held our gazes with a blank stare, the husband only looking away to avoid running the bike off the road. It was a perfect scene, and I loved how they weren’t on a horse, and how everything fit so perfectly and how strange we must have looked to them. But mostly I loved her smile just as they passed us.
Eventually we wound our way into camp. Log cabins for the kitchen and dining room as well as the ablutions and guide accommodation, while Gurs had been set up for the guests. More importantly a wide, moderately shallow and clear river sprawled in front of us. We got out the Jeep, walked to the bank and stood in awe. The world behind us faded away. Everything of any meaning was in front of me, sweeping past much faster than its laminar flow would let on.
I was thrilled, and excited and happy and all the other emotions that come with seeing a new river. But really deep down there was a stone in my stomach. It was a big long river. How was I going to find a fish I knew very little about in all this water? More importantly, how was I going to guide someone else onto a mysterious fish in a mysterious river?
“I tried to absorb it, but it was all too big, too much. When we got back for dinner, I felt none the wiser. The guests were to arrive the next morning. I didn’t sleep well.”
The pre season set up sped by, made all the more valuable by another Matt, Matt Ramsey, then Head guide of the operation, bestowing his seventeen years of Eg-Ur river experience and knowledge to me, the greenhorn. On the very last day of camp set up, we’d finished our work so headed up river. The tops of most beats were long runs to get to. There were so many sloughs, secret channels, holes and anchor drops.
There were places where Matt would say “If you miss this line, you’ll blank”. I’d look around and see an indistinguishable bank, and a run that looked like all the other runs. Pool names and wade fishes were thrown at me as we sped up the river. I tried to absorb it, but it was all too big, too much. When we got back for dinner, I felt none the wiser. The guests were to arrive the next morning. I didn’t sleep well.
Read the happy ending to this taimen in Mongolia story in The Mission Issue 08 below (for free), or buy the print edition online here (we ship worldwide).