My home town of Juneau, Alaska has some of the best salmon fishing in the world: We may not get kings as large as those on the Kenai, but the Spring run is predictable and there is considerably less pressure than on the Kenai. But it’s the coho run that Juneau is really known for. The cohos begin to arrive in numbers around the middle of July and by September are beginning to clog the many streams around town. With salmon fishing like this, it might seem crazy to travel half way around the world to catch another salmon, but I did just that. And I’m glad I did: Salmon fishing in Mongolia is an experience not to be missed.
The fish I was looking for was the landlocked taimen (hucho taimen), the largest salmon in the world. Taimen are found only a few rivers in Russia, China, and Mongolia. Taimen look much like a salmon, but they differ from the Pacific salmon I am used to catching in a couple significant ways. First, they do not die when they spawn. This is one reason why they can grow to monstrous proportions. The world’s record, caught in a net, weighed over 200 pounds. Second, mice, lemmings and other small rodents make a significant portion of their diet. This, coupled with their size, may explain why they are called "river wolf" by Mongolians.
There are a few U.S.-based outfitters that offer taimen fishing trips in Mongolia but the price of those trips was way beyond what I could afford. This meant that if I was to fish for taimen that I would have to go with a Mongolian outfitter. Fortunately, finding a Mongolian outfitter was an easy Internet search. After asking several questions and checking with references, I chose Samar Magic Eco Tours and a 12 day trip which included 6 days of fishing for taimen, lenok (a trout like fish) and grayling.
In late August my girlfriend Joan and I flew from Juneau to Seattle to Tokyo to Seoul where we spent two nights eating sushi and trying to adjust to jet lag. We then had a 3 hour flight to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The next day we met the third member of our party, a Polish engineer named Grezegorz, then climbed aboard a Russian-made 4 wheel drive van and headed west. It would take us two days to reach the confluence of the Chuulut and Suman rivers where we planned to fish. The Chuulut drains into Lake Baikal, the huge lake in Siberia. Baikal is not only the one place in the world with fresh water seals; it is also thought to have the largest taimen in the world.
In the morning, Joan and I woke up before anybody else, grabbed our rods, and made the steep 15 minute hike down to the river. When we got to the water’s edge, I realized one thing immediately: The river was too fast and deep for me to fish with a fly rod. Fortunately, I had a heavy bait casting outfit and Joan was using spinning gear. It didn’t take long for action: I made my ninth cast across a deep pool, reeled fast to get my lure down, and got a strike. The taimen jumped as soon as it felt the hooks. And what a jump - it was tail walking like a marlin. Then it went deep and made several runs around the pool. Fortunately, it stayed away from the rapids and I was able to land it in 10 minutes. I took a photo before releasing it. That first fish wasn’t big for a taimen - perhaps 45 inches long and 35 pounds - but it gave me more enjoyment than any fish I have ever caught. About an hour later, Joan caught a fish. It was, as she still reminds me, considerably larger than mine.
We stayed at the confluence for three days and four nights. We had luck fishing two ways. Most of our fish were caught on large wobbling minnows - Magnum Rapalas and Bomber Long A’s. The key was to run them deep in the seams between white and dark water at the edges of deep pools.
We also caught fish in the evening on mice imitations. This was the most exciting way to fish: Just as the sun began to set, we’d cast mice imitations into the deep pools and let them drift slowly on the surface.
The taimen would come out of the water and hit the mouse on the way down. As often as not, we wouldn’t hook up, but the strike alone was well worth it. In the three days we are at the confluence, we caught 11 taimen and lost at least that many. The largest was 58 inches long; the smallest was about 35 inches. And, of course, the big one got away: I chased one fish perhaps a half mile down stream before it jumped and threw the lure. That fish was over 6 feet long.
Our next camp was a 4 hour, off road drive to another spot on Chuulut river. We camped right on the river and were able catch lenok and grayling from our tents. Once we managed to match the hatch - size 22 light brown dry flies - we caught fish on almost every cast. The lenok ran between 2 and 6 pounds while the grayling averaged about 12 inches.
The only problem was that it was too easy. The taimen had spoiled me: After catching a couple dozen lenok, I put down my 5 weight , grabbed my bait casting rod, and began working the deeper pools for taimen. I lost one fish in three days - but did manage to catch perhaps 50 lenok that should have known better than to go for lures as large as I was casting. We kept a few lenok and a burbot for shore side meals but released all of the taimen. Our Mongolian guide expected us to keep a head for a trophy. We explained that all we wanted were some pictures and the memories. Unfortunately, not all fishermen practice catch and release.
Some even bring canning equipment so that they can their taimen to take home. And while the locals do not eat fish, restaurants in Ulaanbaatar have recently begun serving taimen to tourists. This can’t continue: Taimen are huge fish, and the rivers of Mongolia simply can’t support very many of them.
If you go: With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, travel to and within Mongolia is easier today than it was just a few years ago but it is not something to do on your own. Barely 50,000 tourists visit Mongolia every year and there are few of the amenities that Westerns expect, even while traveling abroad. There are only 750 miles of paved roads in a country the size of Alaska, and no good road maps exist. Fortunately, there are numerous Mongolian outfitters that charge very reasonable prices. We paid under $100 per day per person. This included all meals, board, translator, driver and fishing guide.
When to travel: Taimen fishing is open from early May through the end of October. The best time is typically from mid-August until the end of September. The weather in Mongolia can be extreme. On our trip in late August and early September, we were often hot in the day but quite cold at night. Bring warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag. There were no bugs while we were there but they can be a problem earlier in the summer.
Health issues: We had no health problems, but travelers are recommended to bring a medical kit which includes antibiotics and treatment for dysentery. Drink only bottled water; be sure to buy enough in Ulaanbaatar before leaving for the countryside. Tetanus, Hepatitis A and Typhoid inoculations are recommended. Rabies can be a problem so steer clear of the many dogs in the countryside.
Fishing tackle: I never even cast my 9 weight fly rod I because we found taimen only in deep pools with fast current. Under different conditions, large streamers and mouse imitations should work. I caught all of my fish on a medium-heavy seven and a half foot glass bait casting rod with an Ambassadeur 7000C Synchro reel loaded with 25 pound monofilament. If anything, I was undergunned. Joan used an 8 foot spinning rod with 20 pound mono; 40 pound braided line would have been a wiser choice. All of our fish were caught on baits in natural colors; the best single lure was a Heavy Duty 6 inch Bomber Long A in the rainbow trout pattern. We also caught fish on a Husky Pikie in silver flash, Rapala wobblers in silver, and mice imitations. For lenok and grayling, a 3 or 5 weight fly rod with a floating line would be ideal.