The chance of a return visit to Mongolia was not an opportunity I was going to pass up. Just 10 months on from my first taimen experience I found myself furiously tying horrifying surface flies and loading my bags with big rods and reels. This time the journey was to venture even further into the headwaters of the Delger River, a section referred to as ‘The Temple’ and which has only seen about 20 to 30 anglers…ever!
So why this trip? During one miserable damp and cold December evening my friend Adam Stafford (from Wet Your Knot) came to me to ask where to go for that trip of a lifetime to celebrate his 40th birthday. This is always one of the hardest questions to answer, everyone wants something different from a trip but knowing Adam I began to describe the trip I thought was for him. I described journeying into the Mongolian steppe, stunning scenery and big-fly-munching leviathans, then the addition of horse riding, local herders and ger camps. Before I knew it two bottles of red wine were empty and we had Mongolia in the calendar!
Over the course of the next few months the group grew to the four needed and the Mongolia preparation of flies, leaders, rods and reels was turned into a new science. July originally seemed a long way off, but like all trips it suddenly appeared out of the blue and the packing fury began. Unfortunately just days before travelling one of the group pulled out and it was left to myself, Adam and Julian Erbsloeh to take on Outer Mongolia.
Flying to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, is not the easiest task from the UK but our route through Germany on British Airways and MIAT was relatively stress free. On arrival the flight attendant welcomed us to Mongolia and joyfully announced that the temperature was already 29⁰C at 0700. After a slight wait at customs and immigration and a swift collection of our bags, we were greeted in the arrivals hall and transferred to the Bayangol Hotel in the centre of the capital.
Keen to get out and see Ulaanbaatar we headed out, opting to walk through the city rather than take taxis to points of interest. The city itself is ultimately very safe, like any other large settlement you should always remain vigilant but you will rarely feel uneasy. The city itself is a weird mix of grand and flashy new builds and worn and tired structures. At first you attribute this to a lack of care but when you consider this is not a temperate climate as in the UK but one that regular sees -40⁰C in the winter the annual wear on structures must be immense.
The highlights of this first day were trying our first traditional Mongolian dishes and exploring the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, the Gandantegchinlen Monastery. The monastery has a rich history from its construction in 1809 through its communist suppression between 1938 and 1990. The site now has several temple buildings, each shrouded in the scent of burning incense and the gentle murmur of prayer. Away from the relaxing feel of the monestary, and after a quick prayer to the taimen gods ourselves, we made our way back into the main city through the sandy backstreets and shanty style houses.
After seeing much of the city we decided to head back to the hotel for an early night ahead of the long adventurous journey to the river that we were about to undertake.
A quick breakfast in the hotel and we were back to the airport for our short flight from Ulaanbaatar to the town of Muron, this is definitely more preferable than the 12 hour bus journey. On arrival in the small town airport the weather was still a glorious 30⁰C or so and we were met by the young head guide Tulga. Once all our bags and camp supplies had been collected we loaded up two Toyota Land Cruisers and began the long drive to Camp 1.
Having experienced this drive before I was already mentally prepared. The first hour the journey cruises along smooth tarmac passing the odd camel and ger here and there. Soon after the drive is diverted off the tarmac onto dusty tyre tracks across the steppe. As the journey progress the views becoming increasingly stunning but the tracks get progressively worse, fortunately the Land Cruiser’s suspension bears the worst of the bumps. Once through the last main settlement it is an hour or so stretch until you reach the Mongolian army’s Russian outpost, this marks the fact you are entering within 20 km of the border and all travellers must make themselves known before entering this area.
After a brief check against passport pictures and that you have the correct Mongolia fishing licence we were back on the move. With just three hills left until camp disaster stuck as the clutch went on one of the vehicles. A quick exchange in Mongolian and a reshuffle and we were back on the move, nothing was stopping us reaching the river.
As we reached the summit of the final hill the glistening waters caught the eye and was finally just an arm’s length away. The excitement reached its height at this moment, the flights, the drive they had all been for this moment. And just minutes later we hopped out of the cars, saying goodbye to motorised contraptions for nearly two weeks and crossed the river by inflatable raft.
We were welcomed by a delightful team of camp staff and our other guide, Bagi, and shown to our ger tents. Happy just to be back in this incredible place I dropped my bags and took in the sheer cliff faces, meadows of wild flowers and beautiful clean air. Adam and Julian, itching to open their Mongolian accounts, strung up 5 weights with large grasshopper patterns for lenok and grayling. In half an hour they both rose a few fish each but only Julian landed his very first lenok trout.
We toasted our arrival in camp with a wonderful meal and one or two sips of Mongolian vodka, but the real journey was to start the next day.
Now that we had reached Camp 1 our Mongolia journey was now to continue up river. With no roads or tracks, hiking taking too long and rafting upstream impractical our mode of transport was to be by horse and camel. This certainly is not a standard way to reach your fishing spot but for me it is now one of the best.
I am certainly no horse rider, and the thought of having to get on one makes me feel slightly uneasy but in this case I jumped in with both feet in the stirrups. All of the camp supplies and equipment were then loaded on to a small herd of Bactrian camels for transportation up river.
Knowing that our horse riding experience was limited the guides made a plan to split up our day of riding so that we had two half days riding and two half days fishing. Our bodies were certainly grateful of this!
The first morning we awoke to the sound of grass-munching outside, and on exiting the comfort of our gers we were greeted by the herd of camels. In the distance we could also see the herders bringing in the horses. After a camp breakfast including pancakes, bacon, hams, cheeses and local breads Boortsog and Bin we were fuelled and ready to meet our horses.
My horse was picked out first, a fine hazelnut stallion, and I worked out how to clamber up from the floor and perch myself on top. Fortunately horses in Mongolia are quite short! Soon Adam and Julian were also saddled and we began our journey. The guides and herders set a steady and easy pace across the wide open meadows. We were soon met by another new challenge…crossing the river. This is no small feat, the river possibly 50-60 yards wide. With each stride the horses battled both current and loose boulders with relative ease and we were soon on the other bank.
We crossed the river a second time in our two hours of riding, this time with much more confidence, and even a chance to spot some rising grayling! Our last leg was across a large meadow before settling down on the river’s edge looking out over a wonderful glistening run.
The guides cooked us up kebabs over an open fire whilst we set up our taimen outfits for the afternoon. Leaving little to chance we strung up 9ft 9/10# rods with matching floating lines and 9ft 20lb tapered leaders and surface gurglers.
After food I headed down to the beautiful clear and shallow run, whilst not prime taimen water there were a couple of big boulders which could be spots for a passing taimen to sit in. Both Adam and Julian were still grilling Tulga for taimen information as I made my first few casts. After each swing I took a few steps down until I was in a prime position to cover the slack behind a big rock mid-river.
I made the cast, the fly landing just past the rock. It first dragged up the current before zipping downstream through the slack. Without warning, the water erupted. A reddy-brown monster sprung from its lie and crashed through the surface. I watched as my gurgler disappeared from view. Just a second or so later I felt the line pull tight and all hell broke loose.
I could hear the calls from the guys behind, even at over 100 yards away they had seen the fish hit the fly. The taimen now cartwheeling across the surface then stuck its nose down and went on a searing run to the far back. Backing now out of the rod I was forced to follow. Keeping the pressure on full there were two or three occasions when I was convinced I was wrapped round a rock, but to my amazement this dead stop was purely the fish’s own power.
Tulga by this point had joined me in the river with the net and was positioning himself to net the taimen. Each time the fish saw him it edged forward and a couple of times it made nerve-jangling head shakes on the surface. Tulga, a dab hand with a net, picked his moment and scooped the net under the fish and I watched as it folded safely into the net.
Bringing the fish into the shallows I stood, unable to speak, hands trembling just looking at this immense fish. A true predator, it had a large head for swallowing big food, a thick wrist and large powerful tail capable of propelling the fish at an alarming rate.
We measured the fish quickly, keeping him in the water except for a quick couple of photos and slid him back into the water. Watching as the red shape faded into the clear riffled water. The taimen measured an incredible 48 inches (123 cm) and we estimated it to be between 40 – 45 lbs, the equal camp record. We had only been on the water for 5 minutes, what was this week going to be like?
For the rest of the afternoon I set up to catch lenok and grayling on dry flies whilst Adam and Julian targeted two nice pools for taimen. By the end of the day Adam had lost a nice taimen and Julian had moved a couple both on gurglers. I had also landed a few lenok and grayling to complete a Mongolian Grand slam.
That day had gone someway to showing me why this placed is referred to as the temple. The following day we were reunited with our horses and began the trek further up river. We stopped briefly at a prayer temple, this is a structure formed by lying branches in a tipi shape. We ‘sacrificed’ a mars bar before continuing on our way. We crossed the river a further couple of times before entering a thick forest of Siberian firs. Trekking through the fir canopy was an amazing experience and after nearly an hour we re-emerged by the river for the final straight to our uppermost camp.
The camp was going to be home for the next two nights and sat overlooking a beautiful boulder garden and deep taimen pool. This was the furthest point we would be up the river and just about as far from civilisation you can get, it was bliss, it was ‘The Temple’.
As with the day before we set up our heavy rods for taimen, but I also strung up my 5 weight to chase smaller fish as well. That afternoon we moved a further 3 or 4 taimen and Julian was able to land his very first. Whilst no monster he took the beautiful fish out of one of the pots in the rock garden. In taimen fishing, moving the fish is one part and hooking it is something completely different!
For our full day at the upper camp we hiked a further 2 kilometres up river, Julian and I paired up to fish through a fast rocky run and small pool with Bagi. Tulga and Adam took a lower pool with a short run and long tailout.
Covering the water down, I felt like my fly was going through some good fishy pots and holes but no movement as yet, shortly after Julian calls out. Just a bit further downstream he has hooked into a fish, but within moments it slipped the hook. Meanwhile, we could see movement lower down the river that could only mean Adam was into a fish.
We rushed down the bank to capture the final moments of the battle before Tulga once again scoop the taimen into the net. A beautiful fish of 35 inches (89 cm), and a fantastic first taimen. We had now done it, all three of us had landed taimen, and we could now relax. Unfortunately we were also now well and truly hooked by the way taimen hit the fly that we were going to fish hard for the rest of the week. We moved a couple more fish before the day was out but it was then time to retire back to camp.
That evening we celebrated our achievement with vodka and singing, it was no wonder that we were all a bit slower off the mark the following day.
Overnight the weather had changed, the days of hot weather had caused the rain clouds to build and the following morning our sore heads were greeted by fresh heavy rainfall. We decided to head back upstream for an hour to quickly cover fish that we had moved but not hooked from the day before.
Our efforts were fruitless until we got to the big pool below the upper camp, which was now being packed down. Julian was fishing through the pool, casting a nice long line towards the dropoff near the far bank. As he popped his gurgler across the surface a taimen came crashing out of the water, missing the fly. The drift finished with no further takes so Julian took three steps back upstream (three is also a lucky number in Mongolia) and cast again. The fish came again, this time taking the fly with ease.
The fish tore off, head shaking from time to time. You could tell it was a big fish. The fight went on for some time before the fish began to tire, it swam close to the surface with its tails creating a wake some way back from where its head should be. Whilst in slack water the fish was staying over the deepest parts making it hard for both Bagi and Tulga to get close with net. Eventually the fish was landed and it sank into the net. As with the others it was measured swiftly, given a couple of photo opportunities and return to grow even bigger. The fish measured in at 43 inches (109 cm).
Bagi and Tulga were then keen for Adam and I to cover the same water again as they have seen several fish sit together in that pool before. Standing relatively deep and throwing the longest cast I could manage I attempted to his a large hole near the far bank. The first few efforts landed short, but then I got a cast that flew out. As the fly pitched I thought I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my eye, like a scene out of Jaws. Unsure, I concentrated a little harder as the fly swung round. Then this fish exploded out the water, missing the fly. It came again, still no hook up. I tried to slow the fly down and it came again…nothing. I made several more casts but nothing happened, and begrudgingly we left it behind.
With the rain still hammering down we hopped in an inflatable raft and began our journey back downstream. Stopping at two beautiful pools. This time I fished the tailout with Adam slightly further upstream. Each cast I willed a fish to take, and sure enough it happened. I hooked up the fish ran a short distance and then nothing… For whatever reason the hookset had not held.
Once fished out we were back into the raft, and in the now rising river we were at the next campsite in no time. The camp staff, had already got the basic framework of the camp set up by the time we are arrived and we appreciated a sheltered lunch. After drying out a bit we picked up our rods and headed back out. My luck continued when I thought I had hooked another taimen only to find it come off after a couple of seconds.
Adam and Julian however did not waste their opportunities. As I walked down the bank to see how Adam was getting on he looked back as his fly came to rest on the dangle just as a fish slammed his fly. Shouting and point he turned back around to find himself connected to a very angry taimen. The fight took him back and forth, interspersed with spectacular jumps and twists before it came safely to rest in the net. Another fine fish of 38 inches (98 cm).
With the water now rising and colouring quickly, Julian managed to land another small taimen and miss one fishing close to the bank. Returning to camp it was already noticeable how far the river had come up and it had only just stopped raining. Tulga and Bagi however seemed less worried by river conditions and assured us that the river may be unfishable for a day but after that it should be clearing and dropping nicely.
Waking up the following day, the roar of the river certainly seemed more audible from the comfort of our tipis. On the walk to the dining tent for breakfast, a glance at the once serene and crystal clear river now displayed a raging brown torrent. Our hearts sank but we continued with a ‘we will not be defeated’ attitude.
We hopped in the raft and began our journey downstream; it was tough knowing that we were skipping what would normally be good pools. Sure enough the guides had a plan even in these chocolate water conditions. They explained that when the river colours all fish, taimen, lenok and grayling all head for the faster shallow water, so that is where we went.
Our surface flies came off and were replaced with large white and coral tube fly streamers, also known as the Chilean Goat. A horrendous fly to cast but it looked great in the water. We covered the shallow water and immediately picked up a couple of lenok, even on such a big fly. Before long we had a swirl from a small taimen. Spirits lifted we looked further for fresh water.
A short drift further we found a small glacial river entering the river; it was still running crystal clear and mixing with the main flow. This had to hold some fish, the mixing of clear and coloured water is always a prime area for predatory fish.
We fished down with no touches until I reached one deep swirling trough. As the fly came around, I gave it short steady pulls back. The fly then stopped dead, it did not feel aggressive, more like your fly catch up on weed but I made no mistake about it and set the hook hard. Soon the unmistakeable head shake started and the fish stayed deep moving out into the current. My silence broke, it was a fish… I shouted out to the others and gave the fish all the pressure I could muster. This fish did not produce searing runs, it was a gritty fighter. Eventually, the power of my 9 weight began to make inroads and the fish came closer. It took a couple of attempts with the net, but remaining calm Bagi swept the fish in head first. It was another monster, and on a washout day! We measured the taimen at 41 inches (104 cm) and quickly released it.
Adam and Julian also got takes in the same area but that was the last of our action for the day. We then floated to camp, the same site that we had used after our first day of riding.
Overnight the river dropped dramatic and began to clear, the sun was shining and expectations were good. We fished a deep pool in the morning moving just one fish with no hook up and had an early lunch. At lunch a plan formed to cross the river and walk upstream to cover some of the water we had skipped from the previous day.
Heading upstream proved hugely successful with all of us moving fish and Julian landing two nice taimen fairly quickly. Adam’s turn came next as he hooked up on the edge of a fast run. You could tell the panic from the silent concentration. Every now and then he called out for advice, but none was needed, he was doing great. It was a case of just holding on and trying the steer the fish into the margin. Eventually it happened and the fish folded into the net wielded by Tulga. A fantastically dark taimen and measured at 39 inches (101 cm).
My luck on the other hand seemed to not continue as I moved several taimen on both streamers and surface flies without any solid hook-ups. And Julian finished the day, almost getting his third fish only to break on the aggressive surface hit. All that aside, what a day, we all had multiple opportunities.
That night, 11th July, was the start of the famous Nadaam Festival in Mongolia. We were treated to traditional Mongolian cuisine and then even tried our hands at one of the national sports, wrestling. I must admit, we didn’t stand much of a chance but it was great to be a part of such a special occasion. But the real Mongolian treat was to come the following day.
We awoke to another fine day and the river beginning to resemble it original state but our thoughts today were not on fishing. We were hugely privileged to be invited to visit the local herders to witness a special ceremony, one that can only be done on the perfect day, in the right weather or on a good number day of the month. The ceremony was the castrating of the young sheep and goats before cooking and eating… it is not as bad as it sounds!
It was amazing to watch the families work together, the men did the important cutting, the mother shouted orders and the children worked as herders. The whole process worked with such ease. Although for us Westerners it was not the most comfortable thing to watch. Having made it through the initial phase we were then invited to join the families in their ger for the cooking.
The family were as intrigued by us and our weird clothing and camera equipment as we were by the way they lived. We were served fresh clotted cream and an assortment of breads as we sat down whilst the grandmother work over a hot mutton broth pot. As the food stewed away more and more family members entered the ger until there was little spare room left. By which point a large bowl of testicles and stewed bones had been placed in front of us along with a small bowl of rice soup each.
We had a quick discussion whilst all eyes were on us and Julian opted to go first. With only slight hesitation he picked his one and ate, saying it wasn’t actually that bad. Reluctantly I went next, the hardest part was the audience because in fact the flavour and eating was a pain-free experience and one I’d almost recommend. Adam at first struggled a bit more but held it together in the end. It was a fantastic experience and after a quick round of vodkas it was time to say our farewells and get back on the river.
Back on the river we floated from pool to pool, stopping and fishing. For all of our efforts that afternoon none of us were able to even move a single fish. It was a strange feeling after the activity of the previous days but it reminded us that taimen fishing is hard and the good days should not be taken for granted. The float brought us back to the original ger camp, and whilst more comfortable it also made us realise that our time in Mongolia was finite.
The final fishing day had arrived and whilst we had already experienced an incredible week, and landed more taimen than any other group this season, there was a pressure felt by us and the guides. Just one more. The morning was already blazing hot and the river looked fantastic. First we headed upstream, covering the pools that we had not fished yet, but we moved nothing except for a few lenok on the dry fly rods.
We returned to camp for lunch before heading back out, this time downstream with real fish catching intent. Still it was not working for us, beautiful pools were just not yielding any fish. We stopped fishing whilst a thunderstorm threatened us and then we headed to the final pool.
A long run came sweeping into our bank offering deep swirling eddies close to our bank. This was virtually our last hope. Julian took the neck of the run, I had the middle and Adam took the lower part.
Making short casts, I dropped the fly into the main run and skated it out across the eddies. Working down I suddenly had a slashing take, the fish completely missing the fly. Holding my nerve I just left the fly dangling and readied my hands to set the hook. There was no way I was missing this opportunity. Sure enough the fish came again, this time taking in the full fly. I set the hook hard and the fish went aerial immediately. I let out a cry of relief as a small, but important taimen remained hooked. The taimen gave short yet acrobatic fight before drifting into the waiting net.
Keen to finish the trip on a high Julian and I then fish the shallow margins with grasshoppers and Chernobyl ants, finding countless lenok and grayling as we went. They love taking dry flies and fight as hard as any wild trout, we landed then up to about 3 lbs in the week.
Returning to camp for the last time was a sad moment, but we were keen to celebrate a wonderful trip with the camp hands and guides that had now become friends. After dinner we sat around a camp fire as the sun set and were treated to the local Mongolian folk songs. Songs talked about the river, the land and a general appreciation for life. Whilst we could not determine the words the meaning could be heard over the crackling of the burning wood. We were treated to one last look at the Milky Away over camp and then it was time to leave our Mongolian journey.
The trip was one of many highlights, and fishing was just a part of the overall experience. The temple for me was not just one structure but more this entire area of stunning wilderness. The flowing meadows of wild flowers and butterflies, the circling eagles, the overshadowing cliff faces, and of course the bright waters of the Delger River.
Over the trip we landed 11 taimen, 40 lenok and 33 grayling between the three of us. We focused our efforts almost solely on taimen fishing but the lenok and grayling fishing is an amazing addition and is so good it could be a standalone trip itself.
For more information about trips to Mongolia please contact Alex Jardine or call our office on +44(0)1980 847389.