Photo Essay: The Fly-Fishing Journey of a Lifetime in Mongolia

Written by: Gordon Hight

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

Chinggis Khan seated in front of the Parliament House in
Ulaan Baatar, the Mongolian capital city.

all photo courtesy Gordon Hight

It took maybe all of one second to answer the question, “Do you want to go to Mongolia?” Ever since I first learned about taimen, a trip to Asia was at the top of my bucket list. Should one be presented a question such as this, one is wise to rearrange all other plans.

For the last several years, WorldCast Anglers—the fly-fishing outfitter whom I guide for in western Wyoming and eastern Idaho—has hosted a fishing trip for taimen and two species of native trout: the amur and lenok. WorldCast sourced this expedition (organized by Nomadic Journeys and guided by Mongolia River Outfitters) and takes six clients along with two WCA hosts (of which I was one this year) each October, when the taimen fishing is at its prime. Mongolia River Outfitters now has four ClackaCraft drift boats, providing anglers the optimal platform from which to cover river, as each day brings new water on the safari-style journey, which lasts six days and covers nearly one hundred miles. This particular stretch of water is only fished three times each year; thus, fishing pressure is virtually non-existent. My experience included multiple opportunities at taimen well over 25 inches every day, and the two biggest fish landed were 39 inches and 41 inches.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

Arriving in Mongolia early allowed for some time spent walking around Ulaan Baatar; here the city square and Parliament House. About half of the Mongolian population resides in UB, yielding a very sparse density beyond the city limits in a country about the size of Alaska.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

This Cessna seats nine passengers and brought us to the backcountry from UB in roughly an hour and forty-five minutes. It beats the caravan ride alternative that takes about eighteen hours “if things go right,” a disclaimer that followed any description of rural travel by truck.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

A short van ride to the river along the highways of Mongolia. Though the few short stretches of road we traversed on the trip were relatively smooth, it was understood that the padded-roof interior could be appreciated by passengers traveling the long road to UB.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

ClackCraft sent these drift boats and their trailers via shipping container from the States to UB, from where they were driven to the river. They replaced inflatable rafts that were used previously.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

On day one of fishing, this was my first taimen. It was 28 inches long and ate a white Chinese Goat streamer (pictured below). That’s MRO Head Guide Peter Fong on the left.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

This fish was landed just a little while later on day one. Perhaps a function of their innate aggressiveness, their place at the top of the foodchain, and the absence of angling pressure, taimen are known to offer anglers a second and sometimes third chance at hooking up. After fighting this 39-inch fish for about thirty seconds on the first eat, things came unbuttoned. Unlike most trout, which would head for cover after feeling the sting of a hook, this guy came boiling up out of the water to whack the fly again two casts later.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

Although many would call this a yurt, the Mongolians call this dwelling a ger, and it was quite cozy. Floating to a new camp each day, we would arrive with the luggage already deposited and a fire burning in the stove. A cot, a pillow, and ample blankets made for sound sleeping, and each morning around 6 a.m., a camp staffer would enter to stoke the fire. It was quite amazing how quickly the ger would heat up. In addition to the four client gers (one for each pair of anglers), every camp had a dining ger, where breakfast and dinner were served, three toilet tents, and one shower tent containing its own stove for heating water and providing a comfortable bathing environment.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

The Chinese Goat streamer is a version of an original pattern, the Chilean Goat. Among the guide staff are two native Mongolians, three Chileans, and one American. As a result, there exists a wealth of local and global fishing knowledge on tactics and tying.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

Guide Jaime Castillo holds a lenok trout, one of two native trout species other than taimen. This fish came from one of several episodes of sight-casting to pods of trout.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

This was the biggest fish of the trip, a 41-inch taimen with an 18-inch girth. I was using an Orvis Helios 8 weight and a Mirage IV. Cranking the drag system all the way was a first for me on a freshwater species.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

Here is a typical lunch scene. That day’s main course was curry chicken that was being prepared riverside by the crew of the lunch raft in a dutch oven over a fire. Accompanying the main course caviar, pictured here a top a Mr. Potato chip.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

WorldCast Anglers Outfitting Manager C.G. Sipe casts the new Helios 2.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

As in steelhead angling, casting aplenty is part and parcel of taimen fishing. Depending upon water level, clarity, and fish appetite, an angler might find him or herself skating mice patterns on top or stripping large tube-type streamers. Steve Hemkens at Orvis was most kind in making available to us several Helios and Helios 2 rods and Mirage reels. Hucking meat with a stick like those was dreamy.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

Here’s another shot of the Chinese Goat. This year’s trip saw higher water levels than usual, and those conditions led me to fish a tandem rig with two tube flies in tandem with a single 3/0 hook on a sinking-tip line.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

The red tail of a taimen. Another unique part of the experience was tagging the taimen. So little is recorded about their growth rates, migration patterns, and the health of the river system. A small specimen clipped from the adipose fin along with a photo of the fish’s profile and measurements were taken and sent to be studied by a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

This is a typical scene in the morning at any of the riverside camps. Fishing would begin about 8:30 a.m., with the last boat arriving at camp around 6:00 p.m. or so. Each day provided an immense amount of angling, and as with all fishing trips, it is wise to practice in advance on casting and hauling.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

This Amur trout just over 22 inches and beefy. Taimen are obviously the main draw, but we had some spectacular trout fishing on the trip and caught numerous fish like this one that would be considered a “day-maker” back on the home waters of the
South Fork. In all, I caught four new species: amur, lenok, taimen, and a Mongolian pike.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

C.G. holds a 29 inch taimen.

Gordon Hight in Mongolia

By the end of the six full days of fishing, we were within 20 miles of the Russian border, a fact that only enhanced the allure of the trip to this child of the Cold War.

Gordon Hight guides fly fishermen for WorldCast Anglers. Check out his photography at his personal website. Click the “Mongolia” tab for more pictures from this trip.

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