Taimen are special. I’ve been lucky enough to fly fish in many far-flung spots, from the Arctic Circle to the Amazon jungle, and I‘ve crossed swords with everything from peacock bass to sailfish, but few fish have cast their spell quite like the taimen. Hucho Taimen are stunning creatures; big, ancient salmonids from another time that somehow still lurk in the most remote corners of the world, far from the grotesque pollution of our modern maelstrom. These freshwater giants, reputed to occasionally grow to well over 100 pounds in weight, seek out the quiet places and lie
unseen until some poor wretched creature stumbles onto their doorstep. It could be a hapless duckling, a squirrel that has tumbled into the river or perhaps some doomed, careless grayling or lenok trout naively straying into the deep, dark depths of the river. Out of nowhere, these majestic assassins strike. A hideous, heart-stopping eruption of swift, savage, merciless killing. If their intended victim is your fly, fashioned to imitate some miserable target struggling across the surface, then be warned: you may just jump right out of your skin.
Taimen once thrived in the remote rivers of the southern Siberian steppe, but they have been tragically and ruthlessly culled. However, at the very edge of the world, in the untouched corners of northern Mongolia, where they are rightly revered as magical creatures, they still exist in numbers. To catch one with a fly rod is to touch a hallowed fish from the half-forgotten times before the great Khan; a creature from long, long ago, before we messed it all up. Taimen may appear rather long and lean in photographs, but believe me, a taimen, any taimen, in the flesh is astonishingly beautiful. Scarlet fins and a great flame-coloured shovel of a tail give way to broad, spotted flanks and the dark, glossy head of some freakish and malevolent apparition not unlike a giant brown trout. The gill-plates are painted with exquisitely subtle violets and blues, and inside those cavernous jaws are ranks of vicious teeth that spell only death for any unfortunate creature that stumbles into the taimen’s lair. Utterly magnificent.
You can catch taimen on subsurface flies but forget it, when you can experience the magic of a giant freshwater fish crashing through the surface to “monster” your fly. Why would you even think of fishing for them any other way? Skated surface-flies are, to my mind at least, the only way to go. Typically, flies are designed to imitate small rodents, but I can’t help feel that for every squirrel or mouse that a taimen wolfs down, there must be a hundred or more luckless grayling and lenok trout that pass through those same cruel jaws.
Show them a hopelessly crippled fish twitching out its swansong on the glassy surface of the stream and surely any self-respecting taimen isn’t going to think twice. I thus prefer to present a crease fly or guide Matt Ramsay’s killing “cyclops” fly, designed and coloured to imitate a small, wounded grayling struggling across the hefty current. Both flies can be relied upon to produce the psychotic strikes for which taimen are rightly famous.
People will tell you that taimen don’t fight, ignore them. They’re missing the point entirely. Sure, a red-hot steelhead or a big, sea-liced Atlantic salmon will tear off down the river and empty your fancy reel in a way that even the largest taimen can’t emulate, but tell me about the take. Do salmon and steelhead blow up on the surface like a grand piano landing in the river? No? Well taimen do. Apart from the occasional spectacular jump, taimen are indeed dogged rather than spectacular fighters but the big ones are titanically strong and the take is right up there as one of the most astonishing moments in fly-fishing.
Watching these great, gleaming killers come racing up through the icy waters is highly addictive. Wild slashing takes that reward the long hours throwing great looping casts across the wide silvery pools. However, not every take will result in a hooked fish, taimen will often initially aim to incapacitate or kill their prey with a lightning-fast surface strike before returning to eat the hapless creature once they consider it stunned or dead. Thus, a skated “living” fly will often be attacked repeatedly, with the fish never actually nailing the fly. This can cause huge frustration, but there is a trick to convert these abortive strikes. Use a long loop of line, much like an Atlantic salmon-fisher might do, and, once the fly has come under initial attack, simply drop the loop, creating slack and thus changing the presentation, emulating the dead drift of a stunned or dead creature rather than the skate of a live one struggling across the current. The ploy can work like a charm, often converting initially a hesitant or half-hearted strike into a violent, decisive attack and a solid hook-up.
That moment, when, from out of nowhere, a huge, crashing, malevolent blizzard of razor teeth and scarlet fins comes rocketing up through the emerald depths to shatter the glassy surface into a colossal explosion of elemental savagery and rage is singularly the most astonishing moment I’ve experienced with a freshwater fly rod in my hand. You simply have to experience it for yourself.
FACTFILE: Taimen are distributed right across Asia, from the Volga & Pechora basin in Western Russia to the Pacific seaboard and Sakhalin Island in the East. They are the stuff of fly-fishing legends: murderous, malevolent beasts capable of growing to almost impossible size, and possessed of an almost demonic killing capacity that has spawned a million stories.
A taimen caught in the nets on the Kotui River in the central Siberian province of Krasnoyarsk in 1943, was reckoned to have weighed 231 pounds and stretched the tape to 83 inches. More recently, in 2010, a spin-fisherman fishing the Shelvy river in Russia managed to bank a 77lb fish on rod and line, while the IGFA record, a fish of 92 pounds, was caught in Russia in 1993. Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries on earth and is the most sparsely populated independant country in the world.
The nation has everything, a wonderland of jagged mountain ranges, endless rolling steppe, wild deserts, thick forests and crystal waters. It has abundant and diverse wildlife, where eagles, wolves, ibex and wild horses roam free. Outside of the capital, Ulaan Bataar, most of the population still retain a nomadic lifestyle, living in large round felt tents known as gers.
Memories of Ghengis Khan still echo across the wild, windswept plains.
Sandwiched between southern Siberia and Northwestern China, for most of the last century, Mongolia was almost hermetically sealed off from the outside world, and the country’s very name became synonymous with remoteness and isolation. Although “progress” is coming to Mongolia, it remains one of the most desolate and beautiful landscapes on earth.
I’ve been lucky enough to fish with two operations in Mongolia and both are heavily involved in conservation. It is no coincidence that they both offer superlative fly-fishing adventures:
Dan, Jeff and Pat Vermillion run Sweetwater Travel Company and they have pioneered taimen fly-fishing in Mongolia. Sweetwater launched their Taimen Conservation Project on the Eg-Ur watershed. Working hand in hand with Mongolia’s Buddhist community, the Mongolian Taimen Conseravtion Fund, the World Bank and their American non-profit operation, the Tributary Fund, the Taimen Conservation Project aims to protect the fish of the Eg/Urr watershed.
The Sweetwater operation works out of fixed camps, using jet boats to access around 75 miles of stunningly beautiful river.
Mark Johnstad runs Mongolia River Outfitters. Mark’s Taimen Sanctuary is a constructive attempt to protect and enhance the taimen stocks of north-eastern Mongolia. Working with six “Soum” or county governments within Mongolia in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, Mark’s operation is a strict “catch and release” fishery for all anglers, and is fly-fishing only for all non-nationals. Within the two hundred mile sanctuary, the use of treble hooks, motorboats, construction of permanent tourism infrastructure, introduction of hatchery fish, commercial forestry and mining are each prohibited Mongolia River Outfitters operation is a drift-boat based trip, which, on the lower river trip that I experienced, involves the camp staff setting up a new camp every night.
I have been making photographic images of fly-fishing for nearly fifteen years, working for clients like Frontiers, Hardy’s, Rio, LL Bean, Patagonia, Orvis, Airflo, Mako, Aardvark McLeod, The FlyFisher Group, Flycastaway, Fly Odyssey, Roxtons and Where Wise Men Fish. Along the way, I have won awards from Kodak, Fuji, Polaroid and The Association of Photographers, amongst others. I have fished all over the globe, from the Amazon rainforests to the Arctic Circle. I have traveled to destinations that include: Alaska, Argentina, Australia, the Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Iceland, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Scotland, the Seychelles, the lower 48 USA, Venezuela and Zambia. I am proud to regularly donate images to Orri Vigfusson’s North Atlantic Salmon Fund and urge anyone interested in the welfare of these magnificent creatures to visit: www.nasfworldwide.com
I am based in Cambridge, UK and live with my wife Cath and our three boys, Charlie, Tom & Pete.