Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Patrick Symmes – Outside

WE ATE LUNCH SOMETIMES in a broad meadow, speckled with horses and the ruins of a Buddhist monastery. Dan Vermillion was working with the Tributary Fund, a Montana-based nonprofit devoted to protecting native species by collaborating with indigenous cultures. A local monk, perhaps mindful of the fund’s contribution to rebuilding the Dayan Derkh monastery, had ruled that Buddhist sutras condemning the unnecessary harming of animals might be relaxed for catch-and-release fishing if the sport could help protect the species.
Dan was hoping that a Buddhist endorsement would do more than justify a sport fishery. Mongolia’s rivers are salted with flakes of alluvial gold, and one mine using cyanide extraction was already operating within earshot of the Uur. There was also proposed placer mining, which would involve ripping up the entire streambed, wiping out the taimen and much else. A “faith-based conservation” movement, as Dan called it, was crucial to stopping the mines and, more important, stopping taimen poaching by Chinese and Russian meat fishermen. Foreigners, too, were having outbreaks of faith. One grateful angler had sent a check for $25,000 to the Tributary Fund; after my visit, the same client contributed another $150,000.
Upstream one afternoon, I hauled in two 20-inch baby taimen in quick succession, and looked up to see Jim waving at me from the far bank. Dan picked me up in the boat and we went over to find Jim paused over a set of bear tracks in the sand.
“Siberian brown bear,” Dan said as we slowly followed the paw prints up from the water’s edge, across a beach, and down into a tributary stream. “He better watch out,” Dan said. The tracks were heading out of the Uur Valley, toward human settlements. The bear would get shot there and sold in parts for black-market medicine and trophies.
With the Tributary Fund, Dan had arranged for field scientists from the University of Wisconsin and the University of NevadañReno to monitor the taimen. Protecting this paradise required some proof of the value of these fish, of the size of their population, of their migration patterns and appeal to sportfishermen. The scientists had their own ger camp a half-mile from ours and were busy putting radio transmitters into the bellies of captured fishóanesthetizing the taimen, slicing them open, and suturing them back tight. They named each fish before releasing it, so that the river was now dotted with radio-beeping taimen named Snoop Dogg, Pumpkin, andóthe very largest, a five-footer weighing in at around 100 poundsóAnna Nicole. We fishermen had a small role to play; in addition to tagging our catches, Dan had volunteered us as fish herders.
That’s how I found myself drinking whisky in my underwear during the season’s first light snowfall. I had roared upriver in an aluminum skiff with Zeb Hogan, a curly-haired Wisconsin fish biologist, and Brant Allen, an experienced taimen researcher from UC Davis. Brant had asked us to help make a “visual survey,” which turned out to mean swimming down the Uur, three abreast, trying to drive the fish toward Zeb’s Nikonos camera. At a long, gentle curve in the river, we unloaded the boats and started warming ourselves pre-dunk with Johnnie Walker Black and a driftwood fire.
The view encompassed every combination of wild beauty, with steep, snow-dusted mountains in one place and bright sun falling on yellow larch in another. Some scholars believe that our love of spectacular landscapes may be less the product of sentiment than of natural selection. As early as 1.5 million years ago, they argue, our ancestors were genetically imprinted to favor views like this: a valley with hunting grounds; grass to attract animals; a river with clean water; trees for ambush and escape. According to this “woodland-mosaic hypothesis,” we are drawn to the patchwork of nature. Just as trout stalk the seam between two currents, we reach for the borders between states of being.
Hopping from foot to foot, we wrestled into drysuits, masks, and snorkels, adding neoprene hoods, booties, and gloves against the cold. We flailed into the Uur and were immediately swept downstream, bobbing like corks and just as helpless. Before I could even gesture at it, the first taimen was gone. But there was another, at once, a silvery juvenile in the lee of a rock. It dropped back warily, looking a bit surprised by my arrival. I lifted a hand to start herding and immediately flipped upside down. By the time I righted myself, I’d spotted another taimen and a pair of lenok.
All week I had angler’s blindness: Because I caught few fish, I believed there were few fish. But here it became obvious there was a taimen or a lenok for every 20 feet of good river. Brant and Zeb had flushed as many as I had. We got out, laughing for no reason. A few seconds on the bank, in the wind, was enough to send me jogging upstream toward the fire.
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