Much of Mongolia remains as pristine as Montana at the turn of the 19th century. “Lewis and Clark went to the American west about 200 years ago,” Mark Jonstad reminded me. Johnstad’s employer, Mongolia River Outfitters, hosts journeys for anglers on two rivers in the country. He’s been coming to Mongolia for thirty years.
“Today, they (Lewis and Clark) would find the American west almost unrecognizable. If Chingiss Khan, who lived more than 700 years ago, rode across that ridge tomorrow, he’d say ‘I know where I am. It looks almost the same.’”
Johnstad and I were in the Muron-Delger River Valley. We sat before a row of round tents called gers in the far northwestern part of the country. The water was drinkable straight out of the stream. The sky, brilliant azure. The night sky revealed heart-stopping displays of the Milky Way and moonlight so intense you could tie a fly by it.
I and seven other anglers were here to fly-fish for taimen, a fish known as ‘the river wolf,’ because of its voracious appetite. It eats other fish, and even ducklings and mice that are hapless enough to land in the clear mountain stream. The taimen remains mostly a mystery to biologists. It may not start breeding until it’s seventh season, and a large specimen, which can grow as large as sixty inches long, can be as much as thirty years old.
The ‘river wolf’ is scarce: as few as twenty-five might live in an entire mile of river. And the species is growing more scarce.
“It’s climate change, it’s getting hotter every year,” Jongu (Jack) Bataakuu told me. He guides on the Muron-Delger and spent his childhood in Mongolia. “I’ve been on this river over ten years. And I can notice things, that it’s changing. Plus there’s a lot of poaching, illegal fishing, (and) illegal fishing operations. That kind of stuff is changing the fishery.”
Saving the Taimen
Any fish caught by the clients of Mongolia River Outfitters and its sister company Fish Mongolia, are treated gingerly despite their brute size, and returned to the river. Dan Bailey, the senior guide on this trip, went one step further. He measured the length and girth of nearly every fish caught, recorded the exact GPS location, and took a small clipping of its tail fin.
The clips are shipped to Dr. Sudeep Chandra, a biologist at the University of Nevada Reno, who is building up a DNA database on taimen, trying to determine how fish in the different rivers in Asia are related to each other. All foreigners who seek to catch the fish in Mongolia know how rare it is. “This is a keystone species in the river,” Dan Bailey told me. “They need cold, clear water. They get really effected by logging and mining, and anything that disturbs their natural ecosystem.”
Biologically, the fish is classified as the Hucho Hucho Taimen, one of four strains, all from Eurasia, that exist in the same family. One resides in the Danube watershed in Slovenia, another in Russia’s Pacific watersheds, a third in Mongolia and Russia’s northward flowing rivers, and a fourth on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Wherever it survives, the taimen is endangered. In Mongolia, three American outfitters are working to protect the fish: Sweetwater Travel, Fish Mongolia, and Mongolia River Outfitters (MRO), all with roots in Montana. To succeed in preserving taimen, they realize they must forge partnerships with the Mongolian people. That means business arrangements and education. “Mongolians first, we can’t be a western face preaching taimen conservation,” says Dan Bailey. “That’s why we employ so many local residents in our camp operations because they are our best conduit back to certain villages and they let the locals know how much we’re doing.”
On the Muron-Delger, Fish Mongolia has seven permanent ger camps where clients sleep on successive nights as they float down more than a hundred miles of river. The cooks, boatmen and about half the fishing guides are Mongolian.
“If we can help them to have a better understanding of the world in which they live. If we can help them to have a better appreciation for fly fishing and what that means for job opportunities and what that means for them, we’ve succeeded,” Mark Johnstad told me. He hopes the operation will be totally run by Mongolians some day. In addition to paying wages, Fish Mongolia and MRO pay $750 in licensing fees and permits to local states and counties for every angler who floats down the river.
In August, MRO hosted a “Taimen Festival” for the Mongolians who live along the Muron-Delger. Mongolian guides held sessions teaching local children the life cycle of the fish and the importance of releasing them back into the river if they’re caught.
The festival was about far more than fish, though. It was part of a continuing effort to build a grass-roots relationship with the residents of the river valley. Medical volunteers from Bio Regions International, a Montana-based philanthropy engaged in protecting Mongolia, traveled from the United States to provide dental and medical care for close to 200 local children. Dr. Jeff Johnson, a dentist from Bend, Oregon had hoped to provide dental care to kids attending the festival. He got a setback when cases of dental supplies were confiscated at Mongolian customs. But he gave checkups and preventive care and plans to go back next year to provide more substantive treatment.
This complements efforts by the Taimen Fund and the Tributary Fund, both of Montana, the World Wildlife Fund and donations from Patagonia, the Disney Foundation and others to nurture the fish. The survival of the world’s largest trout may be shaping up as a contest between education and economics.
Mining is the economic driver of Mongolia. The burgeoning Oyu Tolgoi mine in the Gobi desert is hundreds of miles away from the Muron-Delger River. But the Mongolian government is a partner in the mine. The taimen’s protectors feel a threat. “As the government of Mongolia continues to rely on natural resource extraction they’re going to look elsewhere,” says Dan Bailey. “And this could be an area they look at.”
Meanwhile, the Americans haven’t given up their goal of assiduously reminding the local residents of what a treasure they have.