Irrational exuberance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 12:00am

FISHING IS A form of madness and fly fishing is probably its most virulent strain. For those who are struggling with this affliction, or know someone who is, Mongolia is a place to purge the fishing demons from the system and find the route to recuperation. I speak from experience. Though I am no fisherman, I have borne witness to this bizarre ailment up close - and in Mongolia.

This landlocked nation known for its grasslands and once-fierce warriors is also home of the taimen, a mammoth fish that is a distant relative of the Atlantic salmon. The taimen, however, no longer finds its way to the sea, sparing itself that exhausting journey back to spawn. Now it is the fishermen who make the arduous trip - just to be able to say they have engaged in combat with this great fish.

Taimen are said to reach two metres in length but they grow slowly, taking years before they mate. As the Mongolian diet is unwaveringly focused on mutton, the taimen has been given a bit of a reprieve from one potential predator, though it is still in a delicate environmental state. For that reason, tour guides generally insist on 'catch and release' rules for this impressive fish.

But it is the pursuit - rather than the eating - that is important. For those who are unable to resist the urge to make this quirky quest, there are some essential guidelines.

For one, you first must be properly attired. Since the battle is taken to the fish, a key armament is a good pair of waders. Donning this attire, the zaniness of fly fishing is clear even to the novice. It is difficult to feign seriousness while standing in your chest-high waders, looking like a cross between characters from the Beverly Hillbillies and Kevin Costner's smashingly unsuccessful film Water World.

The comical appearance is enhanced by the footwear - usually a pair of outsized boots that will keep your feet dry and lend stability while tramping through streams. In my case, they are large enough to account for some of the alleged sightings of Big Foot, or the yeti.

Then, of course, there is your choice of fishing rod and fly reels. Anglers should know that their spinning reels are not up to this task and that a new collection will have to be assembled. Gear is not complete without sinking and floating lines, tippets, backing and a host of other equally essential items - all no doubt part of a plot by a few gleeful sporting goods companies that prey on defenceless fishermen.

Naturally, there would be no fly fishing without flies. For the lesser Mongolian fish like graylings or lenok - the warm-ups for catching taimen - there is the hugely popular chernobyl ant, a red and black bug that justifiably evokes images of the Soviet nuclear power industry's Armageddon. It must look irresistible if you are a fish staring at the surface of a river from down below. The cast of curious characters for your fly collection also includes such favourites as woolly buggers, bitch creeks, bunny tail leaches and nymphs, to mention only a few.

For catching taimen, however, fishermen use something a bit more substantial since the fish has three serious rows of teeth - one of them on its tongue. A larger 'fly' that is supposed to resemble a frog or mouse is commonly used, although some fishermen assert they have made catches with a dead squirrel - or for the really hard-hearted angler - a child's teddy bear.

With my equipment at last assembled, I join a fishing party that has Mongolian taimen in its sights. A group of similarly afflicted individuals gather in Ulan Bator, taking a week's supply of beer and vodka - as well as a bit of solid sustenance just in case someone gets hungry.

From the Mongolian capital, travel is to be by helicopter, an ageing Russian model that flies without aid of radar. Our pilots wisely insist on daylight travel only and our late start means we are unable to reach our first destination before nightfall.

We circle above a promising spot on the seemingly deserted Mongolian grassland in search of a camping site. Minutes after our helicopter comes to a rest, a gaggle of herdsmen rides out to inspect their curious visitors. A campfire and the first test of our vodka supply soon has them reassured, however.

Generous helpings of alcohol mean an early sleep for some of us, though others are less fortunate. One of our party, whose identity will be protected to spare any further embarrassment, is the source of thunderous snoring that resonates across the grassland. After one sleepless evening, the other fishermen carefully pitch their tents a safe distance away.

Three hours into our flight the following day, the navigators are obviously having trouble finding our destination. After landing for an urgent lunch break, consisting of mutton stew, the crew set off in the helicopter to get more fuel. The fishermen stay behind, practising tying knots - an essential skill for fly fishing. The main use, I have observed, is passing time while one waits for the unlikely arrival of fish.

Eventually, the helicopter returns, presumably with directions as well as fuel, and we find our destination - a canyon along the Chuluut, or stone river. It is aptly named as it eventually claims more than a few of my newly purchased flies. But at last we are getting down to our appointed task. Within minutes I have my first catch. Unfortunately, it is my finger and I have to let it go.

Before long, though, I hook something a bit more interesting. This time it is a grayling, a fish that has a bit less flair for the dramatic than the taimen but is found in abundance. Mine is a bit on the undernourished side, however, and I am slightly deflated when Byamba, one of our Mongolian assistants, suggests I keep it and use it for bait.

Before pushing on with our hunt for the big fish, we need another refuelling stop at the town of Moron. We are to have more encounters with this quaintly named enclave, one that proves to be more in character with the English version of its name than we might have liked. To our dismay, we discover the airport's fuel truck is being repaired and we have to wait for a time-consuming overhaul. Finally, the truck is declared ready, only to run out of fuel midway through its mission.

This is merely a temporary setback, however, and we eventually make it to our final fishing destination which is along the Tengis River, not far from the Russian border. I am afraid I cannot reveal more details, however, as I am sworn to secrecy. This is another idiosyncrasy of fishing - every fisherman has his 'spot' which is jealously guarded.

Our pilots bring the helicopter to a not-so-gentle landing and we all scramble for dry and level ground to pitch our tents. An overnight snowfall does not deter us and we set out in search of the taimen in the morning. The path ahead soon turns into a cold rivulet and we sink further into the snowy muck with each step. With waterlogged boots and hands almost too cold to clutch a whisky flask, we reluctantly abandon our plans to reach the perfect spot and settled for second best.

A string of shivering but irrationally exuberant fishermen fan out along the banks of the Tengis River.

Fish are jumping all around us but ignoring our flies, as if taunting us by saying, 'Why do we need your pathetic fake flies when we have the real thing?'

Despite great efforts, I am afraid the taimen eludes me. I do watch as more experienced fishermen - our guides - manage to haul in two of them, however, making the trip a vicarious success.

A slight break in the weather allows our radar-less helicopter to escape from this chilly valley but air traffic controllers will allow us to fly no further than our favourite Mongolian town - Moron. After an overnight stay in the town's finest - and perhaps only - hotel, we make an early getaway but not before having to bang on the airport terminal doors to wake up the sleeping air traffic controllers to clear us for takeoff.

We return to Ulan Bator safely and in time to catch connecting flights and go our separate ways. As we board our planes we say a sad farewell to our guides and companions. But there is the reassuring knowledge that when the irrational urge to go fly fishing strikes again, there will still be fish to catch in Mongolia.

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