Picture a 201-level angler fishing 501-level water. Not a pretty sight, right? Now imagine that 201-level angler flying across the world and paying mucho dinero while leaving her husband and 6 and 7-year-old boys to fish said 501-level water. Well, that is what I did and it was oh-so-very eye-opening.
Welcome to Mongolia! One of the few remaining homes for taimen, the largest salmonid, a finicky, and majestic apex predator that often rests in shallow glassy water with complete confidence. With about 25 taimen per river mile, they are everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes they eat, and sometimes they don’t. They are pure magic. I have had the honor to fish for silvers in Alaska, bonefish in the Bahamas, cutthroat out West, brookies in the mountain streams of North Carolina, and red-eye bass in my backyard in Alabama. Each place I fish presents different rules of engagement, but I naively hadn't expected or ever experienced a 100-plus foot wide river and a fish who will eat a squirrel for a snack.
When taimen fishing the expansive Eg River, longer casts increase the probability that you may experience taimen. This I expected or at least understood in theory, but the practical considerations didn’t quite register, such as what the largest salmonid might eat and how far I would need to cast this morsel to tempt them until I was standing in the water on day one. I swear, one fly was a large taxidermied mouse with a hook which I had the pleasure of casting ad nauseum.
Have I mentioned that I have been begging my friends and anyone else who would listen, to join me on this fishing adventure since 2012 when I was a 101-level angler? Who knew their repeated refusals were a sign of wisdom and grace? My hopes of meeting majestic taimen and seeing this country from the perspective of the river filled my brain with kumbaya dreams.
Erica, my “ride or die” fishing broad, who I eventually wore down to join me on this ridiculous adventure, had been practicing and troubleshooting with her gear in preparation for months in advance. Meanwhile, my “mom brain” had me relying on a wing and a prayer to just get myself out the door, while my husband’s promises of new pet rattlesnakes and “MOM” tattoos for my 6 and 7-year-old sons rained upon me.
On the plane, I set my intentions for the trip, which grew as the journey progressed. These included:
● Be present
● Be open
● Be grateful
● Be kind (added on fishing day 3)
● Be badass (added by Erica on day 4)
We arrived at the Sweetwater lower camp on day 1 and the landscape wowed! The gers, traditional nomadic tents, that we called home for the week, faced the Eg River in a beautiful line. Their orientation to the river felt reverent. My excitement level had hit the kinetic stage, which only intensified during our jet boat trip to our first fishing hole. This was finally happening! We had been planning this adventure for over 2 years and we were about to start our quest to meet a taimen! We got to our first hole and Matt, our guide and the head guide at the Sweetwater lower camp, rigged up my brand-new 9-weight single-handed rod with Sweetwater’s “smallest” fly, a cyclops. Of note, this fly was only small in comparison to the mouse previously mentioned that I would meet on day 6.
Honestly, it was like I had never held a fly rod in my hand before. I was breaking every casting rule I’d learned over these past thirteen plus years of fly fishing. I got lost in psychological warfare with that cyclops fly! Yes, I know the rod is designed to make the fly go where I direct it, but seeing and feeling that huge fly on the end of my line shook me and filled me with an overwhelming sense of fear and self-doubt. I got lost in my fears and insecurities: imagining myself hooking someone with my fly, disappointing my guides with my low skill level, and just being embarrassed that I actually thought I could come here and do this, when in reality, maybe not. Matt was outwardly super positive letting me know that folks have caught taimen with a mere 30-foot cast, and even first-time anglers have been successful, but I was sure he was crying inside. The fate of this trip was in my hands and I had to make a choice as to what I wanted it to be. I chose to ground myself in the intentions I set for myself on the flight to Mongolia.
Be present. Be open. Be grateful.
On my first full day, I fished with Bayraa who taught me how to cast a Spey rod in order to be more successful in achieving the distance needed to hopefully meet my first taimen. Shenanigans. The art of Spey casting is no joke and included what felt like a million different steps, rules, and considerations. What side of the river are you on? Is the wind blowing? Are back casts a concern? Every new hole was like starting all over again because the answers to those questions were always different. Also, I had to consider the mechanics of each and every cast. In order to have a chance of catching or missing a fish, I would need to have the right amount of line off the reel, properly set the anchor/fly on the water in relation to my body’s positioning, create the perfect D-loop with the line, and layout the line flat at a 45-degree angle with my roll cast. Next, focus on picking the line up off the water while managing my timing with my backcast, stopping high enough to keep the fly from breaking on the rocks behind, and then pushing forward with increasing energy so as not to collapse my loop. Then remembering to stop my rod at 10 o’clock, to release my finger from the line to allow it to be shot from my reel (to gain more distance), and then taking care to jig the fly at a cadence that matches the water speed and behavior of that particular fly. PLUS, because these fish are finicky and insanely strong, you need to strip set them like they are a tree, not a trout, and know their mouths are so strong that they could just clench down, keeping the hook from setting, and then just open their mouth and say “bye-bye!” Notable win: I strip set two submerged trees with expert precision.
On this day I found a heart stone on the shore. I carried it in the pocket of my waders and from time to time I would take it out and kiss it as I silently repeated my intentions. Just repeating them proved to be a grounding and centering force as I navigated this crazy adventure.
It was late morning on day 3, after 16 hours of continuous casting, without even a bump or acknowledgment, I started to crack. Concealed behind my buff there was lots and lots of deep breathing, huge tears were welling and dropping, my nose started to run, and I was just trying to keep myself from coming completely unhinged. My cast was a disaster. My back was spasming from the unrelenting use of previously ignored muscles. I had left my family so I could be here. Erica had caught two beautiful fish that morning and I couldn’t even cast my line. My frustration was palpable.
Fortunately, it was lunchtime, so I had an opportunity to put down the rod, take some breaths, and reconnect with my intentions and practice showing myself the grace and kindness that I desperately needed. And out of this moment was born anew, but essential intention; be kind.
It was also during this break that the weight of the Taimen Fisherman's Oath really hit me.
In the Sweetwater lower camp lodge hangs the Taimen Fisherman’s Oath penned by Charles Barrett Jr, a past and frequent guest, that serves to reinforce the importance of tenacity, grit, humility, and patience in taimen fishing – regardless of your angling experience. Many of these also became my mantras on the water, complimenting my pre-set intentions, with some favorites being “#2 - I will not tire,” “#6 - I will not stop casting,” and the one that I seemed to really relate to was “#5 - Days without fish only make me stronger.”
By the 2nd to the last hole of the day I was finally satisfied with my cast. It wasn’t awesome or consistent, but I was starting to get better distance. At the end of the day, in my last ten casts, I finally got my first bump. Sure, I missed the fish. And sure, I got my bump when my line was right off the bank I was standing on after working all day to cast closer to the other bank, but that bump was everything.
Day 4 was my wedding anniversary and the day I finally landed my first taimen! It was a “jijik,” which translates to baby taimen, that was about 20” of pure beauty! At this moment Erica proposed a new intention, that I immediately embraced; be badass. A sense of relief was felt by all, including me, and while I missed three other fish that day, I knew I was improving, and for this 201-level angler, I could not have asked for anything more. On this day Erica caught two stunning 44” and 36” taimen! Seeing her fully connected and in her element, feeling her deeply rooted peace and excitement on the water, elevated my experience in ways I am still not able to fully articulate. It was on this day that I fully embraced with a wide-open and true heart #8 of the Taimen Fisherman’s Oath, “I will celebrate when my partner catches ‘monster boy.’” And it was glorious!
Days 5 and 6 were filled with even more magic, even though my body was continuing to breakdown with worsening back spasms, random numbness, and raw fingers from continuously stripping the wet line. Every day was spent trying to fully absorb the energy and beauty of the Mongolian countryside, trying to record in my mind the swans and golden eagles soaring overhead, seeing the local nomads tending to their fields and livestock. The nights were clear with stars that went for forever and mornings were calm with the fog burning off the river. Although I had very little taimen action across those two days, my single-minded focus on fishing and being present in this place enveloped me in a sense of peace and calm that a wife, mom, and business-owner does not often get to experience.
On Day 7 I finally identified my “walk-on” fishing boat song, Beastie Boys’ Shake Your Rump, and boogied my way on the boat. Erica “walked-on” to In da Club by 50 Cent. While Ganzoo navigated our picturesque ride to the fishing hole, Erica and I got lost in conversation and the beautiful landscape. We talked about how satisfied we both were with what this trip had proven to be. I pushed myself on these seven days in ways I could not have imagined – technically, physically, and emotionally – and realized I was walking away a new person. I found myself in a place of enoughness regarding my accomplishments and with a sense of calm around how I would manage the expectations of others (You went where? For what? And only caught one fish? It was only 20”? Aren’t they supposed to be huge fish? You know we have fish here, right?).
My win was embracing that sometimes you give your all to achieve one thing when really the payoff was the road you took to get there. My win was learning that I am capable of so much more when I allow myself to be fully present, open, grateful, kind, and badass-y. My win was being able to sincerely share with a full heart in the successes of my dear friend who caught many amazing fish while most days I went fishless. My win was understanding the importance of kindness and grace in everything I do. As I write this it almost feels trite, almost chicken soup-y for the soul, but for once I was present, open, and kind enough with myself to really “get it” and feel it.
I realized for the first time that for me, it isn’t about the fish, but what I am willing to give of myself to achieve my goals, whatever they might be. I never stopped casting. I never even contemplated it. On the last day I had a Ben-Gay patch on my back, my thumb partially numb, was dosed with Ibuprofen, and I was at peace with my one beautiful “jijik”/“baby” taimen.
I think that it was my sincerity in embracing my gratitude for this experience, this place, my fishing buddy, our guides, and other anglers, that led to what happened next. I hooked a tree. Well, that is what we all thought at first. But then that tree moved. Then it moved a lot more and started moving around the boat. And then I landed, as a sign of pure grace and love, the most beautiful 51-inch, 44-plus pound, 30 plus-year-old taimen.
Be grateful. Be badass.
You would think catching the biggest fish in 3 years at that camp would be my lead line when talking about my experience in Mongolia, but it isn’t. Sure, I have it handy when talking to the dude who only cares about size, but for me, it is about the acceptance that happened before I ever caught that fish. That sense of being enough in the absence of meeting the goal I thought I had.
Now I am home and this whole journey feels like a distant memory. I find myself back in the chaos of work; keeping all five of my loves alive, safe, fed, and where they need to be (yes, puppy and kittens included); maintaining a home; and staying engaged with the non-profit organizations that have my heart (Casting for Recovery, Project Healing Waters, BigHouse). I believe the profoundness of this experience changed me on a deeper, almost cellular level, by showing me what I am truly capable of when I just give myself a chance. Also, that success doesn’t always manifest in the way we expect. I tripled my casting distance across the seven days only to catch the fish of my life on maybe a 40-foot cast.
Now my new challenge is to harness the power of these intentions and build them into my everyday real life, with my family, friends, colleagues, and clients. I am acutely aware of how easy it is to type these words but how hard it will be to truly live them in the chaos of the real world.
Oddly outside of this trip, I typically talk about these sorts of grand fishing trips, like New Zealand for example, as “one day when I am good enough I will go and fish there.” I naively came on this trip with no sense of its 501-level fishing, and I am so grateful for that. At the beginning of the trip when it hit me how underprepared I was, I realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I could have waited until I got good enough or for when the time would feel right, but I suspect that time would never have come. Now it has happened, and I will cherish it forever.
I challenge you to do that thing that you think you can’t. You can. Whatever it is, you can. Maybe you can’t do it next week but we actively planned for over 2 years to make this dream a reality. Just give yourself a chance and I suspect you will surprise yourself in ways you never expected.
Be present. Be open. Be grateful. Be kind. Be badass.