Downstream and Desperate
Over the coming days we catch loads of decent-sized taimen, and I manage to reel in three fish just shy of 40 inches, three gorgeous fish with stark, colorful strokes and thousands of neat, black spots that almost make me forget about the big fish I lost the other day.
Each day we drift and fish approximately six to seven miles of river set in the most beautiful scenery imaginable, and we spend the nights in lavish tent camps on the riverbank. The camps are painstakingly packed up every morning and shipped downstream on rubber rafts to be set up again. All without leaving the slightest trace behind in the unspoiled realm of the outback.
The remaining participants of the trip—a South African and four Americans—are great company, and at night cheerful voices bounce back and forth over accumulating amounts of empty bottles of beer, red wine, and Chinggis Khan vodka in the dining tent. The atmosphere is warmhearted, high-spirited, and uplifting, but something has started to eat me up from the inside. My self-assured faith in catching a one-meter or larger taimen before the week is over is slowly but surely vanishing, and not even ample amounts of alcohol can restore the feeling. Instead, the alcohol nourishes self-contempt, and I start cursing myself for having failed so miserably when my big chance arrived. This self-loathing only magnifies as the trip progresses.
The weather deteriorates, and with two days of fishing left we wake up slightly hung-over to a changed landscape. Despite its rugged grandeur, the land seems to be at the mercy of winter. We now fight an uneven battle on several despairing fronts: a battle to keep our fingers warm enough to function properly, a battle to keep the guides free of ice, and, not least, a seemingly hopeless battle to lure the now apathetic dream fish into striking. We cast away dutifully and retrieve our flies with intense hope, but nothing much happens.
Less than an hour before rounding the last bend of the river, and having to mentally prepare for the long and arduous journey back to Ulaanbaatar, I finally come to terms with the situation. We have had a phenomenal trip with solid amounts of hot-tempered lenok, a good handful of Amur trout and Amur pike, and loads of taimen that have smashed our streamers and surface flies to smithereens.
I have caught an amazing 40 taimen in six days of fishing, where the service, the camp life, the social dynamics, and the scenery have granted me one ineradicable experience after the other. My childhood dream has come true. And the big picture isn’t reduced in the slightest, just because my biggest fish of the trip was three centimeters shy of one full meter. As a result, what happens next is almost vulgar.
Below a towering cliff, in a backwater with steady flows and great depths, I suddenly see a ghostly white fl ash behind my streamer, which is cutting spasmodically across the water. An almost electric shock propagates through the line as the fly disappears, and I respond by resolutely pulling back on the line to set the hook. I now feel the unexpected and rather disturbing weight of a massive fish that thrashes violently, only to surge downstream seconds later.
During the next 15 minutes, a dogfight takes place as I attempt to gain on the fish and bring it closer to shore, but it reacts with an almost disdainful indifference and contempt. Even though I lean back on the fish until the carbon fibers of my 10-weight rod start to squeak, I can’t seem to lift the fish from the river’s grip.
On two occasions it even seems like the fish has wedged itself under boulders or rocks, and both times the guide has to place the boat crosscurrent so I can put maximum side pressure on the fish and force it out into the open current.
Gradually, I manage to bring the fish toward the surface, and here it suddenly engages in a series of irritated and doomsday-like pulls, tugs, and jerks. I haven’t exactly become less nervous as the fight has progressed, and my heart is about to burst when the line momentarily slackens—twice. Luckily, the sudden slack is due to the fish shaking its massive head while moving closer to the boat. It is still on, and the fight now enters a new phase.
I manage to bring the fish into the shallows, where Klaus has jumped into the water with a net. An ominous, dark shadow can now be seen hovering over the gravel downstream from the boat—a shadow of proportions that send a shiver through my body.
The fish is tired, but when it sees Klaus’s long, distorted silhouette against the sky, it summons a last reserve of energy and surges into deeper water again. Now I am somehow more determined than nervous. I turn the fish around, Klaus sneaks up on it with the net, and in a dizzying moment, one of the river’s old giants glides over the net frame. The cobweb-like mesh embraces the fish, and I jump meter-high out of the boat, while a series of loud, jubilant screams echo hoarsely down the river valley.
I lift the 125-centimeter (49-inch) taimen out of the water for a few quick shots. It is a regular river monster with a dark glow, uncountable number of black dots, and big, soulful eyes. It isn’t until this very moment, as I’m holding this beautiful and ancient creature, that I fully understand what I have been dreaming about all these years. Seconds later, I submerge the fish into the icy water and, with a couple of strong-willed slaps of the tail, the fish reclaims its place in the river. I draw a huge sigh of relief and begin the difficult process of comprehending how lucky I have just been. It’s going to take me a while.
Rasmus Ovesen is a resident of Oslo has fly fished since the age of eight. He travels extensively in search of trout and salmon.