43" Taimen on a 27ft Tenkara
Matt Lum's 43 inch Taimen
Matt is a member of the Sespe Fly Fishers
in Ventura CA
"After 2 years of trip cancellations due to Covid, we finally had the green light to head to Mongolia to fish for giant taimen. Joining me was my brother and famed Ventura eye surgeon Dr. Bryant Lum and this was a trip to celebrate his big 60.
I've been on adventures, but this was a true expedition. Just getting there was a miraculous feat. 1 hr flight from Santa Barbara Airport to San Francisco, 5 hr layover then 12 hour flight to Seoul, 5 hr layover then a 4 hr flight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Then a 12 hr train ride to Erdenet, followed by a grueling 7 hr bus ride to Murun, and then a 7 hr crazy bone jarring 4x4 ride to the river. Once at the river we took horses and camels 3 hrs upriver, then a giant military "Russian truck" another several miles to our top camp.
Of note was the amazing amount of people there helping just 5 of us anglers. 25 workers, from the kitchen and service crew, to fishing guides to sherpas and cowboys and a pack train of 25 horses and 7 camels. Of course the beautiful friendly people who are always laughing, plus the breathtaking landscape made our trip before we even wet a line.
My brother and I have tended to fish with tenkara equipment exclusively for the past 15 years. We've landed many trout from 28-33 inches but how would this work with a big taimen? After researching the size and speed of the river, as well as the fighting style of the taimen (kind of like a bull trout) we determined that it was certainly an achievable feat. Of course, our regular light tenkara rods wouldn't work, so we stepped it up to what is called Honryu Tenkara, which utilizes bigger and stronger rods. I used a 27' Daiwa Salmon Hunter rod with a 2mm thick tip. My brother used a 29' Shimano.
As always, the guides were initially super skeptical of our being able to land or even hook a taimen with this equipment. They said if we couldn't strip set we'd just miss all our takes. I really couldn't argue with this, because frankly I didn't know either.
Fortunately, on my second cast of the trip I hooked and landed my first taimen ever, a fat 35 incher. An hour later I got my second take and landed a 33 incher. Bryant also landed a decent taimen that day in the 35 inch range. Of course this ratio of strike/hooked fish intrigued the guides and they surmised that the leverage of a "trout set" using a 27' tenkara rod created as much force as a strip set with conventional equipment. The guides started really getting into it and later that afternoon we began experimenting with longer lines and heavy spey Mow tips. The final setup consisted of 37 ft of flyline attached to a 10 ft. heavy Mow tip and a 6 ft leader of 40 lb. mono. That in addition to my rod length gave me a consistent and effortless 80 ft cast. Even then I could have put on another 20 ft of line because the fly was hitting the end of the line so hard it was jamming my rod joints open to make it difficult to retract at the end of the day. But 80 feet seemed to be the sweet spot in terms of being able to reach the far bank and still manage the line in wind so I stuck with that the entire trip. After those first 2 fish I became addicted to the surface poppers and gurglers and never put on a streamer. The surface takes were so spectacular and aggressive I couldn't wait for the next one!
The next day I did miss a take on a taimen that was likely over 40 inches, Then, while swinging and twitching my 9-inch surface fly downstream, I saw this monster mouth engulf my fly, then the huge back came out of the water, then this giant red tail. My first reaction after setting the hook was to run downstream and back away from the water with my rod bent back about 1 or 2 o'clock behind me. That gives me the quickest and easiest "drag" to be able to give up some rod position if the fish made a big run. Footwork is also important when tenkara fishing for larger fish, and I try to gain as much real estate between me and the river in case I have to run forward and into the water during the fight. For this fish, the rod performed beautifully and I was able to actually stay 30 feet from the bank most of the fight as I worked the fish downstream into shallow water. After a 12 minute breathtaking battle the fish was netted and really looked like a dinosaur. It was nearly 12 inches across at the head, 45 inches long and the experienced guide after holding the fish said it weighed about 25 kilos. (No, we didn't actually weigh the fish}
That night around the fire the guides contemplated how easily and quickly we were able to land these fish with the big tenkara rods. Not only were our casts perfectly placed, and instantaneous after an effortless back cast, but the fish seemed to come in so easily compared to conventional equipment. Having fly-fished with conventional equipment for many years, I've noticed this even with my smaller tenkara rods. My guide in New Zealand a few years ago actually commented, "it's almost like the fish don't even know they're hooked!" True, all the taimen in the 35 inch range that I hooked on this trip were netted within 30 seconds to a minute. I did later catch a 43 incher that took me 5 minutes to land.
Humorously and predictably, this is about the time on a trip where the previously skeptical guides start asking how much the tenkara rods cost. And of course by the end of the trip they are trying to buy the rod from me or cross their fingers that I would be so generous as to leave my rod as a tip!
Gradually the weather warmed up and the fishing slowed down and I even ended the trip with 4 days, 750-1000 casts per day with zero strikes. Luckily I had the great experiences early in the trip to keep my anticipation and excitement up on every cast.
After the "Headwaters Expedition" portion of the journey, we floated 150 miles downriver through 9 different camps, stopping each night at a yurt camp with 2 kitchens, a restaurant, shower yurt, covered bathroom(s), and yurts with wood-burning stoves for all the fishermen. Our luggage was neatly tucked away in our respective yurts and a delicious hot dinner awaited us upon arrival. This was a "combo" trip with 2 separate and distinct journeys. In fact 2 of the anglers who did the first expedition portion went home after that and one other angler joined us for the second half "Canyon Float."
Of course Mongolia River Outfitters is a class act and treated us like royalty. On the Expedition part of the trip we were in a national park and they had to take down and rebuild our "city" every day as we moved around the river. Literally put up a small city in the afternoon and take it down and leave no trace that we were even there in the morning. We'd go fishing and soon see this huge pack train of horses and camels headed up or down the river to set up a new location. Each morning someone lighted our wood burning stove at 5:30am so we woke up to a warm yurt, then they brought coffee in at a pre-determined time. Meals were very good, especially for not having refrigeration. Caviar appetizers each lunch and either BBQ shish-ka-bobs or other delicious entrees. Dinners were often mutton or pork with veggies and bread. The high quality wine flowed freely.
In all Bryant ended up with 8 taimen, I landed 9 and the other 5 fishermen netted 11 between them, but most importantly every angler did land a taimen. Tenkara proved so effective and appropriate for that particular river and those particular fish that I'm sure a trend has been started. And yes I did leave the head guide with my $800 rod as a tip!"