The author is a fly-fishing guide in Mongolia, primarily in the Amur River drainage and primarily for taimen, the largest fish in the salmonid family. Here's one of his happy clients. Find Peter on Guidefitter @pwfong.
photo credit Peter Fong
When I returned to guiding— after a 20-year absence—I began keeping methodical records in a series of hardbound notebooks. This was not something I thought important at my first guide job, in Yellowstone Park, or during my three years as a mate on a charter boat in the Florida Keys. But people change.
Sometimes I wrote in the morning, before breakfast, sometimes in the dark tent—with a headlamp—after many glasses of wine. The results now occupy a full shelf in my office. Taken together, these volumes constitute the witness of many hundreds of days.
It’s a rare luxury to be able to look back—if only to remind myself of the details that still make no sense. For example, I’d originally intended to spend only seven days with Mongolia River Outfitters (MRO)—as a guest, not an employee. But when one of the regular guides was forced to back out, just before the season began, I stepped in.
To seal the deal, I met Mark Johnstad, the company’s founder, at a Missoula bar called Charlie B’s, one of those Montana institutions where, dram by draft, an entire life can pass before your eyes. (It’s advertised location is “the corner of Space and Time.”) While we talked, I couldn’t help but marvel at the number of friends we had in common—and at the abundance of our overlapping interests. As it turned out, his parents’ place, Johnstad’s Bed and Breakfast, was perhaps a quarter mile downstream of my former home in the Paradise Valley.
Mark combines the sharp eyes of an environmental lawyer with a nose that would not look out of place on a middleweight boxer. At that time, MRO was trying to establish a business on an Amur River tributary, in a valley best known as the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan, the legendary warrior and statesman. The target species? Hucho taimen, the world’s largest trout. It didn’t take long for Mark to convince me that helping to save this iconic fish would be a worthwhile use of my time.
Before the first guests of that long-ago season arrived, we devoted a week in August to both exploration and negotiation. The explorations took place on the river, fly rods in hand, while the negotiations occurred on several levels: with the national ministry, the provincial government, and the elected leaders of local jurisdictions known as soums, which are roughly analogous to U.S. counties. In Dadal soum—then a community of perhaps 2,500 people, with several bars and a flourishing array of satellite dishes and solar panels—Mark met with the vice-governor and district ranger. I took notes during the meeting, while Handaa, our camp manager, served as interpreter.
The governor’s office was a log structure, sturdy if not quite plumb. It boasted a linoleum floor, a sheet-iron stove, a landline telephone, and a desktop computer and printer (both unplugged). The telephone rang once during the meeting, otherwise the only distraction came from the lowing of cattle outside the open window.
If you fish Mongolia for taimen, prepare to cast huge streamers and employ heavy leaders.
The deputy governor had a square, serious face and a formidable black handbag. She wore gold-rimmed glasses, a bracelet of red stones, and two thick silver rings. On the wall behind her desk, there was a framed photograph of a red stag and a calendar with a portrait of the Khaan’s cavalry, still turned to the month of July.
Mark described the company’s history and purpose a few sentences at a time, pausing while Handaa translated. Although Handaa and I had just met, I could tell that she took this responsibility seriously. Her thick dark hair had been brushed into a neat ponytail, her black military boots newly shined.
Mark noted his extensive experience in wildlife conservation, along with the personal bond he feels to the region, forged during his years with the Mongolia Biodiversity Project. He mentioned the decline in the red deer population, told how he used to hear their calls in autumn, then convincingly mimicked their high-pitched whistling. He reported how sad he was to no longer hear deer in the province—and how much sadder he would be to no longer find taimen in the river.
Basically, he said, taimen could make money for local people in two ways. By fishing that relies on killing or by fishing that relies on not killing. He explained how MRO planned to work with two other nearby soums: paying license fees, providing seasonal jobs, and teaching new skills to local citizens. He emphasized that growth would proceed slowly, over many years.
In Mark’s philosophy of sustainable tourism, first, you need a product—a place with an unsullied environment. Second, a supportive community, willing to conserve and protect that environment. Third, a clientele willing and able to pay for the privilege of visiting that place—the sort of people, however, who like service and require trained guides, well-prepared food, comfortable camps. And the tour operator must develop a good international reputation to attract these clients. The deputy governor rubbed her forearms, looking noncommittal, but the ranger, a slight man with a weather-creased brow, replied with quiet emotion. Taimen, he said, are the valley’s protectors. Fish have no eyelids, he continued, and so they always watch over us. Therefore, it is our duty to watch over them as well.
Mark nodded, aware of the families and children we had seen fishing with handlines. Taimen are rare and grow slowly, he said. Although their historic range stretched from the Balkans to Hokkaido, overfishing and habitat destruction have wiped out many populations. The problem is not local people who cook the occasional fish; it is the outsiders who want to take everything they catch. Regulations should allow locals to catch and eat other species, such as pike and lenok, with reasonable limits and a seasonal closure to protect spawning fish. But foreigners should be restricted to catch-and-release only, for all species.
The better the protection, he argued, the better the product. It won’t be a lot of money, but a little bit, every year. If a 40-inch taimen is 15 years old and a 50-incher is 40 years old, then it will take at least 25 years of conservation to give them time to grow. And every big fish lost to poachers or pollution or whatever represents an unbelievable crime. This requires a long-term view toward conservation—almost like managing trees instead of fish.
Some taimen have to be double-fisted.
As a business, Mark suggested, MRO was better situated to do this than donor-supported projects, which generally have shorter timelines. And business investment provides real incentives to see the fishery conserved, even better than government regulations alone. With long- term, affordable community agreements, MRO could justify its spending on equipment, training, and marketing— and keep the operation going for decades.
The people of Dadal, the vice-governor replied, are proud of their home. They want to preserve the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan. The environment is Mongolia’s wealth—her duty was to protect it. She’d been very happy with the support received from the American government and fondly remembered a visit from the U.S. ambassador. She had no objection to economic development, agreed with Mark’s arguments, and was ready to work with us to conserve taimen. But she also wanted to know how many people would receive jobs and how much they would be paid. And cautioned that she must first consult with other officials before a decision could be made.
She put away her ink pad and calculator, then stowed a folder bearing the name of a Japanese soccer team in the file cabinet.
The last item remaining on her desk was an open padlock.
When Mark, Handaa, and I walked away from the governor’s office that day, I couldn’t have guessed how many more such meetings I would attend in the years to come, some more tangibly successful, others less so. It was my first exposure to the potential of public–private partnerships in conservation initiatives, an event that would lead to many new friends and acquaintances, not only in the realm of fly fishing, but also at international nonprofits such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy. But even then the occasion felt transformational, something like fate.
Following that first season at the oars, I wrote a magazine piece called “A Guide on Unfamiliar Water.” While doing some research for the story, I happened upon these words from an editor: “From where I sit,” she said, “Mongolia now is almost cliché. Last summer, it seemed like everybody was going to Mongolia. The bar keeps getting higher.”
It did me no good to protest that my travels were not designed to confer status, as if one could display experience like a brand. This brand, I wrote in my notebook, has little to do with marketing. In fact, it felt more like a mark, something burned into memory, as indelible as the birth of a child.
I knew then that I would return to Mongolia again and again—to the same river and in the same season—no matter how unoriginal that notion might be.
Peter W. Fong has been the head guide at Mongolia River Outfitters (@mongoliarivers) since 2006. In the summer of 2018, he led a first-ever scientific expedition from the headwaters of Mongolia’s Selenge River to Russia’s Lake Baikal.