Our longtime contributing photographer Andrew Burr recently set off to Mongolia with a group of talented lifelong anglers. As a non-angler, he found interesting perspectives on both fly fishing and his own passion of photography. Here are some notes from the journey during which he thankfully got more images than fish.
When Dave McCoy invites me on a trip, the reply is always yes. Hands down, no questions asked. Which is why I just might be the first person to arrive in Mongolia on a fishing trip with no idea what I’d be fishing for. I was meeting up to travel with a group of people who actually did know: Dave (veteran fly-fishing guide) and his family; Mark Johnston (another lifelong angler) and his son; and fly-fishing guide and conservationist April Vokey. My utter lack of knowledge about fishing became crystal clear in the group’s very first interaction, and I couldn’t wait to leave my sense of ineptitude behind with the empty beer glasses from that first evening. I wanted to start shooting.
Our trip would begin in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and wind north toward the Mongolian/Russian border. It would involve grouchy camels shedding their winter coats; 4x4s bouncing over rolling grasslands; multiple stream crossings; swollen, turbid river crossings; and a sputtering prop plane. It would also involve fishing in rivers blackened by recent heavy rains, where it seemed our boats might just as well have been floating in a cup of black tea. Our local guides, born and raised fishing in Mongolia, have no problem queuing off the faintest push or a subtle flash of red in these black waters. The others quickly learn to do the same. I can see almost nothing.
Any angler can tell immediately that I am not one. Talk of tapering, tippets, backing and grains trips me up. I can’t cast properly. My double haul is nonexistent. My expertise lies instead behind a camera. I love to shoot in terrible conditions. I grab the camera when it’s hammering rain. I love to shoot directly into the sun. I lust for sun flares and crooked horizons. I love shooting at the end of a long day when everyone is drag-ass tired and it shows.
The thrill of photography comes from being surrounded by people fully immersed in whatever they’re doing. I get emotionally involved—I so want to accurately document what they’re feeling. When Dave proposed this trip, that’s all I focused on. It was the only map of Mongolia in my possession. Now I’ve photographed these expert anglers from the sidelines all week, lurking in the shadows, jumping in to try fishing firsthand when necessary or appropriate, but mostly I’m here to create images.
It’s nearly dark at the edge of the river and for the first time in days I’ve set my camera down. The first stars are shimmering to life as the cool evening air rolls down from faraway plateaus. It’s the last light on our last night of the trip, and my boots collect tiny glimmering droplets of water from the current splashing by. I’m using a rod borrowed from April, who’s now calling orders at me, desperately hoping I can shoot the fly far enough to create interest for a fish. I fumble. Darkness turns black and the jumbo feathers on a huge hook whiz by my ear again and again. I know April really wants me to get a fish. Her confidence in me radiates. But I have too much respect for rivers and the fish that swim their waters and the people who expertly fish these rivers. I feel like I need to walk away, so I stop. I hand the rod over and retreat back into the shadows with my camera. In one breath, April takes the slack out of the line, loads the rod and sends an immaculate backcast into the evening light.