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The Mongolian Pathway to Healthy Rivers

Ross Purnell  /  January 3, 2017  /  7 Min Read  /  Activism

Ross Purnell casts for taimen on the Delger River, Mongolia. Photo: Earl Harper

There is an old Mongolian legend about a hard, long winter that trapped a massive, living taimen in the ice. Starving villagers survived the winter only by eating chunks of flesh hacked from the taimen’s back. In the spring, the ice melted, and the great taimen climbed up out of the river and ate the villagers.

There’s a spark of truth in all myth, and the truth is that human beings have been hacking away at taimen populations for many generations. The winters are long, cold, and hard. Adult taimen instinctively move to deep, slow overwintering holes where they can find protection from anchor ice and ice floes, and these spots are known to “sport” anglers who use bait and treble hooks with the goal of posing with giant dead taimen, or poachers who view these majestic salmonids merely as food.

To stop the slaughter of giant taimen, and equally important, to stem the loss of pristine taimen habitat, more Mongolians need to see the greater value of a reusable resource, and that’s the end game of all taimen conservation in Mongolia. While the Taimen Fund has helped implement successful legislation to legally require catch-and-release of taimen nationwide, and to protect some watersheds from development, long-term success can come only from grassroots support and involvement where the locals have a vested interest in protecting taimen. The best way to do that is to teach more Mongolians how to fly fish, or at least show them how fly fishing can support and sustain their communities, their rivers, their health, and their culture.

The Mongolian Pathway to Healthy Rivers

Jeff Forsee, head guide of Fish Mongolia, helps a young local girl to shore for a fly fishing lesson. Photo: Earl Harper

“I would love to one day walk down to my favorite taimen pool on my favorite river, and see that there’s already three Mongolian guys there casting their Spey rods,” says Charlie Conn of the Taimen Fund. “There’d be no room there for me to fish, but that’s fine. I would love that. It’s their river, and these are their fish to protect.”

The Taimen Fund is an alliance of government agencies, local communities, and private businesses working together to educate the public about sustainable catch-and-release fishing, legislate protection for taimen and their rivers, and further scientific research. On a national and international level, they work to protect the species, preserve habitat, and eliminate poaching.

But much of the boots-on-the-ground work in specific watersheds couldn’t be done without partnering with fly-fishing outfitting businesses on Mongolia’s best taimen rivers. If you are going to build national interest in protecting taimen, you have to build from the strongholds where they still exist, and you have to show how healthy taimen rivers can improve the economy and the community. Some of the best conservation work going on in Mongolia doesn’t come from NGOs, but from the outfitting businesses who have skin in the game.

Dan Vermillion of Sweetwater Travel realized this truth when he began outfitting fly fishers on the Eg-Uur watershed near the outflow of Lake Khovsgal more than 20 years ago. Mongolian guides like Ganzorig Batsaihan, Bayaraa Saikhan and Enebish Ganpurev have worked for Sweetwater since the year 2000. The other guides, camp staff, cooks and handymen, and the food and livestock purchases Sweetwater Travel makes in the region have a huge economic impact in an area where herding is the only other form of employment.

But Sweetwater Travel does more than just support the economy. In 2006, Sweetwater Travel, with help from visiting fly fishers, the World Bank and the Taimen Fund (formerly The Tributary Fund), restored the Buddhist Dayan Derkh Monastery, which was destroyed during Josef Stalin’s attempt to purge religion from all Soviet states.

“That reconstruction was a central component of the watershed conservation project and marked the return of Buddhism to the Eg-Uur Valley,” Vermillion told me. “Herders and their families from all over the valley tearfully thanked us for supporting their faith and their heritage.”

In addition to the indirect economic contributions each fly fisher makes through an outfitted visit to Mongolia, Vermillion says his guests, and many others, have donated an additional $400,000 toward taimen conservation in the region. “We feel very blessed to have spent so many wonderful days in the Eg-Uur Valley, and we feel a profound obligation to protect these taimen and the river they call home.”

Mark Johnstad of Fish Mongolia also points to conservation as the primary reason he started outfitting fly-fishing trips in Mongolia.

“The whole premise is to do everything possible to generate and maximize locally based conservation incentives, whether it’s permits, jobs, purchase of goods and services, support for research, helping to clean up the local landfill, doing conservation education in the schools, or providing better access to health and education,” said Johnstad. “We do whatever we can do to help local communities realize the benefits of having 50-year-old taimen swimming in the river.”

Photo: Earl Harper

Ross Purnell lands a beautiful taimen on the Delger River, Mongolia. Photo: Earl Harper

My 100-mile trip on the Delgermörön with Fish Mongolia was booked through The Fly Shop in Redding, California, and one of the early participants to sign up for the adventure was pediatric cardiologist Grace Smith. She has previously volunteered for medical missions to Haiti, and her idea was that she could help the Mongolia community in more ways than by just paying for the trip. So she suggested to The Fly Shop that she’d be willing take a day off from fishing to conduct wellness exams on local children.

When her idea filtered back to Johnstad, the concept instantly snowballed. With a grant from Patagonia’s World Trout Initiative, a matching grant of $7,500 from The Taimen Fund, and funding from BioRegions International, Johnstad also arranged for medical doctor Erich Pessl and dentist Jeff Johnson to join us for the second half of our float. His goal was a free wellness clinic for local children that would be the foundation of a “Healthy Taimen Festival” on the banks of the Delgermörön, just 13 kilometers from the village of Bayanzurk.

The festival happened on a hot bluebird afternoon on August 31, the day before school started in Mongolia. The lure of a free exam and consultation with an American doctor and/or dentist emptied the village, and more than 300 people came to the river in 4×4 vans, old Russian flatbed trucks, sparkling new Chinese dirt bikes and on horseback.

Photo: Earl Harper

Angler volunteer Dr. Jeff Johnson with another happy patient. Photo: Earl Harper

The doctors and dentist had long lines outside their tents until early in the evening. The final tally was 150 to 160 visits with school-age children, resulting mostly in practical advice from the doctor, some dental hygiene work, fluoride treatments and dispensing a lot of ibuprofen and vitamin supplements.

The children and their families waiting in line were entertained by a loudspeaker game of “taimen biology trivia” with Mongolian river guides, fly-tying demonstrations, rafting and tenkara casting and fishing lessons along the river. Patagonia donated three rods to the event, and some of the schoolchildren waited for more than an hour for their turn to use a rod under the watchful eye of a Fish Mongolia guide.

“Our Mongolian guides are like superheroes to these kids,” said Johnstad after the event. “Who wouldn’t want to float down a river in a raft all summer and get paid for it?”

The guides have a huge influence on their family networks, and Johnstad strategically hires young guides from families with a history of taimen harvest. Our 24-year-old guide Battulga Tumenjargal (who gave casting lessons at the festival) grew up eating taimen his father pulled from the river. Now, his father is a catch-and-release fly fisher and head of the local Fishing Conservation Club, and the entire outlook of the familial network is changing from the ground up.

The Mongolian Pathway to Healthy Rivers

Mongolian fishing guide Battulga Tumenjargal gives a casting lesson to local kids at the Healthy Taimen Festival. Photo: Earl Harper

Like Tulga’s father, every Mongolian at the festival experienced firsthand how healthy taimen rivers can provide a sustainable economy, and improve the health and welfare of the community.

But more important, hundreds of Mongolian children learned that taimen have more than economic value—they have intrinsic value.

“Every kid who enjoyed casting a fly rod or tying flies or rafting the river is now a champion for taimen in their community,” said Johnstad “They’ll grow up wanting taimen in the river, and that’s meaningful progress that will impact future generations.”


For more from Mongolia, pick up the February-March 2017 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine and read “The One Path: Finding giant Mongolia taimen and a state of enlightenment.” It’s the story of Ross’ 120-mile journey down the Delger River, and how Vajrayana Buddhism and Mongolia’s shamanistic folk religions shaped his views of nature and wild rivers. Print and digital subscriptions are available.

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