My Sorry Attempt at Fly Fishing in Mongolia
Any of you horses fly fish?
I have a regretful episode to tell you about that took place on my honeymoon. It was a 10-day tour of Tuscany, and we were staying at a remote and once-abandoned Tuscan village that had been renovated into a charming little resort. Since it was autumn, the place was abandoned again, and we had it all to ourselves. One afternoon, Laura and I took a walk down into the valley. As we sauntered under hardwood canopies, holding hands, finding new adjective-laden ways to describe our love--something my wife can do for hours--I regretted not having a truffle-sniffing pig or dog along.
But that was mere trifling regret. The real regret happened when we reached the bottom of the valley, where we found a scene out of a Goya painting: a gurgling stream trickling merrily along with a castle perched high on the hilltop overhead. We crept up to the river's edge, and then ducked down, remaining perfectly still. A minute into our silence, they appeared, as I suspected they would. Brown trout. They hovered up from down below and resumed their lolling, swimming in lazy circles and sipping flies off the surface.
I didn't have a fly rod with me. That is what I regret.
I like to fly fish. For me, there's no more pleasurable way of communing with a beautiful place than casting a fly onto the surface of a river and inducing a trout into thinking it's dinner. For this reason, I procured a special fly rod after the Great Tuscan Trout Disappointment of 2001. It's called an Orvis Frequent Flyer, and it breaks down into seven individual sections, so that the whole thing isn't two feet long when dismantled and stuffed into a tube. Perfect, in other words, for taking around the world with you. Which is precisely what I did.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that a fly rod is useless on I-80, useless on a cruise ship, and beyond useless in Hong Kong. I had one destination in mind for fishing: Mongolia. Mongolia may be dry as cake flour, but where there are rivers, there are big fish: trout, lanak, grayling, and a monstrous Asian rarity called a taimen.
We ate breakfast, mounted up and headed out. The ride, I figured, would take 45 minutes. The river--still half frozen but full of fish--was just over the hills on the horizon.
There are few things more soul stirring than setting out on horseback for the horizon.
Byambaa and I rode past ger after ger, some with wind generators, some with satellite dishes. We talked about Mongolia's nomads. Somehow half the population uses and lives on the land without the need for property lines, deeds of ownerships, land transfer taxes, or interest-free mortgages. They move between winter and summer pastures, and they don't return to the same spot year after year as a matter of habit. Fights over land do happen, but, for the most part, one million people are able to come to an agreement over who gets what. A few years ago, the government passed a law to privatize Mongolia's lands. For the first time in an ancient culture's history, fences were to be erected. But the public objected. The law has been delayed, although it has not been defeated.
The river took its sweet time appearing. It was always around the next bend or over the next ridge. After four hours, finally, it was there, a strip of twinkling blue caked with ice, and just a small plateau of sand separated us from its banks. We kicked the horses into a gallop and ate up the ground. The van was there waiting for us, and Batkhu was standing next to it, dressed stylishly, listening to Mongolian hip hop and smoking a cigarette.
You will recall that my Orvis Frequent Flyer dismantles into seven pieces. At the river, I discovered that only six of them made it to Mongolia. A piece was missing, back in Toronto, probably, or possibly Newfoundland. The point is that it was not in Mongolia. The rod was useless.
I swallowed hard and stared at the ground. I searched the case again, blew into it, shook it, and swallowed hard again. After many minutes of "why me" introspection, I assembled what I had, strung it with line and tried to cast, but fly rods are delicate instruments. Even new ones don't work sometimes. There was a wind fierce blowing, as there always is in Mongolia, and instead of landing on the water, the fly kept slapping me in the back of the head. I gave up.
The situation could not have been more hilariously dismal. The piece of fly rod I was missing wasn't back at camp, and it wasn't back at my hotel in Ulan Bataar--it was on the other side of the world. It could not have been farther away. Standing between myself and that essential length of graphite was billions of pounds of dirt, rock and magma called Planet Earth. I would not be doing any fishing today.
The river was not without excitement, though. Batkhu found a dead fish on the gravel bank. It was big, eel-shaped and had a flat head. Later, some horses trotted along, herded by a man riding a Chinese motorcycle that looked a little like a Harley. He would beep to press them into action. He stopped to talk to Batkhu and the horses ambled up to the river for a long drink. A few of them splashed around in the water and one of them sat down and had a proper bath. For a few minutes, I wished that I was one of those horses. Horses, you will note, have no use for fishing rods.