Can Fly Fishing Save the World with Mongolia River Outfitters


Peter W. Fong is a writer, editor, and fly fishing guide. His first novel, Principles of Navigation, won the 2012 New Rivers Press Electronic Book Series Competition. Can fly fishing save the world? Mongolia River Outfitters’ owner Mark Johnstad thinks so, and Peter –after working with him for the past eight years– believes he may be on to something. Photos courtesy of Mark Johnstad, Peter Fong, and Marcelo Poo.

Although my family once lived just across the Yellowstone River from Mark’s parents, we met in the valley where the Great Khan was born.


The fish that call this river home resemble Montana’s trout in the same way that a killer whale resembles a porpoise. You can see the relationship—but they’re not the same animal. Mongolia’s taimen can live as long as humans. They eat mice and ducks and grow to the size of golden retrievers. And they’ll take dry flies.


In an era when biologists struggle to assign financial value to endangered species—and nature’s blessings have been re-branded as ecosystem services—people who like to catch fish with bits of foam and feather represent a rare demographic.


Nobody has to convince this group that native fish, clean water, and pristine landscapes are precious commodities. In fact, some might rather fore-go the word commodity altogether, given its association with prices and markets, to argue instead that the world’s finest fly fishing destinations are holy places, shrines, temples in which humans have both rights and duties. The right to worship. And the duty to protect.


But like any religion, fly fishing remains bound to certain earthly realities. When the church needs a new foundation, then it’s time to launch a capital campaign. In the Onon River valley, that capital comes partly from the international anglers who visit each autumn. Which is as it should be. Relatively modest sums, allocated wisely, can go a long way in rural Mongolia.


But Mark’s real successes have come in the solicitation of human capital. He’s a relentless booster for both wild taimen and wild rivers. He’s not afraid to sing or dance or argue, and is the only person I know who can speak the word ‘ginormous’ without irony.


Maybe this enthusiasm is contagious, because when Mark gets other folks involved, they tend to stay involved. Many among our clients and crew have been returning to the Onon season after season, long after the novelty should have worn off.


Sure, we like the fish and the landscape, but we also enjoy each other’s company, as well as the rare opportunity to contribute to something that not only feels good but also is good. When the season’s over, we’ll disperse to our homes in Mongolia or Montana or Argentina or Aruba, grateful to have had the chance to preserve something of the sacred for those next in line.