In 2013, I had the honor of guiding former President Jimmy Carter for a week at Sweetwater’s Tarialen Taimen Camp in Outer Mongolia. This was a definite highlight of my 18 seasons over there.
The chopper pilots seemed to land with a theatrical flourish this week, and out onto the prairie stepped two of the world’s most well-travelled anglers: President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalyn Carter. Accompanied by an entourage including several good friends, a bevy of Secret Service agents, and U.S. Embassy personnel, the Carters were in camp to try their hands at catching a giant taimen or two. It fell to me to guide them for the week.
The first evening, we caught some lenok and grayling before a rain squall brought us back into camp. Just as I was taking off my waders, I got word that the President would like to go back out for some bonus time. I ran him across the river to wade the home pool, just the two of us. Despite being a very accomplished angler and fly caster, President Carter was having a bit of a time with his vintage Fenwick 8wt trying to huck muppets into the wind. I suggested he try one of the camp Spey Rods. Even though he had never used one before, he took to it right away. He instantly understood how to make a roll cast and water haul into a powerful overhead cast that soon had him burping the reel and pulling out ever longer strips of line. He was like a kid in a candy store, and was clearly wondering where this rod had been all his life.
For any fly fishing guide, there are special experiences that remind you why you are lucky to have chosen this path. The week with the Carters was just such a time. I got to stand shoulder to shoulder and thigh deep in the river with President Carter for the entire week. And one thing I learned is that you don’t get to be President of the United States by being a wuss. This guy just turned 89 on October 1st, and I am not exaggerating when I say that he out-fished and out-efforted every other client at the lower camp this year. He would cast the entire nine-hour day, fish or no fish, with a grit and determination that were frankly intimidating. And while others in the party would grouse about the slow fishing, he truly relished the process and punishment of hard-core taimen fishing.
President Carter caught several nice fish in the 2-to-3-foot class, and had a few chances at trophy class taimen through the week (more, in fact, than any other angler for the season), but as often happens, these eluded capture. However, the President did catch one fish that will be remembered for a long time. It was around midweek at the end of a long day punctuated by only a couple of strikes in the afternoon. Bayara and I were tag-teaming the guiding duties for the day and we both agreed on the last spot: Fred’s Bend slough mouth, where my father had caught his best taimen many years ago. In the evening light, and at the end of the run, last cast. . . finally: a solid strike from a heavy fish on the Cyclops fly. The President struck hard and the rod bent deeply. Fish On!
After a stout battle, with several leaps and head shakes, Bayara slid the net under a broad-shouldered trophy-class taimen. Clearly the best fish of the week, and indeed the best of the season at the lower camp. Everyone was stoked! The “chase boat” with the Secret Service detail aboard swooped in for the photo shoot. I handed my camera to guide and chase boat driver, Ganzorig. Backing the President into a golden beam of evening sunlight, I knelt to pull the great fish from the net. Gripping the wrist of the tail, I took a moment to pull the mesh of the net from the taimen’s jagged teeth before lifting it up for the assembled paparazzi. To borrow from another former president, at his moment I was picturing the banner unfurling at the lodge and me in my flight suit arriving back in camp to declare, “Mission Accomplished!”
You know how in life, there are certain moments where you’d give anything to have a do-over, a mulligan? Moments that play over in your mind as you lie awake at night staring into the dark? Scenes where you run through all the possible and obvious ways that things could have turned out differently?
Yes, it’s true: I dropped President Carter’s best taimen before any photo was taken.
The fish bucked as I cleared the net from its teeth, and the tail squirted from my grip. I sprang to all fours and scrambled after the escaping taimen as it threw a rooster tail across the shallow gravel bar. Twice I touched it, but couldn’t cup the nose. In a final desperate effort, I dove headlong into the water like grizzly on a sockeye. Completely submerged, I wedged head and torso under the chase boat, felt the fish under me, felt it bump and squirm past my grasping hands, and it was gone.
Returning to the surface, waders full, hat and glasses askew, I encountered a very different scene than the one from which I had momentarily departed. The President’s trademark grin had been replaced by a look one might have after inadvertently biting into a cat turd. Ganzorig and Bayara stared off into the mountains in the distance, completely avoiding eye contact. The Secret Service agents’ mouths hung agape as they looked alternately at the President and at me.
Sitting numbly on the bow of the chase boat, I said something like, “I’m sorry, sir. That was a great fish.” And President Carter said to me, “Shake it off, Matt. We all know how big that fish was.”