Foul-hooking a great fish— without shame or glory.

[by Peter Fong]

ON THE DAY WE CATCH SCARFACE, I am not thinking about putting a name on anything. Not on a specific flaw or a nebulous weakness. Not on something so vague or personal as a feeling, nor as elusive or literal as a fish.

Jeff and I have walked a couple of miles downstream from camp, each casting a streamer concocted during a marathon tying binge fueled by duty-free bourbon, chocolate-covered oat biscuits, and crabflavored Pringles. Jeff’s streamer is as long as his hand, expertly crafted with multiple layers of Flashabou and fiber. In the water, it pulses darkly, drawing a strike from the biggest lenok I’ve ever seen on this river—so big that we mistake it for a juvenile taimen at first.

My fly is mostly white, except for two grizzly saddle hackles, dyed burnt orange, and two holographic eyes. But it’s even longer and more sinuous than Jeff ’s pattern—and was a lot easier to tie. Although the fish have shown absolutely no interest in it so far, I am not discouraged in the least.

“Jeff exerts pressure on the fish, but this one doesn’t seem to register the least irritation. He simply keeps swimming, progressing slowly upstream, like a barge with gill plates.”

Instead I am distracted. By the unexpected appearance of a small patch of viscous-looking algae that looks suspiciously like didymo. By the even more unexpected vision of an inflatable boat, populated by four paddle-wielding strangers. By the upcoming arrival of our next group of guests: eight anglers who have traveled thousands of miles for the privilege of fishing this incomparable river.

Because every hour with a fly rod in hand is precious to me, I am trying to refocus my thoughts. Didymo, I recall, is native to the Northern Hemisphere and widespread in Mongolia. Its mere presence, or that of some similar diatomaceous algae, is not automatically cause for alarm. Neither is the presence of the unknown paddlers, no matter how possessive I’ve become about my place of employment. Yes, the river and its charms feel vulnerable today—but they were no less vulnerable yesterday and will be no more vulnerable tomorrow.

Don’t forget, I tell myself, to enjoy the hazy afternoon silence and the warm midsummer sun. Don’t neglect the wild irises underfoot, the blue campanulas, the bird’s-eye primrose. Don’t worry, I think. Be grateful.

On our way back upstream, Jeff and I debate whether to walk along the cobble-strewn bank or hike above, on a gravelly dike created by some long-ago flood. I say we should go high, to see if we can spot a fish. That’s what has drawn us out of camp after all— the promise of a big taimen cruising in clear water, as incongruous as a bull shark on a bonefish flat.

And there it is—looking hugely unreal, as if the river had conjured the fish from our imaginations. When it reaches the shallow water near the far bank, moving upstream, its dorsal actually creases the surface.

Rock, paper, scissors for the first chance to cast? I already know that I’m paper. Jeff suggests two out of three, but I say no. Let’s decide and go. Paper wins and I skitter down the dike, cross the river below the taimen, then move up, well back from the bank.

Jeff is one of the best guides I’ve met over my decades on the water. As he talks me into position, I feel no doubt, only anticipation, along with the merest twinge of regret. From this lower perspective, I can no longer discern the fish. All I can see is the river’s surface: a riddle of reflections—willows and larch and sky. For a moment, I wish that I were back up on the dike. But that would mean losing this chance, so I bury the thought. Following Jeff’s instructions, I make my cast, then begin to strip the fly across the pool.

That’s when something all too familiar happens. An unfathomable mystery that my lifetime of practice and training has scarcely begun to define. It’s an awful sensation, as if the hook point has just barely grazed what must have been the bulk of an immense jaw. I continue the retrieve, resisting the urge to lift the rod, but the fish does not return.

I cast again but already things feel hopeless. Sometimes a taimen will strike repeatedly, smashing a fly over and over, oblivious to everything but the urge to eat. This does not appear to be one of those times. My retrieves become frantic—not designed to draw a predator’s attention but truly distraught. Jeff yells that the taimen has veered away and is dropping downstream.

I shuffle with the current, trying not to spook the fish, but Jeff loses sight of it before I can maneuver within range. When the beast reappears, it is nearer our original bank, closer to him than to me. I tell him to cast if he can; then I begin to cross the river.

Jeff jumps into the water, firing out line, but by then the fish has started back to the far side again. Jeff follows, still tossing the fly. I reach the original bank, run downstream, then teeter atop a boulder, trying to spot its submarine shadow. I don’t notice anything for a couple of minutes except Jeff ’s repeated casts, as quick and precise as a heron’s jabs, and then there’s a bulge of water downstream, very close to the bank.

It’s the taimen, steaming upstream again, the water parting on either side of its head like the bow wave of an oceangoing freighter. I swing the white streamer in front of it but the fish shows no interest at all. Another cast and another refusal, only a slight change of course, so now it is once more moving away from me and toward Jeff, who can’t see the fish at all in the glare. I shout instructions, keenly aware of our change in roles, but the taimen ignores Jeff ’s fly as well.

“Where is he?” Jeff asks.

“He’s swimming right toward you,” I respond. And so the naming begins. Male taimen are not noticeably different from females, but this fish feels like a coconspirator, a conspecific, a brother.

He keeps moving directly at Jeff. If the fish doesn’t turn, I think to myself, he’s going to hit Jeff in the knees. I am far enough away that I can’t make out the fly, though I can plainly mark the end of the fly line.

“Shorten up,” I blurt. “You’re going to line him.”

Sure enough, the line swings over the fish’s back and then, improbably, comes tight.

“Damn,” I say, “You’ve got him.”

BEFORE SCARFACE WAS A FISH OR A FILM, before he was either Tony Montana or Al Pacino, he was Al Capone, the Prohibition-era mob boss who murdered with impunity but served only seven years in federal prison for tax evasion. The scar on his left cheek—along with one across his jaw and another below his ear—came courtesy of a gangster’s blade, although Capone himself liked to say they were war wounds.

In Scarface the movie, the setting shifts from 1920s Chicago to 1980s Miami, while the contraband of choice changes from bootleg liquor to cocaine. The war, when it comes, occurs between rival kingpins, a choreographed fight to the finish that features an authentic M16 augmented with a custom-made grenade launcher.

The battle with our Scarface is nothing like that, though we do feel a bit undergunned. We have landed giant taimen before, of course, but always as guides, with the helpful tools of a boat and a net. Until today, neither of us has ever held the rod in this situation, and now suddenly it’s Jeff standing midriver, rod bent to the cork, while I am netless on the bank.

I climb the dike again and pull the camera from my sling bag, only to realize that I have left my polarizing filter in camp. To further complicate any attempt at photography, the breeze freshens, rippling the pool’s previously calm surface. Whatever, I can still see the fly line, along with something whitish along the taimen’s upper jaw. The trailing fly, I think.

Jeff exerts pressure on the fish, but this one doesn’t seem to register the least irritation. He simply keeps swimming, progressing slowly upstream, like a barge with gill plates. Meanwhile, Jeff has been hustling toward dry land. Before he can reach the bank, however, the fish decides to show us the definition of the phrase into the backing. Moving against both the current and Jeff ’s not-inconsiderable application of drag, he-who-will-soon-benamed-Scarface somehow manages to outsprint me. True, I’m trying to keep him in the viewfinder as my legs churn along uneven ground, but still— it’s an astounding display of strength.