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People are often trying to find ways to spice up sports.  When wrestling got too boring they added Hulk Hogan; baseball added Babe Ruth.  Genghis Khan decided to make polo more interesting by using severed human heads in place of a wooden ball.  And apparently to some, it is time to tack some excitement and danger unto freshwater recreation as well.  On a recent trip to Sun Moon Lake, I think I may have found the answer.

Sun Moon Lake is nice place to relax, cycle around, or take in a boat ride, but swimming is prohibited.  When I asked a friend why this was the case I received a mind stirring answer.

“Eat-people Fish.” She said.

I thought it was a joke or some sort of misunderstanding.

“You mean the People eat the fish?” I asked.

“No, no, Fish eat people.” She said, with a look of conformation, as she made a gesture of having her finger bitten off.

Right away, my imagination set off thinking of some ancient Piranha-lizard type beast that had stuck around after the ice-age, feasting on a steady supply of villagers and fisherman.  But that couldn’t be it; I think I would have heard about that.

It had to be some old folktale, like the Loch Ness Monster, the Jersey Devil, or the 21 lbs. Largemouth Bass that my dad swears to have caught five times.

“I fought that thing for an hour, and got it right at my net, when the line snipped! You should have seen it.”

But that wasn’t it either.  I could see in her face that she was telling the truth; she just couldn’t explain it to me, so I dropped the subject until I got home and could do some research.  Sure enough, she wasn’t totally kidding—she was referring to the infamous Snake-head that has made itself known to the West in recent decades.

The Snake-head fish, as it is commonly known (there are over 30 species), is a true freak of nature.  It has an elongated body like a fish, a mouth full of teeth, and head like a water demon.

A fresh water fish with fangs is scary enough, but on top of that, this crazy bugger can breathe oxygen, and even WALK on land (it is really more of a flop n’ scoot maneuver, but why spoil the drama)—IT CAN WALK ON LAND!  What in the world?

In some places, like Burma and Vietnam, this oddity is eaten as a delicacy, but in most other places it is considered an invasive species. With no natural predator to stop it, the snake-head can wreak havoc on an ecosystem.  Most grow between two and three feet long, can weigh up to six kilograms, and feed on other fish, or frogs.

Now, my friend may have been slightly joking when she said Eat-people Fish. They don’t swarm people, take them under, and leave nothing but bones; they are, however, known to be extremely aggressive, especially when protecting their young.

And they have a lot of young.

A female can release well over 10,000 eggs at a time, and can do this up to five times a year.  And if that isn’t enough–people, actual real-life people (insane obviously), have been introducing this quirky creature into new places and new environments for centuries, and the Snake-head eats it up, literally.

Now, for all those people who think that fishing is a bore—the Snake-head has even made its way to North America.  Incidents and sighting have been reported in over a dozen states.

It has been the subject of an episode of River Monsters, made cameos on several TV shows, and was referred to as “Fishzilla” by National Geographic; and if left unchecked, could turn bass fishing into a blood sport, and noodling (catfishing with bare hands) into a battle to the death.

Freshwater fishing has found its Mike Tyson, and if you get one on the rope—don’t let it go.  This is one of the few exceptions to the practice of “catch and release.”  Keep it, eat it, do something with it, but don’t release it. Good Journeys and Happy Fishing!

My sole motivation for heading to Mongolia to fish came from the descriptions I got from a guy in Beijing.  Greg was a giant from Nebraska, and living in China.  He had just come back from a trip to Mongolia and was eager to share his experiences.  Just the way he said Mongolia, with a loud booming voice, sold me on the idea.  “MAN-GOO-LIAA!”

It was the greatest outdoor destination in the world according to Greg; for more reasons than just fishing, but that was especially good.  “Mongolians don’t eat fish.  So the rivers and lakes are flowing over with whoppers! They’ll bite anything. Heck, they’ll jump right in your boat!”  Now, I’ve heard some fish-tales before, but this was Mongolia–“MAN-GOO-LIA!”  Come on, it had to be true.  I left Beijing right away, and headed for Lake Khovsgol, one of the biggest lakes in Asia.

Getting to Mongolia and to a prime fishing spot took some time and effort.  The train from Beijing to Ulan Bator took 16 hours.  The bus from UB to Hatgol, the town closest to Lake, took…well, who knows, I blacked-out after 18 hours.  I had met a follow backpacker on the bus who was also interested in fishing.  “I’ve never been fishing before.  Do you have any experience?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.  I am from Georgia.  that’s just about all there is to do!”

We spent a small fortune on two fishing poles, reels, lures, a net, garlic, and lemons (and bread, peanuts, and cookies to snack on inbetween meals of fish).  We were going to slay them.  After a short hitch-hike in the back of a truck, we had reached our destination.

Lake Khovsgol is billed as one of the most beautiful sights in Mongolia, and it truly is.   Located in northern Mongolia, near Russia, it is surrounded by mountains and alpine forests.  The water is crystal clear and clean enough to drink.  Hiking along, it’s common to see wild flowers, horses, deer, reindeer, a variety of birds, among other flora and fauna.  Gers, traditional Mongolian homes, are scattered spaciously along the shore line.  It’s wonderful.  Oh, and the fish…

On the first day of our expedition, more hiking was done than fishing.  We had to get far enough up the trail to get away from the more established places of lodging.  So after the day was done, and we hadn’t caught anything we weren’t surprised.

We woke up the next day, full of energy.  The fish were just sitting there waiting for us.  We were sure of that much.  We fished and walked and fished and walked, all morning, not a bite.  A lunch break of peanuts, bread, and cookies and we kept walking.  The mother of all fishing holes couldn’t be too far along, we thought.  The next day went in much the same way.  We fished late into the evening, not such much as a nibble.

On the third day we decided to take a new approach.  We would rent a boat, paddle out, and find those stubborn fish, even if we had to paddle the whole lake.  But we had planned to catch more fish than we could handle, and packed food accordingly.  So, after two and half days of nothing but bread, peanuts, and cookies, irritation was beginning to take hold.

We paddled for several hours, threw out every lure we had, and still nothing.  “I thought you said you were an experienced fisherman?” my travel companion said.  I couldn’t get him to understand that being an experienced fisherman usually meant buying expensive equipment, showing it off, and just telling people you know how to fish.  I was starting to get annoyed at his inability to grasp these subtleties of the sport.

“Maybe we should try something different, maybe spear them.  Say, you’re American. Don’t you have a gun?  We could just shoot them.”

“I wish I did have a gun right now!  I’d latch you to this boat, blast a few holes in the thing, and let you talk deal with these stubborn fish face to face! Now, Be Quiet!  I’m trying to concentrate!”

There was a short silence right before a huge splash. “My god, he got one,” I briefly thought, but when I turned around it was my partner who had jumped in the water.  “I’m going to take a break,” he said, “and just go for a little swim.”  Day three–zero fish.

Day four–more peanuts and bread. The cookies were all gone; and more hiking and more fishing.  I was getting burnt out.  Four days and not a bite.  I called it quits early that day, but my partner was going to keep at it.  I set up camp, started a fire, and started reading.  I had gotten comfortable and into the book, when I heard the ole boy running up the trail.  “Hey Nate, I caught something! I caught something!”

“What’d you catch?” I yelled back.

He came running up, stripped down to his undies and shivering.

“Hypothermia!”

On day five we hiked for about half a day, but we were pretty well defeated as far as fishing goes.  “I hate cut this short,” I said, “but we’re getting close to Russia, and the guide book says they’ll fill you up with bullets if you stroll over the border.  Let’s turn back.”  Any excuse would have sufficed at that point.

Without stopping to fish we made good time back.  The next afternoon, as we came upon established lodges we had tried to avoid, we were stopped by another traveler–a Canadian on Horse.  “What have you guys been up to? he asked.

“Fishing…” we both admitted.

“Fishing!  Oh, there’s no fish to be had here!  You’ve got to go right over that mountain there or over to Lake Baikol.  Those places are boiling over with fish. Big ones!  You know the Mongolians don’t eat fish? They’ll bite anything, shoot they’ll jump right in your boat!”