As a pediatric cardiologist at Akron Children’s, Grace Smith, MD, FACC, surrounds herself with the latest technology and advances in congenital heart treatments to care for her patients. When she’s away from her intensely satisfying work, Dr. Smith immerses herself in the simplicity of nature by fly-fishing where she finds peace and, on a recent trip to Mongolia, a deeper meaning to her hobby.
“After finishing my training and education, I wanted to find a hobby that kept me active outdoors,” said Dr. Smith. “I started fly-fishing in the mid 90s and, in the process, became friends with the editor/publisher of Fly Fisherman, Ross Purnell…The magazine organizes a big exploratory trip each year – Russia, Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, the Amazon in Brazil and other international locations – which I always look forward to going on.”
Dr. Smith’s fly-fishing trip to Mongolia wasn’t just for enjoyment, though, it was also to help educate and protect the largest trout-like species on the planet, Hucho taimen.
Fly-fishing is different than spin-cast fishing which uses a rod and spinning reel. It still requires lots of patience, but it uses ‘life-like,’ not live or plastic, lures made of fur and feathers. The fly and line technique of fly-fishing then mimics natural life that’s seen along rivers such as aquatic insects and small baitfish that would attract a larger fish.
“Most of my flies are smaller than a house fly but, for the Mongolia trip, the trout were much bigger than anything I’ve ever fished so the flies were much bigger – the size of a field mouse or small squirrel,” said Dr. Smith. “In North America we have about 2,000-3,000 trout per mile of river, for taimen there’s only about one fish every 1-2 miles … They’re mature fish and very unique to this region. The taimen is widely considered the largest salmonid in the world.”
In late August 2016, Dr. Smith was part of an exploratory fly-fishing team from Fly Fisherman magazine that set off to Mongolia’s northern Delgar River, near the country’s border with Siberia. To help with the conservation effort of protecting the taimen species, Dr. Smith had an idea to host a pediatric clinic during a one-day local Taimen Festival.
“The goal of the festival was to bring the locals to the area so we could care for the kids while also educating them about the valuable resources of their region,” said Dr. Smith. “I just brought a stethoscope, a few over the counter medicines and sugar-free candy with me…The kids weren’t chronically ill. They’d never seen an American physician before so they were very curious and excited to see us.”
With support from other organizations, including Patagonia World Trout Initiative, BioRegions and outfitter Fish Mongolia, Dr. Smith and a pediatric dental colleague saw about 150 school-aged children over a 5-hour time span where they performed wellness check-ups.
The festival also offered fun games for kids and families including taimen biology trivia, fly-tying demonstrations, rafting, tenkara casting and fishing lessons along the river.
“The best way to help people understand how important a resource is to the area is to get them involved,” said Dr. Smith. “Although it’s illegal to catch and keep a taimen, one large fish could feed a small group of locals. Our effort was to show them how promoting catch and release through fly-fishing ecotourism, they could greatly improve their economy and community.”
While one day of Dr. Smith’s 9-day journey was spent caring for kids at the festival, the rest of her time was spent fly-fishing and getting to know the nomadic Mongolians. For Dr. Smith, just getting a fish to take the fly is satisfying enough, but she was pretty excited when her friend Ross reeled in a huge taimen the last day.
“It was all hands on deck,” said Dr. Smith. “It turned out to be a behemoth taimen, 55 inches long and probably more than 70 pounds. It was estimated to be over 50 years old. Luckily, cameraman Bill Owens from Sportsman’s Channel was on hand to film the entire epic battle. Fin and tail samples were carefully collected and sent to a lab in the U.S. for research before releasing the giant back to the waters. That’s the best part, I think, watching the fish swim away.”
While the groups’ conservation efforts were well received by the local Mongolian people, Dr. Smith feels the experience helped her, too.
“The main thing I took away from my trip is that conservation benefits not only the targeted species, but also the people who live around the animal. It’s a win-win situation,” said Dr. Smith. “It was a privilege to spend that period of time getting to know the Mongolian people and experience their way of life. They helped me appreciate their special connection with nature and how it can replenish your soul.”
Dr. Smith’s Mongolian fly-fishing trip appeared on the cover of Fly Fisherman magazine’s February-March 2017 issue, and it was also featured in the Patagonia blog The Cleanest Line in January 2017. Now, a documentary film, One-Path: The Race to Save Mongolia’s Giant Salmonids produced by Fly Fisherman magazine will air on Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel and World Fishing Network a total of 33 times through January 2019. Specifically, find it on the Outdoor Channel Nov. 19, 8 p.m. or Dec. 15, 5 p.m. on The Sportsman Channel. The one-hour film will reach 45 million households.
See WKYC’s interview with Dr. Smith that aired on Nov. 4, 2018