Patagonian Paradise – FlyFisher Magazine
By Myers Reece,
Flyfisher Magazine of the Federation of Fly Fishers
Published Winter Issue 2007
Much like other addiction, fly fishing is hard to understand. How strange it is to see a normally stable grown man reduced to a mumbling lunatic, loudly threatening inanimate objects like trees and even invisible forces like wind, repeatedly tying on new flies because he believes he thinks like a fish and knows what they desire. He giggles crazily to himself when he hooks into a fish and when it is in his hand he talks to it, holds it like a newborn kitten and even kisses its slimy head. He returns home at the end of the day having caught one fish, with nothing to show, no food to put on the table, and all the sensible people silently question his mental health as he tells them that they missed out on a fabulous day.
This is the mystery of fly fishing, a peculiar pastime with an undefined reward system. In November I spent a little more than a week fishing in Patagonia, Argentina, a place that toys with the angler’s faith in this system but consistently provides sweet rewards. Though Patagonia offers some of the best fly fishing in the world, its weather can be wily and frustrating, particularly in November, which is the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent to our May. One day is sunny and calm, while the next is torturously windy with blinding snowfall. At the end of a Patagonia day, though, you lie in bed with visions of 24-inch rainbows and the wind can’t touch you.
I was born and raised in Livingston, Montana and have spent the past four years in Missoula. I believe in fly fishing. It runs through me and causes me to fidget every time I get near water. But not even my years of fishing in Montana could have prepared me for Patagonia, the best fishing experience of my life. There the fish are bigger, the mountains taller and the streams more awe-inspiring. Patagonia’s rivers are how I envision Montana’s were over a half-century ago. For the most part, they are wild and un-dammed, containing equally wild trout. With much less fishing pressure, the trout are generally less skittish and bigger. They fight hard and leap high.
Patagonia is a vast and diverse land. It has monumental glaciers in the south, the towering Andes Mountains with the world’s tallest mountain peak outside of the Himalayas in the west, the sprawling Atlantic coastline in the east and the endless semi-arid plains called the “pampas” in the middle. You can go downhill skiing, visit a vineyard, touch a penguin and call it a day. But for fishermen, Patagonia gains relevance where the pampas meets the Andes around the border of Argentina and Chile.
The capacity for tremendous trout populations has existed in Patagonia since ice sheets and glaciers carved out the mountains and formed the lakes and rivers we see today. What was lacking were the trout. Trout were first successfully introduced to Argentina between 1904 and 1910 from the United States via England. England was the middleman because of an established trade system with Argentina for its beef, a system that included the necessary refrigerated compartments on their steamships. Various Argentine biologists and surveyors had years ago determined that Patagonia’s vaters were prime for good sporting fish like trout, but it wasn’t until a U.S. fisheries biologist, John W. Titcomb, took action that anything happened. Eight major shipments of salmonid eggs came in those six years. The hatched fish thrived and grew large in Patagonia’s nutrient-rich glacial waters. Among these nutrients is the pancora, a crablike crustacean that serves as a fish steroid. Today, Patagonia’s waters are full of landlocked salmon, brookies, browns and rainbows. The few native fish such as the perch exist only in small numbers today.
My father met me in Buenos Aires where I had been studying for a semester and most recently losing an epic bout with the flu. We flew to the western side of Argentina and arrived in Esquel on November 12, grinning giddily like gringos do. The town of Esquel is the heart of Patagonia’s central fishing zone. There are three major fishing regions in Patagonia: the north, central and south. Around Esquel I got a taste of the central zone and got an even smaller taste of the northern later on. The southern part is made up mostly of Tierra del Fuego, the closest one can get to Antarctica on land. It remains unexplored for me though I know it holds huge sea-run brown trout.
Esquel is almost the same distance south of the equator as Bozeman, Montana is north and the tow places share many similarities. Beyond the similarities obvious to the eye, like the coniferous vegietation and mountains, geologists and archaeologists coul give long lists of less obvious similarities. A notable difference is the lack of large wildlife, with only small numbers of deer and pumas and nothing else.
At our lodge, we met up with Rance Rathie and Travis Smith, tow Montana boys in their early thirties who moved down to Patagonia and started the outfitting service we used, Patagonia River Guides. The four of us ate dinner together that night and every other night at our lodge. The next day our guide, Esteban, picked us up at eight and our Patagonia fishing experience had begun. Like all the other guides except Smith and Rathie, Esteban was an Argentine native who spoke fluent English. As we entered Alerces National Park, named after the redwood-like alerce tree, Esteban explained that he had bene born in the park and fished it his whole life. Also, he had been guiding there since he was 15.
We started down the Rio Rivadavia in a raft set up like a drift boat. The Rivadavia is a gorgeous and excellent trout river that runs less than five miles long, connecting two glacial lakes. Its water is pristine, with hues of dark blue and turquoise and green, crystal clear even with November’s high water. My first fish, which we could see by a log, hit a #6 Fat Albert. She fought like the quintessential rainbow, with hearty runs and spectacular leaps. Though sight fishing like that is the norm in Patagonia during the summer, in January and February, it is rare and difficult in the spring because of high water conditions.
That fish proved to be a fluke, as it was one of only a few caught by sight fishing the whole trip and the only on a dry fly. In November, streamers are the order of the day, except for occasions when you see fish hanging out near the surface.
I held up my first Patagonia trout and estimated it at 17 inches. Esteban was less precise, “Nice little fish.” Size is a matter of perspective and Esteban had the Patagonian perspective. Later Esteban apologized that our fish averaged a mere 16 to 18 inches, including several 13 – 15 inch minnows. The usual average on that river, he said, was 18 – 20. We forgave him.
For the rest of the first day, we caught trout on streamers from both the deep middle parts of the river and from right up against the bank. We saw only one other boat. All the trout, a mixture of predominantly rainbows with some browns, were between 14 to 20 inches, except my dad’s smaller brookie and my 23-inch brown. Each fish gave a worthy, if not spectacular fight on the 6-weight Echo rods provided by the outfitters.
Esteban set up a table on shore for lunch and we dined on salami, cheese, wine and terrific prosciutto sandwiches, though I ate little because of my flu. Everyday we had a bottle of Argentina’s famous wine to go along with the fine fare. Lunch was peaceful though maybe too boring for my father, who decided to wade out to heavy-flowing chest-deep water, determined to gain at least 8 inches on his cast. Meanwhile, Esteban calmly prepared the boat for a rescue mission, which turned out to be unnecessary. After lunch the fishing slowed a bit, but we finished the day with about 20 fish between the two of us.
We awoke the next day to whipping winds and some terrible combination of rain and snow tha, when in contact with the face, resembled needles more than a weather pattern. I gazed despairingly out the window after realizing that I had forgotten my long underwear while my dad wondered aloud if he might get too hot because his long underwear was so warm. I swallowed my antibiotic for breakfast. My dad ate a fine breakfast of eggs, ham, fresh orange juice and other things that look good to those who aren’t nauseous.
Crushing my secret hopes, Esteban showed up, early and eager as if we were going to beach. Forty-five minutes later I stood at the edge of a privately-owned lake that Patagonia River Guides has a lease to fish, watching the wind stir up two-foot waves on the lake’s surface while Esteban explained that the lake was famous for excellent sight fishing and massive rainbows. I peered through my wind tears into the torrential waters and thought Esteban had a sick sense of humor.
I spent most of that morning trying not to vomit and dozing in the truck. My dad stayed knee-to waist-deep in water, furiously casting streamers in nearly hurricane wind. He hooked into what Esteban later said was a five or six-pound rainbow but the beast immediately leapt out of the water ans snapped the line. He caught one other fish, his only of the day, and came back to shore for lunch with a nasty deep cut on the groove of his middle finger on his right hand from stripping in the cold. He showed me his finger and said, “Hell, it’s pretty cold out there.”
The wind remained brutal for the rest of the day, though the snow slowed to sporadic. I have this problem that compels me to wade waist-deep into freezing water in winter conditions with a flu. What one man calls passion another calls stupidity. I waded about 30 feet from shore and casted back toward land for about an hour in different spots. As the ever-growing waves pounded against my back and I caught no fish, I began singing a favorite song of my childhood, an old folk tune called, “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.” I reminded myself of its message. The sunny side of life showed itself when I hooked into my only rainbow of the day, a hard-fighting 17-incher in calf-deep water.
When we returned to the lodge, everybody asked us where we had been, figuring we had decided to bar up because of the weather. They eyed us suspiciously despite our efforts to convince them that we really had been fishing. We offered my dad’s bandaged hand as evidence, though to them this was further proof of barroom debauchery. In time, after judging our sobriety, they relented and asked us how it went. We said great, of course.
The next day we went to Lake Futalaufquen, the largest lake in the park. The wind had mellowed from absurd to merely frustrating, though the air was colder and the sky darker. We launched a motorboat from Esteban’s childhood home, now also a general store run by his parents. That day the snow fell thick in fat flakes. Everything was wet and I questioned my chosen hobby. As is the way with fishing, the minute that you begin to wonder if it’s worth it, a fish saves you. At the mouth of the Rio Frey I hooked into a fish on a woolybugger in the 5-foot strip of turquoise water that followed the shoreline. After a long fight I pulled in a 24-inch crimson rainbow, my largest of the trip. A 23-incher followed on the next cast. On our way back a condor flew overhead and, surrounded by the Andes and stillbreathless from the fish, it was almost overwhelming.
The final Two days with Patagonia River Guides brought good weather once again. On Thursday we floated the Rio Grande, the largest river in the region. The fish averaged smaller than the other days, though the good weather made up the difference. On our final day in the Esquel region, we went back to the Rivadavia and this time fished a beautiful spring creek that ran into the main river. We caught three large rainbows out of the spring creek even though it was flooded.
My father and I, with bandaged fingers and callouses and sore forearms, vowed to kick our habit for a while. After all, some people relax on vacation. In the trout paradise of Patagonia, the addiction dies hard. Every stream looks good and holds fish. Each lake affords the angler a very feasible chance at a torut over 25 inches. With the equipment lent to us by Rathid and Smith, we had several more good days of fishing farther up north, though we did spend more time enjoying the free time and less fishing. One day my father caught a 25-inch brown and I got a fat 23-inch rainbow out of a lake not known for fishing. Fish like that make quitting hard.
We all fish for different reasons. We decide our own rewards. Maybe it’s the fish, or the sound of eternal water or the condor that doesn’t even care we’re there. Patagonia has all the reasons and less fishermen to disrupt the moment. It doesn’t ever get enough fishermen to resemble the bumper boat fiasco we see on the more famous trout rivers of the United States. It is not untouched, but it is pristine. Hire a guide or just take along Bill Leitch’s Argentine Trout Fishing, the only book about Patagonia fly fishing. Expect to occasionally be that mumbling lunatic, yelling at invisible things and cursing the weatherman for lies. But Patagonia is a trout paradise and the rewards are endless.