A Southern Angler in Patagonia

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Kevin Howell

As the voice over the intercom said, “en preparacion para el aterrizaje” (in preparation for landing) I started to get that feeling in my stomach.

Was this trip going to be worth the travel and the money, what was the weather going to be like, what if I had a bad guide?  After all, the guide said he would meet me at the airport and I had no idea of what he looked like. What if he was like the crazy Panamanian I was stuck with for a week a few years back? What if my Spanish was not good enough to communicate (well I knew that would be a problem)?  But the biggest growing question in my stomach was what would the water be like, was it too large for this southern fly angler, would it be muddy, would it be clean and pure, would there be a hatch, if so what kind of strange insects would there be?

As I exited the plane I was whisked into a large room with all the other passengers where all of our bags including our backpacks had to be scanned (Security after getting off the plane? Man, they are tough here, I thought). Turned out it was a checkpoint for entering Patagonia– a region that is so unique and ecologically diverse that you are scanned on entry to ensure that you are not carrying any unprocessed fruits, vegetables, flowers, meats, etc. that could possibly take root in Patagonia.  After clearing what seemed to be checkpoint Charlie, I found my guide holding a sign waiting for me.  He promptly grabbed my baggage, carefully placed in the truck, handed me a cold water and stated in perfect English that it was only 2 pm and we could be on the water in 30 minutes and there should be a great evening hatch of tan caddis.  Whew, what a relief!!

Sure enough, within 30 minutes I was standing beside the Rio Chimehuin–a stream about the size of the Watauga River–stringing a 5 weight Sage in preparation for the afternoon’s fishing.  

As Gustavo slid the raft into the river, I rigged a size 12 Elk Hair Caddis per his instructions with a prince nymph dropper.  I landed nearly 30 trout that afternoon, switching periodically between the Caddis and a size 8 Hooper.  As we left the river, I was thinking, man what else could you ask for? I was the only angler on the river, the fishing was awesome, the guide was fabulous and floating the Chimehuin was just like the rivers at home. Except that the Rhododendron had been replaced by willows beyond which lie nothing but rock and volcanic ash and scattered sage bushes.

Upon arriving at the lodge I was treated to a feast that could have easily feed a family.

I could only imagine what tomorrow would bring as Gustavo had told me we were going to wade fish the Rio Malleo upstream from the Yellow Bridge and the fishing would be better than it was today.  He told me that Coye would be by in the morning to see that I was awake and had breakfast and he would pick me up at 8 to head to the river.  I awoke the next morning at 6:30 to the smell of fresh coffee and bacon cooking.

Almost like clockwork, Gustavo arrived, loaded all of my gear in the truck while I was finishing breakfast before I even had a chance to try and help.  Arriving at the Malleo, I was blown away by the similarities of the river to the Davidson– plunge pools, small boulders and rising trout.  As we worked our way up the stream, I felt as if I was on my home water. The only difference was that the scenery surrounding the river was like nothing I had ever encountered before in my life.

Just as the trout at home lie under the rhododendron, every overhanging willow had a nice brown trout lying under it that would readily eat a hopper.

They acted as if I was the first person that had ever cast a fly to them.  What an unspoiled place, I thought, as we kept working up river.  Another fine dinner and some fabulous Argentinean wine made a perfect end to the day.  As he left for the evening, Gustavo gave me dry bag and instructed me to pack what I needed for two nights and three days on the water.

Gustavo arrived the next morning and again had my things loaded before I even knew he was there.  We departed for three days on the Collon Cura; we arrived at the river to a staff of people feverously working to load a camp boat, and my gear was quickly added.  By the time I had my rod rigged and waders and boots on, the camp boat was pushing off with Gustavo and me following right behind it.  The river was slightly bigger and the South Holston under generation.  We floated in and out of different braids and past large bluffs of compacted volcanic ash.  Every riffle seemed to hold countless rainbows in the 16 inch range and every piece of structure seemed to hold a brown trout, most that seemed to be in the 17-18 inch range.  As dark fell on the river I could get the faint smell of a willow fire off in the distance, and we had switched from dry flies to streamers.  Gustavo had said this was the best stretch of water on the river for trophy trout and we would fish our way to camp in the dark.

About three casts later my line came tight to a true monster.

As the fish peeled backing off my reel, Gustavo chased the fish as he ran up river, all to no avail; he beat us to the willows before I could get him turned back toward the boat.  After a quick retie by head lamp, we started drifting toward camp again with me casting a streamer into the dark star-filled night.  As we rounded a bend I could make out the faint light of the campfire in the distance. I found myself once again startled by a sharp tug on my line as I was staring at the Southern Cross.  Once again the fish took off for the willows and Gustavo laid chase as I tightened my drag.  A few minutes later, I slid a beautiful 26 inch rainbow into the net. Once we arrived at camp I was greeted by the camp staff with hors d’oeuvres and cold beverages in hand. They directed me to a nearby tent where all of my gear was stationed.  What was supposed to be camping was looking and feeling more like an evening at the Omni with dinner at an upscale restaurant.  Dinner was an entire lamb that was being smoked on a cross next to the campfire, again accompanied by some of the best wine in the world.

By week’s end I had literally boated hundreds of fish, with fish that ranged in size from 13 inches to one really feisty 26 inch rainbow and several browns in the same 25-26” size range.

In addition to the great fishing, I felt as if I was back in the South, I had gained a new family, made countless friends, not to mention gaining 4 pounds from all of the great food.  What had started with a nervous/worrisome feeling in my stomach had been replaced with a feeling of melancholy as I boarded the plane to head home.  I vowed that I would return to Argentina and my new found southern friends again.  That was almost eleven years ago now and I have returned every year since then–sometimes as often as three times in a season. It is still as spectacular and grandiose as the first time I stepped off the plane.

Not a fan of winter? Join us for the G&G Patagonia Trout trip and fish where its summer!

Kevin Howell
Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “A Southern Angler in Patagonia

  1. I know I may be the only person reading the post that has actually fished the Watauga River like fishing the South Holston as well in the semi Great state of Tennessee. (Alabamian Here, War Eagle!!) Enjoyed reading the post, I hope to get down to Patagonia someday.

  2. Man! Great article. I’m starting my third year now of this great passion we share and have not been out of the states yet. But, this is the kind of trip I’m dreaming of when it does happen. For now, I’m grateful for living here on the Front Range, just 45 minutes away from great South Platte fishing. Love this blog and keep up the good words!

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