By Peter Kaminsky
Pursuing large rainbows and browns
through the wilds of Chile and Argentina
Chile and Argentina are as alike — and as different — as two brothers. Chilean Patagonia, in the remote south, is among Earth’s greenest places. Rainforests cloak its mountains. Swift-flowing rivers and picturesque waterfalls course through every vista. Just over the Andes, the rivers of Argentine Patagonia tumble down rocky, less densely forested mountainsides and flow east, across the pampas where sheep and cattle graze the semiarid prairies. Within the last century and a quarter, trout have been introduced to the rivers and lakes of both countries. The newcomers have flourished so well that nowhere will you find more of my favorite gamefish in more varied waters. Late last winter — which makes it the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere — I visited both countries, a study in contrasts of landscapes, weather and food, but united by those of us who revere trout in wild places.
Chile: The Patagonian BaseCamp Lodge
On the way back from catching the best brown trout of my life, we passed a portly gaucho on horseback. He greeted us with a wave and a beaming smile before returning to wrangling the sheep, cows, pigs and chickens that wandered around his corral. He wore a beret, a neck bandanna and sheepskin chaps that showed off the impressive expanse of his midsection. If I’d given him a foaming beer stein, he’d have passed for one of the 16th-century revelers in a tavern scene by Frans Hals.
Things are all right in my world, he seemed to say with a friendly wave.
Things were all right in my world, too. A few hours earlier I had caught (and released) two browns: One was 24 inches, the other 21. It wasn’t the first time I had taken trout of that length, but none were as muscular, as broad-shouldered or as big around as these fish on the Rio Palena. Because they were so robust and well proportioned, you would be forgiven if you thought they were a separate species, maybe LeBron trout.
For six days we were headquartered at The Patagonian BaseCamp Lodge, the life’s work of Dutch-born Marcel Sijnesael, a man who built — and sold — a business in Holland before taking off around the world, fly rod in hand, in pursuit of trout. From Kathmandu to Mongolia, across Europe and down through Central America, he had only one vision: trout on a fly (and, yes, there are, to my surprise, trout in Costa Rica and Nicaragua). When his wanderings took him to the Palena, a spirit that inhabits bright, flowing waters spoke to him: This is where you belong.
The main stem of the Rio Palena is not, by any measure, a classic trout stream. It bears no similarity to the Tanqueray clarity of a spring creek. Instead it flows milky green from glacial melt. There are few mayflies to speak of. The food chain is more a case of big-fish-eat-little-fish, occasionally seasoned with the odd stonefly, dragonfly or wayward beetle.
Before we hit the Palena, we fished Lago Rosselot, which feeds into a tributary of the Palena. “Lake fishing?” said my angling partner, Stephen Milliken, with a wince. His comment was tantamount to a heart-wrenching cry from the soul of a man whose bottomless well of good humor could carry him through an epidemic of bubonic plague.
Politely, if less than honestly, I said, “Sure, love it!” Although, like Steve, I have never cared much for trout fishing in lakes. Even if you see them feed, you never know where the goddamn fish are going to show next.
Happily, Rosselot proved us wrong. Our guide, Dave Neal, worked his way within casting distance of a scum line where the Figueroa River (another Palena tributary) flows into the lake. Although the cluttered look of a scum line — most often found in back eddies — looks like nature’s recycle bin, it can often make for good fishing. The food that collects there is mostly helpless terrestrials, still-born nymphs and spinners. All a fish has to do to chow down is open its mouth and sip. There’s no particular rush needed to intercept a nymph as it shucks its case or a dun as it dries its wings. Food in this situation is, in a manner of speaking, sitting on the shelf, easy pickings for a browsing trout.
Like the lower Palena, Lago Rosselot’s waters are glacial green with a tinge of blue. “Don’t worry, you’ll see the fish,” Dave said as he rowed, barely disturbing the water. “I don’t know any other way to explain it other than the trout seem to glow.”
I was skeptical, but sure enough, we could make out the halo of a trout-shaped shadow that appeared in the cloudy water and cruised, ever so leisurely, under Steve’s fly, a black and tan Fat Albert. You could see the action as clearly as a Missouri River fish feeding on Pale Morning Duns. A beautifully visual take and a well-played fight yielded an 18-inch rainbow, silver-sided (hence the glow) with a lipstick smear of pink running along its lateral line.
We spent the rest of the day on a circuit of the lake. Mountains vaulting up as steeply as skyscrapers, their flanks covered in every shade of green, a true alpine rainforest. And everywhere, flowing water born of white-plumed waterfalls tumbling straight down for hundreds of feet. In the outwash of every cascade was a patch of scum, each patch revealing a trout or two. They took up positions brazenly — more fearlessly than any trout I’ve ever seen (apart from the giant and slow-witted brook trout of Labrador). They have no fear of death from above because there are no birds of prey that might swoop down on them, no bears to scoop them out of riffles. Seeing the ghostly trout silhouettes peacefully feeding meant we were constantly engaged in sight fishing. By day’s end we caught 10 fish and cast to 30 more, and we had changed our tune about “boring” lake fishing.
Back at the lodge we joined in the “How’d you do?” conversation that takes place at every fish camp at cocktail hour. “Best brown trout fishing I’ve ever had,” said John Marmaduke, who produced a cellphone picture of a 25-inch brown he’d caught on the Rio Palena. Even correcting for the timeworn strategy of holding the fish close to the lens to make it appear bigger, this trout was a bruiser.
“What did he take?” Steve asked.
“A streamer. That’s all we fished all day. I don’t think I’ve ever cast so much.”
In much the same way that I’d snobbishly turned up my nose at lake fishing, only to be proven wrong, I have long regarded streamer fishing — at least for trout — as a half step up from bait fishing. Within an hour of hitting the Palena the next morning, I was once again disabused of an angling prejudice. Steve landed 24- and 22-inch fish. One minute we were staring into cloudy water, and the next we could see the big trout closing on the fly from three feet away, crushing it like an interior lineman pouncing on an undefended quarterback. The trick to getting a fish on and keeping it on in this situation is to continue stripping even when you see its mouth close on the fly. When you feel the line come taut, then — and only then — should you raise your rod and give the trout an extra jab.
“It’s a numbers game,” guide Greg Bricker explained. “The fish are there. You can’t see them until they commit, but they are there. Your job is to maximize the number of casts and to make sure that the line lands without any slack and immediately lower the rod tip to the water. A big, aggressive first strip is key. That sudden movement right under their nose is what triggers the pursuit and the strike. If your cast is sloppy and you are not lined up to begin stripping, it doesn’t matter how accurately you cast. The trout will ignore it.”
John had already warned us that Greg’s guiding had earned him the nickname “The Drill Sergeant,” but I didn’t mind his gruff style one bit. He was totally dialed in to the river and the fish. If that’s what was required to get into the game, I was fine with it. I worked on my cast and retrieve, and Greg kept correcting me. Some anglers might take offense at the constant advice, but the image of Steve’s two fish was sufficient motivation to listen to the master.
Whenever we came to a back eddy, we picked up our dry fly rods, rigged with a hopper dropper setup, and boated a half-dozen rainbows between 16 and 21 inches, the river-borne cousins of the previous day’s lake fish. They fed the same way in similar conditions. (An eddy in a river is like the soft current in a lake.)
That evening, Steve made full use of his bragging rights as our increasingly grizzled-looking group downed a few bottles (who’s counting?) of wine — first a fine Chilean chardonnay, then some cabernets. Dinner began with the most delicious baby eels; they looked like crispy linguine with eyes. Also stone crabs, lots of them, followed by a filet mignon from a cow raised on the farm that comprised the front yard of the BaseCamp. Chileans love meat almost as much as Argentineans do, but they also have the advantage of coastal waters teeming with seafood in great variety.
Cigars in hand, we adjourned to the deck outside the living room. The stars shone twice as bright as any I had ever seen, the moon twice as silvery. Reflecting on the day, I would have been more than satisfied with the rainbows I’d caught, but I wanted a big brown — so much that I made sure I got another helping of Greg’s tough love the next day.
“He’ll wear you out,” John said.
“If that’s the price of a fish like yours, I’m cool with that,” I replied.
Fourteen hours (and a few thousand casts) later, my line came taut at the juncture of two pools. At first I figured it was another rainbow chasing a streamer, nice-sized but no trophy. Then he sounded and shook his head pugnaciously, a telltale sign of Salmo trutta. After running here and there and trying to escape under a boulder, he relented, and I caught my first sight of him. Big fish! When he finally came to net, he measured 24 inches of rippling muscle with the fine kipe of a mature male.
My day was made with that trout, but within the hour, things got even better as another brown — a tad smaller but still big, strong and impressive — gobbled my Home Invader (taking it for a small brown trout imitation). It’s funny how fishing fortune works. Yesterday, Steve took his two good fish in a few hours. Today angling luck broke my way.
Those two fish, on any other fishing trip, would have been the cherry on the sundae, but The Patagonian BaseCamp Lodge held one more unforgettable moment, and it wasn’t only about the fish. The day after my brown trout afternoon, we fished out of a satellite camp high up on the Figueroa, almost to the Argentine border. You need to negotiate two Class 4 rapids — the kind of water in which you wear a helmet and there are grim warnings about drowning in the guide’s warmup talk.
As promised, running the whitewater was pulse-pounding. The fishing was OK — nothing to write home about — with a half-dozen spooky rainbows on dry flies in calm eddies. But the real treat was the view. I share this thought as someone who has long passed the stage where you tell yourself, It doesn’t matter if the fishing wasn’t on fire; the scenery was so beautiful. That was before I saw the place they call “The Temple.” We glided into it after pinballing through the rapids. The breathtaking tableau that lay before us was a lush canyon with walls of golden basalt that tower over a jade-green pool, the whole scene glimmering in the clear mountain sunlight.
Temple, I thought. I guess you could call it that: damn near religious.
Click through the photo gallery below to see more of the fishing paradise that is Chile: