Diego greets me at the small airport in Neuquén, Argentina. He looks at my overpacked suitcase — almost too heavy for me to lift — and my hefty carry-on. “I am your guide, Diego,” he says. “Wait here. I get the truck.” He looks unhappy. Right now, the other guides at the ranch are fishing the Limay River with their guests. Diego will have spent his morning driving two-plus hours to pick me up, his new client, a girl with too much luggage. Of course he’s unhappy.
We head southwest over high desert. It is New Year’s Day. I made a promise to myself long ago that I would always fly-fish on the first day of the year — not as a resolution, but because I thought this would somehow set my soul’s trajectory for the year. This year the road leads to the vast expanse of Patagonia. My view through the windshield is bleak and endless dry scrub brush, scrappy grass and a wind that never ceases. There is no sign of the Andes yet, but every once in a while the tip of a snow capped volcano peeks its pointed head up and over the fuzzy horizon, which is smeared from dust and wind. We pass an enormous dinosaur sculpture on a hillside towering over a small town, and Diego explains that in this city there are footprints and a museum. “It is the city of Chocón, and the footprints are muy hermoso, but everyone goes past.” We also go past. I take a fuzzy photo from the window, which looks like Godzilla descending upon a tiny village.
Villa El Chocón is the site of the Ernesto Bachmann Paleontological Museum and known for the Giganotosaurus, one of the largest terrestrial carnivores to have roamed Argentina — which makes perfect sense because everything in Patagonia is oversized and carnivorous. (At my first dinner, I would be served four different, very large pieces of meat and two types of handmade sausage.) When Ferdinand Magellan discovered this land in 1520, he used the word patagón to describe the natives of the region, whom he thought to be giants.
Ezequiel Ramos Mexía dam, located in Villa El Chocón is the beginning of the 332-square-mile Limay reservoir. “Lago muy grande,” Diego says. We drive, and drive, and drive. At the other end, our destination, the Limay River, reaches and twists out of the lake like raíces de árboles muy grandes, or the roots of a very large tree.
We arrive at the estancia through a non-descript gate and a wooden sign that says, oddly, “No Pescar.” Although the wind is building, the ranch manager, Laura, a beautiful Argentine with razor-sharp cheek bones supporting Ray-Ban aviators, informs me that today is “not so windy” and that I should take advantage of it to go fishing. I have learned a little Spanish for this trip, and the phrase that keeps popping into my head is, por qué no? — why not? Diego unloads my Patagonian-sized suitcase from the truck and replaces it with a cooler. I am off for my first day on the Río Limay.
We drive a hardscrabble dirt road rutted with potholes, arroyos and river rock. It looks too desiccated for anything to be living here. We stop the rig, open a gate, close it behind us, drive, stop to open and close another gate, drive, bumping along an unforgiving landscape stitched together with wire and sticks and endless gates. The driver and Diego chat, and little by little my eyes begin to adjust from that eternal terrain to details: a cow, a sheep, a hare, a fox, blooming plants. I focus on small, flowering bushes bursting with color, and just when things are beginning to seem normal, a herd of ostrich explodes from the brush to run alongside our rig; their skinny necks crane and twist toward the windows. “Not ostrich,” Diego says. “Here they are called rhea.” I’m immediately reminded of high school mythology — Rhea, the goddess of “that which flows.” It’s kind of nice to be escorted to the river by the mother of Zeus.
When we finally arrive at the Limay, the river shows itself as bright, clear and blue, swaddled in a line of deep green willow and cottonwood trees. It’s so blue it hurts my eyes. I ask Diego what Limay means. He pauses for a moment and says something I believe transaltes to “river of reflecting light.” There are no put-ins or take-outs; our guide drives the truck right up to the river’s edge on the gravel bed, unhooks the boat and shoves it into the water. Por qué no?
As Diego grabs the oars and makes our first push, he tells me to cast to my left. This is one massive river, and I don’t see a seam or a run, so to me this is a waste of time. Maybe he just wants to see if I can cast. I follow instructions and cast the streamer out lazily and easily, letting it sink a moment. Just as I begin my first strip, there’s a jerk that almost removes the rod from my grip. “Set!” he yells.
It’s at that moment I realize there are fish everywhere in the Limay. That first afternoon I catch thick, healthy rainbows on streamers with a sink tip and a 6-weight rod. I hook into a brown that makes my hands shake. It flashes a creamy belly, then races upstream with such speed and ferocity that the line slices into the crease of my index finger. I release the line to save my finger but lose the fish. I also learn that the rainbows in the Limay are the grayling of Alaska: beautiful and fun, but your guide is looking for something else.
Because your perfectly grilled meat-laden dinner and endless bottles of good Malbec don’t start until 10 p.m., nothing begins early the next morning. We leisurely leave for the river around 9 a.m. I’m told even the fish in Patagonia don’t rise until noon. After another drive with many gates to open and close, we reach a different twisting branch of the Limay to see white caps breaking. No fishing dry flies today. Diego rows against the downstream wind, and I mend my line so the streamer will sink. We catch fish all morning, then notice a couple of risers along a canyon wall that has a ridge breaching out into the river. Diego pulls the raft over, and I walk along the watery ledge casting a dry fly to the noses sticking up in the surf. I land two beefy Patagonian rainbows on a chubby foam beetle. Diego, good guide that he is, has scrambled up the side of the canyon to take photos from above — my weathered smile, squinting into the sun, holding up fat, feisty fish like an offering to the Andean gods.
It is typical of this ranch that lunch is presented riverside. Your guide finds a lee from the ever-present wind to unload from the raft a table, chairs, a tablecloth, flatware, plates, a beautifully prepared meal and, always, good Argentine wine. Diego must think I am one chica loca because I won’t let him stop to set up lunch. Instead, I force him to eat from the boat so I can keep fishing.
There is a tradition at this lodge called The Gold Label Club: Any guest who hooks and lands a trout larger than 26 inches is invited with their guide to a shot of Johnnie Walker Gold Label after the story of their fish is shared; then the guest’s name, date of the catch and the fly used is recorded in a register. I have no expectation of attaining club status. Every chunky rainbow, every hulking brown I hook, whether 12 or 20 inches, feels as strong as a seething winter steelhead, without the accompanying freezing cold, ice and snow I’d left behind in Michigan only days ago.
By the third day of brawling with a heavy articulated fly through the bullying wind, my right hand is almost unrecognizable. There is a large blister under my pinky finger, an open sore on my palm, a painful callous on the pad of my thumb from pushing down on the rod grip, and numerous cuts across the creases of my index and middle fingers from line burns of fleeing fish. As Diego prepares our boat for launch, I bite off strips of medical tape to wrap my wounds, but mostly end up chasing the pieces as they blow across the gravel. Bruce Chatwin, the British travel writer, wrote in his book, In Patagonia, that the wind could, “strip men to the raw.” I believe he meant that the Patagonian wind could strip a man of his skin, exposing his soul. Certainly I was losing skin.
Diego tells me to cast to the right bank toward a grouping of willows along the shoreline. I make the shot by reach-casting across my body so the heavy streamer never crosses over our heads in this wind. When the fly hits the water, Diego says to let it sink. I throw a huge upstream mend into the line so it’ll drop to the depth of the tree roots. I mend again, and as we pass, I give the line a small twitch. Here is the story of my fish.
When it darts out from the tree roots to hit the streamer, I can see it’s big, but I don’t say anything — I have lost what I believe to be bigger fish this day, so I just do my job and pay attention to my line, giving when needed, taking when required, applying continuous pressure — not unlike this wind. When it goes deep, Diego stops rowing, and we wait, the line unmoving for what feels like eternity. “That is one muy grande fish,” he says. My legs are shaking so badly I almost have to sit down.
It makes a run across the river using the current against me, so I’m fighting more than its weight, then goes to the bottom again, straining my rod in an unholy bend. I take this moment to remember to breathe. I look around to remember where I am: the burnt canyon walls, the mesas and buttes jutting into the deep blue sky, the clear turquoise water. I whisper a prayer of gratitude to this fish connected to me by more than a line and a piece of graphite. We are connected through time and circumstance, through consequence and fate, both of us caught in this moment in a primal, intimate evolutionary struggle. Maybe Chatwin was right about being stripped to the soul.
We take a few photos, careful not to lift this magnificent migratory brown trout out of the water too long. I bend down and kiss its head and whisper, “Happy New Year.” It swims off looking mildly irritated but unscathed. That night, Diego and I drink Johnnie Walker Gold.
The next morning we go to the same place on the river that we went that first day of January. Again, Diego says, “Cast to your left.” This time I do, but with intention. I’m primed for the take. “Do you want to drink whiskey again tonight?” he asks. My rod bends and line rips off the reel. “I am happy,” he says.
I smile. “Por qué no?” I say.