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Land of Plenty, Story and photos by Nick Price - continued

Pancho Salas

Pancho Salas

How I got to the Salas family — guides, ranchers and authentic people — in Patagonia included a serendipitous string of events. A fishing client of mine in Idaho had mentioned Pancho, along with the fact that he was from Chile, his boys were guides, and his Chilean wife was a great cook. “He’s not your typical guide,” my client told me. “And hopefully you’ll get to see for yourself why that is.”

As it is, Pancho and I are still rattling down a dirt road, nearing Los Torreones, listening to the Eagles. “Do you have any Johnny or Waylon?” Pancho asks. He air-drums with his right hand on his thigh.

I’m still smiling as I think about what he’d called “the sea wolf” earlier in the day. “I’ve never seen a seal in a river before,” I say. “I can’t believe you get seals in some of your rivers.”

Sebastian Salas

Pancho Salas’ son Sebastian

“They are here for the salmon and dine on the trout, too,” he tells me. “It’s lobo de mar in Spanish, which literally translates to sea wolf.” We had been only about nine miles from the ocean.

“They’re called seals in English,” I tell him.

“That’s right,” he says with a grin. “But on the Simpson River, they are called sea wolves.”

Pancho’s sense of humor suits me well, and he’s not afraid to tease himself. “My shoulders are a bit sore,” he says with a big smile. There’s no denying his skill as an oarsman; he can row a boat, and he knows these rivers inside and out. Near the end of our float today, we were hit by a typical Patagonia wind, which blew strongly upstream, forcing Pancho to row into it. 

After 15 minutes or so of strenuous rowing, I note that the anchor mistakenly had been left down, and it dragged along the bottom, holding us back. “This is how I stay strong,” he jokes. I found Pancho to be unusually adept and creative — even a little funny when a minor snafu happened. I often judge people by how they deal with mistakes or problems that arise. In his case they often enhanced the experience, given his self-deprecation and humor. Imagine nothing ever going at least a little wrong?

At lunch a few days earlier, Pancho had rowed the drift boat over to a beautiful grassy bank with a relatively young coigüe tree for shade. He had been there before. While placing the blanket on the grass and pulling out wine, cheese and pasta, he said, “Well, it looks like we are going to eat Chinese today. Can I see your knife?” I had no idea what he meant, but I gave him my knife. He promptly walked over to the coigüe tree and cut a few branches into chopsticks. “I forgot the silverware,” he said with a big smile. “We’ll use these.”

It’s customary, when getting permission to access a river through a gaucho’s camp, to stay and talk with the gaucho. It’s also an inviolable rule of Pancho’s. On our way to fish a hidden outflow from a lake, Pancho, Sebastian and I stopped at their friend’s camp to talk and make sure access was still available. Guillermo — tall, neatly dressed and wearing a blue handkerchief around his neck — had invited us into his house, where we stayed and talked for an hour. 

Each time I finished an Escudo, he offered me another. It wasn’t even 11 a.m., and the cold Chilean beer tasted good. Guillermo moved his feet a lot when talking, and his spurs sounded like wind chimes when they clashed. Guillermo’s small house, on the east side of the Andes near the Argentine border on a high grassy steppe, was clean and sparse, with a wood-burning stove still warm from cooking. Horseflies buzzed, and the place smelled like an amalgam of horse dung, warm bread and mate, a traditional caffeinated tea served hot. We ate a few pieces of homemade bread smothered in butter at a kitchen table before saying our goodbyes.

“Most people are not patient with these guys and won’t take the time to sit and talk,” Pancho said after we left. “It’s important to them.” Pancho may not have realized it, but these sorts of interactions with him and his family and friends were important to me. Fishing brought me here, but the people and the human connections proved the most significant aspect of the trip. Life becomes the landscape in the Simpson River Valley.

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Let’s Fish

I spent three weeks last winter living with the Salas family at their home and Los Torreones Lodge, which is on the Simpson River, about halfway between the towns of Coyhaique and Aysen.

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The first time I ever paid to go fishing was when I took a trip to Iceland in 1980. I had never fished for Atlantic salmon and was looking for some romance, as well as for a new experience in a new land.