The helicopter threaded through a lush valley, over weathered small farms that broke up the landscape of evergreens and beeches like moth holes in a woolen coat. As the chopper swung around a shoulder of snow-patched mountain, a tiny lake came into view.
About 20 minutes later, I was fishing that lake from an inflatable row boat that my guide, Arturo, had flown up with from Eleven Experience’s Rio Palena Lodge earlier that morning. The bushy, reedy shoreline reminded me of bass ponds I’d fished as a child in Maine. But here, in Chilean Patagonia, I was learning, things worked differently. Inside this alpine lake were reputed to live some monster trout.
My fishing partner—Ruaridh, an amiable Scotsman—and I cast fuzzy streamer flies from the boat, aiming to land them as close to the shore as we could without snagging. We used sinking lines in order to get the lightweight lures down to the fish, only a little sorry that the added weight prevented us from executing the effortless lofted casts that are—for me, at least—one of the chief pleasures of fly-fishing.
A River Runs Through It this was not, then, but at least I could feel a little vain about the vintage tackle I’d brought along, mostly for aesthetic reasons. My old Orvis Battenkill is the sort of reel fishermen used decades ago, and it whines dramatically when there’s a good fish on the other end of its line. I’ve used it many times in the Catskills and New England, where I do most of my fly-fishing, and on trips out West as well. I figured that it might be a little underpowered for the wild, well-fed trout of Patagonia—but that it would ultimately be up to the test.
Then I hooked into my first fish of the morning and was forced to reconsider.
The heavy brown trout leaped several times, flashing yellowed flanks in midair and showing itself to be as long as my thigh. Then it plunged, tugging the line so stubbornly that I had to pump my rod the way a marlin angler might in order to heave him back toward the boat. I wasn’t used to muscling trout, and so I let this one run awhile and enjoyed a sweet earful of singing reel. When Ruaridh, who’d politely reeled in, started commenting on the scenery, I understood that the time had come to play my recalcitrant fish a little harder, even if it meant risking a break-off. Fifteen minutes or so after being hooked, it was in Arturo’s net, recorded in my phone’s camera, and promptly placed back in the water.
Here it was, the first morning of my Patagonia fishing trip, and I’d already caught the largest trout of my life—by a long shot.
Fishing in the Shadow of the Past
I learned to fly-fish 30 years ago, at my family’s lake camp on an island in the north woods of Maine. My dad taught me to cast in the efficient, somewhat rigid style he’d learned from his grandmother there a half century before, and we fished for brook trout, the beautifully speckled species that is indigenous to the American Northeast. We usually paddled out in a canoe at dusk, when sticky-winged insects were likeliest to be hatching on the surface, attracting the attention of feeding brookies. We also caught homelier chubs and yellow perch, “coarse fish” that Dad tossed back into the lake with showy disdain.
We fished beneath low mountains that had been eroded down to camel humps and scarred by clear-cutting. And we fished in the shadow of the past, or so it seemed. Dad talked nostalgically about the childhood summers he spent on the island, when the hotel across the lake was a classy joint that hired an orchestra to play on Saturdays. Now, though, it catered to the rafting crowd, and our neighbors were Floridians who owned cigarette boats and water skis.
The centerpiece of our camp’s main cabin was a broad chimney assembled of stones from the lake. There were two daybeds and a collection of jigsaw puzzles, which we used often, and an old writing desk and half a dozen precarious-looking kerosene lamps, which we didn’t. Mounted high on the walls were several trout that my great-grandparents had considered impressive enough to be given an afterlife as decor. And who could blame them? The fish were behemoths.
Three-pound trout like that hadn’t been taken from the lake in decades. We now considered a 10-inch brookie a nice one, and it was a favorite euphemism of Dad’s that eight inches—two above the legal minimum for keeping—was “good eating size.” I learned how to clean the fish with my Swiss Army knife and pan-fry them in cornmeal and butter for breakfast.
What I did not learn was the finer points of catching trout. Dad knew where in the lake to find them, and could unspool his line with painterly grace, but he did not approach fishing with the rigorously analytical frame of mind that defines the sport’s most successful practitioners. The elite angler is part entomologist, part detective. This really only dawned on me a couple of years after I turned 30, when I got into fishing in a way I never had before.
Living in New York, I brought a rod with me on weekend trips to the Catskills. I grilled fly-shop clerks about which flies to use and how, and I put some of this new knowledge to use in Maine, when I visited camp in summer, and out West, where I arranged for Dad and me to float a few rivers with guides who taught us both plenty.
Still, I knew I had a lot to learn. The fisherman’s classroom is enormous, and I’d visited only a few corners of it. So when I got a chance to head down to fly-fishing paradise in Patagonia last December, I jumped at it. Autumn, when I put away my waders and fly boxes until spring, is usually a bittersweet time. But that fall, I was buzzing with anticipation.
The Ends of the Earth
After the helicopter excursion, I spent two more days fishing out of Rio Palena Lodge. One was on a much larger lake, where I landed one nice fish before the afternoon wind kicked up white caps; the other had me floating the milky-emerald Palena, where a slow morning gave way to a rare sunny stretch and half a dozen hook-ups with lively rainbow trout. The silty, glacial blue of the river brought trout into view in dreamlike fashion—they emerged whole from depths, like visions, rather than in the shimmering, split-second flashes that I was used to.
During transfers to and from boat sites and occasional short breaks from fishing, I became swept up in the scenery. Basalt mountains were veined with waterfalls, bushy eyebrows of misting clouds hanging over them. Elephant ears and enormous ferns proliferated in the volcanic soil, lending a Jurassic lushness to the surroundings that was unlike anything I’d experienced on a fishing trip before.
It had taken three commercial flights and three hours in a sturdy pickup to get here, and half of that drive on unpaved road. True, the tourist season was just beginning. But it felt like the ends of the earth, a place that only a devoted few ever made it to. I could count the number of boaters, let alone fly-fishermen, that I saw in three days on one hand.
Life was good. After each day on the water, I returned to the lodge, with its nubby woolens and handsome stone and wood decor. The post-fishing circuit at Rio Palena consisted of hot tub soaks, cigars, Pisco sours, and a full-on asado cookout. I was sad to leave, but not too sad. Three days of fishing in Argentina awaited.
Some elements of this trip—the barbecues, the high-end American fishing gear—reminded me of the States. My arrival in Argentina very much did not. For obscure bureaucratic reasons, my Chilean hosts had been obliged to drop me, with profuse apologies, at an unmarked bridge in the no-man’s-land between the two countries, leaving me to drag my roller-bag along a stretch of dirt road and shamble up to the Argentine border station like a character out of a John le Carré novel. The unshaven guard who checked my luggage for contraband was less amused by the scenario than I was.
Alex and Alejandro, rangy Argentine guides who could have been mistaken for brothers, were waiting for me at the border. Later they told me that they had never had to pick up a client this way. I guess most anglers who come to Patagonia decide on one country or the other.
I’d left the Chilean rain forest for a parched highland just east of the rain-snatching Andes, and the difference in landscape was striking. If you’ve driven far enough inland from coastal Oregon or Washington, you’ve made a similar transition. A key difference here was that there was barely a soul in sight certainly not on the working estancia (ranch) whose owners had granted my Argentine outfitters, Patagonia River Guides (PRG), exclusive private access.
The plan was to stop and fish a tributary of the Rio Corcovado on our way to PRG’s Lodge at Trevelin, where I’d booked a three-night stay. The three of us pulled on waders, hopped a cattle gate, and stepped around thorny calafate (barberry) bushes, bright yellow clumps of Spanish broom, and gumdrop-like neneo bushes, which Alejandro told me gauchos will sometimes light on fire in order to send each other smoke signals. Then we descended toward the river.
I fished narrower, stonier water that afternoon than anything I’d seen in Chile. Alex tied on a dry-dropper rig: a winged dry fly floating visibly on the surface, a nymph coasting through the current below. In the sparkling riffles and pocket waters, fish attacked both of them. The problem was, as they say, angler-related: I was not setting the hook with authority, and in the explosive first seconds that followed strikes, I lost better fish than I landed. A late lunch of fresh salad, reheated chicken stir-fry, and a can of stream-cooled lager helped me put regrets aside and appreciate that here it was, early December, and I was drifting dries over hungry trout in essentially my own private Idaho.
That night, back at the lodge, which overlooks Trevelin, a mill town founded by Welsh settlers, I recounted the day to my hosts, Rance Rathie and Travis Smith, over glasses of the property’s own Gewürtzraminer. Native Montanans and accomplished guides themselves, they started PRG 18 years ago and have put service squarely at the center of the business. “We don’t hire guides,” Rathie told me as we headed to the communal table for a dinner of pumpkin-and-blue-cheese ravioli. “We build them.” The sole exception, they told me, was Leo, who previously worked at a lodge in Chile—and who would be taking me out the next morning.
A Deeper Groove
Leo was the talkative one, several people at the lodge had told me, and by the time we signed in at the estancia where we would be fishing I knew not only all about the cabin he was building and the two daughters he was raising, but also that we were both “romantics” (Leo’s word) about our chosen outdoor pursuit. We both loved old books about fly-fishing and the painstaking craftsmanship of traditional bamboo rods.
This ranch—another one where PRG claimed sole fishing rights—lacked the topography of the property of the day before. Long tufts of coirón, the coarse desert grass favored by Patagonian sheep, stretched across flat terrain as far as the eye could see. Once again, it paid to be fit and mobile. A half-hour walk in the sun brought us to a section of spring-fed creek that had yet to be fished that season.
I told Leo that no amount of coaching was too much. Stealth was key, he urged above all—“samurai-style.” I crouched behind the grass lining the bank, so that only my monofilament leader would hang over the current. Cast the dry fly upstream and tight to the bank, Leo told me. This I did, even though it left my view of the fly obstructed and my line resting sloppily on the grass. “Set!”I raised the rod at Leo’s command, and found myself hooked tight to a streaking rainbow.
Leo hadn’t seen the fish take the fly off the surface, he told me as I released my catch. He’d heard it: gloop. I suspected then that I’d found my guru. That first fish, caught on the first cast, set the tone for the day.
We worked our way upstream methodically, advancing maybe 40 yards in two hours. With its clay-and-gravel bottom, the shallow spring creek did little to hide the trout from view and gave them few ways to escape once hooked. The fourth one I caught chased my fly from a greater distance than either Leo or I had anticipated, extending the take in dramatic fashion. (“Expect the unexpected,” Leo counseled.)
Upstream, rainbows hurled themselves a foot out of the water to get at buzzing damselflies. There were more trout with more energy in this pastoral stream than I would have thought possible, and straight dries were proving so effective that we didn’t think for a moment of trying anything else. Anglers will tell you that it doesn’t get much better than this. By the time I hauled the largest brown of the day, a leopard-spotted slab, away from the far bank and into the net, I’d entered a deeper groove than any I’d ever known while fishing.
Overwhelmed, I put my rod aside and sat down in the grass. A great contentment settled over me, as though internal wrinkles somewhere above my belly button had been ironed out. I desired nothing, except maybe to savor the moment a little longer.
Where other guides might have raised an eyebrow, Leo simply nodded. “That’s perfection,” he said. “We are trying to defeat nature, but we give the fish a chance. You have to remember, they’re perfectly designed to stay safe from us. A big brown trout like that, especially, he knows how to survive.” Most anglers want to score one fish after another. For him, Leo explained, outsmarting a canny old brown in just-so fashion was as satisfying as a 20-fish tally once had been.
There on the riverbank, I thought about how far I’d come since my days as a kid in Maine—and how far I still had to go. Although I savored Leo’s wisdom, I knew it might take me a lifetime to get entirely on his wavelength. One perfect catch was rewarding, but I also really liked hooking trout all day. Why not try for both?
We got back to fishing.