A chill wind got up out of the east, and I knew our moment had been and gone. As our enthusiasm waned, we fell into reliving the moment and pontificating on the size of the fish.
I returned to the lodge a zero. As so many others have done.
All through the week, Eduardo showed me endless wonderful spots. Vast, spectacular fish-filled lakes; intimate, ultratechnical little creeks; and the wonderful Río Simpson, where the stunning and innumerable trout had to vie for our attention with monstrous chinook salmon that skulked in the deepest pools, black and stale and utterly impossible to tempt. At least for me.
I enjoyed every minute, but my thoughts were never far from that trout that shattered the dawn.
One evening we came back to the lodge late to hear that another angler, Loyd Wilson, had caught a big fish from Hero. I tracked Loyd down to congratulate him, and as he showed me a video of the beautiful fish coming to the net, I saw the fish disgorging a clutch of tiny baitfish. I knew I was looking at part of the puzzle. I had to go back one last time.
Eduardo read my thoughts.
On my penultimate evening at the lodge, we enjoyed a raucous party. The season was drawing to a close. After a delicious asado of butterflied local lamb, we listened to a talented local band that captivated us all with a tight irresistible set of bewitching Chilean folk songs. As the band packed away their intriguing array of guitars and charangos, we thanked them for a great evening and repaired to the outdoors, where we drank yet more excellent Malbec and Carmenère and told increasingly tall tales under the stars. Laughter echoed across the lake until late into the night. Then, after the other guests had shuffled off to bed, Eduardo and I sat out under the Southern Cross once again. My host took a long draft on his tinto and asked with his trademark grin what I would like to do with my last day. Once again, he already knew the answer.
I woke late, at 8:15 am. Damn. My head was thumping with the absurd gallons of Malbec, the countless pisco sours and the late, late night we’d enjoyed. I’d forgotten to set my alarm. Damn, damn, damn. Bright, brassy sunshine streamed into my lovely room. I squinted through the blinds, and a bright, bluebird day greeted my eyes. Not a cloud in the sky. Lousy weather for sullen trout. Surely I’d missed my chance.
I stumbled into the shower and dragged myself off to find some coffee, cursing all the while.
Hayden and Noah had packed their bags and I’d bidden them a fond farewell the previous night. Great guys, both of them—hardworking, excellent company and utterly passionate about their work. I’d miss them and wondered if my guide for the last day could match them.
Christian rowed to shore, and I took a first real look at the fish. It was magnificent. Broad, brassy magenta flanks, peppered with black spots
Eduardo looked bafflingly bright-eyed and fresh, and he grinned at my bleary-eyed attempts at casual morning banter. I was clearly a little the worse for wear. He told me that my guide was Christian. Eduardo and I had fished with him a few days before: a local man who naturally and effortlessly exudes a calm confidence. I liked him immensely, and a faint flush of optimism lifted my mood. I swallowed the last of my coffee and we loaded the truck.
Hero or Zero shimmered in the bright, midmorning sun. Utterly beautiful. And surely hopeless for trophy trout fishing.
Christian suggested a big beetle pattern, but I had already formulated my plan. I fished out a box of fry patterns from back home in England. I tied in a dropper eight feet from the end of my 18-foot leader, made from a level length of supple 10-pound Grand Max Soft fluorocarbon. I tied two Mylar Fry patterns, simple floating imitations that mimic small dead fish. The flies were pretty much the size of the fish that I’d seen Loyd’s fish disgorge. I felt a small burst of confidence when Christian confirmed that he’d never seen anything like them.
I doubted that the trout of Hero or Zero had either.
For two hours, Christian rowed me around the lake in the little pontoon boat. I pitched those little fry patterns to the shore, into every little bay and every gap in the reeds. One spot kept drawing me back. Most of the lake is impenetrably black and deep, but one small corner shelves more gently into shallower water, where the bottom is just visible.
On our second circuit of the lake, we were just approaching the spot when a huge head broke gently through the surface. Blink and you’d have missed it. But I saw it. And so did Christian. A rainbow trout from beyond my wildest dreams. My guide gently implored me to swap out my strange English flies for the Chilean staple—a big foam beetle—but I politely declined. I had such a strong hunch. Hadn’t these fish seen a million big foam beetles? And besides, wasn’t Loyd’s fish full of those little fry not so different from my flies?
We covered that little bay exhaustively for fully 45 minutes.
Finally, I allowed Christian to talk me into trying the big beetle. I pitched it across the bay, but I knew it wasn’t the answer. As we slowly drifted on round the lake, I thought about another approach.
My good friend Martin Webster runs a fly company back in the UK. Martin is a talented lake fisherman, and I’ve learned much from him over the years. One of his patterns is known as a Minkie Snake, which is a simple but devastating tie that is, essentially, a simple two-inch silver-gray mink fur Zonker strip tied on a tiny shank with a small trailer hook. Once wet, it slithers seductively and quietly through the water, and it has lured many unsuspecting trophy rainbow and brown trout for both Martin and myself from our English reservoirs. Burly fish of three, four, and occasionally five or six pounds. But stocked fish. And nothing to compare with the wild fish that we’d seen an hour earlier.
I fished a couple out. Christian wasn’t convinced, but once they were attached to my leader and swimming in the clean, clear water, he seemed to re-onsider. “Muy bueno,” he conceded.
We fished around the lake, but in truth, we were just resting the spot where we had seen the fish. Finally we were making our way back toward it. I saw that the sun was starting to slide into the west, and the tall stand of the coigue trees that skirted the little bay were now throwing the water into shadow.
I tossed the flies into the bay and inched them gently back.
At the exact spot where we’d seen the fish rise, a dead tree extended out from the bank. Its branches stretched into the depths below. It was a classic ambush spot for large trout.
I cast my flies to the sunken tree, and as often happens, the flies hung for a few seconds in the surface film. A sharp pull on the line normally gets them swimming subsurface, and yet something about their vulnerable half-drowned appearance made me resist my usual practice and instead leave them static in the surface film.
In a magical instant, what was surely that same head we’d seen hours earlier broke tantalizingly through the surface and oh-so-gently inhaled the point fly. I resisted the urge to strike and instead let the fish disappear back beneath the inky waters before lifting the rod smartly.
In that special moment that all anglers know, I felt the solid resistance of the fish. It surged irresistibly into the depths. Unlike anything I’d hooked in eight wonderful days. A brute of a thing. My heart leaped as the line cleared the rings and I had the fish on the reel.
The fish leaped into the warm Patagonian sunshine, and then my heart skipped a beat altogether as the fish dived for the tree roots. For a few awful moments, the fish was stuck fast. And then, magically, it was clear and out in the open water.
Finally, after a long battle, I had the fish up in the surface, and although it wasn’t really beaten, Christian shot his big landing net underneath and lifted it skyward.
Christian rowed to shore, and I took a first real look at the fish. It was magnificent. Broad, brassy magenta flanks, peppered with black spots, with that special iridescent sheen that large rainbows possess. Its beady, indomitable eye seemed to glare up at me, and its spade tail barely fit in the outsized net. I wondered if the fish might make the coveted 10-pound mark.
We’ll never know.
We had no weighing scales. Christian estimated 11 to 12 pounds, although in truth I suspect the fish was just a shade under 10. No matter. It made a perfect end to a magical tour de force of really special Patagonian trout fishing.
When we drove back into the camp, Eduardo was waiting for us with a couple of icy pisco sours.
“Well,” he asked with that same charismatic grin, “Hero or Zero?”
I didn’t have to say a word. One look at my face, and yet again, my new friend already knew the answer. We both exploded with laughter.
If you love your trout fishing, beg, borrow, or steal your way to Magic Waters Lodge (magicwaterspatagonia.com). When you speak with Eduardo, ask him if you can fit the River of Dreams Base Camp into your itinerary. And do your best to fish Hero or Zero too.
Matt Harris roams the world with a camera in hand and fishes more great waters than most of us can dream of.