Headhunting for big trout in the heart of Patagonia.
[by Zach Matthews]
THE WIND IS NO JOKE. That’s the first thing they ought to tell you about Patagonia, I thought, as I winced in pain. I had just buried a Double Deceiver in my back, both hooks digging in from the feel of it, and I was suppressing the urge to turn the air blue. The day was not going well. I rotated awkwardly and asked my wife, Tracy, to pry the fly free. As she performed triage, I stared at the mountains rising hard out of the edge of the lakeshore.
We were bobbing in a boat on Lago Larga, a small high-altitude lake on the eastern border of Patagonia’s vast Los Alerces National Park, on the northern end of the region. The Patagonia region of Argentina, I was surprised to learn, is approximately the length of the American West Coast. We were in Chubut Province (roughly analogous geographically to Northern California), trying desperately to put the third leg on what the locals call the Patagonian Grand Slam.
Our week started spectacularly. On our very first day, we landed multiple rainbow trout up to 23 inches long in a different mountain lake, so far off the grid that we bumped three coveys of California quail (not to mention about a hundred sheep) on our way into the heart of the estancia. Much of Patagonia is still divided into ranches so vast, they make even Ted Turner’s holdings pale in comparison. Local outfitters generally have their own private waters on these estancias, with access arranged in mysterious ways with the ranch managers, ensuring the fishing pressure is minimal. (The region’s sparse population also helps.)
Our head guide for the week, Emiliano Luro—a knowledgeable former schoolteacher—had taken one look in my box of gargantuan stoneflies and immediately picked out the very largest. His hunch was proved right when a two-foot silver torpedo promptly launched itself off the bottom of the lake and smashed my fat fly as it flew into the air. I, of course, missed the set, but fortunately that rainbow had lots of willing friends. Both Tracy and I left the lake worn out and smiling. You could catch rainbows like that forever.
“That might have been the biggest brown trout I have ever seen in the Futaleufú,” he admitted in a small voice. “In fact, it might have been a king salmon.”
There was only one problem: I hadn’t really come to Patagonia to catch rainbow trout. You see, brown trout are, for me, something of an obsession. I grew up in Arkansas, which shares Patagonia’s distinction of producing world-record class browns. As a result, the brown trout has always held a certain extra cachet in my personal conception of a trophy fish. I reasoned that the brown trout— a European originally, just like most Argentines—evolved in conjunction with human angling. It has thus been a combatant in our private arms race the longest, and (at least in my experience) that makes it the hardest trout to catch, especially in trophy sizes. I knew Patagonia had huge browns, and so I had shown up with flies so large, the locals laughed as they passed them from hand to hand. My guides, however, seemed professionally interested in seeing me give them a try.
My first chance was on the Futaleufú River, a gorgeous tailwater just outside the Welsh colonial town of Trevelin, primarily used by the local guide culture as a bunny-slopes rainbow trout factory. There were big browns in its clear blue waters, but they rarely rose to dry flies, which most visiting anglers preferred by default. Not me; our guide for the day, Nico Fliess, smiled in anticipation as I unlimbered my 8-weight, with its massive sinking line, and tied on a fly the size of a chinchilla. Although already a father of four, Nico was young and energetic (possibly due to his fondness for maté, the local tealike energy drink). He seemed amused by my plan to break the rules, as it were.
One of my first casts on the Futaleufú will haunt me forever; I chucked my articulated yellow contraption across a swirling whirlpool and onto a large shelf, and quickly stripped it back. Both Nico and I saw a shadow the size of a Labrador retriever surge off the bottom and smash my fly. I set the hook and felt the head shake only a truly enormous brown trout can impart—that slow pulse, with enough of a pause between the surges to let you know the trout’s head is tracking across inches as it shakes, like a greyhound slaughtering a hare. I raised the rod, began to recover line, and then it was gone. The hook hadn’t sunk in; my set at long range had not been sufficient; the fish beat me.
Dejected, I looked back to Nico. “That might have been the biggest brown trout I have ever seen in the Futaleufú,” he admitted in a small voice. “In fact, it might have been a king salmon.” I asked him whether he thought that was a real possibility (yes, Patagonia also has salmon), but neither of us had ever seen a salmon attack a fly quite like that, and anyway, it was too early for their run. “Twenty-eight inches, you think?” I asked, intentionally seeking solace in a conservative estimate. “No,” Nico said sadly, shaking his head. “More like thirty. More than thirty.” I went back to plying the waters, only to watch the same movie end the same way several more times that day. We caught fish (Tracy delighted in dry fly fishing at short range for willing rainbows), but I lost what would have been my personal best brown trout two more times that day.
The very best thing about experiencing Patagonia is not the Malbec they serve habitually with every meal, or the exquisite, crystal clear lake water that we drank, showered in, and plied for trout, or even the astonishingly good food: the prosciutto and capocollo (dry cured hams), the bread baked chlorine-free with pure lake water, or the olives. No, it is the biodiversity. Bees abound. There are actual flocks of game birds just walking beside the gravel roads, healthy working ranches full of livestock and enormous European hares, and a surfeit of plant life (including, it being summer in February there, stands of wildflowers like purple lupine). But above all, Patagonia has the richest biodiversity of salmonids of any place on earth. Salmonids aren’t native, but they all flourish; rainbow and brown trout, king salmon, Atlantic salmon, and even Labrador-grade brook trout.
All this biodiversity isn’t found smashed together in one river, of course. Rather, there are so many different watersheds that in one day, you could theoretically catch a rainbow on a dry fly in a lake at breakfast, drive a few minutes to chase browns with streamers in a broad river at midday, then finish by swinging for brookies in a lake-fed stream in the evening.