The most beautiful river of the region way well be the Corcovado. It is fed, much like the Yellowstone River, from a large lake: Lago General Vintter, which spans the Argentine–Chilean border. Reportedly, huge rainbows as well as truly massive brook trout spend most of their year in the lake, but make two runs into the Corcovado River to spawn. These runs (one for the rainbows and one for the brookies, with their counterparts coming in to feast on fresh trout eggs) bookend the season. We were able to catch the very beginning of the brook trout run, which starts in Patagonia’s fall (late February).
“In sum, they are some of the most beautiful trout I have ever caught, more akin to endangered Montana bull trout than to the blue-line brookies of the Appalachians.”
Fishing for huge brook trout in the Corcovado resembles nothing so much as Erie steelheading, if only the Erie river bottoms were dead clean and there were absolutely no other anglers for miles. The trout, as Emiliano Luro explained from his long experience, stay clustered together, holding in certain specific runs. While aggressive, they have a Jekyll-and-Hyde mentality when it comes to flies. Swing the same pattern in front of the same fish for two hours, and he might ignore it for all but 15 minutes, and then violently slash at it during that specific window of time. The reasons are known only to the brookies themselves.
Big brook trout fight differently from big rainbows or even browns. They are bulldogs, surging then holding, more like a redfish, although they occasionally jump. Their colors range from greenish to oiled bronze to even brick red. Their spots are quasi-fluorescent, but they retain their slick juvenile skins even into large adulthood, making the spots almost invisible unless you turn them just so, when they erupt and glow in the light. In sum, they are some of the most beautiful trout I have ever caught, more akin to endangered Montana bull trout than to the blue-line brookies of the Appalachians. Our day on the Corcovado was a restful one, with a long hike over a friendly estancia, lunch near an unoccupied gaucho home, and a nice reminder that those who single-mindedly pursue one goal often wind up missing out on life along the way.
Which is not to say, of course, that I had given up on catching a monster brown. The third guide of our trip was a voluble Argentine named Gonzalo Martinez—a trained sushi chef who briefly worked in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. He was the guide who took us to Lago Larga, a deep pothole of a mountain lake, chockfull of huge browns that typically show themselves about three to five times a day.
By that point in our trip, the wind had become so ever-present as to begin to fade into the background; a nuisance, like a sunburn, which makes its presence known only from time to time. One such violent gust was the one that buried my Double Deceiver between my shoulder blades. But in all honesty, that might have been the only day I could look back on and wish it were windier. If it had been, I might not have seen the truly epic scope of my failure.
The problem, I eventually worked out, was the flies. They worked; oh yes, they worked almost too well. In a lake known for producing three or so fish a day, mostly making slashing attacks, we pulled (and counted) no less than twenty-one. Many of those fish were over the two-foot line. A couple rivaled the Labrador retriever I lost on the Futaleufú. About a third of those fish actually swatted my fly, but the same issue continued; I simply could not get a hook set on any but the smallest browns. While we wound up breaking the imaginary 20-inch threshold, I remained haunted by what could have been. My flies, you see, I had tied on hooks that I usually reserve for striped bass. The wire gauge was of the heaviest size, and I was not yet experienced enough with stone-mouthed mature browns to truly set the hook with a tarponlike vigor. We returned the next day, armed only with my smaller-hooked Double Deceiver, and I managed to boat the largest brown, which saw fit to strike. But the magic spell had broken; whether because the fish saw the flies the day before, or merely for the usual reasons of weather change and fickle trout brains, we drew a standard hand, and saw only three of Lago Larga’s huge denizens.
There comes a point in any trip—and indeed sometimes in life—when it’s time to stop chasing the arbitrary goals we set for ourselves and take a step back to appreciate what we already have. The last day of our trip rolled around, and Gonzalo asked if we wanted to once again pursue that monster brown. It was tempting; by that point I had landed a 23-inch rainbow, a 21-inch brookie, and a 22-inch brown trout, but I now knew for a certainty what else was out there. I could feel the pulse of those huge fish again; their surging heads as they shook the fly, then the absolute anticlimax of the line going slack.
And then I looked at Tracy. A new angler, she had nonetheless gamely hung with me for an entire week; her large rainbow from the first day had been followed by day after day of fruitless headhunting. She was sunburned, worn out, and giving me the same haggard I’m with you wherever you go look she had worn for days. I owed her better, and I knew it, and so I told Gonzalo no. A friend told me not long before I left that you don’t really want what you deserve in life, and he was right; I had already caught more gorgeous mature fish than I deserved, and I had only myself to blame for those I had lost. This would be Tracy’s day.
And so we went to the Rio Frío, a small stream with small, eager trout. Tracy, who came into the week having thrown only a 5-weight on a handful of occasions, gleefully raked in fish after fish. After some consultation with Gonzalo, her casting suddenly ascended to an entirely different level; her line sailed through the air, cutting the wind instead of being shouldered aside by it. Her rod flicked, and the dry fly at the end of her tippet settled perfectly onto the water, where a trout immediately inhaled it. All told, she caught more than 40 fish.
At the end of the day, I found myself standing on a pebbled shoal with Gonzalo, just watching her. It was late, getting cold, and I knew there was beer in the cooler back at the truck. “Are you about ready, Trace?” I asked. She finished landing yet another trout and looked at us—the two anglers standing on the shore with miles and years of water under our feet, and said, “Three more casts?”
You don’t go to the other side of the world to bag trophies like a mountain climber knocking off peaks. You don’t even go for the food or the gregarious and friendly people or the gorgeous unspoiled landscape. You go because you love to fish, and you want the people you love to know what that means; and when they understand, when they truly see it the same way you do, you realize that you couldn’t have found anything more valuable there, no matter what.
Zach Matthews is the host of The Itinerant Angler Podcast and a frequent contributor to American Angler. Keep up with Zach at itinerantangler.com