The thermometer read -11°F on New Years eve in Bozeman, Montana as I boarded my flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Early season skiing conditions were sketchy and the cold was making any sort of outdoor activity a challenge. I was happy to be leaving the frigid temps behind for a few weeks to explore some early summer fly fishing in Argentina and Chile. The idea of drifting giant dry files to big browns in Patagonia had never felt so appealing! The plan was to fly from Buenos Aires to the small town of Esquel, in central Patagonia. There I would team up with fellow Montana guide and photographer Brett Seng (brettsengphoto.com) and start the trip off with a week of fishing out of the Orvis endrosed Carrileufu River lodge.
This would be my first trip to a spanish speaking country and I was a bit nervous landing in Buenos Aires. The city is home to some 9 million people and would be the largest city this Montana boy had ever visited. Lucky for me my friend Gaia, who runs a tourism company called LOL Argentina (lolargentina.com), was kind enough to show me around the city for a couple days. It was totally worth taking some time to explore this beautiful city. Amazing architecture, public parks and a huge variety of shops and restaurants dominate the downtown area. I really enjoyed walking the streets and taking in the diverse culture of the city. It also offered a chance to adapt to the Argentine lifestyle…. Everything happens a bit later! I was shocked to see most people going out for dinner at 11 pm and then partying until 3 or 4 am! The city serves as a travel hub and is the starting point for most domestic travel in Argentina. The three hour flight from Buenos Aires to Esquel offers beautiful views as you approach the snow capped Andes. Landing in Esquel I instantly felt right at home in a landscape reminiscent of Montana. Within minutes of leaving the airport we were bouncing along a gravel road through the beautiful Patagonian hillsides. Early summer colors were in full affect on the easy hour drive to the small town of Chollila and the Carrileufu River Lodge. The lodge is located near the border of Los Alerces National Park on the Carrileufu river in central Patagonia. The beautiful timber framed lodge sits on a bench with absolutely stunning views of the Carrileufu River Valley and the dominant glacier capped mountain named Tres Picos. I could hardly believe that I was going to be waking up in a luxury room with this sight for the next week while fly fishing Argentina! The Carrileufu River is part of a large lake and river system fed by the seemingly endless amount of water draining from the heavily glaciated Andes. Cold Alpine lakes create a stable and fertile birthplace for this river which offers incredibly stable fishing conditions and fish populations. With multiple distinctly different float sections, a trophy spring creek and several world class lakes all located within 45 minutes from the lodge one would be hard pressed to find a better location to fish for large wild trout! The lodge is located in a transition zone ranging from the lush green beech forests of Los Alerces National Park to the arid plateaus and plains of the Chubut region. The dramatic changes in the landscape hosts a wide variety of unique and amazing angling adventures.
Day 1: Los Alerces National Park Spring Creek
Day one took us to a picturesque medium sized spring creek just inside the National Park with lodge owner and operator Pancho Panzer. Pancho has been guiding in Argentina for over 20 years and has a special permit to take clients into the National Park. This spring creek was something out of "Lord Of The Rings" and the size of the fish was fairytale-like as well. Fat spring creek browns, bows and brooks could be seen cruising in the crystal clear slow moving creek. Pancho's eight year old son Tao was joining us and immediately gave me advice on which fly to use and proceeded to point out the largest fish in the creek! I was being guided by an eight year old kid on a technical spring creek! I soon discovered that Tao is a bit of a prodigy and that fishing and guiding are a family tradition at CRL. It was a bright day on the creek and the fishing was challenging. Lots of wood made for good hiding places for the fish and the slow moving current gave the fish plenty of time to inspect the fly and drift. It was like fishing in a crystal ball and everything needed to be perfect.
We were able to take some really nice fish sight nymphing with 5x tippet. It was a challenge to land the fish on light tippet as they streaked straight for the submerged logs and weed beds. I spotted a few monsters that would have been nearly impossible to land! In the afternoon we floated a short section of the Carrileufu in front of the lodge and the warm afternoon provided some surface action with large beetle patterns. The strength of the fish was supprising and the color of the water was truly mesmerizing… I was beginning to realize I was on the trout fishing trip of a lifetime!
Day 2: Rio Rivadavia
Day 2 brought us to the legendary Rio Rivadavia. This is a fabled section of river that ranks as one of the greatest in all of South America. There are limited places in the world where one can legitimately sight fish to thirty plus inch brown trout and the Rivadavia is one of them! Needless to say I was feeling a little pressure to perform and expectations were running high amongst the group. We rigged up 6 and 7 weight streamer rods with 200 grain sink tip lines with flashy minnow patterns and launched Pancho's skiff into the outlet channel of Lago Rividavia. The 6 mile float begins with a long slow channel with fertile weed beds and lush overhanging vegetation. Fish were sipping midges and Pancho explained that the hatches on this smooth section of the river could become very thick and offer tremendous dry fly action. We could have spent most of the day drifting flies amongst the weed beds but we were focusing on big meat eating fish on this day. Pancho instructed that I should let my sparkle minniow sink into the middle of the channel for several seconds and then strip as fast as possible. Right away I was greeted by some nice tugs and proceeded to land a couple shiny 18 inch rainbows. The sound of a strong riffle signifies the entrance into the canyon and the river enters a series of fast riffles and deep pools.
Looking down into these pools revealed dozens of fish. Large Atlantic Salmon, Brook Trout, Rainbows and Browns were everywhere! I began to cast frantically at what appeared to be the largest fish. The boils in the big river made it challenging to get the fly deep enough to reach the monsters in the bottoms of the pools. We discovered however we could swing the streamer through the tails of the pools and watch as fish would bolt upstream out of the fast shallow water and crush the minnow pattern! If a fish showed interest in the fly the key was to strip the fly as fast as possible to imitate a fleeing bait fish. This would usually promote a strike and some fast paced high adrenaline fishing! Within the first hour I was already feeling my arm from all the casting and stripping and it became obvious we were going to have to pace ourselves! We pulled over to take in the scenery and wade fish a riffle corner where several big rainbows were stacked up eating nymphs in 12 inches of fast water.
A short nymph rig with caddis and midge larva attached was the ticket and the group took turns hooking into the bows! It had already been a great day and we were just getting started! As soon as we headed down river I heard some shouts from Brett's guide Diago and looked back to see Brett had hooked into a fish along a swift bank with lots of cover… Big fish water! First brown of the day and it was a beauty, every bit of 24" and nice and fat. Pancho explained that the fish were exceptionally large from the previous years mouse infestation. Every 60 years the stands of cane go to seed and the regional mouse population explodes from the abundance of food. Appearantly some mice eat so much seed that when they go to water they actually explode and float down the river in a spent position! Easy meals for the big carnivores and some of these fish gain pounds during such a cycle.
High paced visual streamer fishing continued as we worked submerged logs, drop offs and tail outs with the flashy streamers. I was amazed at Tao who was quietly and effectively fishing a 300 grain sink tip and streamer out of the back of his fathers boat. Thats a heavy rig to throw for anyone and the little man was doing a fine job! During our lunch of grilled flank steak, salad, fresh bread and wine he never stopped fishing! The boys passion and commitment paid off just after lunch when a dark shape emerged from some thick cover and charged Taos fly . I heard a variety of excited shrieks as the brown engulfed the fly just off the boat. I could hardly believe it as the eight year old played the fish perfectly and landed a beautiful 26" male brown. The fish looked utterly massive as the tiny human lifted the trout for a photo with his dad grinning in the background! Well the big fish were biting and now it was my turn!
Judging by the kind of structure that the fish were moving off of throughout the day I was beginning to take some chances began really letting my fly get into the structure and undercut bushes. I spotted several large submerged logs with some deep, medium speed water running in between. I cast across the logs, threw a big mend and let the fly sink into no mans land… Just as the fly came into view on the retrieve a big fish rose out from below a root ball. The fish turned down stream and swallowed the fly near the surface. This was a heavy fish and I was glad I had 15 pound fluorocarbon to pull the fish away from the wood. The fish made several strong runs back towards the cover and I was relieved when this beautiful brown finally came to hand! It had been a memorable day and we were content to sip a cerveza and take in the rainforest as we floated towards the take out on Lago Verde. We were having some great weather and evenings on the patio of the lodge became an important part of the day. Everyone at the lodge had been experiencing great fishing and the beautiful sunsets and gourmet food and wine made for an enjoyable atmosphere to share stories with the other guests. One evening we were lucky enough to watch two Red Stag bulls water in the lagoon below the lodge. The beauty and tranquility of the surroundings at the lodge always put an exclamation point to the end of every good day. The talented friendly staff helped me with my horrible attempts at spanish along with what ever else I needed. A true highlight was enjoying a tradtional lamb Asada. The food was amazing and the spirits around the fire pit even better. Some guests that were not serious anglers were having a great time viewing the wildlife, hiking and floating. The Los Alerces National Park named after the ancient Alerces trees offers miles of hiking trails, kayaking, climbing and echo tours on Lago Menendez. Lago Menendez had been coming up in the evening conversations as quite the experience and several guests that had fished the lake before were careful not to give us to many details and spoil the suprise!
Day 3: Lago Menendez Lago Menendez is a large body of water that penetrates into the very heart of the mountains. Fishing is strictly prohibited on the lake for everyone except one gentlemen named Marcello. Marcello's family homesteaded on the lake a generation prior to national park designation and therefore is allowed to guide clients on this stunning lake. The wind was in our face as we blasted across the lake in Marcello's 17 foot Carolina Skiff.
Our destination was the lee side of the lake below a huge hanging glacier that created a wind break for some secluded bays. As we moved toward the surreal peaks I realized that there were several other arms of the lake and we were on a truly large body of water with no other fisherman! Once again we opted for sinking tipped lines and shiny minnow patterns. Marcello has a great set up with a big casting deck and bow mounted trolling motor. He was able to position us off the shore line and we cast to a variety of structure including rocky cliffs, points and seams as well as fertile reed lined bays. Most casts produced follows and there was never a dull moment all day long. At one point Brett was fighting a 16"rainbow and what looked to be a ten pound fish came up and tried to eat the fish off his line! Aggressive trout to say the least! This was definitely one of the most amazing lakes that I have ever fished and I am already dreaming of the next time I get a chance to experience this unspoiled treasure.
Day 4 and 5: Carrileufu River Floats
One of the unique characters of the Carrileufu system is the opportunity to catch Atlantic Salmon that run up from the lakes to feed and spawn in the rivers. These are gorgeous fish and they really put up a fight. The smaller salmon we found right in amongst the trout and we caught them nymphing riffles and drifting dry flies. Streamers produced some larger salmon and there is always the potential to hook into a fish over ten pounds. Several times we spooked these large fish with the boat and watched in dismay as the silvery grey torpedo's bolted away. One evening on the Carilleufu I did some rowing and gave one of the CRL guides Faccu an opportunity to fish. Faccu is a good angler and knows the river really well. He put on a clinic while Brett was having a heyday with the camera. The Tres Picos was glowing orange in the evening light and we were nearing the end of the evening float. Suddenly a big fish came out of nowhere and we were all taking a guess as to what species it might be? The fish took a lightning quick downstream run and Faccu exclaimed "Salmon!". What a way to finish another epic day with a 4 pound Atlantic Salmon!
Day 6: Chubut River
The longest we ever drove to get on the water from the lodge was the hour long journey to the Chubut river. The Chubut has an entirely different character than any other river we fished. This river flows for miles through a high dessert environment and is shrouded by willows. At times we were floating through tiny tunnels in the vegetation. Casting was nearly impossible and getting the right presentation was tricky. We could spot Condor nests up in the rocky cliffs and there was abundant bird life. I was lucky enough to spot a Pigmy owl with babies staring out at us from its den in the river bank. The dry fly fishing was slow in the morning but things started to heat up in the afternoon. The lower reaches of the float opened up and casting became much easier. Browns and Bows up to 18 inches smacked our attractor patterns as we enjoyed the red, purple and orange hues of the high dessert. CRL offers multi day excursions on river and one can float and camp for days without seeing another person!
As our week was coming to an end I realized that we had only scratched the surface of what this region had to offer. There are lifetimes of fishing and adventure in Patagonia and I began understanding why so many of my friends and fellow guides are making the annual pilgrimage down to South America. It's a kind of a love affair with the country side and some never come back. There is a timeless feeling one gets in Patagonia and I could feel the slower pace and simplicity seeping into my soul. Ahhhh… I was starting to relax! I began to understand that the fishing was just one small part of this adventure and the friendly culture and unspoiled landscape was what this trip was all about! I am grateful to Poncho and the staff at the CRL for an amazing experience. I would also like to thank Montana Angler Fly Fishing and friend Brett Seng for helping make this such a memorable trip. I can hardly wait for next Year! Our hosted trips to both Chile and Argentina are filling fast for 2016 so contact us if you are interested in joining. Read Part 2 of our three week January adventure in Patagonia: Magic Waters Lodge Chile Post by Bill Buchbauer