I caught the fishing bug as soon as my dad put a bamboo stick in my hand when I was three. As the addiction grew I couldn’t get enough of it and by the time I was ten was checking out every fishing book I could from multiple libraries in a tri county area. Far way rivers such as the Madison, Yellowstone, Gallatin and Missouri mesmerized me. Now I am fortunate as an adult to call these my home rivers and they are in our backyard. There were other legendary rivers in the books of my youth that I discovered and they were even more mystifying to a young kid: the Malleo, Alumine, Limay, Collon Cura, Traful, and Chimehuin. These rivers were in a faraway land in a region called Patagonia. I saw photos of my heroes like Joe Brooks, Mel Krieger and Joan Wulff holding huge trout on big rivers in an empty landscape. These rivers always lingered in my thoughts… so far away and exotic. Patagonia, Narnia and the Hobit’s Shire all had an equivalent hold of my mind in those formative years: magical places of legend where the boundary between reality and myth were yet to be determined.
The objectives of recreational travel vary: an excuse to spend time with friends, seeing new places, pursuing a hobby and in some cases making a pilgrimage to a location with meaningful connections to our past. Our recent trip to Argentine Patagonia managed to check all of the above boxes. Our epic journey would encompass both the Northern Patagonia region near San Martin de los Andes and the remote Southern Patagonia region near Rio Pico. The first leg of our adventure had special meaning to me because we would be fishing South America’s most famous rivers – the same that I had fantasized about as a kid. There is something special about living out your child hood dreams. Whether it is meeting your boyhood sports idol in person or fishing a river that ran through magazine covers of your youth these experiences always forge new memories to be cherished for years to come.
The foundation of the trip began over a year ago when Jason Cook contacted me for advice on where to go in Patagonia. The Northern region of Patagonia was one of the few locations in Chile or Argentine Patagonia that I hadn’t visited on past trips. I had studied the rivers and programs for years and it seemed like a great first trip south for the group. Our friend Travis Smith of Patagonia River guides had also opened a prime slot for us in mid January at their PRG North program which is very difficult to get. PRG is widely respected for running one of the smoothest operations in South America and I knew that Travis would pull out all of the stops for us so we worked out a great customized itinerary. Our goal with the trip was to have a mixed experience of waters but also to see as much of this region as possible since it was the first trip to South America for most of the guys. We eventually built a great group of 9 guys to embark on this memorable adventure that would combine several rivers, large ranch stays and a multi-day remote river camping program.
On our Patagonia trips we nearly always build in a city day on the way down. Buenos Aires is one of the world’s great cultural cities and not to be missed. The extra travel day also provides extra little margin for error in case any flights are delayed or cancelled to ensure no fishing time is missed. On this trip the bonus day paid off since some of the crew missed a connecting flight in the states and arrived several hours later than expected in BA – inconvenient but luckily we were all on track to still get to Patagonia on time. For the rest of the crew flights were smooth and we all arrived in BA on a Friday morning. After a quick cab to our hotel we went for a stroll in the great neighborhood of Recoletta and enjoyed an outdoor lunch at a famous café along the edge of a park. Following lunch we toured the historic cemetery which is difficult to describe – it is like a small city of mausoleums housing many of Argentina’s famous personages such as Eve Peron. After catching up with a nap at the hotel we ventured out in the evening to one of our favorite BA steak houses a few blocks away to enjoy an amazing traditional Argentine cuisine. The next morning we took a quick 2 hour jet flight south to the large Patagonian ski resort town of Bariloche where we were met by our shuttle driver Guido that drove us to Estancia Huechahue. Driving across the Patagonian countryside is one of my favorite aspects of the trip and the big sky scenery and lack of development is always a treat. The landscape is reminiscent of Colorado and New Mexico (about the same distance from the equator) in this part of Patagonia. Once at Huechahue we were greeted by our host and guide, PRG North director Alex Knull. Alex and the hostess Diane helped us get settled into our rooms (single occupancy at Huechahue, a nice bonus!).
Estancia Huechahue (pronounced “way-cha-way”) is a working cattle 15,000 acre cattle ranch that has been run by the Woods family for 4 generations. The Estancia has 8 miles of access on the Alumine and Collon Cura rivers and is also a very central location for fishing many of the regions legendary waters making a great base for targeting a variety of fisheries in Northern Patagonia. The Lodge and associated cabins offer 10 single occupancy en suite rooms. The grounds are carefully maintained and the atmosphere and food are outstanding.
Day 1: Sight Casting on the Malleo, Collon Cura floats and Lago Tromen
On day one our group headed off to several different directions including river floats, hunting big fish on a lake and wade fishing. Jason and Barry headed to Lago Tromen based on a suggestion from the guides. At first many of the guys were skeptical about lake fishing but I encouraged them to give it a try based on my own positive experience fishing lakes across Patagonia. We just don’t have the same equivelant lake fishing in the states: fishing big dries on lakes with amazing clarity. Lakes aren’t always a good option and when the wind is blowing they can be tough. When guides are drooling to go to the lakes it is always because they know the weather is favorable. The lake didn’t disappoint and the boys came back grinning from ear to ear. Jason Cook ended up with the big fish of the week on day 1 from the lake – a big 29” brown that inhaled a large beetle pattern.
Several of the guys also floated the Collon Cura near the lodge and also reported a good day. Randy fished as single with guide Santos and spent a few hours hunting big browns in some of the backwater lagoons of the river. These spring creek like channels hold big fish which have to be hunted before making a cast.
John Gerwack and I teamed up with Alex Knull to fish the famed waters of the Rio Malleo. The Malleo is one of the most famous dry fly fisheries in the world and is reputed for productive hatches and rising trout. It starts near the Chilean border and is the outflow of Lago Tromen inside the National Park just below the towering Lenin Volcano that dominates the skyline. We accessed the river from a large estancia. Before walking to the river we found some rising trout in a small side channel of the river and spent an hour hunting browns in a spring creek environment. After some fun with that we headed to the river. John and Alex headed upriver to stalk some nice browns in a large flat while our assistant guide Teo and I headed downriver. The morning fishing was productive as trout sipped up and down a large float. After targeting a few sippers I moved into a great beat of pocket water and riffles and worked the water with a small Chernobyl ant. The bigger fish were in the fastest water and I managed to hook up on a few great browns and rainbows just shy of 20”. The Malleo is a big wade fishing river but can be crossed at most tail outs. The river is very fertile and there were a plethora of mayflies and caddis hatching throughout the morning. In the late morning we moved into some long glides and began targeting individual fish. These trout had more time to inspect flies but were still willing to eat as long as the flies were placed with a nice presentation – my kind of fishing!
In the afternoon we worked a blend of small side channels and large flats. On the flats we crept through the willow lined banks to target browns holding tight to cover and made short casts from low positions to intercept their feeding lines. The small channels also produced some nice fishing.
Day 2: Willow Worms on the Alumine, Filo Hua Home and Lago Tromen
The Alumine is a large river that reminds me of a slightly larger version of Montana’s Bighole River. It originates at the outflow of the Alumine Lake close to the Andes near the Chilean border. Eventually it forms the Collon Cura along with the Chimehuine. It offers a great blend of long pools and fast pocket water. On our second day we followed Alex’s advice to attempt a float high on the upper river where he had a hunch we might see some willow worm action. The week before some of the guides had attempted this section with mixed results but Alex felt we needed to try it as the worms were on schedule to show themselves.
The willow worm (Nematus Desantisi) is a bright green larva of a moth like butterfly. The small worms are about a half an inch long and spend their days eating the willow leaves. They aren’t very nimble and a gentle breeze is all that is needed to knock them off their perches and into the water where they are promptly devoured by hungry trout. As we drove to the upper waters of the river about an hour from the lodge – we began to notice that the willows along the river had a sparse canopy. Upon closer inspection many of the leaves had been chewed down to the twig – the willow worms had arrived!
We had two boats on this section of the river. Jason Cook and I teamed up with guide Hernan Zorzit while brothers Tom and Barry Matlack fished with Andres Hermosilla. Shortly after putting in Hernan rowed us across the river and beelined for a stand of willows that leaned over the river. Within seconds we spotted several nice rainbows in the 15-18” class that were patrolling the large slack water hunting for worms. When trout are feeding on worms the move out of the faster pocket water for lazy backwaters and eddies under the willow trees – apparently there is no need to waste energy fighting current when you can inhale willow worms by the dozens with a few flicks of a caudal fin. Hernan had us rigged up with longer leaders and 4x tippet to help fool the trout in the gin clear water – in the slower currents they have plenty of time to inspect the fly. We were on the early cusp of the “hatch” and the fish were very eager to take our flies. Hernan had tied some chartreuse chenille worms that we ginked up with floatant frequently. Some of the other guides also used a larger beetle pattern with a subsurface worm fished just 8 inches below the dry. We had no problem hooking trout as long as we made a good presentation and had few refusals. Hernan explained that as the trout became more accustomed to the willow worms they became more and more selective – almost like spring creek trout over a PMD hatch. He mentioned sometimes the trout only want them on the surface and other days the only want them subsurface but only if they are slowly falling through the water column. The guides have experimented with neutrally buoyant worm patterns that sink at a very slow rate to simulate the naturals falling through the water. The number of willow worms was amazing. In some of the backwaters there was literally a worm either on the surface or just below the surface every inches. The trout were literally swimming slowly in circles gorging themselves.
It turned out to be a beautiful day with nearly non-stop action from launch until takeout. The fishing definitely wasn’t brainless and most of the day was spent targeting individual fish and then making delicate but accurate casts to intercept the cruisers – very high quality stuff! Although we found a few browns sprinkled in the fishing was dominated by extremely strong fighting, plump rainbows. We hooked and landed several in the 18-21” class to round the day out with dozens in the 14-17” range. A great second day of the trip and definitely one of the high points of the trip for me.
When we arrived back at the estancia the crew that had returned from Lago Tromen were grinning ear to ear. Mike and David had slayed them again and although didn’t match Jason’s 29” bruiser had well over 20 trout over 19” to the net.
Randy and John had made a long drive to the Filo Hua Home river. The Filo Hua Home is on a private estancia that is inside of a National Park. The estancia was grandfathered in after the park was established so it is a unique situation with privately accessed water inside of a National Park. The river is gin clear and most of the fishing is site casting to large browns. Randy and John were also glowing after an incredible day.
Day 3: Limay Medio camping trip
On day three the entire team embarked on a 3 day river camping trip to the Limay River. We were fishing the remote Limay Medio section (or “Middle” Limay). The Limay is a massive tailwater with big flows and big fish. Imagine the Missouri River on steroids. The Limay collects all of the waters coming off of the Andes including the Alumine, Chimehuine, Malleo, Collon Cura, just as the Missouri collects the waters of legendary rivers such as the Madison, Jefferson, Beaverhead, Bighole, and Gallatin at home in Montana. The landscape is vast and spectacular with arid semi dessert vegetation and large red rock cliffs towering along the river.
I teamed up with Alex solo in his skiff and the rest of the guys paired off in different boats. Our strategy was to swing for the fence and hope for a large 25-30+” brown. There aren’t many rivers that grow browns over 30” but this was one of them. We had two rods rigged – a stiff six weight to throw huge Chernobyl ants and a 7 weight with a 250 grain sink tip to strip streamers. We fished the huge dries in the middle of the river across long swift flats. The technique was to cast quartering downstream while back rowing to slow the boat allowing the flies to slowly swing across the current while using small mends and strips to allow the fly to pulsate with the long rubber legs dancing on the surface. Within a few minutes of casting I had a big rainbow boil behind the fly – I set too soon and wasn’t able to hook the fish. It reminded me a bit of the first day of a bonefishing trip where my trout setting tendencies take over and instead of strip setting and keeping the rod low I lift the rod in a traditional trout set. The lift of the rod too quickly often pulls the fly from the fish. With this technique it is important to give the big trout some time to take the fly and then use a strip set just in case they don’t have it yet allowing the fly to remain in the water.
The glides on the big river were swift and deep but the water was gin clear and big trout would come up out of 7-8 feet of water to take the dries. When the current would neck down into powerful riffles we would stop and swing big streamers deep along the seams. Along the way we passed numerous pods of 19-21” rainbows aggressively midging in back eddies and on seams. It was pretty difficult to pass up these fish – how often can you throw small dries to big fish like that? But the only way to catch a 30” trout is to skip the 20 inchers so we stuck to the plan. The fishing was not red hot – sometimes 2-3 fish in a row and other times an hour or so between takes but by the end of the day we had about 10 fish to the net including a huge 25” brown that Alex roped on a big dry and several other fish in the 20-22” inch class.
The rest of the guys had similar luck with the afternoon producing steady action after a sporadic morning. Nearly all of the fish were large and unbelievably strong. Alex indicated that sometimes on the trips they will fish dry dropper and spend more time in some of the riffle drops like you might do with a nymph rig on the Bighorn – each of these buckets can produce 8-10 fish. The guys in our crew were all fairly experienced fly anglers and opted to stick with the huge dries and the excited takes the produced.
After a great day of fishing we floated into camp. The “unplugged” camps are very similar to our Smith River camps in Montana with a big wall tent serving as the kitchen, large Cabelas outfitter tents for sleeping complete with cots and sleeping pads. The guys also had a great on demand hot water system rigged for showering which was very welcome. The cook team were hard at work preparing steaks over open coals while we enjoyed the full bar set up along the river – not a bad way to camp!
Day 4: Limay overnight continued
Day three produced nearly identical river conditions to our first day on the water. We continued our pursuit of big fish on big dries. The action was similar to our first day with steady success targeting bit trout on the size 2 chernobyl ants. I had a few great streamer takes and managed to land a few along the way – I think I enjoy clear water streamer fishing where the takes are visual just as much as skating the big dries. The camp on night two was even more spectacular than the first night with the camp tucked under a canopy of tall willows along a towering wall of cliffs. In the evening a massive lightning storm skirted the camp producing one of the most intense light shows I have ever seen, along with some pretty stiff wind that managed to blow down the “groover” tent.
Day 5: Limay and the Collon
On our last morning of the overnight we awoke to a river that had quadrupled in size. There are 5 reservoirs on the Limay River that are part of an extensive hydroelectric system and periodically water is moved from reservoir to reservoir to meet electricity demands in Buenos Aires to the north. The system had risen several feet and the flat where we had enjoyed cocktails the night before was completely underwater. Although there was still about 3 feet of clarity in the river, plenty for fish to see streamers, trout never like such an abrupt change in flows. The guides devised a backup plan to provide a new option as a result of the flow spike. Alex spent breakfast on the radio with the support team running shuttles and determined that we would take out about an hours float from camp and then head to Estancia Quemquentreu earlier than planned with the hopes of getting a short float on the ranch waters later in the day.
With the higher flows we gave up on the prospects of surface action and I rigged up a large tandem hook streamer on my 7 weight with the 250 grain head. Alex indicated that although the high flows can significantly lower catch rates on the rainbows it can push the huge browns in the river out of the main channels and into the soft water. With the knowledge that we only had about an hour on the water I through the streamer with reckless abandon – no need to worry about conserving arm strength. About 200 yards from the take out the fly stopped in a jarring strike and I had what felt the tell-tale low frequency head shaking of a big brown. Just as my hopes began to sale the hook released leaving only my imagination to ponder the prospects of what was on the other end of the line.
After taking out we made a long drive to Estancia Quemquemtreu (pronounced kem-kem-tray-oo), this massive 200,000 working ranch is steeped in history and tradition. The ranch headquarters were once the center of one of the world's largest ranches with over 1,000,000 acres. The estancia is still extremely large today and is one of the biggest in Patagonia. The ranch is so large, in fact, that when you first arrive at the outer edge, you still have another hour of driving dirt roads to get to the ranch headquarters and lodge. The guides opted for a short cut to save 2 hours of driving which required fording the Caleufu River (yet another productive Patagonian river). When we arrived at the crossing Andres’s diesel Volkswagen truck was stalled in the middle of the river. Apparently he attempted the crossing with a little too much velocity and the water pushed up into the grill and entered the air filter. After some conferencing on the far side Santo dropped his boat trailer and attached a pull strap. We all held our breath as Santos dropped his Toyota Hilux into 4-lo and attempted pull the stranded truck out. The prospects were not good if the plot were to fail with the nearest town over 2 hours drive. After 2 failed attempts the Toyota gained traction and successfully pulled Andres to the far shore. After inspecting the engine the air filter was sopping wet and the engine wouldn’t start. We decided that Alex and I would remain with Andres while the rest of the guides would take the remainder of our crew to float the Collon Cura. Luckily we had some cell service and were able to get a mechanic in San Martin on the line to provide some long distance guidance. After about an hour of fiddling with the truck it started, much to the relief of Andres, and we headed to the lodge.
The ranch headquarters and lodge are tucked away in an expansive stand of mature willows and poplars. Guests are housed in a combination of the large estancia house and some cabins. The lodge is nearly 100 years old and has a warm and charming feel with old floor boards, antique wood accents and numerous windows overlooking the carefully manicured lawn. Also on the grounds are a huge asado area for gathering during traditional Argentine barbques as well as a bar and game room area. We were greeted by hour hostess, the warm and inviting Paula …, who helped get me settled in with a quick tour of the ranch house.
The bar room is filled with photographs of numerous fly fishing legends that have made the pilgrimage to Quemquemtreu over the years along with some great works by local artists. The game room is complete with a pool table, ping pong table and some traditional coin tossing games. When the rest of the crew arrived after fishing we sat to a deliciously prepared family style meal in the estancia house. Most of the components of the meal including the beef, vegetables and homemade pasta and freshly baked break had their origins right from the estancia.
Day 6: Quemquemtreu Creek and the Collon Cura river
Since the estancia is so vast generally when you stay at Quemquemtreu you only fish the estancia waters. The good news is that with 20 miles of Quemquemtreu creek and 30 miles of the Collon Cura there is no shortage of great water at hand. Our plan for the final day was to float the Collon Cura. We were going to send 2 boats to the middle float and 3 to the lower float. On the way to the river Alex and I stopped for a quick 1 hour session of wading on Quemquemtreu creek.
Quemquemtreu creek turned out to be a fantastic fishery. It was infested with small to medium sized rainbows in the 10-15” class that aggressively smacked a small fat albert. The creek has great structure with a blend of riffles and deep undercut bank pools. It is just the right size with enough deep runs to hold some larger trout yet easily crossed at every tailout. I was quite pleased with the hard fighting 12-14” bows that were in abundance but even more surprised when a big 17” brown inhaled my fly. Alex mentioned that the creek actually holds some browns over 20” and the guides have landed a few in the 25” class over the years. I loved this kind of fishing and could have spent the day there but we had part of the group lunch in our cooler and headed for the Collon Cura.
The Collon Cura on the ranch is nothing short of spectacular. Although smaller than the mighty Limay which it feeds, it is still a formidable river and reminded me of the Yellowstone River between Livingston and Big Timber. In fact the 30 miles of water the ranch has is about equal in length to that section of the Yellowstone – except without any other boats on it! The rivers structure is enough to make any avid trout angler drool with productive long riffles, cliff wall runs, long seams, glides, etc. The river changes dramatically while it crosses the ranch and each float has its own character providing a lot of variety and several different ways in which it can be fished.
We headed to the lower float at the bottom end of the ranch. Just as on the Alumine we saw evidence of the willow worms in the trees along the river. Alex explained that you can choose to fish the large river or the smaller side channels and “lagoons”. We opted to spend most of the day hunting for larger fish in the spring creek like lagoons and side channels. The side channels are much different than a typical side channel on the Yellowstone River – they seem as if they are completely separate from the main system and lack the large gravel washes of the bigger water. Some of the channels go on for miles and are influenced heavily by spring seeps. The name of the game in these channels is spot and stock and we crept along the willows looking for fish. With a few minutes we discovered a nice 19” rainbow slowly patrolling a back water. On the second cast the rainbow did a figure 8 around my willow worm and eventually inhaled it. Most of the trout we encountered in the channels were browns – almost all good fish. After a great lunch on the river with the rest of the guys floating the lower waters we headed for one more elaborate side channel system where we spotted a big 21” brown. The fish was living under a willow overhang and was holding in a subtle current. He was in a very difficult lie and there weren’t a lot of alternatives. We discussed trying to approach from the far side of the channel, and while I was confident I could get a cast under the overhanging branches I was worried that the fly would begin to drag before it arrived at the brown holding in the slack waters. From my past experiences you usually only get one shot at a fish like this and if he saw the flies with even the slightest of drag it would be game over. I eventually opted to try a bow and arrow cast while hidden behind some brush. Alex set up below the fish while I crept up along the bank behind some downfall, I couldn’t see the trout but knew that he was almost directly below me. I have had great success using the bow and arrow cast on spring creeks and find that as long as you stay out of view, keep a low profile and approach very slowly you can get within just a few feet of even the biggest trout. The advantage is that since you are nearly right on top of the trout you are rewarded with a drag free float.
I held the fly in my left hand on a short line and slowly extend the road tip beyond the deadfall so that it protruded over the water. As I extended the rod the fly put a nice bend in the graphite. Once it was adequately loaded I adjusted, aimed and let the fly sail out of view. Almost immediately after pulling the trigger Alex screamed “he ate it”. I lifted the rod into a deep bend – the big brown held fast and simply shook his head for several seconds before plaining out across the channel. This was the moment of truth in the fight – the big fish had plenty of steam and there was no shortage of downed branches for him to wrap around. I hurdled over the deadfall and into center of the channel. Luckily the big fish was putting up a determined bulldogging fight but remained out of harms way. On one or two occasions he made a run for some timber but each time I was able to change the direction of the rod and put some heavy pressure on him to change his course. Eventually we landed the heavy trout – a gorgeous specimen!
In the last hour of the float we returned to the main river to work a few riffle drops just before the river entered a huge reservoir. This section of the river is home to the famous “minnow run” that begins in mid February and extends into April. Small minnows move into the river from out of the reservoir by the millions. The inch long baitfish are a favorites of big trout and a big push of large lake rainbows follows the minnows out of the lake to join with the resident river trout. The rainbows will work in small schools to push the minnows into entrapment areas such as gravel shelves and cliff walls where they will attack the clouds of baitfish just as jacks will do in the channels between ocean flats.
As the day ended we reconnected with Tom and Wendel’s boat at the takeout. Tom was grinning from ear to ear after a great day of fishing the willow worm. Wendel had managed to rope a huge 26” brown in one of the side channels and had a great photo to provide evidence of the monster.
As the week ended most of our crew headed to Bariloche to catch flights home. Randy and I had a long road day to continue south to the Rio Pico region for another week in Patagonia (see part 2 of our Argentina trip report soon to follow). There is certainly a lot of water in the San Martin area and while we certainly didn’t see all of it in 6 days of fishing we definitely sampled a great variety. Each fishery had its own personality and they all delivered in their own way. The Estancias were exceptional and provided a wonderful and authentic experience and we all enjoyed both the traditional cuisine and the warm hospitality. The guides were nothing short of fantastic – an incredibly experienced team of guys that all held their own but also worked effortlessly together as a team. I’m already daydreaming about my next opportunity to head back to visit some new friends and incredible waters.
Return trip scheduled for 2017
We have already scheduled our return Norther Patagonia hosted trip to the San Martin region for January of 2017. Next year's trip will have a 6 day and 9 day fishing option and will include Huechahue, Quemquentreu and the camping program. These will be mid January dates very similar to our 2016 trip which should align well with some great dry fly fishing. Please contact us if interested!