There is something about driving a little farther and working a little harder that always appeals to me when it comes to fly fishing. I guess I am always hoping that the grass IS a little greener on the other side of the fence. Perhaps this is why the Rio Pico region of Patagonia in Argentina has long intrigued me. This is the southernmost area of Argentine Patagonia where you can still encounter high quality classic trout fishing. Tierra del Fuego sea run browns and Jurassic Lake rainbows are even farther south everywhere and offer some wonderful classic fly fishing opportunities with a fantastic variety of unique fisheries. It doesn’t hurt that the scenery is stunning and the lodge is simply over the top nice.
Our adventure to Rio Pico was the second leg of a truly great 2.5 week adventure that spanned Patagonia from north to south. Our first week was spent on the famous waters in Northern Argentina in the San Martin de Los Andes region (read more in our last Northern Patagonia trip report). After saying goodbye to most of the group at the Bariloche airport, Randy Buckley and I continued south to the small town of Esquel, several hours to the south. Esquel is about the size of Bozeman and is near the base for Patagonia River Guides, our trip hosts and outfitters. Esquel receives one flight a day and we were dropped off at the airport by our shuttle drive to meet PRG guide Johnny O’Farrall and two more lodge guests, Peter and Mary Lee Formanek. The drive to Rio Pico takes about 3 hours from the Esquel airport. Most of the drive traverses a vast expanse of open pampas with the Andes visable in the distance. Near the end of the journey we head back towards the mountains. The Andes near Rio Pico are not the highest mountains in this long chain that spans most of South America, but they are extremely rugged and sublime.
The road into the Estancia Tres Valles is simply stunning. After cresting a large hill an amazing valley opens up below with rugged glacier covered mountains that wrap around a large lake. Although many of the Argentine trout fishing regions are found in drier climates, the Rio Pico region resembles some of the Chilean regions we fish near Coyahaique with forested hillsides and no shortage of dramatic views.
The Lodge at Tres Valles
The lodge at Estancia Tres Valles is nothing short of amazing. Tucked away in a secluded valley at the edge of a trout filled lake, the views from the massive windows provide some of the best mountain scenery on earth. The lodge has 4 large guest rooms and can handle 8 anglers at a time. The warm wood interior, huge stone fireplace and ample supply of huge windows overlooking the spectacular view produce a truly special experience for guests. Our hostess Guillermina and her husband Martin live on the ranch year round. Guilla tends to the fishing guides while Martin tends to the cows on a daily basis. The staff is warm and welcoming and the food is as impressive as the lodge.
Day 1: Lago Tres
On our first fishing day Randy and I teamed up with Johnny and Julio to visit Lago Tres. Rio Pico is well known for some of the massive trout it produces in several mid sized lakes. The most famous lakes are the “numbered” lakes: Lago uno, dos, tres, quarto and cinqo. Lago tres has a high fish count and we weren’t disappointed with the action. A weather system was moving in producing some stiff winds so we worked the lee side of the lake along an expansive reed filled bay. The reeds, called “juncos”, provide ideal habitat for aquatic insects and the trout that hunt them. On a mild day the dry fly action can be very good but with the weather we used our dry as more of an indicator and suspended large nymphs such as leeches and dragon fly nymphs below. We frequently adjusted the dropper length as we moved to different areas of the lake. The action was quite good and we netted multiple big rainbows in the 19-26” range. Randy had the hot hand of the day with a large 26” bow that coaxed his reel into emitting a high pitched scream as it made every effort to swim to Chile after feeling the sting of the steel.
Day 2: Rio Pico wade day
With a successful lake day under our belt we were itching to sample some of the smaller wade fishing waters that are in copious supply near Rio Pico. Our target for day two was the Rio Pico itself. The “Pico” is smaller but productive river that cuts through willow lined banks. We visited a section of the river on a large ranch that offered a blend of the main channel with a labyrinth of small side channels. As is often the case when visiting these Argentine estancias we passed through over a dozen gates to make it to the river. We were quickly rewarded with multiple strikes by dry fly loving rainbows. The fishing wasn’t technical and Randy and I both had lots of action on dry-dropper rigs. The scenery on this stretch of the river is spectacular, the Rio Pico is on a broad valley that is surrounded by rugged peaks in every direction.
After lunch Julio and I targeted some small side channels of the main river. These channels branch way from the Rio Pico several miles upstream and receive a lot of spring creek water before they return to the main river system. As a result of the spring creek influence the small channels were rich in weed growth and seemed to produce a larger than average size trout than the main river. I enjoy taking photos as much as I do fishing so I split time with Julio on the rod. Julio is a great caster and it was a pleasure to see the smile on his face as he had the opportunity to bend the rod throughout the day. Near the end of the afternoon we were just about to head back when I spotted a huge brown that darted out from under a weed bed to take a natural just below the surface. The big fish was just a few feet upstream so I slowly dropped to the ground and re-rigged. Since I knew his exact location I shortened my dropper length, and switched to a smaller dry with a size 18 micro mayfly dropper. The big trout was in just a foot of water and I didn’t want to risk spooking him. On my first cast I saw a big wake coming from the weeds and I set the hook. The big fish was hooked up and he immediately rocketed upstream. Luckily he avoided burrowing into the weed beds and I was able to follow the brown up and down the channel until he lost his stamina and Julio was able to scoop him up in the net. We didn’t put a tape to the fish but I would estimate he was around 23-24” and very heavy with a lot of girth – definitely the trout of the trip for me!
Day 3: Lago Dos
After racking up some numbers at Lago Tres on the first day we opted to swing for the fence for our second lake day. Lago Dos is one of the largest lakes in the region and is also home to some of the largest trout with legitimate shots at rainbows over 30”. The fish counts, however, are much lower than in some of the other lakes. Lago Dos is located on the edge of the Pampas and in much drier country than closer to the lodge. As always the drive to the lake was incredibly beautiful. The lake has stunning clarity that is amplified by the light colored pebble bottom. Unfortunately the cloud cover from the unstable weather made the site casting difficult but the guides had mentioned that Lago Dos is one of the best lakes for spotting big fish on sunny days do to both the size of the trout and the light colored bottom.
Fishing was slow for us and we only had two strikes. Randy landed a smaller rainbow around 18” and missed a huge fish near the end of the day that struck the dry. One of the other lodge guests fishing in another boat managed to land 2 nice 24” rainbows.
Day 4: Spring Creek fishing
Although the chances at huge fish was enticing with the massive fish in the lakes (one of the lodge guests landed a 32” monster rainbow while we were there – estimated at around 17lbs), both Randy and I really enjoy the smaller water wade fishing. There is so much small water wade fishing in the Rio Pico region we were excited to sample some off the beaten path waters. One of the luxuries of enjoying a longer destination trip is that it allows you to relax into a great angling groove. Since you are surely going to have some days where you rack up “numbers” it affords you the opportunity to spend some days with a specific goal such as going for big fish or tackling technical waters. When the guides mentioned a spring creek just 30 minutes from the lodge with very spooky trout but a chance at some nice browns up to 24” it sounded like a perfect match. I grew up fishing the technical spring creeks of Central Pennsylvania as a young kid and that style of fishing is probably still my favorite. There are few things I enjoy more than carefully stalking a nice trout in skinny water and then making a delicate presentation. The failure rate is high but it makes the handful of successes that much more enjoyable.
The spring creek we spent the day on had a good volume, not quite as big as DePuy and Armstrong in Montana but many of the flats were 20 yards wide in places. We teamed up with guide Emiliano Nuro and assistant guide Nano Barrena. We spent the day slowly walking up the spring creek searching for trout. Casts were made only once a nice fish was first located. The spring creek was home to both rainbows and browns, although browns were the dominant species. Most of the trout were in the 15-18” class, a great size for a spring creek. We did spot two big browns over the course of the day that were in the 23” range although I managed to spook both fish. This was one of my most enjoyable days of the trip, there is just something special about having to work so carefully for each fish. Each fish we hooked was earned and plenty of opportunities were squandered when a cast landed with too much force or one of our heads was lifted to quickly sending nice browns fleeing for cover. There is something magical about the intoxicating blend of success and failure that comes with this kind of fishing. You just can never be too confident that you are going to hook a given fish but yet you always have hope. When the day was over Randy and I had each managed to land 6-8 trout each, all nice trout in the high teens; a truly great day!
Day 5: Rio Pico float fishing
The Rio Pico is a river of many faces and changes its character as it flows towards the Chilean border. We teamed up with Johnny again to float a productive stretch of river. In this section of river most of the water was in the main channel. The current was often slow with deeper runs and willow lined banks. On some waters these slower “frog water”sections are not productive but the Rio Pico runs cold and has good oxygen levels even in the sections with mild currents. I spent most of the day taking photos and let Randy enjoy the front of the boat. There was no need to spend much time cycling through the fly box as the trout were aggressive and very willing to take the large foam dry trailed by a pheasant tail. Randy racked up both numbers and size, never going more than 10 minutes without an aggressive strike. He landed several fish in the 19-20” range and one nice 20” plus rainbow. Midway through the day I walked up a tributary called the Nielsen that seemed to be infested with small rainbows and had about 30 grabs in 15 minutes or so. In some runs I counted over 10 strikes without changing positions. Near the end of the day I put the camera down and took the front of the boat for a half an hour to enjoy several good takes before hitting the boat ramp...a truly great day!
Day 6: Rio Nielsen wade fishing
One of the “problems” with fishing Patagonia is there is always more water than we have time to fish. With our trip winding to a close we had some tough decisions on how to spend the final day: another lake with huge trout? A new spring creek? Another float? We eventually opted to see more of the Nielsen River. I was intrigued by the high fish counts that I sampled in just a few minutes the day before and when the guides also mentioned that a few big browns also inhabited the river we were sold. After another drive through yet another Estancia we arrived at a remote middle section of the small river. The Nielsen is a classic freestone stream with a huge gravel bottomed river bed. Although the river can get quite large during spring flows it was running at lower mid-summer flows and was very easy to wade back and forth across each tail out. The river is gin clear and offers great site fishing opportunities. It reminded me of some of the New Zealand rivers I have fished in the past. We started the day by working the tops of some long pools where the riffles dropped in. On almost every cast a small rainbow smashed the dry fly. Most of the fish were 10-11” but occasionally a medium sized 14-15” fish would take the fly and but a heavy bend in the rod. The action was insanely fast so we opted to move to progressively larger flies to weed out the smaller fish and eventually upsized to a big size 4 gypsy king. Even with the huge foam fly some of the smaller still attached the dry. It didn’t take long to rack up numbers so we spent most of the day choosing to walk the big pools looking for larger fish.
After an hour of walking we easily spotted a large brown. The big fish was easily 22” inches and his dark coloration against the light gravel bottom made him quite easy to spot. I switched over to a large Lefty’s Deceiver pattern and he bull rushed the fly. Just as the moment of truth arrived something didn’t jive for the big brown and he turned and rocketed up stream. As the day progressed we were able to find a big brown about once every hour. Some of the fish weren’t feeding, and some aggressively smashed the fly and of course more than a few spooked do to a poor presentation. I eventually switched over to a mouse pattern which the big browns seemed to prefer over the Gypsy King. If you have never had quality fishing with a mouse pattern to big fish…let me just tell you it just doesn’t get much better! I managed to land a few of the “smaller browns” in the 18” range but couldn’t seal the deal on the bigger fish. The time slipped way all to quickly and we had a long hike of over an hour to return to the truck after a long day of hiking the river. A truly amazing way to spend our last day in Patagonia!
The Rio Pico region isn’t for everyone. If you enjoy float fishing large rivers, you will find a better match in farther north in Argentina or across the border in Chile. If, however, you enjoy wading a great blend of smaller waters with a focus on dry fly fishing Rio Pico should definitely be high on your list. The added perk of targeting some huge trout in the numerous lakes in the area helps to add even more variety. For folks targeting huge trout you can catch bigger rainbows at Lago Strobel (Jurassic Lake), but with less variety. The lakes in the Rio Pico region offer legitimate chances very large rainbows – in fact a big fish taped at 32” and well over 10lbs was landed the week we were there. For me the appeal of the small stream fishing was very attractive, especially since that the small wade waters all had big browns over 20” AND we mostly were able to throw dry flies. There are only a handful of places in the world where you can walk and wade small streams with relatively big fish while throwing dries. Throw in awesome scenery and a lack of other humans combined with a spectacular lodge and you have a pretty cool week long program! The Rio Pico program can also be combined as an extension of the PRG South lodge at Trevalin. Many guests opt to spend a full week in Trevalin followed either by another week in Rio Pico or a 4 night stay.