Tierra Del Fuego – Kau Tapen – Feb 26th – March 4th
For me, when planning any trip, fish are generally the excuse but rarely the reason. As the Henry David Thoreau quote states “Many men go fishing all of their lives without ever realizing that it is not the fish they are chasing”. Thankfully myself and a few fishing buddies, realized early on in our fishing careers what Henry was talking about. The fish may be the excuse but the friendships, adventures, food, whiskey/wine, laughs, and scenery far exceeds the fish. Now don’t get me wrong the fish play a very important role, but in my eyes, they are just the icing on the cake. I have had life shaping trips that went fishless. And I’ve had trips that saw more fish caught then most people can only imagine seem to often turn out to be only a faint memory, if one at all. So when planning a 19 day, 17,000-mile journey to a continent that spans the length of the eighth largest country in the world, fishing on two completely different fisheries, visiting three lodges, and logging over a 100 hours of travel you use the fish as the excuse but not the reason.
As a true blue, born and raised Rocky Mountain trout fisherman the need or want to leave my home states of Montana and Wyoming have been slim to none. With more water to fish in one lifetime let alone 2 or 3, the exotic fishing bug never truly bit me. Sure I have spent countless hours on airplanes with rod tubes stuffed in the overhead bins in route to places like New Zealand, Florida, British Colombia, Louisiana, Argentina or Chile but the trout rivers of home always called to me. This time, something about this trip flipped a switch, and the bug sunk it’s teeth deep in me. It’s hard to put a finger on the explanation of such changes in mindset, but just as is a wild and free flowing river it changes course from time to time, so does life. This could be from the constant barrage of the water overpowering the river bank, or it could be from a major flood event that alters the flow suddenly with overwhelming force. In this case a surge of water floods onto newly found land beginning a new journey and carving itself deep into the soul of the earth.
It all started with a simple idea, South America was already in the cross hairs for the coming February or March and over a phone call the idea “Let’s do something different”, settled it. We would bypass some of the most amazing trout fishing in the world for something new and different (to us) – Sea Run Brown Trout in Tierra Del Fuego, and Golden Dorado in the Ibera Wetlands & the giant Parana River.
The first stop was Tierra Del Fuego and the world renowned Rio Grande to swing flies for sea run brown trout. We had been lucky to secure a prime week in the heart of the season, February 27th to March 5th at Kau Tapen Lodge, operated by Nervous Water Fly Fishing. Kau Tapen, in native Ona means the “house of fishing”, and it is the bench mark for world class fishing lodges. The lodge was opened in 1984, as the Rio Grande’s first fishing lodge and has evolved into the region’s staple ever since. Roughly 50 years earlier in 1935, 60,000 brown trout eggs from Europe were introduced into the Rio Grande and its tributaries, creating a one of the most amazing fisheries in the world. Eventually, hatching eggs grew into juvenile trout and made their way out to sea. Against all odds they started returning year after year to spawn and continue the cycle of life. These fish grow to legendary proportions, with an average fish of just over 9 pounds. Each year an estimated at 85,000 fish return to their ancestral spawning grounds of the Rio Grande. Fish over 20 pounds are not uncommon, and the shot at a world record fish over 30 pounds is realistically with in grasp – of course it helps if “Luck” happens to be your middle name. Needless to say, 85,000, 9 pound sea run browns is a great excuse to fly to the end of the earth.
After an overnight flight from the states we had the pleasure of spending some time in the capital city, Buenos Aires. Three million people live within the proper borders of the city and the outlying districts holding close to 17 million, so there was a bit of culture shock when compared to the cow pastures, wide open spaces, and snow swept mountains my friends and I were used to. I have never been a city person, nor do I plan to become one, but Buenos Aires is a city that I would like to get to know more. Walking the sidewalks of the bustling street markets and tango shows left me with fond memories and a desire to see more. The culture of Buenos Aires is fascinating. The vibrant regard for life is clearly expressed in the architecture, the people, and delicious dining opportunities. One day I’ll return to explore all that the city has to share, but this time, Buenos Aires was just a quick stop on this adventure. We must stay on target and continue south to the Rio Grande, where we will feel much more at home with the wide open spaces, cows, sheep, and fish of Tierra Del Fuego.
As our plane circles for landing I can see the Rio Grande pushing into the Atlantic Ocean, its current being encouraged by a strong wind from the west. Our wheels touch down as a local fox trots across the runway in search of its next meal, or perhaps a hiding place from the constant whipping of the wind screaming down from the high peaks of the Southern Andes. After gathering our luggage, we are welcomed by Kau Tapen’s trusted guide staff. Myself, Clark, and Cole jumped into Matthew’s truck. Matthew is a well-seasoned and knowledgeable fishing guide who made the journey across the Atlantic from his home in Ireland. As we pealed out of town onto the comfort of a dirt road my smile got bigger and bigger. We had made it. I’m not sure if it was the jet lag after having flown to the end of the earth, or the fact that we seemed to be in an off-road race as we dangerously careened around corners, catching a few quick glimpses of the Rio Grande, but the excitement of what we were experiencing has me on the edge of my seat. After a solid 45 minutes without seeing another vehicle, we arrive at our home for the next week, Kau Tapen. Nicely nestled at the base of a hill doing its best to hide from the wind while overlooking the smaller but still productive Menendez River.
We are immediately welcomed to the lodge with a local cocktail. For the rest of our stay at Kau Tapen, Paolo would greet us with a great smile, strong accent, and infectious personality that kept us smiling all week. Carolina and Alejandro the lodge managers welcomed us as family and showed us the expanse of the lodge, which holds 12 guests in 10 private rooms and baths, 2 gear rooms, the lodge living room, dining area, sauna and steam room, and enclosed patio. Carolina informed us of meal times and other details during our stay. The level of hospitality and attention to detail was amazing. Breakfast is served from 6:30-7:00 am each morning, with the guides picking us up for the morning session at 7:45am. Then we fished until lunch around noon, followed by a much appreciated siesta. The evening session begins at 4:30 pm each day with fishing continuing until last light, around 10:00 pm. Once back at the lodge cocktails, appetizers, and dinner are served around 11:00 pm. Gaston, the head guide, followed Carolina and Alejandro with a rundown of the weeks schedule and expectations with current conditions. We would rotate through all six guides and fish different beats each day.
With the details set for the week, Gaston announced a “warm-up” fishing session that evening for any of us who still had energy to fish after the lengthy travels. As if there was any question! Excitement was at a peak as we emptied our bags of two to three fly shops worth of rods, reels, lines, shooting heads, tippet, and flies. Did I mention lines and flies, yup we had plenty. As the guides helped us rig rods, based on the river conditions and the trout’s favorite flies, we discovered that despite our best efforts to be properly prepared we were missing a few crucial items. Our lines were too heavy, tips to short, flies to big. Water conditions were low and clear so delicate presentations with long clear tips were needed to keep from spooking fish. Once we overcame a bit of anxiety, and created a work around we were rigged and ready to head out the door.
A fly rod has been in my hand for as long as I can remember, but as I stepped into the currents of the Rio Grande that evening I may as well have had my boots on the wrong feet and waders on backwards. I think of myself as an experienced fly angler, but the anticipation and excitement to catch my first sea run brown trout turned me into Gumby. I’ve fished better after a few too many whiskeys than I did that evening. Andrei, a Russian who spends his other season guiding the Ponio River, had dropped me in the pool, Dead Guanaco, with a point of the finger and swing of the arm as to the direction he wanted me to cast, assuming I could get the job done based on appearance and expectations. He then hurried to jump upstream to my travel companions.
Luckily he didn’t see my first 20 casts going in every direction except the right direction. I still am not sure how I lost those flies that evening. Somehow in the middle of my self-inflicted chaos, the fly plopped an inch from the opposite cut bank, returning confidence to my fishing technique. The fly wasn’t in the water for a second when, BOOM!! The astonishment nearly swept my feet out from under me, as my first sea run brown trout annihilated the tiny leach pattern on the end of my line. Because I was so on top of my game (not) the fish quickly came unbuttoned. Another dozen or more embarrassing casts later it was getting dark enough that I couldn’t see much anymore so I was spared the continued flailing of nervousness. I reeled up as Andrei circled back to pick me up. “What did you get, 4 or 5?” he asked, assuming I actually knew what I had been doing all that time because I was the experienced one. I sheepishly responded “Hooked one.” I’m still not sure the brief moment of success qualified as a hooked fish.
We arrived back to the lodge with another cocktail as we cleaned up for dinner. That evening we had the pleasure of dining in the living room, joined by the guides. The tapas plates were delicious and perfect, allowing us to move about the room getting to know all the guides and other guests. It made for the perfect social atmosphere and felt more like a get together with old friends rather than the awkwardness of meeting a dozen new people for the first time. We quickly learned the level of cuisine at Kau Tapen was better than many restaurants who claim 5 star dining, let alone a fishing lodge. By the time the food had been devoured and the drinks were settling into our heads it was well past midnight. Not my general routine. I came to realize through the week that the after lunch siesta was not just a luxury but a survival mechanism after early mornings, long hard fishing days, followed by late wine fueled evenings in the lodge. The candle definitely burns at both ends on the Rio Grande.
As we rose to the first full day of fishing, we fueled ourselves with a hardy breakfast and plenty of strong coffee. Rick and I met our guide for the day - Diego, a good natured Argentinian that always seemed to have a smile spread across his face. Leaving the lodge was like being shot out of a cannon, each guide rig in quick succession blasted out into the open, windblown landscape that surrounded the Rio Grande. The river lazily meandered through a broad valley, that if you weren’t paying attention would not be differentiated from the rest of the open plains of Tierra Del Fuego. Large flocks of sheep, herds of Guanaco’s (a native llama), and a few twisted scrubby trees were all that dotted the views, except for the occasional fox or a variety of birds. We were told the water was low this season, little rain and snow had fallen in the Southern Andes, the life blood of the Rio Grande and its prized sea run Brown Trout.
As we pulled onto a gravel bar along a long slow inside bend in the river, we readied ourselves for the demanding fishing conditions ahead. Long casts, with long clear tips and leaders, that needed to be landed tight to the bank were the order of the day. Diego informed us that we were starting with a hot beat, the “Frenchman”. It had been fishing well during the past few days, and we later found it would continue to be a great producer the rest of the week. Once we got into a groove we were able to move a number of fish and even managed a few respectable fish to hand. Rick and I each arrived back at lunch with our first sea run brown, two fourteen pounders. As we connected with the rest of the crew everyone was eager to hear how the river was fishing from top to bottom. We seemed to be in luck, everyone had caught fish and weren’t too windblown to continue again that evening.
We recharged on a lunch that would normally be qualified as an amazing dinner, wine and all. Again the food and service was impeccable, always outdoing itself meal after meal. We enjoyed the sauna and hot tub before a much needed siesta. After siesta we suited back up for the evening session, which was assisted by more strong rich coffee.
When we stepped outside to load up we almost fell over. No wind. Zero. Dead calm. Everything we had heard or read about Tierra Del Fuego drilled home the point of strong wind, that batters you into submission with relentless power. Carolina couldn’t stop smiling and giggling. She said this was the first day she’s seen with absolutely zero wind, she even took pictures of the weather station readout so people would believe her. The guides on the other hand were less excited as they knew the wind chop on the surface of the slow pools can provide some cover from fly lines landing and spooking weary fish. Although they did admit it was a nice change to fish in a comfortable shirt, feeling the warmth of the sun rather than a raincoat and hoodie.
The fishing conditions did prove to be more difficult. Rick and I only managed a smaller fish each. A silvery yet feisty six pounder for Rick, and a rare resident Rainbow of about 17”-18” inches for me. I do have to credit that rainbow to Clark, a Wyoming hopper fisherman who field tested the dead drifted hopper that morning. I figured with the lack of wind why not give it a try. We managed a quality share of hot silver sea run fish on the hopper through the week when conditions allowed. It just adds to the allure and adventure, right! As the light faded into night the wide open landscape unveiled a massive dark sky dotted with bright stars from horizon to horizon, interrupted from time to time with the bright streak of a shooting star cutting across the heavens. I am accustomed to starry nights having grown up in the rural West, but seeing the nights sky at the end of the earth was impressive.
Day one at Kau Tapen plying the waters of Argentina on the Rio Grande had lived up to all the talk, anticipation, and expectations. The remainder of the week would only build on that reputation.
On day two we were fishing with Gaston, a regional local that has spent years guiding and studying sea run brown trout. His boisterous personality and contagious smile seemed to infect the fishing and keep the wind at bay one more day. Never did I imagine fishing in Tierra Del Fuego for sea run brown trout in a t-shirt. On the drive out Gaston prepped us for a long walk to our first fishing spot which contrasts most beats where you can drive to the river’s edge. And truth be told a long walk was needed to burn off all the great food and red wine I had been consuming. As we pulled alongside another long slow run with a cut bank on the opposite side I was curious where we were walking to. Gaston sauntered over to the river’s edge and proceeded to jokingly catch his breath after his so called described long walk. This in turn set the tone for the day. We were happy and the fish were too. While discussing techniques with Gaston we veered far off subject and landed on the need to do some experimentation. So we crossed the river and walked down to the next run which was a series of deep and tight small bends in the river. I have been sworn to secrecy as to what happened for the following few hours, but what I can share is that on my first 3 casts I landed two fish of fourteen and fifteen pounds! I lost a third, a much larger fish to one of the mightiest jumps I have ever witnessed a fresh water fish produce. We continued to tie into bright chrome sea run brown trout as if they were stacked like firewood. A double ensued with crossed lines while Gaston ran up and down the bank constantly to help us wrangle the beasts. The day ended with me not sure which was more sore, my arm from battling countless fish or my face from laughing endlessly.
Throughout the week, we fished with each guide, Gaston, Max, Santiago, Matthew, Diego, and Andrei, and thus we were privileged to gain knowledge and insight from a vast array of backgrounds and experiences. The time spent with each guide was worth its weight in gold. A good guide can make or break a fishing trip and this team was top notch, and not just in their fishing knowledge. The enjoyment of spending time on the water with them was a high note as well. Whether it was the urgency and hustle to reach a run before the prime window had closed or before the light was lost to darkness, each day the guides brought a new experience and outlook to the day. I could have fished with any one of them for the whole week and more than enjoyed my time with all of them.
Great people, amazing food, tasty wine, and a beautiful countryside were the norm for the week. Oh yeah, and the fish. The fish were all that you could handle, I don’t recall the final tally of the week, but plenty of fish were brought to hand. Multiple fish broke the twenty-pound mark with most fish averaging in the mid-teens. All hot and ready to do battle. With the ebbs and flows of the week we were even lucky enough to land a few doubles building on the comradery that fishing trips always produce.
With only 1 short week plying the waters of Argentina on the Rio Grande I was left wanting more. Such a special place steeped in lore and history has me hoping I’ll get back there sooner rather than later. The international fishing bug has a strong bite that has now been welcomed to my life!