Here I am, sitting in Montana, “The Last Best Place” - working on a computer and watching the snow flurry through frosty window panes. According to my smart phone, it’s currently a balmy 34⁰F – the wintry weather is a drastic contrast to the climate I experienced during my recent travels to the Aysen region of Chile, South America. Our February is Chile’s August!
As I sit here, I find myself reflecting on the trip and reveling once again in pure, exuberant amazement. While my life as a fly-fishing guide in Montana already lends itself to daily bliss, I now know that bliss comes in different packages…AND… there’s scarcely a better way to kick the late winter blues and recharge the batteries than to indulge in an epic fly fishing excursion in Chile.
When asked to be an integral part of hosting a group of anglers on such an incredible trip, my immediate response was “Absolutely!” Take my advice…when an extraordinary opportunity presents itself, by any reasonable and responsible means necessary - jump on board! My notice of intent was given – I would soon be on my way to Patagonia!
Like any other well-organized fly fishing professional, I immediately started outlining a detailed pre-trip packing list, making sure it was one that would satisfy the needs of experienced, intermediate, and novice anglers alike. There is a lot to consider, especially when traveling internationally, where one is perhaps not likely to find the equivalent of their local, well-stocked fly shop just down the road. An exhaustive list surely reduces the likelihood of leaving an important and essential piece of gear behind.
My gear list was as follows:
- Coffey’s Articulated Sparkle Minnow, gold and white, size 4
- Articulated sex dungeon, olive and gold, black and purple, white, size 4
- Peanut Envy, black and red, size 4
- Cone Head Zonker, olive, black, size 4 & 6
- Sparkle Minnow, sculpin, size 4 & 6
- Mouse patterns
- Stimulator, size 8-12
- Caddis, tan, size 10-14
- Parachute Purple Haze, size 10-14
- Purple Haze Cripple, size 10-14
- Fat Albert, tan, black, size 6-8
- Griffiths Gnat, size 12-16
Nymphs weren’t a part of my arsenal, but if one desires to bring some along, a standard selection will suffice.
Rod and Reel – 5, 6, 7 weight with the appropriate matching reel. The reel must have a good drag system. Most fish can be landed by utilizing a strip-in method, but one might encounter a hook-up that requires the use of the reel’s drag system. Personally, many days on the water have verified that most reels on the market today are designed with sufficient drag systems to manage and stop a “running” trout. I have never had a drag fail. The 5 weight can be used to fish dry flies in little to no wind conditions. The 6 weight has multiple uses for this trip. It can be used to fish dry flies in windy conditions and can be utilized to fish streamers as well. The 7 weight is best utilized to fish heavier streamers at increased distances and double as a “go to” set up to fish any size streamer in windy conditions. If you only have room to pack one outfit, bring the 6 weight.
- 5 weight, weight forward floating line
- 6 weight, weight forward floating line
- 6 weight (200 grain) sinking line, fast, and intermediate
- 7 weight (250 grain) sinking line, fast, and intermediate
Having a variety of fly lines will allow for versatility during changing fishing conditions.
Waders and rain/cold weather gear – Gore-tex or similar fabric chest waters with appropriate boots. Gore-tex or similar fabric rain jacket and pants. Thermal base layers and warm socks. The weather is variable and ranged from the high 30’s through the high 70’s.
Eyewear and sun protection – Polarized sunglasses. Sunscreen (30 spf minimum). Protective U.V. clothing for head and hands.
Patagonia Baker Lodge is located in Puerto Bertrand, Aisen Del General Carlos Ibanez Del Campo, Chile. Every member of the group booked an overnight flight to Santiago from their respective starting points in the United States. Upon arrival in Santiago, we cleared immigration and then customs. After clearing customs we easily arranged and purchased a taxi to the Castillo Rojo Hotel. The cab ride was short, allowing plenty of time for a leisurely afternoon in the Bella Vista neighborhood to experience a taste of the local culture and cuisine. That evening at the hotel we scheduled a taxi back to the Santiago airport to catch our flight to Balmaceda. When we arrived in Balmaceda, we were enthusiastically greeted by Patagonia Baker Lodge Manager and head guide, Rafael.
Our luggage was loaded into two vehicles, a 4wd Ford van and a 4wd Mitsubishi crew cab truck. Each member of the group climbed into their respective vehicle - curious and excited for the adventure to come. The driver of the van, Peppe, was an energetic man who showed great interest in providing an informative vehicle ride through the mountainous Patagonian terrain. He drove group members Jon, Jan, Marty, Kristi, Cindy, Diane, Johnathan, Capers, and Anna in southerly direction into deep Patagonia. Ethan and myself followed closely in the Mitsubishi with Rafael.
The duration of travel from Balmaceda airport to Patagonia Baker Lodge is approximately 4.5 hrs. by vehicle on Route 7 (the Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway). This is a primitive road constructed by the Chilean Army starting in the 1980’s. The ride through the Aysén Region is relatively adventurous and the landscape is marked by several glaciers, massive towering mountain peaks, channels, fjords, rivers, streams, and lakes. Unique and abundant wildlife punctuated the striking landscape of one of the most impressive regions in Patagonia.
The region is one of Chile’s 15 first order administrative divisions. Although the third largest in area, it is Chile’s most sparsely populated area. The expansive area is remote, but we did pass through a few villages along the way. The villages were mostly comprised of cabanas, small convenience stores, and village squares. There was a presence of a thriving community culture. Basic amenities were available, but vehicle refueling locations were limited. We had a lively lunch at Hosteria Restaurante Villarrica and then continued our overland journey through the overwhelmingly magnificent Patagonian landscape to the lodge.
The next stop was at “The Orange Bridge”. The group had awe-inspired facial expressions as we gazed at the fresh Patagonian landscape from a new vantage point and gained a different perspective. This location is the terminus for General Carrera Lake (Chilean section) or Lake Buenos Aires (Argentinian section) and the point of origin for Bertrand Lake. General Carrera Lake is an incredible and massive resource of glacial melt fresh water. It abuts the east face of the Patagonian Ice field and has a maximum depth of 586m. The mighty Baker River flows out of Bertrand Lake. Bertrand Lake is separated from Plomo Lake by a terminal moraine. This location can be accessed by cataraft from the lodge. Petrified wood and other well-preserved Ice Age debris can be found here.
We continued on to the village of Puerto Betrand and the beginning of the Baker River. The village is small and emanates a distinct, enthusiastic outdoor recreation vibe. Patagonia Baker Lodge is located near the southerly outskirts of the village. The lodge was warm and accommodating and each window framed the stunning natural scenery. The lodge is situated on a solid footprint of riverfront …actually directly abutting the bank of the amazing and stunningly beautiful Baker River! Looking north from the common area of the lodge your eyes follow the mighty Baker, lined on either side by lush, uninterrupted green forests, and come rest on the breathtaking view of the glacier-covered Cordo̕n Contreras summits. The lodge has 6 well-appointed double rooms, each with a view of the river, fireplace, electric heat and private bathroom. Hearty, delicious morning and evening meals were something to look forward to each day and were served in the dining area which provided a friendly social environment. Lunches were typically cooked in the field over an open flame and were served in a peaceful setting next to the water. Many of the meals were prepared in a dramatic, traditional Chilean style…both entertaining to experience and fantastic to eat!
The next 6 days were packed full of various adventure activities. Not only is Patagonia Baker Lodge is a world class fly fishing destination; the friendly, capable staff also integrated a broad range of activities into the trip – delivering options to accommodate diversity in individual personal interests.
Yes, there is a lot to do here - as Rafael says, “This is Patagonia, man!” Group members had the option to fly fish several unique world-class trout fisheries, ride horseback with an authentic native Gaucho, raft the Baker River whitewater, or spend the day on a glacier tour.
We fly fished three fisheries that provided endless angling opportunities during this trip - The Cochrane River, Baker River, and Lake Bertrand. Each fishery has its own unique characteristics which require different fly fishing approaches and techniques that challenge even the most experienced angler. If situational fly fishing diversity is what you crave, the Baker Lodge has what you need.
The Cochrane River is the outlet of Cochrane Lake, part of the Baker River watershed. The Cochrane is an extremely clear, slowly meandering river with a glass-like surface. It has a fine gravel riverbed substrate making the fish relatively easy to spot. Other characteristics included weed beds, structure, slots, shelfs, buckets, undercuts, and pools. The surface is smooth, but has a seemingly endless variety of surface currents which present a distinct challenge to fly fishing anglers of all experience levels. The Brown and Rainbow trout are very large and extremely particular with regard to the presentation they will take.
Fishing the Cochrane is not easy. The bank is densely inundated with thick brush and bushes making casting lanes extremely tight. Some areas required a “bow and arrow” cast. In other areas fish had to be passed up do to inaccessibility – a test in patience and humbling for sure. Sight fishing seemed to produce the most action. You can target surface or subsurface feeding fish. When the fish are feeding from the surface, pause and study the surrounding area to match your fly size, profile, and color to what they are feeding on. Similar to spring creek fishing the surface drift must be perfect or the fish will not even slightly move toward your offering. When the fish are not actively feeding on the surface you can either nymph or swing and strip streamers. Not many fish were feeding on the surface when I was there. In fact, I only witnessed 4 surface eats. That being said, I played the spot and stalk game, swinging and striping streamers. On this particular day, the fish wanted a streamer in two presentations - A slow moving swing with the fly in the same water column or stripped in at the hang down stage of the swing as the key. They would not react to a cross-current strip or any other strip and pause combination. I caught 6 rainbow trout ranging in the 16” to 22” class and moved 5 or 6 more fish of the same size. While traversing the bank of the Cochrane, Patagonia decided to reveal a glimpse at a true and unique rare treasure. A pudu or “magic deer” showed itself and quickly disappeared before I could capture the moment with a digital image. However, the memory remains. The day on the Cochrane was a special day indeed!
The Baker River (often referred to as the Mighty Baker) is formed at the outlet of Bertrand Lake. It is Chile’s largest river in terms of volume of water and is extremely impressive. It truly is an amazing resource of pristine uncompromised pure fresh water. Its characteristic turquoise-blue color is due to the glacial sediments deposited in it.
The Baker is home to some very large Brown and Rainbow trout. Most of the trout caught are in the 16” to 22” class, but there is the chance to catch a lifetime trophy. The guides at Baker Lodge claim to have had clients land brown trout in the 35” class. The river most certainly has the characteristics to support this claim. The amount of water that flows within the Baker is extremely impressive. There is an abundance of aquatic life providing a seemingly endless supply of nutrition conducive for trout to reach their full mature size potential.
Rafael informed us that the water conditions were high and a little off color for this time of year. This made the fishing more challenging than usual. The group fished the Baker very hard for several days, and despite the conditions we caught copious amounts of quality fish. We caught fish on dry files and streamers, with the larger trout coming off streamers. Within the first hour of fishing the Baker I developed a deep appreciation for this fishery. I was caught, hook, line and sinker.
My most exciting fish story moment for the trip occurred on the Baker while pounding the bank and cross-current striping a Coffey’s articulated sparkle minnow, gold and white, size 4. I was fishing with Johnathan and our guide, Javier. Javier was holding the 16’ cataraft on a good line 40’ from the bank on river left. I tight looped a cast toward the bank angled slightly down river. The fly landed 1’ from the bank and my fast sinking head landed in a straight line. I kept my rod low and immediately started stripping line very fast while following the fly with the rod tip. After striping line for approximately 15’ a massive brown trout appeared from the depths of the turquoise-blue water and nosed my fly. This fish was a 26” to 28” 10lb football! The fish never opened its mouth; it just appeared from nowhere, bumped my fly with its nose and disappeared back into the depths of the mighty Baker. It is instances such as this that fuel my passion for fly fishing and spark the desire to keep coming back. For me, it’s not always just about catching fish; it’s about the experience as a whole. I caught plenty of fish in excess of 20” at Patagonia Baker Lodge, but this large brown is the one I will most vividly remember and will likely bring me back.
Lake Bertrand offered a little different approach than the Cochrane and Baker Rivers. We launched the catarafts, headed north for 2 or 3 miles and pulled into a cove. There was no action in the cove so we moved to a rip current. This is where most of the action seemed to be on this day. The trout could be easily seen surfing head first into the rip current and consistently feeding. We basically positioned the cataraft in the rip current and sight fished for large lake grown brown and rainbow trout while drifting. We fished the rip current and moved several fish, but to no avail, as they wouldn’t fully commit to the fly presentation. When the rip current was finished we focused our attention toward the shore. Most of the shore was defined as a shear rock wall. We pounded the shore with streamers, but only moved one fish. Most of the larger fish, caught by the majority of the group, came from Lake Bertrand on both dries and streamers.
Our stay at the Patagonia Baker Lodge was one mixed with fly fishing and real adventure in one of the world’s special places. Contagious joyful energy was abundant while each person recounted the day’s events during dinner. Each sunrise brought enthusiastic anticipation of what the new day would reveal. Great conversation, laughter and joy were commonplace among the group. Fond memories were created and everyone left having experienced what only deep Patagonia can offer.