On a February morning, a foot of fresh snow blanketed my yard in Bozeman as I stared at the vast array of fly rods, dry bags and camera gear piled on my living room floor. The dichotomous situation of organizing boxes of large foam dry flies as I watched fat flakes of snow falling through my kitchen window was not lost on me. I was preparing to fly down to Chilean Patagonia for a week to chase wild trout out of Magic Waters Lodge. Though one of my ski bum friends attempted to belittle my bucket list trip by exclaiming how much killer powder skiing I would miss out on, the hint of jealousy in his voice was palpable.
I had the pleasure of hosting an eclectic group of eight Montana Angler clients from all over the United States for the week. Todd, Cherri, Kayvan, Fran, Sean, Paul, Bill, and Cody were just as excited as I was for our Patagonian excursion and proved to be a fantastic group to experience the adventure with. Though Montana Angler has hosted trips to Magic Waters Patagonia Lodge for the last eight years, this would be my first South American fishing foray and American Airlines couldn’t announce my boarding group fast enough.
After some irritating but generally inconsequential flight delays, our group of nine arrived in Santiago for a layover night before making the domestic flight down to Balmaceda the following morning. Several members of our group took advantage of the occasion to spend a couple extra days taking in the local sights and culture. Some chose to stay in Santiago and sample various Chilean wines while other made the short drive to coast to enjoy the beautiful seaside city of Valparaiso. We had been keeping an eye on the civil unrest in Chile in the months leading up to the trip, and the sight of Chilean riot police en route to the Bella Vista district of Santiago certainly caught our eye. Our driver Sebastian, who had been born and raised in Santiago, shared his concerns about political corruption, the country’s privatized retirement system and low wages, while remaining ever optimistic and hopeful about the future of his country and fellow citizens. Experiences like this conversation we shared with Sebastian is one of the reasons I find international trips so rewarding; beyond catching incredible fish in remarkable places, fishing trips act as a vehicle to connect with new and old friends, gain diverse perspectives, and experience the vast heterogeneity the different regions of our planet have to offer.
Upon arriving to the Castillo Rojo hotel in the Santiago’s Bella Visto District, Bill, Cody, Kayvan and myself enjoyed a pleasant al fresco dinner on the patio of Polvo Bar de Vinos. Our enjoyment of Chilean sea bass and locally sourced lamb dishes paired with fantastic Carmenere from small family vineyards was only occasionally interrupted with passing wafts of tear gas; a subtle cue that I wasn’t in Montana anymore and a more emphatic reminder of how privileged and lucky we were to be embarking on a fly fishing trip to Patagonia.
Late summer in Chile is a time for holiday, and our two-hour domestic flight the following morning from Santiago to Balmaceda was packed with locals and tourist alike escaping the muggy heat of Santiago for the cool, clean air of the Aysen region to the south. As I sat glued to my airplane window taking in the towering peaks of the Andes and turquoise blue waters of the seemingly infinite rios and lagunas, the banter of fast-paced, full of slang Chilean Spanish dialect filled my ears. With wheels down and our drivers waiting for us, we piled in and took in the aesthetics of the Chilean landscape and anticipated the fish to be caught in the several rivers, spring creeks, and lagunas we passed on the 45 minute drive to the lodge.
Upon arrival, it was obvious that Eduardo and his lodge team had been hard at work completing a significant lodge expansion, and 2020 was the inaugural season for Magic Waters Lodge 2.0. The recent addition included several new guest rooms, a fully renovated and expanded state of the art kitchen complete with a wood fired oven from which we enjoyed an incredible locally sourced Chilean lamb asado, as well as a game room where we suffered through some very amateur games of billiards, threw darts while sharing stories form our days of fishing, and enjoyed the well stocked self- serve bar. The expanded deck crafted from local hardwoods offered a comfortable outdoor gathering space and wood fired hot tub overlooking the laguna for taking in the evening sunsets and enjoying a pisco sour or two.
February in Chilean Patagonia is reminiscent of August in Montana; rivers had begun to drop and terrestrials were out in full force. The gigantic 3” long Cantaria beetles were flying with gusto in the mountainous areas offering opportunities to throw big dries for rising trout, and hoppers were prevalent in the valleys for even more big ugly action. We experienced a significant shift in the weather pattern after the third day of fishing which tempered the surface action a bit, but also invigorated the streamer bite as the big browns were on the prowl subsurface. The week offered a great mix of dry fly and streamer fishing on a variety of different venues, which I will discuss below.
Lower Paloma River and Lago Elizalde Outlet:
Our introduction to Chilean fishing began with our guide Hayden taking us to the famed Rio Paloma. Admittedly, it was an odd feeling pulling out from the lodge without a boat in tow, as is generally the case when I fish the large rivers of Southwest Montana, but Hayden assured me he had his boat strategically placed and waiting for us streamside. As promised, after making our way through a series of gates on a private estancia granting us exclusive access to Rio Paloma, a 16’ cataraft complete with a jet propulsion engine sat waiting for us. Kayvan, my fishing partner for the week, and I each rigged up our 6 weights with a size #6 Fat Albert and began casting into some of the most pristine and mesmerizing water I have ever had the opportunity to fish. The first mile of floating provided lots of structure and nice holding water, yielding a few nice browns on the dry fly. Though Kayvan and I were stoked to get some nice browns in the net, Hayden wasn’t satisfied…he told us to throw on our life jackets and prepared to motor up river. Stowing the rods during transport allowed us the opportunity to take in the phenomenal scenery of Rio Paloma and the incredible mountainscapes in every direction. I unapologetically gawked at the hanging glaciers, turquoise water, and cascading waterfalls as we cruised upriver.
Hayden expertly maneuvered through the timber and bends of the Rio Paloma then, unexpectedly to me, aimed the boat towards a crystal clear channel I had noticed (and missed a nice brown at) on our float downriver. A couple of bends later the mountains parted and we entered an enormous lake, Lago Elizalde, surrounded by snowcapped peaks. I felt like I had entered a scene from Jurassic Park, and halfway expected to see pterodactyls flying above the trout filled lake. Lago Elizalde offered a very different challenge…sight fishing the lake’s flats for cruising browns. Substitute a Gotcha for a dry fly on the end of my leader and mangroves for freshwater reeds and I would have thought I was bonefishing the flats of the Bahamas. Kayvan laid down a nice cast at a meandering 20” brown cruising away from the boat at about 40 feet. The fish veered from its course toward the foam beetle and, just as Kayvan prepared to set the hook, abruptly turned and darted away as if to say “nice try, bud”. This behavior perplexed Hayden a bit who had us reel in, add some 4X tippet to our leaders, and tie on a slightly smaller fly. Another good cast to a nice cruising brown…same result. Smaller fly? 5x? It was worth a shot. I didn’t think I’d be throwing 5x and a size #20 Adams in Chile, but there I was. I laid it out there and the biggest brown I had seen yet torpedoed straight for it. Putting the brakes on faster than I thought possible, the fish looked at the fly from one angle, swam under it, looked back from a different angle, swam a few feet away, turned back and looked again, then with a flick of its tail disappeared into the reeds. Damn.
Upon further observation, we realized that the fish just weren’t feeding on the surface. There were no signs of rising fish anywhere and the dead calm air and bright sunshine wasn’t doing us any favors. Time to switch gears and go back to the dry flies on some moving water for the afternoon. Our decision was soon rewarded with a well placed cast from Kayvan, laying his Fat Albert down near a pile of submerged timber just downstream of the lake’s outlet. Bam! A nice buttery brown slammed his dry fly and attempted to retreat back to the woodwork. Kayvan kept him from wrapping a log like a pro and played the fish to the net. Success. They say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so we kept tossing big dries and getting rewarded with aggressive strikes for the rest of the afternoon.
Days 2 and 3 – an unexpected cultural foray
After a fantastic first day of fishing, our high spirits were tempered as one of the guests of our hosted group experienced a medical emergency requiring immediate attention. The town of Coyhaique, just under an hour drive from the lodge, featured the region’s primary hospital and was able to provide the services we needed to get our guest back on his feet and fishing after a 36 hour hiatus. The lodge staff didn’t miss a beat and, Eduardo and Thomas specifically, went out of their way to ensure every possible accommodation was made. Thomas stayed at the hospital with me until the early hours of the morning to arrange every possible comfort for our guest, and treated me to one of his favorite local diners for a late night snack. I was also able to spend some time with Eduardo and, though he is a terrific lodge owner and outfitter, I realized he was an even better human being. He generously offered for me to join him and his wonderful family for lunch at a local brewery, showed me around some local markets, and made the absolute best of a potentially more stressful situation. In hindsight, missing a couple days of fishing was an insignificant sacrifice in exchange for the health of our guest and the opportunity to see a side of Chile that I otherwise wouldn’t have on this adventure.
While I was seeing the sights of Coyhaique and acting as an intermediary between physicians in the US and Chile, the other lodge guests were enjoying some fishing on Rio Simpson that had just cleared after a week of heavy rains, while others chose to hop in the saddle for some horseback accessed fishing. As luck would have it, another low pressure system with heavy precipitation would be moving in on day four, so the window for fishing the Simpson was short lived, but yielded some worthy trout. Some eager anglers pushed their luck by heading to the Simpson canyon after a night of heavy rains, and found themselves on the wrong side of the river as the water rose over a foot in a matter of minutes. The reward? A scramble out of the Simpson river canyon and finding the closest bridge to get back across the river to the guide rig. Though I wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to fish the Rio Simpson on this trip, it gave me an excuse (as if I needed one) to get back to Chile sooner that later.
Day 4 – Spring Creeks and Arroyo Arco
After an unplanned two-day break from fishing I was eager to get after it and make up for lost time. The incredible variety of water that was fishable from Magic Waters became only more apparent as the trip went on; after float fishing the hypnotizing waters of Rio Paloma and sight fishing to cruising browns on lake flats, I now had the opportunity to throw big terrestrial imitations on a pastural spring creek with our guide Thomas. The technique was typical of the late summer spring creek tactics I am used to in Montana, but certainly more forgiving. The cast still had to be accurate and movements had to be stealth in the ultra-clear water, but the fish were certainly still eating. My first few, a bit too timid casts, were just far enough from the overhanging bushes to coerce a reaction from the trout I know was hunkered down in the obvious hole, but one slightly better cast just on the edge f the shrubbery and , wham! My chernobyl ant disappeared in a flash and I was quickly working to steer the 16” brown away from the root ball offering its only escape and eased it into the net. Working a few successive holes as I creeped my way upstream resulted in a familiar pattern; a well place cast, a short drift, and an explosive eat by a healthy brown. My morning was made. We made our way back to the guide rig for a soup and sandwich lunch to refuel before making the short drive to our next venue.
When I first laid eyes on Arroyo Arco I was instantly reminded of one of may favorite, not-to-be-named-here, small valley streams in southwest Montana. Small enough to easily wade across, cows mooing in the distance, and enough deep holes, structure, and undercut banks to hold sizeable trout. The catch rates that afternoon were unreal. A mix of rainbows and browns from the size of my index finger to 16” were aggressively hitting every dry fly I experimentally tied on. Purple Chubby…wham! Yellow Hippy Stomper…bang! My buddy’s signature articulated mouse pattern…you bet! At this point, I was just going through my box to see if there was anything these fish wouldn’t eat. Every time I looked up to locate Thomas, he flashed a big smile and a thumbs up as if to say “pretty sweet, huh?” Tired with big smiles, we headed back to the rig for a quick 15 minute jaunt back to the lodge where we were greeted with fresh-from-the-oven empanadas and pisco sours.
Day 5 – Lago Atravesado
Wind and rain had arrived during my slumber and low pressure and cool temps had set in. Our guide for the day, Ben, thought we could gain some shelter from the wind and target some big fish by heading up the chain of lagunas passed the lodge where he had is boat waiting for us at Lago Atravasado. With the change in pressure and temperatures, the morning started off slow from a fishing standpoint, as we threw some big dries at the cliff walls along the edge of the laguna hoping to entice a strike, with little success. As the day warmed up a bit, we switched over to streamers and started to move some fish. Our tenacity paid off as we got some healthy browns to come up from the depths and chase down our large streamer patterns. Getting the stink of before lunch allowed us to relax, enjoy the incredible scenery and just appreciate being out on the water. We continued stripping Chile Buggers after lunch and landed several browns in the 14”-18” range, perhaps a slow day by Patagonia standards but certainly enough to say we got ‘em. Another incredible meal at the lodge along with some lively banter and card games had us ready to tackle the last day of fishing head on.
Day 6 – Rio Paloma, Rio Azul, Lago Desierto, and Lago Azul
On a windy and rainy morning, our guide Jose chose to take us back to the Rio Paloma system where a chain of lakes separated by sections of river would help mitigate any sediment coming into the river from the recent storms. As we motored up Rio Paloma, the glacial, milky tint to the water began to dissipate and, once above Rio Magote, the water cleared up nicely. We had moved several nice fish on streamers the day before, so I tied on a large olive streamer while Kayvan opted to fish a large Fat Albert dry fly. They turned out to both be good choices. Kayvan got the day started with a 18” brown on the dry fly as we fished the structure near the outlet of Lago Desierto. I stubbornly fought the wind throwing streamers from the back of the boat and was eventually rewarded when I hooked in to my biggest fish of the trip. I say hooked and not landed because this fish played me like a fiddle. After watching it come out of a shallow, rocky cove to chase down my streamer, the wake caused by this brown’s missile like trajectory got all of our attention. With my seven wt doubled over and a variety of large downed trees offering escape to this big specimen, I had him within 10 feet of the boat before he made a run I will not soon forget. Within seconds, he wrapped a log and erased any chance I had of getting this beast in the net. Jose gave me a friendly nudge to let me know exactly who won that battle. The fishing stayed consistent throughout the day and we opted to eat lunch on the boat as we jetted across Lago Deisierto, up Rio Azul, to Lago Azul. This setting was arguably the most picturesque venue I had seen yet and, coupled with out best day of fishing on the trip, made for a memorable finale to our trip. Every slot sub canyon and piece of structure along the bank seemed to hold a hungry brown trout or two and they consistently abandoned the safe haven of the bank to chase down our streamers and dries alike. Coupled with the dozens of cascading waterfalls plummeting into the lake and snow capped peaks all around, it was a truly epic day of trout fishing.
Around 3:00 the wind became unmanageable and, after moving a couple more fish on the Rio Paloma section, we called it a day and headed back to the lodge for an incredible lamb asado meal and an impressive musical performance Eduardo had arranged with a local band. Us guests joined in as the impromptu percussion section making for some knee slapping scenarios and cringe worthy solos.
Upon loading into the van on the final morning and heading down the dirt road toward the Balmaceda airport, it dawned on me just how much water I had not fished on this trip. Sure, I had a slight interruption in the fishing itinerary but, even if I had a full two weeks of fishing hard, there would still be many river sections and picturesque lagunas that I hadn’t even laid eyes on. I began making a mental list of what I wanted to fish on my inevitable return visit; Rio Mogato, Rio Blanco and the epic River of Dreams Basecamp, Rio Guillermo and many more. Though Montana Angler has been hosting trips to Magic Waters Lodge for nearly a decade, the constant improvements Eduardo has made to the lodge and his equipment, coupled with fantastic guides and an absolutely staggering amount of water to fish, keeps us coming back and enjoying unique experiences each and every time.