Wild places, pristine waters and plentiful trout are the hallmarks of a trip to this South American rainforest – with a touch of luxury to bookend the day. Adrian Dangar goes fly-fishing in Patagonia
Magnificent wild fish, pristine rivers and a truly remote region draws fly-fishers from all over the world to Chilean Patagonia. Adrian Dangar embarks on an adventure fly-fishing in Patagonia.
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FLY-FISHING IN PATAGONIA
We are driving to the River Palena on the final morning of our Patagonian fishing adventure when an elegant pampas cat emerges from dense Valdivian rainforest and slinks slowly across the dirt track in front of us – an animal so rare that it’s only the second one our guide, Reinaldo, has ever seen. Like the other experienced fishing guides employed by the newly opened Rio Palena Lodge some 80 miles inland from Chaiten on the Pacific coast, much of Reinaldo’s life has been spent in the great Chilean outdoors, so I take the sighting as a good omen for what lies ahead. Not that it seems possible to improve upon the fly-fishing adventures our group of four had already sampled during the previous three days.
Our team is headed up by Cameron Davenport, a fisherman and hunter from Colorado and angling sales manager for Eleven Experience. He is here to assess his company’s latest addition to a global portfolio of luxurious adventure lodges. Davenport has brought along acclaimed photographer, Patagoniaphile and fellow American Bryan Grayson and Tom Bie, who founded and edits cult US fishing publication The Drake magazine. Consequently, the chat was peppered with unfamiliar Americanisms – beats are called sections, catches are measured in inches not pounds, trout don’t take the fly they eat it, and our normal method of fishing in the UK is so unusual on many of the large Patagonian rivers that they have a special name for that, too: walk and wade.
Instead, most of the fishing is done from a raft designed to carry two anglers, expertly manoeuvred with oars by a guide to within casting distance of the bank as the boat floats merrily downstream. Having been kitted out with waders, boots and tackle back at the lodge, that was exactly how Davenport and I began our first afternoon on the churning Palena. Within a hundred yards of setting off beneath a cloudless blue sky, rainbows were attacking our streamer flies as we dropped them close to the bank and stripped them back across the current with 7wt rods and sink-tip lines. I can’t recall how many fish we caught that afternoon – it was well into double figures – only steep-timbered banks, sparkling aquamarine waters and giant tree trunks lying like grey skeletons on the riverbed, every drowned limb in sharp focus beneath 30 clear feet of water, for these dense native hardwoods sink as if wrought from lead.
When the drift ended in fading light a vehicle was waiting to whisk us back to the sumptuous new lodge, complete with helicopter gleaming in the twilight from its resting place on the lawn, but more of that later. Most Brits are happy to compromise on comfort in wild places if the sport is of a high order but there is a certain kind of international fly-fisher who demands the highest quality in both spheres. Suffice to say, the most discerning clientele would be impressed by the cuisine, accommodation and service provided by lodge staff, headed up by the delightful trio of Trini, Victoria and Michelle, the latter an artist in the mixing of delicious pisco sours. But even paradise can have its flaws. I woke early to the unwelcome sound of banal music filtering into my bedroom (sometimes less is more, don’t you think?). Once that had been addressed, I was able to absorb the bucolic sounds of a Chilean dawn. The river’s reassuring murmur, raucous quacking ducks, the chucao’s haunting call from dense woodland and the occasional screech of a cockerel.
We were on the road by 7am bound for the tiny settlement of Puerto Ramírez, where the powerful Futaleufú pours into the southern end of Lake Yelcho, overlooked by majestic, green-shouldered, snow-capped mountains. The 45-square-mile lake is a popular fishing destination but on this breathless, high-summer morning we saw just two other boats stirring her ice-green surface. We found Arturo waiting with a motorised boat to take us out into the water; our Uruguayan guide worked as a commercial fisherman before settling in Puerto Varas to run sport-fishing charters targeting the king salmon that also run up the River Yelcho into the lake. “This is a dream job,” he told us as the boat chugged away from the bank, “but a lot of pressure, too. The standards here are higher than anywhere else I know.”
Arturo need not have worried. What followed was a dreamy, surreal-like fly-fishing experience that began with a downstream drift into the lake just as several large trout ran amok beneath the far bank, ploughing into shoals of skittering salmon smolts. By the time we had floated beyond the river mouth Davenport and I had each landed fish of more than 2lb on fry imitation streamers; his, a muscled silver bar of rainbow; mine, a thick-set brownie speckled with irregular fat black spots. “Now for something different,” grinned our guide as we sped off across the heart of the lake. He cut the engine a hundred yards short of a reedy fringe, where, as if on cue, a large trout leapt clean out of the water and plopped back into the lake with a dragonfly clasped between its teeth. Sink tips and streamers were replaced by floating lines and artificial damsel flies, which we cast as close to the reeds as possible.
“God save the Queen,” were not words I expected to hear from my American fishing buddy but Davenport repeated the phrase several times during the next hour as we both struck prematurely at unexpectedly subtle rises. An expletive escaped my own lips when the 4x tippet snapped like thread against the weight of a heavy fish, but we did not leave that enchanted place empty handed. Next stop, a shaded cliff-face slanting into water the colour of blue ink, which we prospected with smaller terrestrial imitations. “This will be empty twice, but on the third visit there will be a big one.” Arturo shrugged. “But not today it seems. Let’s try the Chilean Caribbean.”
During our journey to a drop off between sandy shores and deeper water the surface of the sunlit lake was frequently stippled by swarms of fleeing smolts. “Tuna! Tuna!” our guide exclaimed excitedly, but without a wind large, predatory trout vanished at the boat’s approach. Instead, we held steady on the lip of the drop-off, threw out streamers and stripped them back fast. I watched a huge trout following my fly 20ft down, but it turned short and melted back into the depths. January and February are not conducive to catching big fish in Patagonia; the real monsters are usually landed during the cooler months at the beginning and end of the southern hemisphere fishing season. We sped upriver for a fine lunch on dry land and afterwards drifted back downstream past black and fiery-orange colihuachos, the gentle nip of which is considerably less fierce than their appearance. Sport had been slow in the afternoon heat but that changed once we offered fish fuzzy intimations of the Patagonian horsefly.
A TRULY ISOLATED REGION
To skim low over miles of sprawling Valdivian rainforest in a small helicopter as we did early the next morning is to appreciate just how remote and inaccessible this isolated region of Patagonia really is. The lodge’s retained pilot, Christian Honorato, treated us to a breathtaking rollercoaster ride above the second largest temperate rainforest on the planet; an undulating green carpet studded with jagged white peaks and blue lakes glittering from the hollows. We touched down beside the tumultuous Azul river – glacial fed and no larger than a Highland stream – and caught rainbow after free-rising rainbow on small dry flies and 3wt rods. A 10-minute flight away, we found the altogether different Tigre gurgling between streamy pools teeming with mackerel-backed, tangerine-bellied brook trout, the flanks of which glowed with purple, mauve and vermillion spots according to the angle of the light. At lunchtime, our guide pointed out pink clavel de campo (country buttonhole) flowers and submerged slabs of slippery white cancahua clay, which locals use to make fireplaces.
Trout throughout Patagonia are so numerous – we must have caught more than 50 each on the heli-fishing trip – that it’s hard to believe they are not indigenous but descendants from fish introduced from Europe and the USA from 1904 onwards. The immigrants flourished and grew so rapidly that despite the difficulties in reaching so remote a destination, Patagonia quickly acquired a reputation for superb fly-fishing that has endured to this day. I doubt the fish still average between 2lb and 3lb as Roderick Haig-Brown so eloquently describes in his 1954 southern hemisphere classic Fisherman’s Winter, but gigantic trout still swim the waters he fished and many are landed every year.
By the final day it needs only one big fish to put the seal on an epic fishing adventure. We had landed hundreds of wild brownies, rainbows and brookies, but the dog days of summer have produced few 20in-plus fish. The rare wild cat is forgotten by the time we put into the Palena for the last time, four fishermen in two boats destined not to see another soul on our day-long journey downstream, only lapwings, upland geese, graceful blacked-necked swans and a spiral of vultures lifting from an island shingle. Around noon our guide manoeuvres Davenport and I towards a long, streamy glide where the flow is not quite deep enough to obscure the blurred stone riverbed beneath the boat. For a moment I think my conehead JJ streamer has snagged a rock but when the line moves diagonally across the river, I feel the weight of a fish large enough for Reinaldo to row ashore so I can disembark and do battle on dry land. Ten minutes later a dour fighter lies defeated in the net; a gleaming bar of high-shouldered piscine perfection spotted like a cheetah with a taut, savannah-tinged belly to match. No one thinks to weigh or measure such an exquisite brown trout before we watch him flick a broad tail and glide purposefully back to the safety of deep water. It has been enough just to feast our eyes on a perfect example of the magnificent wild fish that will continue to draw fly-fishers from all over the world to the pristine trout rivers of Patagonia.
Private buyout rates at Rio Palena Lodge (15 January – 18 April 2021) start from £13,340 per night, based on up to 14 guests sharing and a minimum four-night stay. This price includes pre-arrival planning with an Eleven Experience Manager, daily chef-prepared meals, house alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, guided activities including heli-fishing or heli-hiking, and airport transfers to/from Chaiten or Palena. www.elevenexperience.com/eleven-rio-palena-lodge