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Patagonia fishing report

By admin - Posted on 28 September 2012

Fly Fishing Argentina: the Patagonia Report

[trip date: December, 2011]  [next trip: January 4-12, 2014]

Patagonia 13Profound inspiration comes from peaking over the horizon, catching a glimpse of another world, a light brush with a former dream that becomes recurring. My whole life, I have loved mountains and rivers without seriously contemplating whether I would ever visit Patagonia. Trout fishing in Colorado is much better than in Western Washington, where I was born and first took up a fly rod. I have felt lucky for all of my adult years and never really longed to travel to other continents to catch more trout. In fact, I have often felt that if I'm going to travel for two days in each direction, it must be for something more extraordinary. After all, plenty of trout live within walking distance of my home near Telluride.


In December 2011, my wife Laura and I had the opportunity to visit Patagonia for the first time. We learned, among other things, that "Patagonia" is both a specific and a vague term. It is specific in that it describes a region of Argentina and Chile that has clearly defined geographical boundaries. It is vague, however, in that when speaking of visiting "Patagonia," you could be talking about a high desert inhabited by wild boar and guanacos or a treeless archipelago populated primarily by penguins. You could be heading for glaciers thousands of feet above tree line or the fertile salmon fishing grounds of the Chilean fjords. Patagonia is a region of southern Argentina and Chile that covers 1,043,076 square kilometers and stretches across nearly 20 lines of latitude. For reference, the entire country of Chile is only 743,812 sq km. With an average population density of 1.9 people per square kilometer, Patagonia is inhabited by lots of critters, but very few humans.  


In our case, we were headed for trout streams near Junin de los Andes in the province of Neuquen, Argentina. Traful River Outfitters, a local guide service run by two born-and-raised Argentines, is based in nearby San Martin, a town so quaint that by the third day of our visit Laura was proposing an exchange student arrangement for our whole family. Junin is the self-proclaimed trout capital of northern Patagonia, an unprovable Patagonia 10distinction in a region with four or five rivers between each small town. In any case, Junin stakes its claim with trout on its street signs. In full disclosure, the town fathers should also paint a bottle of wine and a steak next to each trout.    


Patagonia 15Neuquen province looks much like Western Colorado. Lightly forested steppes climb gradually to the uplifted Andes, a ragged and varied range punctuated by towering volcanic cones. In certain areas, layers of peaks fold on each other, while in others a single spine of mountains wanders the border between Argentina and Chile. Weather comes from the Pacific, so the Chilean side is wet and the Argentine side dry. High country glaciers feed rivers in both the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. Though arid, the Argentine steppes percolate a tremendous amount of water, so spring creeks pop up in almost every rivershed. Even in high summer, many valley floors are naturally green, a boon to cattle and trout alike.  


Traful River Outfitters guides 15 rivers in this part of northern Patagonia. That seems like a lot, but some of the anglers we met who were traveling further south to Esquel or Bariloche had never heard of Junin or its rivers. Patagonia swallows travelling fishermen. Given such an enormous playing field, it's definitely a confidence builder to fish with true locals.  


Mark Lewis and Lucas Rodriguez, lifelong friends and co-owners of Traful River Outfitters, are two of the finest guides and hosts I have ever met. I would go blind anywhere in the world with them. Mark (wearing orange hat, with John, below) picked us up in Temuco, Chile and drove us across a spectacular border pass to the San Huberto estancia on the fabled Malleo River (pronounced "Mazsheo"). Running due east from Malleo Lake at the foot of the 12,500 foot Lanin volcano, San Huberto owns 27 miles of private water on the river. Regarded as one of the finest dry fly streams in the world, the Malleo's cloud-like hatches offer all-day dry fly action for much of the season. Patagonia 14December is early season in Patagonia. It was a low snowpack year, so high water wasn't an issue. In fact, we were stunned to learn that high water is almost never a problem, because trout streams in this part of Patagonia rarely go off color. This is the "Lakes Region" of Patagonia. Sure enough, most rivers seem to flow through lakes which act as sediment basins for each watershed. We noticed that streambanks are generally heavily vegetated with little exposed dirt. High water opens up side channels and tributary creeks, but doesn't blow out the main rivers. Just like in the Rockies, early season hatches are dominated by caddis. Stoneflies, Mayflies and midges were all present, but various species of caddis seemed to hatch from dawn to dusk.    


Patagonia 17At capacity, San Huberto Lodge (right) allows twelve rods per day on twenty seven river miles. In two days of fishing, we worked four beats for a total of about one mile of water. Mark indicated that most anglers cover ground a little slower, so the average Malleo trout sees flies only a few times each month. For much of our two days on the Malleo, there was no need to move quickly. In fact, there was no need to move at all. We never went more than ten minutes without seeing rising fish on the Malleo. We caught rainbows and browns in roughly equal Patagonia 11numbers, most between fourteen and nineteen inches.   As per normal, we fed some larger fish, but fanned the hook set on every occasion. Understated Mark would say something like "there was twenty inches on that one," just to make sure we didn't undercredit his favorite river.




Patagonia 12Throughout our trip, the fish themselves were real attention-getters. Mark and Lucas explained that trout were stocked twice by the Brits throughout Patagonia in the first ten years of the twentieth century. On the first occasion, rainbows and browns were stocked mid-winter in rivers along the east coast of Argentina. In the summer, all the fish died, so they restocked a few years later closer to the Andes, where the water stayed cold all year. Amazingly, no more trout have been stocked in a hundred years, so the rainbows and browns found throughout Patagonia have become resilient wild strains. In the southern reaches, some of the fish became sea-run, growing to over 15 pounds and acting more like salmon than resident freshwater trout. Steelhead were introduced in the fjord region of southern Chile, too, adding a compelling anadromous component to Patagonia's fishing spectrum.  


After fishing for two days in the opulence of San Huberto, Mark drove us downriver to a dirt road junction beyond the town of Junin where we met his partner Lucas on a dusty siding, loading our gear from one comfortable SUV to another, continuing our journey by descending into the steppes. The landscape stretched, colors softened and our views expanded.    

Patagonia 19

We passed a sign that said "Bariloche 405 km." We passed an ox pulling a wooden cart with wheels as tall as our SUV. Shortly after turning from the main dirt road to a secondary track, Lucas slowed the vehicle to point out a family unit of four wild boar, grazing a hundred yards upslope. The steppe land is arid but remarkably rich. We saw flocks of exotic birds, guanacos, boar, red deer and several species of raptor on our drives in and out of the Collon Cura river canyon ("Cozshon Cura," the Stone Mask).


Patagonia 18Tres Rios Lodge, built by Lucas to accommodate small groups of special clients, sits on a wedge of its own land between giant private estancias where the confluence of the Chimehuin and Alumine rivers form the Collon Cura. The sense of space here cannot be overstated. Navigable rivers may be run by the general public, but the distance from boat ramp to boat ramp can be too much to cover in one day of fishing. Tres Rios, surrounded by private land, provides a proprietary ramp in the middle of a 20- mile section of private land. Other outfitters float these three rivers, but are forced to forward-row much of the fishing day to cover enough ground. Lucas told us, "We fish these big rivers like small rivers, wading all the side channels and Patagonia 4fishing hatches in strategic places." In two days of float fishing, we covered the lower ten miles of both the Alumine and Chimehuin rivers, encountering only one other boat on each river. As predicted, they were forward-rowing while we fished at a relaxed pace, stopping to wade the labyrinth of channels (above) that come and go on each river with fluctuating water levels.  


Patagonia 2On the lower miles of the Alumine we had an experience that neither Laura nor I will ever forget. Lucas manhandled the boat into a side channel, walking it through a jungle of willows while Laura and I walked down a gravel bar. Reboarding, we floated under a canopy of willows for almost a mile, long afternoon rays filtering through the vegetation (left). Trout were feeding everywhere, sometimes nosing the surface but more often finning under the willows. Upon closer inspection, the lower willow branches more mostly leafless. Lucas explained that an annual hatch of inchworms was just Patagonia 16beginning the process of devouring every leaf on the trees. They hatch by the millions, starting right at waterline. He rigged weightless inchworm droppers under our Chubby Chernobyl and Turck's Tarantula dry flies. What ensued was some of the most exquisite sight fishing that we will ever experience, fish passing in and out of the shadows, hovering just below the surface, methodically sweeping their territory as if mowing the grass.   We played and released countless fish in that magical hour.


On the middle day of our stint at Tres Rios, we made a longer run to fish a river south of San Martin de Los Andes called the Filo Hua Hum (Snake River, describing its wandering course).   To me, all of these rivers seemed close together. That could just be Lucas's driving, however. Let's just say that Lucas is quite comfortable on dirt roads. When pressed, he admitted that a good customer once told him, "Lucas, don't look now...there's a drift boat chasing you! But don't worry; the way you're driving, you'll lose it soon."


Patagonia 7 The Filo Hua Hum, about the size of the Madison in Yellowstone, passes through two prominent lakes in its upper watershed. Driving into the valley, the pitched road skirts one of the lakes four hundred feet above water level, a dramatic but hair raising approach. Stopping to gather the landscape, the lake water was so clear that we could clearly see individual trout cruising below at a total distance of 500-600 feet (right).  



The valley itself would, under normal circumstances, be described as pastorally forested with soaring views to alpine ranges on three sides. The eruption of Chile's Puyehue volcano, however, changed all of that. In June of 2011, Puyehue began disgorging tons of ash into the atmosphere. Intermittent eruptions have closed the airports in Esquel, Bariloche and San Martin for most of the ensuing 9 months. Prevailing winds have frequently tracked over the Filo Hua Hum valley, dropping six inches of ash onto every square meter of the watershed. Rivers further south, including the legendary Traful, were so heavily affected that fishing is not presently possible on them. Actually, the fishing is just fine on the Traful, but you can't comfortably exist anywhere Patagonia 9near the river. In the valley of the Filo Hua Hum, ash rose from our tire tracks and even from our footfall as we made our way up and down the river. Ash blew from the mountain tops giving the illusion of blizzard conditions. We wore Buffs over our muzzles in order to breathe comfortably.  (Note the dune-like ash accumulation in photo, left).   


Patagonia 6Fortunately, the fish seem completely unaffected. The Filo Hua Hum is a pure sight fishing experience, New Zealand-style. Lucas rigged us with twelve foot 2X leaders tipped with size #4 dry flies. "There is only one rule on the Filo Hua Hum: always stay behind me." For most of the day we were also below him. Lucas worked ahead on the ridge above, stopping every hundred feet to let his eyes locate a target. The "few but big" principle applies on the Filo Hua Hum, a river that makes you wonder where all the small fish are hiding. In six hours, we caught about eight fish and missed perhaps eight more. Every fish was eighteen inches or better and all appeared to be brown trout. In many cases, the sighted fish was plainly visible from river level, even two feet deep in heavy pocket water.   All but a handful ate on the first cast, or at least the first cast that covered the fish. When I'm scared, I tend to throw short. Better short than long, apparently, because every lined fish spooked with the grace of an untracked train.  


Patagonia 8The highlight of the day came when Laura made a perfect fifty foot toss to a gigantasaur brown of at least two feet that seemed to own the center of the river. It allowed her size #4 PMX to coast casually downstream over its head, dorsal and tail, then turned and rose, as if challenging Laura to a duel. She set hard and the fish bolted toward the far bank, entered a fallen tree and jumped up and down like a petulant child until it broke her 10 lbs test leader. She reeled in, nodded to Lucas, said nothing.  (Laura getting worked by said fish, left). 


All three of us saw that trout's tonsils when it rose, a vision that until next time will remind me that it's not the fish we catch that we see in our dreams. Patagonia 3It's the ones we miss.  



Missing Patagonia,

John Duncan




Want to go? Telluride Outside will host at least one trip and possibly two per year to fish with Traful River Outfitters in Argentine Patagonia, beginning in winter 2012-2013. Stay tuned for dates or call to inquire. Space will be highly limited in the first year or two of this program.

Patagonia 5 

View trip photo gallery  


More on Traful River Outfitters  


For more on Patagonia: Wiki facts



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