In the shadow of the Andes

Kiel recounts a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Patagonia.  

I’ve been lucky enough to travel through much of Australia and overseas flyfishing. A lot of those destinations I never thought I’d get to. They were just far off places in magazines and videos. For years I daydreamed and wondered if I’d ever get the opportunity to actually be standing in these locations. Bucket-list places to lose sleep over. From deserted tropical islands, knee-deep on sand flats. Or walking riverbanks, sight-fishing to sipping trout with 5 kilometre-high mountains in the background.

Then, earlier this year, the daydream became reality, and I got to experience one of these places: Argentinian Patagonia.

The trips before my trip

Mark Weigall and his good mate Adam ventured over there a few years ago. As Mark tells it, it all started when Mark randomly ran into a farmhand on a working visa here in Victoria; a young Argentinian who told Mark he loved flyfishing. As you do, Mark took him out for a day on the local lakes. It was then that the young bloke began speaking of his family’s property back home, a vast sheep station in the foothills of Andes – with, of course, rivers running through it. Conversations began and Mark was offered to go over and check it out, which he and Adam did, and again after that and again after that…

The first attempt was sort of a fishing trip on the fly (sorry!). For starters, there wasn’t a lot of the local language – Spanish – spoken between the two Australian travellers. According to Mark, Adam told him he had the Spanish covered. However, on arrival, Adam confessed that he only knew one phrase, “Dos cervezas, por favor” meaning, “Two beers please.”

So, Adam sort of had it covered. Wouldn’t necessarily get them out of trouble, but they weren’t going to go thirsty.

They had no real idea of where to go or how to fish the places they ended up. They simply hired a car and headed south. Adam found a ‘lodge’ on the internet, so they made some calls. They were to meet their hosts at the lodge at 8pm that night. One small inconvenience. The directions stated the lodge was 2 hours down a dirt road, with a key landmark being a bridge which meant they were only 20 minutes’ drive from their accommodation. Except it turned out the bridge had been washed away in a flood the day before.

Not knowing what to do, with no phone service and only enough Spanish to order two beers, they decided to drive back into the small town they passed 45 minutes prior. With some luck they found a local walking along the side of the road. Through hand gestures, broken English and even more broken Spanish, they were led to a woman’s house in town. For $16 US they slept on Yak skins next to an old heater for the night.

That story has always stuck with me, showing how accommodating and friendly the Argentinian people are.

The first trip was effectively a research mission, which turned out so well, they continue to head back each year, catching up with friends and families they met the first time.

That research trip. No wonder Mark and Adam wanted to come back!

This February

This year, I was lucky enough to meet some of them myself through two weeks travelling, eating, drinking and of course fishing.

Mark put together a ragtag team of mates, me included, and we set off from Melbourne airport in mid-February. After a long flight, two B-grade movies, a little sleep and a lot of anticipation, we landed in Santiago, Chile. Short stopover, then back on another plane, a few hours later landing in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. This city is spread over 400 km², with a population of 16 million people. Bustling, with great nightlife near the area we were staying. So of course, we spent that night out on the town.

Now just a heads up. I was told about great restaurants and the amount of food, but nothing could have prepared me for that first meal. I’m fairly sure I ate three quarters of a cow from a plate longer than my 3 weight. After dinner, I waddled back to the hotel – not sure if that was from the food or the wine.

A good night’s rest, up early and we headed to the domestic airport.

After a short flight south-east, we were greeted by Mark’s good mate and guide Jero. Jero had four other guides with him. We spread ourselves between five Hiluxes with driftboats in tow, threw our bags in the back, and started our 2 hour drive further south again.

The banter began straight away between us and the guides. I think there was something about winning a Football World Cup and something about pumas being better than wallabies. (I think pumas are cooler than wallabies too.) Later, I found out that was a rugby union thing.

The roads constantly changed from bitumen to gravel, and the further south we drove, the higher the mountains became until they were towering over us. Rocky and rugged. Sharp and snow-capped as they reach for the sky. Passing small rivers, spring creeks, and bridges over larger clear, braided rivers.

Sights on the road.

An amazing thing about Patagonia is that the Chilean side collects all the moisture from the Pacific Ocean – it’s mostly green and lush. But the Andes, towering kilometres high against the prevailing weather systems, stop a lot of the moisture from making it over. As a result, the Argentinian side is dry and, in a way, desolate. Rough but beautiful.

We passed through small towns, some with brightly coloured houses, some with nice gardens. Some with horses out the front and others looking like John Wayne should be rocking on a chair out the front.

Daniel’s lodge

Past the last bridge (not washed away this time) we made it to our lodge. It was a double story log cabin which owner Daniel had built himself. Six years it took him in this remote area. Nestled at the base of the Andes, Daniel spends all year here. Half of the time, covered in snow. Walking up the timber steps onto the front pergola, Daniel and his two daughters met us with hugs and a gin & tonic.

Guides, 4WDs and anglers at Daniel’s lodge.

Blown away already by the drive, waters, mountains and scenery, it seemed surreal to be standing on that porch with a great bunch of guys, having a G&T, and looking at a big lake only 150 metres from where I was standing.

We dropped our bags in our rooms and came back to the main dining area – an open space full of exposed timber, chairs and tables. A bar and of course the open fire and large steel cooking plate in the centre of the room where a whole lamb was hanging over the flames cooking.

More ‘carne.’ (Spanish for meat.)

Hope you like meat!

Over the next few nights this is where we sat, talked, laughed, told tall stories and watched our dinners being cooked and prepared. There’s something very special about having a local Malbec (red wine Argentina is famous for) with a hearty meal that’s just been cooked in front of you. Perfect after a long day on the water.

Over the next 5 days we split up into groups, fishing from rafts, drift boats and walking the surrounding (río) rivers and (lago) lakes. The temperature in remote Patagonia/southern Argentina that time of year is much like Tasmanian highlands crossed between the Snowy Mountains. The average temperature at night is 7C; the average temperature during the day is 18C. The flyfishing also has similarities, from bug hatches to sight-fishing. Indicator nymphing to swinging wets.

Mark and rainbow.

Fish we targeted were both rainbow and brown trout; also brook trout, with the off chance of wild tiger trout. One day out on a larger lake with Mark, myself and Jero on the oars, we hit the water early. We ventured to the far side where small rivers run in. Crystal-clear water and a sandy lakebed made for great sight-fishing around the reeds and grass. Throwing large Stimulator and hopper patterns, we had a blast watching 3 to 5 pound ‘bows swimming vertically through the water to inhale our flies.

As the sun got higher, shining on the Andean snow in the background, we went looking for wind lanes out in the middle. A light breeze was blowing food down the lake, and we found fish rising to smaller insects in the lanes. Opting for smaller dries, we both picked off a few trout before the wind changed and the lanes dispersed.

Time for lunch.

Each day, we’d pull up on shore of the lago or rio, and the guides would then pull out a table and chairs and tablecloth. Wine and local cheese and meats entrees, would be followed by either a packed lunch, or cooked right there beside the water. The amount of effort put into lunch each day astounded me. The variety and quality of food and drinks.

Waited on like it was our job to sit there, eat and drink (which I was really good at by the way).

After lunch, back into the boat, fishing the deeper tree-lined shores this time. With the light getting lower, the sighting was getting harder.

Mark and I went back to the big dries. Drifting the edges, we concentrated on casting under overhanging trees with hopper patterns. Worked a treat with browns and ‘bows cruising the banks looking for a meal.

Each day, there was a new area to fish; a new technique to try. On some lakes, I found getting out of the boat and walking the shallows sight-fishing was great. Small mayfly patterns to large dries moved through the ripples or waves. At times, ripping wets like Magoos along the deeper edges fooled them. Nymphs under dry along the weed-beds out in the middle also did the damage.

Fishing mate Baz with a cracking lake brown.

On the rivers in this area, we were able to either raft or walk. From the raft, we’d fish the drop-offs and edges, with both dries and nymph-under-dry working well. The boats could be anchored into position, so if you found a back eddy or good corner, you were able to sight-fish in the gin-clear water.

Walking the spring creeks or smaller rivers was much the same. Fishing likely spots, good runs and sight-fishing at times.

As our time at Daniel’s lodge came to an end it was time to say goodbye. The fishing, hospitality and everything in between exceeded my expectations. I now know I’ll be back early February next year, so I can wipe the tears from my eyes.

Lodge life – Daniel (owner), Baz (angler) and Jero (guide).

Heading north

Packing bags and heading north to the next lodge, we fished on the way.

We were lucky enough to visit some waters with wild brook trout. There are only a handful of places you can do that here in Australia, so I was pretty pumped. Brook trout are a strange fish to me, one I’ve not fished for much; only in small mountain streams where a brookie of half a pound is a good one.

Patagonia on the other hand is the home of the world record wild brook trout, and here they grow to around 12lb. These fish are part of the char genus, which love really cold water. Aggressive, but timid at times. Feeding hard or hiding in the cold depths. Either way, we had to find them. Beautiful markings of orange, purple and yellow. Some with blue spots, some with red. Some light in colour, some much darker. And while we were still able to sight-fish some of them, it was best to fish wets.

Out in the open on the lakes, we found brook trout cruising drop-offs, rocky outcrops and some on the sandy flats. Hard fighting fish, they put 3X to the test. The brookies were a real stand out for me.

Big brook trout were a personal highlight.

It was a lot of fun talking different flies with the guides. Them laughing at mine and I at theirs’. Our cute little wets compared to the ones they like: big black and purple Zonker patterns; some with coneheads, which made for excitement when fishing with two others in the boat. We all should have worn helmets!

With new ways to fish, we learnt a lot and got to catch some great brookies. These fisheries are hard to get to, down long tracks, bouldery and rough. A dead giveaway for me was the black line down one track, where the last bloke had taken a car with inadequate clearance and put a hole in their sump, leaving a trail of oil. Not somewhere you’d like to get stranded!

After a some brookies each, we decided it was time to put the boats on the trailers and keep heading north to the next lodge.

I’ve spent the majority of my flyfishing trips in swags, tents and a sprinkling of nicer accommodation. Head to toe in hiking tents with snorers, (me) and in the back of cars. I think a 4-man tent is 4 star…

Then I went to Daniel’s lodge. Beautiful log cabin in the foothills of the Andes. I thought that was flash…

Our next lodge was one Jero works out of most of the year. It has a chef, a menu, a lookout, a swimming pool, a hot tub and a river at the doorstep – literally. There’s a fire pit with couches surrounding it (lots of dribble talked around that). Entrees of pulled pork sliders, with Jero on guitar in the background, sounding like some sort of Argentinian Oasis playing Wonderwall.

The river out the front is a little different to the rivers we are used to here at home. For context, we can just wade across the Goulburn and Swampy Plain rivers at 15 cumecs – it’s slippery and a wading staff can help. I fished this river at 700 cumecs. A wading staff isn’t going to save you in a flow like that. This river is a tailwater, and like back home, flows change depending on various demands and times.

Now that’s a river!

I learned a lot here also. You could be in a back eddy 100 metres from the bank in a drift boat fishing size 14 dries to elevated rainbow trout sipping off the top. Then casting at the banks with Stimulators or a fly the guides love, the Chubby Chernobyl. Or drifting the banks throwing wets. In a shallow corner (that lasts for hundreds of metres in a river this big) slowly drifting, targeting sipping trout in skinny water.

A different river technique I’ve not used a lot here in Australia, but will be sure to do a lot more of, is sinking lines and big wets. Due to the depth and high flows, the guys like to sink big wets down deep (one called a Dolly Llama!) then strip back. A lot of Aussies would think this is strange – well I certainly did. Dry fly or die… But I wanted to try it, and my guide Nano explained, “You need to cast at an angle, let it sink then strip.”

Easy-peasy thought Kiel…

After a few casts, I realised how hard and technical it was. Casting at a 45 degrees from a moving drift boat, letting enough line go, but not so much that the upwelling water will catch your running line. Not to stop the fall of your fly to aid with the maximum amount of sink, rolling out straight in water moving faster than the drift of the boat. Then swing, hang on, and strip strip strip.

Rivers this big can require a different technique or two.

It is an amazing way to fish. Pulling browns from the deep, and geez they fight hard in all that fast water.

The variety of styles we fished over two weeks surprised me. The overwhelming welcomes we received were touching. The scenery made it hard to watch a dry fly. The friendships made will last, and the memories are to hold tight.

Cya next year Jero, the guides, their families and those mountains.