Jim recounts a few decades worth of adventures in Patagonia.
Many times over the years, I’ve been asked my favourite fishing lake, river or destination. What’s my favourite fish to catch? Who do I think is the best angler? Etc, etc. All extremely difficult questions because I genuinely struggle to be too specific. There are so many places, people and times that have been magic; and all anglers have many high points in their fishing life and probably some disappointments. It’s just part of the whole picture of fishing with a rod.
Recently, I wrote a piece about the joys and pitfalls of travelling to fishing destinations. Flowing from this, a few readers asked which destination was my favourite? Again, I dislike the inflexibility of the question, but it had me thinking. While I’m still not sure I know the answer, Argentina certainly comes to mind. Whether it was the first time I visited there as a very young and naïve 23-year-old on his first overseas trip way back in 1967, or the remarkable fishing I’ve had every time since. I don’t know… but I do know I’ve loved every trip there. I’ve loved the people, the Patagonian plains, the Andes mountains, the sub-Antarctic territory of the Tierra del Fuego, the simple life of the country. This despite the poverty and wealth of a nation that never seems to be at peace with itself. I’ve even enjoyed the barter of the black market for currency exchange, making the place even cheaper for tourists
I’ve been in Buenos Aires with riots in the streets, I’ve dined at the outstanding steak houses with meat slow-cooked, and stretched out in front of firepits. I’ve drunk the national beer in bars until the early hours of the morning, enjoyed the afternoon siestas, fallen in love with the Malbec wines, and admired the remarkably good-looking people.
My first trip was inspired by Joe Brooks and his book, ‘A World of Fishing.’ This was well before the advent of mainstream trout fishing lodges and modern-day trout guides. There were no direct flights on my maiden visit, and I arrived into Buenos Aires by first flying to Los Angeles via Noumea, Fiji and Hawaii; then, southward to Mexico, Peru, Chile, and finally to the Argentinian capitol. Aircraft needed to refuel far more often than for the 14 hour flights which exist today!
On my very first trip, I spent a day or two as a sightseer in Buenos Aires. I wandered all over the city and walked into some government building I thought was a museum, to be suddenly looking down the barrel of a machine gun. Instant panic and surrender, followed by language difficulty. But in the end, all was sorted and smiles all round. To a young Australian, this was a big fright as even in the late 1960s, our police in Melbourne were rarely armed.
Then came a midnight bus departure for San Carlos de Bariloche at the foot of the Andes, and the trout fishing trip of a lifetime. Dawn broke as we drove through the pampas. I remember great skeins of birds flying across the never-ending grasslands. Then the landscape got increasingly drier as we drove on to Patagonia, which was basically a desert; occasionally crossing big glacial Andean rivers on a ‘balsa’: a large raft-like boat. All dirt roads in those days and now all sealed highways.
Halfway through the next night, the bus stopped, and the driver, seeing me awake, beckoned me to join him. We walked over some sand hills and a very nervous Jim Allen started thinking, this is not right! Eventually we came to a waterhole in the desert, and he passed to me a tin mug of the most awful tasting mineral water I’ve ever had before or since. Finally, we arrived at Bariloche at 8am. Exhausted and suffering a bout of diarrhoea, I slept all day!
With the help of the few at the hotel who spoke English, I was introduced to George Wenkheim and his son Tom. George was German and had migrated to Argentina at the end of the war. If my memory serves me correctly, he was a Count and from German royalty. I suspect they were the only trout guides in Argentina at the time. Anyway, George took me under his wing, and I was added on to his staff for ten days to help around the camp – with time off for fishing.
We fished all round, including a trip to Hunin de los Andes, and the giant trout of the Chimehuin Boca. A boca is where a river naturally spills out of a lake. On the two visits, I saw a few and caught nothing. However, Jackie Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Prince Radziwell, caught a pair of seven-pound monsters. While I found him difficult to talk to, at the time they were the biggest trout I’d ever seen, and I was full of admiration. I fished many rivers in the area, but the Malleo was the best, catching 52 rainbows all over two pounds in a day, all on a dry fly. My best fishing day ever back then.
Finally, south to the Tierra del Fuego, classed at the time as Argentina’s Antarctic Territory and with duty-free status. I fished the Rio Grande, travelling out each day to the Estancia Maria Behety. At the time, the Estancia had the largest operating shearing shed in the world with 72 stands, and it could hold three thousand sheep undercover at one time. They all knew of bigger sheds in Queensland historically and expected me to know too! Being Australian, I was given legendary status and was appointed a show judge for the Merino-Corriedale sheep show. I protested and said I knew nought about sheep. In broken English, the head honcho said he would guide me through the judging. Well, everything turned out perfectly, and in town at the English-speaking Club that night, I was some sort of hero. We left the club at dawn and the truth was not in us!
The fish in the Rio Grande were sea-run brown trout and large. The wind never stopped blowing and my biggest trout was about 6 pounds. Others caught much bigger. The fishing there today is much better protected, with no netting allowed at the mouth of the river. So, the sea-runners are even larger today and five-star trout lodges for our friends in America and elsewhere are the main source of income.
My time there was a very memorable, and I look back fondly half a century later at the locals who adopted a young Aussie boy for a week.
Heading back to Buenos Aires on firstly a DC3, switching to a DC4 at Comodoro Rivadavia, was eventful. As the flight was called, I walked out, had my ticket checked, and got onto the wrong plane. When my seat was needed by the true owner, panic erupted and of course no one spoke English. It was sorted in a few minutes and a distraught me was finally put on the right plane. After we took off and levelled out, the hostess beckoned me to the flight deck. I just thought they were being pleasant as South Americans are, until the voice from the cockpit called, “G’day mate, had a bit of trouble boarding did ya?” With that, the co-pilot went to the jump seat, and I flew to BA in the front, The pilot had been dismissed from MacRobertson-Miller airlines in WA for flying a plane under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and was now loving life in Argentina.
Anyway, I’ve been back to Argentina many times over the years. I’ve fished for monster brook trout on the weedy chalk streams, sea-run rainbows on the Rio Santa Cruz (don’t think I’d call them steelhead but some of the locals do), and most recently in 2019, when I went back again with a group of Aussies to fish Lake Stroebel… better known as Jurassic Lake. At the same time, Tasmania was hosting the World Fly Fishing Championships in the most appalling weather, while we, in Argentina were fishing during the calmest patch of weather in months. We all caught monster trout and not one of our party missed out on a ten pounder. The biggest caught were twenty pounds and the lodge didn’t even record a trout unless it was over 14 pounds. The sun was out for a while, and we could polaroid the giant trout on the best days. Flies used were large dries, with a big scud pattern underneath. Amazing fishing.
As I wrote at the start of these notes, I dislike being asked what’s the biggest, best, etc. Yet as I’ve penned these memories, it has lifted my thoughts to go back to Argentina again… sooner rather than later!