Patagonia – What Next?

With international travel back, Henry recalls some lessons from his last pre-Covid trip.

For so long, it seemed that whenever we turned on the TV, listened to the radio or scrolled through social media, we were faced with overwhelmingly negative news about COVID-19. Fair enough, the world was, and arguably still is, in the midst of a pandemic. Covid forced a lot of Australian fly anglers to look closer to home (literally) for their quarry. As a result, the true grandeur of Australia’s flyfishing opportunities were uncovered and appreciated by those who had, until then, taken them for granted; including yours truly.

However, as we ‘learn to live with the virus’, the distinct feeling of turning a corner becomes more prevalent. The prospect of venturing beyond our nation’s borders to scratch our flyfishing itch is once again becoming a reality. So it’s only prudent to turn our minds to the age-old question: where to fish next? In the process of answering that question, I’ve cast my mind back to my last international flyfishing trip; reflected on what went well, and what I can avoid next time.

Patagonia 2019/20

Fresh from wrapping up university and wanting to cash in on my last precious block of free time before entering the rat-race, I decided to backpack my way around the trout-bum Mecca: Patagonia. This stunning region covers the southern tip of the South American continent, encompassing both Chile and Argentina. Often referred to as the last frontier, its wilderness is untamed and often devoid of human occupation. Solitude isn’t hard to find when fishing in Patagonia.

Patagonia’s wild appeal.

Flyfishing aside, it is a beautiful place. The landscape is peppered with endless vistas of towering snow-capped ranges. In the towns, the streets are always social places with incredible traditional South America barbeques (Asados in Spanish) and beautiful red wines on offer wherever you turn. When you add some of the most abundant trout fisheries on the planet to the formula, this region is simply too good to be true. It really is trout-bum heaven.

Back down to earth

Naturally, with months of nothing but final uni exams to occupy my mind, I had put in a fair bit of pre-trip research and planning. I felt I had covered every blue line on Google Maps, cross-referenced the name with every flyfishing blog or forum I knew of, and ultimately devised what I believed to be a fool-proof game plan to work my way from the north to the south of Patagonia.

The Patagonia dream… (M. Weigall pic)

One piece of water which stood out immediately during the planning, was the fabled Rio Limay. I was determined to begin my trip there and start things off with a bang.

Stepping out in Bariloche, Argentina, with fly rod in hand, I was finally set free. I felt like I had beelined to this piece of water all the way from my home in Canberra, and to finally be on its banks felt invigorating. The Rio Limay is a river which meanders through almost desolate, windswept, dry grassland known as steppe. Beyond the immediate vicinity of the river’s distinct turquoise blue, the landscape seems empty of life.

While the Rio Limay does bring water to otherwise barren surrounds, it is best known worldwide for its trophy brown trout. Arguably the best-known river in Patagonia, it regularly gives up 10lb browns. Months of big fish anticipation had manufactured an illusion in my mind that I would be able to rock up on day 1 and conquer the Rio Limay, landing one of these trophies.

Not quite the Rio Limay monster I was after.

I could not have been more wrong. Coming back to earth like a lead balloon, my expectations were dashed. During a whole two days fishing the river hard, I wasn’t able to produce anything beyond the size of my palm. Sure, plenty of large shadows were spooked off from the shallows. Even some more-than-respectable brown trout in the 4-5 lb range, rose to inspect a size 6 Chubby Chernobyl, but the fish that ultimately came to hand fell short of my lofty expectations. Defeated, my Patagonian backpacking mission was off to a rocky start.

Re-grouping back in Bariloche over a customary red meat asado and Malbec vino, I set my sights on the next destination, the Rio Manso. Another world-class river, yet one that appeared to cop less attention and traffic than the Rio Limay. With the Rio Manso being a little off the beaten track, I decided that the one day’s guiding I had budgeted for, should be there. It paid dividends.

Drifting the Rio Manso.

Having the local knowledge in my ear, with what techniques to use and where to put my fly, helped immensely. Whilst landing a monster eluded me, I was lucky enough to experience incredible dry fly action and some visual streamer takes that had me in awe.

An unnamed rivulet

For the first half of my Patagonian adventure, I was lucky enough to have my mate Will as company. Will is very outdoorsy yet channels his passion into rock climbing rather than fishing. And despite tagging along for a number of flyfishing trips back home, he was yet to catch a fish on fly. Patagonia was the perfect place to set that right.

One of the highlights of my entire trip was an evening rise we shared out the back of a random Argentinian hostel, fishing a piece of water bursting at the seams with trout. This moment all came about by pure chance, after the hostel owner directed us down there when he noticed the rod tube in my luggage. This chance discovery laughed in the face of my diligent and comprehensive pre-trip preparation. I didn’t even know the stream’s name!

Welcome success on the creek out the back of our accommodation. Take it when you can get it.

As the light slipped away into a muted nothingness, and the last of our red wine and pizza were polished off, we reflected on what we had just experienced. The size of those fish was of no significance but to experience such prosperous and relaxed flyfishing with one my mates, a million miles from home, was incredibly special. Seeing Will grinning from ear to ear, having landed fish number 1, 2… and 10, was very special.

No doubt with a bit of focussed research, I could find out what that rivulet is called, but I like the romance of it remaining nameless.

The 11th Hour

As the days went by and my flight back to Australia raced ever nearer, I felt the clock was ticking on my chances to land a big Patagonian trout. As Will left to return home, I turned my eye to focus solely on hunting down a good fish.

Spectacular water on the Rio Azul.

After a couple of overnight bus rides and one too many street-stall feeds, I found myself back in waders in the Los Alerces National Park, a staple trout fishery of northern Patagonia. My standard dry dropper was rigged up, a lethal Royal Wulff/Hare and Copper, and I was dialled in for some backwater polaroiding at first light.

The morning came and went, with a few respectable fish being hooked and lost, but none of great size. It had me questioning over lunch whether I was in the right place for a solid fish. Resigning myself to the fact that even if I wasn’t, there was nothing I could do about it until the next bus turned up in 3 days, I continued to trudge along the bank. After few more bends, tripping my way over bamboo and birch forest, and I came across a massive back eddy.  Pushing through a hedge of thick, thorny bushes, I peered over the edge to see a literal swarm of tank rainbow trout mooching around this slack water, eating as they pleased. My heart pounded as anticipation set in.

The midday sun illuminated the water, and to just sit and observe as these fish cruised around, was mesmerising. I could have watched all day.

With a complete lack of space to back-cast and a need to be discrete, I was reduced to the bow-and-arrow cast. Sticking with the Wulff/Hare & Copper combo, my first cast was inspected then rejected by two fish. Not a great start. Switching to a Red Tag, the same happened again, with three fish all floating upwards to inspect then turn in disdain at the final moment. Finally, I went with a Black Caddis. The first time I had ever tied this fly on, but alas, same result. Defeated, I went to drag my fly upwards back towards me, and I as I did so, the fly collected water and sunk. Then, as if a spell had been applied, all the fish turned and sped towards the fly. The first trout to arrive sucked in the sunken black caddis, I set the hook and the chaos ensued.

Twisting and contorting, the coloured-up rainbow jack dived deep to the bottom, scattering all the other fish that remained. I recall standing up to get better leverage to apply side pressure and nearly slipping down the 3ft muddy embankment between me and the pool. I collected myself, and watched the fish hugging the stream bed, dangerously close to a snag. The water looked to be 9-10ft deep, with visibility right to the bottom, only stained with the slightest turquoise hue. As I tried to drag the trout off the riverbed, it had another run in pursuit of the log. I remember being distraught seeing the fish slip between two sticks, thinking all hope was lost. Throwing caution to the wind, I heaved some line in, and pulled the fish back through the snags. I’m still not sure how I got so lucky, but amazingly, the coaxing brought the trout back untangled. Finally defeated, the big rainbow was then easily brought to the surface and ultimately to hand.

Bankside, in the middle of Patagonia, with no one for miles, I let out a cathartic whoop of joy. It wasn’t a trophy by any means, but it was a fish that I had to work so hard for. It is this fish and this moment that I look back on to inspire future international journeys.

Lessons Learnt

Plan, Research and Document

Understanding the lay of the land is crucial. Knowing the location of various waters and the access situation, helps to streamline the process of actually getting on the water. It also helps to ensure you don’t find out, after the fact, that your itinerary didn’t include that one world-class fishery which people travel across the globe for.

Keep those expectations grounded

These world-class fisheries didn’t gain that status without producing good fish. However, like all fisheries, their residents take hard work and a lot of time to catch. Don’t be like me and think you can rock up to the Rio Limay and bag a 10lb trophy on day one. It is often those who come with no expectations who leave with the greatest prize.

Taking a moment away from the fishing around Bariloche.

Spend some time off the river

While taking time away from fishing is easier said than done when on a fishing trip, making the effort to experience everything a location can offer is valuable. The culture of Patagonia beyond the fishing was spectacular. It can be just as fulfilling and really ‘make’ a trip to spend at least some time not fishing and soaking up what else is on offer.

What awaits?

So, as I now turn my mind to ‘where next?’, it seems there is an endless list of opportunities. Logically, New Zealand springs to mind. Access and quality of fishing makes it a hard location to bypass. But there are so many other less-thought-of options. The legendary mid-west of the USA? A trip to catch the mighty taimen in Mongolia? A Seychelles saltwater adventure? Wherever and whenever it is for you, I hope you are looking forward to it just as much as I am.