The guía de pesca is in agony. The world infuriates him. His injured leg infuriates him. It’s a lurid purple down to bone from some recent accident that my rusty college Spanish can’t decipher the cause. But I infuriate him most of all. I barney a hookset. Then it happens again.
“Oh my God, you miss so many feeesh,” the guide says. The other fishing guides tell me not to take it personally. He does this to all the clients, the guides say. No one is good enough for his river, they say. But today is bad. Once, he played soccer professionally. Now he sucks his teeth in pain and he leans on the river staff that his invalidism has forced upon him. “Gandolfo!” the younger guides laugh.
Words Chris Salomon, Images by Isaias Miciu and Gabriela Lechin
I do not laugh. His face is the color of asado and it’s hard to know whether it is tattooed that color by the Patagonian sun now shouting down through the ozone hole or is because he’s a pot on the boil.
We move upstream, slowly. Clear, handsome water. Round rocks the color of church stones. Every step seems to torture Adrian. He stops at a shallow seam. He wobbles unsteadily and sucks his teeth. “Cast,” he says.
My bathtub has held deeper water, I think.
“Cast. Again,” he barks. “Farther. Up more. To the seam.” His directions keep coming like this. I do not know where this will end. He is injured and the world is a fallen Eden. It is afternoon and the winds have started, again, ripping across the high desert and raising whitecaps on the water. I toss a hopper low and hard and it returns to hook in Adrian’s sleeve. Welcome to the Patagonia not shown in the brochures.
Make no mistake, we’ve caught fish—some handsome rainbows, tin-bright and good fighters. Not the macho trout that have made the Rio Chimehuín el más famoso in Patagonia, though—the ones Adrian now glares at through the water, as if their very fishy elusiveness is the greatest offense of all.
As lead guide, Adrian knew what was there, being elusive. Just one day previous, he’d told me to side-arm a cast beneath the low arms of an overhanging willow. The water splashed, then was still. Adrian sucked his teeth. “Big feeesh. Twenty-three, twenty-five inches.” I reeled in. The nasty-looking hook of Adrian’s homemade fly was bent open like a safety pin. He bent it back. “Cast.” Another take. Another loss. Another bent hook.
Now he ties another fly of his own creation and commands me to cast to a different spot in the river.
The brownie rolls up to the fly as lazily as a fat man reaching for a profiterole. We do not speak, Adrian and I. We only watch. The trout just keeps coming. Hours pass. Lifetimes. It’s not a fish anymore, it’s a submarine surfacing. Finally, it takes. Claxons sound. It dives. I set. Big feeesh!
For the briefest moment, the fish is on. I feel the big brown on the line. It feels as if the river itself is on the end of the line.
Then, the fish is off the line. I stamp my feet. I howl. I turn to my guide. Surely this time we’ll swap grins of just-missed glory, and I’ll get a pat on the back, and we’ll share a moment of brotherly sympathy beneath that searing Patagonian sun. “What did I do wrong?” I say, welcoming his love.
“Everything,” is all he says.
A few days previous, we’d left the cold of a Northern Hemisphere winter and awoken to the warm sun and hot argument of Buenos Aires. Around us, Argentina was falling to pieces. On the drive to the hotel, the woman who met our plane repeated the saying that was making the rounds: how Brazil was becoming Argentina, and Argentina was becoming Venezuela, and Venezuela was becoming Zimbabwe. And how that was unfair to Brazil and Venezuela. I sat in a cafe beside the Plaza Francia with a café con leche and a head buzzy with jetlag and listened for the protests before the Congress building a mile away. It all seemed very far away.
The next day the plane lifted off over BA and arrowed southwest and soon quickly the concrete of the city became the grasses of the pampas, which then became the bare plate of the earth—gray, then green, then brown. Finally the land bunched into lion-colored hills before the distant Andes like carpet bunching against a wall. A blue river twisted and gathered itself and then uncoiled again beneath the plane’s landing gear: the Rio Chimehuín.
There are just a handful of estancias in the Lake District of northern Patagonia; of these, the smallest is “only” about 49,000 acres. It is home, however, to arguably the nicest digs in the region, Tipiliuke Lodge. The estancia boasts stretches of two rivers. The Rio Quilquihue is the steeper and skinnier of the two, with less-remarkable fish. A private spring creek meanders through fields of the ranch for nearly three miles. I didn’t spend any time here, and I regretted it: One day a friend tried his luck stalking the narrow, treeless creek and returned with a snapshot of the 20-inch, Panzer-colored brown trout he’d lured out from beneath the cut banks when the day warmed and the saltamontes—or grasshoppers—began to stumble in from the fields that surround the creek.
You come all the way here, though, for the Chimehuín, one of the great trout streams of Patagonia. Like others in the Lake District, the river starts its life when it leaves a lake—in this case Lago Huechulafquen. The mouth of the river is one of those famous Patagonian fishing spots: Hogs as large as dogs that like to enter the river on blustery days have been taken there. From there, the river flows for about 40 miles before merging with the Aluminé River and becomes the Collón Curá.
Downstream from the river’s mouth, the estancia lays claim to about 11 miles of the Chimehuín (though this river loves to split and fray and regroup again, and if you count its many braids and side channels, that mileage roughly doubles). Since the surrounding land is a private ranch, seeing another fisherman on a stretch is unusual. Seeing a drift boat from another outfitter is almost as disturbing; after one passes, it takes a few minutes to settle back into your lie. Some long-timers will say that sight fishing for big browns on the Chimehuín, which is the stuff that put Patagonia fishing on the map, isn’t quite as off-the-charts as it once was. They argue the reason. They wonder what has changed.
I can’t speak to the supposed “good old days,” if they ever existed. I do know that the Chimehuín’s fish won’t jump into your lap. The big browns are still there, with their bullies’ jaws and their bodies grown fat on other fish that feed well on the river’s good insect hatches. These big fish are savvy, though. You’ve got to hunt them a bit. But would you really have it otherwise?
And you come all this way, too, not only to fish but for the whole Patagonian enchilada. Tipiliuke is run by Kevin Tiemersma and his wife Maria José Gahan, who for seven seasons ran famed Kau Tapen Lodge 1,300 miles to the south, on the Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego. They know how a cushy fishing lodge should run. The difference here is that this place isn’t new on the land. There’s a limestone country house, older than the nation. Bees nose through the lavender. The whole place exudes a broken-in elegance, like a gaucho’s filigreed saddle.
Our days quickly assume a casual rhythm: Up and breakfast. Fish until the heat of the day urges us back to the lodge for an asado in the shade of the poplars, with meat from the ranch’s cattle herd—garden-hose coils of chorizo and morcilla, or black blood sausage, sizzling over an open flame—washed down with big Argentinian malbecs. A brief siesta. Then head out again as the griddle day cools and the fish come up for one more look before evening falls. Dinner near 10 o’clock. One night we push back the tables and the Argentines try to teach wooden northern legs the sensuous argument of the tango. It’s hopeless. But no one cares.
And each day there is only Adrian to please, implacable Adrian.
The guide puts on a Pat’s Rubber Legs fly, barks at me to toss it into a shallow wave train. The fly hits something solid. I think, I’ve hooked bottom. Then the bottom of the river takes off and runs. It runs 100 yards downstream, through the riffles, down to the backing without pause. Whatever it is, it’s bigger, even, than some steelhead I’ve caught.
Adrian suddenly is young again. He is up and running downstream, where the brownie has zagged toward some willows beyond the riffles.
I won’t lose this fish. It means too much to me, to Adrian. I have him tight to the reel. But he’s so far downstream, he’s wrapped around a corner and out of sight where the river bends. All I can do is hang on as he pushes into the willows a full football field away and wraps around rocks and shakes his head. For a long time I have the fish tight to the reel. Then the fish is not so tight to the reel. Then he’s gone.
I’m vibrating with adrenaline and disappointment when Adrian comes back.
What he never tells me—what he’ll tell the other guides back at the lodge—was that it was un pescadazo, maybe 29 inches.
I don’t think he’s angry anymore. I think it’s something else. Sympathy, maybe. “Big feeesh,” he says, quietly.
He ties on another.
He tells me, “Cast.”
The Draw: The Río Chimeuin is the grandaddy of Argentinean trout streams. Great technical sight fishing for wily trout, in a landscape reminiscent of the western Colorado or eastern Oregon of a half-century ago—undeveloped and uncrowded, with gauchos on horseback on the horizon. Though the hogs of yesteryear are more scarce these days, “these are some of the hardest-fighting trout we’ve ever encountered,” writes Barrett Madison, co-author of “Fly Fishing in Patagonia.”
Travel Beta: International flights connect through Buenos Aires. Do yourself a favor and layover in BA to have a steak and wander the Cemeterio de la Recoleta while jetlagged.
Note: Argentina will ding Americans for a $160 ‘reciprocity fee’ to enter the country; be sure to pay before you arrive—and bring your receipt, or face a red-tape hell in customs. The upside: The fee is good for five years.
Cultural Treasure: The Lake District of Patagonia has a not-completely-incongruous European vibe at times, thanks in part to the arrival a century ago of German-speaking immigrants. On the street, chalet architecture and Germanic surnames mingle with rounder native faces. It’s worth just a few hours knocking around San Martín de los Andes, a cute alpine resort town (there’s skiing here in winter) that’s the gateway to much northern Patagonia fishing.
Lost in Translation: Don’t think your guide is lazy if he doesn’t get on the water quickly after lunch. He’s on the Patagonia plan, and you should be, too: Have a glass of wine. Have a little siesta. Get back at it when the air cools in the late afternoon. You won’t be eating ’til 10 p.m., anyway.
Food and Drink: Vegetarians and teetotalers beware: This is the land of big chunks of steer meat and big Malbecs, from grapes grown in Mendoza. Pack some Lipitor and dive in. You can graze on leafy things when you’re back home.
Worth the Cash: Hire guides. Many of the rivers in Argentina run through private estancias, and are off-limits to fishermen, except to those who are in boats. If you’re not staying at one of them, public access can be tricky. If you’re going to come all this way for a week or two, don’t burn your days trying to find public access. Save some dough and hire guides. You’ll spend more time fishing, less time floundering.
Local’s Tip: The busy season for northern Patagonian fishing is often early- and mid-summer. But if you’re a hunter of the biggest trout, late season (ie April or later) can be a great, if chilly, time to go—when the biggest fish of all swim up out of the region’s huge reservoirs, looking to spawn.
Thanks to Tipiliuke Lodge and John Burrell’s High Adventure Company for making this once-in-a-lifetime fishing experience in Northern Patagonia possible. Check out more of Chris Solomon’s engaging adventure writing for publications such as Outside, High Country News and The New York Times at www.chrissolomon.net.
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