In early January, 2014, John Duncan led a Telluride Outside fly fishing trip to Northern Patagonia to fish with Traful River Outfitters on three stunning rivers: the Filo Hua Hum, Chimehuin and Quillen. This is his report, written in late February.
Between the second and third lakes in a valley with broad shoulders crawls a river of preternatural patience. The waters of the Filo Hua Hum explore the boundaries as if curious. In southern Colorado, this stream would bolt down and out, but the Filo, like so many rivers in Northern Patagonia, seems to possess its own priority within the landscape. At first glance, the newcomer is struck by what angler Bill Threlfall put into simple, eloquent words: “This is the river I have seen in my dreams.”
My wife Laura and I visited Argentina’s Filo Hua Hum two years ago, on an ambitious mission to see as many rivers and lodges as possible in just five days. Our host, Lucas Rodriguez of Traful River Outfitters, granted four hours of fishing on the river that day. Those hours permanently changed my trout fishing perspective. One of the great virtues of booking a trip with Traful is that they offer more than a dozen rivers, all within a few hours of legendary trout town San Martin de los Andes. There are famous rivers in this region, including the Malleo, regarded by many as the finest dry fly stream in Patagonia. In fly fishing, however, fame is no substitute for intrigue.
‘The Best Trout Streams Are the Ones You’ve Never Heard of’
Before that, I didn’t know anyone who had fished the Filo Hua Hum. To fish it is to verify a riveting rumor: the best trout streams in the world are the ones you’ve never heard of.
The Tres Lagos Lodgewas homesteaded 120 years ago, about the same time that trout eggs were first trundled by oxen cart from Buenos Aires. Legend has it that the European settlers were so anxious to introduce brown trout, their favorite game-fish, that they hastily stocked the coastal river mouths, rather than the highland headwaters 700 miles to the west. When summer came, the water temperatures rose into the 90s, cooking the trout that hadn’t succumbed to piranhas.
On the second try, the settlers got it right, and the rivers of Patagonia proved so fertile that trout have never again been stocked. American anglers are struck by how much Patagonian trout streams have in common with the best rivers in North America: clean watersheds, ideal gradient and abundant hatches. Northern Patagonia gets a further boost from spring water that rises from every fissure in its geologically chaotic landscape. The rivers here flow dead clear, even at peak water flows.
Fundamentally, the most important difference between rivers on our continent and those of Patagonia is fishing pressure. Many stretches of these streams are fished by 50 or fewer anglers in an entire year. Argentina closes trout season from June through October, providing the opportunity for peaceful spawning and an un-hassled winter reprieve. Catch-and-release is the law of the land. As a result, trout maximize their ability to inhabit these naturally gifted rivers.
The only access to the Filo Hua Hum between the second and third lakes is through Tres Lagos Lodge. Its guest cabins hold a total of only six anglers – the same number that fits around its cozy dining room table. The Filo Hua Hum is a small stream, about 60 feet wide and 2- to4-feet deep. Its waters are so clear that virtually 100 percent of casts are made to sighted fish. The Filo’s remarkable brown trout, averaging an honest 20 inches, rise with great subtlety under dense bank cover or in shallow riffles. Unlike other browns of my acquaintance, however, a Filo brown sitting four feet deep will freely rise to a size #6 grasshopper. Heavy tippets are mandatory. Many of these fish have never been caught, and fight like a loose horse. Long leaders are also required, because trout of this size are highly wary. So, with 12-foot 2x leaders we cast #6 dry flies to fish that average 20 inches.
The Filo was the first of three rivers we fished on this expedition. Upon touching down in San Martin, we began an itinerary that would challenge our sense of trout fishing reality. We were five anglers from greater America: Bill Threlfall, global traveler but relative angling novice; John Shields, an outstanding angler from Cleveland who spends significant time in Telluride and has fished all over the world; Bob Dinning, joker from Farmington whose humorous banter belies his inner fish hawk; Dave Berry, a lucky-by-good-nature rodsman from Farmington; and me, a onetime guide seeking to get it all back in just eight days.
We fell in with our guides. Federico, a youthful fly fishing artist, guides 90 days a year, as a break from his law practice. His personification of all things Argentina made him a compelling study for the week. Bob and Federico hit it off fast. As we were unloading our bags on the lawn at Tres Lagos, I noticed the two of them on the periphery, facing each other, Bob’s voice rising in a crescendo as he made an exaggerated palms-up gesture, “Get it? Can I push in your stool?”
Gustavo, a baby-faced lover of giant trout and American oldies, proved again and again that following his instructions causes two-foot browns to eat your fly. “Dave, come with me. Huge browns. Amasing.”
Futbol, Fishing and Females
At Filo Hua Hum, our third guide was the acclaimed Beto Cordero, who sat at the head of the table and offered timely comments to resolve disputes, whether about fishing or culture.
And so it went. Our fishing days were matched in intensity only by our effort to drink all of the wine in Patagonia, which, for better or worse, was included in the tab. Our cultural study was resumed each night at dinner when Bob and Dave would grill Federico, Gustavo and Beto about futbol, fishing and females, while John, Bill and I listened and learned. With regard to futbol, Federico maintained that Argentines give their greatest loyalty to individual players, rather than to the clubs.
Neighboring Chile invariably entered the fray, a noted rival in both futbol and fishing. Said Federico, “We have no problem with Chileans, except that we sometimes hate them.” Beto claims that both nations are narcissistic in futbol and fishing. “Chileans are extremely stupid, almost as stupid as we are.”
Fishing began shortly after arrival at Tres Lagos. Threlfall got off to an inauspicious start. When I came out of our shared cabin,I found that he had mistaken my size small waders for the pair of loaner waders our guides had promised to bring for him. Not wanting to have anyone wait on him, he dutifully strung up his rod and donned the waders on his 6’4″ frame. I noticed his size XL waders still rolled tidily in a gear bag, then raised my eyes to see the amiable traveler before me, grimacing as he gathered is feet and other body parts into painful, unsightly wads in my small waders. Bill is a truly great sport, but I would love to know what was going through his mind as he quietly contemplated the week ahead.
We geared up, paired off and trundled up the grassy track, volcanic ash rising from the bouncing tires of four-wheel drive pickups. It was already late afternoon, marginal fishing hours for trout that must be seen in order to catch. Having traveled two full days and more than 7,000 miles, the last three miles seemed like traveling backward through a kaleidoscope.
The clear waters of the Filo Hua Hum stretched before us, beckoning our anglers to walk quickly, leaving no secret undiscovered before the sun fell behind the mountains. But the Filo requires observation, stealth and precision. Our guides’ primary challenge was to slow the anxious anglers. After scaring a handful of fish, we submitted to the discipline of allowing the guide to walk slowly ahead on the high bank, concealing himself behind trees. When a worthy trout was sighted, he delivered instructions and helped the caster locate the fish, with reference to rocks, currents and overhanging branches. The importance of the first cast could not be overstated, and our jitters proved a sportsman’s cliché: if you can see a 20-inch trout, your cast is likely to be a bad one. Between the five of us, we hooked and landed maybe eight fish that afternoon, enough to put us on the scoreboard, but humble evidence of our collectively poor performance.
In the last moments of dusk, I worked into slow water with heavy downed timber. The fish were here, for sure. John, Bob and Dave were downstream with their guides. Federico had wandered upstream with Bill. From the river left bank, I had a wide-open casting lane upstream between the tines of a massive, barkless snag. My #8 Turck’s Tarantula unfolded onto a current seam that tracked the primary branch, carrying it lightly downstream for 30 feet into the slowing bucket, opaque and promising in the day’s last light. A vacuum opened around the fly, a blur of silver, spots, a mirage of copper and one huge, black eye. What happened next seemed inevitable and not altogether disappointing. My rod doubled over and I was forced to allow the fish to take a measure of line. It worked down and away, toward the heart of the snarled root ball. I felt no choice but to palm the reel, forbidding entry to the place of no return. The 2X tippet, so strong that a man cannot break it with his bare hands, snapped with a sound that actually scared me. My fly line recoiled 50 feet, landing in a defeated pile in the gravel at my back. Yes, that was worth the 7,000 mile journey.
The Greatest Trout Streams Are Those We Fish Slowly
Late that night, Bob and Dave worked to make a cross-cultural connection. Gustavo and Federico listened intently as Bob explained, “We would say, ‘She’s as hot as a $2 pistol.’ How would you say it?’” Then followed a lengthy explanation by Federico, who speaks fluent English and has an unmatched knack for nuance. A half-hour later, the group arrived at the translation: “She’s as loud as a television show about an old folks’ home.”
If you think about that one for a long time, you might get it. Then again, you might not.
The next two days provided the type of fishing we see in our sleep. The section of the Filo between the upper two lakes is approximately eight miles of water, but five of us fishing with three guides for over ten hours a day did not come close to covering it. The greatest trout streams are those we fish slowly.
On the second day, John Shields landed two browns that were taped at 23 inches. Threlfall caught the largest four fish of his angling career. Dave had a 10-fish day, almost unheard of on this river. Every fish was caught on a dry fly, and most were sighted and stalked before they were stuck. Bob fished with greater intensity than the rest of us combined, but it was not until the third day that the trout gods rewarded him with landed fish. His latent success on the Filo foretold a strong performance on the rivers to come. As we learned in the end, when Dinning gains momentum, it’s best to just stand back and watch.
As we exited the Filo Hua Hum and made our way around the azurite natural lakes, our guides pointed out an ancient castle on a forested crest across the valley.
A Trip of Transitions
Our eight-day trip was one of transitions. From the Filo, we returned to the town of San Martin, the gateway between the mountains and the arid highlands of the Northern Patagonia steppes. The country downstream may be likened to the Lower Yellowstone, the Lower Gunnison or the Yakima. The rivers here are larger, painting broad green stripes through the arid landscape. Mountain valleys become desert canyons, the ribbons ebbing east, slowing and wandering until they find each other, merging into the great arteries of Argentina’s famously rich agricultural lowlands.
The Collon Cura (“Stone Mask”) is the largest river in Northern Patagonia. It begins where two smaller rivers officially end: the Alumine and the Chimehuin. Thirty minutes out of San Martin, our pickups pulled off a gravel road and rambled down a grassy track to the bank of the Chimehuin, backing to the water’s edge and depositing three driftboats neatly in the shallows. It was noon, hours before the traditional lunch break. Although the water here was much larger than the Filo, our guides tied on modest sized mayflies to work the edges from the boats.
Threlfall launched first with Federico. We expected the less experienced angler to struggle with casting in the wind from a moving boat, but before the rest of us were in the water, Bill had landed two fish and was tied fast to a third. We were borne downstream over sparkling riffles and pools of glass, the air-clear water inviting and tantalizing, but also deceptively pushy. It took just two hours to float five miles to a shaded bank where a lunch of fine meats, cheeses, olives and wine was rolled out on a clothed table with folding chairs. Wine with lunch may be par for Argentina, but the Americans knew they were on vacation.
Before lunch, Dave and Bob landed their share of respectable trout with Gustavo. John and I put some in the boat, too, thanks mostly to John’s precise casting. On the lunch beach, Federico estimated that Bill had brought more than 20 trout to the net, all on dry flies, including several in the 18-20-inch range. John, Dave, Bob and I had all cut off our mayflies for lack of performance. Bill caught every one of his fish on the same mayfly. It’s the Indian, not the arrow.
As the sun fell behind the ridge and we approached the Collon Cura, the weather began to change. In Colorado, thunderstorms, hail and snow can occur any day of the year. In Northern Patagonia, weather means wind.
We hauled out on an exposed gravel bar 200 yards from high-water mark on the Collon Cura’s great flanks. The trucks had been shuttled around as we floated into the canyon’s inner sanctum. The wind had risen to a steady 25 mph, buffeting the unsteady anglers as sea legs stumbled among the large cobbles. Gustavo, Federico and Beto made quick work of loading the boats and fastening straps. Securing the boat covers required many hands as the gale snatched and yanked at the heavy canvas.
We drove slowly across side channels and sloughs, over gravel and through willows, climbing from the river’s channel onto a shelf of dry grass and scattered trees humbled by a windblown existence and an endless sky. Here we were welcomed to Tres Rios Lodge, a small, home-style outpost in enormous country. We came to the lodge just before dark, unpacked, showered and settled into the evening routine of food, wine and the conversation that comes from a shared adventure in a faraway place.
In the morning, we awoke to the clatter of the lodge’s power-generating windmill. Although modest in stature, its 3-foot blades had attained impressive pitch and volume under the strain of the rising wind. To our surprise, our guides drove us to the confluence of the Chimehuin and Alumine, then up along the lower mile of the Chimehuin. The previous afternoon, we had beaten this water from the boats with little result. When fished on foot, however, it seemed like a completely different river. Every subtle contour held trout. In back eddies, heavy fish lifted for hatching mayflies. Trout were dealt like cards over the gravel in broad side channels. Seam lines held sentries of fish obediently facing the current for their morning ration. Fish ate our size #16 Hendricksons like popcorn. We fished fast-action 6-weights out of sheer necessity. Lesser rods simply wouldn’t cut the wind, but as morning became afternoon, even our 6-weights were not up to the task.
A windshield of mature poplars provided shelter for a luxurious lunch at the lodge’s outdoor barbeque table. Here we compared notes about the morning’s fishing, shared laughs about casting in the wind and marveled at the fish population of a river that had shut us out in the previous day’s closing hours. We refilled wine glasses and passed around our cameras, and a wave of silence occurred in the path of the camera belonging to John Shields. Many fine trout had been landed on the Chimehuin that morning, including several rainbows in the 18-inch class. But there, plainly before our eyes, was Shields holding brown trout of 21 and 24 inches. Bob, Dave, Bill and I concurred that we had not seen Shields and Gustavo upstream on the Chimehuin, so where the hell did those fish come from?
After a catatonic siesta, we arose for the evening round. The river was unfishable. Wind of at least 30 mph howled through the canyon. Our guides confidently led us to the trucks, however, and negotiated a rough track downstream toward a thicket of willows that seemed to parallel the main river course. We parked and hiked for ten minutes. Peering through willows, a spring-fed lagoon came into view, a pond-like body of water that occupied a shallow ravine and ended in a watercress-filled bay just inches deep. The bay was slowly drained by an underground channel that led to another lagoon and beyond that another, and another, and another. Five lagoons stretched for three-quarters-of-a-mile under a high bluff, leading toward but not all the way to the Collon Cura. The lagoons were fed by springs within their channels and springlets tumbling down mossy hillsides. Yes, 2-foot browns could live here.
The Fishing Game
This was one-at-a-time fishing or, as we know it in Telluride, The Fishing Game. The Fishing Game is played by one caster and several members of a peanut gallery who, preferably beer-in-hand, comment on every aspect of the angler’s effort. Favorite places to play The Fishing Game include the Lower Dolores and Silver Lake, where sight fishing is the rule and failure is more likely than success.
Bob and I approached a small lagoon through thick brush. Lying in the center of the pond, clearly visible against the peat colored bottom, was a motionless object that could only be a large brown trout. Not a fin quivered. It was my turn to cast, but the only available vector was to swing the rod horizontally over the fish itself, release some line, then strip the fly back to the fish. It was, at most, a 10-foot cast, but somehow, with only the leader out of the rod, I missed the 10-foot cast by a solid 12 feet. Bob laughed so hard he almost went in the drink. When I began stripping to re-cast, the motionless brown trout burst to life, racing in circles trying to locate the size #4 electric green katydid that was chugging across the surface of his pond. I thought the fish was spooked, but Bob recovered enough to say “leaveitleaveitleaveitleaveit!” The fish found the fly, crushed it, then swam over to the bank for his photograph.
Bob and I spent the remainder of the evening watching Dave attempt to cast a size #2 conehead Autumn Splendor straight over his head through a gap in the trees into an alluring, deep corner of a particular lagoon [right]. Whether there were any fish in that pond we will never know, but perhaps only one in five of Dave’s casts reached the water. Several landed behind him. In the end, a handful of fish were taken that afternoon, all of them brown trout and none under 18 inches. It was the most unconventional and perhaps entertaining fishing of our journey.
Facing even stronger winds the following morning, we aborted a halfhearted fishing session and departed the Tres Rios Lodge, bound for a river three hours to the north, a tributary of the mighty Alumine River that rises in the high country near the Chile-Argentina border, the Rio Quillen.
The Malleo, the King of All Dry Fly Rivers in Patagonia
On the way north, we passed through Junin de los Andes and shortly thereafter crossed the Malleo, king of all dry fly rivers in Northern Patagonia. The decision not to fish the Malleo on this trip was not a casual one. The Malleo is among the finest match-the-hatch rivers, a beacon to dry fly purists worldwide. With fame comes pressure, however. Our itinerary for this trip was designed to fish the most unique fisheries. We enjoyed sight fishing with dry flies on every piece of water and saw virtually no other anglers in eight days. Herein lay the magic of scheduling a customized trip through a small born-and-raised guide service, rather than booking a week at one of the many “famous” lodges in the region: variety, privacy, quality and success.
The Quillen valley is entered by passing through a dirt crossroads, then doing a U-turn at a rural gas station and driving across a one-lane bridge. Angling west toward the mighty Andes, the valley rises in green folds rimmed with mountains. The Quillen flows wide and smooth through the hills, at a curiously low gradient in such pitched country. At the head of the valley, the hills pinch together and the dirt road rises through dense forest to the foot of Lago Quillen, the headwaters of this mysterious river. As it climbs, a spur leads to the south, wrapping around a knoll to a grassy perch that overlooks the entire valley. Here lies the Quillen Lodge, a log-and-stone structure of pure fishing aesthetic that boards 12 anglers and six guides when fully occupied. The broad beams and great hearth beckon the visitor to linger long, to pace slowly from room to room examining the sepia photographs of sportsmen, trout and red deer, and to seriously consider rescheduling one’s return flight.
The Quillen fishing experience is greater than the sum of its tributaries. In the words of John Shields, the main branch of the river is often “quiet water,” but there is no watershed in the region that offers such a pallet of compelling alternatives. The Quillen is the tapas restaurant of Northern Patagonia trout fisheries. Creeks, lagoons and a stunning lake fishery await the adventuresome angler.
We were joined at Quillen by Mark Lewis and Lucas Rodriguez, childhood friends born and raised in San Martin, co-conspirators and owners of Traful River Outfitters. Mark stepped in to take Beto’s place for this last segment of our trip. Lucas was guiding other clients at the lodge, which his guide service leases exclusively for most of January. Over dinner our first evening, I cautioned our group that Quillen was the least probable location for catching large fish. The Filo Hua Hum and Chimehuin produced one big fish after the next, though none of us were specifically “fishing for big fish.” The Quillen and its tributaries are smaller water where big fish are simply less common, I explained. “Our largest fish of the trip have probably already been landed.” This proved one of the least accurate predictions of my fishing career.
On the first of two full days, Dave and I joined Mark for a midstream wade up the Malalco, a stony, high gradient tributary that joins the Quillen just a mile or two upstream from the lodge. The Malalco has every element of a superb small stream: constant structure, ever-changing depth, a rich, clean streambed with moss-covered cobbles, tremendous insect life and all the intangibles. In Colorado, we would cover miles on such a creek, blind casting. On this stream, however, we advanced at a snail’s pace, eyes peeled. Fish are harder to see in pocket water because of the structure’s camouflage. Mark crept upstream with a heron’s gait, surveying every nook. He assumes there are fish in every pocket. Indeed. It seemed that if he looked long enough, the trout would simply materialize. As my friend Steve Cieciuch said about Patagonia, “The trout are right where they are supposed to be.” This is an enormously rewarding aspect of fishing unpressured rivers.
As the water temperature rose through the morning, free-rising fish became common. Although the trout would rarely rise in rhythm, a fish that rose once would certainly rise again to a carefully presented dry fly. Pocket water dry fly casts are intricate. Often, a fish would surface well upstream, on a seam line between boulders or in a riffle under branches. We made long casts, placing our lines carefully between obstacles and laying the leaders at precise angles. In Colorado, pocket water is where we find uneducated trout that eat attractor flies on short casts. Here, however, the fish were working hatches. A poor drift was always refused, but a natural drift with a well-chosen fly would consistently fool the fish. Over the course of the day, we fished less than a mile of water, casting to sighted fish every few yards. Each fish was a puzzle of presentation. For every trout that we landed, I can picture the cast, the drift and the rise.
Dave and I returned to the lodge for lunch at 3:30 p.m. Our day, we agreed, was among the finest in our experience. We agreed to be respectfully understated around our friends. Bill had fished the main river with John Shields and Federico. Free-rising fish were scarce, but they enjoyed substantial success by twitching foam beetles along the weed lines near shore. Bill had landed more than a dozen fish, a phenomenal result on a technical river without a major hatch. Shields dipped into one of the spring lagoons found near the river and landed a brown trout of some 24 inches on a streamer, underlining his growing reputation as a one-cast hog tamer.
We found Dinning reclined on the shaded front porch, surveying the verdant horizon of the Quillen valley, pulling on one of the raspberry flavored cigarillos he smoked to both celebrate great fishing and console himself for poor fishing. Which? “I caught 80 inches of fish in three trout.” Bob produced his waterproof camera and verified three brown trout ranging from 24 to 29 inches. “Having trouble processing.” To assist with processing, Bob stayed up until 2 a.m. that night, demanding a retelling of every fish story in the house, which ranged from Argentina to the Bahamas to Alaska. The well was full. His huge fish were remarkable, but still no excuse for smoking berry-flavored tobacco.
Our Last Fishing Day
The upper Quillen watershed is bordered by rugged foothills that squeeze water from high meadows into wandering creeks. Some of these streams feed Lago Quillen, a great natural reservoir of topaz depth that lies between forested ridges. On our last fishing day, Threlfall took Gustavo up on his offer to explore the lake’s west end, where watercress and aquatic grasses line the shore, creating an underwater jungle that breeds huge dragonflies and offers extraordinary habitat for trout.
From the deck of Gustavo’s skiff, Threlfall cast size #4 foam dragonflies to fish hovering just beneath the surface. Adult dragonflies wobbled above the lake, often followed frantically by large trout, hoping for touchdown. Rainbows and browns up to 21 inches exploded on the fly, often going airborne in the process. In the background, the Lanin volcano loomed, its 5,000-foot hanging glacier reflecting on Lago Quillen’s opaque mantel.
Mark had something special in mind for our last day. Bob, Dave and I packed lunches, fishing vests and cameras and climbed into Mark’s 4×4 Toyota Hilux for a one-and-three-quarters-hour drive into some of Patagonia’s more remote backcountry. Here, beyond the lake, through five cattle gates, into a broad valley, along a dry creekbed and upon a dusty ridge shaded by monkey puzzle trees, we began a hike in the shadow of Lanin National Park into a distant valley fed by tiny creeks from every hillside, to the upper reach of a 30-mile creek that sees less than five anglers per year. Mark told me of this creek years before, the creek with the native name, the one beyond all the others. We arrived around noon.
A lesson that generally serves us well is to observe the guide’s behavior and follow suit. If the guide packs a rain jacket, pack your rain jacket. If he takes a long drink from his water bottle, do the same. If he wears long pants rather than shorts, wear your long pants. Bob and Dave wore long pants, but I did not. It was 80 degrees and we were fishing an ankle-deep creek. The trout fed voraciously that day, but not as voraciously as the horseflies. Following the path of least resistance, they descended by the thousands upon the one set of thighs and calves that could be accessed without drilling through nylon pants. Bob, Dave and Mark fished in peace while horseflies raised welts the size of chicken pot pies on the lower half of my body. Fortunately, it was worth it.
Descending to the creek, we paused to examine the intricate structure of the exotic pocket water before us.We could see fish rising from 300 feet away. Over the course of the afternoon, we worked slowly, playing The Fishing Game and trying our best to find every trout in the creekbed latticework. Size #14 Hendricksons hooked every free rising fish. Through deeper slots we trolled size #4 and #6 foam beetles. The “Lucas Beetle,” named for creator Lucas Rodriguez, consists of half a package of Rainy’s foam, eight rubber legs and a size #4 parachute hackle. Trout have no chance. Countless fish were caught over the afternoon. Even more were hooked and lost, the untouched trout using every boulder to their advantage in freeing the hook.
Late in the day, we came to a tongue of heavy water split by a pyramid boulder. More than three feet deep, the run held obvious promise. Somehow, it was Dinning’s turn again. Dave, Mark and I stood in the shallows while Bob flopped a Lucas Beetle into the current. No response. He cast again, higher. No response. He worked each edge. Nothing. For a famous last cast, he laid the beetle along the very edge of the boulder. It traced the rock face downstream four or five feet. What happened next I shall never forget.
A triangular head the color of leather and larger than my hand appeared beneath the beetle, inhaling the fly with a flare of broad gill plates. Bob set firmly while the gallery observed with stunned silence. The behemoth charged upriver, then down and across, reaching the far bank in two seconds and wrapping the fly line around a rock. Bob held the rod high. Mark charged across the creek and freed the line, but the fish had already wrapped it again and peeled fifty more feet off the reel. Bob, now standing in the center of the slot, precariously made his way downstream with haste. Our eyes were drawn to the angle of Bob’s fly line, into a rock garden below and across. Instinctively, all four of us splashed in that direction, but the fish was heard crashing in the shallows behind us. It leapt repeatedly, furious with its tether. With each jump, its body was horsed back into the creek by the fixed line. Mark strode across the tailout like a red deer and pushed the 007 extender button on his aluminum framed net. Upstream, Bob melted down, one hand on the rod and the other over his eyes, stammering “Get him get him gethimgethimgethimgethim!” Mark got him. Lifting the net required two hands. In it lay the largest brown trout I have ever seen with my own eyes, landed in a creek the size of the South Fork San Miguel.
The lodge glowed. Inside, our anglers ate, drank and paced the floorboards one last time, weaving from the hearth to the bar to the bay windows overlooking the darkened valley. Lucas’s clients had departed that morning, but he stayed with us, enjoying the moment with Mark, his oldest fishing friend. Toasts were made, wine was poured and poured again. Lucas listened intently to the retelling of the day’s events. He commented, “I have warned the guides to be careful. There are 27-inch browns up there.” Lucas subtly shifted has weight from one foot to the other, as if keeping balance in the wind. His eyes panned the room with the steady gaze of a man who makes a living seeing things before they see him. A smile crossed his lips and spread to Mark, Gustavo and Federico.
The next morning, we were driven to San Martin and had lunch in a timber beam loft, watching an empty eastward runway. In time, our flight was called. We departed through Gate 1 in a one-gate airport.
Trip Footnote: “Gear Matters”
That’s a quote from John Shields made after five days of fishing in sustained 20 mph winds on the Filo Hua Hum and Chimehuin. As a group, we were well equipped for the trip, but during the breezy first half the choice of fly rods had everything to do with fishing success. In recent years, very fast action rods have been introduced by Sage, Orvis, Scott and Loomis. Being from Scott’s home turf, I brought 5- and 6-weight Radians in my quiver. Threlfall had a Radian too, as did Shields.
The Radian is the new rod from Scott touted to cast better in the wind and offer superior loop control when it counts most. Boy, does it. We made sure that each fishing team had at least one Radian on board each day. Since most of our fishing was by sight casting, there was an imperative throughout this trip to make your first cast count. This was especially critical on the Filo Hua Hum, where we had only a handful of shots each day. Many of the largest fish resided under a dense backside canopy. Sidearm casting from 40 feet with 12-foot leaders requires some real line speed. The Radian rods simply allowed us to make casts that were not otherwise possible. Hook setting and fish playing at such distance is also greatly abetted by a rod that puts response and power in the palm of your hand. Our Scott G-Series, Sage SLT and Orvis Power Matrixes were completely adequate on the Quillen tributaries, but when casting for the fish of a lifetime on broad, windy water, the Radian was key.
No love for leaky waders. When preparing for your next trip to the edge of the world, bring the best equipment available. Sentiment for waders and rain jackets that used to be waterproof is useless. Wading boots with 50 percent of their felt remaining are much less dependable than brand new ones. You will eventually buy new wading boots, anyway, so why not do it before your big trip rather than after? Long pants, long sleeve shirts and broad brimmed hats are almost always beneficial.
Finally, on your next trip to Patagonia, tie or buy some size #4 Lucas Beetles. If you can’t find them in your home country, you’ll have to get them from the man himself.
Telluride Outside’s 2015 Patagonia trip dates are January 4-12 and January 12-20. Visit http://www.tellurideoutside.com/