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The Falkland Islands, in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Tierra Del Fuego, are a land frequented by cruise ships and day-tourists these days, most of whom confine their activities to a visit to the tiny capitol of Stanley, where they tour the local museum, shop for nice sweaters and gawk at penguins and seals. I went to the Falklands specifically to West Falkland, not to East Falkland where Stanley is found – to try my hand at sea trout, which are descendants of brown trout planted there by the British in 1940. These trout run out to sea to feast on the krill that swarm in the offshore waters, where they grow quite large and aggressive. Thankfully, the Falkland Islanders have inherited the Scottish tradition of fly fishing, and they host a number of anglers each year, mostly from the UK.
My fishing trip this past March was my second to the Falklands. It’s a delightful place to visit. Where else can you fish across a river from a live minefield? The mines, left over from the Falkland Islands conflict between Argentina and Great Britain in 1982, are more of a novelty than a threat, as they are clearly marked and signs are well maintained by the local farmers near Stanley. Still, it’s kind of cool to fish Murrell River, knowing there’s a real minefield just on the other side, serving as a reminder of the war that shaped the modern Falklands.
I based my stay in Port Howard on West Falkland. Port Howard is a settlement of only 21 people who work on a 200,000-acre farm there. The residents make up about one fifth of the total of 100 people on West Falkland. The port is a picture-perfect harbor flanked by green fields, gorse hedgerows and white houses and buildings with green roofs. I stayed at the Port Howard Lodge where hosts Sue and Wayne welcome the mostly Scottish and British fishermen who come to try their luck in the local rivers. Port Howard also has its own little war museum with a few weapons, an Argentine military kit and parts of downed fighters, such as tanks and pilots’ seats.
I fished the estuary of the Warrah River with Wayne on my first day, arriving at a low tide and waiting for it to turn and stimulate the appetites of the sea trout Wayne said were definitely there. It was a fine spot with rocky mountains on both sides covered in brown scrub. Unfortunately, the sea trout didn’t wake up that day. Instead, I was treated to the surprise sight of a jackass penguin that appeared to be fishing quite successfully the same water that yielded no results for me.
Weather throughout my trip was unusually hot, reaching 82 degrees Fahrenheit one day. I expected heavy wind and chilly rain, which is normal here, but I didn’t see that until after my fishing trip when I left on a sailing trip to South Georgia. The warm weather was a surprise to everyone on the islands.
Although I struck out on trout my first day, I was happy enough to hook a number of fish that are known locally as mullet. These are actually Antarctic rock cod of dark gray color with a large head, powerful pectoral fins and an insatiable appetite for the little red flies that we used. This is a native fish, a hard fighter that will strip your reel nicely. But it is not a sea trout, so it is looked upon with considerable disdain by the dedicated and sometimes aristocratic fishermen steeped in Scottish tradition.
I was privileged to meet two such anglers, John Robertson and his son, Sinclair. They stayed at the Port Harbor Lodge as well. John has a business in Stanley and has been fishing the rivers twice a year for 20 years. He and Sinclair had rushed from the plane to the river at a place called Hill Cove on their first day, a long trek, and Sinclair had set new standards for success there, landing a 12-, 13- and a 14-pounder in the course of just one hour. Looking through the lodge’s fishing book, I learned that this was one of the best days in perhaps five years.
In the tradition of Falklands sea trout fishing, one does not talk about length, but only about weight. No 18-inchers or 24-inchers here, but two-pounders, four-pounders and seven-pounders. And, mind you, a proper sea trout is silvery in color. In the photos around the lodge, they looked to my untutored eye like a fresh salmon. Apparently, when the trout are back in fresh water for a time, they resume the look of a brown trout, some with very bright red spots and the yellow-brown of a true brown trout. However, on first entering fresh water, they have the general appearance of a salmon. The trout here can range up to 14 pounds.
The second day on the Warrah, I tied on one of Wayne’s lightly dressed streamers, one with a red body and a mallard speculum wing on top. I chose it because it was a typical Scottish sea trout fly per the book I’d been reading early that morning at the lodge. There was a good trout working the pool, and after a couple of casts, I hit its feeding lane with a cast that I immediately knew was good. Indeed it was, as my sinking line abruptly stopped after about three fast strips and I was fast to a heavy cock brown trout.
He fought hard, leaping well out of the water twice, shaking his head with a determination to get rid of the hook. But we found he was very solidly hooked, and the pool’s waters soon calmed as we slipped the hook out of the corner of his mouth. We released him to continue his wait with the other fish that were gathering at the mouth of the estuary, anticipating the next bit of rain that would raise the water level so they could run upstream.
Ultimately, I caught three fish that morning on the Warrah, a couple of two-pounders and a four-pounder. The small size of the fish was due to low water and unusual heat, I was told. Our fishing done, we called it quits and bounced our way back across the heath to the lodge in a sturdy but beat-up Land Rover, climbing a river bank at one point that I didn’t think even a tank could climb. Fishing here means a lot of off-road travel like this, crossing boulder fields, streams and thick heather to reach your intended river.
Hill Cove, where John and Sinclair Robinson had fished, was on the other side of the island, and with low waters, it was time to try the tidal pool there that had produced Sinclair’s record fish. It was a long drive through the countryside, whipping by the wing section of an Argentine fighter that was strewn across the fields, passing only one small farm of 10,000 acres, bypassing Chartres (locally pronounced Chart-res) where the seals were making a feast of the smaller sea trout waiting for the rains, and finally coming over the mountain to see Hill Cove. It has the only grove of trees on West Falkland, a mixed set of spruce and other trees that were planted in 1890 and have now reached the end of their natural life, to the dismay of the islanders.
My guide on this day was Nick Bonner, probably the best fly fisherman on the Falklands. He is pictured on the cover of the little book, Flyfishing the Falklands. Nick is a native of the town of Port Howard. As a kid, he caught the now-rare Falklands zebra trout and still knows where the protected populations are. He worked as a shepherd from age 15 until he left for about 15 years to the UK. Now he’s back, working in Stanley and fishing his rivers. He loves and knows West Falkland as only an islander could. His fly book is filled with little nymphs and delicate streamers he’s tied, including a small red yarn fly with a tinsel-wrapped body and a delicate white wing he calls the Murrell Murderer. It has caught 90 percent of his trout, he says, slightly surprised himself at its effectiveness.
We walked upstream at the tidal pool into a mix of heather and Diddle-dee on a rocky shore. To start, Bonner suggested a dark brown nymph he’d just tied, one that had delicate grasshopper-like legs. I dutifully tied it on to my 12-pound test leader, noting how different it was from the flies that a usually well-informed US fly shop had sent me at a rather steep price. They thought that Falkland’s sea trout would be like those in Tierra del Fuego and would take rather large and garish flies – wooly buggers and the like. Well, the Scottish tradition of nymphs and lightly dressed streamers would govern our first attempt, although I was resolved to try some of those big uglies later as well.
I cast into the middle of the narrow neck of the pool, started to strip and turned to ask Nick his advice on stripping speed. The sentence was only half out of my mouth when a hard strike told me the speed was right. This was a three-pounder, a local male. It was a hard-fighting fish that stayed on the bottom, no doubt regretting its folly, and it was soon back in the water with time to reconsider its choices.
Trout rose actively in the main part of the pool, and Nick suggested that I move up to them and change to the Murrell Murderer. These trout were porpoising on the surface when the wind rippled it, apparently feeding without much fear of predators. I hooked and landed a number of four- and five-pound brown trout that had been in the water long enough to change back to their normal dress. But, finally, I hooked into a much heavier fish that leapt out of the water trailing my fly line, likely appalled at the ugly American black wooly bugger I’d dredged along the bottom during a quiet spell of the wind. This was a fresh hen sea trout of seven pounds, and when we finally beached it Nick admired its silvery color and quietly said, Now that’s a proper sea trout.
We landed another shortly thereafter, another hen of 7.5 pounds, and then a high-leaping, colorful cock fish that just wouldn’t give up, the largest of the day at eight pounds. By then, it was time to start back to the lodge, and I was ready to go, having indeed caught a proper sea trout.
(Postscript: Miller arranged his trip to the Falklands through Jo Turner of Falkland Islands Holidays.)