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I returned not so long ago from a week of trout fishing in Patagonia, Argentina, that turned out to be important in my development as a fly fisher. It was a week I’ll never forget. I didn’t research where I would go on this trip or which outfitter I would use. I just asked my frequent guide and friend, Rob Nicholas of Housatonic Anglers (www.housatonicanglers.com) in Cornwall, Connecticut, which of his “Angling in the Andes” (www.anglingintheandes.com) trips he recommended that I take. He gave the nod right away to Marcos Jaeger’s Esquel Outfitters (www.esqueloutfitters.com). “It’s the best,” he said.
I went on this trip for the fishing, of course, but I came back with more than good memories of fishing. I also came back with a much greater appreciation of what we as fly fishers can share and learn from one another and how much that sharing can deepen our understanding of our obsession. Let me explain. I am a self-taught fly fisher who took up the sport somewhat late in life. I live in New York City, an unlikely place to meet others on a stream. Luckily for me, I have access to good water near a weekend home in Duchess County, 75 miles north of the city. I also have nieces in Montana and Wyoming and a very supportive wife who likes to travel and doesn’t mind being left alone for a few hours when we are away from home.
I’m one of those Angling Report subscribers who loves to read about the exploits of others: you know, flying off to somewhere like Kamchatka or Patagonia in search of trout or salmon. In fact, until my recent trip to Patagonia, reading about others’ experiences in The Angling Report and other publications was my only source of fishing stories. You see, I never had fishing buddies. My love affair with fly fishing evolved as an almost entirely solitary pursuit. Leaving one friend aside, I don’t think I fished within sight of another fly fisher more than a couple dozen times before this recent trip, and those were only for moments.
Incomprehensibly, perhaps, as I think back, I never realized I was deprived. Ignorant, I slogged ahead, enjoying the sport entirely on my own. I fished, subscribed to magazines, bought books, rented videos, clicked on Web sites, and hung around in fly shops by myself. To provide myself at least some exchange with others, I wrote up my exploits and bored my friends (all non–fly fishers) trying to explain how satisfying it is to pursue and sometimes catch fish. As I talked, their eyes glazed over, of course. If they responded at all, it was simply to ask, “You don’t eat them?”
After five or six years fishing entirely on my own, I finally hired a guide for the first time in 2000. Since then, I’ve used guides quite frequently. I walked and waded the Upper Sacramento and McCloud in California with one and fished the Housatonic and Farmington in Connecticut with another. On other occasions, I’ve floated the Bitterroot and Clark Fork in Montana and the Gunnison, Roaring Fork, and Frying Pan in Colorado with guides. I’ve also fished in the Pacific off Tofino, British Columbia, with a guide; the Atlantic off Montauk, New York; Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean; the Gulf of Mexico off Houma, Louisiana; Islamorada in Florida; and along the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. All of these trips were a half-day to a day or two at a time, and always either by myself or just me and a guide, never a peer.
My trip to Patagonia was something way out of my comfort zone: a seven-day immersion in a group of eight anglers and four guides. I came away ecstatic. Long story short, all of us on the trip had six days of fishing on five wildly different streams. The trip started with a flight to Buenos Aires and then on to Bariloche, where we were driven in comfortable trucks and cars four hours southwest to Cholila in Patagonia. We spent the first three nights of our trip there at El Trebol Lodge before moving on to Estancia La Elvira, Arroyo Pescado, and Esquel, all in easily manageable one- to two-hour legs through often breathtaking scenery.
Here are some highlights: The Carrileufu, Rivadavia, and Grande were big water surrounded by forests. The water was so gin clear you could see fish at great distances and depths. The Rio Gualjaina and Arroyo Pescado were both quite small creeks that meandered through arid almost desert-like landscapes lined with willows and poplars that provided remarkable opportunities for sight casting with big dry flies to big fish. Along the way, we saw incredible wildlife and birds, including crested and Chimango caracaras, lapwings, great blue herons, kingfishers, ibises, sandpipers, flamingos, geese, grebes, black-necked swans, doves, vultures, kestrels, quail, and rheas, the latter usually already at full-speed (40 mph), scurrying over a distant rise by the time we saw them. The mammals we saw included minks, red foxes, an armadillo, and one lone guanaco, the smaller Patagonian cousin of the Peruvian llama. We spotted it standing, as if posing for us, on a low rise off the road between Esquel and Bariloche.
The guides on this trip were superb, all of them, and great company. Diego moved quickly, three casts and go. “Impatient,” he described himself. “Economical” might have been just as accurate. Jorge had an uncanny ability to spot fish, and he was incredibly enthusiastic when you hooked one. Juancho was an extreme dry fly advocate, almost totally eschewing nymphs or streamers if a dry fly might attract interest. Marcos was more the classic guide, assuming you knew what you wanted to do unless you asked, and extremely helpful when you did. Rob, our North American contact, fishing companion, and sometime guide, was always around and universally helpful.
As for the other anglers, they were collegial, avid fly fishers, most of them much better than I and with much better equipment. They had all made trips before like the one we were on to places such as Chile, Alaska, all over. And they were all accomplished enough in their professional lives to afford two long flights to get to Patagonia, plus the cost of six full days of sometimes physically challenging fishing. Among us were an editor and a project manager for two well-read niche magazines, two corporate lawyers from Atlanta, a money manager, and the creator/ owner/operator of a high-end midtown Manhattan hair salon. Socializing with these guys, talking about fishing, about previous trips and trips to come, sharing insights, talking tackle—it was all remarkably satisfying. It made me realize what I had been missing as a solitary angler.
Here are some moments that remain uppermost in my mind:
• It rained sideways our first day on the Carrileufu but our rainwear, hats, and waders kept us dry and arm. I caught the first two fish of the day (but only one more that day). At lunch, the guides built a fire and rigged a tarpaulin with straps, tree limbs, and oars, and we enjoyed a delicious meal, dry, although they had to drain it every ten minutes or so. At cocktail hour that evening, one of the better fishermen on the trip, Dal, from Atlanta, owned up without shame to having been skunked, and he put it into the proper perspective. “If you never got skunked,” he asked, “how good could it feel when you caught fish?” His brother, Jay, who caught two 20-plus-inch rainbows that day, gave most of the credit to his guide Jorge because he “never would have seen them without Jorge.”
• Day 2, on the Rivadavia, I was pooped, tired, and unable to lift my rod another time. Andy, my raft mate, was tired, too, but he persevered even though the fishing was slow. Then, within sight of the putout, he caught not one, but two fish, more than rewarding him for his fortuity.
• Day 3, after two poor days due to weather, I went out with Diego and Vartan in the afternoon on Rio Gualjaina and hooked fish left and right, several times (as Diego put it) “kings of the pool.” I landed about half of them, a performance that would have upset me had I not heard from the others that this was a common occurrence in such overgrown and weedy streams.
• Day 4, fishing again on the Gualjaina with Juancho and Andy, I stuck mainly with dry flies, finishing each pool with a streamer. I had a great day and marveled at the rheas we saw racing off over the horizon.
• Day 5, on el Arroyo Pescado, this time with Jorge and Rob, I again hooked fish left and right, landing about half of them, not much worse than Rob, my idol, was doing just down the way. I marveled at Jorge’s ability to spot fish in the darkest, most obscure nooks and crannies and the great joy he emanated with each battle.
• Day 6, fishing with Rob and Marcos (who switched back and forth between rowing and fishing), I struggled with sinking lines on big water, but improved as Rob and Marcos offered me helpful advice on how to reduce my false casts. Then, in one of the day’s few dry fly opportunities, I induced a 19.5-inch rainbow to take my beetle imitation. The fish was well into the backing on my reel before I was able to turn and eventually land him. My best and last fish of the week! It was a great trip overall that forever enriched my fishing life. Enjoy!—Andrew French