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- The Fly Shop
Argentina, Santa Cruz
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EXTREME FLY FISHING
You know the old adage, "It is not the edge of the earth, but you can see if from there." Well, I made it; I actually was at the edge of the earth.
I just got back from Jurassic Lake, well, actually in English it is called Lake Stobel or Lago Stobel to locals in Spanish. It’s a place off the charts. The name Jurassic Lake comes from the so called “brontosaurus” of rainbow trout that are caught in these waters on the edge of the earth with no trees - as in not a single one for as far as the eye can see. To be in such a remote location means one thing wind. Wind is normally the bane of the existence in the fly fishing world, which often translates into strings of expletives. This fishery has the greatest number of trout that weigh over ten pounds, and people come from all over to experience this phenomenon. The landscape has many contrasts. It appears desert like; yet, it houses an immense body of bright blue water. On this plateau, you would not expect to find such a large lake. Wow! It is mind blowing, and it will take your breath away.
As always, life is better when surrounded by friends who share a common denominator. For me, this includes my friends that love to fish. On this trip, an old fishing buddy ,Jack Handey from New Mexico, and a new fishing buddy, Brad Wistrom from Minnesota, joined me on this trip.
To get here is no easy task; nonetheless, it was worth the trip. First I had go to one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world, Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is often called the Paris of the Western Hemisphere, and from my brief time here, I can see why. It has a unique European flair with a Spanish twist. After I spent the night there, I had to go to a different airport, fly three more hours south to El Calafate, a nice resort town on Lake Argentina (Lago Argentina) with a population of 6,200 and near a huge glacier in Los Glaciares National Park at the edge of southern Patagonian Ice Field. Then, we spent the night in El Calafate. The next morning the first extreme part comes, which means a five and a half hour drive. “Don't worry!” I am told, "The bad part is only the last two hours." It starts off as a paved road, but it quickly turns to a gravel track. This is not the worst of it for then it becomes a rocky road. As we look around, there is almost nothing as civilization fades away. The ride continues, and we bump our way at ten miles an hour through Patagonia's barren pampas in the four-wheel drive pick-up truck on our way to the lodge. I am sure my kidney was bruised on the ride into the lodge.
Having grown up in the deserts of Arizona, I have learned to find beauty in what others see as just vast wastelands. Well, these high deserts of Patagonia are no exception; if you look for it, there is a hidden beauty to be discovered.
This place has a unique energy. I found it gave me strength, motivation, and peace of mind. It is an unspoiled ecosystem awaiting exploration.
Along the way, we saw numerous wild animals: sheep (wool is huge is this area of the world), nandu (rhea, a bird that looks like an ostrich), parakeets, armadillos, a large number of guanaco (the original llama species of the world), and my old friend the jackrabbit. In my mind, I can almost see the indigenous people called the Tehuelche. Initial reports about them by the first European explorers said that they were nine to twelve feet tall (actually they were six to six and a half feet tall0. The name Patagonia means “land of big feet”.
Jurassic Lake is a desert sink lake in a treeless basin at 3000 feet elevation on the wide expanse of the Patagonian Steppe. It is about ten miles long and eight miles wide. Outside temperatures varied from eighty degrees Fahrenheit to a low of forty degrees, but the water temperature normally was in the upper forties. I was told they are experiencing a major drought for the past several years. It is in the province of Santa Cruz.
The name of the lodge, owned by Roberto “Beto” Alba that we stayed at, was Estancia Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon Ranch). It is a massive property containing over 37,000+ acre ranch that is on the south coast, and we have private access to over nine miles of Lake Stobel with several coves to avoid the gale force winds coming down from the Andes to the West. The land also includes about six private lakes that they call lagoons. The lodge has ten guest rooms for twelve anglers matched by a staff of six guides and six lodge staff including the manager. Each room has a private bathroom. The lodge is powered by a gas generator on the property backed up by wind power, which provides electricity and heat to the lodge 24/7 along with satellite Internet. There is a nice dining room and bar, a faux wooden deck surrounding the lodge, and even a wader drying room for when you depart for or arrive from the water. The main living area had a forty two-inch LCD TV. They offered laundry service, and they even had a library with a small fly tying station. The lodge is a typical estancia or ranch house meaning not too fancy. However, it is nice and comfortable given the location and distance from any civilization.
The private lagoons were kind of brown/green looking. In contrast, Jurassic Lake is an extraordinary lake with a Caribbean blue look, crystal clear water with a large intake, and no outflow, with biological characteristics and conditions that cause an amazing growth of trout. It supports a large number of these “ginormous” fish. The usual big catch of such a trip is somewhere in the ten to twenty pound range, but there are rainbow trout in there over twenty-five pounds! With no doubt, all the fish are huge and are measured in weight not length. Keeping in mind, a fourteen-pound rainbow is the weight of the largest rainbow that I have ever caught in my sixty-one years of walking on this earth. To which my sixty one year old mind says, "Yahoo!" So, in the back of my mind is the thought, could I soon become a world record holder? How would I handle all the fame and which fishing equipment manufacturers should I allow to sponsor me? You know, the usual thought process when one sets a world record fly-fishing for trout.
When we arrived, I could see that the wind was clearly going to play a big role in the next week of fishing. I could not help but think, I traveled 6,000 miles, and it now comes down to the final 60 feet of fly line. I better be able to cast in the wind. Average wind was twenty miles per hour, but often would start gusting to over thirty-five to forty five miles per hour. One day the gusts topped sixty miles an hour, only adding to the extreme nature of the place.
The rainbow trout eat a protein rich meal of Gammaridean scuds (fresh water shrimp) in well-oxygenated water that never freezes over in the cold winter, unlike the lagoons that will freeze. The scuds are so prolific due to the naturally high alkalinity of the water that comes from an unusually alkaline soil stratum lying beneath the lake. So match that food source with a constant year round water temperature along with no natural predators, it results in monster trout that pack on about two to three pounds per year. The trout first planted here almost thirty years ago were the McCloud River strain of rainbow trout from a hatchery on the Santa Cruz River. They have since taken off in such a way as to get worldwide attention. Most spawn in the river, but some spawn in the lake, normally in the early season of November or December. All of this to say, the trout we caught were all wild trout, my favorite. The wild trout that we caught were extremely strong. They all had acrobatic abilities, which is a feature that I greatly enjoy in wild trout.
The season to fish here runs from November to April. Remember, the southern half of the globe has the opposite of our weather. When I was there in the month of February, it is the summer season with long days. Our trip was the regular routine of seven overnights from Sunday to Sunday to go fishing six days. On a good day, fly fisherman will catch ten to fifteen fish on Jurassic Lake.
After first wetting my line at two of the private lagoons, sight casting to trout on Ocho and then fishing the lagoon next to the lodge called Laguna Verde and catching a few bows, my destination the next morning was Jurassic Lake.
All the guides spoke some English, but I would not call them fluent. Only the owner and manager were fluent in English.
On that first day after Jack caught four fish and I caught zero, the guide came to me with a strong Argentine accent and said, “Yim, you must catch a fish.” On day three, I caught over a dozen huge rainbows on Jurassic Lake and then the guide said, “Yim, you are on fire.” So, I saw it as a graduation in the eyes of the guide. By the way, one day on a lagoon they called horseshoe after catching over fifteen fish all over twenty inches in length, all in the morning, I realized I caught one on my first cast and that I had a banana nearby--so much for those superstitions.The number of fish caught is impressive, but the size is the real appeal. They are all huge!
Despite the wind, I did not have too much trouble adapting to the conditions. I used a single handed Sage Xi eight weight rod with a Tibor reel and over 150 yards of backing, which I used several times; or should I say, the trout I caught used my backing. The trout are not leader shy. I used a heavy leader down to 0 X. Some of the time, I used medium size nymphs with beads, and at other times, I would add a large dry like a chubby Chernobyl or thingamobber strike indicator. On Jurassic Lake most of the time, I would wade into deeper water standing on a rock. Then stabilizing myself against the constant waves, I would get wet sometimes from the wind driven waves. I would cast to cruising Rainbow Trout or simply blind cast to the gradual drop offs and catch ten plus pound rainbow trout over, and over, and over again.
Like I have done a zillion times before, I often walk the shoreline looking for giant shapes and shadows in the water. But rather than walking a nice level shore line, this is extreme fly fishing. We had to hop from one large calcified rock to another one avoiding a fall that would result in a broken bone and/or fly rod. We looked between the waves, which provided a small window to see into the deep water. This added a nice sight fishing technique to my fishing every day. But most of the time, I would just blind cast out to a deep part of the lake. First, I would catch a five pounder, next a ten pounder, etc. The prospect of catching a rainbow trout over twenty pounds kept my level of hope and anticipation at an all time high.
My largest rainbow trout of fifteen and a half pounds came in a place called Sea Bay in Jurassic Lake, using a thingamobber with a red copper john about three feet below. The largest in the lodge for our week came in at just over nineteen pounds. When I caught my new record rainbow trout, the guide was so happy for me that after giving me the customary high five or fist pump, he hugged me. I must ask you, when was the last time your guide hugged you? I love the Argentine people.
On the last day, it was the first time that the wind had died down. Both Jack and I called that day, “The one that got away.” I had a three-minute fight with a seventeen to eighteen pound trout. This guess at the weight was by the guide who told me while watching the battle between fisherman and trout and saw that beast jump. Then he added the dreaded prophesy, “That one is very large, don’t loose it.” Just as I was bringing it in for the net, it made that last hard run, went around a large rock, and broke off. Later, Jack had one scream into his backing only to break off, and we never got to guess its weight other than know it was, “Muy grande!”
We caught some of these monsters on dry flies, like a chubby Chernobyl or a large beetle pattern. There is something special about sight casting a large pattern to a ten-pound rainbow trout. The top water take was not gradual; they would either slam it or roll on it like a tarpon.
When it came time for lunch, we would get in the trucks and the guide would drive us to a designated spot with a small man made shack that gave us shade. Most importantly, it got us out of the dang wind. I would meet up there with the other fishermen and guides. Lunch always started with a board of cheese, meat and some quiche. It was followed by a hot meal cooked on the spot with a side salad. We finished it off with dessert and coffee.
At the lodge, we ate traditional Argentinean food, like Asado, or what we Texans call, BBQ. Meals varied, from lamb to other types of beef, and even rainbow trout one time. And of course, the wine served with dinner every night was fantastic. In particular, the malbec was outstanding, especially when matched with a thick steak! The last night we had traditional empanadas.
The executive chef provided breakfast of bacon and eggs with some toast and cereal, and it was served at the reasonable hour of 8:30 AM. Then, a tradition I first found in Spain, dinner was not served until 9:30 PM or as late as 10 PM. But, it means we got to fish late; so, I call that a win.
I travel, then I fish, then I photograph, and then I write. That way, I can repeat the fun times over and over again in my mind.
My fishing buddies all know how much I like to take photographs with my digital SLR while we are fishing. That is because fly-fishing takes me to some of the most beautiful spots on earth. But just as a photograph is more than a collection of pixels, fishing is more than the act of catching fish. It is about connecting, about feeling wild. Each time I feel small in a world that is beyond my wildest dreams. When I write reports like this one, I get to relive the experience through my words. The one aspect of the trip that I can still not wrap my mind around was the size of these fish. It was not just the length of the fish, but their width or girth. I would describe each fish to be the “Texans Football Defensive End, JJ Watt” of rainbow trout; landing one of these monsters ain't easy my friend. I did my best to get a picture of these beautiful beasts, but there is nothing like God's nature up close and personal. For example, some of the rainbow trout I landed had beautiful iridescence of colors down the tail. When you see those white rocks in the pictures, it almost looks like snow. A TV show called Wild Fish Wild Places has been there twice. On their last visit to a remote spot on the lake called the aquarium the host said, “it looked like the surface of the moon”. Nonetheless, it is just calcified rocks. Patagonia is a region that is so impressive that just being there is satisfying. The scenery, people (in the least populated area of Argentina), food and lifestyle all come together to inspire and impress you.
How did I get so hooked on fly-fishing? Well, I know there are easier ways to catch fish; heck, I understand dynamite is very effective, but clearly that is not my goal. Don't get me wrong, I want to catch fish; however, it is not my primary goal. I look for the whole experience. Fly fishing has a never ending learning curve since I am always learning something new. Despite being an old dog, I learn new tricks on each trip, and it includes simple things like how to read the water, matching the hatch, proper casting, a good drag free drift with a proper mend, etc. What really keeps me coming back to such beautiful spots, it is that I am always learning something new about nature – mainly, my connection to water. I answer the water's call because of the places it takes me, and the fellowship that surrounds me on these adventures. Last but not least, it reminds me of what it means to be alive. I find complete peace when I am fly-fishing. Fishing in general is an element of me that I can't ignore. In my prayers to God, I give thanks and praise that I am able to have such experiences as I just had in Patagonia.
To complete the whole experience, I spent the last two days of my vacation being a tourist in Buenos Aires before flying home to Sugar Land, Texas. First, I did my research on "BA" and that included getting a list of all the must see spots from my sister Alice Ambrose, who is also a world traveler. I even hired a private guide; so that, I could see all there is to see in a short time. Along with money problems related to the currency called the Argentinian peso (Major US banks do not sell them or accept them), there are frequent protest or strikes. On the way to the airport, we had to avoid two places where protesters were setting tires on fire and blocking the main highways or thoroughfares. As one Argentine taught me, they live for the day; they don’t look at the past or worry about the future; I then added, “Carpe Diem.”
Clearly, this was one of the most amazing trout fishing adventures I have ever been on or have ever heard of. I feel like one of those knights of the Middle Ages on a quest to slay a dragon.
This was extreme fly-fishing. It is not a place for a beginner learning how to cast a fly. For me, the challenge was part of the fun testing my ability to double haul my fly line into the wind.
When describing this area, The Fly Shop's travel catalogue said the reason to visit this far flung corner of Argentina is, "To test your mettle and the quality of tackle against the toughest and largest concentration of giant rainbow trout found anywhere on our planet." If Patagonia and Jurassic Lake are not on your bucket list, then large numbers of fat rainbow trout are not on your list either.
It all began in 1955 with an invitation from Jorge Donovan to famed fly-fishing legend Joe Brooks to go fly-fishing in Patagonia. That opened up the whole fly fishing world to Argentina. Join me and continue to chase your dreams! You have to see it to believe it. Find humongous rainbows in a land time forgot in a prehistoric diorama. Go extreme fly-fishing.
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