Our Man In Canada
May 12th, 2003

Snowbirds in Patagonia

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall
Photo by Duncan Hardie

The riffle glittered in the early evening sunlight. Forty feet away, close to the willows on the far bank, a trout slashed at a caddis fly. It was not along. Within comfortable casting distance, there were at least 20 others. The bigger fish seemed to be right in the fringes of the willows - not the easiest prospect for drifting a fly over. So I tied on a hair wing caddis and cast to the closer fish.

Within 30 minutes I'd risen at least a dozen and connected with only two - a small brown and a rainbow about 15". Not the best of hook-up ratios, but then, only three hours earlier Duncan and I were clambering off a plane at northern Patagonia's Chapelco airport after a 32-hour journey from Toronto. That, and a rather precarious position waist deep in moving water over a jumble of smooth, round rocks was enough to take the edge off the best of us.

Just downstream, Duncan was having more success, but eventually, after managing to connect with another 15" rainbow, I was ready to try the bigger fish tight against the willows. My hook-up ratio improved and I hooked two - one, a rainbow just under 18" which I managed to bring to the net, and another, much bigger, which threw the hook after half a dozen wild jumps.

As the sun dipped behind the snow-capped mountains on the Chilean border, sending long shadows from the willows across the water, the caddis disappeared. The fish, however, continued to rise - no longer with vigorous swirls, but with an easy, gentle head-and-tail porpoising. In the fading light, it was impossible to see what fly was on the water, but it was obviously something very small. So our guides, Gustavos and Diego, provided us with size #20 midges they'd tied. They worked, but they had to be drifted completely drag-free - not an easy task across complex currents and to fish holding so tightly to the willows. Nevertheless, we took four or five more browns and rainbows up to 20" before the gathering darkness drove us to shuffle out of the water and stumble back to where we'd parked the SUV.

We sank into the camp chairs provided by the guides - the bone weariness of a long journey and over two hours of physically demanding fishing was catching up with us. The SUV was parked beside a dirt road at the outside edge of the streamside willows. Apart from a few clumps of monkey puzzle trees, there were the only trees in the landscape. We were in a wide, desolate valley through which the river, the Rio Malleo, ran eastwards from the Cordilleras on the Chilean border, just 13 km to the west. To the north and south, snow-capped mountains gleamed in the moonlight, with the white cone of Lanin (an extinct volcano) looming, glimmering and vast against the afterglow to the southwest. Even though we were only an hour's drive from the resort town of San Martin de Los Andes, there was no sign of the lights of civilization. In the pristine, unpolluted air, the stares shone with a clarity rivaling that of Labrador, but in unfamiliar configurations - the Southern Cross low in the southeast and Orion hanging upside down over the northern mountains, with his sword projecting upwards from his belt rather than hanging down from it. Even the moon was different - a mirror image of how we see it north of the equator.

It was about 11:00 pm when we finally arrived back at the lodge, heads fuzzy with jet lag and bodies aching from the rigours of fishing, but a feast of grilled local steaks and a bottle of fine Argentinian Merlot kept us awake long enough to savour our first taste of Patagonian fly fishing and our host's briefing of what we could expect during the next four days. ~ Chris Marshall

To Be Continued.....

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