Our Man In Canada
May 19th, 2003

Snowbirds in Patagonia
Parque Nacional Lanin: The Patagonian Lake District

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall
Photo by Duncan Hardie

The rivers and lakes of Parque Nacional Lanin offer fly fishing reminiscent of that found in the Rockies and foothills 60 years ago. The park, situated in northern Patagonia 1,200km south of Buenos Aries, is sparsely populated and remote from any large urban areas. Consequently, angling pressure is minimal by North American standards. Yet, within its boundaries, there are scores of lakes and countless rivers which teem with wild brown and rainbow trout. In a few, there are also populations of North American brook trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon.

The region is ideal for Canadian fly fishers seeking relief from cabin fever during the long winter. The Patagonian trout season opens on November first and runs until the end of April. In the early season, the rivers run high and cold with snow-melt from the mountains, but the trout are hungry and respond aggressively to streamers and lures such as Woolly Buggers and Zonkers fished deep on sink-tip lines. As water levels recede in December, opportunities for fishing nymphs and dry flies increase. The prime months are January and February, which offer the widest opportunities for fishing both floating and sinking flies. Though March and April, the rivers begin to cool again and water levels are at their lowest, and while there are still plenty of opportunities for casting a dry fly, sunk flies come into their own again.

None of the fish targeted by fly fishers are native to South America. The browns were introduced from Europe in the early twentieth century. One Patagonian we met claimed that there was also a stocking from Australia. There is a stronger claim for the landlocked salmon originating from Sebago Lake in Maine, a claim which is currently being researched by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologist, Jack Imhof. We had hoped to find that at least some of the brook trout introduced had come from Canada, but the source appears to be entirely New England. All these species have adapted well to Patagonian rivers and lakes, so that today there are thriving wild populations throughout the region. Besides the immigrant salmonids, there is one native species which is taken incidentally by fly fishers using deeply sunk flies, the perca (Percichthys trucha).

Duncan Hardie

Fishing Sampler

One of the things which makes fly fishing in the Lanin National Park unique, is the tremendous diversity of the terrain, within an hour's drive of San Martin Des Andes, at the heart of the park, there are semi-desert foothills, wooded alpine valleys, snow capped mountains-and just about everything in between. The four rivers and one lake we fished during our short stay provided a good sample of this diversity.

The headwaters of the Rio Malleo, where we fished on our first and last evenings, flow through a wide, high-mountain pass where the gradient is relatively gentle. Its smooth, willow-lined pools and riffles provide classic dry fly water. Here, we were rewarded with some of the best dry fly fishing we've ever experienced-prolific hatches, scores of rising fish, and just the right degree of difficulty to provide challenge with minimum frustration.

Seventy kilometres to the east, where the Malleo joins with the Rio Alumine and Rio Chimehuin to form the Rio Collon Cura, the landscape is dramatically changed. The Collon Cura flows through arid, semi-desert, its lush green banks a stark contrast to the dusty yellows and browns of the scrubland beyond. This is big water, best fished from a drift boat, and we spent a day floating close to 20km down it in an inflatable rigged with a frame providing seats for two anglers and a rower. We took browns and rainbows fishing both floating and sinking flies to lies along the banks, drop-offs, and the edges of the current. But if, like me, you find things happen too quickly when you're fishing from a moving boat, stopping and wading provides just as much action-and the time to savour it.

A short drive south of San Martin de los Andes lies the valley of the Rio Filo Hua Hum-a level valley of meadow dotted with clumps of trees and wild flowers, flanked by the steep, tree-clad shoulders of mountains, rising to bare ochre sandstone and patches of snow. The river, which drains two lakes close the Chilean border, winds through it. With banks fragrant with oregano and studded with fuschia and flowering vines, it is so utterly beautiful that the wild browns and rainbows we caught there were almost incidental.

As well as sections with pools and cascades, the Filo Hua Hum has extensive pocket water, which provides superb nymph fishing. It was here, around sunset, that I took my biggest brown of the day, a powerful 22" fish, which careened through the fast water until my wrists ached. As we were leaving, we were inspected by a condor, wheeling high above us, dark against the evening sky-a transcendent moment at the closing of a perfect day.

The lakes range from the huge Lago Lacar at San Martin and Lago Huechulafquen to the north, to medium-sized meadow lakes, small, high-altitude, alpine lakes, and tiny pockets of a few score acres. The biggest lakes are not particularly popular among fly fishers, who prefer medium-sized and smaller waters. It was on one of these, Lago Escondido, a small alpine lake, that we had our best stillwater fishing. It was only about 20km from the lodge, but it took over an hour to reach it by Land Rover over a track worthy of some of the northern Quebec logging trails I've encountered. It wound through steep, narrow valleys overhung with huge lenga and coihue trees festooned with Spanish moss. The lake is nestled between steep mountain slopes, but the eastern end, where we launched the inflatable, was ringed with reed-fringed shallows. Here, at the edges of the reeds, we fished adult dragonfly imitations, tied by our guide, Gustavos Pucci, on the surface for rainbows and browns gorging themselves on ovipositing naturals. The fish were not huge by Patagonian standards (the largest was a 20" rainbow), but they were breathtakingly muscular and acrobatic, making multiple leaps and sometimes streaking so far out into deep water that they took us into the backing.

In five days we fished four rivers and one lake-and we barely scratched the surface-a mere 25% of those offered by our outfitter, Ten Rivers Ten Lakes, and an even smaller fraction of the rivers and lakes in the area. The extent and diversity of fishing available in this one small corner of Patagonia would take a whole season to sample thoroughly. ~ Chris Marshall

To Be Continued.....

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