Pristine Rivers and Final Casts in Chilean Patagonia

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I couldn’t have dreamt up a better ending to a year-and-a-half of travel. After a long stretch of rain, the weather finally shifted to sunshine, letting me sun-dry my damp bedding and air out the van before two great friends joined me for a grand finale week of fishing in South America. I had no idea the world was on the verge of a pandemic and shutdown. Unconsciously, I guess you could say I was preparing for the coming quarantine, filling my head with a bank of fresh memories to tap into for easy smiles and calm thoughts.

Skylar and I had met nearly a decade ago on a river in Montana while she was living in a homemade teardrop trailer. In the years since, we’ve managed to overlap our gypsy routes almost annually to fish, camp and catch up. She had guided in Patagonia, so, convincing her to book a flight was easy. Jess, a talented photographer and writer friend from Montana, wasn’t hard to convince either.

Skylar arrived a few days ahead of Jess. We hugged, loaded the luggage, Shale dog jumped on her lap and ten minutes later we stopped at a small river, pulled on waders, and strung our rods for a few hours of easy fishing. After breaking the jet lag and warming up with a few small trout, we drove toward bigger water, passing fields of hay bales wrapped in white shrink wrap. Skylar joked about the fields being the birthplace of the world’s biggest marshmallows. We made a quick grocery stop in Coyhaique, drove along the Simpson River, and camped on a hidden bank while rigging the raft for a long float.

The Simpson River is finicky and frustrating, at least it had been for me. The past weeks of rain had clouded the water and while I had a few decent days of scouting, it was never on fire and the fish were exceptionally small by Patagonian standards. However, when we launched the raft, the water had cleared and was visibly dropping as we rowed toward small trout rising in the first eddy on the river left. Not a bad sign.

Skylar plucked several small sippers from a foam line on small dry flies before deciding we needed bigger bugs for bigger fish. She tied on a big Chubby Chernobyl ant and proceeded to pound it against every log jam and tight corner we rowed passed. At one group of logs, a big brown poked his head out, followed and turned back without grabbing the fly but it gave us proof of bigger fish. I backrowed, tucking the raft behind the logs and we worked this run for an hour, eventually catching a few but losing the big brown right at the net. We picked up the pace, fishing streamers hard with newfound hope.

The strategy paid off, first with a few follows from slow bends and log jams and eventually from a few aggressive browns and one slab of a rainbow that was dedicated to destroying the fly. All in all, we spent 12 hours fishing and rowing through boulder gardens, gambling against daylight to reach the takeout/campsite at the confluence of the Manihuales River.

The next day started out slow on a river neither of us knew but decided to fish anyway. The Manihuales begins as a small, heavily wooded river but quickly gains volume in a rush to the ocean. It’s pushy, with big deep bends that are clearly more suited to swinging flies and gear fishing for salmon than trout in the lower stretches. Since we were well past salmon season, we accepted our reality and simply enjoyed the float through the valley, its riverbanks lined with cattle, sheep and open fields. We casually turned a few small fish, drank warm Escudo beers and were surprised when the last mile gave up a few really nice fish in unlikely, flat and shallow water.

Beat down by the sun and tired, we backtracked a few hours toward the airport. Just before Coyhaqui, we hit a campsite, cooked meat over a fire and drank boxed wine while we hatched a plan to return for another Simpson float with Jess before striking out to the remote lake systems near the Argentina border.

Round two on the Simpson went nearly the same as the previous run. We shot out from the airport—Jess now in tow—camped on the river, cooked on a fire, hitchhiked the morning shuttle and floated into an overcast but excellent looking day. The river wouldn’t give up the big fish immediately but Jess and Skylar both worked the streamers hard and boated a dozen or so nice trout. Somehow, Jess managed to catch more fish than either of us, all while shooting photos from difficult angles in the raft. We camped at the takeout and skipped the Manihuales the following morning, opting to wade fish a small stream to break up the hours of rough dirt roads ahead.

Skylar had discovered several remote lakes a few years ago, and as we crept closer to the lake, I could sense her anticipation. She suddenly recalled specific curves in the road, a very subtle turn, the cabin in the distance and the final hill before a rough trail bounced us into an unofficial campsite within walking distance of the shoreline. The group’s collective energy elevated. Jess sat with her camera in hand and Shale Dog pressed her nose firmly against the windshield, waiting for her chance to jump ship.

While Jess and Skylar waded through a network of floating islands and waist-deep mud to reach a casting position, I set up the raft, figuring it’d be an asset for the evening as well as the next day. By the time I’d sludged it through the muck, Skylar had already landed several big browns and was smiling ear to ear while Jess crouched in the cattails with her finger on the shutter.

Later, we pushed off the raft and hit a wind drift, taking turns hooking and landing larger-than-average brown trout until the sun dipped behind the Andes and sent us walking back to camp. We capped the evening with half a box of wine and fresh steaks and expected the coming days to yield the same results.

But as it tends to do, a coastal system clashed with the mountains, driving the barometer to extremes and shifting the weather overnight. The entire fishery shut down and we spent the following day prying the lake unsuccessfully. Despite Jess spending most of the day shooting photos and barely touching her fly rod, she caught the only fish, a very sluggish one at that.

The new weather pattern wasn’t changing so we pulled camp, opting to bounce back down the long dirt road. The second we hit the pavement, the right wheel locked up. The entire van pulled hard right. I managed to keep it under control until I could pull over and let it cool down. Once we pulled back onto the highway, I drove with fingers crossed all the way to Coyhaqui. I did my best to pretend something wasn’t horribly wrong but a stranger soon wrecked my denial when he stopped the van to inform me about the wobbling wheel. I guess bouncing across every backroad on two continents was a little too intense for the tie rod end. It had snapped.

I made a quick turn into a mechanic shop; they waved me in saying it would only take a few hours. In the meantime, Skylar made contact with an old friend who happened to own a lodge not far from town. With a fresh tie rod installed, we jetted up the highway, pulling up to an unexpected welcome by the entire staff at Chile Trout. The beautiful lodge looked over Lago Frio and we gathered at the bar, getting to know the owner, Pancho, and his wonderful family and staff.

In a haze of late-night beer (and steaks), we hatched fishing plans. The next morning, we pulled ourselves together and jumped in Pancho’s truck for a short drive to one of his favorite lakes. I’m not used to being hosted or guided but Pancho took the reins and motored the long shoreline of Lago Isalde, stopping to row perfect lines through his favorite spots while casually directing our attention to the preferred fly placements.

We fished hard, alternating between streamers and big dry flies. A few big fish appeared ghost-like, moving off sheer ledges and deep log jams, trailing big streamers right up to the boat without any desire to eat. We worked through miles of shoreline, picking up a few nice ones before parking on a long beach to wade fish, which turned up multiple quality brown trout.

After more than a decade-long fish guiding career, I know what makes a great guide and Pancho had it all: a calm demeanor and completely dialed into the fishery. He put together an incredible day of fishing, customizing the techniques and locations based on our desire for quality (ahem, size) over quantity.

We moved out the next morning, parting ways with big, reluctant hugs. The final drive led to a small spring creek where the girls sorted out gear, packed bags and made a few final casts, casually catching brown trout before hitting the airport and flying home to a new reality that would cancel their travel-filled calendars for the foreseeable future.

After traveling solo for so long, having a week with friends was more gratifying than I had ever imagined. I had found a buyer for the van and had booked my own flight home for March 17th, a month earlier than desired. With a week of downtime, I was faced with the choice between sitting tight and playing it safe ensuring the van’s ready-to-sale condition or pressing into new territory, and risking a breakdown that could terminate the sale.

I started off playing it safe, staying within 20-minutes of the airport and walking mudflats. But I’d come this far and only a few hours away the great Lago General Carrera beckoned. Trout gain serious heft in this massive lake before migrating through river systems in the Patagonian fall for far-off spawning waters. I weighed the pros and cons of a single big brown trout against the wheels falling off an old van. The brown trout won.

I bought a load of empanadas from a kind old woman at a roadside stand and drove over a mountain pass that resemebled the Colorado high country. As I drove onto a ferry for the several hour haul across the lake, I put the jagged peaks of Cerro Castillo in my rearview mirror. I had downloaded a news podcast to catch up with the world and they lightly mentioned the Coronavirus in China. I thought nothing of it.

On the other side, Shale perked up as we left the ferry behind and entered a dry landscape of high desert with red cliffs, sandstone and thorn filled brush. An hour into the drive, the van crested a hill and I made an impulse turn toward the river, nearly getting stuck as the side road narrowed to a sandy livestock trail. I threw the gear lever into park and this patch of dirt became camp for a few nights.

This river, with its fast gradient over boulders and bedrock in a hurried descent to the lake was no place for a trout. It had no biomass, few bugs, essentially nothing to eat. On a tip from a friend, I tied on my biggest streamer, a big articulated bucktail style fly Skylar had tied for me several years prior. It survived the entire trip south, including an incident with armed bandits in Mexico who, for some reason, wanted to grab it from my headliner.

Not knowing if or where any fish might hold in the river, I took a cast and step approach, constantly moving and rarely touching the same piece of water twice. Shale followed along, walking ahead and lying down to wait out my slow downstream trajectory.

We moved at this pace for hours, leaving me far from the van as the sun began its descent behind the mountains. I couldn’t stop casting. The river made a hard bend that formed a tailout with boulders breaking the current. One of only a few real soft spots I’d encountered. The fly stopped for a second just after sinking out of view and I lifted the rod tip.

This was no snag—I felt the fish come tight and hold its ground for a second before exploding into a series of big jumps and cross river runs. My heart raced as I chased her downriver, coming close to a landing several times before she finally turned and beached on a shallow sandbar. I didn’t bother with a tape measure or scale, she was perfect beyond statistics. A quick photo, a moment of admiration, and she pushed back into the current to resume her quest of reproduction. This would be my last fish in Patagonia.

Back in the small town of Balcemeda, a mom and pop restaurant served me lunch in gloves and masks. A group of travelers from Holland sat across the empty restaurant, prepping for a mandatory flight back to Europe. In a few short days between saying goodbye to Jess and Skylar, our world had clearly shifted and I was going home to a new reality.