Snowbirds in Patagonia
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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