Whoever said that wild trout are found in pleasing places must have had a passport stamped in Chile. The southern Patagonia region near Coihaique offers some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in the world.
Problem is, there can be too much of it. At least that was the case during a recent fly-fishing trip to Salmo Patagonia Lodge.
The facility is situated on a hill overlooking distant Coihaique. Beautiful rivers, streams, lakes and ponds are scattered like jewels throughout the vast region, but accessing many of them demands drives of between one and two hours from the base lodge. The commutes got old, especially on the dusty gravel roads leading to some of the choice venues.
If you’re going to spend three or four hours per fishing day in a vehicle, the spectacular vistas of peaks and valleys make the road time more tolerable — but, still, the repeated drives are tedious.
Luis Antunez, lodge owner, recognized the problem and this year implemented a more flexible program by utilizing two “out-cabins” for extended overnight trips. With the help of outfitter/marketing partner J.W. Smith of Kerrville-based Rod & Gun Resources, Inc., he researched the options and concentrated on a prime region known as the Valley of the Moon.
Antunez is no short-ball hitter. He found what he liked and bought approximately 2,400 acres (about two hours from the main lodge).
“The property has seven lakes, all suitable for both wading and boat fishing,” Smith said. “All of it is virtually unfished — and, of course, it’s all private. Guests of Salmo Patagonia Lodge are the only anglers with access.”
To supplement the trout already in the lakes, Antunez purchased 450,000 rainbows from hatcheries in Chile. Most already are in the 10- to 15-inch range in length. To put Antunez’s stocking in perspective, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department releases about half that number across the entire state during the annual winter rainbow program.
Loaded with options
“Luis wanted numbers but he also wanted quality,” Smith said. “He obtained more than 500 big brown trout and rainbow trout to add to the mix. By ‘big,’ I mean 6 to maybe 20 pounds. He also dumped about 4,500 pounds of crawfish in the lakes for forage.
“Fishing is fishing, never a sure thing,” Smith added, “but we feel confident that on any given day a fly fisherman on one of the seven lakes has a bona fide shot at a 10-pound-plus trout.”
The out-cabins also offer access to other lakes in the region, and at least five rivers and streams “within a 30- to 40-minute drive.”
And, as a huge plus, the overnight accommodations allow anglers to fish until dark, utilizing the “magic hour” of last light for the bigger trout. Under the previous program, we left the Valley of the Moon during the late afternoon — about the time we should have been stringing up — in order to reach the lodge at a reasonable hour.
Smith said the main lodge has been scaled down from 10 rods to eight rods per week, and each angler has a private room. Several new cabins also are available on the grounds. The basic program teams two anglers with a guide/vehicle, and guests rotate the out-camp option.
Closer venues are accessible from the lodge. New for the coming season (early November through mid-April) is a heavily stocked, exclusive-access lake 10 minutes by vehicle. The lake is not suitable for wading, but Smith said float tubes are available for arrival-day sessions.
The revamped operation should work out some kinks while opening new areas and maximizing fishing time. My trip last year had some rough edges. I teamed with David Wilkes, of Highlands, N.C., and we agreed the overall fishing was disappointing. The Patagonia of Chile was hit with a vicious mid-summer heat wave, with temperatures in the mid-90s during our week. The hot, bright days slowed aggressive feeding.
Obviously, no lodge can control the weather, but the so-so action only magnified the long drives. But we did enjoy snippets of quality fishing, enough that I feel positive about the overall potential of the operation.
One afternoon, Wilkes and I traded off with six-weight rods while walking a small feeder stream. The setting amid swirling pools and gushing waterfalls was gorgeous, and thick ferns and mosses draped the high banks — a shrouded oasis from the open sun. The hushed lighting had an almost ethereal quality.
Tight, crisp casting was required, but every well-defined hole held brown trout and we each caught several fish in the low- to mid-20-inch class on dries and nymphs. It was reaffirmation of the special moments in fly-fishing for trout.
All about mindset
Another day, Wilkes and I fished for browns in a large, clear-water lake rimmed with cattail-type reeds. Our guide manned the oars of an inflatable raft while we casted large beetle-imitation dry flies to the pockets and edges of the weeds. Think bass bugging with a six weight and you’ve got it.
Feeding activity was subdued under the high sun, but the occasional surface strikes came from large, boldly-marked fish. I don’t recall catching one less than 20 inches and the best taped 25, scaling perhaps five pounds. They were thick, healthy fish and fought well, usually making three or four high jumps.
Catching these quality browns on dries was special and, to reiterate, we were forced to pull out as the long evening shadows were starting to stretch across the shoreline. That lake has produced trout in excess of 12 pounds and I have no doubt the final two hours of light would have been outstanding. That problem has been resolved.
Closer to the main lodge, about an hour away, I had a great day on a smaller stream. The beautiful little creek was known to hold a large number of small rainbows and browns.
The puny average size of about 12 inches discouraged some anglers, but one key to great fishing is to match your tackle and your attitude to the available water.
I used a 7.5-foot, five-weight bamboo rod and a variety of small dries — and had a large time amid the solitude of the Andes. I caught and released perhaps 35 or 40 trout, and the top dozen were in the 14- to 16-inch class — decent small-water fish.
And, for me, using the lighter touch of the graceful cane added hugely to the experience. Joe Brooks, the late angling explorer who flexed the “lovely reed” during the early-’60s across virgin Patagonian waters, surely would have smiled.
I would not travel all the way to Chile to catch small trout, but the single session plucked from the week was a highlight. Repeat, remaining flexible and packing accordingly can add style points to any trip.
But trout, regardless of size, are only part of the experience. Patagonia is an angling adventure. That region of southern Chile has a throwback feel to it and the amount of wild land is impressive. To attempt to cover even a portion of its potential demands time and travel, perhaps even a few wrong turns, and not all anglers are willing to take the dusty gamble.
But one thing is certain: This is a serious fishing trip, and the scenery is among the most majestic you ever will face with fly rod.
For additional information on fishing in Chile, go to www.rodgunresources.com