Never Been Fished

Never Been Fished

Southern Chile: Some of the rivers don't even have names...

  • By: Jeff Hull
  • Photography by: Ronni Flannery
Never been fished. Nearly every fisherman I talked to in Chilean Patagonia spoke of streams that had never been fished. And the concept didn't even seem unusual to any of them. A man in Coyhaique asked me if I knew any Americans potentially interested in investing in a lodge operation. He wanted to offer spike camps to fish rivers that didn't even have names. Two weeks after I had returned home from fishing in Chile's vast, sparsely populated region of Patagonia, I spoke on the phone with Jay Burgan, the American partner of Estancia del Zorro and Cinco Rios lodges near Coyhaique, where I had stayed."Just since you've been down here we've found another spring creek," Burgan said. "It's never been fished that anybody knows. Not with a worm, a fly or dynamite caps. The guides went up into it and say there are 30-inch fish living there." And, even though these are fishermen speaking, I believe it. I believe it because I fished at a tiny spring creek that winds through Burgan's Estancia del Zorro property, and heard stories of a legendary fish nicknamed "Tippet Cutter" that lived under a nearby bridge. I fished with 2X tippet-2X on a spring creek, mind you-in anticipation of the rodeo that would take place if I were to hook something like the 32-inch, 15-pounder that came out of the same creek a couple seasons ago. But mainly I believe it because Rodrigo says it's so, and I've come to believe everything Rodrigo says. I told Rodrigo I would kiss him, which probably weighed on him a fair bit. He was the guide, after all-and had to make the gringo happy-but he's also a Latin guy, and so was probably bothered by the prospect. Who knows what gringos are going to insist on? Two days prior, I was fishing on another spring creek and caught tons of decent fish, just pop, pop, pop one right after another-in my first five casts I'd caught three fish-but nothing particularly large. Today I wanted something…hefty. I was trying to be reasonable. I'd heard over and over again rumors about the 10-, 12-, 15-pound browns lurking under the cutbanks. "Rodrigo," I said, "how could a fish that big hide from me in this tiny little creek?" "Those dudes are hard to catch. They are wild and intelligent," he replied. "That's why they are big." Still, I wasn't demanding one of those hook-jawed savages. I just wanted to catch something that felt big. Twenty-three inches is all I wanted, and Rodrigo was going on about fish as big as my leg. That's when I said it: "We catch a 23-inch fish and I'll give you a kiss." The wind was blowing so damn hard I honestly doubted I'd be able to throw my fly into the water, let alone present it in any way that might trigger the brain of a smart fish. So the statement seemed like a safe way to awaken Rodrigo to my desires without committing either of us to anything life-altering. And my very sexy and beautiful girlfriend, Ronni, was standing just down the bank snapping photos, so I didn't think I was creating unreasonable expectations: Look, I don't think I'm going to do too well today, but if I do, boy will I be excited! The Zorro spring creek winds in figure-eight S-curves through broad pampas. The land here opens and rolls like the lower Madison Valley-bunchgrass flats and deep scrubby ravines, forested benches with rimrock upper lips-only greener, more fuzzy and lush. The first pool I approached with Rodrigo was the same one I'd fished two days earlier when I took a fine 16-inch brown on a Taylor's Fat Albert Beetle. I was told that the creek bottom was crawling with pancora, a boxy little cross between a crab and a crayfish that he referred to as "the building blocks of giant trout in South America." Rodrigo thought I should dispense with the niceties of dryfly fishing, slap on a Nere Nuff Whitlock Scuplin, and dredge subsurface without ceremony. At any rate, I was already believing most everything Rodrigo said because he'd spent his whole life fishing in this area, beginning as a boy wrapping monofilament around a coffee can. One thing I love about operations like the Eastancia del Zorro is they give guys like Rodrigo the opportunity to share their local knowledge. It'd be easy enough for the owners to pack their two Chilean lodges with American guides-for-hire on snowbird hiatus from Montana and Alaska. I understand, too, that some folks, when they go fishing in far-flung places, want their guides to serve sandwiches with mayonnaise and American cheese, be conversant in American stock prices, and speak perfect English. But if I go to Chile to fish, I want to learn a little about Chile-beyond the flourishing wine selection-while I'm in the midst of it. So the lodge's program of educating Chileans through an apprenticeship program and training them in the finer points of American fish-guiding is, to my thinking, a terrific thing for all involved, particularly the end-users (visiting anglers). And I appreciated it more sincerely every time Rodrigo spoke about his country. He talked of love gone wrong and fabulous adventures. He told me that his father was thrown in jail twice for not getting home by dark during the infamous curfews of the dictatorship-a chilling reminder that, even in this isolated outpost, Augusto Pinochet's grasp was never far away. These are pieces of Chile only a local can give you. When we see a small black bird with a red back, a negrito, Rodrigo tells us that it's colloquially called the colegial-the student-because of its red backpack. He calls the goofy Andean lapwings "hangry birds" because, "when you get close by they make a lot of noise, like they're hangry." I did scoff a bit at Rodrigo when we approached the creek and he pointed to the little spot where he thought I should drop my fly in the pool. Actually I didn't scoff so much as I laughed. The wind was blowing so hard that seven out of 10 casts hit the pasture rather than the stream. But eventually I plinked one in place, and a flash came off the bank and made my rod dip like a dowser's. The brown was 19 inches long, more silvery than its butter-bellied North American cousins, its flanks less crowded with spots. Chile is a country that without apology sold its economic soul to Milton Freidman during the Pinochet regime. Chile is so pro-free-trade, a fruit industry spokesperson told me, that they have their own IRS-an "Instant Ratification Syndrome," which leads the government to ratify every trade agreement dropped in its lap before bothering even to check how the document squares with Chile's own domestic laws and regulations. The result is a country whose export model is seen by some as the star of South America in terms of economic stability and the production of wealth, but also a nation that suffers from the ninth worst income distribution gap in the world (right up there with other "stars" like Nicaragua and war-torn Sierra Leone), a country that enjoys a blistering six percent annual GDP growth and continually expanding unemployment, and one that is rapidly and eagerly transforming large portions of itself into a place that looks just like the stretch of highway between Los Angeles and La Jolla. Patagonia is a pleasant exception. Patagonia is what it is-and what it is is magnificent, wonderful, fantastico and laced with fish-filled rivers-primarily because there are no roads into the region. Only in relatively recent years has there been regular air service. Bordered along the eastern frontier by the looming volcanic peaks of the Andes, hemmed by fjords on the west, sliced by the Straits of Magellan to the south, and isolated from northern population centers by hundreds of miles of roadless mountain terrain, Patagonia is an inner kingdom little disturbed by the busy machinations of the export wizards in Santiago. Except, of course for the timber trade, in which multinational corporations like Trillium and Boise Cascade scalp vast swaths of ancient and rare Patagonian forest, exporting raw logs in exchange for silt-choked rivers and compromised ecosystems, albeit far from the pesky scrutiny of US conservation groups. Or the mining industry, of which firms like Noranda propose building five dams on magnificent rivers to power a new aluminum smelter-far removed from bothersome air and water quality standards of the developed world. Or the aquaculture industry, which provides consumers in Dallas and Pittsburgh with plump salmon fillets, but spares them notice of the toxic chemicals poured into Patagonia's fjords, or the degradation of wild ocean fish stocks, five pounds of which are used to produce one pound of farmed salmon. But eco-tourism-now there's an export sector the fly-fisherman can line up behind. In fact, fly-fishing in Patagonia is the region's biggest eco-tourism activity, and growing fast. Still, anglers log only about 1,500 fishing days in northern Patagonia annually. By comparison, Montana racks up about three million angler-days. Chilean Patagonia is a big, empty place. Fly-fisherman have been poking around Chile for 50 years now, and we've only scratched the surface. Folks are just getting around to many of the springs and smaller streams. bored into my body through my pores. Rodrigo pointed out a little seam he thought I should cast to. I laughed and bonked the back of my head with the lead-eye sculpin. But as soon as I put the fly in the water, I hooked, struggled with, and quickly landed a 21-inch brown. "Close to a kiss-fish," I told Rodrigo. "Maybe we should quit," he said. "Go over to Argentina." We didn't quit, and around the next bend the stream opened in a long, straight run. Current bounced off a shelf and sliced out the left bank in a slight divot. There was a seam about two feet wide sheltering a back eddy flush against the bank. "Cast in there," Rodrigo said. I laughed. He was serious. Eventually I made the cast. The water's surface bulged as a trout rushed to my fly. This was a very nice fish, and it raced all around the narrow sluice of stream in front of me. It burst upstream and wrapped itself several times around the roots of an overhanging plant, then commenced to leap into the air and splash back into the water. Again. And again. Four times. I realized that on such a short leash-the fish wrapped leader, not line, around the roots-all that leaping would mean a clean break pretty quickly, and I had suddenly become emotionally attached to this rather hefty fish. I tossed Rodrigo the rod and plunged into the creek, provoking more leaping from the fish. I yanked my line free of the tangle and then wrangled the trout. It was easily over 23 inches long. Rodrigo looked at me. "Let's go to Argentina," I said. So we did. We drove 15 minutes up the gravel road past a highland swamp upon which sailed black-necked swans and upland geese. Black-faced ibis stalked the marshy shallows. The spring creek wound through these wetlands and came out the other side, channelized again. We saw its elegant scribble reaching far across the pampas. "We are wanting to explore that," Rodrigo said, about some more never-been-fished waters in the distance. We passed through Chile's and then Argentina's border crossings. Argentina seemed even more windswept and desolate, but 10 minutes later, at a nondescript wooden gate, we turned onto the Estancia Numancia and drove a long dirt lane through clots of sheep. A body of water opened to our right and we saw, seemingly floating above the surface of the lake, the puffy pink bodies and question-mark necks of flamingoes. Thousands of coots and ducks dotted the water's surface. We approached a wooden bridge, transparent from missing so many planks. Rodrigo afforded us the option of exiting the vehicle before he drove over it. "The bridge will hold us, I know," he said, "but if you don't want to try…" It held. We drove a bit farther and, though there was little evidence that a stream wound through the windswept grasslands ahead of us, we stopped and walked overland about 30 yards. The stream opened its course beneath us. About twice as wide as the Zorro spring creek, it worked through deeply gouged cutbanks and beds of aquatic weed. Whereas all the trout on the Zorro creek were browns, this Argentine spring held only chrome-flanked rainbows, which attacked my fly with fervent recklessness. The rainbows don't grow as large in this creek as the browns across the border-both Burgan and Rodrigo told me they've found some fish well into the twenties, but nothing gigantic. What they might have lacked in size, however, the Argentine rainbows over-compensated for with ballistics. Few casts failed to turn fish, and few fish failed to launch an air show once they came tight on the line. On the short drive back across the border, I kept my eyes on the sky, looking for Andean condors, which congregate in this area. "Listen, Rodrigo," I said, "about that kiss. Maybe we'll work on that the next time I come to Chile." "Don't look for me," he said. That settled, we drove along contentedly. Rodrigo spoke of his family and his dreams. "What I want to do is get a pilot's license, fly helicopters," he said. "We have a bunch of lakes, they're full of big salmon and trout and nobody can get to them." Never been fished. For more information, contact Five Rivers Lodge at 800-378-5006; www.estanciadelzorro.com