Exploring the Other Tierra del Fuego

Exploring the Other Tierra del Fuego

The 'Land of Fire' has a kinder, gentler side and some huge fish as well

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Erik Argotti

Wind. And sea-run brown trout the size of Clydesdales. For most anglers, that quickly sums up Tierra del Fuego-the land of 40-knot gales, 400-grain lines, and rivers that wind through treeless, barren moonscapes. The kind of place one visits if, and only if, you absolutely must notch a double-digit sea-run brown trout on your wading belt.

But there is a kinder, gentler Tierra del Fuego, one where sylvan meadow streams glide through fields dotted with herds of camel-like guanaco, where mountain brooks tumble through lush, virgin forests straight out of The Lord of the Rings, where small beaver ponds hold log-size brown trout. And where no one fishes.

To reach this forgotten land where wild trout literallydie of old age, head south to Argentina then hang a right into Chile, which lays claim to two-thirds of the West Virginia-size island. Rather than a stark and wind-blasted landscape, much of Chilean Tierra del Fuego looks like New York's Adirondacks-meets-western Montana. Green rolling hills covered in thick stands of old-growth forest surround sweeping prairies. Studded, snow-capped peaks loom in the background. Fewer than 8,000 people call Chilean Tierra del Fuego home, with most living in the few coastal towns along the Straits of Magellan. Inland, you are far more likely to see an Andean condor or a diminutive culpeo fox, rather than another person.

Much of the flatland prairies consist of turba, a type of peat bog. Healthy turba is a kaleidoscope of brightly colored mosses-pinks, oranges and day-glo greens. It also serves as a giant sponge that absorbs rain and snowmelt, then meters it out as ice-cold water through a series of tiny rills and brooklets. For brown trout, introduced to the island in the 1930s, this network of scale-model trout streams has become the perfect highway to colonize deep into Tierra del Fuego's interior.

"Everything is connected here," says Rodrigo Saelzer, one of the few guides specializing in fishing the Chilean side of the island. "Every year during high water trout wind up in new places."

Our first stop was the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Yes, the same river pounded by the rich and famous for sea-run monsters on the Argentine side of the island. But this stretch lies some 50 miles west as the condor flies from Argentina. And God only knows how many river miles, as the upper reaches meander like a distracted three-year-old in a toy store.

The upper Rio Grande is also far less intimidating than the bigger water downstream, with most pools no wider than a good rollcast. Sea-run browns don't travel this far upriver either; only resident browns call this section home, so 6-weights and floating lines become the tackle of choice. To paraphrase Sparse Grey Hackle, who preferred fishing the intimate headwaters of the Beaverkill over the bigger water downstream: "The lower river is a challenge, while the upper is an invitation."

Rodrigo and I stepped into tannin-stained waters, relishing the fact that we were the only anglers for scores of miles, and in fact, would probably be the only ones to fly-fish this stretch of river for the entire season. Bright blue skies shined down on us; a crisp morning had given way to shirtsleeve weather, and Tierra del Fuego's infamous wind had taken a holiday. In the Northeast, a February blizzard had just dumped two feet of snow on New York City.

We worked our way downstream, with Rodrigo directing me to toss streamers and weighted nymphs to undercut banks that beckoned at every twist and turn of the river. And the trout responded in kind, taking the flies hard and leaping when hooked. Most of the fish were between 14 and 18 inches, with a few larger and smaller fish thrown in. Unlike the silver-sided sea-run browns, the stream-bred browns were a study in coppers and oranges, with some fish heavily spotted, and others looking more austere with relatively few markings.

If there's one drawback to fishing the Rio Grande, it is the effectiveness of subsurface flies versus dries. Despite my best efforts with Stimulators and skated caddis, I only managed to raise two fish out of the several dozen browns I landed. "Here the food chain is very simple," Rodrigo said, as I released yet another nice brown. "It's mostly big trout eating little trout, so the fish are really opportunistic." Dryfly action is largely restricted to humid days when beetles become active along the riverbanks, prompting the fish to look up. The seasonal emergence of a large orange moth can also bring good surface fishing.

All thoughts of dryfly purism ended when a trout in the 20-inch class glided from beneath an undercut, tracked my Yuk-Bug for a few seconds without taking, then retreated back to its lie. I rested the pool for a minute, took a deep breath and drifted the fly through the run for a second time. Something thumped the line, I lifted, and an immense brown wallowed and churned the surface. I immediately checked the rod low to keep the trout from powering back to the undercut where it surely would have broken me off.

It worked. The fish stayed in the center of the pool, shaking its ponderous head and showing off the pronounced kype of a heavy male. It may have been the biggest stream brown I had ever hooked and I wanted a picture badly. With the fish not yet whipped, I fumbled for my camera with one hand. Mistake. The fish got a better angle and the fly popped free. All I could do was watch as the huge trout calmly swam back to its lair, looking almost smug before it vanished from sight. We left the Rio Grande later that day.

A three-hour drive down a rutted, nearly impassable road brought us to a narrow, tumbling stream Rodrigo simply called "the gorge." It flowed into a large lake and had the reputation of drawing up pre-spawn fish into its swift runs and pools.

"The fish average 20 inches here," Rodrigo said matter-of-factly, as he put on his waders. We hiked upstream to where mature lenga trees-a type of southern beech-clung to steep hillsides above the river. Curtains of pale green moss called "old man's beard" hung from the branches, creating a green tunnel from which the river flowed. It was the perfect place to see a hobbit-or a very large trout, as it turned out.

Rodrigo had climbed the steep bank above the pool to spot for me when he called out "Alli! Big fish there." As I stripped out line, he looked again into the pool, then back at me while holding his hands a good two feet apart.

But despite drifting a series of wet flies and weighted nymphs past the big trout, it refused to take. On one drift, the fish turned toward the fly for a moment, giving me hope. But eventually it dissolved into deeper water, spooked by my repeated casting.

We continued to hike along the stream, which Rodrigo said ran lower than normal, spooking several other 20-inch-plus trout. I did manage one brilliantly colored 16-incher out of a deep pool, but the stream was clearly off that day. Later, as we broke down our tackle for the night, Rodrigo said, "Tomorrow we'll fish the trophy pond."

The next morning, after another harrowing ride down a pitted dirt road, we trudged through squishy turba up a gradual hill. Another bluebird day in Tierra del Fuego greeted us, with sunny skies and light winds that even Rodrigo admitted were unusual two days in a row.

Eventually we came to a bowl-shaped prairie lake of about 30 acres. The near end looked shallow and weedy, with a few narrow channels snaking into deeper water. At the midway point the lake dropped off and the banks steepened. A beaver lodge sat along the far shore.

Herds of guanaco (a wool bearer related to the camel and llama) watched us, seemingly spellbound, standing dead still, except for their perpetually sideways-chewing lower jaw. Occasionally a large male would send out an alarm call to its family group-a high-pitched whinny that sounded like a horse on helium. Other than that, complete and utter silence enveloped us. Not a plane, or car, or chainsaw or even calling bird could be heard.

I began retrieving a scud pattern through a channel, taking my cue from the pods of them that scuttled about in the weeds. Just a few casts later, I hooked something that rolled and shook its head, but did little else. Eventually I landed an extremely long, but extremely thin brown trout.

"We call them 'snakes,'" Rodrigo said. "They're old fish that probably won't make it to the next season." I was reminded again that in a land where virtually no predators have adapted to the non-native trout, big fish truly die of old age here. I didn't want to plunder some trout's version of a nursing home, so I quickly moved down the shore to deeper water, where Rodrigo said I would find more robust fish.

Sure enough, I spotted two thick browns slowly making their way along the shoreline. Occasionally one would tilt downward and flash white as it snapped up a scud or some other morsel. Then, surprisingly, the larger of the two rose and casually took something from the surface. I quickly replaced my scud with a Madam X, and managed to pitch it ahead of the lead fish. The trout seemed to almost shudder as it changed course toward the fly. I braced, waiting. The fish closed within a few inches, glided to the surface, and leisurely sipped in the big dry.

I set the hook and the brown immediately leaped like a salmon before tearing into deeper water. It quickly changed course, then jumped twice more. Several minutes of pumping and reeling later, I had the fish in my hands: 25 inches of heavy, hook-jawed brown trout that weighed perhaps five pounds. I twisted the hook free and watched the big fish lumber into the dark recesses of a weed bed.

At Rodrigo's suggestion, I made my way to the beaver lodge, taking a brace of three-pounders along the way, and spooking a much larger fish when I lined it with a sloppy cast. Even though osprey do not range this far south, a trout's instinct to fear overhead predators presumably never fades.

At the beaver lodge, we ate lunch and basked in the unseasonably warm weather. It turned out both of us had fished Alaska, so we swapped obligatory brown bear stories. Rodrigo topped mine when he told me about the steaming pile of bear scat he almost crawled into when he was trying to navigate a tunnel of willows on his hands and knees.

Suddenly he tensed and quietly said, "There is a very large trout in the shadow of the beaver lodge." I looked and spotted the fish suspended beneath a thick log jutting out from the lodge, no more than 20 feet from where we sat.

As I crouched down to keep a low profile, I stripped off a few yards of line and then flipped my scud beyond the trout's lie. "Let it sink," Rodrigo instructed. We watched as the trout deliberately slid from beneath the log and headed toward the fly. The next thing we saw was a flash of white as a mouth opened and closed. I lifted the rod, and the huge brown cleared the water again and again.

The trout turned out to be the best fish of the day, a heavily spotted 26-inch male with a long snout and broad tail. We estimated its weight at a conservative six pounds before letting it go. By the time we left, I had landed a total of eight trout, all of them between 23 and 26 inches.

On our last day, just before the five-hour ride to the port town of Porvenir, Chile, where a plane would take me back to Punta Arenas, and eventually Santiago, Rodrigo brought me to one final spot. From the road, it looked like nothing more than a tiny beaver pond, no more than a quarter acre in size. Back home, a 12-inch brook trout might live here. But this was Tierra del Fuego. I positioned myself above the dam, and began working another scud through its depths. Just before I picked up the line for another cast, two feet of brown trout grabbed the fly and proceeded to jump all over the pool-another five-pound fish from an improbable land where the wind never stops blowing and all worthwhile trout must come from the sea. I know better.

Stephen Sautner has fished all over the world. His new book, Upriver and Downstream, a collection of fishing stories from The New York Times, was published by Harmony Books.