Junkie Fix - Northwest Steelhead or Tierra Del Fuego's Sea-Run Browns

Junkie Fix - Northwest Steelhead or Tierra Del Fuego's Sea-Run Browns

A Spey-rod expert compares those glamour fish… and the verdict is in.

  • By: Dec Hogan
  • Photography by: Dec Hogan
Dec Hogan with Rio Grande Brown Trout

After years of dreaming and fantasizing about fishing sea-run brown trout in South America I finally scratched that 30-year itch. And let me tell you it felt, at once, familiar and good.

You may already know that my passion is pursuing steelhead on western rivers, where a good day is just being on beautiful water swinging a pretty fly, anticipating an electrifying grab. A great day is when I actually hook a steelhead and anything beyond that is considered a banner day. It’s what I’ve come to expect; it’s how I roll.

Truth be told, I’m a sea-run junkie and my passion is not limited to steelhead. If it’s a river-born salmonid that goes to sea, feeds and grows, then returns to the river to spawn, I’m interested. So it’s only natural that I’m intrigued by sea-run brown trout, too.

But I’m biased. Every fish in the world is judged against steelhead, and I took this trip to South America to see how those big browns stacked up. And what I found may surprise some of you.

My destination was Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, and my goal was to cast a fly upon the best river in the world for ocean-going brown trout: The Rio Grande. Is it the best? Let the numbers explain: To my knowledge, this river has the most and largest-average-size browns found anywhere on the globe, an estimated annual run of 75,000 fish that average 11 pounds. If those figures don’t raise your pulse, I’m not sure I can help. A fainting couch and professional evaluation would be more appropriate . . . and you may want to check yourself in soon.

Tierra del Fuego is a small island at the extreme southern end of South America. It is literally the farthest southern point south you can travel without touching down in Antarctica. To get there, no matter where you’re traveling from, you’ll spend a night in Buenos Aires before flying to Rio Grande . . . and that isn’t bad. Buenos Aires is a big, beautiful city with great restaurants, lots of fun-filled nightlife and plenty of touristy attractions that could get you in all sorts of trouble.

Once in Rio Grande, fishing takes priority. When I landed there I met 11 additional guests and some of the guides working at Estancia Maria Behety. EMB, as it is often called, is a great lodge, perfectly situated for maximum fishing. It rests in the vast confines of a 153,140-acre, fully operational sheep ranch owned by the Mendez family. The lodge accommodations are first-rate, with a staff that prides itself on making certain its guests are comfortable and well fed. The food alone is worth the price of admission.

But the river is why you’re there, a river with a gentle gradient where the average rock under foot is smaller than a golf ball. A long cast while wading waist-deep puts your fly on the far bank. At your disposal are 32 miles of killer flowing water with more than 100 named and storied pools. And in it are aggressive browns that often get past the 20-pound mark. Thirty-pounders are taken, and the season is generous, with prime conditions found between early November and the end of April. In the mix are varied weather conditions, including the fabled Tierra del Fuego wind—you might get lucky and enjoy relative calm a couple days in a row, but chances are it’s going to blow and you have to plan accordingly.

On the first morning I was paired with Russ Graham, an attorney hailing from Austin, Texas. Russ is an experienced Rio Grande angler, having visited EMB several times. Russ and I hit it off right out of the gate and as our comedic Argentine guide, Genaro, drove us along the river to our assigned pool, Russ enthusiastically reminisced as he pointed out areas where he’d caught memorable fish over the years. His fervent tales had an emphasis on 20-pounders. The stories got my adrenaline flowing, but I truly was looking forward to something, anything, even if it was only eight pounds.

We parked Genaro’s truck at river’s edge right. I scanned the placid-looking pool and noted a slight bend with a five-foot-high cut bank on the far side. I didn’t wonder if brown trout were present—they rolled and splashed along the far bank every few seconds. Oh, let me at ’em!

Genaro split the run between Russ and me and had us knot on some funky looking rubber-leg nymphs with gold beadheads. I knew we would swing our flies steelhead style, and I knew that rubber-leg nymphs are favorites among the EMB guides. I also was well informed that these fish would take just about anything that swung past them. Just like steelhead.

I was right at home swinging my fly and stepping down the run. The fact that I would have preferred the aesthetic appeal of a more traditional wet fly was insignificant once my nymph was swinging. Then Genaro shouted that I should be “jigging” my fly by pulling back-and-forth with my line hand. Huh? I wasn’t too thrilled with this one. I just wanted to swing. But having been a guide for many years, I know there’s something to be said for listening. So I started “jigging” as I was “swinging” and 10 minutes later I was into my first sea-run brown. Of course I was elated and even a little nervous, because I was connected to a new species of fish that I had dreamed about for many years and traveled a great distance to catch. The fish fought me hard and deep, violently thrashed on the surface and made a few short runs before I could beach it. At the shore Genaro weighed the bright, beautiful female and registered exactly 11 pounds. Genaro and Russ were congratulatory, but rather indifferent about the fish’s size. I could not have been happier.

I hooked and landed two more that morning. One was a little smaller than the first, the other about the same size. Russ landed a gorgeous, 14-pound female that was brilliantly colored in yellow and brown.

That first morning set the tone for the rest of the week. Each day we would fish a morning session followed by a massive lunch and siesta, then hit the river again for an evening session that went well into dark. I hooked big ol’ sea run browns every session of the week except one. And on that session we didn’t feel there were any fish in the pool. A rarity.

There were plenty of fish in all of the other runs all week, but that didn’t mean fishing was super easy. The trout had to be in a taking mood and coaxed with subtle presentations, something I appreciate in my angling—to me it’s much more rewarding to work a bit for a trophy even if you’ve travelled to the bottom of the world to find it.

I visited the rio grande in March, which in the southern hemisphere is late summer. There was a mix of browns that entered the river months earlier and were colored-up and hook-nosed, along with fresh-from-the-Atlantic, platinum-bright new arrivals. I felt fortunate to examine both versions. But there’s something about those chromers, isn’t there? The fish I really remember are a running, jumping mint-bright female that weighed 18½ pounds, and a large hook-nose male that dropped the net scale to 19½. I found the river to be billed accurately; I landed a total of six fish over 15 pounds and a bunch in the five- to 10-pound range. I experienced multiple hookups each day and I was told the fishing was slow during my week. Even the five- to 10-pound fish really impressed me and were a pleasant surprise.

People never seem to mention those “smaller” fish. All I ever hear about are the big fish. Well, as far as I’m concerned a five-pound trout is big. In sea-run fisheries, variety and range in size indicate a healthy population. As a bonus, these “smaller” sea trout were silver bullets that hit the fly hard and fought like crazy.

Small fish, big fish. It doesn’t matter. If you head to the Rio Grande you’ll want to throw a two-hand rod. In my opinion, a Spey rod is the most efficient tool for covering any expanse of moving water with a swung fly. Long days of repetitive casting and the need for maximum coverage, which is what the Rio Grande demands, scream for the two-hander. It’s faster and less fatiguing than a single-hander and the added length of the rod really helps to control a fly when fishing the far bank, which is where the majority of the Rio Grande’s fish reside. Rods of 12 to 14 feet accomplish this.

When fishing the Rio Grande you don’t have to be adept at the Spey cast. There’s plenty of backcast room and a sloppy, poorly executed overhead cast in a gale-force wind with a two-handed rod is much more efficient (and safer) than a decent stroke with a single-hander.

But if you know how to Spey-cast you are likely aware how various casts utilize the wind. The EMB guides, I found, are in tune with this and make every effort to keep an angler in the most advantageous position.

While fishing the Rio Grande I used a 13-foot, 7-weight rod the entire week and it seemed just right. The majority of time I fished a 13-foot Type 6 sink-tip with a five-foot tapered leader of stiff 12-pound-test monofilament tippet. During the week the river was low and clear. The guides told me that during an average-water year 24-foot tips become important. I would recommend bringing a full arsenal of sink-tips ranging from 10 feet of Type 3 to 24 feet of Type 6, in addition to a full-floating line. It takes a commitment to fish the Rio Grande, and you best be prepared for whatever conditions the river throws at you.

By nature brown trout are mostly nocturnal. They play best in low light. And that was the case here, something that added to the wildness of the experience: Each day we fished until it was pitch black and then fished a little more, taking advantage of those trout becoming less wary and slightly more grab-happy and reckless under the cover of darkness, tagging our black leeches with violent takes. In fact, hooking a fish or two was virtually guaranteed during this magic hour, and that was a crazy experience, fighting big sea-run trout without the sense of sight. Just casting was tricky but, if you planned ahead as I did, you could learn the pool before it got dark and count how many strips of line were required to shoot in order to hit the prime target area on, what else, the far bank.

To put it bluntly, Tierra del Fuego was amazing and anyone who can get there should! Those sea-run browns are absolutely beautiful and huge, some surprisingly bright and eager to leap. And the river was full of them! Wading was comfortable and easy, the Rio Grande being just the right size for a two-handed rod and Spey-casting. The fish ate small nymphs well and they also attacked the larger Woolly Buggers and marabou patterns I threw later in the week.

The scenery in Tierra del Fuego was vast, wild and open with native grasses stretching as far as the eye could see. Whenever I looked west, the Andes Mountains stood tall, spired like giant solid rock fingers. Wildlife was diverse and abundant. Daily I saw wild native guanacos—relatives of the llama—Patagonia gray fox, upland (or Magellan) geese, ashy-headed geese, buff-necked ibis, Andean condors, Patagonia flamingos and myriad waterfowl native to South America. I would have counted the trip a success for the wildlife viewing alone.

In addition to the fishing, Argentine culture was present at EMB and we enjoyed five-star cuisine each day. Dishes included traditional Argentine asado, which translates to mega-barbecues that included lamb, chorizo and other sausages made from beef and chicken. Vegetables? We don’t need no stinking vegetables! Be ready to show your carnivorous side here.

I suppose the greatest question I wanted to answer with this trip is whether Tierra del Fuego’s sea-run brown trout compare to the Pacific Northwest’s steelhead. And since my return, the steelhead brotherhood has asked that a lot. My response is this: It’s not fair to compare other freshwater fish to steelhead. Nothing is a steelhead; they are in a class by themselves. But nothing is a sea-run brown trout either. And they are strong, rip-snortin’ gamefish that every angler needs to experience, even if you have to get a little jiggy with them.

Retired from a lengthy career guiding steelhead anglers, Dec Hogan is now a full-time firefighter and EMT living in Utah. Despite living far from salt water, Hogan’s passion for all things anadromous remains strong; he fishes exotic locales and teaches two-handed casting, and he is the author of A Passion for Steelhead.