From Fifty Favorite Fly-Fishing Tales
Expert Fly Anglers Share Stories from the Sea and Stream.
- By: Chris Santella
Of Coffee Cans & Kiwis
As told by Jack Dennis
It would seem that traveling the world to fish exotic venues and then appearing on television as you release trophy fish after trophy fish would be a pretty relaxing gig. That is, unless the weather goes south. The rivers go out. The electricity goes down. The roads go unplowed. And you HAVE to produce a big fish on a deadline to salvage tens of thousands of dollars of production costs.
So goes Jack Dennis’ quest for trout in Patagonian Chile.
“A friend of mine had business interests in Argentina, and we both happened to know the country’s U.S. Ambassador,” Jack began. “This friend invited me to go fishing down there, right after the Falklands War. We fished many of Patagonia’s famous rivers. Toward the end of the trip, we received a tip that there was a lake in the Esquel region that we couldn’t miss. We went, and I had one of my best lake fishing days ever. I made fast friends with the outfitter there, a fellow named Coco. It was Coco’s dream to get an outfit like Frontiers to book trips to his lake. I made several subsequent trips down, and on the third trip took some video. I brought it to Frontiers. They were interested, but not quite ready to commit. I was hosting a television show at the time called “Fishing the West” with Larry Schoenborn, and I believed that if we got the lake on the show it would seal the deal.
“To justify the cost of filming in South America, we’d have to get enough footage to put together several shows. The political climate in neighboring Chile was moving in a positive direction for tourism, and it seemed that the timing might be right to visit there. We assembled an itinerary that included Coco’s lake in Esquel and a drive through Patagonia to Chile. The fishing on the lake—which was like fishing a giant, slow-moving spring creek—was fantastic. I’d brought some bigger rods, 6- and 7-weights, which I gave to our guides at the end of our stay as a thank you. I had two 5-weights left, which I thought would be fine for the Chilean spring creeks that awaited us.
“After an extensive search at the border by forty soldiers with machine guns, our voyage began. We had a government escort named Carlos Mendoza who made it very clear he was part of the new government, not a Pinochet man. It was all gravel roads. There were no bridges; we had to take barges to cross the rivers. We traveled through pampas, tropical rainforests—very diverse and beautiful country. After two days and 1,500 miles, we reached a pretty little lodge along the Simpson River, just as the sun was going down. The next morning we woke up and there was three feet of snow on the ground. All the rivers were blown out, and the snow was expected to continue for three days. We desperately needed to get more footage, and had only a few days left before we had to leave—was there any place else we could go? Carlos had an idea; there was a lake down south that had several rivers that flowed into it; there were rumors of very large brown trout. Soon we were off again. Luckily, we had 4-wheel drive vehicles that the government had provided, with government drivers. We passed many peasants walking through the driving snow. The conditions didn’t seem to trouble them at all.
“We drove all day, 350 miles, eventually reaching a little port town near the Argentine border. The snow had knocked out all the power in the town, so there was no way to recharge our cameras. We had enough battery power left for one, maybe two days of filming. It’s been my experience that trips that start out bad often end up good, so I kept a positive outlook. The next day we headed out to Rio Ibanez. We soon learned that the fishing season in this region of Chile was to end in two days, so our lack of camera power really didn’t matter. It was slowly becoming apparent that Carlos, our guide, knew less about this region than he’d let on. He was a good talker, but I don’t think he’d ever been to this spot. Rio Ibanez was not the gentle creek he had described. It was the size of the Deschutes in Oregon, and very off-color. I had only my 5-weight. I put on a Teeny 200 and some big flies. I’d fished for sea-run browns before, and had an idea of how to go after them (though these fish migrated from the lake to the river, their lifecycle was similar). It was raining and sleeting and blowing, and the fishing was terrible. Larry and I were at it all day, and only came up with one fish, an eight pound brown. That night, huddled around our propane stove, Larry and his crew were despondent. ‘This show is going down the tubes fast,’ one crew member bemoaned. ‘Any ideas?’ I had no ideas, and time was running out. I said ‘All we can do is keep fishing.’
“The following day we went out again, and our luck was no better. Then about 4 p.m.. a few peasants holding coffee cans filled with monofilament came up. They had handmade lures that were fashioned from Chilean coins. One of the fellows walked up to this riffle, and began swinging his lure out there. We had ignored it, as it seemed too shallow and fast to hold fish. He’d let his lure swing through, and then give a little action at the end of the swing. On his third or fourth cast, he got a big brown about 10 pounds.. To land it, he simply ran up the hill until the fish was on the bank. He put the fish in a gunny sack; he was laying in fish for the coming winter. Soon after he caught a 12 pound fish. Then another. He walked over and tried to give this fish to me. Through Carlos, I understood that he wanted to put it on my hook so I could act as if I’d caught it for the camera. I declined, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. I asked Carlos to ask the peasant to look in my fly boxes, and see if there was anything good. Of all the flies in there, he pointed to this orange Muddler Minnow that we called the Kiwi. I think he liked the fly’s coppery color. I’d never caught anything on that fly; I kept in my box almost as a joke. He also pointed to a black wooly bugger.
“By the time we’d decided on a fly, it was almost 5 o’clock and snow had begun falling. We’d have light until six. I pulled on this old Jackson Hole ski hat. One of the cameramen said it looked dumb, and that I’d have to take it off I caught a fish. The hat was the least of my worries. I went up to the riffle with the size two Kiwi, and a black wooly bugger tied off the back. I made a cast and let the flies swing through. The line immediately went tight, and I thought ‘Alright!’ It was the bottom. I started to pull to break if off; I really didn’t care if I lost that orange fly. The rig came lose. I made the same cast, and the line went tight. ‘Not again!’ I thought. I gave a big pull with both hands, figuring I’d get rid of that damn fly for sure this time, and something pulled back. I started screaming bloody murder to Larry: ‘I’ve got a fish!’
“Pretty soon I’ve got the crew around me. I’m fighting the fish, and one of the guys says, ‘No pressure, Jack. You lose that fish, it will only cost us thirty grand.’ I knew that we were running low on juice for the cameras, and I told the guys that this fish wasn’t going to come to hand in ten minutes, so they better conserve their power. In a half hour, I had him in close—it was the biggest trout I’d ever hooked. I was beginning to think that I had a chance to land him, 5-weight and all. Then I saw Larry off to the side, sneaking up on the fish. Suddenly, inexplicably, he pounced on the fish, literally pounced on it—and worse yet, he missed it. To this day, I don’t know what he was thinking! The fish screamed off, made a big 360 degree leap, and I went racing downstream in pursuit. I figured that was it. The fish took me to the very end of my backing—I had only three wraps left. It was way on the other side of the river. Then it stopped. I began gaining on him. As he came back across the fish was rolling on the surface, a sign that it was tiring. I looked over at Larry, and he was in tears, as though he had just learned that he’d lost his family. I asked him, ‘Larry, would you go over and just pick up that fish? Don’t jump on it, just pick it up.’ He did. It was a twenty pound brown, one of the most beautiful fish I’d ever caught. We had just enough power left in the camera and light in the sky to get everything. It turned out that that episode of “Fishing the West” was one of Larry’s top shows. He re-ran it for years. After I released the fish, one of the guys on the crew went up to the riffle with my outfit. He lost the Kiwi on the first cast. It seemed like that fish and fly were destined for each other.
“A friend of mine named Simon Dickey (who started the Poronui Ranch fly fishing lodge in New Zealand) won a gold medal for rowing in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 for rowing. When I asked him how it felt to win that medal, he said that there was no way he could describe it. After landing that brown, I understood what he meant. Having the footage of that fish and being able to relive it is always a thrill.
“There’s an interesting side note to this story. A few years later I was down in Chile again, and planned another visit to Rio Ibanez. The pilot we hired to convey us said that the river was no longer there. A volcano in the region had erupted, and the riverbed had been obliterated.”
This article is reprinted with permission from Fifty Favorite Fly-Fishing Tales by Chris Santella. To order a copy of the book, go to the Store on this site and look for Editors' Picks Fly-Fishing books.
Jack Dennis began his professional fishing career began at the age of 12 when he sold his first flies. He started guiding visiting anglers at the age of 14. At 19, Jack opened his first fishing tackle business in Jackson, Wyoming, which as become a well-known fly fishing emporium (www.jackdennis.com). Jack's books, "Westem Trout Fly Tying Manual, Volumes I & 11", have sold over 300,000 copies, making it one of the best known fly fishing books in the world. Jack has also produced 15 fly fishing videos which have received critical acclaim throughout the fly fishing world, winning several video of the year awards. His newest book, "Tying Flies with Jack Dennis and Friends" has been a best seller. Jack’s clients have included Tom Selleck, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford, Vice President Dick Cheney, Richard Pryor, Woody Harrelson Arnold Palmer, Don Meredith, and "Dr. J.” Jack has appeared in four ABC television American Sportsmen Shows and many fishing shows, including "Fishing the West,” “ESPN Fly Fishing America," as well as programs in Australia, Japan, Canada and New Zealand. Jack is a great ambassador of fly fishing, advising the governments of New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina and many western states on fly fishing tourism. Companies like Cortland Line Company and Thomas & Thomas Rod Company have appointed him their fly fishing spokesman; Jack has also been involved for years with the development of tackle and consulting for companies like Abel Reels, Simms, Action Optics, Dan Bailey flies, and Griffith Tool Company.
Fishing the Esquel
The Esquel region is in the Argentine Patagonia, in the southernmost region of this vast and wonderful country. With backdrops of snowcapped mountains and an abundance of crystal clear lakes and streams teeming with brown and rainbow trout, Esquel brings to mind the American west of 100 years ago—the time, roughly, when the trout were introduced. There are many renowned waters here—Rio Carrileufu, Rio Rivadavia, Rio Arrayanes, Rio Grande & Rio Futaleufu, to name just a few. Just over the border in Chile is the fabled Rio Futaleufu. Fine trout fishing for consistently large and robust wild fish is only the beginning of your adventure here. Fine horseback riding and birding await, along with the legendary Argentine hospitality. If you stay at one of the fine lodges that serve visiting anglers, you’ll likely be treated to a genuine asado (barbecue) of lamb or beef.