I’d flown about 8,000 miles and was half asleep, half looking at the Andes out of my hotel window, when an old-fashioned telephone rang. It took a while to work out what the noise was because I hadn’t heard a landline ring for months, maybe years. But I had given the hotel number to my bank with my itinerary. And I had used my credit card in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or was it the Chilean capital, Santiago, along the way. Or maybe Coyhaique, my hotel pit stop before two weeks fishing in Patagonia. I grabbed the hotel’s bedside handset.
“Mister Andrew?” asked an accented voice. “My name is Marcelo and I will be driving you to the Estancia de los Rios in the morning and will pick you up at half past nine, if that is alright with you.” It occurred to me that Marcelo was in reception, so I went and found him to talk things over. Not hard to recognise as a fishing guide. Polarised sunglasses, Puffa jacket, boots, jeans and a few days stubble. And built like a wrestler.
We shook hands warmly and he explained that there were two American guests in the hotel as well and we would all be going to the Estancia lodge together, close to a four-hour drive. “We will arrive in time for a little light lunch,” he said, “then perhaps you can unpack your things in your room there, and then we go fishing, yes?”
I wondered aloud how ready for fishing I’d be after two days of pretty non-stop traveling from Hargeisa and then Dubai but Marcelo removed his sunglasses and said: “But this is a fishing holiday! You are here to fish. We must fish, fish, fish.” Every time he said “fish” or “fishing” his right arm jerked upwards, as if he was striking a rod to hook a trout. And his eyes looked almost manic. I know that look. I’ve seen it in the mirror when I go fishing. I liked Marcelo at once.
With fellow guests Brad and his son Aiden, from Washington State, we piled our duffel bags into his pickup truck the next day and headed off through what looked like Montana transplanted to Switzerland. Gorgeous, sweeping rivers through epic gorges with snowy mountains as a backdrop; vast stretches of grassland, tiny farmhouses made of wood and trees clinging improbably to sheer cliffs. Marcelo had selected a Sixties playlist from Spotify as our sound track and pretty soon we were all humming the same tunes and at least three of us knew all the words to pretty much everything. “Coo Coo ca-choo Mrs Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know.”
The adventure started to feel like one when we left the metalled road and hit a wide dirt and gravel track, which pretty much signalled where the Estancia de los Rios ranch begins. Both it, and Chile, end at the border to Argentine Patagonia. The scenery started to change too from Cezanne green to Van Gogh yellow.
Patagonia, both Chile’s and Argentina’s, is about one million square kilometres with a population density of about two per square kilometre. That compares with 15 and 23 people per square kilometre in Argentina and Chile. Or 1,510 in London. Put it another way. Patagonia is my kind of place. Or, as Dusty Springfield was singing, “Now you’ve started something, oh can’t you see, that ever since we met you’ve got a hold on me. ”
We followed the main river, the Cisnes or Swan, which hurried as clear as crystal through gorges and beside stony beaches, like the Dordogne in France. Vegetation was sparse, more like an East African game park than a ranch, but the brush supports a vast number of sheep and the Gauchos who tend them. Brad, who had been several years before, spoke enthusiastically about the variety of fishing – the ever-changing river, spring creeks, backwaters lakes, high mountain lakes and more. The water courses were detectable by the clusters of trees and vegetation knotted in lines along the sparse plains, and there seemed to be lot of greenery stretching as far as the Andes, mountains, which end in Patagonia.
Marcelo chipped in as we bounced along the track. “The main problem fishing in Patagonia is the weather, mainly the wind. But the weather is looking good for this week.”
The lodge was hidden from the road by trees and is a long wooden building with a deck and lots of windows facing the mountains. Marcelo Dufflocq, who conceived the idea of renting Estancia land to build the lodge 22 years ago, greeted us with his wife Victoria, a New Zealander. I liked them instantly. I quickly felt at home in theirs. Horses grazed in the fields. Cooking smells came from the kitchen. Someone put a coffee in my hand. My room was big,bright, airy and homely and faced the Andes.
The main entrance is the “mud room” where waders and boots are donned and doffed. A fire burned in the living room grate – there was a slight chill outside – and in the alcove was a fly tyers desk and tools on which Marcelo was fashioning beetles. Another guide, Fernando, greeted us too. He is a ski instructor in the off season. He was warm of eye and formal of manner at first, sticking out a hand to be shaken at every introduction, which is not the Chilean style. They are a warm and tactile people. They hug, they kiss strangers on the cheek at first encounter. This is an authentic visitor statement.
Dry fly fishing is what Los Rios is famous for. So I set off after lunch with guide Marcelo to a nearby stretch of the river Cisnes. He said Lodge lore was that the trout were smaller and more plentiful upstream, where we were heading, and the opposite downstream, He was to be my mentor for the entire two weeks. I’m always a little nervous about guides. We fishermen talk real good fishing. But only guides fish real good. And I knew that afternoon was an examination of my wading stamina and casting skills, which made my natural timidity about public performance of a normally private act even more fluttery.
To most fishermen, dry fly fishing means seeing the traces a fish makes when it sucks an insect off the water’s surface. This is called a rise and can be a splash, a little dimple on the water surface or a swirl. All this usually takes place in an instant over fairly deep water so that the fish can retreat and hide after it has given its location away. And half the art is knowing which bugs the trout are feeding on and giving them a fly which approximates and floats on the surface – hence the name “dry” fly.
But the stretch of Cisnes where we fished was so shallow that I barely got my wading boot ankle supports wet. It chattered downhill over bright stones and I could not see a rise, let alone a meandering fish, or a beetle to match the confection Marcelo had tied to my line. Marcelo said it was teeming with fish. I was sceptical. We were “prospecting,” he explained, trying to entice fish we could not see to take a surface fly, even if there were no natural insects showing. It worked.
“You see that pocket of water there?” Marcelo pointed to a piece of water behind a large rock that was the breadth and depth of a serving plate. Anywhere else, I would have ignored it. “Put your fly over that, please.” I did as instructed, at the third attempt, and there was a splash where the fly landed, and a sharp tug on the line. I tugged back in the same motion that Marcelo had used at the reception desk the night before. A small brown trout of about eight inches flew through the air and hit me in my wading jacket. “You don’t need to strike quite so hard, señor,” said Marcelo.
To my eyes, few of creation’s treasures are as beautiful as the brown trout. They are native to northern Europe but have been transplanted all over the world to be fished for. Just as no two people called Harry Smith look the same, no two brown trout are identical. They are a faberge mix of red and black spots, silvery, sometimes golden sides and butter-coloured bellies. I have huge affection for the birds of this world – God’s jewellery I call them – but whether it’s six inches or six pounds, few things speak to me of the wonder of creation quite like the brown trout. And I had just landed my first one in Patagonia, where they were transplanted dcades ago and now breed prodigiously.
More followed. I cannot remember how many because there were so many. It seemed hat every time I landed my bug in a place Marcelo identified, a fish was on. This went on for several hours as we waded upstream. Marcelo tried to iron out my casting flaws with admirable patience, and it improved somewhat. But when a Giant Kingfisher landed six feet away, all iridescent black, brown and white with beaky intent, I looked at it, rather than my fly, and missed a big splashy “take”. “Señor, where are you looking?” chided Marcelo. “We are fishing, no? We must use the eyes. ”
We got back for a leisurely shower and drinks before dinner by the fire with our hosts Marcelo and Victoria and a meal of fresh vegetable soup, a plate of poached Chilean salmon and a featherlight dessert. Our host, by the fireside afterwards, talked about the fishing, the wind and what we might expect. He is slightly built and wiry with a helmet of thick dark hair and a wedge of sideburns. If he wore a beret he would look like a Basque just back from a game of Pelota. Which is where his forebears are from. The lodge takes up to 12 guests and we were only three and I wondered about the business arithmetic of this. “I set this up more as a lifestyle choice than a business decision,” he said, eyes twinkling, a smile on his lips. “I fish, I ride horses and I take photographs. This is the perfect place for me.”
I went to bed early while the others rounded off their day with Chilean wine and French cognac. I thought about Ireland – “the perfect place for me, ” I wondered – and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It was as if he had fished that same stretch of the Cisnes that I had that afternoon. I recalled his poem about brownies.
Where water unravels
over gravel-beds he
is fired from the shallows
white belly reporting
flat; darts like a tracer –
bullet back between stones
and is never burnt out.
A volley of cold blood
ramrodding the current.
I felt slightly high, that night, dizzy, as you might after a really strong double espresso on an empty stomach. I was in Patagonia, in Chile, a place I knew little about apart from Augusto Pinochet, Alexis Sanchez and Chardonnay. But I felt strangely at home too. I sat in bed with my notebook wondering if days like this were as good as it gets. I was asleep before I could answer my own question.
|I BOOKED MY HOLIDAY THROUGH FRONTIERS UK https://www.frontierstrvl.co.uk/
IN THE UNITED STATES YOU CAN BOOK THROUGH https://www.frontierstravel.com
ESTANCIA DE LOS RIOS IS AT https://www.frontierstrvl.co.uk/estancia-de-los-rios
THE SEASON RUNS FROM JANUARY TO MID-MARCH
In Coyhaique I overnighted at the Nomades Boutique HoteL (http://www.nomadeshotel.com/)
I fished 9” and 8*’6” Orvis Helios and Recon rods, Hydros DT and WF lines and Battenkill disc drag reels. In windy conditions it is advisable to step up a line weight so that you fish a five weight line on a four weight rod and so on. Frontiers has an extensive list of recommended flies but you can buy the patterns that you will need from the Lodge.
I use Orvis Sonic waders over Encounter boots, an Orvis Clearwater wading jacket and an Orvis Ultralite fishing vest. You can get away with waist waders (I did).