It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But there was no mistaking that electric tingle of recognition when our eyes first met on the deck of the Estancia de los Rios lodge. Not unlike the charge I had received from an electrified sheep fence while fishing a river Cisnes tributary the day before. It was not enough to cause pain but just sufficient to shock me into a more elevated altitude of awareness. So we exchanged looks again. And the looks became stares. And in that exchange we communicated, wordlessly. My eyes signalled attraction. Her eyes said transaction. In that moment we had situated ourselves quite clearly on both sides of an emotional divide. I now knew my place. My feelings of needing to care on one side, hard-headed material needs on the other. Attraction versus transaction. I had been here before in recent years, painfully so.
So I offered her corn flakes on the patio, a warm gesture I thought, perhaps an opening. She walked over, examined my offering, and swept them out into the breeze with something like contempt. Birds of prey don’t eat breakfast cereals. They prefer things with blood.
And this young Southern Caracara knew what she wanted and how to get it. By turning up regularly on the deck, she had been fed by Victoria, and now she expected it daily. She strutted up and down the railing going round the deck almost every morning and evening, awaiting room service from the Manager’s wife. Breakfast time was a good moment to admire her good looks her sledgehammer beak, grappling iron talons and slightly ridiculous pantaloon leg feathers. I have history with these big, predatory birds. On an island in the Falklands (Malvinas) chain, one took a shine to me and followed me everywhere I went by foot or by land rover. I was touched and amused, until it swooped down one day and made off with my shiny new cigarette lighter. The bird guides say they are “very social creatures” but should add that they are also light-fingered. Or should that be light-taloned?
By day three I had settled into the lodge’s easy rhythms of eat, fish, sleep. It can be cold and gusty in the mornings so the lodge doesn’t advise going out to fish until 10.00 a.m. No crunching the hoar frost or shivering bankside to catch the “early rise,” a myth that persists in fly fishing in the northern hemisphere. At the Estancia de los Rios, breakfast is taken at a leisurely 0830 – fruit, cereal, yoghurt , scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh orange juice. This is the moment to decide what sort of fishing the weather will allow – the fish are more active on sunny days but will still come up when it’s Scottish-style dreek, but the wind dictates whether you fish a lake., float the river or try an enclosed spring creek.
Enter Marcelo the guide at 0945, a Don Quixote tee shirt showing under his Simms waders. He is tilting windmills of time with an Orvis Superfine rod. The wind is picking up and we are going to try some spring creeks and backwaters. They tend to hold the biggest fish outside of the lake systems and I am keen to see them. My guide and I have settled easily into the rhythms of companionship; there is an equipment check before we set out – rod, reels, rain jacket, hat, sunglasses. I have bought a box of flies from Marcelo the host. It contains garish beetle imitations, big enough for hungry fish and ageing anglers to see. They are made out of foam and strips of rubber for legs. The black and pink one is so My Little Pony unreal that I have secretly dubbed it the Black Barbie. Marcelo fires up a 70s playlist on his in-car phone audio system, and we head off into the hills for a day’s reflective, soothing and healing fly fishing singing along to Abba’s Dancing queen and Blondie’s Heart of Glass. You couldn’t make it up.
The first spring creek is the size of an irrigation ditch and I cannot land a fly anywhere except in the grass beside it or trees over it. Fish rise in this water nonetheless. They do everywhere, in little drainage runoffs and puddles cut off from the main river. Each morning we drive across the river on our journeying. The water is hardly as high as the hub caps, but you can see trout rising, even in this. We head off to another set of pools which I think Marcelo has dubbed the “Strange beat” because the pools seem unconnected, but they are by an invisible underground source. We tread carefully up to the tree-lined bank to avoid disturbing the fish and crouch like dogs winding up to ambush a cat. The creek is deep and weedy and about as wide as one lane of European country road. I can see a fish the size of my forearm cruising around like a lurking U-boat in a World War Two film.
We back out carefully to inspect my tackle. The wind is so strong in Patagonia that it is advisable to rig rods with a line that is one weight heavier than the rod is meant to cast. It’s the equivalent of putting on really big car tyres to deal with hostile terrain. The heavier line gives you more control in anything but the tearaway gusts that materialise out of a steady wind with such force that you become, for one tantalising moment, weightless as you lean forward to reaffirm your centre of gravity. We check my line and the Black Barbie and move back, marine-style to the water’s edge. The fish is no longer where we saw it, which is a relief to me because I am not sure I can land the fly close to it in the wind now blowing. So I cast the fly close to the opposite bank and wait for the trout to cruise by. I cannot see it, even with my polarised prescription glasses, but Marcelo has a Caracara’s vision. When he sees it in the general area of my fly, he hisses out: “Twitch. Twitch. Twitch.” And I jerk the fly a little to create water surface disturbance and get the fish’s attention. The next moment the fish twists upwards and hurls itself at my fly; I have no need of Marcelo’s “Set, Set, Set, ” because I have instinctively struck the rod to set the hook in the fish’s jaw, and we are now locked together in a struggle for supremacy. Three or four minutes later Marcelo’s net slipping under the fish declares me the winner. He carefully extracts a somewhat battered Black Barbie from the fish. It is a big, big fish, far bigger than anything I have encountered on the previous two days, perhaps 18 inches long and built like a cannon shell – a golden brassy hue on its flanks, a sharply pointed mouth where black spots glisten, and a broad and powerful tail. I am breathless with wonder, utterly anchored to this moment and the birdsong, the rush of wind and Marcelo’s urging that we take a picture and put it back in the water it came from. I look at Marcelo’s face and see quite clearly that the Guide is just as happy as the disciple in this shared journey of enlightenment.
Many more fish follow from that same little stretch of water between scraggy groves of greenery . They all have a magical hue of brass or gold, an appropriate burnish for the precious things that they are. To me and to my guide. We take one more brutishly resistant specimen at the final pool and it is well beyond time to sit down and reconnect with the rest of the world with lunchtime conversation in the grass and to let the adrenalin work itself out of the system.
There is a break in the routine of the past two days. No extravagant wholemeal sandwich in greaseproof paper today. Marcelo goes to the truck and pulls pieces of metal out of an old Washington state apple box bearing the farm’s name. Trout, it says in big letters. The metal work is a barbecue grill which he screws to two legs and then places over a fire started with twigs, olive oil and dried leaves. It is soon blazing determinedly with sticks and branches collected under the trees. When the flames die down, Marcelo throws three steaks on the grill, seasoning each with salt. Would someone kindly tell Burger King that they haven’t the faintest idea of what “flame-grilled” smells or tastes like? We eat the steaks, a quinoa salad and, as if that were not enough, snack on mixed nuts, olive, salami and tiny hot rolls and butter.
.Marcelo has also pulled two folding chairs out of the truck, so we sit there under the sun and the wind, eating like kings, feeling like princes of Patagonia, revelling in our kingdom. To round it off Marcelo brews fresh coffee in a travelling French press. There is silence, apart for some birdsong and the wind, as we drink from tin cups and consume chocolate chip cookies made by the lodge’s amiable chef, Christian. There is no need to talk. On the wind I can smell the wild chamomile , wild mint and wood smoke.
I know of few experiences in which the moment is all you live in, and fishing is my number one. The unwanted guests of painful memory or anxieties about the future just don’t intrude. All there is, is now. And now, on the Patagonian plains, is where we are.
Christian has dinner ready for guests around eight thirty, allowing plenty of time to fish into the evening, come back, shower and still have a fireside drink before more good food. There is no pressure to come back at any specific time. This is an experience conceived by people who fish for people who fish. It renders the lunch break even more relaxing.
We do fish some more that afternoon in another creek but the water has been churned up by thirsty cattle. We see a couple of big fish but Barbie holds no magic for them. I am, anyway, happy to call it a day by five in the afternoon. We head home in the truck. The Spotify selection has switched to the 1950s and Neil Sedaka, Marcelo and I are singing “Oh Carol, I am but a fool, darling I love you, thought you treat me cru-el.” I was born in the 1950s so how Marcelo knows the lyrics requires explanation. “I heard it, and it was the first song I ever learned in English,” he explains. He is 21 years younger than me but bouncing back home in the truck, unhooking complicated gaucho gates made out of a stick and two pieces of wire, the age difference doesn’t seem to matter. We are both living in the moment. Happily.
I begin to detect a routine in the way we get back to the lodge. When we are close and at any kind of neight, Marcelo radios ahead. “Casa verde, casa verde, ola.” A reply comes back which I cannot understand; but then all the Spanish I know I learned from Clint Eastwood in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly film series. Marcelo then says, “Un café y un cervesa po fav,” and the lodge acknowledges the message. As we cross the shallow river at the entrance to the lodge, Marcelo radios through again. “Casa Verde, Casa Verde, Rio, Rio.” And then we come to the little wooden bridge over the Winchester creek that flows down from the mountains, where I will fish later in the week. “Casa verde, Casa verde, Puente Puente,” Marcelo s radios to the lodge.
When we get back to the mud room to haul off our boots, waders and several layers of clothing, there is, magically, Christian standing over a tiny cafetiere of coffee, a cold can of beer and humus made from broad beans served on home-made wholewheat crackers. I realise in a flash that it has all been rehearsed to perfection. Rio means river, Puente means bridge. Cervesa is Marcelo’s beer. This is how the welcome back hospitality is timed. Daily. . Shorn of my fishing gear, I walk out onto the veranda and see that there is some sort of commotion on the deck, where Victoria is standing in front of the young Caracara and gesticulating towards the roof or the sky. I carefully get closer to establish what this is all about. Surely not a lesson on the forthcoming full moon for a predatory bird?
And then I get it. The mother of the young Caracara is on the roof with a tiny trout in its beak. It’s the length of my index finger. I’ve seen dozens of them scudding around the shallows of most waters I have come across here. You don’t have to speak Caracara to understand what is going on. Mother bird is telling adolescent bird “you don’t have to eat the rubbish these two-legged things give you. There’s masses of tasty trout in the water.”And the young Caracara is looking first at Victoria, then at its mother, and staying put. It’s hard to explain to any adolescent that the easy way out is often the worst but, hey, I survived my adolescence and so did my parents, just. The mother gives up in disgust and swoops off in the general direction of Argentina. So Victoria reappears with a piece of fish or meat in her hands and drapes it over the railings. The youngster grabs the offering and leaps backwards onto the grass to eat safely under a tree. At least its fear radar is working.
It’s a lovely moment. The generation gap as demonstrated by birdlife. A memory comes skittering out of a recess somewhere and makes me smile. It is a magnet my sister has affixed to her Dubai fridge after raising two boys through their complicated teens. It says, quite simply. “Because I’m your mother. That’s why.” The problem here is will the youngster follow her mum, or her sugar-mummy? Will it be love or a transaction?