As dusk fell the stars came out above us, the fire roared in front of us and the horses gathered around the blaze because the smoke kept the few insects that roamed the dusk at bay. Less tail swishing needed. Marcelo, my guide, stretched out in front of it all on a log with a beer, said: “Welcome to my office.”
I was of the impression that all of Patagonia was Marcelo’s office, such is his familiarity with its climatic and fishing foibles. But it was certainly Bernardo’s kingdom. The Lodge’s wrangler, gardener, barbecue artist and general Mr Fixit was revelling in a night away from the lodge, camping on the shore of a lake beside a huge fire.
Bernardo is a pint-sized perpetual motion machine with the ability to turn every chore, concern or situation into a joke. He runs on laughter. Small and dark, he resembled the blackened kettle on the edge of the blaze, tempered by the landscape and bubbling with good humour and wit. I proffered him my tin of mints to take the taste of wood smoke from his mouth. “Ah, amphetaminta” he said, eyes twinkling with mischief, and took several. I’d watched him lay the fire earlier, after an afternoon spent nailing improbably large brown trout from the lake’s limpid waters. Most people would lay a fire with sticks and branches and Bernardo did build the base from those components. But every time I caught sight of him that afternoon he was staggering slightly towards the fire circle under the weight of an enormous branch or tree stump, many bigger than him. Some went on the fire to catch when it was set; the remainder were scattered around like the debris after a logging contest, and he had brought them all from the surrounding forest single-handed. In doing so he looked a little like a Scot tossing the caber. He is enormously strong. On Friday evenings he gives guests a near virtuoso perframance in roasting a whole lamb in front of a fire in the special barbecue building, where guests gather for their last evening before departure.
After tying on our chaps and climbing on board, we had ridden out that morning, three men on horses and two more horses carrying our provisions, a new tent and other supplies. We meandered through dusty plains, rocky tracks and green copses. The califate were out on the lower reaches. Wild strawberries grew near the lake. If you could have bottled the gorgeous scent you would have to have called it Eau Nature.
Not every guest goes up to the lakes; not everyone likes horses or camping out. And the weather isn’t always right for it. But we had struck it lucky and the Factor 50 sunscreen was put to frequent use, the wind cooperative. I got a taste for this kind of outing in Wyoming last year when I fished the Wind River range lakes on horseback through Jim and Mary Allen’s Diamond 4 Ranch (http://www.diamond4ranch.com/). That experience made me feel far more confident about sitting on a horse (the horses used for this experience are on autopilot and only use two speeds for guests – slow and stop.)
As soon as I saw the lake I wanted to be in it, fishing. It lies stretched out in a deep canyon into the distance, where it goes into a narrow gap and continues further up. Marcelo and Bernardo unpacked the horses and set up camp, using the small lean-to “built with a chainsaw” as our base. It has seats, a table and place to hang or stow all cooking utensils. There is also a small tent for more weather-sensitive supplies. An inflatable boat is permanently moored there for guests’ use. It all seemed a very trusting setup to someone like me brought up in places where you can leave nothing moveable anywhere, and only added to its charm. I watched Bernardo put up my tent, a big two-person construction tall enough to stand up in with its own log for contemplation and relaxation. There is a toilet too, “also built with a chainsaw.” It seemed an exquisite setup and I wondered even before I had cast a fly whether a one-night stay would be enough.
I ate our lunch quickly. Or should I say with indecent haste. Marcelo readied the boat and we headed out over shallow sands on a warm and sunlit afternoon. Marcelo said we would fish the bottom half of the lake using streamers – biggish flies that sink and which you twitch and jerk under water, mimicking the motion of a small fish or amphibian. It wasn’t long before I was locked in combat with a big brown trout in the 20 inch range, which we brought to the boat, netted and returned.
I had told Marcelo that I liked the surprise of fishing with flies below the surface because you never know what is going to hit your fly or has; in dry fly fishing you actually see the fish “take” the fly. Both methods rely on hope – hope that you will fool a fish, that a fish will see your fly and want it – but fishing under the surface gives the whole experience another layer of mystery and surprise to my way of thinking. I know I am in a minority. I also knew there would be lots of dry fly fishing in other parts of the lake, but for our first afternoon we concentrated on its deeper shelves.
The fish, as ever, seemed to concentrate very close to the bank or to submerged rocks. “They love structure to hide in. Always look for structure,” said Marcelo, pulling on the oars to float me close to a spot where a jagged rock formation breasted the water. We were using a heavy-ish streamer for Marcelo’s box of tricks. When not guiding in Chile he is steering clients in the direction of huge landlocked salmon called Taimen, in Mongolia, a place he enthuses about. (http:/www.mongoliarivers.com) and (http:/fishmongolia.com). His fly – I think we only changed it once – was basically black with a shock of red; fished about three feet down, it seemed to be irresistible. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have never caught so many quality brown trout in one afternoon. We fished for about four hours and I think we were catching between four and six big fish every hour. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, because the fish were the stars of a rare and memorable show.
That night the Bernardo bonfire blazed and we ate steaks and potatoes and salad under the stars. We also indulged in a trout of about three pounds. It was deep pink, like a wild salmon, and unforgettably indulgent. It wasn’t cold that night but the fire was garrulous and kept the three of us company. Somehow Bernardo had managed to get some music out of his phone and the one track I remember was Eternal Flame by the Bangles, one of my daughter’s youthful favourites, appropriately.
I couldn’t keep pace with the conversation; a deep feeling of ease came over me and I realised my eyes were closing and sleep was not far away. I crawled into my tent and into my sleeping bag with just enough energy to retrieve a quote from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia on my Kindle, which I had brought, unnecessarily, as a night light. It echoed my growing affection for this place, which I had never visited before, and the way of life of the Lodge down in the valley. “I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with all the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.”
I woke from a dream in which large dark underwater shapes were cruising towards me over sunlit sand spits; I wanted to put my fly in front of one of them, but could not unhitch my line, which had become snagged in my clothing. When I was conscious I realised that the sleeve of my tee-shirt had become snagged in the zip of my sleeping bag.The morning coffee, eggs, orange juice and brown bread toasted on a grill in the fire was sumptuous, almost too much. Bernardo was buzzing around tidying, cooking and washing up simultaneously. I was in second gear, but he was cruising.
Marcelo and I put on our waders to go fish the bottom half of the lake, the piece that was out of view from our lean-to vantage point, and we left Bernardo with his horses and his camp, lord of all he surveyed. While Marcelo waited for me to arrive bankside, he used my rod to catch two big specimens cruising not far from the boat. That’s how plentiful, and also how easy, the fishing was.
We made it more difficult, for me at least, by switching to a dry fly for the morning; dropping a fly close to a fish you can see is not something I have practised very much because much of my quarry is invisible from the surface. So I made a mess of casting for quite a few fish, scaring them off with a clumsy, splashy cast, or landing the fly somewhere other than where Marcelo directed. The difficulty was caused by me, not by some uncooperative fish or bad weather or anything else. It slowed my catch rate a little, but even so, I was taking at least four or five big fish an hour. On Lough Corrib, Europe’s premier brown trout lake, you’d get breathalysed if you said you were taking up to six three- or four-pound fish every hour. And, overall, I was.
I have heard anglers say after a long day of casting that their arms ache from wielding the rod and line. But I have never complained of arm ache from fighting big fish, and my arm was aching after about two hours. Marcelo took my rod while I took a break and showed me up for the novice I am with elegant pin-point casting to fish he could see in the more shallow water. But after a rest, when we got moving again, I knew it would soon be time to go and told Marcelo that I only really wanted to catch one more fish before we headed back against the wind to the camp, lunch and the ride down to the Lodge. Several fish had been rising to real insects to our right, so, somewhat refreshed, I put my fly in the general area and had an almost instant reward; a big splash on the surface as the fish came up to grab the fly and then a big swirl as it turned to dive. I set the hook and was into a really big fish. It felt like the biggest of the day and it ran for cover, stripping line off the reel as it fled. I held on tight to tire it out and after several minutes it was in Marcelo’s net, a truly big and more silvery specimen. “I think you should photograph this one,” said Marcelo, and he obliged with my camera.
I had to lock my thumb and forefinger round its tail to stop it moving and, even so, it jerked and fought in the boat. Marcelo worked quickly – he is a videographer and can handle a camera – and then I released it into the lake, watching it disappear with a swirl.
“That’s it,” I said to Marcelo. “That’s enough. That one was a beautiful end.”
It was sad to leave the camp that afternoon, ambling along on our horses through trees and scrub, the animals picking their way. They had enjoyed the trip and never stopped grazing except to sleep briefly. You could hear them chomping through the night on sweet fresh grass from the high country. The downhill ride was slightly shorter than the uphill journey and Marcelo showed off his riding skills, cantering around while we dawdled. We stopped at one point to admire the Andes range, still tipped with snow in high summer. I felt at home, familiar even, but also foreign. Robert Louis Stevenson said it better than I could.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”