Rod length anxiety stalked me all the way from the Horn of Africa to the windy shores at the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Somewhere between Hargeisa, Dubai, Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, I lost track of time completely. Was it Saturday or Sunday? But the anxiety over the length of my rod never left me in all those hours of recycled air, movies adapted for showing on airplanes and what would you like to have for breakfast Mr Hill? Breakfast? Didn’t we have that after our two-hour layover in Rio de Janeiro? Full disclosure here. After all, sharing is caring. Shame dies on exposure, etc. I had long planned to go fish for Sea Trout at the Kau Taupen lodge on the banks of the Rio Grande in January, when the fish are usually running upstream to spawn, and being caught. Sea Trout are my preferred quarry and the ones I am used to catching in Ireland weigh at best 4lbs using a slim and light rod that is about nine foot in length, weighs next to nothing and which I can cast with one hand.
MONSTER SEA TROUT IN THE LAND OF DARWIN AND CHATWIN.
But down in Charles Darwin and Bruce ChatwIn land, they run up to 30lbs. The lodge’s advice was that I would need a different style of rod altogether – a Spey rod – named after the Scottish river system where you need two hands on the rod to get the line out to distant fish in a broad and turbulent river. So, I bought one. And a reel to go with it. Expensive. The lodge’s instructions said bring a rod of between 12 and 14 feet. So, I did. The rod was so long I couldn’t put it together in my Irish or Dubai home. I had to go outside. I practiced with it on the sand banks in front of my Irish cottage but no amount of YouTube tuition helped me shoot out the line like the experts, with effortless, choreographed, minimal exertion. I felt and probably looked like a man trying to swat an irritating seagull. I like the wilderness. It speaks to me of the infinite spirit of the natural world and man’s arrogance in destroying it. I told a colleague once that the reason I liked the Patagonia wilderness so much was that there were only two people per square kilometre against 1,510 in London. “And that’s probably two people too many for you, I think,” she said. From the moment we landed in Ushuaia the emptiness of the land spoke to me. I say “we” because it was a trip organised by Frontiers (https://www.frontierstrvl.co.uk/home ) . Most of the other six people on our group bus to Kau Taupen seemed to know each other or had fished there before. We were nearly all in our fifties and sixties, which was reassuring. And they were fun to be around over a welcoming dinner at a very friendly and easy-going small lodge on a bluff between the snow-capped Andes to the North and the Rio Grande winding its way down to the sea.
GROUP ROD THERAPY
But I couldn’t help noticing that their rod cases seemed a lot, well, shorter than mine. How come? Not good for my rod anxiety. And after dinner, with fires blazing in the grates, we were invited to “put up our rods” with help from the guides. So, we extracted our weapons from their Kevlar tubes and, with a guide to every pair, started to assemble our rods, reels and lines to be ready to fish the next morning. Mine was by far the longest, heaviest implement on display. It was so long that I had to assemble it on the far side of the room whilst the others put together much shorter, lighter implements. “Is this your only rod?” enquired one guide. “Probably a bit too long at the moment because the river is very, very low. It would be good earlier or later on in the season but let’s see how you get on with it anyway.” This felt like a doctor saying the leg was basically intact after the fall but might have to be amputated later. I checked what the other fishermen were using, and they all seemed to have ultra-light two-handed rods two feet shorter than mine. Many had fished double-handers for years and sported the latest, shortest and most sophisticated models. “Don’t worry,” another guide told me. “We have lots of rods to loan people and the fish are running, so see you in the morning. You’re with me and Sandy, who has already been here a week.” Sandy and I seemed the only people who hadn’t come as a pair. He was sitting by the fire in shorts with a very large glass of Malbec in his hand. He saluted me with the other. “Got any small flies? Wee Stoat’s Tails, things like that? That’s what they have been taking this week. I’ve had fish up to 20 pounds this last week,” he said. Not only was I fishing with the wrong tackle, I was fishing with a guy who had already been there a week. I went to bed wan and worried.
ONE-TO-ONE COUNSELLING SESSION
The guide’s name was Nick. He was a fresh-faced, boyish and joyful young South African who lives to guide and to fish. On that first morning everyone drove to their allotted pools in matching 4WDs with rods strapped to the front of the vehicles and gear in behind. We departed in convoy and drove through the sparse terrain, peeling off on dirt roads like jet fighters to our waters for the morning session. Sandy and I had a long stretch of beautiful looking water but even I could so that the river had shrunk by at least one third because of no rain. Sandy took his 12-foot rod upriver to fish by himself. Nick stayed with me, and with a few well-chosen words had me shooting out line over likely pools. I could see the occasional big fish break the water, porpoising in the sunlight. The wind was brisk. My first fish on my new rod was a Brown Trout f about one pound. They are the raw material of the Rio Grande legend. They start out as brown trout but go out to sea for better food and are beaten into slabs of silver by the richness of the sea’s food. They return only to breed. I feel a kinship with them. My first Sea Trout made quite a bend in the rod and Nick was whooping with joy as he came up with a net. In truth it was small by Kau Taupen standards, only about five pounds, but the first thing to catch on a strange water is confidence; I suddenly had it. And I sat on the bank with a cigarette and took it all in – the Andes, the sparse and bleak land, the foxes, the Caracara predator birds, the Condors, the bulky beavers foolishly introduced into the system. And I listened to the mounting wind, the only real owner of Patagonia. All that wasted emotional energy about rod size. I had arrived.
BONDING AROUND THE BODEGA
A group identity welded itself onto us in the rhythms of Kau Taupen, its dining table and its fishing hours. We were a mixed bunch of mostly older gentlemen. An old Etonian Development worker, a Banker, a one-time Rock star manager fishing on after a recent stroke; a British Lord, two Irish entrepreneurs and an American photo-journalist for glossy magazines. Breakfast was at eight. Departure for the morning was at nine. Lunch was around one thirty. Then time for a siesta before heading out for the twilight hours around six p.m. to nine thirty, returning for a (very) late dinner at around 11 p.m. There was cheerful rivalry. Many fish were being caught. Sandy, a former soldier and heart surgeon, was my allotted fishing companion and we seemed to click. Even if he did land a fish of 22lbs on the morning when I caught nothing.
The wind picked up after our first day and made casting very difficult for me, something aggravated by the way Sandy could effortlessly roll out a sweet line in a 70kph gale. Another guide, Paulo, gave me further casting tips on the second day, but his main contribution to my fishing experience was unwitting and profoundly helpful.
He snapped my new rod in half.
BROKEN ROD REPAIRS FISHING
It was one particularly gusty day when I landed one of my last remaining Stoats Tails on the opposite bank and it would not come free, despite my careful tugging. “Let me try,” volunteered Paulo, who, like Nick, spent a lot of time at my side helping me through the basics of double-handed casting. He pulled firmly on the line. There was a sharp crack and the top half of my broken rod slid disconsolately down the line across the river. My four-piece rod (manufacturer’s name withheld after consultation with lawyer) was now five pieces and useless until I could get it to Europe for repair. Paolo was deeply apologetic and promised to pay the shipping costs and to lend me a Lodge rod for the rest of my trip. That, and some of his casting trips, turned my expedition from fun into fabulous. The rod I was loaned was 12-foot six and very light. Suddenly casting it felt less like tossing the caber and more like archery. Suddenly I could put my fly where I wanted it. Suddenly I stopped thinking about casting altogether. I took more Sea Trout of around six and eight pounds, but the double-digit specimen remained elusive. The wind continued to pick up. I really didn’t care. Now I was really fishing.
DOES IT GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS?
Kau Taupen – the name means house of fishing in the Ona language – is rightly legendary in fishing circles. Fish of up to 28lbs are caught consistently. The average catch per day is around two per angler. The guides hold the keys to this fishing heaven with astute local knowledge. Sometimes you can drift a small fly down a pool and let it swing. Other times you need to retrieve it snappily. The set-up, both in hospitality and fishing assistance, is of the very highest order. No wonder it gets booked up so early. It caters for the single angler. There is no single supplement. The guides know the wind well and will put you in a spot where you can cast without garrotting the guide or yourself. And the atmosphere is genuinely friendly. The staff, both riverbank and kitchen-side, really want to be here. I asked Paolo why he had come to Patagonia to guide. “Because I am having the time of my life,” he replied. Where else can you come back after a tough morning’s fishing with a glint of caught and released specimen in your eye, and be met by the manager with a cocktail at the door and the smell of a whole lamb roasting on a rack for lunch? Even in the creaky early morning moments, when waders are pulled on, when tales are shared of back trouble, sore shoulders and complaining joints; every day, whatever the wind and weather, we climbed into our wading boots as if onto skis and the ambience was happy, joyous, carefree.
On my penultimate day of the week, the wind had moderated sharply, and Sandy and I were taken by another guide, Hernando to the river Menendez on a sunny autumnal-smelling morning. Hernando knew, and everyone knew, that I needed help and advice, so he stayed beside me as I cast easily into a deep pool up against a cliff. Fish were showing. Big fish. They didn’t take my fly. “I think we change to another fly,” said Hernando, and put on a small Girdle Bug variant with white rubber legs. I cast. I retrieved slowly through the current. Something stopped my fly and I lifted the rod slowly to feel for the fish. It felt for me first and cartwheeled out of the current like a missile. Hernando ran to our car for the net. I could hear him laughing. It felt like 15 but was probably closer to five minutes when he slid the net under the fish and brought it to the bank. It weighed 16.5 lbs, the biggest Sea Trout I have ever landed.
We took photos. We gently eased the fish back into the water and watched it torpedo back into the river. Hernando was still laughing. I was having trouble putting words together. Sandy waved from upstream and gave me a thumbs-up. Then he got stuck into a fish and Hernando scuttled upstream with the net. While he was landing that one, I hooked another big fish and tried to play it carefully until Hernando could return to help me land it. He was still running back to me when the fish threw the fly. I really did not care. Hernando’s laughter infected me, and all three of us headed back to the lodge for lunch feeling that special weightless buzz that comes with doing what you like and feeling good about it. The weather turned vile in the afternoon, squally and rainy and hostile. I caught nothing more while watching Sandy land two good fish. That night, throwing financial scruples to the wind, I bought myself a new two-handed rod, almost identical to the one I had borrowed.
PACKING AND THE LAST-CHANCE SALOON
The final day announced itself to the brutal sound of rain lashing glass windows and wind whistling through any cracks it could find in the lodge’s weather defences. It was the sort of morning to sit by a fire and read, but you don’t travel all that distance for armchair ease. It was a day for three-layers under the waders and wading jacket and a woollen hat under a baseball cap under the hood of the jacket tied tight around the chin. Tobi, our guide for that day, strapped my new rod to the car and Sandy climbed in complaining about the weather. The wind was so strong that it was blowing waves upstream. My new Excalibur felt great, but the wind bedevilled every cast. Time seemed to go slowly. Sandy and I walked down one long pool behind each other, but the fish were just not there or not showing, and anyway, reaching them was a lottery. We quit early. “Maybe the wind will have dropped by tonight,” said Tobi. Unconvincingly.
The end-of-holiday atmosphere in the lodge was underlined by the absence of many fishermen in the afternoon break. Everyone was in their rooms, packing possessions for an early departure the following day. I did too, but my heart was in the river, not my duffel bag. I met Sandy a little later by the fire. He wasn’t too sure if he would try the evening session. Patagonia’s windy spirit gods continued to hammer at the door and the sparse trees visible bowed in submission. It was the sort of day when opening the car door was a struggle and closing it a further battle. The wind owned us all.
IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE
But Tobi was determined I would get a fish and radioed to his colleagues to see where everyone else was fishing to find me a suitable spot. Darkness fell early, around eight p.m. In the final hour Marius drove me to a pool that one of the guests had discovered years before and named after himself. It was tiny and deserved the name “Chris’s pocket.” It was only about 40 feet in length. Tobi had me start at the top of the pool and work my way down slowly. There was no respite from the wind or the rain, but it was just about sheltered enough to make casting possible and my new rod worked like a dream. But the fish didn’t. About three-quarters of the way down the pool I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to catch a final fish with my new rod. “Just keep working down slowly,” said Tobi, who stood at my elbow with the net at the ready. When I reached the final five feet of bank, I cast a fly into the teeth of the gale, and it landed perfectly in a little pocket of deep water. “I deserve a fish for that cast,” I told Tobi. But before I finished the sentence there was a huge splash in the darkness and I could feel a deeply angry captive at the end of my line. “Let it run, let it run, “screamed Tobi, who dashed off downstream with the net to ambush it in the shallows. I let it run, I let it run, and I played that fish so carefully that I could feel seconds pass, each one like a roulette ball bouncing between black and red, between caught and lost. And the ball bounced into caught as Tobi speared the net under the fish and lifted it out of the river. We were both deliriously happy. But the fish was not. I’d tired it out by playing it and there was only time for a quick photograph as we eased it back into the water, its head facing upstream into the current to get oxygen through its gills. I held the fish by its tail waiting for that insolent, muscular flick that signalled it was now the river’s property, not mine. It came and the fish arrowed off into the darkness.
It weighed 10lbs. There was time for high fives and handshakes and my sincere thanks for Tobi’s river wisdom and confidence. “That’s it,” I said. “Let’s go home.” We bowed our heads into the wind and the rain and got into the car. Our headlights caught a fox and cubs out in the night. The windscreen wipers were humbled by the downpour. We drove in silence apart from the noise of the weather pounding our metal cocoon.It’s never over until the last minute, as my son had once told me.
Sandy and I plan to go back next January together. I’ll have the right tackle.
Dubai, April 2019