Hooked on Patagonia

Argentina’s backcountry offers an unmatched fly-fishing experience
travel, lifestyle, outdoors, nature
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Isaias Miciu Nicolaevici

The Rio Gualjaina trickles eastward through a jagged gash in Patagonia’s desert steppe. Fed by melting snow at its source high in the Andes Mountains and sustained by springs that stubbornly puncture the hard, dry landscape, the river is narrow and shallow. Accessing it requires four-wheel drive and a chiropractor on retainer. The Gualjaina is no place for boater or beachcomber.

Image By Isaias Miciu Nicolaevici

The Rio Rivadavia slices through the Andes Mountains in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Alerces

The river teems with other forms of life. Rheas, large yet fleet birds that resemble ostriches, drink from its banks. So do the llama-like guanacos, hares and beef cattle that pepper Patagonia’s expansive ranches, known as estancias. Scores of pancora crabs scurry across the rocky riverbed.

The bounty of the Gualjaina, though, is trout. Scores of rainbows and browns, many of them 20 inches/51 centimeters or longer, swim lazily through water cooled by the nearby Arroyo Pescado, a spring creek. The river is so clear and so slow-moving a fisherman can track his quarry without getting his feet wet.

“To a fly fisherman, there’s nothing more desirable than to be able to spot the fish underwater,” muses local fly-fishing guide Rance Rathie as he follows a forearm-length rainbow’s darts and dives. “Patagonia, unlike anywhere else in the world, is a special place to fish.”

Sixty miles/97 kilometers to the west, Travis Smith pulls the oars of a raft on another Patagonia river, the Rivadavia. Like the Gualjaina, the Rio Rivadavia is clear, quiet and bursting with trout. The similarities end there. The Rivadavia sits to the west of the Continental Divide and slices through the Andes toward the Pacific Ocean, connecting two of the 13 lakes that make up Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Alerces. The Rio Rivadavia meanders for 7 miles through green pastures and narrow canyons cut by nature millennia ago.

Yet Smith’s attention is not on the majesty around him. He stares down, not up, his focus on the dozen or so large trout resting in a deep pool at a bend in the Rivadavia. Coaxing them from the river’s depths is proving difficult. Just as Smith and his rod-wielding charges can see the fish, the fish can see them. A well-cast fly hits the water and gently sinks below the surface. Several of the finned behemoths flinch. One even swims up to investigate, only to retreat.

“As big as they are, you’d think they eat everything they see,” Smith says. “Just another day in Patagonia.”

Every day in Patagonia holds the potential for a new experience for the fly-fishing enthusiast. Smith and Rathie operate Patagonia River Guides, based outside the village of Trevelin. They fish rivers, creeks, streams and lakes across a 425-mile/684-kilometer swath of the Argentine wilderness. No two areas are alike. And the remoteness of the locale ensures the fish-to-man ratio is decidedly in the fish’s favor.

This diversity is what puts Patagonia at the top of every fisherman’s creel list. The region sits at the same latitudes as other global fly-fishing hot spots like Montana in the United States, Austria in Europe and New Zealand’s South Island. But Patagonia’s geography, with desert steppe intersecting with the longest mountain range in the world within 50 miles/80 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, produces microclimates within the region.

“I have been privileged enough to fish around the world, and there is no place like this,” says Nicola Carusi, an Italian who makes his home in Belgium and is an annual visitor to Patagonia. “The scenery, the fishing, the hospitality of the people … it is unmatched.”

Patagonia, unlike anywhere else in the world, is a special place to fish.

Fishing Time Warp

Rathie is uncannily accurate, be it with a fly rod, a pool cue or his memory. He can hook a trout in a sheltered hole, sink a cut shot into a side pocket and recall the day he subconsciously made plans to abandon Montana’s Ruby River in favor of Patagonia’s Rio Gualjaina.

It was October 9, 1992.

“The day they released the movie ‘A River Runs Through It’ was the beginning of the end in Montana,” says Rathie, a third-generation fishing guide whose mother operates a fly shop. “The next day, the rivers seemed more crowded.”

Hollywood legend Robert Redford’s period drama, which chronicles the coming of age of fly-fishing, came out during Rathie’s senior year of high school. He was busy playing eight-man football during the week and fishing, camping and “skimming stones” with his buddy Smith on the weekends. An unnavigable and private stretch of the Ruby ran through Smith’s backyard, so the duo could still enjoy a quiet afternoon fishing together.

Guiding, on the other hand, required a traffic control whistle along with a rod, reel, net and tackle box. The interest translated to good wages, though. Guiding proved so lucrative Smith attended college only one semester a year. Rathie stuck to a slightly more traditional schedule and finished school five-and-a-half years after enrolling. Rathie left for Patagonia the day after his last final, followed by Smith a year later.

“I wasn’t here long before I realized I’d found a place that felt like Montana had 75 years earlier, at the time ‘A River Runs Through It’ was set,” Rathie says.

“And given the remote location, my sense was it would remain unspoiled.”

Patagonia’s prime fishing destinations remain as isolated today as when Rathie first visited 15 years ago. But then time has often forgotten this backcountry. Welsh immigrants settled the region in the 1860s and shared the area almost exclusively with the indigenous people and the wildlife for close to a century. Argentines from other provinces began to migrate to central Patagonia in the mid-20th century, drawn by construction jobs tied to public works projects, specifically hydroelectric plants.

Esquel and Bariloche, the air gateways to the region, are 1,000 miles/1,609 kilometers from everywhere—Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires to the northeast, the nation’s wine mecca of Mendoza to the north and the country’s main international tourism draw, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, to the south. Esquel is served by only four direct flights per week from Buenos Aires. The famed Ruto 40 is one of the area’s few paved roads.

Modern conveniences have yet to modernize Patagonia. The desert steppe is arid and barren and not conducive to growing crops or raising large herds of livestock. Property owners measure their estancias in the tens of thousands of acres, marking boundaries with waist-high strands of barbed wire.

“Patagonia has a Wild West feel to it,” says Sam Nay, a Texan who has visited other exotic fly-fishing locales, such as Botswana and New Zealand. “It’s so undiscovered.”

Fly-fishing enthusiasts are among the few in on the secret. Visiting American and European oilmen started rod-and-reel-related tourism in the 1950s. They’d spend weekdays exploring for oil and gas and negotiating for drilling rights and head to the Andes for weekend relaxation. The lakes and rivers of Los Alerces drew them like trout to a fly. A handful of locals offered their knowledge and expertise as guides.

Esteban Oszust remembers first rowing a raft for one of those guides—his father—as a 6-year-old boy. The elder Oszust worked as a Los Alerces ranger and the family lived in the national park. More oil strikes led to more visitors, and the elder Oszust took up guiding full time, working the local waters into his 70s. Oszust continues the family tradition and currently serves as the president of the area’s river guides association. That the group’s membership numbers only in the double digits—and not every guide on the rolls is active—speaks to the slow pace of the industry’s growth.

“I won’t live to see an explosion in fishing-related tourism and neither will my son,” Oszust says. “We are too isolated here for that. Travel is inconvenient and expensive. And that’s a good thing.”

Like Fish in a Barrel

Oszust watches the logs, stumps and other wooden detritus swirl slowly like socks spinning in a tired washing machine. The debris is trapped in the “hole of the trees,” a large pool carved out of an odd crook in the Rio Grande, the region’s largest river.

The “hole of the trees” is home to the trout that will “get you in the club,” Oszust says. Trophy fish here measure at least 25 inches/63 centimeters, longer than the arm of most adult men, and Oszust prides himself on helping clients land the whopper. As a stubborn cloud moves from in front of the sun, the club-clinchers become visible through Oszust’s polarized sunglasses.

Unlike the trout of Oszust’s old stomping grounds in Los Alerces, these monster browns and rainbows hover near the water’s surface, picking off midges and other insects investigating the swirling mulch. Rio Grande, like the rest of the area’s waterways, is a catch-and-release river, but if there were a keeper limit, even the first-time angler would be headed home before lunchtime.

“Set! Set! Set!” Oszust instructs as another trout gulps at a fly.

“We’re getting there,” Oszust says minutes later as he dips the net into the water and releases the 22-inch/56-centimeter rainbow.

Oszust professes a love for the Rio Grande, and not just because the river is wide and calm and therefore easy on the oarsman. The Rio Grande’s sandy bottom and variety of depths make it look more like a tropical seashore than a river framed by mountains. Clear at the shoreline, teal green in the shallows and deep blue at its heart, the waters of the Rio Grande are as brilliant as those of the Caribbean Sea or the South Pacific.

“Everybody is surprised by the waters here, but I remember the first time I visited the Bahamas, I was just as surprised at how much the water there looked like the Rio Grande,” Oszust says. “The only difference was the fish.”

Large trout stand out in the “hole of the trees” like bonefish on a saltwater flat. Oszust rows gently around its edges, only to discover a monster rainbow tracking the boat from beneath a log floating a few yards away. Short casts draw interest, but rather than bite at the fly, the trout swims up to the raft, just beyond netting distance.

“If he had eyelids, he’d be winking at us,” the guide tells the client. “Today is not the day.”

Guiding the Way

Image By @Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock

Happy hour at the Patagonia River Guides lodge starts late, just like everything else in Argentina. Clients and guides mix on the lodge’s outdoor deck as the summer sun sinks behind the Andes. They trade fish stories, debate the finer points of tossing horseshoes and rib one another in Spanish and English.

Rathie observes the scene with a satisfied smile. He and Smith started Patagonia River Guides in 2001 and made hiring the area’s best guides a priority. Several of their first employees, like Adolfo Aloso, John Roberts and Juany Pereyra, still work for the business partners known throughout Patagonia as the “loco gringos.”

“The fishing and the scenery are enough to keep clients coming back,” Rathie says, “but it’s the guides who complete the experience.”

The guides reflect the region’s mix of cultures. Argentina was an immigration destination throughout the 1800s and 1900s, a melting pot second only to the United States. Oszust, the head guide, is of Polish descent. Roberts’ family was among the early Welsh settlers, and his son and nephew work as assistant guides. Other guides claim Italian, Portuguese, Lebanese and Spanish heritage.

All are Patagonians first. Natives develop a love of fishing and nature from an early age. Fishing rods rival soccer balls for most popular Christmas gift, and the locals are protective of their water resources. Motor boaters draw cold stares. Displaying a local trout in anything other than a photograph is taboo. The locations of favorite fishing holes are guarded as closely as the secret ingredient to every Argentine’s favorite condiment, chimichurri sauce.

“The most fun you can have fishing is with these guides,” says Barb Peterson, a Coloradan visiting Patagonia for a week with her husband, Brian. “They know everything about every place they fish, and they make you feel comfortable, even in bad conditions.”

Weather is the tricky variable to fishing in Patagonia. Temperatures can swing as much as 40 degrees between sunrise and sunset, even during the heart of summer. Then there is what anglers refer to as “the W”—the wind. Wind doesn’t come and go in Patagonia; “it just comes,” jokes Rathie. Rolling waves crease the lakes while whitecaps mark the rivers.

The “W” does add a needed degree of difficulty for anglers. Accomplished fly fishermen can hook as many trout in a day in Patagonia as they do in a week in Alaska, Scotland or Russia. The frustrated angler’s old joke about “that’s why they call it fishing and not catching” does not apply here.

“People ask me why I fly halfway around the world to go fishing,” says Ed Morrison, a Texan making his third trip to Patagonia. “I used to try and explain it. Now my attitude is, ‘If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.’ All you can do is come down and experience it for yourself.”

Fly Fishing Sweet Spots

Image By @Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock

Where: Bend, Oregon, USA

Quarry: Steelhead

Allure: The flowing waters of Central Oregon’s Deschutes River attracts sea trout to spawn. The steelhead, like its cousin the salmon, is born in freshwater, moves to the ocean as an adult, and returns to freshwater to reproduce. Unlike salmon, steelhead live for years after spawning and continue to grow in freshwater. Notoriously elusive, mature steelhead can weigh in excess of 20 pounds/9 kilograms.

Other top steelhead locales: Salmon River, Idaho, USA; Great Lakes tributaries, USA; Dean River, British Columbia, Canada.

Image By @Poppet01/Shutterstock

Where: South Island, New Zealand

Quarry: Brown trout

Allure: With 3,000-plus miles of water, New Zealand’s backcountry all but guarantees an undisturbed day’s fishing for trout’s picky eaters. Mountains, fjords, forests and plains covered in grasses and wildflowers provide a stunning backdrop. Accessibility is an issue in more remote areas, with many lakes and streams reached only by helicopter.

Other top brown trout locales: County Cork, Ireland; Chilean Fjords, Chile; Kamchatka, Russia.

Image By @Chameleonseye/Shutterstock

Where: Zambezi River, Zambia

Quarry: Tiger fish

Allure: The big game of fly-fishing’s African safari is the combative, razor-toothed monster of southern Africa’s “Great River.” Tiger fish weighing up to 35 pounds/15 kilograms run and jump when hooked and can be difficult to land. The Zambezi is also home to hippos and crocodiles and a popular watering hole for elephants. Victoria Falls, one of the wonders of the world, is close by the most productive fishing waters.

Other top locales for exotic species: Mongolia (taimen); Brazil (peacock bass); Australia (black bass); Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico (snook).

Image By @Dusan Zidar/Shutterstock

Where: Andros Island, Bahamas

Quarry: Bonefish

Allure: The Bahamas’ largest yet least developed island claims itself the “Bonefish Capital of the World.” Bonefish in the 7- to 10-pound/3- to 4-kilogram range cruise Andros’ white sand and turtle grass flats. Fish the more isolated waters near the Joulters Cays, off Andros’ northern tip, for 10-plus-pound/3-plus-kilogram bonefish and permit up to 40 pounds/18 kilograms.

Other top bonefish locales: Seychelles Islands; Christmas Island, Kiribati; Turneffe Flats, Belize.

Image By @Iv Mirin/Shutterstock

Where: Kola Peninsula, Russia

Quarry: Salmon

Allure: The fall of the Iron Curtain gave rise to the salmon fishing legend of Arctic Russia. The season is short—bring your thermal waders—but the salmon are plentiful and gargantuan: 40-pounders/18-kilogramers are not unusual. The biggest challenge to fishing Kola is getting there, as it remains remote even 25 years after the Cold War’s end.

Other top salmon locales: Nakalilok Bay, Alaska, USA; River Laxa, Iceland; River Dee, Scotland.

Image By @Jeff Feverston/Shutterstock

Where: Labrador, Canada

Quarry: Brook trout

Allure: Canada’s unspoiled eastern wilderness is home to the largest of these fly-loving beauties. Also known as speckled trout with skin layered in red, orange and yellow scales with cream-colored spots, brook trout are spirited fighters. “Brookies” weighing in excess of 10 pounds/4 kilograms can be found in Labrador’s wading streams.

Other top brook trout locales: Great Smoky Mountains, USA; Upper Peninsula, Michigan, USA; Western Montana, USA.

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