Every fishery we sampled was outstanding and special in its own way. So like parents with too many precious children, the toughest decision we had to make in 10 days was telling our Argentine fly-fishing guides which of the many remaining options we’d favor for the final outing of our February trip in Patagonia.
We’d already backpacked for three days into a mountain stream where we caught broad-shouldered brook trout more than 2 feet long. We had stripped streamers at a lake to hook big trout until our hands cramped. We’d dangled nymphs in another lake to land big rainbows and browns. We’d hiked, waded, sneaked and caught fish on dry flies in freestone streams and spring creeks until our bodies ached.
This is the land of plenty for anglers, the result of wildly successful trout and salmon introductions that started in the early 1900s. The region covers a vaguely defined 400,000 square miles at the southern peg of South America — including portions of Chile and Argentina split by the glaciered spine of the Andes. It conjures up images of gauchos herding cattle and sheep, iconic climbing peaks, and wildlife such as guanacos, the Andean condor and the ostrich-like rhea — all of which we saw during our stay.
Justin Witt, founder of Hemisphere’s Unlimited, could have minimized expenses on that last day of fishing by steering us to a close-by lake, where we surely would have caught lunkers. Instead, he applauded our choice to travel 1 1/2 hours to float-fish a classic Patagonia river.
“Ah, the Rio Corcovado — dry fly fishing for bunches of 18-inch rainbows and tossing streamers for a shot at big browns,” Witt said. “Some tricky Class III rapids, too. Good choice.”
Also a good choice was booking with Witt for our bucket-list fishing trip to Argentina, the second-largest country in South America, known for the tango, soccer, gauchos, beef, wine, “Parque Nacional Los Glaciares,” Iguazu Falls and trout.
He started his company in 2008 at the age of 30 after seven months of backpacking with a fly rod through the Andes. Heading north into the heart of Patagonia from Tierra del Fuego he was banking on nature to help him recover from a brain aneurism for which he was given a 3% chance to survive. “I had nothing to lose,” he said.
“I fished phenomenal streams and lakes in both Chile and Argentina that I probably will never fish again because I don’t think I could find them again. I settled on basing my operations in Rio Pico because of the fishing diversity in every direction.”
Rio Pico has a population of about 1,000, counting the scattering of nearby rural families, and the dogs. To get there, David Moershel, Roger Bertsch and I of the Spokane Fly Fishers flew to Dallas, and then 11 hours to Buenos Aires. Another flight continued two hours to Esquel, where guides loaded our bags into pickups and drove us two hours farther south into the middle of nowhere along the east slope of the Andes.
We each bought a season fishing license, $79, which included having an attendant disinfect our waders and boots to inhibit spread of invasive species. Before settling into our humble but comfortable base quarters we stopped at a small store for Argentine Malbec (under $4 a bottle) and some regional beer, with extra for the guides, on the correct assumption that we would eventually have much to celebrate.
Although he has connections to high-end resorts, Witt specializes in a half-dozen “Trout Bum” destinations on freshwater and saltwater from Alaska to New Zealand. This program gives budget-conscious anglers a chance for outstanding fishing — at about half the cost of luxury lodges.
The no-frills program focuses on value and fishing rather than fancy accommodations, five-star food, table and chairs at streamside for lunch, and fly-out service. Trout Bums are going to walk to fish some of the top stream stretches. On a few days we would hike for an hour before casting the first fly.
Instead of getting off the water in time for cocktail hour, Witt’s anglers might keep fishing through the happy hour bite.
“We don’t offer a mint on your pillow at night, but I have to offer the best guides,” he said, noting that he pays his guides as much or more than the lodges that cater to affluence.
Our group usually returned to town or camp late, sometimes at twilight. We capped each day with a toast over home-style dinners including burgers, chicken, pasta, tacos, steak and an extraordinary feast of Patagonia lamb al asado — a lamb carcass butterflied on an iron cross and roasted over a pit fire.
Table time with the guides and guests was always informative and pleasant. The sign over the Rio Pico base dinner table says, “No news, no politics — No, we’re not kidding!”
Witt delivers premier local fishing experiences from a world-wide perspective. Raised in the United States, he immigrated to Argentina and has somewhat settled in Chubut Province. He met his Russian wife in the Amazon jungle, and to say that they are world explorers is an understatement. Their 4-year-old daughter’s passport has been stamped in 17 countries.
Witt hasn’t just fished fabled destinations in all four of the earth’s hemispheres, he’s learned the fisheries and guided on them. He’s a master fly caster, yet he’s helpful and remarkably unintimidating to those of us who aren’t. The legs under his lean 6-foot-4 frame stride like a native beast through the landscape, and he routinely shoulders loads twice as heavy as anyone else.
At times Witt is mystical, but always informative, real and passionate about fishing. When he would focus into a calming shaman-taught chant to the fish, I’d prepare for a strike.
The airport wind sock at Esquel when we arrived was stretched horizontally taut to the east without so much as a dip or a droop. In the following days we endured our share of Patagonia’s notorious wind and our stiff-brimmed hats shed the hooks of a few gust-altered casts. But mixed in were some amazingly calm periods and days. Witt made recommendations on fishing options each morning based on weather conditions.
“Light wind,” he said the first morning. “Let’s get you out on a lake full of very big brook trout today since it might not fish as well later in the week.” We drove in four-wheel-drive pickups through chaparral, over a stretch of savagely rough road, to a lake tucked in mountains with timberline and snow patches in view above. We were not disappointed.
A few days later, Moershel and I were fishing a snaking spring creek through a cattle pasture. Early in the day our guide was telling us precisely where to present a foam hopper pattern in the channel as we fished upstream for rainbows and browns. As afternoon winds increased he was pleading, “Cast here. Try to hit the water.”
Doubling the difficulty was the shoreline plague of calafato (flylineus interruptis), a deceivingly friendly looking shrub with greenery hiding thorns that are merciless in tangling fishing line as it’s stripped from a reel.
Against such odds, we still caught fish. Getting “skunked” isn’t in the Patagonia lexicon. Neither is “leader shy.” While big fish are spooky to movement or surface disturbance, we successfully used tippets from 0X for streamers to 3X for dry flies. In nine days of fishing eight hours a day, I lost only three flies.
Witt’s guides are mindful that despite the bounty of trout in the 18- to 20-inch range, most of the anglers who journey to Patagonia want to tap the region’s reputation for lunkers. “Monster fish” eluded our group, either for gaps in casting prowess or because of missed strikes and “early releases.” (Yes, we occasionally resorted to the universal language of expletives.)
But we still caught some giant if not monstrous trout. One of the most notable was taken on the three-day backpack. Moershel, Bertsch and I followed Witt in our waders about four miles through forest and across creeks on a cattle trail and dropped our packs at a campfire ring by a placid meandering stream in the forest. We then hiked and fished streamers the rest of the first day, each of us accompanied by a guide.
At the rendezvous back at the campfire that night, Bertsch humbly sized up the fishing as he slid a bottle of wine from his pack. “I had a pretty good day. Caught a bunch of fish over 20 inches.”
Our group of three anglers and three guides celebrated that “pretty good day” under the stars in Patagonia by polishing off a pot brimming with 18 servings of pasta. “Tomorrow we’ll spend the entire day hiking and fishing,” Witt said as we headed for our tents, “and maybe we’ll get a big one.”
Witt approached the next day like a hunter. “Sneak over there like you’re hunting elk,” he said at one point going into a crouch. “Big fish water.”
Only a small percentage of his clients are willing to forgo easy-access waters to schlep fishing and camping gear for miles and answer nature’s call in the woods for the privilege of tangling with this fishery. “Sometimes we have to walk in the stream,” Witt said, “because some stretches of shore are impossible snarls of impenetrable death.”
In the afternoon I’d just caught six brookies 12- to 18-inches long out of one pool before moving upstream to a bit of open shoreline where Witt and Moershel were staging. A ringed kingfisher perched on a snag over the water. Back-cast room was minimal.
I was given first shot with a streamer at one of two dark-water pockets under tree roots that reeked of trophy trout potential. My first cast into a breeze was 18 inches short. My second attempt was 2 inches long and snagged a branch.
Witt had already emphasized that the first cast to a big fish, or into water that’s likely to harbor a really big one, may be your only shot in that spot. “The biggest fish are wary,” he’d said. “That’s how they got large.”
Moershel stepped up to the next likely spot upstream and made a perfect cast to the depths under the opposite bank. A couple of strips later, the peacefulness of the hunt was shattered as a salmon-size brookie savagely smashed the streamer.
Witt used his big net to capture, measure, photograph and release a 25-inch brook trout the likes of which are no longer found in the USA. “Looks like we’ll be opening another bottle of wine at camp tonight,” I said.
We backpacked out of that drainage with Bertsch’s disintegrating wading boots held together with wraps of duct tape and monofilament. We’d had only a few nasty encounters with the prolific fuzzy-brown caterpillars that sting like a bee. We encountered no other anglers.
“This is special water, but I have a hunch there’s more like it,” Witt said. “I’m heading out with a friend for two weeks this fall to explore some new waters. That’s the great thing about Patagonia: Even the people who live here haven’t discovered it all.”