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Fly Fishing the Rio Manso Waters of Patagonia
I swore I would only go through the Miami airport again if the fate of humanity depended upon it. Then, as if to test my resolve and as a completely unexpected and generous offer, a friend called me from Buenos Aires to invite me to join him in Patagonia on a fly-fishing trip.
The hitch - the only way to fit the trip and the other aspects of my schedule together was to route myself through Miami.
Where would I rather be the first week of January?
On one hand, there were the New Year's resolutions I was "persuaded" to make to cut back on my intake of red meat and the potential to "enjoy" all Chicago's winter has to offer, and on the other hand there was fishing for big trout in a Patagonian summer, and enjoying a culture that embraces beef as a staple of its diet. Clint told me of a lodge that was barely 2 years old in the shadow of the Andes Mountains - Rio Manso Lodge. He told me the waters are relatively untouched - and are full of trout.
"Let me take care of the arrangements - all you have to do is show up," he assured me.
It was, as they say, an offer I couldn't refuse - decision made.
Rio Manso Lodge
Sebastian Graziosi, a second-generation guide, with his wife, Eugenia host guests at Rio Manso Lodge. He shared his father's profession, guiding and managing fishing lodges in the region for several years before accepting the position to open Rio Manso Lodge. The lodge is located at the edge of the Nahuel Huapi National Park on Lago (Lake) Hess. The surrounding environment also invites non-fishermen to enjoy other activities, and occasionally the guests are even entertained by Sebastian's performance on his bagpipes. (A Frazier on his mother's side, Sebastian has been playing the pipes for over 20 years, and was a member of the Highland Thistle Pipes Band in Buenos Aires for 10 years.)
Nahuel Huapi National Park is approximately 2,500 square miles of forested wilderness, located in the highlands immediately east of the Argentina-Chile border. Thick lush virgin stands of beech, cypress and the occasional pockets of sequoia blanket the slopes leading up to the high Andes, with Mt. Tronador (11,632 feet in elevation) and its glacier-blanketed slopes dominating the landscape. Miles and miles of trails and a few less-traveled roads lead to deep aqua rivers and lakes offering a variety of fishing environments. Every type of water - glassy spring creeks, large and small lakes and roaring cascades and waterfalls are readily accessible by drift boat or rubber raft. And there is wadable water as well. The lodge has the appropriate boats and guides for both stream and lake fishing. Given the vastness of the area and the many, many miles of water, it is easy to shove off in a boat and not see another soul all day.
Brown, rainbow and brook trout
The trout populations in the area have developed with little or no interference from man since the initial stocking over100-years ago. They include brown, rainbow and brook trout - the coloration of the three species is as much a delight to the eye as their energy level is to the spirit of the fisherman. These are beautiful fish that fight, and fight hard.
Glacial runoff and slightly silty waters might lead one to presume the streams and lakes are not necessarily the "food factories" that produce large and abundant fish. But the aquatic food chain that is more than adequate combined with minimal fishing pressure has produced healthy self-sustaining populations of all three species. Trout foods include abundant caddis and mayfly species, stoneflies, dragon and damselflies in some reaches. There may be some native crustacean food source, too. Owing to the staggered spawning of each trout species, "salmo-caviar" and fry may well also contribute to their vigor. We encountered bees at a couple of locations, and they may find their way onto the trout's menu from time to time, as well.
Lots of water
The first thing that struck me about the fishing was the size of the water - the rivers were out of their banks with unseasonably heavy rains, but the water was still not all that badly colored. The bottom of the river was not visible in the main channel, in fact it was only visible near the banks - but the depth of the water, and not necessarily excess turbidity was responsible for this. We could still find places where we could sight fish, but more often than not, we were fishing to likely holding water or structure. It occurred to me that we were often casting and catching fish in areas that were dry land during most seasons.
The second thing to strike me was the size of flies our guide recommended we use. The premise of "big fish like big flies" is applied liberally here. "Dry flies" referred to jet-ski-sized things fished on a tight line and either twitched or stripped-in fast enough to cause quite a visible wake. No drag-free drifts needed here Senor Kissane. Size 4-6 Chernobyl Ants, Club Sandwiches, BLTs, rubber-legged hoppers, Madame X and Dragonflies were the recommended top water patterns.
A pattern called a "Terresticator" - half strike indicator and half bug-eyed foam monster was quite successful, too. Similarly, submarine-sized black Wooly Buggers, Matukas and Bitch Creek nymphs in size 6-8, fished with a deep sinking line were most productive. The Chernobyl Ants, Club Sandwiches, BLTs, and related monstrosities are large gaudy rubber-legged foam things that are more likely taken as terrestrial (or "extra-terrestrial," judging by appearances) foods. It may be that they incorporate enough feeding triggers with few discouraging characteristics that the bigger fish cannot pass up the potential big meal. The big stonefly nymphs may well be taken as just that. Wooly Buggers (large and dark) are a universally accepted standard for big deep-water presentations.
Fast and slow
The twitching technique and the vigorous stripping for top water patterns may have simulated the activities of either terrestrials, or the surface texture produced by the indigenous dragonflies and damselflies, or even the dislocated inhabitants (bugs or even small animals) of flooded stream banks and lakeshores.
Lacking Datus Proper's translation skills (see What the Trout Said), I am forced to rely on conjecture. The deep subsurface patterns were most effectively fished with a steady slower retrieve, and those with rubber legs or matuka-style rabbit fur strips did well. Again, the flooded areas may have added things to the trout's menu that aren't typically on their diet. I had several flies destroyed by fish pulling the rubber legs or rabbit fur strips off of them. "Stinger hooks" on the tail or double hook flies are not permitted, so that was not an option.
One of the finer locations fished by guests is Lago Fonck. The reed-banked lake is located up a short four-wheel drive road from the Lago Hess. The action there can be fast and furious for periods broken by stretches when the best of presentations and offerings were met with indifference. I read reports of more than 30 fish per day per boat on Lago Fonck with some skepticism, particularly realizing the time and effort required to land these specimens, but the fish we caught were tremendous. Once hooked, keeping them from the reeds other obstructions was a serious challenge. Rainbows in the range of 4 pounds and up rose from the depths and leapt from the water once hooked. Surging acrobatic jumps tested our nerves and the knots in our leaders. Brown trout seized subsurface offerings and made as though they would try to take them to the center of the earth by some route only they knew. It was not unusual to have to wait several minutes after it was hooked to even see the fish well enough to tell what it was. Occasionally a brown would jump or a rainbow would dive deep, deviating from the stereotype behavior for each. The brook trout - kin of the Arctic char, would sometimes attack the surface flies as though trying to drown them first, taking them into their mouths only if we were patient enough to resist pulling back the first time they hit the fly. I was forced to grit my teeth and hold off as the same fish torpedoed my fly twice before opening his mouth and taking it in. Freezing my stripping arm for what seemed an eternity (but must have only been a few seconds) took more effort than an entire day's casting of those huge flies.
Another day's outing was split between the upper Rio Manso and Lago Hess - a nice mixture of river and lake fishing for us, but a grueling day of work for our guide, Javier Mesas. Javier's size (somewhere on the low side of 5-foot 5-inches tall) does not give any clues as to his strength or stamina, and he rowed the rubber raft tirelessly, repeating pools along the river beat where we either saw fish or wanted a second shot at particularly appealing water. We continued down the river to Lago Hess, and fished the shoreline from the inlet of Rio Manso around to its exit in "the channels," with Javier rowing the entire stretch against the wind.
The channels are another of the jewels of the area. They consist of a braided section of the river as it leaves the lake and has some of the best dry fly water we encountered. We enjoyed two evenings there with more conventional patterns - Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulators, modifications of my Cheap Lazy Bastard pattern, and various caddis and mayfly emergers. There, as the sun sank low, huge fish, some close to 5 pounds began sipping emerging caddis and mayflies from the smooth water surface. It was a pleasant switch to go from the huge flies earlier in the day to small dry flies. And the satisfaction that some of these big guys would fall victim to my own relatively small flies was gratifying. The serenity of the setting was complete with native waterfowl and aquatic fauna, the echoing calls of birds that sound more like what one would expect in the Amazon - interrupted only by the drag of our reels as one or both of us connected with obliging trout - and all within site of the lodge.
Roberto Pandolfi - Owner
Sebastian and Eugenia Graziosi - Hosts
Rio Manso Lodge
Nahuel Huapi National Park
Patagonia - Argentina
Cell phone: +54 2944 15487000
Lodge phone: +54 2944 490546
After a day's fishing, guests are returned to the warmth of the lodge where they unwind for the night. A hot shower, sauna or dip in the Jacuzzi and a cold beer restored my energy enough to look forward to the fashionably late dinner. I found it appropriate that a chalkboard in the lodge presented the menu for guests' supper, while across the room, the picture window facing the lake attracted samples for our inspection of the evening bill of fare the trout were enjoying - a few mayflies, a sizeable number of caddis and even a damsel or two. Dinner at the lodge is served to the entire group of guests and hosts at a large dining table. The conversation allows the guests to get to know each other, exchange experiences and plan the activities of the following day. Supper is not a huge affair, so it is not something that will impair a good night's sleep, but it is ample, and the chef and hosts will make every effort to accommodate personal tastes and preferences. After supper and maybe a nightcap, a good night's sleep comes readily, as one is well-exercised after a few of days of dancing the tango with Argentina's trout. Good taste and the general subject matter of this article prevent me from drawing comparisons to other activities that might leave one in a similarly satisfied or rest-ready state of exhaustion.
Fishing and non-fishing
Although oriented toward the serious fly fishing enthusiast, Rio Manso Lodge will tailor outings for non-fishing guests as well. The environment is the entertainment, and it excels in that capacity - there is no swimming pool or TV, and telephone and Internet communications are only available from the office. The nearest town with air service or any businesses for that matter, is San Carlos de Bariloche, or simply Bariloche - a 2-hour flight from Buenos Aires and barely a 90-minute drive to the lodge. The lodge has a modest fly shop with most of the essentials necessary should you forget something in your preparations, although you can expect to pay "lodge prices." For those who feel the need to be creative, there is a complimentary fly-tying desk that is fairly well stocked with materials, and there are the beginnings of a decent fly-fishing book collection. Lodging, all meals, licenses, guides, transportation during outings and to and from Bariloche airport and even personal laundry (not dry cleaning) are included. Tackle, leaders, flies, personal gear, waders and tips are generally the guest's responsibility. If you need it, the lodge can even arrange (with some advance notice) for a massage therapist from Bariloche, who probably has some experience dealing with fly fisherman's elbow.
Access from Buenos Aires via 2-hour flight to San Carlos de Bariloche Airport - flights met by the lodge and guests transportation to and from airport included in lodging.
The lodge literature and discussions with the guides indicate a 5-weight rod is ideal; however, I would recommend a 6 or even 7-weight rod for the larger flies and to cope with both the wind and the size and energy of the fish. All fishing is catch-and-release, and it is not good form to have to play a fish to fatal exhaustion before releasing it. The fish did not seem leader-shy, and leader tippits we used were never smaller than 4X, with 3X being common for the subsurface - this made bringing these big fish to hand quicker, but it would be foolish to assume you could hurry matters too much - I broke a favorite 4-weight rod trying to be too quick about bringing in a feisty rainbow. A favorite floating line for dry flies and a full sinking line for streamers and deep presentations are also recommended. Foul weather gear - a serious rain jacket and hat - is mandatory, as weather can be tricky.
Big Dry Flies: Chernobyl ants, BLT, Terresticator, Club Sandwich, Madame X, yellow hoppers of various designs, dragonflies in blue and green.
Big Streamers: weighted wooly-buggers in black, brown and olive; Bitch Creek and similar dark rubber-legged stonefly nymphs; black and olive matukas; muddler minnows in all colors.
"Conventional Flies" (sizes 10-14): Elk hair caddis varieties (olive and tan); Stimulators (yellow and blue); Adams; Crackleback; Sparkle Caddis Pupae; Cheap Lazy Bastard varieties/Miscellanea emerger; Prince nymph, Pheasant Tail nymph and Hare's Ear.