Take me back - NOW!
In the foothills of the Andes there are really addictive secrets to be found for the global flyfisher. The author has spent a month the last two years on the dusty roads of Patagonia, and the clear waters of Chile may pull him back once more…
Behind the pick-up truck a dustball, the size of a four-storey house is rising. Nobody in the car disturbs the loud clattering noise of the vehicle being shaken apart. Fine dust from the road has crept in everywhere, and you can feel the crunchy gravelly feeling when you grind your teeth. I am bent over my fly vise, and The driver, Thore, glances in my direction as he steers through what is best described as a crater in the road.
We keep quiet. I know these are the terms. I need more flies. They have to be just as big and brutal as the ones the trout gulp down. That means that I have to tie the flies while we bump along the South American Highway; Carrera Austral, because when the car stops, I will have no time for flytying.
When the car stops, I need to go fishing. I give the fly a generous dollop of superglue, and release the abnormal creature from the vise. Great - now I have a replacement for the ridiculously chewed-up specimen I used yesterday.
We are on a road-trip in Chile. The only thing we have to worry about, is when we get to fish again. When we planned this trip, we marked down some likely looking blue lines on the map, but nothing could prepare us for this: The opportunities are vast - there are blue lines and dots all over!
I have now spent the last two Februaries in Chile - you see some samples above.
Dragonfly ball on the lakes
By the roadside, on top of the slope, we have a clear view into the glassy waters of this vast and untouched lake. It's been a year since we were here the last time, and conditions are radically different this time. This season has been nauseatingly hot, but that means that the dragonflies are doing aerial displays over the emerald green rushes. While my two travel companions idly chat about the fishing possibilities, a giant splash makes them focus on the surface instantly. The rings are widening down there. I saw what happened, but my brain is reluctant to zoom in on the facts: a giant trout has just cleared the surface to grab one of the dragonflies hovering above the surface. We can actually see the fish now, and it is one heck of a trout. It has got a companion, slightly smaller, but no less active. The smaller of the two is constantly patrolling the small bay looking for miniature helicopters.
I am the one with the rod this time. A tough pressure. My fingers are trembling, and my pulse is dangerously high. I stumble down the gravelly slope, and creep into position behind a small bush by the water. I have to do something to get control of my hands, so I sit down and retie my leader. Good, this gives me the opportunity to breathe a little and calm down.
The first cast is a little too short: The guys on the road above me can follow the whole thing. They direct my casting. "Close to the rock in the surface, Thomas". That's easy, because only one rock is above the surface in the whole cove. I place the fly just to the right of the rock and gradually, as the voices above get more and more agitated, their messages fall out, just like when a radio is falling out, and the music is replaced with white noise. I get tunnel-vision and I gaze at the large dragonfly imitation at the end of my leader, but I am not really able to comprehend it, when a huge set of jaws calmly rises around the fly and with a loud CLAP chews the foam. The instant I tighten up the line, everything is chaos. Fish, rock, foamy water in the air, and suddenly the leader is slack, grated by the only rock in the cove…
Rivers and streams
The perfect little stream enters the perfect boca. And in Chile you are allowed to fish the estuaries. The last stretch of river before the ocean is a long and beautifully looking holding pool. The water is almost too good looking to fish, and I have a hard time concentrating on the single hand speycasting, while I sneak along under a sharply cut riverbank.
A large kingfisher lands in a tree just below me. It is much bigger than the variety at home, and less shy. I decide that this is a good omen. maybe it wants to show me the good fishing spot. When I unfurl a cast, and the fly lands across the stream from where the bird is sitting, it takes off with a cackle. My eyes shift between the bird's flight and the arch of the line. I can see that the fly has just passed a large boulder in the middle of the stream, when the small matuka stops in the stream. I don't really get what's going on, before a cascade of silver is thrown into the air and a coho salmon lands with a flourish of water.
While I play the fish, I can see that the panic in the pool has moved a much larger specimen. The rod is a five-weight, and the leader is 0.23 mm. Perfect for your first pacific salmon!
Most rivers and streams in Chile have a run of salmon. You can stumble across a variety of pacific species, and even Atlantic salmon. Many of them are reproduced wild fish, but you can also encounter tame salmon from the fish farms. Fish farming is big business in Chile, and it's a blessing and a curse at the same time. In the bocas entering the lakes, you might come across rainbow trout, lake trout or even landlocked king salmon, which means that the mighty king salmon is using huge lakes as oceans.
Dry fly in the rivers
This river is deep, slow, filled with heavy weeds, and has a deep turqoise tinge, like the last light on the southern skies after sundown. I cannot believe that we have caught nothing all day. Stefan and I have trekked miles of river with nothing to show between us, not even the tinies ring on the surface. We haven't even gotten our flies wet yet.
The ensuing fight is everything but nonchalant. It is a dogged hand-over-fist affair with me standing in a big clump of weeds. But a brutal fish has to be fought brutally, and when I finally have it in my hand, I am devastated by the incredible and rugged beauty of a really big rainbow.
Ten minutes later, a new, and only slightly smaller fish has taken the place of the big one. "Well, I'll be darned, if you can resist my beetle-magic my friend", I mumble, and creep into position once more…
Chile is definitely constructed to make sure that the dry fly fisherman is guaranteed wet dreams and sleepless nights. You will find incredible streams just about everywhere. Most of the waters close to civilization have been fished, though. But through travel agencies, you can still find good fishing close to the airports, if you choose a package with a guide and a lodge The alternative, the one we chose - is going all the way, and create your own adventure far from the lodges. It's still possible to find good fishing far from the dusty gravel road.
The hidden lake
The last time we went to Chile, we stayed for some days in a small village in the middle of the Andes. Back then, a couple of local hand-lining fishermen told us about a secret lake, they would take us to. Maybe we were a bit slow on the uptake, or our Spanish wasn't too good, but we didn't go.
The following year, we were ready for one hours drive into nothing - not even on the map - in an area between Chile and Argentina. A secret connection would sail us the rest of the way across a vast glacial lake. A trip that can only be accomplished in the mornings or at night, because most days, a fierce wind is chopping the surface of the lake to bits. After that we had a half-hour trek across difficult terrain in front of us, but at the end of that, we had a tough time battling the wild rainbow trout averaging 2,5 kilos or 5 lbs., and with a 5 kilo or double digit guarantee. Eight-weights, sinking lines, and flies the size of pike bait was brutally abused. Tough luck you don't live there, because I would have taken my five-weight and a handful of foam beetles tomorrow…
And the big one
King salmon escapees have now become a major source of concern on most rivers. They push out other species. They are still great fun, though. We had the experience of a behemoth king in a small stream. Such a slab of muscle is no easy job on the fiver, so we switched to something more suitable. Next time, though…
How, when and other wh-words
A four wheeler is a must in those regions. The first year we went, we rented a small Nissan with run-down tires. We soon became intimate friends with the term"Vulcanisado" - car tire repair. Check at the airport, and you'll save the grief, because the roads are tough. Always check if there is a spare tire as well. A spare can for diesel or gasoline is a wise choice as well, because - yes - you can have a flat tire twice or run out of gas between "towns" in Chile!
Some kind of cooking gear is essential in your survival kit. In most towns you can buy a cheap and honest meal. The menu is often a choice between "carne" - meat - which is really good, as Chile produces some of the finest meat in the world, or "saumon", which is no surprise, as Chile is the second-biggest producer of farmed salmon, only Norway has a worse reputation on that front.
Even the smallest supermercado is fine for supplying essentials.
Western currency goes a long way in Chile - and Argentina as well. If you choose to stay in a lodge, or hire a guide in some way, prices go up considerably, though. A guide is not a bad choice, but you can also hire a local man at many of the larger lakes. We did a couple of times, which was great fun in a boat, with some big and scary fish under the keel.
Of course the easy way to success is living at a lodge. If you DIY there are several ways to survive the wilderness, miss the fancy chef and American guide - no offense guys - I know you prefer to fish the same way as we did!
The essence of our trips has been mobility, so most nights we slept out. When we didn't sleep in the tent, we crashed in cabins or hostels, which is mostly fine and cheap.
And yes - it really does help to try in Spanish. A little patience, an honest try with the local lingo will get you a long way - but hey - that's no different than on the rest of the globe.