South Patagonia on a Budget - The Rivers
Published Dec 12th 2008
Rivers, browns and sea trout
By Rolandas Minčinauskas
After my last venture to Russia back in 2005 I came to an idea to travel around the globe and fly fish the most interesting places on a minimum budget.
Many plans were spinning in my head like Greenland, Mongolia, Siberia, New Zealand.... Trout Bum Diaries made me go "EUREKAAA!". This was exactly what I was looking for - Patagonia.
How did I get there. Well, I did some planning at the very beginning.
During 6 months research I spent more than 600 hours on the Internet, sent 241 emails, received 62. I went to school for 80 hours of Spanish language and drank 36 Argentinean, 24 Chilean , 11 South African, 10 Australian and 2 Spanish bottles of wine during those long Internet evenings.
I started planning for a 14 day's trip to the North of Patagonia, but ended in the South of Patagonia with 24 days (this thanks to Ole Christiansen, who I met at the GFF summit 2007; Ole, thanks, great idea!)
The rough schedule
Time: March 2008
Algis (still with a splint in his foot, but about that later)
1. Boat drifting Rio Gallegos sea trout + Gallegos Chico for brown trout
2. Rio Santa Cruz for steelhead
3. Lake Strobel for huge rainbows.
I was happy, as I had the most important thing:
A concrete Plan/Goal/Target was in my head and the rest were only details...
Detail, problems and "are you crazy"?!
Almost everybody's reaction was: "are you crazy?"- "drifting Rio Gallegos is not possible. It's
a) too shallow in autumn
b) not allowed. It's illegal and you will get to jail, so better write down the Lithuanian embassy number so they can help you get out of jail.
c) There are so many bad boys around and angry land owners, who simply will kick you out.
All this info scared me - a little.
Actually this part of planning was the most difficult and time consuming . But thanks to the helpful Argentinean fly fishermen; Fabian Martin, Martin Carranza, Adolfo Marinesco and Francisco from the Tourist Information center of Santa Cruz, Rio Gallegos, I was confident. Besides, I had a note from the tourism authorities saying, that the police and the environmental agency were informed about our presence on the river.
The information about Santa Cruz was not difficult to collect, everybody said the same: Fish around the town of Piedra Buena or go to the fly shop in Piedra Buena and everything will be clear. Perfect!
3. Finally Lago Strobel, somebody named it Jurassic lake, but for me it will always remain Strobel. I also spent a good amount of time on this project. Not least because it was new to everybody and nobody could give me any valuable information.
So at that moment, I saw only one possible way and this idea possessed me: We would be like military combos during night time, passing the pampas and walk about 11 kilometers distance from the closest road (Ruta 40) to the lake.
Yeee... Crazy, isn't it...?
I spent many evenings in front of the monitor looking at Google Earth, investigating and exploring the landscape, the distances, hills and tracks around.
Many bottles of wine were killed during this mad planning until one nice Thursday evening. Like every Thursday, we were playing volleyball and my companion, Algis, broke his foot... This was a moment to wake up on and I started looking for a more easy way to get to Strobel.
I focused very much on land owners. So with a big help of the Argentinean friends I managed to communicate and make arrangements with Gustavo Arvarez the owner of Estancija „Pecho Blanco" on the North side of Strobel.
Despite the fact that we arrived with lost luggage (GPS and most of my fly boxes in it!) we were lucky meeting Andrius - a Lithuanian living in Buenos Aires - who helped us finding a bank and transfer money to Gustavo Alvarez for the fishing in lake Strobel.
We also bought the fishing licenses at the same time as it could be difficult to do it during weekends. Thanks Andrius! After 6 hours in Buenos Aires we were back on the plane going to Rio Gallegos.
In Rio Gallegos we met with local fly fishing guide Manuel Gonzales. Frankly speaking, I learned about Manuel just the day before leaving home. With my poor Spanish we understood each other and the first evening we went to visit Manuel's family. I have no words to describe that barbeque lamb and wine taste we had! Delisioso!
Next morning we phoned Alitalia who lost our stuff and agreed that they would ship it to Rio Gallegos, so not to lose any minute we loaded our truck and headed west to Puente Blanco (white bridge) around 200 kilometers west of the city of Rio Gallegos.
Here I would like to say a very important thing. The access to the rivers and lakes might be prohibited by owners, so the easiest ways are bridges and roads which have public access. So walking along the river Rio Gallegos west direction, we saw only 3 public access within 200 kilometers.
It is allowed to walk along the rivers, set up the tent and camp on islands and river bed but not more than 10 meters or 30 feet inland. Crossing land might be problematical, so it is better to know in advance.
At Puente Blanco the two rivers Rio Penitente and Rio Rubens become one and creates Rio Gallegos. This place is very good to fish. But, but ... due to very warm +15 - +20C temperatures and very little rain, the water level was low and warm. We expected the fishing to be very slow... and we were right. Anyway, the first evening we caught some nice brownies with the biggest around 50 centimeters or 20 inches.
The next morning we were still with Manuel. We went down the river a bit below Rio Turbio, which was a special place to Manuel.
Daytime air was so hot and there was no wind, so we really enjoyed a sunbath (with a lot of sun protection of course).
While relaxing and drinking and having a swim, we noticed a local gaucho (cowboy) riding in the middle of the pampas with his dogs. After few minutes he was at our camp. He was a small, funny man named Julian.
The first thing he did was to offer me a ride on his horse. I was exited about riding an Argentinean horse on the pampas. That was something special and extreme, but I didn't realize the risk.
After a short instruction I understood that I should not pull the strips backwards too much as the horse's lips were damages and bleeding. So I sat in the saddle with loose the strips and "Ouch! Holy sh...."
"- I creamed and shot like a rocket across the pampas. I really cannot describe in words what was in my mind... You can imagine that riding, better say flying some 30 miles per hour and jumping over all the bushes.
I was thinking only of one thing: Survival.
Some seconds later, I just slung my arms around the horse's neck and started to stifle it at all power I had. It took a while to stop the horse. You can see the action in live below.
I was so happy to survive, I decided to take a big shot of whiskey. I need to admit that I liked Argentinean whiskey. And so did my new friend Julian!
That was the second big mistake that day. After two glasses of whiskey, I relaxed and got out of the shock, but amigo gaucho got so drunk that he could not jump onto the horse.
It was time for fishing and I helped Julian to get on the horse and he went home. Manuel also left, but we agreed that he would pick up us after 8 days in the hotel at Bella Vista some 100 kilometers or some 60 miles down the river.
I was going to start preparations for fishing and was following a smaller and smaller silhouette of Julian in the horizon. I saw how he crossed the river and... and after a short distance he capsized.
Stood up, jumped back on the horse and after some minutes came back to camp.
He started shouting at us and repeating: "de donde es me cutillo?"
Those who know Spanish will understand that he lost his gaucho knife... those knives are really big stuff, looks more like a big kitchen knife rather than a field knife.
But the point is that every gaucho must have a knife.
I understood that he thought, we had stolen it and was blaiming it on us. I desperately tried to explain that it had nothing to do with us and we were clean. I even offered my own knife, but he refused..
And one moment when I was looking for a knife around the camp he just grabbed my dry bag and stepped back. So now he had my bag and a something to negotiate with. In other words he robbed us in the middle of the day...
I got so mad so I took off my t-shirt, grabbed a wading stick and started running and shouting "Tu Amorte!".
It didn't take long for Julian to speed up his horse and to disappear over the pampas...
"What a wonderful day" I thought to myself as it was only the beginning of trip and I was already without clothes, without air tickets, which were in the dry sack, without GPS and without my flies, which was left somewhere between Milano and Buenos Aires!!!!
But I didn't worry about it. I had the gauchos name and pictures and I knew where he was working. With so small a population density it would not take long to find our little friend - I went fishing...
Despite the day time action the evening fishing was quite nice. I hooked two sea trout but lost both, Algis got into a nice sea trout and after short but hard battle the first sea trout of the trip was released to the river.
As I said, the water was so low and about +15C , so the fish were really slow and picky. Next morning we pumped our rafts and started our drift through the breathtaking pampas with many flamingos on the water, guanaco and endu.
West wind most of the time pushed us down the river so we could really enjoy the drift without big muscle efforts.
In the Evening we come to the place named Zurdo, where the small Rio Zurdo comes into the big river. The first thing what we saw was a man holding metal can with line on it and casting metal spoon with the hand.
After a short conversation with my broken Spanish I understood that he was a scientist exploring the grass and trying to find out why sheep grow so fast here. I explained to him that we been robbed and we needed a help.
Soon we sat in his offroader and after 30 minutes we were in the front yard of estancia Glencaross. The owner, we found, was a very nice person and after some 15 minutes I was assured just to continue our drift down to Bella Vista and not to worry as they would find me.
Day 3, the next morning, we started fishing early in a very deep and slow pool with zero result. It was time for the morning tea break, when we saw tiny splashes on the surface. There was a small fish, maybe small trout.
After we had finished our tea and sandwich I picked up 6 weight rods put 0.16 tippet and dry fly imitating a small ant. Wind and deep water made long casts very difficult, but I tried hard to cast my fly to the opposite bank with a very steep bank.
Deep water was right beside the bank. First good cast and the ant landed some inch into the bank, I pulled it gently and the fly naturally dropped on to the water...
It was like a big pipe sucking water! Soft strike and the fish anchored itself in the deepest part of the pool. You can watch the rest of the action below. The fish was safely released.
The next two days gave us only trout and were quite unproductive. On the other hand we had to rush and sometimes we just had to pass good places. We had no navigation GPS and we could properly establish our position just using a map which I printed from Google Earth. Later we learned that we had actually been drifting almost as twice as fast as planned.
On the 4th day of drifting we met a couple of fishermen and their Swedish guide Michael. We saw in Michaels face that he didn't expect to meet anbody on the river with "private land" around.
As every guide Michael had to check our licenses and after nice short chat we continued our drift. Later that evening, again, we met a couple of fishermen and their guide. I understood that this was the same guiding company, but this time our meeting did not happen in the same polite manner.
The first thing the small man (the guide) with Spanish accent said was not "hallo", but "What the *beep* are you doing here in my pool and get out of here as my two clients wants fish here now!"
He had a lot of *beep* in his mouth.
OK, we decided to ourselves, if he was so impolite we had to be the same - and we answered in very straight manner that this is not his pool and that we would fish this pool first.
A minute later he was not quite as aggressive anymore and started complaining that his customers would be unhappy and he needed to make the utmost for the clients and so on.
I was sorry for him and we let them fish first. One of the fishermen lifted his hat and we wished each other to a good day.
Frankly speaking we would have given them the pool at once if the guide would have been polite from the very beginning.
Even though it was a good pool, both we and the other fishermen wound up empty handed that evening.
Next 5th drift day we didn't start fishing until late evening. We started at a nice fast water stretch, but it was absolutely empty...
I decided to go upstream where the river was wide and slow and it was a correct strategy. Within a couple a minutes I hooked a nice brownie about 55 cm and I hooked another big fish, which I lost..
But the most exiting events happened at midnight.
We were already in the tent after a bottle of vodka and delicious grilled trout. We were in our sleeping bags and talked about the past day and plans for the future. But suddenly we heard a sound of engines and through the tent we could clearly hear and see that lights coming closer and closer.
I went out of the tent and saw how two big offroaders were crossing the river and heading toward us. I was sure we had visitors on their way and gave instructions to Algis and Tadas to prepare for the worst scenario.
Two Toyotas stopped some 15 meters or 45' from tent with their lights directly into our faces. I quickly jumped out of the range of the light and saw 4 persons, one of them was Michael. This calmed me down a bit. We started a conversation the way I was expecting:
- "What a hell are you doing on private property and if you don't want to have a huge problems, you have some minutes to collect our stuff and get out" One of them said.
My answer was that we were not going anywhere and that we were not breaking any law as we camped at the river bed and we had an official note from the tourism department that we were allowed to be there.
The guys were still continuing that this was bullshit and this is private land and blah, blah, blah.
But that didn't help them. Then they started to claim that we were leaving hills of garbage after ourselves and that we were polluting nature. I turned to the Michel and said :
"Michael, this is not true as we know where we are going and we are eco tourists."
We didn't even make a fire and had been cooking all the time on gas just not to make any fireplaces, and all our garbage, which was really not much, we took with us.
Michael kept silent, as I was sure he knew that we were not bastards. After some minutes of hard talk, our guests said:
"We want you to leave tomorrow as early as possible as we don't want any client to see you anymore".
These guys were about to get into the cars when one of them said something in Spanish which I didn't understand. Michael translated, that a fishing guard in Bella Vista had my dry sack and was waiting for me.
I was so happy that I started screaming and lifted the big Argentinean guy who told the news up in the air.
Our "friends" left. I was so happy! Back in tent we opened a new bottle of vodka as we had to calm down after this stressful meeting and to celebrate the safe return of my bag!
The 6th day, At noon, we reached Bella Vista hotel where the Rio Gallegos Chico joints the Rio Gallegos. A small hotel with restaurant also had a camp place surrounded by trees. Everything was like Ole Christiansen said about Bella Vista. That was really good and safe place to camp and one of those few places with public access to good fishing pools on the main river and on Gallegos Chico.
The owner of the hotel Arlado was a passionate fly fisherman and his advice helped us during the three days we spent there. And those three days were most remarkable days. Again low warm water was not promising, and one and half day gave only small trout.
On 7th day I was thirsty (as always) and disappointed so I decided to walk about one kilometer from the river back to hotel for some beers and to practise my poor Spanish with the owner Arlando.
I took three big bottles of beer and we started a long discussion about fishing. Tip after tip and I was equipped with knowledge, and I also got one fly (it was a Black Prince Nymph #10) and I was very warm on the inside.
After saying "Hasta la Vista", singing national songs it didn't take me long to come to Alrando's home pool which our group fished that day few times already. On my second long cast with a floating line across then slow motion and NO STRIPS! That I still remembered clearly from Arlando... and BUMMM the monster with a big wave hit on my tiny 0.20 mm tippet...
I turned around just to see if some of my friend saw what was happening here.. No one! After a few minutes I started wisping and finally I noticed Algis. You should see how he was running with his broken foot. Even the wooden stick he used in order to help him was lost in the pampas. Here is action and even those, who do not understand Lithuanian will hear a sound of pain in Algis voice. Algis, thanks for your self-sacrifice and for this short film.
8th day Tadas and I decided to fish Gallegos Chico for brownies. Algis refused to make the long walk and decided to continue fishing Arlandos' home pool. Thanks to Algis' clear brain he refused to join us. Otherwise we would have ended up in big problems.
According to Arlandos' plan he picked us up at Gallegos Chico at a place named Punto Diablo. The distance down to Bella Vista according Arlandos was about 12 kilometers or 8 miles. At the end of the day I assumed it was more like twice that distance just to walk though pampas and rocks and some four times that distance just to fish. Yes it was a day of 1000 trout and the same number of guanaco.
Guys, it WAS really a world class brown trout creek! But on other hand it was a most difficult day when it concerns walking in my life, and thanks God, Algis was safe at the camp and not with us.
Meanwhile Algis also had one of the most exciting days in his lifetime. He lost two sea trout and second one the similar size of mine - like a crocodile - managed to follow the fly from the middle of the river and ended on a very shallow kind of island.
It was maybe 5 centimeters or a couple of inches deep and a fish grabbed my poor Prince nymph, which I gave as a present to Algis.
As every alligator, the monster decided to walk his way back to the river and Algis decided to strike. Guess what happened... my Prince said good bye!
The same evening Manuel came to pick us up. And again we had this fabulous barbecue evening with a lot of wine, beer, Spanish language and hands in air showing the distance between fish eyes of the fish caught....
To be continued...