On the final morning of a weeklong fly-fishing adventure to Patagonia last December, I finally found my white whale. In the preceding days, I had fished all manner of beautiful rivers and lakes and caught (and released) more than my share of fish. But I had yet to land anything truly special — a trip-maker — and this creature appeared to be just that.
My guide, an American expatriate named Monte Becker, his colleague, Hayden Dale, and I were on the Paloma River, a renowned trout stream in central Chile. We had begun the day by navigating a series of Class III rapids, then catching a handful of brown trout and rainbow trout that would have been considered whoppers on most other rivers, but here were just the latest in a series of ho-hum catches measuring 18 inches or more.
Just before lunchtime, we ran a stretch of white water that squeezed between a pair of enormous boulders, then opened into a small, hidden canyon. With its overhanging granite walls, moody light and silty water the color of sapphires (if the sapphires had somehow been electrified), the chamber bore traces of both the real-life Blue Lagoon and the fictional Middle-earth. It was one of the most striking spots I’ve seen.
For a time, we lingered there to fish, but with no luck. Then Becker rowed us downstream a few hundred feet to a small, unnamed island in the middle of the river, tied our inflatable raft to a tree stump, and instructed me to follow him to the top of a rock outcropping some 30 feet above the water. From that vantage point, we could see a near-perfect trout hideout: a pristine, ice-blue pool protected on its upstream side by the island, but still adjacent to the river’s main current and its ready supply of insect life.
Becker pointed to the head of the pool. “Good fish,” he said. “Rainbow.”
Sure enough, there was a large, dark slab rising and falling in the water column, rhythmically picking flies off the surface for its lunch. We put him at just under 20 inches.
A moment later, Becker said, “Look at the bottom of the pool. There’s another one there. A big brown.”
The object in question was the largest trout I have ever seen outside of Instagram, easily 2 feet long, perhaps longer. This was exactly the sort of moment I had come to Patagonia for. Now all I had to do was get the leviathan in my net.
A storied place
Extending across Argentina and Chile, Patagonia offers blue-ribbon angling on both sides of the border. I chose to fish on the Chilean side, in the Aysen region, near the city of Coyhaique. That area is known for its combination of rivers and lakes, and is generally less windy than other parts of Patagonia (wind is kryptonite to a fly-fisher). I planned my trip for December, the start of the South American summer, and booked a room at Magic Waters Patagonia, a full-service outfitter (guides included) just outside Coyhaique.
The hourlong drive from the nearest airport, in the city of Balmaceda, to the lodge, was like an episode of “Nature.” The Andes loom in the distance, their summits covered in snow, and impossibly clear rivers wind through valleys that stretch to the horizon in every direction.
The lodge itself, a rustic-deluxe structure built from native lenga trees and river rocks, is tucked away in a small, verdant hollow with its own glacial lake. The owner and operator, Eduardo Barrueto, built the operation from scratch and eventually bought out his partner. He now runs the outfit with his wife, Consuelo Balboa.
The fish that got away
The next morning, with the sun out and the wind at a low roar, Barrueto and I drove to the Huemules River, named after a species of local deer that symbolizes Chileans’ love of the outdoors, and is featured on the country’s national shield. We waded into the river at a spot just below a small postcard-perfect waterfall that made for a memorable introduction to the watershed. Within half an hour of working our way upstream, I had caught and released my first Patagonian fish, a healthy 18-inch brown trout. Unlike North American browns, this specimen had a distinctive spearmint color perfectly suited to its surroundings. The adaptation was uncanny.
We went on to catch perhaps 20 more fish that day, rarely going longer than half an hour without a strike. Most of the time we fished with a fly called a Cantaria beetle, a lure meant to imitate a large local terrestrial insect that Chilean fish key in on for its high calorie and protein values. The chance to fish with Cantaria beetles itself draws many anglers to Chile. Trout tend to attack the flies with uncommon aggression, making for particularly exciting takes.
Over the next four days, I fished every conceivable kind of water. On the morning of Day 6, Becker and I found ourselves perched above the Paloma River watching that big brown. “Go ahead,” Becker said. “Cast to him.”
My first shot fell short, the second too far to the left. But my third cast was on-target, and I watched as my fly floated toward its mark.
The next thing I saw was a gaping mouth break the surface, then snap shut on a Cantaria beetle. I lifted my rod and, improbably enough, I had him.
“I can’t see him under the rock,” I said to Becker. “Tell me if he ...”
The fish briefly surfaced, no more than 4 feet from the net. Then my rod straightened out. The fish was gone.
Despite losing that brown, I told myself, I had just spent a week enjoying some of the best fishing, meals, wine and company of my life. Still, I was miserable.
After we finished eating, Becker and I walked back to the edge of the rock and looked down at the river. The rainbow, the first of the two fish we had seen there, was back in his spot. I caught him with one cast, then released him.
To be a successful angler, it helps to have a short memory. Remarkably, I felt much better.