Story and photos by Matt Harris
Imagine a river where the salmon are bigger, on average, than you’ll find anywhere else in the world, including the Kharlovka, the Cascapedia, the mighty Yokanga . . . even Norway’s legendary Alta.
Picture this river flowing through incredible glacier-studded scenery. Envision yourself fishing in shirtsleeves and being nearly spooled by a 40-pounder, all while your friends back home suffer through another brutal northern winter.Picture yourself in solitude, too, because few people even fish this remote and guarded river that flows into Chile’s southern fjords. And best: Imagine that you can fish here for a week for less than it would cost to fish the Alta for one day. Hey, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve swallowed too much Scotch. But it’s true; this magical place exists. I’ve been there.
The salmon that run southern Chile’s glacial rivers are wild, naturally reproducing Pacific chinook, aka kings, that were introduced to the region in the 1970s. These fish have colonized the entire south Pacific coast from Temuco to the Magellan Straits and even around Cape Horn along the Atlantic coast. They are larger and more powerful than Atlantic salmon, and they pose a problem for fly fishers: On many Chilean waters they are easily taken with heavy-duty spinning gear, but in most rivers they color up and begin deteriorating before they reach waters that are narrow and shallow—in other words places where fly fishers can legitimately target them.
That’s why Alex and Nico Trochine, brothers who hail from Bariloche, Argentina, went on a hunt—a hunt up and down the Pacific coast to find an ideal fly-fishing location for kings. After fishing innumerable rivers they finally hit pay dirt: a broad river coursing a glacial valley where kings could be found in suitable conditions just a couple of miles up from salt water. This meant that anglers could search for the fish on the tides, when chrome-bright kings averaging 25 to 40 pounds push upstream in waves. The brothers call this the most exciting fishery they’ve ever found, and they say that even Tierra del Fuego’s sea-trout can’t match these kings for brute strength. Having now experienced both fisheries, I can confirm it’s not even a contest. Chinook are simply the biggest, strongest anadromous fish on the planet, and there may be no better place to catch a giant than on the Chilean coast. For that reason, the brothers are keeping the river’s name a secret for as long as they can; even though they hold exclusive rights to fish the river, they fear that poachers might make an impact. For now, though, the air travel to Puerto Montt, far south of Santiago, followed by a long drive, followed by an even longer ferry crossing keeps most people from trying to reach the fishery.
Be warned, however: Fishing for these kings is not easy. In fact, you may go long hours without action. These salmon aren’t as grabby as fresh Atlantics, sea-run browns or steelhead. You typically are fishing in deep, heavy flows, often throwing a long line and making multiple mends to swing the fly through the deepest part of the pool. Don’t even think of coming here unless you are comfortable throwing super-heavy tips and big flies a long way. Also, fresh chinook prefer overcast conditions and colored water—not a given during summer in the high, ozone-depleted Southern Hemisphere. But let me tell you about the rewards . . . .
Imagine 30, 40, 50 and potentially even 60 pounds or more of solid, chrome-silver muscle barreling downstream and emptying that precious reel in little more than the time it takes to dream it. Better still, picture that titanic fish clambering into a high-flying cartwheel that would make a tarpon blush. Unlike their northern cousins, these “austral” kings are, on occasion, spectacular acrobats. If you hook a real behemoth—say a 50-pounder—that is determined to go back to the sea, you have very little hope of landing it. It’s the fish that heads upstream that gives you a chance.
As someone relatively new to chinook, I appointed Nico and fellow guide Mariano Weinstein along with Skeena chinook maestros Derek Barber and Kim Jørgensen as my personal gurus. They counseled me to fish big, flashy flies deep and to show the fish the flies “side on.” This means that mends have to be precise and decisive, so that the fly swings square to the current while staying low and slow in the water column.
Like chinook in British Columbia and Alaska, these fish like big, sparkling tube-flies. I used classic chinook patterns like Stinger Prawns and Mega-Intruders in fuchsia and orange, chartreuse and blue, and all chartreuse, but others did equally well fishing simple Prom Dress patterns in high-key colors, especially the classic blue and chartreuse.
I’ll be honest: My normal down-and-dirty tactic of fishing an ultra-short leader didn’t work. After chatting with Jørgensen, who has more than 800 chinook to his name, I lengthened from four to eight feet of stout fluorocarbon—30-pound Seaguar, which has proven its remarkable abrasion resistance on Russia’s trophy Atlantic salmon rivers.
I also took Jørgensen’s advice and switched to a lighter fly, despite an instinct to get the fly fishing as quickly as possible. I still was fishing 15 feet of T-20, but suddenly, perhaps because of the extra life engendered by the longer leader and lighter fly, I started to get more interest.
During our time on the water, Jørgensen was spooled by a huge fish, and every member of our group had a hard-luck story about monsters that got away. That said, we all managed to put 30-pound-plus fish on the grass, with the best fish weighing just less than 50 pounds. The previous week, Barber managed two chrome-silver fish of 45 and 50 pounds, and a handyman at the local estancia described a fish of eye-popping dimensions that bottomed a scale at 66 pounds. The key to our success, I believe, was to be patient and fish hard. When the fish come in on the tide, there is little to slow them down, so anglers don’t want to miss their chance by drinking coffee or snoozing on the bank. Thankfully, camp is the perfect place to do that after the fishing is done.
And what is camp like, you ask? Fishermen are based in large and comfortable tents just a few yards from the river, with hot showers and a communal dining tent that is full of banter. The simple-but-delicious locally sourced food is excellent, and there is always plenty of ice-cold beer or fortifying Chilean tinto on hand to celebrate the latest behemoth.
The fish are most active when the sun is off the water, and the Trochines have designed the fishing hours to reflect this. Anglers are ferried up and down river by boat at first light and fish until noon. After enjoying a delicious lunch and a siesta, they return to the river around 5PM and fish until dark.
At the end of my trip I was left with lifetime memories.
Here’s what I remember: stunningly beautiful mornings, racing upstream as the sun started to peep between colossal mountains that flanked the river; taking a rare break to sip mate (a caffeine-rich infused drink) with Nico and Mariano and chatting amiably about big fish caught and lost; exploring way upstream on foot, beating through thick brush and wading into waters that perhaps had never seen a fly; sipping single-malt and gazing up at a million stars twinkling in the clear Southern skies; long hours of a patient cast-and-step routine and those special times when fish barreled upstream and grabbed our flies; Jørgensen, bewildered, reeling in 350 yards of backing after a monster had all but spooled him; and the modest-but-chrome-bright 25-pound fish that grabbed my Intruder on the final cast of the day.
But my most intense memory took place one crisp morning when, perhaps an hour or so before the sun hit the water, a jag of salmon rolled into the pool. I managed to beach two brutes—28 and 35 pounds—and should have been thrilled to bits, but all I could think about was the king that tailed repeatedly in the pool while I played the second fish. It was impossibly large—like some chrome-plated dolphin. Surely it was the biggest salmon I have ever seen. I don’t dare estimate its size. It was large enough for me to have briefly, just briefly, considered breaking off the 28-pounder just to get a fly in front of it.