Patagonian Dream

Patagonian Dream

A once-in-a-lifetime trip along the Chilean coast

  • By: James Butler
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In a dream, put yourself (along with 20-odd other passengers, 34 crew members, and all the trout gear you'd need for a week) on a 150-foot custom-built ship powered by twin 850-horsepower Cummins diesel engines. Hang on the stern six jet boats, and add a rigid inflatable boat (for eco-tourism), the latter capable of carrying 18 passengers at speeds of 55 knots or so. Make sure the ship's decor is crisp and tasteful, the staterooms comfortable. Add hot tubs (outside, with a view).

Hire a professional chef or two, put them in a gleaming kitchen and give them access to the best ingredients possible. Make sure the bar is fully stocked (and essentially bottomless). Get the best guides and support staff your country offers, and train them with quasi-military precision. Make sure they wear matching outfits. Hire a masseuse while you're at it. Oh, and on a landing pad at the stern, above all those shiny jet boats, put a red Bell 407 helicopter. Now christen the ship Atmosphere, and launch it among the fjords of the Chilean coast.

I was in just such a dream this past winter, thanks to a new operation called Nomads of the Seas, and its owner Andres Ergas. Ergas embodies a serendipitous combination: His family's businesses have been so successful that capital is readily available, and he has the vision to bring what appears to be a totally nuts idea to fruition. The guy loves fly-fishing, he has an environmental bent, and he also happens to be crazy about helicopters (which he flew in the Chilean military). Given all that, wouldn't you end up having the same dream?

I have to admit, each time I was confronted by yet another excessive room or piece of equipment (a heated drying/changing room for waders? A sauna? Satellite phones for all the guides?), I couldn't help thinking this was a "boys-and-their-toys" situation run amok. But I also came to an inescapable conclusion: So?

Here's the basic idea: Chile's coastline is enormous and, despite decades of trout-chasing by Chilean and visiting anglers, there's still plenty of untouched or nearly untouched water. A mother-ship-based operation avoids the one disadvantage of a fixed lodge-that it's fixed. Based on weather and fishing reports, the Atmosphere crew can move their ship during off hours (often at night, while their guests sleep off mountains of food and several pisco sours or rounds of fine Chilean wine) to take advantage of the best available conditions the next day.

We had only three days of fishing, and unfortunately the trip was in the early season (December), during a really wet spell. We rarely saw blue skies while on the water. But those are the breaks. And really big trips are as much about the overall experience as about the fishing, and Nomads didn't disappoint in that regard.

On our first fishing day, an expedition's worth of us boarded jet boats and headed up the Rio Tic Toc, to Lago Trebol. Water temperature in the lake was 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fishing was admittedly slow. When we reconvened at lunch-to a beach where the staff had erected three small canopies under which stood folding tables burdened with sliced meats, cheeses, bread and various liquid attitude correctives-a cook was working over an open fire, minding a pan full of local sausages, marinated chicken and beef, and potatoes. Fishing that afternoon didn't pick up, but at least that gave us a chance to digest.

While the passengers slept that night, the Atmosphere cruised through the dark in search of better fishing, and that day, I finally got a ride in the helicopter. After a 20-minute dash through clouds and rain, we landed on a tiny beach on Lago Cesar. I teamed up with Larry Kenney, formerly of Scott Fly Rods, and we jumped into one of the drift boats Nomads has secreted on some of the waters they regularly fish. Our guide rowed while we cast Woolly Buggers and similar flies close to the bank. The weather deteriorated, and we were hit with squall line after squall line, but the fish hit pretty steadily too, a mix of browns and rainbows (mostly the former), up to about 20 inches. Solid, healthy fish, they fought as if they were still shaking off their winter lull; I would have loved to tangle with them a month later.

Now, Larry had just moved back to San Francisco after years on Oregon's North Umpqua River, where he'd spent plenty of time casting for steelhead in one of North America's rainier climates. At one point, after being blasted by yet another squall, he turned to me and said, "This may be the wettest I've ever been while fishing." High praise, indeed.

As the clouds lowered, we headed back to our beach and waited for the chopper; things got so thick that we thought we might be spending the night. But the bright red Bell appeared through the overcast, and 10 minutes after takeoff we popped through a wall of moisture to relatively clear skies and the Atmosphere floating in the distance.

Day three was another jet-boat expedition, this time up the Rio Yelcho, which was spilling over its banks. We ran the jet boats through some hair-raising chutes, then piled out below a broad, slick run that certainly looked fishy. But days and days of rain had taken their toll, and hours of casting produced nothing.

Nomads put out the usual monstrous spread for lunch, and I walked along a grassy bank against which the river back-eddied. The skies were pretty clear and even sported some blue. On the far side of the river, I could see a hanging glacier on a mountain several miles away, and periodically a chunk would calve off and thunder into the valley below.

I flicked a small Stimulator against the bank as I walked; it not only felt good to be standing in the sun, it felt good to get away from sink-tip lines and weighted streamers. On good casts, small trout (up to 12 to 13 inches) would dash from the green depths and take the fly, then jump a handful of times before I stripped them in.

Nomads does a very clever thing at the end of each fishing day, something that I think really sinks hooks into guests. While you're fishing, your guide is taking digital photos with a camera supplied by the outfitter; every guide is required to come back with images. Then, after dinner every night, guests are entertained with a slide show of that day's events (with a bang-up show on the final night). The result of all this is that you are nostalgic for your trip while you're still on it. I can imagine clients, after a full meal and a couple glasses of wine, shedding tears and signing up for next year on the spot. So yeah, bring on the toys.

But the toys have a price. Currently, the rate for one week's fishing from Atmosphere is $14,875. That's several orders of magnitude more expensive than about any fixed lodge you'll find in South America, and I have to accept that, for myself, it's just not going to happen. But if you're already spending $5,000 to $6,000 for a lodge stay, I think you may already be in money's-no-object territory. There's no getting around that the Atmosphere is like no other operation I've ever experienced. Andre Ergas just may be onto something here.

Jim Butler is a former editor-in-chief of Fly Rod& Reel.