Patagonia North

Patagonia North

  • By: Jerry Gibbs
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They’re called cantaria, the singing beetle; or ciervo volante, the flying deer. Every two years beginning in December the creatures emerge from the earth. They rattle while clawing, scuttling or flying to rough-barked trees, especially those of the huge southern beech coihues whose old-growth specimens may soar 150 feet and boast a six-foot waistline. The cantarias are as long as your ring finger and nearly twice as wide. Mean-looking bugs. The pheromone-addled males battle like their mammalian namesakes over copulating privileges. They lock mandibles, butt and twist. They also fly, albeit poorly, over the rivers, often losing steam partway across, splatting to the surface, legs racing wildly. That’s when the trout get them.

“They eat them all right, but evidently cantarias are tough to digest,” outfitter and lodge-owner Rex Bryngelson tells me. “I’ve caught trout with the head and mandibles of a cantaria sticking out of the fish’s anus.”

Rex, seeing my expression, continues his discussion on Patagonia trout foods by saying, “The grasshoppers are much better. Eminently digestible. Plus, compared to the cantaria, they’re really spread over lots more river sections, especially near the pampas and higher grass.” He adds, “Okay, you’ve heard the hype—every fish in the river’s rising when the hoppers are on; but it’s true. And the number of fish you’ll catch is, well, obscene. It can get crazy with dragonflies, too. And ants, though they’re a much shorter deal on the calendar. And, sure, we see mayflies in places certain times and a lot of other beetle types besides cantaria.”

With all this potential surface forage there’s good reason for Bryngelson’s assertion that his Patagonian trout have long been conditioned as up-looking feeders. For the most part. The trout in this case are superb wild browns, many dressed in bold, ovoid, dime-big spotting patterns that make you think leopard. In color, they range from dark copper to near reddish to glowing gold with buttery highlights around their lips. And 98 percent of them leap like rainbows when hooked. Or when they pursue dragonflies, blowing through the surface and dropping on those bugs like Jonah’s whale.


Rex’s guests may hunt trout on the Manihuales River, or one or two intimate lakes with reed-cloaked backwaters, but mainly they fish in the Rio Cisnes—the River of Swans—among Chile’s longest rivers, pushing 100 miles; a river that rises in the high steppes and pampas of Argentina, cuts through the Cordillera Andes and probes through Chilean Patagonia to lush, low country before emptying, finally, into the fjord-laced Pacific. No other river in the republic comes close to its diversity.

In Chile, the Cisnes passes through distinct geographic zones: the sprightly water of the upper river cuts open pampa plains and semi-arid mountain terrain. There are steep, ragged-walled canyons, a Madison River–like section that meanders through old growth coihue forest, and the wide, lower section banked by a fantastically fecund Avatar-reminiscent rainforest. In places, the river reaches into finger-like lagunas. It is fed by freestone and spring creeks. The main stem flows steady and in places hugely deep. There is choppy, fast pocketwater, seams and glides and heavily browed banks that plead for tight casts. One fishable Class III-IV rapid occurs on the lower river. Always the backdrop scenery is spectacular, a rolling canvas of glacial-caked mountains, sweeping open prairies and bizarre canyon formations resembling many in our Southwest.

Obviously, effective angling responds to this diversity whether the approach is via floats in framed inflatable rafts, wading the main-stem bars and bank runs, stalking and sometimes sight-fishing the laguna and spring-creek fish.

The past 15-plus years have seen a continuing evolution of trout-fishing venues in Chilean Patagonia. Small and large, slick and modest lodging/guiding operations have come and gone. A few have stood the time-test and continue to offer outstanding service and fishing. At least one experienced operation has recently expanded with upper-echelon amenities and programs to serve the needs of a varied clientele including entire families, as you will see.

Among the true veteran outfitters Rex and spouse Maike Bryngelson stand high. In 1994, Rex christened Posada de Los Farios—Inn of the Brown Trout. Located on the Cisnes River’s middle section, the lodge affords easy access to the upper and lower reaches without mind-glazing morning and evening travel. The easiest float/wade section flows right past the lodge, a 60 year-old, one-story, log and shingle, wood-stove-warmed ranch house, the kind of place that anglers of a certain age already know and younger turks with a romantic bent would likely conjure if asked to dream one up. Visually, this rustic building and the surrounding Santa Elvira ranchland suggest Montana in the early 20th Century. It’s no stretch for you and your party to be the only anglers.

While trout in the Cisnes are ever-watchful for surface-feeding opportunities, there is another vital fact to consider. Rio Cisnes is not an especially fertile river. As mentioned, much of the trout-edible insect life occurs in the form of terrestrials. The fish slam large Fat Alberts, Gypsy Kings, Hoppers and Chernobyls, alone or rigged as hopper-droppers, the nymphs typically darkish bead-heads, often with shiny wing cases.

When things aren’t happening on or near the surface, rest assured the trout are still game to eat and often rush streamers, primarily of the cone-head Bugger persuasion. By adjusting the size of terrestrial imitations, and size and weighting of the Bugger types of streamers, you could effectively fish this river and many others in the country all season from spring (November-December) through late fall (end of April). While down-sized, high-floating terrestrials are certainly successful on the smaller backwaters, the lagunas, spring creeks and lakes, the traditional, delicate mayfly dries are often more productive during a true hatch. Though some caddis occur, a stronger presence is found in insects of the Baetis group at times in Chilean summer but more often in fall, when afternoon blue/slate-winged olives often swarm, touching off surface-slashing binges, which are especially exciting on some lakes and quieter waters. The bugs are well imitated with a simple Parachute Adams. All this assumes a lack of wind and otherwise favorable weather.

Which brings us to this: Patagonia, whether in Chile or Argentina, is frequently associated with Tierra del Fuego and its monstrous winds, which have blown at least one wading guide whose off-season mountain bike racing endowed him with legs like oaks, into the Rio Grande River. Twice. That wind usually isn’t the case here. Nor are we dealing with the double-digit sea-run browns that obsessed anglers cast their hearts out to catch in limited numbers down in Fuego land. Above the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the southern reaches of Chilean Patagonia are composed of two sub-regions, Magallanes and, north of there, Aysén, the least-populated region in the country, through which Rio Cisnes and many other fine trout rivers flow. This area gets erratic weather and some fairly serious wind, but a day seeming destined for rain can abruptly break into sunshine.

Here you expect consistently high catch rates of quality trout measuring inch-wise in the high teens. Browns from 20 inches on up are considered good fish and are regularly caught during a week’s fishing. Rex’s lodge record brown is 31 inches. These fish are aggressive. As Rex’s veteran guide Dale Ratliff, who works off-season with Aspen Flyfishing and as an avalanche-control expert, advised me: “After a second or two count, tight to the bank, strip that Bugger out fast and keep it coming. These fish follow, often right to the boat to eat.” Not quite muskies but close.

The Cisnes and other Patagonian rivers are seeing increasing numbers of king salmon, which come in spring and were well into spawning during my visit last fall in later March. In some rivers, like the Simpson out of Aysén’s largest town and capital Coyhaique, a few fly-fishing opportunities for kings exist. On the Cisnes, running kings hold in extremely deep pools with strong currents, thus far making them immune to flies but not hard lures if one were inclined. We postulated on the possibility of using extreme sinking heads on two-handed rods to reach them. It might work.

Though the Manihuales, the Simpson and other rivers hold fine, beautifully colored rainbows, the upper Cisnes lacks them though this could change along with the fecundity of the river itself. Here’s why.

At the infamous vertical cliff called Piedra el Gato, the Austral road curves and crosses a bridge over the Cisnes’s Class VI rapids. The road and bridge were horrible to build and workers on both constructions plunged to their deaths. Storms seriously damaged the bridge, which was just repaired with significant alteration to the river bed. “The rapids kept downriver rainbows from ascending in the past,” Rex told me. “A certain number of kings obviously make it. But look at what bridge repair has done.” He pointed below, where now in lower water you could see that dynamiting has created a ledge configuration that could well serve as a fish ladder when covered during higher flows. “It’ll allow a lot more king salmon, for sure; maybe the rainbows too,” Rex said.

The life/death cycle of increasing king salmon numbers may translate into a significant fertility increase in the Cisnes. “Maybe we’ll be fishing flesh flies as we do in Alaska,” Dale Ratliff suggests. “For sure, the browns will grow even bigger. But you wonder—more kings and then rainbows; it could have unpredictable effects. Say you have a large population of spring spawning rainbows along with the established fall-spawning browns. Which species’ fry and later smolts will produce food for which?”

Brown trout were introduced to Chile around 1904 (with possibly earlier unrecorded stockings) mainly by administrators of large estancias. Eggs and smolts came from Europe and the United States and were planted in the ranchlands’ rivers and lakes. Subsequently, Chilean-sponsored salmonid introduction from worldwide sources into the Switzerland-like Lakes District (including its rivers) resulted in a superb sport fishery through the 1950s and 1960s for browns, rainbows and brook trout.

As early as 1921, Chile attempted, unsuccessfully, to develop salmon aquaculture. In 1969, the government signed an agreement with Japan to introduce salmon for commercial purposes. The early 1970s saw stocking of Pacific salmon, including cherry salmon, in numerous rivers with hope for return of breeders. Results were dismal, though healthy cherry salmon reportedly now occur in at least one lake and those plantings may account for the majority of the king salmon now becoming well-established in many of Chile’s southern rivers.

Further Chilean exploration of Japanese aquaculture technology along with ventures with other nations, including the United States, culminated in what is today one of Chile’s primary industries—pen farming of trout and salmon (Atlantics and coho included) along her coast. Rainbow trout escapees were responsible for a sometimes firecracker hot estuarine fishery for the species, though one that’s unpredictable. The established river brown-trout fisheries remained aloof, unfazed by these machinations.

“Here in Chile they like legs,” said Antonio Delgado, Dale’s guide partner at the Farios lodge. That stopped me for a moment. Antonio, from Normandy France by way of Portugal, and I had just been discussing the strident horniness of local free-range, blue-egg-laying Araucana chickens, the talk having segued into musings about various young ladies from Spain. But Antonio lapsed back into fishing, his observation being that every meaty terrestrial fly imitation and streamer fished here must sport rubber legs. About color though he had more specifics. “On the Manihuales, orange is very important. They won’t take it on the Cisnes; you need black, especially with the Buggers.”

“Sculpzillas are really good on the Manihuales,” Dale added. “They’ve become a sort of cult fly in the Western U.S., too.” Sculpzillas boast a swinging stinger hook; the front “foundation” hook is cut off at the bend. A Sunrise Sculpzilla proved Antonio’s assertion about orange being the killer color one day on the Manihuales where, compared to other hues, it zonked large brown and rainbow trout.

“Sculpzillas produce more hookups too,” Antonio said. “These fish hit so fast many of our guests miss strikes.…But, oh, don’t lose the one you’re using,” he pleaded. “I’ve only got one left.”

He had cause for concern. We were floating and I was throwing his pet streamer into nasty crotches and jackstraws where the swift current sucked and licked around huge downed bodies of old growth coihue trees that survived the encouraged wholesale burning by gauchos of an estimated 15 million acres of mainly southern hardwood beech forest between 1925 and the end of World War II to produce grazing land.

“Oh, my heart,” Antonio murmured as we rescued the Sculpzilla from one nasty hang-up. It was good drama; as I learned, there was a supply of the damned flies back at the lodge.

THE NEW ROAD, bitten at an acute angle into the mountainside by a small bulldozer, just has room for Rex’s Toyota truck to travel while the passenger side patron peers at a rather serious vertical drop. But this road does cut horseback time to Bryngelson’s backcountry lake. At an isolated high-country caretaker station we met Jose-of-the-horses whom Rex had radioed. This Jose, though not a hundred percent card-carrying gaucho, still affects many of the latter’s ways including the signature knives, the smaller groin-snuggled sticker up front, the large Bowie-like blade belt-tight at his back. Jose unabashedly and amusedly examined my every movement.

“He thinks all gringos are pretty funny,” Dale said.

Country people everywhere tend away from the magpie like verbosity of a so-called urban cultured society. Native gauchos and Chilean subsistence farming folk tend to speak in understatement, often the abstract, or simply through actions.

Jose responded to my clumsy linguistic attempts and hand waving with an explosive “Hah!” He repeated it several times ushering me to a horse that had slightly injured its left hind ankle between rocks. I was grateful, assuming the beast would be less inclined to run away, though I was assured all the horses were mellow. It didn’t bolt, but offered some herky-jerky wrenching on steep uphills. In half an hour we were at the lake, Jose having pack-horsed in our gear.

Los Farios is an intimate mile-and-a-half long lake of startlingly clear water surrounded by old-growth lenga forest. There were thin stands of emerging weeds, rock, logs, flats and reedy back pockets. There were scuds. There were midges hatching and trout rising to them. “The fish on the midges are pretty selective and tend to be smaller,” Rex advised.

So why not target larger, easier fish? Agreed. We began tossing big Gypsy King bugs to likely cover and flats edges. Browns to 19 inches crushed flies with satisfying regularity and we alternated rowing the raft after every two fish.

The hot sun began to fade behind cirrus then cirrostratus clouds blown in on the breeze that was building. Fishing with Dale after lunch, our strikes on big red-headed Fat Alberts began to fall off. We added a tiny dropper nymph and the strikes came faster, split between both flies. When that slowed, we went to the fallback Bugger-and-nymph, and then finally solo Bugger, which kept us in the game till the end. Meanwhile, Antonio and Rex stayed in the wind, fishing a rocky shore with some chop. They kept tossing surface bugs and the trout kept eating them, one kype-sporting brown topping 21 inches.

Too soon all of it was over. In the country surrounding Rex’s lodge the gauchos had begun driving bulls. The cattle dogs would get a double workout—the bulls, and then back again for cows. Those dogs were an odd, motley crew, all shapes, sizes and hair lengths. For some reason the cattlemen trimmed the long-hairs in fall and shaved them close, from the hind quarters to just aft of the chest leaving a tuft of hair on the tail tip. They looked like comical miniature lions. One small black-and-white dog not on the drive chased us manically for a good stretch each time we drove from fishing past his farm. We clocked him at 40 kph. The lenga trees were just beginning to turn fall brilliant. The red stags were roaring, the Baetis just getting cranked. There was plenty of pisco, the definitive Chilean brandy left in the larder for sours, and the trout were absolutely still willing in the rivers. I thought it a good time for staying maybe a week longer. Or more.

THE LODGE LOWDOWN

Rex Bryngelson established his lodge after searching long while learning the country, guiding part-time for a friend’s Chilean trout operation, as well as hosting whitewater raft and kayak trips. Fluent in Spanish, Bryngelson hails from the Twin Cities area, is a rabid angler and accomplished photographer. The intimate, rustic, fully-appointed lodge hosts a maximum of six guests in three suites with private baths. Wonderful, varied meals are prepared by chef Luis utilizing local beef, fish, fowl or homemade pasta. Fishing days are long and full but begin at a civilized hour and are graced by excellent lunch breaks with wine and beer offered. You’ll luxuriate in the wood-fire-heated hot tub at day’s end, pisco sour in hand, aches dissipating under the Southern Cross. Season is November through April (January is comparable to our June/July). Detailed descriptions, breakdowns of angling options at Farios including precise equipment needs, flies, hatches, other wade/float details (inflatable rafts, no boot studs) are found at The Fly Shop’s travel page: www.flyfishing travel.com. The Fly Shop includes the lodge in its list of Signature Destinations. “What’s drawn The Fly Shop to La Posada de los Farios for the last 20 years or so includes its remote location in Chile, Patagonia, lack of intrusion by other fly-fishing outfitters and its ability to catapult us, our friends and clients back in time 100 years,” says Pat Pendergast of The Fly Shop. “It’s not uncommon to be bombing down a dirt path in a four-wheel-drive truck on the way to secluded streams full of wild trout and pass a subsistence farmer driving two oxen pulling a wooden wheeled oxcart. It’s all this and whole lot more that keeps us coming back and rediscovering rural Patagonia.” Also visit the lodge’s Web site www.chilepatagonia.com and www.angleradventures.com.

Jerry Gibbs anchored the fishing-editor position at Outdoor Life for 35 years. He lives on the Maine coast with his wife and French Brittany, and chases striped bass in Casco Bay.