Trout at the End of the World

Trout at the End of the World

Tierra del Fuego planner.

  • By: Sebastian Hope
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When anglers talk about sea-run trout in Argentina, they invariably mean fishing the Rio Grande and Gallegos rivers, which flow into the Atlantic on either side of the Strait of Magellan. Those classic streams offer a unique experience and good numbers of very large fish, but they are broad rivers in a broad, barren landscape and they require deep-pocketed anglers to throw two-handed rods in unrelenting wind all day. Now, for those who want to fish sea-run trout in Argentina with a single-hand rod, there’s an intriguing option, the Rio Irigoyen.

The Rio Irigoyen (pronounced Iri-goyshen) is hidden near the southeast tip of Tierra del Fuego. Running between high-cut banks through a forest of tall lengas, it is also concealed from most of the wind—an important factor in this notoriously blustery region. The river is small, even close to where it meets the sea, and all the water can be covered comfortably with a single-handed fly rod, versus the Spey or switch rods employed to cover water on other area rivers. The Irigoyen, in fact, has the appearance of a promising trout stream. What it does not look like is a river that holds sea-run trout weighing more than 20 pounds. But it is so. Last year, a booking company called Far End Rivers negotiated exclusive rights to the whole system. I was part of the first group to visit.

For all its natural advantages, the Irigoyen is not an easy river to fish. The reason was plain to see from the bluff where the new lodge stands: fallen trees. The lengas are as much a feature of the water as they are of the land and, rather than trying to avoid these obstacles, you spend a large part of your time casting as close to the logs and roots and branches as you possibly can. Snagging your fly is inevitable, losing it, a frequent occerence. But it is instructive to wade out once and unhook an errant fly, to see just how deep are the holes created by water turbulence around the trunks.

From that perspective, a pool full of snags becomes one rich in holding water, and as our guide Rodrigo said, “If you’re not risking your flies, you’re not covering the fish.” So, on my third cast of the first morning, I stripped another foot of line off the reel and aimed for the far bank. The fly bounced into the water, swung round in the current and was taken by a 21-pound cock sea-run brown trout.

Things like that almost never happen to me. I’m never the one who catches a huge fish on the first morning; normally I don’t even land the first fish that takes. Either I mess up the strike and the line goes limp, or the fish jumps and something breaks—and when this fish jumped I was sure something would fail. The take was solid and the strength of the fish showed it to be large, but only when it was in the air did I realize it was massive, and making for logs. I turned up the drag on the Zane reel and was able to stop it, turn its head and bring it to where Nico, the head guide, waited with a net. I was dumbfounded by the sea trout’s size, the equal of the largest salmon I had ever caught. Its girth was as impressive as its length and its paddle of a tail splashed water in my face when it swam away.

Catching a large fish early in a trip is mixed blessing—it may prevent the onset of desperation as the end of the week approaches, but it also suggests that the best has already passed and that the rest of the week can only go downhill. And yet it appeared that the decline would not be too steep; I lost another large fish in the next pool. I began to suspect that the Irigoyen is a remarkable river. Returning to the lodge for lunch, I heard that Tony had landed a 20-pounder half an hour earlier.

Over the first in a series of extraordinary meals we raised several glasses of Chandon, Moët’s Argentine sparkling, to big fish, to being at the end of the world and to John Goodall, the Scotsman who introduced brown trout to Tierra del Fuego in the 1930s. And then we raised toasts to a siesta.

Sea-run brown trout often are regarded as the most mysterious of the salmonids, their fishing the preserve of Zen masters who could fish a river blindfolded on the darkest night. The times I have tried night-fishing, I have come away with more respect for the experts than desire to become one.

My grandfather was an adept of the Hugh Falkus era, the man who wrote the book on British sea trout, and when I first became interested in fly tying, a decade after my father’s death, I discovered boxes of his intriguing flies, sparsely dressed streamers in silver and black and light blue with red varnished heads, trailing hooks and names like the Medicine, the Demon and the Secret Weapon. They were revolutionary in their time, but new fashion dictates less elegant patterns—brass-eyed bugs with rubber legs, long-shanked streamers with chenille bodies and flashabou tails, Woolly Buggers, Yuk Bugs and Bitch Creeks. It was to this more profane world that I awoke.

The first evening we mounted quad bikes at six and set off upstream. We had six hours of fishing ahead—local regulations do not permit fishing after midnight—but most of the action was to be expected in the magic hour, the twilight period between sunset and darkness. The afternoon light filled the valley below, gilding the river and the forested hills on the horizon.

Along the ridge, the trees were flagged, their branches blown back like hair in a gale, but as we dropped into the shelter of the valley they grew straight and tall, their branches hung with beards of moss and the bright-green pompoms of mistletoe. The forest floor was a maze of fallen trees, some brought down by beavers. We wove our way through, coming out to a meadow where a stand of ibises got up honking.

We started fishing along a high, yellow cliff where half-toppled trees clung to the crest by their roots. It was a long sweeping pool without snags. There was a deep run at the cliff’s foot and something sublime about the way the fly swung round on the current. Every cast felt fishy and small trout plucked at the fly as it came into shallower water. I took a five-pound sea trout from under a little green bank before we moved downstream, closer to the lodge, as the magic hour approached.

As light faded, I changed to a larger fly, a big, black Woolly Bugger, which was leading a charmed life in the deepening gloom amongst logs and branches I could barely distinguish. The still water at the tail of the pool reflected the last light in the sky and made it easier to see where my line landed, before the mirror was broken by a take. It was another huge fish, which leapt at the end of its first run and bored into dark water.

Playing the fish by touch made the fight more intense. It was pitch black by the time Rodrigo tailed the fish, 18 pounds of it. I had to pinch myself to remember this was the first day. We rode back to the lodge, our way lighted by a vast yellow moon rising from the sea. None of this seemed real anymore.

I came back to earth the next day, catching a four-pounder in the morning and nothing else. Moreover, my casting went to pot, hitting snags more often than not, hooking them more often than pulling free. But the rest of the group continued to land good fish. Nick took an 18-pounder and Tony had four small sea-runs in quick succession on a weighted pink shrimp. Andy hooked a fish of more than 20 pounds, according to Alex, the other head guide, but lost it. For me, the sea-pool came as a great relief, a haven of snag-free water where the casting was easy and the fish, mostly róbalo, were more than willing. Eleginops maclovinus are a sea-fish that locals call róbalo. (It’s called mullet in the Malvinas). We called them tasty. They were free-taking (on Woolly Buggers mostly), hard fighting and weighed up to 14 pounds. We kept a couple for dinner.

I reached bottom on the third day, only managing one touch during the magic hour. But a day fishing is never wasted, and we mounted an expedition to the Malengüena, the other river of the system that joins the Irigoyen at the sea-pool. Very different in character, it is slow and meandering and peaty, too slow for us it proved, but we acknowledged its existence because in higher water, when the Irigoyen might be out of order, it would be a good prospect. Nico and Alex took some nice fish there at the start of the season.

Nico and Alex Trochine are 21-year-old twins and have three seasons on the Rio Grande behind them. Their energy and enthusiasm set the tone for camp. They had explored the Irigoyen since the previous December, clearing tracks through the woods as they went, up to the junction with its major tributary. Beyond that they had not gone. We planned another all-day expedition to see what was there.

Where we stopped the river was too small to be fished comfortably with the larger rods. We had brought trout rods for this eventuality. Alex watched me put together my little 5-weight Smuggler, the classic Hardy travel rod that breaks into seven sections. I matched it with a Marquis reel, old style, no drag.

“I’d like to see you hook a sea trout on that,” Alex said. On the first sunlit stretch of river, I was fishing ostensibly for brown trout with a small nymph; by the time I moved downstream to a couple of promising undercut banks I had changed to a Bitch Creek bug and was definitely after sea-runs.

The rain arrived at lunch. We ate beef sandwiches and sipped red wine with our backs to the wind while Tony caught a six-pounder in the junction pool. “Come on,” said Alex, “we’ve got a whole river to fish,” and we were off, racing against the coming storm. We leapfrogged each other downstream, each taking the first available water he came to, fishing pools and glides and seams and snags and holes and runs and banks and bends, as the thunder drew close. Then we mounted quad bikes, dropped below the last angler and started again. Nick and Andy took lovely resident browns, Andy’s all of five pounds.

The storm brought rain in sheets, popping on the surface of the river like hail on tarmac, but the wind blew the clouds out to sea. By nine the forest was filled with slanting light. Alex had scouted downstream and took me to a pool that ended in a logjam. By now I was fishing with the 8-weight and intermediate line, but I still had my Smuggler set up with the floating line, and while Alex chose a fly and changed the leader on the bigger rod, he said, “Try the top with the floater first.”

The top of the pool was a bit of water at which I might not have looked twice. Along the far bank was a darker, deeper run. At this height, the current was neither strong nor wide. Working out enough line to reach the small eddy by the bank, I could make the fly only swing five feet before needing to strip it back. I took a step downstream and the fly drifted closer to a tangle of logs. There was a swirl at the surface and a large force on the end of the line moving with purpose away from me. Alex gave a whoop; he was to have his wish. As for me, in the moment of the fish’s first run, I felt pure dread. I was attached to a fish I had no means of stopping. The little Marquis reel was shrieking and would be empty of line, soon.

I ran downstream to try to get below the fish, and get some line back. It stopped in the middle of the pool. It had to be 10 pounds, which was about four pounds too heavy for my rod. Its head turned upstream, and as its body followed it broke the water. It was way over 10 pounds. Alex was still whooping. “It’s huge, man. It’s huuuge.” He was enjoying my predicament, until the fish moved towards the logs. “No,” he said. I cupped the reel in a palm, but the fish kept moving against the pressure, against the current, towards the logs.

This was the moment it had to stop. I clamped my palm around the reel so it couldn’t turn at all. The rod bent all the way to the cork. The current thrummed the line. I could feel individual strokes of the fish’s tail. Something had to give. My palm slipped on the reel. It gave a little shriek and the fish took another foot of line. Alex let out a gasp. One more slip, two more feet and he’d be in the logs. All I had left were deals with God.

Finally, the fish turned and came in close to the shallows. He felt the stones on his belly. His back broke the surface. Alex said quietly, “He’s going to run again,” but he didn’t go far, and the next run was his last. He weighed 22 pounds. Nick and Rodrigo came up only moments after we had released him, saw the dazed look on our faces. When Alex told them, Rodrigo said to me, “You can do anything, anything,” and in that moment I believed him.

That brought the tally for the week to three fish of 20 pounds and over—something the twins had never seen on the Rio Grande. Then Tony took a 21-pounder from the sea pool on the last afternoon. Everyone was astounded that night as we raised more glasses. No one had expected the Irigoyen to be so good, and it is a place where remarkable things continue to happen: two weeks after we left, a woman in her 80s landed a 26-pound fish.

Sebastian Hope lives in France, and fishes around the world and writes about his adventures.