Interested in travelling to Chile/Patagonia for some incredible fishing? Then you will enjoy the following "trip journal" that has come to us courtesy of good friend, and guide extraordinaire Dave Jackson. Pretty good chance I'm going to check it out myself next year!
Some of you may be interested in what could result if a gentleman angler were to convince his spouse to devout some of their scarce resources to the pursuit of wild trout in the Chilean Patagonia.
The following is the summary of what I can relate on such a topic.
Step One: Go Fly Fishing Immediately
Upon arriving at the Santiago airport, I immediately headed for the central bus terminal. From there, I boarded an overnight bus to Pucón, where I was met by my good friend Ignacio Soffia.
The region around Pucón is a really picturesque and fertile part of Chile known or its clear rivers, lush forests, white-water rafting, volcanoes, wheat fields and orchards.
Ignacio had lent me his truck last year when my wife Albe and I, had come to Chile to visit. Ignacio and worked together at Hacienda Tres Lagos, in the Patagonia, in 1999 and had remained in contact over the years. After catching up with my old friend for a day or so, I took another short bus trip to Futrono, where I was picked up by Graeme and Tammy Shaw of Montana.
I met Tammy and Graeme at Plummer's Lodge last August, where they came up for Fly Fishing Week (they hammered big lake trout and arctic char with their guides Matt Dick and Chance Prestie).
Graeme sells real estate in Chile, and he always wears a ball cap from Pucón while in North America, knowing he will meet other's who have been to Chile's South, or would love to go.
We went for a wonderful steak dinner at a restaurant overlooking Lago Ranco on the way to their winter home.
The Shaw's place is on the Rio Calcurrupe, a river first made famous by Roderick Haig-Brown (a judge, author and fly fishing guru from Vancouver Island), in his angling classic "A Fisherman's Winter".
We floated the Calcurrupe with his neighbour Jason (a California expat and fly fishing enthusiast) and our friend Jaime Rios, a dentist from nearby Osorno, and local fly-fishing phenomenon (his last name "Rios", meaning “Rivers” is the perfect handle for a Chilean trout angler).
We were guided three 'boleros', local Mapuche gentlemen who know the river like really well and row it in locally build traditional wooden boats; one angler in each. We would cast and drift olive and beige woolly buggers according the bolero’s instruction, just like Haig-Brown described decades ago.
These flies are meant to mimic the prolific 'pancora' crabs that are so abundant in the river. We each caught several fat and powerful browns and rainbows.
I stayed another night with the Shaws. Graeme and I went out again the next day. It was the 24th of December, but we had no trouble convincing the boleros to take us out for another float. Again, we caught several nice trouts*.
The Calcurrupe is as far north as I have fished in Chile. It is one of three rivers that are strictly catch and release for trout. The river also has runs of Atlantic salmon, which the Chileans call 'salar’ (that fish's Latin name) and Chinook salmon, which they call 'Chinook' (that fish's Canadian name)
Thanks for the wonderful hospitality Graeme, Tammy and Ignacio.
Aside: If you wish to purchase a non-resident fishing license in Chile, you can conveniently register on the Sernapesca.cl website, which has an English language section. J
Just click on the license you'd like to buy, enter your personal info and credit card number, then get extremely frustrated not understanding why your purchase won't go through.
Unfortunately, their website does not, as of this time, accept foreign credit cards.
You'll have to get someone with a Chilean credit card to buy it for you... or... go to the nearest Sernapesca (Servicio Nacional de Pesca) or affiliated office that sells them; which is likely is an office building hidden away on the fourth floor of an obscure building, in a city many hours away, where parking is impossible to find during office hours. Oh yeah, the office closes for three hours in the afternoon.... and they only accept cash, so bring the proper change.
Step Two: Pick Up Wife and a Pickup a Pickup
I met up with my wife, Albe, at the airport in Santiago on Christmas Day, after I took a night bus from the Shaw's in the River’s District.
Always try to get the 'salon cama' service when traveling in Chile, as long hauls are usually overnight coaches and the 'salon came' service offers big comfortable seats, comparable to business class.
Albe had spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in the Caracas and Panama City airports. Needless to say, we were both a tad knackered from the traveling.
We spent the next week or so looking to buy a used pickup in Santiago.
In the Patagonia, roads are rough and trucks have hard lives, so we decided to find one in the big city. We were warned by a few friends never to buy a red or white Toyota Hilux, or similar make of truck, because those are the colours used by mining companies.
Trucks of mining companies are beat like rented mules. Sellers of trucks in Chile will often put in their for sale ads "Nunca Minerada", literally meaning "Never Minered". Buyer beware.
Being the holidays, it was hard to arrange with sellers to see the vehicles. After seeing a few well-worn Japanese trucks, we were beginning to wonder if a "quality" used truck even existed in Chile.
Thankfully, we went to see an 'abuelo' (grandfather) who had a real 'joyita' (Chilean term for a well cared for used vehicle). We soon made a deal and shook hands for our 1994 Mitsubishi diesel crew cab 4x4, a real gem that only someone with an eye for hap-scrap could truly appreciate.
Our Mitsubishi L200 is a simple machine, with no electronics to fail, more like a 4x4 tractor with seating for five and a box big enough to rig a raft onto; a perfect vehicle to pound down endless dirt roads and river access trails in pursuit of Patagonia trout.
Doing the necessary paperwork to register the vehicle is another story entirely, involving lots of sweat and tears, almost some blood too. I will write a book on the experience some day.
Step Three: Return to the Patagonia
I first came to the Chilean Patagonia with my friend and fishing guide Ryan Haines, in 1998. We were backpacking in Peru and Chile and ended up fishing the Rio Simpson, near Coyhaique (still a great river).
In 1999-2000, I came back and worked at a country inn called Hacienda Tres Lagos, near the West end of Lago general Carrera (Chile's largest lake and South America's second largest. It is also near the beautiful and famous Rio Baker (Chile's largest flow) and the Rio Cochrane (again clear tributary of the Baker that drains the big Lago Cochrane).
The Patagonia is gorgeous.
Snow-capped peaks, rainforests, windy foothills and steppe, trout streams, apple trees, barbecued lamb, yerba mate (a green tea shared from a gourd and metal straw), gauchos (Patagonian cowboys in black berets), and multinational tree huggers (consider the Patagonia clothing line), and just generally super-friendly, helpful and independent local people; like Montana-Washington or Alberta-BC may have been decades ago.
Rivers with little fishing pressure, fed by the southern Andes, full of (non-native) wild trout, with few natural predators, make it a fly fisher's paradise.
Lakes, rivers, small spring creeks and mountain streams of Chile’s Aysen region, with their great insect hatches and abundant terrestrial insect falls provide an unparalleled variety of fly fishing opportunities. Argentina has fantastic fishing too, but Chile has a lot more water.
There is a berry called the 'calafate' that grows on thorny bushes throughout the area.
The story goes that if you eat the berry of the calafate, you will return to the Patagonia. Though I ate some when I came here in my twenties, apparently I should’ve eaten more. I now eat them every time I pass a calafate bush, especially when walking along a great trout stream. They are tasty, like blueberries with bigger seeds.
After doing a road trip through the area last year, Albe and I decided we would come back and make the Chilean Patagonia our home.
Step Four: Take a Detour and Head for the Border…Good Fishing
Our drive down turned out to be more complicated than we hoped.
We had planned on heading down from central Chile through Argentina, where roads are continuous and much straighter (most of Argentina is as flat as piss on a plate). However, upon arriving at the border crossing, we were informed that though we had all the documents necessary to drive in Chile, and we bought Argentine auto insurance that our vehicle had yet to appear in my name in the ‘registro civil’ (apparently it takes about a month for a vehicle to officially appear in the buyer’s name), and as such could not cross the border with our own truck.
So we turned around to head south through Chile.
This involved taking three ferries (Chile’s road network is discontinuous due to impassable fjords, glaciers and a huge landslide that covered the only North-South road, the Carretera Austral, and buried half the village of Santa Lucia, in December).
Because it was peak summer tourist season, one ferry was booked for four stays solid, so we waited for four days…. Murphy’s law. Murphy can be a real ‘hijo de puta’.
Once you take the first ferry south of Puerto Montt, you begin to enter the Patagonia. Where Patagonia begins depends on your point of view or community of origin.
Our first destination was the Lago Verde area.
We had visited the area in 2017. I remember reading a novel which took place in the area (Ventana al Sur, by Valdes), which mentioned clear rivers and pools full of trout, so naturally, we made a detour to the area when we saw the sign on the main road directing us to the town, further east near the border with Argentina.
The climate generally gets sunnier and drier as one heads east in the Chilean Patagonia.
While most of the region is lush temperate rainforest, it dries out east of the coastal mountains. This means nicer, often warmer, weather, and rivers that are less likely to get blown out by heavy rains that often affect much off the region in the summer (and winter).
Last year, while in the area, the carabineros (Chilean police) suggested we camp 10 km from town by a bridge that crosses the Rio Pico.
Little did I know that the Rio Pico was once of Chile’s most fertile flows, and a walk and wade dry fly playground. Heavy caddis hatches made this little river boil with rising trout in the evenings, and the daytime winds blew grasshoppers and big cantauria beetles (sometimes called “flying deer”) from the trees and meadows to the hungry browns and rainbows below.
American guides based at lodges an hour or two’s drive away, often put in their rafts there. One of the few that would talk said it was his favourite river in the area.
We also had the great fortune to meet our friends Fabiola and Jorge, who have a large ranch on the Rio Pico that goes to the border with Argentina (which is marked by a livestock fence).
With cattle, sheep, horses, pigs and chickens, a modest home, a greenhouse, and a few solar panels, with snow-capped peaks behind and a blue ribbon stream flowing by it, their place is the picture perfect example of Patagonian self-sufficiency and gorgeous landscape.
We visited Fabiola and Jorge again in January, before going to stay at ‘El Escondido’, an isolated property at the other end of Lago Verde that belongs to a Dutch-Chilean couple who have a large operation catering to fly fishers.
El Escondido is accessible by boat, and the owner controls all the land on both sides of a gin-clear river that, though overgrown by native Patagonian forest, is full of big, selective browns and Rainbows.
Though the homestead no longer hosts a family or livestock, it has huge apple and cherry trees, and a beautiful cascade that plunges down a cliff behind the newly built house.
My regret is not having taking time to fish the river while I was there helping to prepare the place for clients. The Patagonia can spoil a fly fisherman by constantly revealing amazing fisheries to those who chose to put in the time and energy to seek them.
It eventually came time to leave El Escondido, and we stopped in at our friend’s ranch again. This time, I had the chance to take Jorge’s teenage son fly - fishing. Though he decided he would fish “al chileno” (with a can for a reel, a heavy monofilament line and a worm) he was won over by the three trouts I took in front of him drifting an elk-hair caddis, while he got skunked with the live bait.
He was also bewildered by my decision the release the fish back into the river. I suggested that if every tourist that came to the Rio Pico killed the fish they caught, it would quickly cause the fishing to decline. He was soon casting with my other fly rod. I told him what I tell all other anglers (regardless of gender) “fish like a man, fish with a fly”.
Step Five: Truchas Grandes en Chile Chico (Big Trouts in Little Chile)
Albe and I decided that the town of Chile Chico (Little Chile) would be a good community to call home, and we headed further south.
Driving down from Lago Verde, you pass by countless blue ribbon trout streams such as the Rio Figueroa, Palena, Cisnes, Ñirehauo, Mañihuales and Simpson; to name a few. There is so much water to fish in Chile.
We also stopped in Coyhaique, the regional capital, a city of roughly 100 000 residents, it is prosperous and expensive, helping to earn the area the nickname “Platagonia” (‘plata’ meaning silver or cash in Spanish).
From there, we continued south. The renowned Cinco Rios Lodge was literally going up in flames as we drove by, a big hit to an area with lots of great fishing and few first class facilities for fly fishers. Several excellent lakes and rivers dot the area south of Coyhaique to Cerro Castillo.
It is a beautiful drive through Patagonian steppe and mountains with native beech forests. We turned off the Carretera Austral at Cerro Castillo to Puerto Ibañez, where a ferry takes vehicles and passengers across the big and windy Lago General Carrera to Chile Chico.
This crossing allows you to avoid the nine-hour dirt road drive around the big lake, where you would have to pass more amazing scenery and more great trout water.
From Coyhaique to Chile Chico is a spectacular four-hour trip (if properly timed.)
Chile Chico is a town of about 6000 people (large by regional standards), in the heart of the Patagonia. Nestled on the southern shore of Lago General Carrera, it enjoys a privileged a location.
The mountains of the Northern Ice fields and the Parque Nacional Patagonia are the tallest peaks in the Patagonia and protect the area from the heavy rains that dominate the Aysén region. The name originated from the English “Ice End ”, as this is where British mariners noted was the northern limit of coastal glaciers in South America.
The moderating affect of the big lake also helps create a warm, semi-arid microclimate.
Chile Chico enjoys more hours of sunshine in the summer than anywhere else in Chile and calls itself “la Ciudad del Sol” (The City of the Sun). It is also known for producing sweet cherries, peaches, pears and even grapes.
The town is situated next to the Rio Jeinimeni, which separates it from Los Antiguos, Argentina.
The Jeinimeni is the main nursery river for the big brown trout of Lago General Carrera. From February to May, these amazing fish return to the river, providing first class angling opportunities.
Big trout love big flies.
The big browns that run here are usually caught on big woolly buggers, bunny strips, muddlers and other streamers from sizes # 8 to #2 (go even bigger if you want to).
Go for gold, and try an articulated bunny or other huge streamer pattern, the tough part is cast them in the strong winds that blow down from the mountains. Montana nymphs, stoneflies nymphs, hopper patterns, stimulators, Adams, coachman’s, beetles, humpies, elk-hair caddis, nymphs and dries sizes #6-#14, are also good to stock in your fly box.
The Jeinimeni Valley is an open rugged landscape grazed by sheep cattle and the many horses required the manage them. There is lots of room to back-cast.
I often wade across the river to fish from Argentina’s far bank, better positioning me to target my favourite pools, with the dominant wind blowing my back-cast away from me (I am not aware that there is any problem with my irregular border crossings).
The river always runs clear where it flows out of Lago Jeinimeni, with prolific insect hatches. However, it can sometimes turn quite milky a few miles downstream below the confluence of the Rio de las Nieves, especially when it is rainy in the mountains or during summer snowmelt.
It is currently clear, providing excellent hopper and caddis fishing as summer winds to and end. The dry fly fishing is a blast, but involves catching many “nuisance” rainbows and browns in the 10-14 inch range.
The best fishing for big brown trout often occurs when the water comes up a bit and is a little cloudy; fresh fish come into the river and are not a easily spooked by the angler, the fly line or 1X tippet needed to fish big flies.
A sink tip is often required to get those big flies down to where the trout hold in deeper runs and pools; a shooting head also helps to propel the heavy flies in the brisk winds. I like to use a 4wt. or 6wt. when fishing dry flies. When chucking big streamers in heavy wind, I resort to an 8wt., built by my friend Harold Ball, for the arctic char in the Nunavut’s Tree River.
Patience is always required when fishing for trophy trout, as it is rarely a numbers game. Putting in the time to catch a fish of a lifetime is worth it though.
You will not remember every little trout you catch, but nice big ones are unforgettable. When you feel a powerful “hog” grab your fly and make several leaps and runs before possibly appearing at your feet for a photo op, the preceding hours of fruitless casting suddenly pay off in spades.
You will likely see many big fish on the Jeinimeni, but might only catch one big one each day.
If you break off and loose that huge fish, it is likely because you fucked up (Pardon the profanity), meaning you horsed the fish, used old line, did not check leader for damage or bought cheap flies tied on low quality hooks, or tied your own great flies on cheap hooks).
It is always exciting whether you land it or not. That is what trophy fishing can be: hours of quaint monotony punctuated by moments of bliss and terror.
The Rio Jeinimeni is undoubtedly one of Chile’s best-kept secrets. See “Chasing the Run” (Rojas 2012) on Vimeo.com
Step Six: Broaden your Horizons
I like to try at least one new spot every time I go fishing.
It is in our hunter-gatherer DNA to want to discover near fishing, hunting and harvesting grounds. Just recently, I went for a road trip with Richard Gonzalez, from the local Aoni Fly Shop and our friend Cristián.
We drove a couple hours towards the west end of the Lake to fish a small river I had been to when I worked at Hacienda Tres Lagos. Though I remember only catching little ones by the road, we decided to explore the upper reaches.
Thanks to Google Earth, you can now see what an area looks like from the sky before exploring it. Thanks to the Chilean government, there are now roads to ranches that were only accessible on horseback not long ago.
We drove through a picturesque little community that overlooks the big lake and mountains, and passed fields full of ring-necked pheasants.
We decided to try to access the river where a side road branches off of another side road. Upon asking the man who owns the land if he would mind if we used his road to access the river, he said we were welcome to, but that his section only contained small trouts ‘muy chiquitos’.
He suggested we take another road that lead up the other side of the valley where some pools held larger ones.
While I planned on fishing this tumbling freestone stream with dry flies, the water was chalky from the previous day’s rain and the Rainbows would only hit my beetle pattern when it was sunk in the current.
We caught several nice rainbows on small streamers that afternoon, where the stream tumbled through a steep valley.
Weighing up to a couple pounds, they were monster fish considering the size of the water they came out of.
It was heaps of fun, but not recommended for someone with mobility issues. Some places required navigating through fallen trees, large boulders and steep banks with lots of thorny bushes.
As I walked above the cascading stream, spotting the odd trout in the pools below, I enjoyed a few of the summer’s last calafate berries. definitely, a river worth returning to.
Step Seven: Invite Friends to Come Fishing
Well, Albe and I are settling into life in Chile Chico and the central Patagonia.
We have rented a modest house in town with a couple of extra rooms, which we sometimes rent out to tourists.
There is plenty of time left in this fall’s trout season, which closes May 6. The summer winds are calming and the deciduous alpine tree line is about to turn gold and red
I also need some good photos of anglers holding nice trout; selfies with live fish don’t usually turn out well.
If anyone wants to come down to the Patagonia, we can make it happen. This is one of the safest, most unspoiled places on Earth. These are the “good old days” in the Chilean Patagonia.
I am off to the upper Rio Jeinimeni again tomorrow morning. Wish you could join us!
Thanks to Chile for receiving us with open doors and open arms.
Tight lines friends!
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