Hot Fish in the Land of Fire
In the lands below southern Patagonia, in the Rio Grande, big, wild sea-run brown trout abound.
In “Baubles, Bangles, and Beadheads” on page 86 (May 1997 issue of Field & Stream), John Merwin achieves sage status by stating categorically: “You can take a beadhead anywhere.”
Indeed you can. Even to wind-swept Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) at the bottom of the world. Down there below southern Patagonia, in the Rio Grande, big, wild sea-run brown trout that average 7 to 10 or 11 pounds, frequently reach 15, and occasionally go more than 20 (the current record fish weighed 33 pounds) will come to a very gentlemanly size 14 Beadhead Hare’s Ear nymph drifted tight against a cutbank. Feeling the little hook, a sea-run brown almost always goes airborne, leaping repeatedly before settling down and using its impressive girth to hold in the current, gaining strength to take to the air again. It is, as the Fuegians say, muy forte. When you finally bring one of these thick, muscular trout to hand, you may have to look twice, running your eyes and free hand down the leader tippet, to find the little nymph planted firmly in the fish’s maw.
Sea-run browns do, of course, take the big stuff-bunny flies and marabou leeches, Woolly Buggers, Flashabuggers and Zonkers, muddlers and big Montana and Bitch Creek nymphs, fished down and dirty on the end of a Teeny sinking taper line or a small-diameter full sinking line that makes it easier to cast in the incessant Fuegian wind. At times, a sea-run trout will even pounce on an outsize Atlantic salmon bomber, a white Wulff, or other attractor dry flies skated on the surface. And the pancora, a local fly tied to imitate the ubiquitous Argentine freshwater crab, can also be deadly. It is true that Fuegian sea-runs are moody, spooky, and often exasperatingly finicky about taking a fly-any fly. But once you’ve suckered a 10-pound-plus fish with a size 14 Beadhead Hare’s Ear (a Brassie or a Peacock or a Zug Bug will usually do just as well), you’re hooked, so to speak.
The Rio Grande spills out of the volcanic foothills in neighboring Chile and meanders some 75 miles through Antarctic beech forests and windswept pampas cropped by domestic sheep, wild guanacos, and rheas, then finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean below the Strait of Magellan. An Anglo-Argentine engineer by the name of John Goodall lived up to his surname by stocking brown trout fry in the Rio Grande in the 1930s. The fingerlings not only thrived, creating a healthy resident population of gamefish, but some of the stockers found their way downriver to the sea as two-year-old smolts, fattened up in the salt, and returned to the Rio Grande to spawn. The progeny of those first anadromous Salmo trutta have been doing the same thing ever since, creating one of the world’s finest and most remote sporting fisheries.
Bright sea-run browns in prime condition-called plateados (“silver-plated”) and easily distinguishable from the darker, spotted resident browns-move from the Atlantic into the Rio Grande in September during Tierra del Fuego’s spring runoff. Like Atlantic salmon and steelhead, they do not feed during the spawning run, but will hit a fly that aggravates them or perhaps activates a feeding instinct learned in the river at a young age. And like their anadromous brethren, sea-run trout are at best unpredictable. This past February 7, one Rio Grande pool suddenly came alive. Between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., nine fish-three over 20 pounds and one bruiser of 28 pounds-were caught in that stretch of water. What turned those fish on? No one knows. That’s just the way it is with sea-run browns.
The best time to fish the big Rio Grande and its smaller cousin the Rio Menendez is in the Fuegian summer months of January, February, and March. Both rivers are slow moving and easy to wade, but the wateer is generally opaque and it is rare to spot even the brightest sea-run browns underwater from the bank. Taking fish are most active in the low light of early morning and again for 3 or 4 hours before full dark at about 10 p.m. Our party of four American anglers operated out of Estancia La Aurelia, a working sheep and cattle ranch cum charming fishing inn that controls access to 14 miles of prime water on the Rio Grande and the Rio Menendez. We took sea-runs up to 10 pounds or so from the Rio Grande during the morning hours, often fishing in gale force winds that swept across the treeless pampas, blowing bank gravel into the river and spume across the water’s surface, making your ears ring. After we stopped for lunch and a 3-hour siesta, the winds dropped from serious to brisk and the fishing picked up. Late one evening, as rainbows arced over the water in a blazing orange sunset, Chip Bates and I drifted tiny beadheads through a waist-deep pool where a pod of big sea-run trout were porpoising noisily. We took fish until long after the sun had dipped below the horizon.
On another evening, under an overcast sky, Tom Lomas of Old Lyme, Connecticut, and I followed our Fuegian guide, Miguel Lopez, through patches of thick tussock grass to a pool on the Rio Menendez about 50 yards long and 80 feet across where several very big sea-run browns were rolling, occasionally jumping clear of the water. As I worked a Pheasant Tail Beadhead down to one fish, a beaver slipped into the river and slapped its tail twice, putting the trout down. We waited 15 minutes, sitting on the bank and watching skeins of Magellan geese flying downriver. Wood ibis croaked in the distance and small clumps of stunted beech took on grotesque shapes in the gathering dusk. When the fish showed again in the same holding slot, Lomas put his scraggly brown beadhead against the far bank, mended upstream, and a moment later hooked up.
“Grande!” Miguel shouted.
The trout never left the confines of the pool, but it leaped spectacularly no fewer than nine times, shaking its head and then crashing back into the water. That fish, a perfectly proportioned female, measured 34 inches and Miguel estimated the weight at 14 or 15 pounds. As we climbed the riverbank in the gloaming, another sea-run porpoised heavily behind us.
“Muy grande,” said Miguel, spreading his arms and laughing.