This January Field & Stream editor-at-large Kirk Deeter and photographer Tim Romano lucked into one of the world’s best hunting and fishing trips; a cast-and-blast adventure in Argentina. For seven days they fished the legendary Rio Grande for massive sea-run brown trout, then spent three days shooting doves in the country’s Cordoba region. A special thanks to the Kau Tapen Lodge and the La Dormida Lodge.
This is the story of their trip, along with fishing and shooting tips from the guides they met along the way–tricks that can be applied on trout and salmon rivers and upland fields back home. –Editors
We did most of our fishing on the Rio Grande with two-handed rods, for three simple reasons. First, when you learn how to work a Spey rod, it actually requires minimal effort, and causes less fatigue than a single-hand rod, especially with sinking lines and heavy flies. Second, the longer rod provides the leverage to lift and punch line through the typically windy conditions of Tierra del Fuego. And third, the two-hander allows an angler to cover more water, more efficiently.
1. Covering a Run
Covering water is the key to catching big fish on streamers, no matter what style of rod you use. You want to make a cast, mend your line, and let the fly swing through the run. Then take a few steps downstream and repeat the process. If you move too quickly, you’ll either spook or miss fish. But if you move too slowly, you’ll let the fish scrutinize your presentation too much. Ideally, you want that fly to just appear in the feeding zone, without telegraphing to the fish that it’s on the way.
In the video above, Oliver White discusses how best to cover a run for large trout and salmon.
2. The Bottom Hand is the Engine
Casting a two-handed rod is not as complicated as you might think. There are a few basic moves–like the “Snap T,” the “Double Spey,” and the “Snake Roll”–that, once you figure them out and learn when to use them according to the wind and river currents, will put even a novice in the game. Our friend Steve Roberts was the proof of that. Although he is an accomplished angler, he’d never cast a Spey rod before this trip. But he learned the basics quickly and caught more big fish than anyone.
The most important thing for a beginning Spey caster to remember is that your bottom hand at the base of the grip (which is usually your non-dominant hand) is what generates the power. The bottom hand is the engine, and the top hand is the steering wheel. If you find your casts lacking, and you aren’t forming good loops and shooting the line, a weak bottom hand is the culprit 90 percent of the time.
3. Use Electrical Tape to Keep Rods Together
One of the first thing our guides did after we assembled our fly rods was to pull out of roll of electrical tape, and wrap that around the ferrule connections of the rods. Part of that was because we left our rods rigged all week, and drove from spot to spot on the Rio Grande on bumpy gravel roads with the rods in a car rack. That type of jarring is apt to make any rod come loose. We were also making hundreds of casts with heavy lines and flies, and the torque created by that alone is also enough to cause rods to come apart.
Loose ferrules might result in a snapped rod, and there’s nothing worse than having a big fish on the line, only to have everything literally come apart at the seams. Electrical tape is durable, weather-resistant, and it won’t leave permanent marks on the finish of your rod.
4. The Weight is More Important Than the Fly
When you fish large rivers like the Rio Grande with streamer flies, it’s important to change tips of your line according to the depths at which you want to present your flies. We would change tips from run to run, sometimes using floating tips, and often using fast sinking (T 14) at various lengths.
During the bright days, we would swing heavily weighted, rubber-legged nymph patterns. And at night (we fished until 11:30 p.m.) we’d switch to long, skinny black leech patterns. In either case you want the flies to sweep just over the heads of the fish, enticing them to swim up and take a bite. Too high in the water column, and they won’t see your bug. Too low, and you’ll either snag the bottom or spook the fish. This rule applies anywhere: Change your weight situation three or four times before you even consider a radical change of your fly pattern.
5. The Triple Figure 8 Knot
We also used a lot of leader-to-tippet connections, and switched tippets and flies often. Whenever you are in fishing situations where you want to connect clear lines, loop knots are very practical.
But not all loop knots are the same. A Perfection Loop will work fine with heavier strands of monofilament and fluorocarbon. A Double or Triple Surgeon’s Loop is also pretty reliable, though when you pull the knot tight, your loop will often be cocked at a slight angle.
Here, Oliver White demonstrates the Triple Figure 8, which he learned from one of the Rio Grande’s most seasoned guides Max Magaev (Max is Russian, and he also guides for Atlantic salmon on the Ponoi River). This knot is simple, strong, and streamlined. Every serious streamer fisherman should learn it.
6. Avoiding Tangles
The Skagit system is good for all levels of casters. The “belly” of the line is relatively short and heavy, so it helps to load the rod easier and move bulky flies. But for this approach to work best, you want to be able to shoot line. As you would with a single-hand rod, you accelerate through the casting motion, then stop the rod tip high, creating momentum that will carry an extra 20-30-50 feet or more of line across the water.
But that won’t work if your running line gets tangled before you cast. Too many loops in your hands will inevitably bunch up and create knots, especially in windy conditions. Too much slack on the water, however, will be grabbed by the current, and won’t shoot through your guides.
I learned to create three large loops (maybe 7-10 strips of line or more in each coil) and loosely drape them off my little finger, ring finger, and middle finger of my bottom hand. When I snapped that bottom hand against my chest to generate line speed and unfurl the cast, I opened my hand, and the line would shoot like a rocket.
7. Casting in the Wind
Every angler has to learn to make friends with the wind, whether they’re casting a two-handed, 13-foot rod, or a 7-foot fiberglass rod. If you can avoid fighting the wind, and use it to your advantage (meaning positioning your body so you don’t have to cast or backcast directly into the breeze) this game is a lot easier. That’s especially true in Tierra del Fuego, where 20-30-m.p.h. winds are very common.
It’s important to remember that effective wind casting is seldom about raw power, and always about form and mechanics. Here, our friend Jean-Baptiste Vidal gives a succinct lesson on handling the wind.
8. Fighting Big Fish
Don’t mess around with light tippets when you plan on fighting big fish. A smaller diameter monofilament or fluorocarbon doesn’t offer much by way of added “stealth” to begin with. And that’s especially true when you’re using large flies. If the fish sees the bug and likes it, that’s all that matters. Your little tippet isn’t going to save you if the fly doesn’t look good.
We fished straight 15-20-pound Maxima for most of our time on the Rio Grande. When those big trout hit the fly, there was no subtlety involved. Every take was a thunderous jolt, followed by line screaming off the reel. These big browns also jumped often–it sounded like somebody threw a cinder block in the river every time a fish would shake and crash back through the surface.
When you fight fish like this, you want to use the power in your line. Steer the fish toward slack water with the rod tip low, and the pressure applied through the line itself. Only when it’s time to net the fish do you want to lift the rod tip high. This may be counter-intuitive for most trout anglers who are taught “tip-up,” but that’s the best way to fight big fish on a fly rod, be that in a salmon or trout river, or on the ocean.
9. Netting Big Trout
There’s nothing worse than seeing a 20-pound brown trout slip off your fly right before you get it to the net. The guides at Kau Tapen are keenly aware that people who have literally traveled to the end of the earth to catch these fish are going to want some photographs. They’re expert netters.
The trick is two-fold. First, you want to start thinking about a “landing zone” during the fight. Look for calm, slack water. It’s best for the angler to get on the bank, and work the fish toward the shoreline. Second, when the fish’s head comes up and breaks the surface, that means it’s ready. The angler must maintain pressure at this point, lift the fish’s head, and skate it toward the waiting net. The net should be pointed deep toward the bottom. A good netter doesn’t jab the net at the fish, rather he/she positions the net and gently scoops below the fish to capture it. Despite your best efforts, you should always anticipate that a large trout will make another burst and run once it sees the net. So the angler must be patient, and not clamp down on the line or reel.
10. Releasing Big Trout
The Rio Grande is the most prolific brown trout fishery in the world for a few reasons. There’s not a lot of pollution in the water. There’s not a lot of angler pressure–the total fish population in the system is estimated at 90,000. There are only seven lodges on the river. The river is 150 kilometers long, in Argentina alone. Anglers on the Rio Grande cumulatively catch around 13,000 fish each season, averaging 7-10 pounds.
And most importantly, almost all the fish are caught-and-released.
To land a trout this large, an angler almost always has to exhaust the fish (and himself/herself). Keep the fish in the net and in the water, with water flowing through its gills, for a few minutes before you do anything. Always wet your hands before touching a fish like this. The mort important grip is at the base of the tail. Never lift the fish high above the water, and never hold it above dry ground. Photos should take seconds, not minutes. Hold your breath as you snap away. When you are uncomfortable, you can assume the fish is as well.
Argentina is geographically diverse. We left the barren, austral landscape of Tierra del Fuego (where high temperatures were in the 50s and it rained often), and flew north, over the Pampas, to the rolling golden hills near Cordoba, the dove shooting capital of the world (where it was dry, and high temperatures were in the 80s). One has to see the sheer volume of doves in this area to fully comprehend it. The birds swarm by the thousands, constantly dipping and diving, flying in wave after wave. And it happens this way, all day, every day, throughout the year. Conditions here are perfect for doves. They have few predators, ample food, and they can breed three or more times a year.
11. Pick (and Stick With) One Bird
Shooting-wise, it’s insane. You can literally decide, for example, “I’m going to spend the next 30 minutes working on right-to-left shots…or going-away shots. And the birds just kept pouring by. The first tip I learned from Horacio Dartiguelongue was most important. When there are hundreds of doves flying overhead, the shooter must pick one, and track it. Indecisiveness, or split attention, almost always led to a miss. In the three days I was there, my kill ratio went from 40 percent, to 50 percent, to 60 percent of shots taken, and it was because I focused on single birds in big flocks.
12. Move Your Feet, Then Your Gun
Argentina is famous for its tango traditions, so it should come as no surprise that graceful footwork is indeed the key to good dove shooting around Cordoba. Here, Horacia explains how the way you plant your feet and set your body is critical to making the passing shot on fast-flying birds. If you lock your body in place, you limit your ability to swing the gun barrel, but opening your stance, even making slight adjustments as you see birds approaching, is the keystone to accurate shooting in this situation.
13. Swing Through the Target
Every shooter has his or her own quirks and preferences. For me, the key to figuring out how to lead the doves as I shot was to avoid mounting the gun too early. Horacio had me watch and start tracking the bird with my eyes, then slowly lift the gun into place. I was told to put the sight on the back of the bird, then swing the barrel through its body, and squeeze the trigger as the barrel got just out ahead of the bird. If I stopped the barrel at any point, I was sure to miss. But as I kept things moving in fluid motion, my percentages of solid shots went up dramatically.
14. The Going-Away Shot
The toughest shot for many novice and intermediate dove hunters is the going-away shot. You’re in your blind, and looking forward, when all of the sudden, the bird or birds appear, and they’re whistling away from you.
Now, in truth, we weren’t in blinds in Argentina, and we didn’t wear camo. To be honest, there was one point when we were listening to the stereo as we shot, and the bird just kept flying in.
But the going-away shot was no less challenging. The trick? Bring the gun up, and point the barrel to cover up the bird, then immediately drop it below the bird (the gun barrel maybe moves an inch, which translates to several inches or even a couple feet where the bird is, 30 yards or so away). Do not hesitate. When the sight is below the bird and you’ve factored in the right trajectory, squeeze the trigger.
15. Planning an Argentina Cast and Blast
It’s hard to imagine a better cast and blast “trip of a lifetime” than what Argentina can offer. It’s a long trip, no doubt. But if you want to chase some of the world’s largest brown trout, and experience the most abundant dove populations anywhere on the planet, it’s well worth doing.
If you want to plan such a trip, work with local experts. Nervous Waters manages and markets the best fishing and shooting lodges in Argentina.
Argentina is a very friendly country, with great culture, history, food and wines. Be sure to plan extra time in Buenos Aires when you enter and depart the country.
The fishing season is January through April, with February and March being prime months. Shooting is year-round, though if you want to plan a combo trip, remember that January and February are typically warmer (hot) than March and April.
Domestic airlines will not allow you to carry-on fly rods, so be sure to pack rods in a tube carrier that can be checked. A passport is required, and Americans must pay a $150 entry fee, which is good for the life of your passport.