Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing

Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
I'm a shameless Colorado trout bum, never happier than when I'm sitting with a cold beer and a warm fire on the bank of a stream full of fish. So when I found myself halfway around the world, living in the lap of luxury on board a yacht cruising the coast of Chile, and making daily helicopter flights to pristine Patagonian trout waters, you might say it turned my flyfishing world upside down.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
The drill was fairly straightforward: I was part of a group invited by Orvis to converge on Puerto Montt, Chile, for an expedition hosted by Nomads of the Seas. From Puerto Montt, we cruised south on the yacht, (the ship Atmosphere) along the coast of Patagonian Chile. The 150-foot Atmosphere was custom-designed by Nomads of the Seas (and launched in late 2006) to be half luxury yacht, half research/exploration vessel (think Calypso meets the Queen Mary). Equipped with a small armada of jetboats, zodiacs, and a Bell 407 helicopter that takes off and lands from a helipad on the ship's stern, Atmosphere has a crew of over 30, including captain, pilot, guides, chefs, engineers, naturalists, and others, that caters to fewer than 30 guests. Atmosphere steamed south into the fjords of Patagonia, and from this floating base, we choppered or jetboated off into lakes and rivers inaccessible by land to fish for wild populations of rainbow and brown trout that had hardly ever seen flies before. As "home away from home" Atmosphere offered the posh comforts of a sea-borne five-star hotel. Yet every time we lifted off from the flight deck, we found ourselves immediately immersed in the raw essence of Patagonia.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Nomads of the Seas and Atmosphere are the vision of Chilean businessman Andres Ergas, himself an accomplished, world-traveling angler (as evidenced by this rainbow trout, which he caught at one of the lakes we accessed by chopper). There is no denying Ergas' moxie and his genuine passion for flyfishing. "I wanted to create something that was a step above anything else that existed," he explained. Incidentally, Ergas is also a trained helicopter pilot. Nomads' Bell 407 is best described as a Ferrari with rotor wings. Completely designed from composite materials, it can carry six passengers, plus pilot, and can climb to 20,000 feet.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
After flying from the States through Chile's capital of Santiago, then on to Puerto Montt, we boarded the ship, enjoyed dinner, and sailed south down the coast. By the time we awoke on the first morning, the crew was already bustling to make ready for the fishing adventure. Here, the pilot, Francisco, and a team of guides are preparing to fly a cargo net filled with inflatable rafts and gear out to various lagunas (lakes) and streams.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
The chopper makes its return approach over the saltwater fjord to the mother ship after flying guides, boats, and gear out to freshwater fishing locations in the nearby hills and valleys. Note the small cluster of buildings in the background. This is one of many isolated salmon farming base camps we encountered during our cruise.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
With the equipment and guides waiting for our arrival, it's time to load the anglers on the helicopter. The routine was to suit up with waders in a special equipment room onboard Atmosphere, then head up to the flight deck. It was important to travel light ... a rod or two, a gear bag, and not much more. On every flight, we had to wear special life vests and buckle in. The flights were usually short and very smooth. The scenery was remarkable. Imagine skimming just over treetops, looking up at cliffs on both sides of the chopper as you float toward isolated landing zones at the edges of pristine lakes or rivers. Even when it rained we flew just above the deck, zipping from the Atmosphere to our fishing spots.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Riding shotgun rocked. Here we're heading up-river, scanning and scoping the waters below -" sometimes even seeing the trout rise in the runs. We'd stop when we found a suitable playa (gravel bar beach) on which to land the chopper. We all wore headset earphones during the flights, which allowed us to talk to each other, ask questions, and listen to music over the roar of the rotors. Believe me, there's nothing quite like peeling off the flight deck of a ship on a chopper, and then twisting back and forth along the contours of a wild Patagonia river with Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" ringing through the headsets.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Here we're flying from west to east, toward the more jagged terrain of the Andes. Chile is unique in that it is no more than approximately 150 miles wide at its widest. When we flew high, and looked through or over these mountains, we were staring straight into Argentina. The gravel bar in the shot was the perfect spot to set down, actually than some of the other landings we used during the trip. Note the clear water, the small gravel island that made a riffle, and the pools and glides downstream. This place proved to be teeming with both brown and rainbow trout. We caught a dozen fish right here.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Once the chopper landed, we unclipped our belts, grabbed our gear, piled out the sides, and headed for the riverbank (careful, of course, never to walk into the tail rotor). This shot was taken at about 9 a.m., local. Guide Ricardo Ellena and Orvis's Tom Rosenbauer had followed me out of the bird on some anonymous gravel bar on Rio Negro. We had food, water, a satellite phone to call the ship in case of emergency, and our best guess for what fishing gear we'd need for that day ... but nothing more.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
You're on your own, boys ... as the pilot headed back to the ship, we realized we were completely, blissfully, alone. There was nothing but open water in front of us as we planned to head downstream. No people, no phones, no roads, no homes. Just us and the trout. Chile-style.
How cool is that?
Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
This might make Rosenbauer blush, but in my mind, fishing with him here was like being planted on a remote golf course with Tiger Woods. Tom wrote (among many other books and articles) the original Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide 23 years ago, which taught me most of what I know about flyfishing. I couldn't help but enjoy a few moments, from time to time, simply kicking back on a log, pulling out the camera, and watching the man fish. Trust me, every cast was perfect. From the onset, Tom was dialed in on dry-fly fishing. I, on the other hand, went large, and wanted to catch a big fish on a streamer. He beat me clean on numbers caught, but I darn near had him on the big fish factor. I nearly had him, but didn't ... more on that later.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
In Chile, you face a variety of water conditions. Some rivers run high and muddy, even in the middle of the South American summer. Other rivers consistently have a milky, glacial sheen. Yet most of the rivers we fished were remarkably clear -" almost spring creek-like in terms of water clarity. In this spot, I dunked my 9-foot rod into the current and took a photo. I'm not sure, exactly, how deep this was ... three feet, four feet ... but you can tell that the water was gin clear, which made casting and fly presentation a serious challenge. I will say that the flyfishing on this expedition wasn't easy. This wasn't a fish factory. Yes, the fish were wild and aggressive, but they weren't suckers. I ultimately liked that. This wasn't contrived, production fishing. It was real and wild. Some days were better than others. But isn't that what extreme fishing is really all about?Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Water this clear can be deceptive. Wading was a tricky business. Even when you had a clear view of the bottom, you had to be careful and watch your step (remember, there's no walking back to the car or the lodge for a change of clothes here). In this shot, Rosenbauer and Ellena slogged their way downstream toward the next run, flirting with the waterline. A few moments later, I lost my footing and almost sank. Fortunately, I was able to hold the camera above my head.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
The alternative to wading straight downstream was to hug the banks and plod our way to the next run. Even that was dicey, at times. As shown in this image, the foliage along the banks was dense sub-tropical jungle, with few, if any, trails. We had to pick our poison ... wade deep, or bushwhack our way downstream. More often than not, we hugged the riverbank, often clinging to leaves and branches. The rewards lurking in the next runs down were always worth pressing on.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
On many trout streams in the United States, a lot of effort is poured into creating manmade habitat and holding structures to keep trout sheltered and happy. In Chile, it seems, that's already there. I couldn't get over the amount of massive deadfall -" trees in the river -" that made perfect trout habitat. On the down side, this deadfall made conventional approaches we use in America unfeasible. Try drifting a nymph through that crud ... it ain't happening. Although I knew nymph fishing would likely slay these trout we spent most of our time, understandably, skating dry flies amongst the branches, or throwing and retrieving streamers through swirling pools. Here, Rosenbauer and Ellena shared a time-out after catching a few fish in this log jam.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
This was my go-to bug for the entire trip, on lakes, in ponds, and on the rivers. Gaudy, ugly, with a yellow flash and elk-hair shoulder, it sank quickly, and when I retrieved it with short strips, trout would push a wake as they chased it to take a gulp. We tried standards like Woolly Buggers and Zonkers, but they did not measure up. The second-best streamer was an Autumn Splendor, a brown chenille fly with bright yellow rubber legs. For some reason, yellow seemed to be the hot color, with streamers and with dry flies. I'd explain why that was, but I flat-out do not know.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
We had few worries, in terms of predators, bugs, and inconvenient pests, but these little suckers were the exceptions to the rule. Called a "caliguacho" (colley-wacho), they only showed up during bright episodes of sunlight. They bit like horseflies, and apparently only swarm during a brief, two-week period in the middle of the Patagonian summer. I learned the hard way that they were attracted to solid dark colors like blue and black, which I wore all week long, earning me the nickname "Mister Caliguacho." It wasn't the bite that bothered me (you can layer clothing to protect against that) but the buzzing almost drove me nuts. On the up-side, if you look closely, these bugs are almost a spot-on duplicate of a Bitch Creek nymph with wings. I got so I'd swat a few, send them floating downstream, then tie on a double Bitch Creek nymph rig and twitch it through the run. It worked.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Bugs, isolation, and tricky waters aside, it was never hard to keep your eyes on the prize. In Chile, the rainbow trout are stout and nasty, but there is nothing quite like tying into a massive brown trout. The Loch Laven strain of brown trout were planted in Chile in the early 1900s and have flourished here ever since. Fish like this were the top prize, and someone from our expedition tied into or landed one or more browns in this size class every day. It wasn't easy. But they were there.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
At the end of our last day of fishing together, Rosenbauer and guide Ellena (foreground) rest on their laurels. For Rosenbauer, it must have been a 50-trout day. Their wry smiles are expressions of pity ... this photo was taken moments after I had hooked -" and punted -" a massive rainbow trout in the last run we fished. It ate that yellow streamer, and I nearly landed it before it spit the hook. After flogging the same run with another 20 or so regret casts, I finally conceded, sat on the gravel bar, and snapped this photo.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
After a long day of fishing, wading, and bushwhacking along the banks, it was time to head back to the ship. Here's the pickup routine: The helicopter would buzz upstream until pilot Francisco spotted us, or rather, spotted our guide signaling the chopper with a bright yellow shirt. We would hear him coming from miles away. Within moments after this shot, the chopper landed on this gravel bar, we piled in, then lifted off on our way back to the comforts of Atmosphere.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Here we're headed downstream to the Golfo de Corcovado, where the mother ship awaits. Throughout the trip, Atmosphere remained relatively sheltered in the flat bays and fjords; we never experienced rough seas as we traveled from locale to locale, or, more importantly, as the pilot landed the helicopter on the ship. Also consider this: Where else can you wake up in the morning and chase saltwater species like sierra mackerel, or migrating salmon, and then fish for trout in the afternoon? Atmosphere's guides are just starting to figure out the whole saltwater game.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
As we flew back to the ship on our last fishing day, I snapped this photo of the mouth of the Rio Negro (the river we had just fished). This is in the vicinity of the town of Chaiten, and as I looked outside the chopper, it occurred to me that this was the most we had seen, in terms of traces of civilization or people, during our entire expedition, from the time we left Puerto Montt until we returned to the port.Field & Stream Online Editors
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Chile By Helicopter: Dispatches From The Ragged Edge of Flyfishing
Home base was a carefully-appointed deck of guest cabins that would rival anything offered by the best luxury cruise liners. While we spent our days in the wild, our evenings and nights found us safely in the lap of luxury. Dinners on the ship featured traditional Chilean dishes and bottles of the finest wines from the region. After dinner every evening ended with an impromptu slide show, created by the guide staff, featuring highlights from our fishing, whale watching, and ecotourism adventures. It was like living in a moving picture, and watching the highlight reels evolve in real-time.Field & Stream Online Editors