Field & Stream Adventure: Monster Brown Trout at the Bottom of the World

To what lengths -- or rather, what extremes -- would you travel to catch the trout of your life? For me, the journey led nearly to the end of the civilized world, over 8,000 miles from home, to the wildest reaches of Tierra del Fuego, the "Land of Fire," in southernmost Argentina. I had been told of a seldom fished and little understood river here, the Irigoyen (pronounced erie-GO-zhen), where massive sea-run brown trout swam through log-strewn runs and deep pools. The chance to hook a 20-pounder was enough incentive to fly from Denver to Atlanta, to Buenos Aires, to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world (total flying time over 16 hours). By the time we drove across this bottom spine of the Andes on our way to the river, I was a veritable trout zombie.Kirk Deeter
After crossing the Andes, the road met the South Atlantic, where the wrecked Desdemona rests on the shoreline near Cabo San Pablo -- one of many eerie reminders of the treacherous waters in the region. Here, 30-foot tides and sudden violent storms make rounding "The Horn" the most dangerous feat in nautical navigation. At this point, we are nearly 100 miles south of the Straits of Magellan. The peninsula barely visible on the horizon is Cabo San Diego, the pencil-point tip of the South American continent. From the spot where this photo was taken, we would drive nearly another hour on a dirt road along the South Atlantic coast to the 40,000-acre Estancia Maria Louisa and the Irigoyen Lodge.Kirk Deeter
Upon arrival, guide Alexander Trochine, showed us a photo of this brown trout he had landed a few nights earlier. Along with his twin brother, Nico, Alex is tasked with figuring out the complexities of the Irigoyen, where they are starting a very limited (four-angler) guide operation. The brothers grew up in Bariloche, and formerly worked as guides on the fabled Rio Grande, known as the sea trout capital of the world, 150 kilometers to the north. "Do you think we might catch fish like this?" we asked Alex. "Claro que si . . . of course," he answered.Kirk Deeter
Got wind? One thing you can count on in this part of the world is a steady breeze, which, indicated by the odd formation of this tree, gusts reliably off the Atlantic coast. Eight-weight fly rods are the standard in this region -- a necessity for hoofing big streamer flies against that wind, as well as turning double digit-weight sea trout in the strong river currents.Kirk Deeter
At first glimpse, the Rio Irigoyen was nothing like I had imagined. This wasn't the barren, austral, treeless landscape found at the Rio Grande. It was a smaller, more inviting, meandering waterway, nestled in a green hollow, and lined by towering lenga tree forests. It flowed like a gentle mirage under a whispy layer of fog, like a setting from Lord of the Rings, or better yet, King Kong. Despite its benign and inviting fa¿¿ade, you immediately got a sense that this was a truly wild river, and giant beasts lurked below its surface.Kirk Deeter
It was my honor to make this trip at the invitation of Patty Reilly, who calls Wilson, Wyoming home. Patty is one of the best guides in America, and has been ushering trip excursions to Argentina and Chile since the late 1970s (www.guidedconnections.com). She is, by far, one of the foremost authorities on trout fishing in South America, and not surprisingly, was the first in our group to hook a double-digit sea trout, or "trucha de mar." Here, guide Alex Trochine holds the fresh, silver-colored brown Patty hooked on a small green woolly bugger.Kirk Deeter
A matter of scale . . . Naturally, they do things a little differently in Argentina. You don't measure trout with a tape, you weight them with a Boga grip (lifting the net and subtracting its weight, so as not to clamp down and damage the jaws of the trout). The Trochine brothers treat these fish with great care, releasing the vast majority, with the very rare exception that ends up as sea trout ceviche or sashimi. This one tipped the scale at 13 pounds, and was released unharmed.Kirk Deeter
A different world . . . well, maybe not. The funny thing was, while all my preconceptions about sea trout fishing involved large, wide-open rivers, the Irigoyen, from bank to bank, reminded me a lot of the best brown trout water I fished in Michigan (like the Pere Marquette) in my younger days. Here I was, half way around the world, and the river seemed oddly familiar, with log jams, and tree stumps, deep pools, and coffee-colored water. We used single-handed rods, and threw streamers and nymphs with short casts into the structure to elicit violent takes. Here guide Nico Trochine points out the best shot to Ann Hamner. Kirk DeeterKirk Deeter
So much for the similarities with home . . . Ann Hamner caught this 24-pound hook-jawed male with about a 20-foot cast at 10:30 in the morning, on a Bitch Creek nymph. As you might guess, going toe-to-toe with such large fish in a relatively small river is an experience. They jump like Atlantic salmon, and burrow their noses toward the nearest log jams, and pull like draft mules, making 15- and 20-pound Maxima leaders bust like cobwebs . . . hasta luego, baby. Fortunately Ann won this battle. At 24 pounds, this fish matched anything the Trochine brothers had ever landed in over 400 days working the Rio Grande.Kirk Deeter
With miles of open river to explore, Alex and Nico use twin "Argo" six-wheeled all- terrain vehicles to shuttle back and forth to the river. The Argo is basically a two-person river assault machine that drives like a tank over rocks and stumps, and even swims across the river on demand. After a 45-minute, herky-jerky ride through the lenga forest, trust me, you're more than ready to stretch your legs and wear your arms out on big trout.Kirk Deeter
Just for grins, we would spend early evening hours at the river mouth where the Irigoyen poured into the Atlantic. Here, in the brackish pools, we'd find both sea trout and enormous schools of robalo -- a strange species that looks like a cross between a redfish, cod, and rockfish.Kirk Deeter
With kite-like fins and a muscular body, the robalo were exceptionally hard-nosed fighters, and they ran as large as 20 pounds. They're also quite tasty. Depending on the tides, they would flood in and out of the river mouth by the dozens or hundreds. Using our standard 8-weight setups with sink-tip fly lines, a slow retrieve with a green "John Barr Slump Buster" fly pattern proved just the ticket.Kirk Deeter
No trip to Argentina is complete without the traditional asado, a meal of lamb roasted on an open pit fire, washed down with one of the country's famous Malbec wines, and a little dulce de leche for dessert. The days were actually pretty grueling . . . up in the morning to fish. Big meal at 1:30 p.m., followed by a siesta. Then back on the river from 6 to 11 at night. Dinner at midnight. Rough life. They took such good care of me at Irigoyen I had to loosen my wader belt.Kirk Deeter
Driving through the estancia, we came upon several herds of wild guanacos, llama-like animals that can run up to 35 miles an hour. We also saw condors circling the river overhead, and massive flocks of shore birds, like buff-neck ibis, and Magellan geese. Different penguin species and sea lions also migrate through the shore area. While there are plenty of foxes and beavers in the river corridor, there are no pumas here.Kirk Deeter
The magic hour . . . Just like back home, the big browns moved and fed at night. This photo was taken at around 10 p.m., as Alex and I sat on the riverbank, waiting for the first telltale splashes in the runs downstream. We tied on a large black articulated leach, and within minutes hooked five large trout (landing three). It was as if the big browns had heard the dinner bell. Runs where we had hooked nothing earlier produced big fish. We wound up losing all light by 11 p.m., but still cast by sound. Wait . . . listen . . . big splash, loop a cast in the direction you hear the fish . . . and wait for the thunder-take. Then try to remember where all those stumps are, as you fumble, splash, and fight the fish in near blackness, with only the light of the moon and the Southern Cross glowing dimly through a layer of fog overhead.Kirk Deeter
This proved to be the biggest fish we landed that night, a 17-pound female. But that wasn't the end of the evening adventure. There are feral bulls in this part of Argentina (you read that right . . . bulls). As we walked out of the river and through the forest, Alex and I could hear stomping and bellowing in the near distance. We flipped on our headlamps, then saw the shadow of a 2000-pound beast splitting through the trees. "I think we'd better stay near the river," he said. "Claro que si . . . of course," I answered.Kirk Deeter
Casting for sea-runs on the Irigoyen is a completely different game than is casting for sea-runs on the Rio Grande. On the Rio Grande, it's about booming long casts, often with two-handed rods, into the wind. On Irigoyen, it's a much more intimate affair, with single-hand rods, requiring pinpoint presentations in complex currents. It plays right into the hands of most American anglers. If you can shoot straight, you can score on this river. Here, Nico starts his backcast to fire a streamer into an eddy on the river at a run the Trochine brothers call "Ten Fingers."Kirk Deeter
The brown trout here were planted in the 1930s. By freak of nature, the species has evolved into two varieties that determine their life course at the smolt stage -- those that remain in the river as resident fish, which remain small, and yellowish in hue, just like the brown trout in Europe, New Zealand, and North America, and the silvery sea-runs. You can tell whether a sea-run trout is "fresh" from the ocean by its color. The "fresh" fish are bright silver.Kirk Deeter
This is a sea-run fish (you can tell by its size), but it has been in the river longer than most "fresh" trout, as it has started to assume some more muted brown hues, pronounced spots, and iridescent blue shades along its gill plates. After this fish spawns, it will once again run into the open ocean, where trout apparently range relatively close to shore, near the mouth of the river where they were born. The greatest predator to sea trout in the open ocean is the sea lion.Kirk Deeter
Leaving the Irigoyen, I paused to reflect on a true "life adventure" near the bottom of the civilized world, where I had caught many trout I will never forget, in ways and in a place I could not have imagined. This is the gateway to dreams.Kirk Deeter