BUENO AIRES, Argentina — If you are a fly fisherman and want to travel to one of the most revered places in the world to fish for trout, Patagonia should be on your shortlist.
Patagonia is a lightly populated region at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. This area attracts hikers, lovers of nature and has beautiful lakes, rivers and mountains. It is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. It takes about two hours by plane from Buenos Aires to get to the foothills of the Andes, and this remoteness keeps the number of visitors down.
February is summer in Patagonia and a good time to fish in its many rivers. With a little research and some discussion with the folks at Santa Fe’s High Desert Angler, we came up with Patagonia River Guides. We booked a trip and set off for seven days of fishing and a couple of days and nights in Buenos Aires.
Getting there is a long haul — Albuquerque to Dallas and then a 10 1/2-hour flight from Dallas to Buenos Aires. At least we weren’t on a cruise ship. No one was wearing surgical masks on the flight, and we were relieved to read that there were not yet any reported cases of COVID-19 in South America.
There is a temptation to skip visiting Buenos Aires and get right to the water to fish, but these days the city is worth a visit. The days of the “disappeared” are over. The first time one of us visited Buenos Aires to negotiate a business deal in 2002, the local businessmen displayed inconspicuous consumption, driving beat-up Honda Accords so as not to be a target for kidnapping. Today, the city is more prosperous and peaceful. The downtown neighborhoods have graffiti that celebrates those who resisted, rather than the graffiti of protest. The restaurant scene is up to date with every kind of cuisine, and the streets are full of vendors and people strolling.
Buenos Aires is a city of about 13 million and has a wonderful feel of a European city with wide boulevards, museums, a famous opera house and parks galore. Though we were tired, we decided on an afternoon tour. Our guide took us to El Caminito in an old section of town, where we had some terrific grilled sausages and then drove to parks, monuments and an incredible cemetery where Eva Perón is buried that has edifices of all sizes and shapes dedicated to the important and wealthy Argentinians of the past.
From our hotel we walked to a recommended restaurant that specialized in beef. With the exchange rate of 60 pesos to the dollar, we did not hold back when it came to ordering. We had wonderful steak, wine and all the accompaniments and spent less than $65 with the tip. The next morning, we took a two-hour flight to San Martín in the northern part of Patagonia on the Argentine side.
We were picked up at the airport by one of our fishing guides, who took us to the very beautiful and modern San Huberto Lodge. Even though it was late in the afternoon, we opted to fish the Malleo River for a few hours. The river is wide and in parts hard to wade, but we both caught fish and our appetite for a full day on the river was whetted. We then got ready for the bar (food) and dinner (more food), which we learned was not served until at least 9:30 p.m. This being past both our bedtimes, we realized we were going to have to adjust our internal clocks. The food was consistently good and we both ate entirely too much.
The weather was sunny; during the entire trip there was nary a cloud in the sky. The fishing exceeded our expectations. We quickly learned that good guides are the key to a good fishing trip. And we had our share of good guides. Nicco, Facho, Andres and Boris were expert fishermen and knew the local landscape like the back of their hands.
We spent the next six days floating and wading three great rivers: the Malleo, the Aluminé and the Collon Cura. We were fishing dry flies and wet flies of all sorts, but the most productive fly, ironically, was of all things the “San Juan worm,” named after the river in northwestern New Mexico. We caught more rainbows than browns and many in the 18- to 20-inch range. The fish were strong, and we released every one. We were on the river each day by 9:30 a.m. and generally fished to about 7:30 p.m. It made for a long day, even with a long break for a riverside lunch. We could not have put on more sunscreen.
What makes this part of Patagonia so special is the quality of the water and the solitude fishing it. We only saw one other fishing party the entire time we were at the lodges in Patagonia. Several of the rivers have been dammed for hydroelectric purposes, and these dams produce rich tailwaters, full of nutrients like minnows and mayflies.
One of the most productive methods of fishing was swinging a minnow pattern across riffles. The trout get much of their protein from these schools of minnows, and the fish hit the fly hard. The other approach we used was to sight fish — fishing for trout we could see in the river. Hooking up a fish you cast is very satisfying, but when the rainbow jumps five feet out of the water, satisfaction turns to thrill in a hurry. It could take five minutes or more to bring these fish to the net with the six-weight rod bent over 180 degrees fighting the fish.
Starting on day five, we went to Estancia Quemquemtreu, about a two-hour drive away. We were in high desert, and during the drive we saw condors, eagles, cormorants, wild boars, emus, deer, llamas, a bobcat and an armadillo. The second lodge was built in 1920 but was preserved beautifully and still elegant. It was operated by a mother and daughter who were excellent fly fishermen as well as consummate hosts.
Around the sixth day, although we never tired of catching fish, the sun became somewhat unrelenting. But we continued the routine: We fished, we ate and we slept.
Finally, we flew back to Buenos Aires.
Patagonia was rugged, beautiful and a fly fisherman’s paradise.
Paul Bardacke and Barrett Toan live in Santa Fe.