The famous Canadian writer and fly-fisherman Roderick Haig-Brown was eager to fish year round and thus explored remote destinations when the fishing season in home British Columbia was not right. He wrote four books, named after the four seasons, available today in a complete package. One of these books is named “Fisherman’s Winter”. Although written in 1954, it gives a vivid, entertaining and faithful account of the fabulous trout fishery awaiting the fly angler in the Argentinean Patagonia.
This book was the trigger which sent me to this remote part of the world. Once read, I reserved straight away my plane ticket to Bariloche, in the heart of the Argentinean Andes. I would arrive in Argentina just after Christmas. My plan was to set up a base in Junín de los Andes, strategically located within short distance of famous waters such as the Chimehuin, Aluminé, Collón Cura and Malleo rivers.
In the months prior to travelling to the south hemisphere, I started by filling up my fly boxes with new exotic flies supposed to resemble the local fauna. Especially one freshwater crustacean unknown to western anglers had to be imitated: the pancora. It is a small brownish crayfish looking much like a crab, on which trout feast and grow big! So I set to tie various imitations (which plenty of rubber legs) of this little animal, plus other more classical trout streamers, nymphs and dry flies. For my preparation, I got also a lot of inspiration from another well-written book, “Argentine Trout Fishing”, by late William Leitch, who travelled and explored the area extensively. The book is well documented, and is as much a fishing guide as a travel guide.
The date of travelling had come; I was excited like a little child in front of a gift to be unwrapped: I would soon fish some of the best trout waters in the world! I first landed in Buenos Aires, known to the locals as Capital Federal (C.F.). Tango dancers with an attitude, strolling locals in the numerous parks, colorful La Boca: this cosmopolitan city holds a special atmosphere, and is one of the few I would agree to live in. I only stayed there for one night though, as I was eager to meet the Andes. Next day I took off from the domestic airport in the city heart, headed for Bariloche, on the eastern slope of the Andes, right on the banks of the beautiful Nahuel Huapi Lake.
Travelling and fishing in a foreign country is always a thrilling adventure. On a new continent and new hemisphere, even more so! I was struck by the aridness of the landscape, which made me think of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films. Isolated grass patches, cactuses, and these araucaria trees (also know as monkey puzzle trees), so special to Patagonia! Through this dry country, wonderfully clear rivers flowed. The setting was prepared; I was ready to hit the water!
After having driven along picturesque River Limay for several kilometers, I arrived in the quiet town Junín de los Andes, located just on the bank of the Chimehuin River, one of the fabled streams described in Haig-Brown’s book. I visited the local fly shop first, in order to get a license and a few advices on the way. I also grabbed a couple of streamer patterns the shop owner advised me to try out. Fishing would have to wait until tomorrow, as dusk crept in. I checked into the town’s camping, set up my tent, ate a well-deserved home-grilled piece of beef meat, and drank a maté, the traditional Argentinean tea-like drink sipped through a metal pipe.
Next morning I set to fish the upper reaches of the Chimehuin, from its starting point at the Boca, and 5 kilometers downstream. At the south-east point of Lago Huechulafquen, water spills into the Chimehuin River, and this place is called the Boca Del Chimehuin. It is a world famous fishery, where many large trout have been landed over the years. In late summer and fall the large brown trout from the lake drift down the river to spawn. This is where the famous Argentinean angler Luis “Chiche” Acarena caught a record brown trout of 22 lbs. Other large fish have also been beached in this place.
The “Boca Fever”, as defined by Joe Brooks, took me, and I started fishing the area. Unfortunately the sun was high, the sky blue, the water clear, and the big fish wary. I only got to fool fish in the 12 to 16 foot range. I did spot larger fish, but approaching them was almost impossible. I decided to wait for dusk, and took a nap on the river bank. After 8 PM, I crept back to a nice looking pool. It took me two casts with a size 2 Yellow Muddler Minnow to hook a large brown trout of 6 lbs, which gave a brave fight. After quick photos, I released the beautiful fish, happy for my first day of angling in gaucho country!
When back in town, I decided that a restaurant meal was in order, after the day’s success. I chose on of the best places in town, and ordered a massive bife de lomo, along with a good bottle of Malbec red wine. I was surprised to be set up with a fork and a spoon by the waiter, instead of fork and knife… but understood later why: the meat was so tender that a knife was not necessary! Cutting meat with a spoon, how enjoyable! Over the next days I visited this place several times, and never got disappointed. Did I mention that I never ordered anything else than bife all week long?…
Next day I headed to the Malleo River, situated east of the majestic volcano Lanin. The river is much smaller than the Chimehuin, and also slower. It is easily wadeable, and can be crossed in several places. The surrounding fields are populated with herds of sheep and goats. I had great action with brown and rainbow trout up to 18 inches, first on nymphs, then on dry flies. In the end of the day, I tried out larger streamer patterns, hoping to attract the river’s big boys, to no avail. The smaller fish liked the streamers though, however large the quarries were! After this long fishing day with much hiking and baking in the sun, I collapsed in my tent, my head spinning with trout memories.
The next couple of days, I floated the Aluminé River, then the Collón Cura River. These are classical floats, usually made from inflatable raft boats. I rented the services of guide and boat with Flotadas Chimehuin, a family-run business where the father, Angél Fontanazza, is the boss. I felt immediately at ease with his guide, Pablo. We had two fantastic days, with regular catches on streamers a la Woolly Bugger, and Pancora imitations. Most fish were rainbows, with the occasional brown trout. Most brown trout had fantastic colors with many dots. Both Pablo and I had a heart-stopping experience with a very large trout (in the 12 lbs range): twice within a couple of seconds we saw it clearly head for my black Woolly Bugger, before it refused the fly inches from it. What an incredible experience! We tried to row back up in order to make a second pass on the fish, but it never showed. Damn it, I felt that was my chance at a big Argentinean brown that I had missed!
After some more exploration in the Junín area, I headed south for a few days of fishing around San Martin de los Andes and Bariloche. Fishing there was good, but I preferred the atmosphere and landscapes I had encountered in Junín. It made no doubt: I had fallen in love with this world-class trout fishery. I will have to get back Junín and its rivers, maybe a little later in the season in order to get a real shot at the big Chimehuin browns!
I left from Bariloche with a mix of good feelings about the experiences made and the people encountered, and sadness to leave such a nice place. But I had not much time to fumble about it, as I was heading south to Tierra del Fuego. Next angling destination was the fabled Rio Grande…