Santa Cruz – Argentina

Santa Cruz, the southernmost province of mainland Argentina, is vast and remote, and mostly unserviced. Fly fishers usually go there to fish for giant rainbow trout in Lago Strobel (see FL#60) and giant sea-run brown trout in Río Gallegos (see FL#61), and most stay at specialist fishing lodges. Lodges are expensive, however, and although Frances and I spent a few enjoyable days at Estancia Laguna Verde (Lago Strobel) we had no choice but to spend most of our three-week-long trip bumbling around unguided. Luckily the logistics are easy, and so too is the fishing. NEAR EL CALAFATE The flight from Buenos Aires across Santa Cruz offered spectacular views of the vast Patagonian steppe, a dry cold grassland pockmarked with volcanic craters and crater lakes. Our destination, El Calafate, was a tourist town of 20,000, located in the middle of the plains along the shores of the massive Lago Argentino, the gateway to the spectacular Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It surprised me that most tourists were Argentinean. It seemed that everyone was busy sipping mate, speaking Spanish and being cheerful, and no doubt it would be an easy place in which to get delightfully stuck. Nonetheless, immediately after buying provisions we drove west out of town, along the shores of Lago Argentino to the preeminent natural attraction, Glaciar Perito Moreno, which flows into the western end of the lake and ‘calves’ icebergs every half hour or so. Even though the boardwalks and visitor centres were crawling with tourists, the natural beauty of the place was well worth the inconvenience, even for a wilderness buff like me. The glaciers that feed Argentino keep the main body of the lake milky with glacial flour, but we found that a number of bays were so well sheltered behind shallow bars and reefs that the water remained surprisingly clear. Polaroiding kilo-plus rainbows proved to be a real delight. Our intention was to spend a couple of nights in a quiet ‘free camping’ area at Lago Roca (Rock Lake) south of Brazo Rico (Rich Arm). We’d been told that this clearwater lagoon gave up lots of small rainbows, though it was the bocones (lake char) that really piqued my interest, especially since you were supposed to be able to catch them by fishing moderate-sized wet flies in conjunction with floating lines. When we arrived, though, the advancing glacier had dammed the southern arms of Lago Argentino (as it does every few years), causing Brazo Sur (South Arm) to merge with Lago Roca, discolouring the water and making fishing quite unattractive. Consequently we drove to the end of the road and trekked 13 km from Estancia Nibepo Aike across grassland and through remnant pockets of Nothofagus forest to Laguna 3 de Abril (Third of April Lagoon). It too had merged with Brazo Sur but teemed with easy-to-catch rainbows. Beyond 3 de Abril we were able to walk further south along the grassy eastern shore of Brazo Sur to the freestone Río Frias and forested Lago Frias, where rainbow trout were also ridiculously abundant. Other freestone tributaries of Lago Argentino were not so memorable, however. Ríos Cantilena, Rico and Cachorro looked clear and inviting but proved to be full of fingerling rainbows and not much else. Perhaps we should have tried Río Catarina, which has recently become famous for a reliable run of large Chinook salmon. RÍO COYLE It’s 300 km by road from El Calafate to Río Gallegos, and the only major river en route is Río Coyle (also called Río Coig), which was said to be ‘populated solely by hearty brook trout.’ We stopped on the open steppe where Ruta 5 crossed the north arm of the Coyle, and walked upstream towards the inevitable flocks of ñandúes (rheas) and herds of guanacos (the wild form of the llama). The day was hot, dry and calm, and dense swarms of grasshoppers took to the air with every footfall. The river proved to be a braided network of deep, weedy gutters, and in the first small pool Frances hooked a fantastically conditioned 4-lb brown trout. I could scarcely disguise my disillusionment. “I know you were hoping for brookies,” she chastised, “but a fish like this should never disappoint.” We caught plenty more fat browns after that and, joy of joys, an even larger number of wild brookies. Indeed, there was a time when I landed seven rising brookies in as many casts, the biggest of which weighed well over 3 lb. RÍO GALLEGOS Although late January was supposed to be prime time on Río Gallegos for sea trout, the staff at Kau Camping (in the town of Río Gallegos) warned us that a prolonged drought had made the fishing a lot harder than normal. We were told one of the best public access points is via Hotel Bella Vista (a basic roadhouse, not to be confused with the Bella Vista Lodge further up the valley) where we would find a small camping area beside the Río Gallegos Chico, a small spring-fed tributary of the main river. To our disappointment, Hotel Bella Vista looked to be abandoned. The footpaths were overgrown, and the walls caked with grime. Wind wailed through the poplars, and a sickly cat came mewing forlornly around our ankles. Frances peered through a dusty window and beckoned for me to have a look. How surreal — the dining area was tidily set, and the shelves above the bar remained well stocked with alcohol. Gingerly we opened the dilapidated gate to the backyard and inspected the camping nooks. They were a little dusty but well sheltered from the wind. And there were some roofed picnic areas as well, complete with tables and chairs. “We can set up our tent and pay the owners if they return,” I suggested. Frances looked down at the cat, and said, “Let’s walk down the creek and camp a little further away.” It was late afternoon by the time we finished setting up camp, but despite the weather I was desperate to fish for sea trout (known locally as plateadas or ‘silvers’). I considered rigging up my switch rod — after all I had spent just as much time practising Spey casting as I had practising Spanish and was keen to put my hard-won skills to use — but Kau Camping warned it would be overkill. Anyway, I thought, by using our conventional rods we could drift a few small flies down the hundred metres or so of tributary that lay between our camp and the main stem. The chorrillo (literally ‘trickle’) was mostly very shallow and weedy, but good current flowed through likely channels and slots. And so many truchas marrónes (resident brown trout) rose to scoff our dries that we almost lost the will to go looking for plateadas. Eventually, though, we frogmarched ourselves to the confluence, and were shocked to see a big bloom of didymo in the very first rapid. Wasn’t Patagonia supposed to be didymo-free? Dense trailing algae always makes it hard to swing big wets or heavy nymphs, so I was grateful for the dries and small nymphs that had been recommended by Kau Camping. ‘Fish them down and across, and give them a bit of movement.’ The big question was whether we would be able to withstand the wind, which was now whipping up whitecaps. The currents were easy to read, however, and we ended up catching plenty of river residents — most ‘small’, one weighing around 7 lb — so we figured we were probably fishing in the right places. And we were also heartened when we saw a small seal frolicking in the waves. Surely she wouldn’t be here if there were no plateadas to chase? Nonetheless, after a couple of hours we succumbed to the wind and headed back to the shelter of our camp, where we wokked up some fried rice and enjoyed a Mendoza malbec or two. At first-light the air was perfectly calm so I left Frances sleeping and headed off up the chorrillo. Now the trout were tailing everywhere over the weedbeds. The fishing was even easier than the day before, and after a couple of hours I began to feel as though I was living my own version of Groundhog Day. So I went back down to the big river to swing nymphs. In the rapid at the confluence it didn’t take long to get another splashy hook- up. At first I assumed it was just another 3-lb resident, but then I realised that the fish had gone deep and I couldn’t budge it. And then the giant plateada burst onto the surface and tail-danced down the rapid, glittering silver in the sunrise. Hell, the thing must have weighed 15 or 20 pounds. But it dived down into a dense patch of didymo and began shovelling left and right, and suddenly there was nothing. I ended up catching some more resident fish, but after a couple of hours it all began to seem slow and futile. The big plateada had broken not just my line but my resolve. Tomorrow, though, we would head off upstream to Puente Blanco (White Bridge). Maybe there would be more plateadas up there, ones that had made the run before the drought. And if there weren’t, it would be great fun fishing Río Rubens and Río Penitente, two spring-fed chorrillos that were supposed to be even better than Río Gallegos Chico.

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