The Chrome Addiction

Joshua Hutchins fishes Tierra del Fuego

When I asked my 3-year-old what he thought my favourite food was, he said meat. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy visiting Argentina so much. I’ve travelled there almost a dozen times, chasing trout, golden dorado and king salmon. My adventures have taken me to Jurassic Lake and to the Limay and Chimehuin rivers — all living up to their reputation. But for a long time there has been one thing missing from my Argentinian hit list: the legendary sea-run brown trout of Tierra del Fuego (see FL#61). Tierra del Fuego, literally Land of Fire, is also the land of trout, meat and wine. When a fly fisher says it’s not all about catching fish, it’s normally a cover-up for a bad fishing trip. But when it comes to Argentina, that’s as true as it can be. Malbec wine, Asado lamb, empanadas on tap — Argentina doesn’t just do fishing well. Our trip was arranged by an Argentinian friend, Francisco Mariani. In order to promote the region, Fran has set up a collaboration of several top-end lodges, under the name Una Patagon1a. Fran has a huge passion for fly fishing and for supporting and promoting the Argentinian fisheries on offer. I threw out an invite to Mickey Finn our Snowy Mountains guide, and surprisingly, it didn’t take long for him to agree. Our dates were set for early January and our trip began to take shape. OUR First Taste It had been a particularly hot start to our NSW summer, so I was craving some cooler weather. Packing waders, down jackets and thermal layers during the heat of Australia’s summer seemed strange, but as we arrived in Ushuaia, the southernmost town of Argentina, it was clear we’d need everything we’d packed. Mickey and I landed a day early to settle in, but on arrival at Maria Behety Lodge, the manager, Ropo, was quick to invite us fishing. The estancia is a working sheep station with one of the largest shearing sheds in the world, alongside a small town of gauchos (horsemen) living on site. Ropo started by pouring us a wine, and it didn’t stop flowing for the next week. He told us they prepare one bottle of wine per day per guest for the season — the cellar was impressive. Filled up on Malbec, we were told to take a short nap, and then we would go fishing. We were quickly adapting to cultural norms: wine, sleep, fish. It was going to be a good trip. Still tired from the flight, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It was the first day of the season for the lodge and we were keen to scope out the conditions. There’s no better way of beating jet-lag than being on the water, right? So we set off to the river with Ropo and his wife, Carolina, and commenced our bonus round of fishing. Smaller than I had anticipated, the Río Grande carved its way through grassy plains, home to the odd fox and numerous native guanacos (closely related to the llama). Ropo explained that the water levels were much lower this year. It was Mickey’s birthday on that first day of fishing, and he appropriately broke the ice by landing our opening fish — a fat, silver, sea-run brown trout of nearly 11 pounds. “This is the best birthday I could imagine!” Mickey was like a boy whose Christmases and birthdays had all come at once. We continued swinging flies that afternoon and it wasn’t long before I connected with my first. Leaping clear of the water several times, it was obvious that this fish was big — really big! My guess was around the 20-lb mark. After ten minutes I finally broke its spirit and navigated it to the shallows. But in the final moments, the hook popped out. Having fought it for so long, I was gutted. But redemption didn’t take long and that evening I landed two 12–13 lb fish. It was going to be a good week! Double Handers When you mention Tierra del Fuego to anyone who’s fished there, they always warn you about the wind. And they are right. Over all, we enjoyed the full spectrum of windy conditions: calm, medium and strong. Discussions about the wind then inevitably turn to double handers. Mickey and I came prepared to fish with both single and double-handed rods, but after the first day on the double I never went back. You can fish the river effectively with a single-handed rod, but the double felt effortless and purposeful. Sometimes double-handers can be all about the hype, but here, the heavier rod helped tame the wind as each cast found its rhythm. Cast, swing, step downstream, repeat. It was a cathartic experience, only interrupted now and then by the tug of an angry sea-runner connecting with the fly. And what a perfect interruption. Often we could identify where fish were holding when they rolled and broke the surface. Sometimes these fish were productive eaters of the fly, other times not. But seeing fish always raises the expectation of a take. One morning I noticed a large fish that kept surfacing in a small pocket at the head of a pool. I began to swing my fly towards him but without any reaction. Genaro, our guide for the day, recommended I try something smaller, and attached a #12 EMB fly. This fly is so simple — some black dubbing with a tiny bit of sparkle and skinny white legs. Surely a large sea-trout wouldn’t be tempted by that, I thought. But a few swings later I had the biggest hit of the trip. This silver male brown trout leapt clear of the water, showing off his strength and beauty and disapproval of my assumptions. I was amazed that the small fly held in its mouth. Now I just need to practise more of my double handed casting. Sea RUNNERS Sea-run browns typically begin to enter the river in late November and continue to move in all through the summer. But interestingly, they don’t spawn until late April, May and June — similar to our brown trout back home. Some fish are believed to enter the river and return to sea several times before setting up a mortgage to spawn. The fishing season runs November to mid-April and our visit in January is considered the start of the peak season on that section of river. Every sea trout we caught was fat, fresh and strong, and shining its distinctive chrome colours. The odd resident brown and rainbow trout did show up in our catches, when we realised that the fish on the line was a mere two-pounder rather than an oversized sea-runner. Catch rates were very good, with Mickey and I landing just shy of 40 silver sea-runners for the week. There were quieter moments during the day, but most of the time the trout were very much in the mood. Like classic trout behaviour, the best fishing was just before sunset — appropriately named the Golden Hour. This is when the fish really came on the bite. We’d often throw big dark flies to grab their attention in the dying light, making the most of their heightened activity. One of my favourite sessions came on the second last day. Mickey and I made our way to our assigned section of water, and by this stage we knew the program well. I started at the top of the pool, and Mickey started half way through. There were a few swirls part way through the run and I headed towards that spot. I’d chosen a leggy, chartreuse Woolly Bugger style fly and began swinging it towards the fish. The attraction worked and a powerful silver male connected with the fly. After releasing the fish, I returned to the same spot. Two casts later, there was another strong connection, this time an even bigger sea-runner. “Look at the size of this thing!” I called out as it cartwheeled across the surface. Having now landed two fish from this lucky spot, I couldn’t help trying one more time. And again, a third large sea-trout connected with the fly. What a trifecta! We then left the river for lunch and were greeted by the usual outpouring of red wine and three splayed lambs over hot coals — I never got tired of that. The Perfect Experience Having fished for trout in nearly twenty countries, I can’t pin-point exactly what it was that left me so satisfied after our week on the Río Grande, but I’m certain it was one of the most enjoyable trout fishing experiences I’ve ever had — the large trout, the comfortable lodge, the warm hospitality, and the land rich in meat and Malbec. Josh will be returning to Estancia Maria Behety Lodge in January 2021. Visit www.aussieflyfisher.com for details.

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