Chasing Chilean trout
Matt Harris heads to Chilean Patagonia where gin clear rivers and lakes, spectacular scenery and the promise of trophy trout beckons...
Poetry often leaves me cold. I remember desperate long hours chained to a blank sheet of paper, hating Keats and not giving a stuff about his Grecian Urn or his self-aggrandizing melancholia.
"Just get over it, Johnnie Boy" I wanted to holler. I knew I shouldn't be stuck in this wretched prison of a classroom, and was surely meant instead to be outside playing football or catching fish. And yet, occasionally, Blake or Burns or Rupert Brooke would get through and I'd sit up and sense what all the fuss was about. One particularly memorable instance was Edgar Allan Poe's Eldorado.
Coles' Exam Notes will no doubt tell you that the poem can and should be interpreted as a comment on man's constant but ultimately futile search for the ultimate prize, but it wasn't any of that old guff that put the hook in me.
Poe's four short stanzas instantly kindled a yearning to have lived in an earlier time, when the world was young, and the map was only partly drawn. All the privations and brutality, and the singular lack of televisions and fridge-freezers and anaesthetic, would be as nothing compared with the excitement of hitching up with Cortes or Pizzaro and travelling to that far-off place where you might or might not fall off the edge of the world, in search of unimaginable treasures that just had to lie around the very next corner.
For the uninitiated, the legend of El Dorado - the golden one - originally referred not to a city of gold, as is sometimes supposed, but rather a king, who by way of ordination, would be entirely covered in gold dust. The new monarch would then take a ceremonial boat-ride to the centre of a circular lake into which any number of fabulous, jewel-encrusted golden baubles would be deposited, to signal his investiture. The faithful searched for this lake, believing that its bed would be carpeted with impossible riches. Many of the savage conquistadors that went romping their bloodthirsty way through central and South America during the 16th century were inspired by the myth, although despite innumerable epic searches and a clutch of astounding and occasionally successful attempts to drain the prime suspect, Lake Guatavita in the high Andes of Colombia, no-one has ever managed to bring home the billion-dollar bacon. Indeed, most hardened treasure-seekers have died penniless and broken, just as they're supposed to.
Yet Eldorado is there all right. A high mountain lake nestling in the Andean foothills and stuffed with magical but elusive golden treasures, embedded with rubies and sparkling untroubled in the clear clean waters. I've been there. And I've had those treasures in my hands, dripping and gleaming in the frigid mountain air. And, just as I knew I had to, I threw all that glorious golden treasure back.
My Eldorado, you understand, is a place far from the mad tangled nonsense that only my advertising agency clients and their market-research craziness can dream up, and the treasure I've long sought are perfect, butter-golden trout that rise in pristine, icy waters as far-removed as possible from the hideous hurly-burly of the twenty-first century. Following in the footsteps of the insanely brave conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, and more latterly the intrepid journeyman angler, Roderick Haig Brown, I decided to look to the wild and magical lands of Chile to provide me with my treasure, and every moment of the search was a fabulous and genuine adventure.
My odyssey started in the Fjords around Puerto Aisen, aboard my charming host Cristian Dufflocq's beautiful boat, the Rio Azul. Teeming up with a charismatic and genial Scot, James Smith, and his lovely wife Julia, we steamed out into the remote waters to the west and made dawn raids on the tumbling streams that race down from the Patagonian Andes and empty into the sparkling Pacific.
As the early morning mists gave way, we'd hunt gleaming, feisty rainbows and cunning, wolfish browns in the brackish waters of the estuaries and up into the gushing freestone waters of these pristine streams. All were exquisite, deep-bodied fish that ran large and fought like tigers. We'd often find ourselves running into thick, black pods of Coho and even occasional Atlantic salmon that would fall over each other to devour our lithe streamer flies in the curling waters of the sea-pools. Rubber-legged, crab-imitating Yuk bugs would draw savage strikes from under the logs in the dark back-eddies adjacent to the main current, and accurate casts to lingering shadows resulted in vicious, slashing takes and impossible acrobatics.
Finally, sated, we'd up sticks, leap into the dinghy and race back to the mothership to slake our thirst on icy Pisco sours and scoff down ceviche and fresh crab, expertly prepared by Cristian's fantastic cook, Mario, while the boat took us to another fish-filled wonderland. We watched dolphins frisk in the sunshine and kingfishers swoop from the Coihue trees that populate the temperate rainforests, and in five days and nights we never saw another soul.
Too soon, this fabulous fleeting dream of a trip was over, but I needn't have worried - my next stop, Fundo el Salto, in the magnificent lakeland to the east of Puerto Montt, is a beautiful old timber lodge little more than a stone's throw from the astonishing, emerald-green Lago de Todos los Santos, and the Petrohue river that rushes from its south-western end is a trout-fishing paradise. Drifting down the crystal waters as they rush beneath the snow-capped volcano, Osorno, I found the Petrohue utterly spell-binding.
Fishing with my hugely likeable and enthusiastic host, Nico Cantarutti and his great guides, Jaime and Fabian, we spent the mornings tossing chunky woolly buggers under cut banks, and wrestling with a succession of stunning, spade-tailed browns and cartwheeling silver rainbows that came dashing from their bankside lairs to pounce on our flies with fabulous, unfettered glee.
We stopped to make a fire and to feast on roast lamb, delicious empanadas and excellent Chilean tinto, before tip-toeing into spring creeks and sight-fishing for wily browns that disdained anything splashy or inaccurate, but would reward a perfect presentation with lovely, sipping takes and crashing, thrashing scraps in the ankle-deep water. Nico and his guides are true sportsmen, with fishing in their blood, and so it was that the early evenings were not spent tucking into the delicious food that the Fundo is famed for, but instead fishing the evening rise.
We tied on prickly little caddis flies and dropped them in amongst the blizzard of a hatch that brought every fish in the river to the surface, and the fishing kept us all giggling long into the twilight as yet another pearl-bright rainbow went rocketing up towards the twinkling stars of the Southern Cross.
And then I was rushing on again to another adventure and into a new and vast Patagonian wilderness. Winding through the mountains to the north of Coyhaique is one of the most celebrated trout streams in Patagonia: the Rio Cisnes. The Cisnes or River of the Swans actually flows down off the east face of the Andes before performing an abrupt about-turn and bursting its way through the mountains to drain into the Pacific. I don't remember seeing any swans, but what I did see were more trout than I could shake a stick at.
The Estancia de los Rios is situated in one of the very rare parts of Chile, lying on the east side of the Andes, a 360,000 acre bulge into Argentina that offers 60 miles of pretty-much exclusive access to the Cisnes and its tributaries, and just about every type of trout fishing experience imaginable. In four fantastic days, accompanied by the lodge's manager, Cristian Dufflocq's equally charismatic brother, Marcelo, I fished every variety of trout-water there is. There is the wide Cisnes to explore; an endless procession of gurgling riffles and glassy glides - this stream has everything.
For those of us who like to fiddle with tiny emerger-style patterns fashioned from bits of carpet-fluff and so on, there is some really tricky 'match the hatch' style fishing for an almost limitless number of sleek, free-rising but easily-spooked browns.
If you can't be bothered with all that, fear not: tying on a big streamer and swinging it down and across brings almost constant action. Then, kicking and screaming, Marcelo will drag you away to one of the sizeable tributaries like the winding Magdalena, where trout glide easily out of the weed-beds to inspect and occasionally inhale your Parachute Adams; and then we'd saddle up and ride across the endless pampas, watching the storms sweep way to the east, across the far vistas of Argentina, before arriving at one of the innumerable tiny bubbling creeks. Most are easily vaulted in one lazy leap, and all are chock-full of fat but satisfyingly wary trout demanding that you crawl on hands and knees, hide behind bushes and make casts 15 yards back from the water's edge. Magical.
As if this wasn't enough, we spent a morning sight-fishing the mighty Rio Caceres for salmon and I managed three huge Chinook between 20 and 30 pounds each, twitching huge Clouser minnows under their noses in the clear waters and watching them snatch at the flies in a sexed up rage. While the big stale cock-fish are possible to tame after a protracted tug-of-war, the huge fresh silver beast that I hooked in a side channel and that tore off down the river like a rampaging bull left me badly shaken... I'm embarrassed to speculate about its size.
And then, when you think it can't get any better, there are the lakes. It was on the penultimate day of my Patagonian adventure that Marcelo took me to the far northern edges of the Estancia, on the border with Argentina, to Lake Apprieton, a gleaming jewel, tucked high in the sierras and sparkling in the late summer sunshine. I asked Marcelo if he wouldn't mind wading out so that I could make a picture of this fabulous gem of a trout fishery, and as my host concentrated on the steep descent down the hill, I watched from my high vantage point as a pod of large fish started to rise regularly off to my left.
I'm ashamed to say that I sent Marcelo to the right - for compositional reasons, naturally - and after rattling off a few quick frames, I too was stumbling down to the water. The rises were regular and of two distinct sorts - most were a gentle kiss on the surface, but occasionally, there was a violent and abrupt swirl. Looking around the water's edge, I quickly resolved the puzzle: there were innumerable emerging up winged olive flies, not dissimilar in appearance and size to our own Pale Wateries, but in among them were some large and no-doubt irresistible grasshoppers. I pulled out something big and daft-looking - all foam and rubber legs - and waded in.
My fly just made the ripple where the fish were holding, and, catching my breath, I twitched the fly gently across the top. In a magical moment, one of the fish shouldered up through the icy gin of the lake and swallowed down the fly in a heartbeat. I struck and a magnificent, leopard-spotted brown leapt up into the clean, clear air of the Andes. We went at it for a fair while, the fish sizzling off backing with wild and valiant abandon.
Grown fat and strong on hoppers, beetles, dragonfly nymphs and the seemingly endless procession of emerging up-winged flies, my opponent leapt wantonly, and looked eminently capable of going fully fifteen rounds. Hanging on grimly, I failed to gain much headway for an almost indecently long time. Finally, desperate to see this goliath of a fish, I gingerly drew his head up and watched as Marcelo put the net under my prize.
Unwrapping the folds of the net, I stared at this fabulous embodiment of all things wild and free, shimmering like a talisman in the sunlight. Hump-backed, sparkling iridescent gold and encrusted with rich, ruby-red spots, I will never see a more magnificent trout as long as I live: I've caught bigger wild brown trout in New Zealand, but nothing quite as perfect as this superlative creature. I felt a rare sense of elation, 16,000 miles and a million light-years from all those wretched Blackberries and those 'singing from the same hymn-sheet' clichés.
I gently prized out the barbless hook and as I watched him swim strongly back to his lair, I savoured the moment for a few short seconds, high up in the perfect, far-flung wilderness. And then, predictably, I found myself pulling line from the reel and edging back out into the lake as another golden prize snaffled his lunch. Believe me, you don't want to go messing about with poetry on that magical day when you finally stumble upon Eldorado.
How to get there
To fish on the Rio Azul, at Fundo el Salto or at the Estancia de los Rios, contact: Mark Hewetson-Brown. Frontiers Travel, Kennet Cottage, Kempsford, Gloucestershire, GL7 4EQ