The kings of the southern seas
Imagine a river where the scenery is as stunning as the fishing is exclusive - where ocean-bright salmon of gigantic proportions can empty a reel in about 15 seconds flat - and you might just have an inkling of what it's like to fish for Chinooks in Chilean Patagonia, says Matt Harris.
Before I die, I want to catch a big salmon. A really big salmon. I'm not talking about a 20-pounder. Or a 30-pounder. Or even a 40-pounder. Fifty? Maybe. Sixty? Now you have my attention.
Finally I've found a place where it could happen. Where I confidently think that it will happen...
Try to imagine a river where the salmons' average size is bigger than those on any river you know. Bigger on average than those of the Kharlovka, the Cascapedia, the mighty Yokanga... even Norway's legendary Alta herself. Where the glacier-studded scenery is as astonishing as the Alta's mighty canyon, and where the salmon can empty a reel in about 15 seconds flat.
Picture a river that costs less for a prime-time week than a day's fishing on the Alta or two days on the Kharlovka. A valley where you will see almost nobody but your team, your guides and the camp staff.
Could it get better? You bet.
You can fish this river in the depths of the northern winter, but the sun will shine and you will fish in shirt-sleeves and drink icy beer to celebrate your first 30-pounder. I haven't had a bang on the head. This place really exists. I've been there.
Hidden deep in the heart of Chilean Patagonia, two glacially-fed rivers cascade off of the high Andean ramparts before tumbling into the Pacific Ocean. The salmon that run them are Chinooks, and before you grumble that they are not Salmo salar, know this: Chinook dwarf most Atlantics in terms of their size and power, and, when fresh off of the tide, they are absolutely magnificent.
These Chinooks are not indigenous to the South Pacific. First introduced in the 1970s to sustain a now half-forgotten ranching programme, these brutish fish have colonised the entire South Pacific coast from Temuco to The Magellan Straits, and even around Cape Horn and into the Atlantic.
If you have an issue with the fish not being native to their environment, then go ahead and strike this remarkable fishery off of your wish list. But don't forget to strike New Zealand's peerless trophy trout and Tierra del Fuego's monster sea-run browns off, too. Make no mistake, these fish are not escapees from a farm; they have been running and breeding in the Chilean rivers for close on half a century, and they are here to stay.
Chinooks are regularly caught in many Chilean rivers with heavy-duty spinning gear, but in most of the rivers they have colonised, they colour up and lose condition before they reach waters narrow and shallow enough to make them a legitimate fly rod target.
Not here. In this stunningly beautiful valley, they can be caught just a mile or two upstream of the tide; and when they are still ocean-bright and chrome-silver, they pack a formidable punch.
The fishing isn't easy. These fish aren't as grabby as fresh Atlantics, sea-run browns or steelhead, and you have to get the fly right down in front of them to get a response. You're typically fishing in deep, heavy flows, often throwing a long line and making multiple mends to swing the fly down through the deepest part of the pool. Don't even think of coming here unless you are comfortable throwing super-heavy tips and big flies a long way. Add in the fact that fresh Chinooks need overcast conditions and coloured water to really get interested in taking a fly, and you have a serious challenge on your hands. But let me tell you about the rewards...
Imagine 30, 40, 50 and potentially even 60lb and more of solid, chrome-silver muscle barrelling downstream and emptying that precious reel of yours in little more than the time it takes to dream it. Better still, picture that same fish clambering into a high-flying cartwheel that would make a tarpon blush. Unlike their northern cousins, these southern kings are, on occasion, spectacular acrobats.
Finally, and perhaps most fortunately of all, not all of these leviathans empty your reel. Some are dour, dogged fighters, and considering their sometimes almost absurd size, I'm almost ashamed to admit that these are actually the ones that I pray for. If you hook one of 50lb and more that is determined to go back to the sea, you really have very little hope. If that 50-pounder starts pushing steadily upstream, though, you might just be in business.
Let me tell you a little bit about the guys who discovered this remarkable fishery.
The Trochine twins, Alex and Nico, are instantly likeable. Their eyes sparkle with enthusiasm and they are both devastatingly talented fly fishermen. The brothers hail from Bariloche in Argentina, and they have fished and guided up and down South America. They both declare that their latest discovery is the most exciting fishery they've ever come across. According to Nico, even the fabled sea trout of Tierra del Diego can't hold a candle to the sheer brute strength - and size - of the huge Chinooks that the twins have discovered. Having experienced both, I can confirm that it's not even a contest. Chinooks are simply the biggest, strongest anadromous fish on the planet.
The rivers took some finding. The twins explored far and wide along the Pacific coast before they finally hit pay dirt. They fished any number of Chinook-stuffed rivers that were simply not suitable before they found their 'Eldorado'.
Although the Trochines have secured exclusive rights to fish the rivers, they are keen to keep the exact location of them a secret for fear of poaching. It takes a long car ride followed by an even longer ferry ride to access the fishery, but every last minute of the long trek from Puerto Montt is worth it.
So how to tackle these leviathans? Be warned, the fishing is tough. Be prepared for long hours without action, but when those big silver flanks come rolling into the pool, fish hard, and you may just find yourself attached to a monster. As someone relatively new to Chinooks, I appointed Nico and his fellow guide, my old friend Mariano Weinstein, along with Skeena king salmon maestros Derek Barber and Kim Jørgensen, as my personal Chinook gurus. They all counselled to fish big flashy flies down deep, and to show the fish the fly side-on. This means that mends have to be precise and decisive, so that the fly swings square to the current, while staying low and slow in the water column.
Like Chinooks further north, in British Columbia and Alaska, the fish seem to have a predilection for big, sparkling tube-flies. I used classic Chinook patterns like Stinger Prawns and Mega-Intruders in fuscia and orange, chartreuse and blue, or all chartreuse, but others such as the simple Prom Dress-style tinsel-based patterns in high-key colours did just as well. The key is lots of flash in coloured water, and none when the water clears. Fish with heavy-duty 2/0 hooks like the Owner SSW and check regularly that your hook-point is needle sharp.
I'll be honest - at first, I struggled. Despite the fact that the fish seem to hold in the deepest parts of the pools, I found that my normal 'down and dirty' tactic of fishing with an ultra-short leader didn't work - perhaps the fish were spooked by the fly line in the clear water. After chatting with Kim, who has over 800 Chinooks to his name, I lengthened up from four to around eight feet of stout fluorocarbon - 30lb Seaguar, which has proved its remarkable abrasion resistance time and again on the big trophy Atlantic salmon rivers of northern Russia.
I also took Kim's advice and switched to a less heavily-weighted fly, despite my instinctive desire to get the fly fishing as quickly as possible. I was still fishing 15 feet of T20, but suddenly, perhaps because of the extra life engendered by the longer leader and lighter fly, I started to get more interest.
My next lesson was in setting the hook. Takes can be anything from a gradual heaviness in the line right through to the classic tap, tap, boom. Don't be in a rush to set the hook, but once you're happy that the fish is on, set the hook firmly. Very firmly.
Fishing for Atlantics, you can expect a good hook-hold in the scissors simply by holding tight and letting the fish hook itself. These big Chinooks have tougher, bonier mouths, and even those razor-sharp 2/0 Owner SSW's can fall out if you don't drive them home positively. I lost the first two fish I hooked - both hefty fish of 30lb or more - and in hindsight, I'm convinced I didn't set the hook hard enough.
Here's the drill. Don't snatch the fly away from the first 'tap, tap' enquiry. Wait until the fish has decisively taken the fly and turned away. Sweep the rod sharply in towards the bank, and you should drive the hook in. Once your fish is well hooked, don't stand around admiring your handywork. Get downstream of the fish as quickly as you can. If you can make the fish fight both your 10wt and the current, then maybe, just maybe, you have a chance.
Kim Jørgensen was spooled by a huge fish, and every member of our group had a hard-luck story or two. That said, we all managed to put fish of over 30lb on the grass, with the best fish weighing in at just under 50lb. The previous week, experienced Skeena guide Derek Barber managed two fish of 45 and 50lb, and a handyman at the local estancia described fish of eye-popping dimensions that bottomed out 66lb scales.
The key is to be patient and fish hard. When the fish come in on the tide, there is little to slow them down, so don't miss your chance by drinking coffee or snoozing on the bank - get that fly in front of them before they go charging upstream. The fishing demands long hours of concentration, and you need to be casting a long line consistently and accurately if you want to maximise your chances. Thankfully, the camp is the perfect place to unwind. Anglers are based in large and extremely comfortable tents just a few short yards from the river, with hot showers and a communal dining tent. The food is excellent, and there is always plenty of beer or fortifying Chilean tinto on hand to celebrate the latest behemoth.
The fish are most active when the sun is off the water, so anglers are ferried up and down river by boat at first light, and fish until noon. After lunch and a siesta, they return to the river around 5pm to fish until dark.
The trip was a kaleidoscope of magical moments: Heading upstream in the Zodiac as the sun started to peep between the colossal mountains that flanked the river. Taking a rare break to drink Maté with Nico and Mariano and chat amiably about big fish caught and lost. Exploring way upstream on foot and wading into waters that had perhaps never seen a fly before. Sipping single malt and gazing up at a million stars twinkling in the clear southern skies.
I remember the long hours of patient cast and step and when the fish grabbed our flies with uncharacteristic abandon. I recall Swedish spey-casting wizard Bengt clutching his 45lb brute with a boyish gleam in his eyes, and Thomas Svenson grinning from ear to ear as he cradled a 30-pounder for a quick picture. I remember Kim, shell-shocked and bewildered as he reeled back 350 yards of backing after a monster had all but spooled him, and the relatively modest but chrome-bright 25lb fish that grabbed my big intruder on the last cast of the day and went dancing into the last rays of the sun in a flurry of furious cartwheels.
My favourite memory came an hour or so before sunrise one morning when the fish suddenly came rolling into the pool. I managed to beach two hulking brutes of 28 and 35lb, fresh from the ocean, both of which fought like tigers, but all I can think about is the fish that head and tailed repeatedly in the pool while I was playing the smaller fish. It was impossibly large. Surely the biggest salmon I have ever seen in my life. I don't even dare to estimate its size. I briefly considered breaking the 28-pounder off to get a fly in front of it. It really was that big.
Every moment in this pristine wonderland was special, but perhaps more than anything, itÕs that titanic fish that will drag me back.Despite catching some magnificent fish, I know I've only really scratched the surface. With the possible exception of the formidable Skeena, this river really does offer the chance to hook and perhaps, just perhaps, land a fish bigger than anything you are ever likely to hook anywhere in the world with a spey rod in your hand.