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flyfishing patagonia

 

The word Patagonia comes from the root word for foot or paw in Spanish, “pata”, “-gon” is a suffix that indicates largeness, and the “-ia” indicates that it is the place where the former is found.  When Magellan first touched the shores of present day Argentina on his early surveys, it is said that he encountered large footprints in the sand, which he believed to be from the large-footed inhabitants of this new land.  Bigfoot.  The land of these big-footed people came known to the people as “Patagonia”.  We now know that the large footprints were due to the natives, largely Tehuelche Indians, whom wrapped their feet in sealskins to protect them against the harsh elements, leaving a large impression in the minds of early European explorers.

The Patagonia region of South America has stirred the hearts and imaginations of adventurers and anglers for many years.  It is a landscape of harsh extremes, of wild mountains and glaciers, raging rivers and bottomless lakes, of un-climbable peaks and storied trout.  But what is it and why does it draw the flyfishing angler?

Though the origins of the word refer to the continent’s eastern shoreline’s inhabitants, the Patagonia has come to be known as the region that occupies the bottom third of both Chile and Argentina, roughly the southernmost 1200 miles of the continent, from west coast to east coast.  From a fishing point of view, we are concerned primarily with the land that lies on both sides of the Andes mountains within this same area.  In Chile this includes all of the land between the spine of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean and in Argentina it includes the land which borders the Andes and spills out onto the steppe country towards the arid eastern shore.

 

In Argentina, the northern boundary is generally considered to be the province of Neuquen, the birthplace of flyfishing in Patagonia.  The southern boundary would be the Chubut province, with the current frontier around the area of Rio Pico.  Trout fishing continues to be found and developed further south into the Santa Cruz Province and some of the largest brown trout in the world are found at the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego.

In Chile, the flyfishers’ interest generally begins just south of the city of Puerto Montt in the X Region, or the Region of the Lakes and extends to the XI Region, or Aysen Region.  There are some pockets of trout fishing to be found as one ventures further south towards Chilean Tierra del Fuego, but we will focus on the two regions that offer the most opportunity for present day flyfishers. 

The diversity found in Patagonian trout fishing is astonishing.  Everything from technical sight fishing on spring creeks to throwing large streamers in giant rivers can be encountered.   However, one might describe the general Patagonian fishing experience as some of the best streamer and large dry fly fishing destinations for trout on the planet.  The people we have come to know from Patagonia quickly become friends and the food and drink are superb.  We like to think of Patagonia as Disneyland with a fly rod.

 

NEUQUÉN PROVINCE
Neuquén is the the northernmost Patagonia Province and is where some of the most classic waters are found.  The towns of San Martin de los Andes, Junin de los Andes, Alumine and Neuquen are the primary population centers here.  This is where it all began so many years ago in the late ‘60s when a small group of Argentine fly anglers like “Bebe” Anchorena and …. Pioneered these waters centered around San Martin de los Andes and Junin de los Andes with the fly.  Argentine flyfishing culture runs deep here, San Martin has several excellent fly shops and lots of great guides.  Junin, only 20 minutes away, also has several small fly shops, houses the headquarters of STH reels, and many great Argentine guides are found here as well.  We like to think of this area as the “West Yellowstone” of Patagonia.

 

Early fly anglers to this area found long, crystalline rivers that flowed from the glaciers of the Andes out through the steppe country of Argentina that had good populations of mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and large trout.  Rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout were in abundance and could be found throughout these river systems, many of which flowed through massive ranches, or “estancias”.  In the early years, visiting anglers would visit the estancias and be given permission to fish the properties, often befriending the owners and lodging with them at their behest.  The lodges in this province are an extension of this very situation, that of classic Argentine hospitality, eventually the demand grew to where the estancia owners couldn’t house the visiting anglers so they built special accommodation for them.  These lodges are still the primary lodges today; San Huberto, Quemquemtreu, Collon Cura, Tipiliuke, Arroyo Verde, Filo Hua Hum, Quillen, etc and have a long, rich history of hosting international anglers.

 

Neuquen province is home to famous rivers like the Malleo, Chimehuin, Alumine, Collon Cura, Caleufu, and Limay.  Generally these rivers flow from the Andes eastwards towards the steppe country and eventually join the great Rio Limay, the largest river of the province and whose path draws the line between Neuquen and the Rio Negro province to the south.

 

Neuquen is also host to two jewels of Argentina’s National Park system, Lago Nahuel Huapi and Lanin National Parks, or “Parques Nacionales”.   Parque Nacional Lanin is centered around the Lanin Volcano, a stratovolcano that dominates the landscape with its glacial cap and perfect symmetry.  Within its borders are the headwaters of the Rios Chimehuin and Malleo, which come from the unique Araucaria, or “Monkey Puzzle” tree forest, one dominated by the namesake tree that has remained almost unchanged since the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi occupies much of the land between Bariloche north along the Andean spine to San Martin de los Andes and contains many lakes and streams to explore.  There is some world class fishing to be had in both throughout the year.

 

Neuquen Province has some of the most extensive, diverse and sustainable fishing found in Patagonia, it is where it all began and continues to offer some of the best sport found today.  Some of the best hatches found in all of Patagonia are found here, and great trout fishing is present throughout the season.  Neuquen has a wonderful mix of classic flyfishing for resident trout, as well as some of the most exciting migratory trout fishing found in all of Patagonia.  The fishing season here begins in the first week of November and extends through the end of May in particular rivers.

 

NEUQUEN PROVINCE EARLY SEASON:  NOVEMBER-DECEMBER

 

Patagonia has some of what we call the best streamer fishing for trout in the world, and these words are never truer than in the spring and early summer.  The first months of trout season in Neuquen have some very interesting opportunities and some of the best fishing of the year.  Most of the rivers that drain the Andes come in and out of lakes on their journey and though they run high at this time of year, they are generally clear and fishable.  Most of the rivers’ trout are pushed to the banks during these periods of high flows, and this makes drift fishing with streamers an excellent choice most any day.

 

That said, though dry fly fishing opportunities do not last all day long, when found, they are excellent.  Early season hatches of both March Browns and Caddis get these trout looking to the surface, and can provide several hours of dry fly fishing on an almost daily basis.

 

The Neuquen Province experiences quite a bit of migratory trout activity in both the spring and fall.  There are no dams in any of the rivers aside from the Limay and trout are able to move freely throughout the entire systems.  Many of the larger trout spend a significant amount of their time in large lakes or rivers and seasonally move up into the cool waters closer to the Andes.  In the fall brown trout migrate up or down for spawning and many of these trout will remain in the rivers until the water drops after the following spring’s runoff.  Rainbows have made their spawning push in October and the beginning of November and are still in the rivers in high numbers.

 

The area around San Martin and Junin de los Andes is an ideal location at this time of year.  Float fishing on the Rio Chimehuin is a staple in November and December and is one of the great float trips of Patagonia.  As is the Collon Cura when it comes into fishable shape,  The Rio Caleufu is at its best for floating and many of the smaller waters in the National Park have good numbers of fish.  The Malleo is fishable as well and holds some large trout opportunity for those willing to fish nymphs and streamers.  Again, dry fly fishing is excellent when it is found or sought out.  The Rio Limay also holds opportunity with many of the rainbows still concentrated post-spawn.

 

NEUQUEN PROVINCE MIDDLE SEASON:  JANUARY-FEBRUARY

 

As summer settles into the Neuquen Province, the rivers drop and trout begin to spread out and forage more on hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, and small willow worms, gusanitos.  January has some of the best dry fly fishing of the year.  The rivers are wadeable and more manageable at this time of year for those who prefer to slow the day down by stopping and working areas of the river more thoroughly.  Though streamer fishing is still worthwhile, many anglers begin to trade in the streamer rigs for large dry flies and occasionally droppers.

 

The Chimehuin is still a staple choice but eventually will get low enough that it will have to be floated via private access or in overnight fashion. The Alumine/Collon Cura is one of the most consistently productive rivers in the region, with a seemingly endless supply of quality rainbows with some stellar brown trout.  One of the better populations of the Patagonian native perch or “perca” is found here as well, perch love to eat streamers and strike and fight much like a smallmouth bass.  The Rio Malleo is at its peak for dry fly fishing and much of the smaller water still holds quality trout that will be looking for large dry flies.

 

Lakes throughout Patagonia are at the height of the dry fly season in January, and this area is no exception.  Dragonflies are hatching everywhere and reed beds are a great place to start.

 

By the middle of February, rivers are low and clear and the days are warm.  This is the terrestrial time of year, hoppers, ants, beetles all play a major role in fly selection now, it’s the height of summer.  Trout are more wary and the majority of large migratory trout have returned to the lakes, this year’s residents are all that remain.  The trout are in a steady groove of surviving on insects, and dry/dropper rigs can produce excellent action throughout the day.

RIO NEGRO PROVINCE

Rio Negro province serves as the population hub and center of Argentine Patagonia, and its northern border follows the southern shoreline of the Rio Limay.  San Carlos de Bariloche, its largest city and airport, has a population of … and sits on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi.  Bariloche is well-situated to provide access to both the fishing in the north in Neuquen, about 2.5 hours’ drive, and to the south in the province of Chubut, some 3 to 4 hours’ drive away.

 

Lago Nahuel Huapi is the lake that provides the namesake for the National Park, the setting for Bariloche and Villa Angostura, and is the source of the massive Rio Limay.  The mouth, or boca, of the Limay River, where it drains the lake is one of the most famous bocas in all of Patagonia.  For the anglers that are willing to put in the time here, there are few places that offer such a consistent reward for perseverance.  Some of the largest trout in Patagonia are taken here every year, most of them taken by Argentine anglers willing to battle the elements and spend hours each day in the pursuit of “the one.”

 

It is this northern provincial boundary, shared with Neuquen Province, that makes the largest impression on the fly angler in the Rio Negro Province, the Rio Limay.  It is a vast, crystal clear river that begins high in the Andes, flows improbably almost parallel to the Andes and accepts virtually every famous river in Neuquen.  It has a natural boca at its source and its flow is interrupted by several dams and reservoirs, each with their own distinct opportunity.  If the Gibbon, Firehole, Madison, Ruby, Beaverhead, Jefferson, Wise and Big Hole Rivers are all called upon to make the Missouri River System what it is, then we would say the following is true in Patagonia:  The Limay River System is made up of the Malleo, Chimehuin, Filo Hua Hum, Meliquina, Caleufu, Quillen, Alumine and Collon Cura Rivers.   

 

Surprisingly, to the south there is not much of great interest to the flyfisher until the Chubut Province is reached.  There is a notable exception with the Rio Manso and Puelo system which flows into Chile and the Pacific. 

 

El Bolson marks the southern proximity of the Rio Negro Province, and serves as the agricultural hub of Route 40 and hosts a daily artisan fair that draws tourists from both north and south. 

CHUBUT

The Province of Chubut holds what we consider to be the southern boundary of the Heart of Patagonia’s trout fishing.  The main population center here is the city of Esquel, which has an airport with service to and from Buenos Aires almost every day of the week.  Esquel is located about 3.5 hours’ drive south of Bariloche.  The Chubut Province has a boundary with neighboring Chile that does not follow the line of the watershed and contains several rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean as well some that flow into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

The Rio Chubut begins in the northern part of the province and flows easterly all the way across the country to the Atlantic Ocean, joined by the Rios Gualjaina and Tecka.  It is this river system that was responsible for the inland migration of the Welsh immigrants in the late 1800s from the eastern coastline and for the many blue-eyed residents of this area.  These immigrants were the first to eventually settle the verdant valleys of Cholila and the Valley of the 16 of October near the welsh community of Trevelin. 

 

 Just south of the headwaters of the Rio Chubut is located the headwaters of the Rio Grande/Rio Futaleufu System which includes the waters of Los Alerces National Park and the waters of Esquel and Trevelin.  This system begins on the eastern side of the Andean spine, runs south for 40 miles and eventually turns west, flowing into Chile and eventually the Pacific Ocean.  Some of the rivers that make up this system are:  Carrileufu, Rivadavia, Arrayanes and Rio Grande, as well as the Futaleufu and Yelcho in Chile.  This is a river to lake to river system that has but one dam, just above the Rio Grande and below the reservoir or “embalse” Futalaufquen.  The Rio Grande is a tailwater fishery that is one of the more productive in Argentina in terms of numbers of quality trout per mile.  For the 40 kms that it is in Argentina before flowing into Chile, it has good hatches and excellent trout populations. 

 

As one ventures south of Esquel and Trevelin, the Rio Corcovado is reached.  Born of a massive Andean mountain lake that sits half in Argentina and half in Chile, the Rio Corcovado drains into Argentina, flows some 50 kms through estancia Tecka, out through an impressive series of cataracts, and through another 40 kms of freestone country before crossing into Chile and becoming the Rio Palena, headed directly for the Pacific Ocean, 100 kms away. 

 

Further south yet, the southern frontier of the Heart of Patagonia is reached, Rio Pico.  The small town of Rio Pico holds no great import other than the ubiquitous photograph of “Los Muchachos” bar and for being located smack dab in the center of a spring creek paradise.  The landscape here was formed by the recession of glaciers and the final resting place of others that simply ceased to exist, it is hilly and cupped, there are springs everywhere, a small stream fisherperson’s paradise.  However, Rio Pico is truly known for its lakes, many are spring-fed, the level of their productivity and the size of the trout they produce is truly impressive. 

SANTA CRUZ

This is the province that holds the famous National Parks for which Patagonia has come to be known by the masses.  It is here that the skyline made famous by the clothing company, Patagonia can be found.  Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, the Fitzroy, are all peaks made famous by climbing lore.  The massive glacier, Perito Moreno, named after the well-known Argentine explorer is among the main attractions at Los Glaciares National Park near El Calafate. 

 

From a fishing standpoint, Jurassic Lake and Quiroga Lake are among the hyper fertile, alkaline lakes that dot the north central part of this plateau-dominated landscape.  Rivers are few and far between in this part of the country and the bulk of the opportunity lies in these remote alkaline stillwaters. 

 

Nearer El Calafate, the tourism hub for the province of Santa Cruz and the largest airport in the area, glacially fed Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma contribute to form the milky Rio Santa Cruz.  The world’s only known run of Atlantic steelhead can be found in the Santa Cruz River, these are impressive fish that can grow up to 20 lbs. 

 

Further south, the northernmost of the three primary sea run brown trout rivers, the Rio Gallegos, can be found.  The Rio Gallegos has a solid run of sea run browns that …

RIO GRANDE PROVINCE, TIERRA DEL FUEGO

Disconnected from the rest of continental Argentina, the province of Rio Grande is part of the Isla Grande just across the Straits of Magellan from the rest of Argentina and Chile.  This is what is known as the “end of the world” in Patagonia.  El fin del mundo. 

 

Fishing opportunities here are simple…some of the largest brown trout in the world in one of the bleakest and most austere landscapes in the Americas.  Wind isn’t a variable here, it is a constant.  The buildings seem to lean with the prevailing wind direction so it looks windy even when it isn’t!  It is here that some of the largest sea run brown trout migrate from the fertile southern Atlantic every year from January through March.  This is a land in which a large trout is 20 lbs heavy, a trophy might exceed 30 lbs. 

 

There is one river system that holds the bulk of the fishing opportunity in Tierra del Fuego, it is the Rio Grande/Rio Menendez.  It’s the largest river system on the island and 90% of it is located in Argentina.  There is a small reach of the Rio Grande in its headwaters that is located in Chile, but the bulk of the fish and opportunities are located in the Argentine properties.  The Rio Grande’s access is virtually entirely private, fishing is permissible by staying at one of the several estancias along the river, each has its own or shared pools and manages accordingly. 

 

Fishing here is generally done with spey rods and streamers though single handers are still common as well. 

CHILE REGION X, THE LAKE DISTRICT

Chile’s Region X begins north of Puerto Montt, just above where the coastline begins to fracture and enter fjord country.  Most of the region is located in the Valdivian Rainforest, a temperate rainforest much like the forest in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington.  The Valdivian Rainforest in Chile is dominated by beech tree species and is similar in appearance to the west coast of the south island of New Zealand.  The X Region’s main population centers are Puerto Montt and Osorno, they are located in the northern part of the district.  Truly world class trout fishing begins to the south of Puerto Montt in the central and southern portion of the Lakes District.  This region has no major population centers but the most notable would be the town of Chaiten.  Much of the southern X Region is inaccessible by vehicle without the assistance of ferries.  The north-south highway corridor becomes non-contiguous in the north, just outside of Puerto Montt and remains so until Chaiten is reached.  There are two National Parks here, Parque Pumalin and Parque Palena, both have vast tracts of land but are only developed at a most basic level. 

 

As the district’s name suggests, there are lots of lakes and lagunas, water is simply everywhere.  Major river systems move through steep valleys and transport an abundance of water.  Rivers in this region routinely rise and fall 3’ in 24 hours, sometimes much more, so the lakes become an integral part of the fishing landscape and are constantly rejuvenated with freshets of both water and fish.  River systems on this side of the Andes are relatively sterile, but have enough life to sustain viable populations of trout.  Trout fishing is opportunistic by nature here…

 

The beauty of this landscape is unparalleled.  Hanging glaciers cap the granite peaks and glacially carved hanging valleys suspend waterfalls thousands of feet above the valley floors.  When the sun is shining in this part of the world, the days are among the most beautiful that can be experienced, but it doesn’t happen on a regular basis!  Anglers must be prepared for wet weather and for changing conditions on this side of the Andes.  They must also be prepared for surprises as most of the rivers in this region are within 100 kms of the Pacific Ocean, one never fully knows what might grab a hold of their fly around here!

 

Major rivers in the X Region are the Futaleufu, Yelcho, and Palena.  These rivers all flow to the Pacific by way of the Yelcho and Palena systems.  The Rio Palena accepts much of the water from the northern portion of the next region to the south, the XI Region, Aysen.   

CHILE REGION XI, AYSEN DISTRICT

NEUQUEN PROVINCE

RIO NEGRO PROVINCE

CHUBUT PROVINCE

SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE

TIERRA DEL FUEGO

CHILE REGION X

CHILE REGION XI

ARGENTINA CHILE