Land of Wine and Wind; Tierra del Fuego
November 13, 2012
Giant brown trout are just one of the reasons to visit Tierra del Fuego, the island Magellan called the "Land of Fire."
There's a saying in Tierra del Fuego . . . "Bad weather, good fishing. Good weather, bad fishing." So when you come to the Land of Fire bring your cold-weather gear, and keep your fingers crossed that you'll have to fight the wind. The payoff could be huge.
The land that Ferdinand Magellan discovered is famous for both howling winds and the Rio Grande, a river that winds through a sagebrush landscape you might mistake for Wyoming if it weren't for roaming guanacos, a native camelid that looks a lot like a llama. The broad Rio Grande is a freshwater tug-of-war between the rainy highlands and the ocean that hosts about 75,000 adult sea trout annually, strung out between Argentina's tidewater and the tributaries of the upper river in Chile (For a scientific analysis of the river's trout population).
But the numbers of sea trout are only a part of the amazing ecology of the Rio Grande. What's truly mind-blowing is the average size of the sea trout (12 to 15 pounds) and the frequency of truly large specimens of 30-pound and larger sea-run brown trout. These truly are the largest brown trout in the world.
The trout fishing in the lower river (Argentina) is not only well documented, in many cases the best weeks at the three downriver estancias are booked years in advance. The alternatives for newcomers to the Rio Grande include booking "off weeks" in Argentina, or exploring the relatively unheralded and untrafficked upper river in the Chilean portion of Tierra del Fuego.
The Estancia Cameron owns 1,000 hectares of grazing land in the Rio Grande watershed with private access to more than 90 miles of the upper river. The best sea trout water is downstream of the bridge and Estancia Cameron Lodge where there are five beats and about 30 named pools such as Rainbow Pool or Nikos Pool reaching downstream to the Argentina border.
Five beats means that in a week of fishing you'll likely never see the same section of river twice. Public access is extremely limited and with an exclusive beat for the day, solitude is a sure thing.
The lodge is set on a hillside overlooking the river with sweeping panoramic views of the Tierra del Fuego landscape and, overhead, Chilean condors use the updrafts to search for carrion.
When it's foul on windy, the guides on the Rio Grande look for pools that offer protection from the wind. When the water is high and murky from rain you'll find that brown trout are both on the move and on the bite. The guides say "bad weather, good fishing" and the best way to take advantage of that scenario is with an 8-weight single-handed rod and a shooting head sinking-tip system, or better yet, a 13-foot two-handed rod that handles a 500-grain Skagit line so you can attach heavy, T-12 through T-18 tips with heavy, weighted rubber-leg Woolly Buggers or dark Intruder-type flies.
Despite the name, river in Chile is not huge, so distance is not an issue. But throwing heavy sinking-tip lines in the wind is hard work, and distributing that effort between two hands and a longer lever makes for a more pleasant outing.
When the winds are calm, the sun shines, and the Rio Grande runs low and clear, you'll use floating lines and smaller traditional Atlantic salmon-type flies with a long leader and a greased line approach, taking extra care in how you approach the pools so you don't spook the sea trout.
Sea trout are most active in low light, so you're likely to fish early in the morning, take an afternoon siesta, and then hit the river again in the evening. This approach also helps you beat the afternoon winds when they peak.
In Argentina it is illegal to fish after dark, but in Chile there's no hurry to escape the river when the sunsets, and some enormous browns have been caught on flies well after sunset.
While You're There
The Rio Grande is the main course of Chile's Tierra del Fuego fishing meal, but the region is vast (18,000 square miles), with many other rivers, lakes, as well as opportunities for non-fishing activities.
In the town of Porvenir you can visit the Porvenir Museum, likely the world's only repository of artifacts and history of the Selknam people. These aboriginals inhabited Tierra del Fuego until about 1900 when European sheep farmers put a bounty on each Selknam head, and exterminated them. A mummified body of an assassinated Selknam — preserved by the low humidity and cold temperatures of Tierra del Fuego — lies in a glass casket in the museum and shows how many Selknam people met their ends. The rest of the exhibit shows how they lived in nomadic tribal fashion, living off the island's native guanacos.
If you're in the area of Porvenir, also visit Parque Penguino Rey (pinguinorey.com) where you're likely to see a rare colony of king penguins, the world's second largest penguin species. The birds showed up just four years ago and are nested on the bank of a small sea trout river just upstream from tidewater, and out of the reach of leopard seals.
The Rio Blanco flows clear from Lago Blanco not far from Cameron Lodge, and is a clear-running major tributary of the Rio Grande. More than 20 years ago, Chinook salmon escaped from hatchery pens at sea, and found their way here to spawn. This population of streamborn king salmon has grown steadily over the years. Fly fishers do catch them in the Rio Grande, but the best place to chase them is in the Rio Blanco, where the combination of a clear bottom and light-colored rocks makes sight-fishing for the large salmon practical.
Nearby you can find accommodations at Hosteria las Lengas, owned and operated by Alfonso Simunovic. While there, you can fish the hard, wadeable shoreline of Lago Blanco where you'll find mostly rainbow trout ranging from 16 to 22 inches. You might go there for quiet trout fishing along a forested shoreline, but you'll stay for Alfonso's legendary hospitality including a vast selection of Chilean wines, and asado al palo (lamb roasted by an open fire).
Tierra del Fuego is mostly a roadless wilderness made up of vast tracts of private ranching property, and forested mountains and highlands. The major north-south thoroughfare is the highway Y-85, which passes through the town of Cameron, crosses the Rio Grande, and then heads south. For much of the last 20 years it has literally been a "road to nowhere" as the Chilean military put its engineers to work building 7 kilometers of road annually in a journey south to the Beagle Channel.
In late 2011 the road finally got somewhere: the shore of Lago Fagnano in Parque Kaukina. Gonzalez told me that just a few short years ago it took him three days to backpack into the 40-kilometer-long lake, where he would enjoy fantastic fishing for rainbow and brook trout up to 5 or 6 pounds. Now you can drive there with a hundredth of the effort.
Along the way you'll want to stop and stay at Lodge Deseado. Lago Deseado is about 30 km north — a previous "end of the road" for Y-85. Owner Ricardo Salles is a former appointed government official over the entire Magallanes territory (roughly the equivalent of a governor of a state, or premier of a province, but appointed by federal officials for a set term). When his stint in office was coming to an end, he bought shoreline property in this frontier wilderness and with the help of a partner from Punta Arenas, built a paradise resort in the woods.
The lake has rainbows and browns up to about 20 inches cruising the shore just outside the cabin doors. My best fish came by twitching and swimming a Morrish Mouse pattern across the surface just yards from my lakefront deck. Woolly Buggers, damselfly nymphs, and drys like Parachute Adams work just as well.