Brook Trout and Sea-run Browns on Chile's Navarino Island
(This story first appeared in the 2019 Fly-Fisherman Destinations Issue. It was originally titled South of Patagonia: Brook Trout and Sea-run Browns on Chile's Navarino Island.)
Patagonia is the vast southernmost stretch of both Chile and Argentina, the land of the aboriginal Patagon people. Early explorers described the Patagons as “giants” because they were larger than the diminutive European sailors. The Patagons are mostly all gone now, but the secluded valleys of Patagonia are now home to giants of another type: giant wild brook trout and brown trout that were brought to the region more than a century ago. They have adapted, they have expanded their range, and in this unfettered wilderness they grow much larger than their cousins in the Northern Hemisphere.
Most fly fishers have heard of Tierra del Fuego, a massive island at the tip of Patagonia that is made famous by the Rio Grande and its annual runs of sea-run brown trout. Beyond Tierra del Fuego, straight south across the Beagle Channel is another island, a much wilder, forested landscape that has not been used as a sheep pasture for 200 years. Navarino Island is a true wilderness, with likely the southernmost wild trout population on the planet. Cape Horn is just a bare rock 20 miles to the south, and if you keep going, you’ll run into Antarctica.
Nestled in the small town of Puerto Williams—the only town on the island (population 1,800)—rests the beautiful Lakutaia Lodge, capable of hosting a maximum of eight guests for the week. Your fishing day starts the same way each morning—a helicopter picks you up on the front lawn—but what happens after that is always an exciting unknown quantity. Navarino Island has more than 200 square miles of untrammeled wilderness resembling the tundra of Alaska. Once you fly high over the breathtaking Dientes mountain range you enter a vast roadless area with an endless supply of both fresh and salt water to explore.
The island has three major watersheds, and they all are fed by one or more deep, cold lakes, and all the rivers eventually find their way to the ocean. The lakes have inflow and outflow areas that are prime feeding areas for trout, and each river has its own unique geographical look and flow—no water system looks or fishes the same. From small spring creeks, to fast, wide pocketwater, beaver dams, and brawling rapids, Navarino has it all.
There are three species of trout here: browns, brook trout, and rainbows. There are no records of trout stocking taking place on Navarino Island, but all three species were stocked on multiple occasions on the larger island to the north. By some miracle—perhaps God is a fly fisher?—the descendants of those fish made it to the ocean and eventually sniffed out the rivers and streams of Navarino Island. Today there are resident and sea-run varieties of rainbows, browns, and brook trout. The biggest of these are sea-run brown trout that can run up to 32 inches and about 15 pounds. And while there are sea-run brook trout that thrive in the estuaries, the biggest brook trout are residents of the connected lake/river/lake watersheds that are similar to the famous Minipi Lake ecosystems of Labrador.
Guides and Pilots
Head guide Rafael Gonzalez has more than 30 years of experience in Chile and abroad. He has been guiding on Navarino Island for the last eight years, and there’s no one who can make you feel more comfortable than the gregarious giant everyone calls “Rafa.” After spending most of my adult life as a full-time fly-fishing guide and teacher, I can tell you that Gonzalez and his staff will not just help you catch fish, they’ll help make you a better angler.
Gonzalez’s right-hand man, pilot Marcelo Yanez, has more than 5,000 flying hours and 27 years of experience in helicopter operations, and has been dedicated to Lakutaia Helifishing program on Navarino Island the last six years. He started his pilot career as a police officer in Santiago in 1992 and moved to the air base in Coyhaique in 1996. In 2008 he started flying for DAP Helicopters based in Punta Arenas. After 11 years flying for DAP, he has participated in many flights to the south and north ice fields on Antarctica, to Cape Horn, and of course Navarino Island.
The twin-engine Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 helicopter used at Navarino has a tail rotor 1.2 meters off the ground. This high clearance allows you to land almost anywhere. I was surprised at how comfortable and safe these machines are, and flying over the Dientes mountain range is like passing through a gateway to angling paradise. These are some of the most stunning views in the world. Each heli drop takes five anglers and a good amount of gear in the rear storage. You will fly over your entire beat before landing, and then explore the waters on foot. (Exception: At some of the lake mouths Gonzalez has stashed one-man pontoon craft.)
Food & Flies
There are only sparse hatches of midges, caddis, and Blue-winged Olives on Navarino, one good reason why so many of these trout venture to the ocean looking to expand their food sources. The big resident trout get that way from clean water, old age, zero harvest, and by voraciously eating whatever comes into view and looks edible. Unlike my home waters in Colorado, where the fish are suspicious and cautious, most Navarino trout have not seen a hook or a human, and they’ll eat almost anything you can present as edible—dry flies, nymphs, and streamers all produce fish. And the biggest fish don’t hide in inobvious locations, they are often situated in the prime feeding stations at the edge of a seam, behind boulders or beaver dams, or immediately below gravel bar drop-offs. Alex Bonino caught the best fish of our trip—a 16-pound chrome sea-run brown—in a small, 4-foot-long calm bucket at the head of a long-running seam in a deep run.
Distinguishing a big resident brown from a sea-run fish is easy. Resident browns are buttery yellow with pronounced dark markings. Sea-run fish are silvery, often with a faint bluish tinge on their gill plates. Sea-run brook trout are also camouflaged for the ocean, silvery with faint violet spots and vermiculations, while the resident brook trout that feed back and forth between lakes and rivers are dark olive with bright orange bellies and fire engine-red fins. They are some of the most beautiful trout in the world.
You can get some of these big browns and brookies to rise to attractors like Amy’s Ants and Fat Alberts, but the best approach is swinging streamers like Barr’s Meat Whistle, Craven’s Double Gonga, Gallop’s Tips Up, and Chocklett’s Game Changer.
White, tan, black, rust, and olive are all good colors, but rusty-orange crayfish imitations with rubber legs seemed particularly effective in estuary areas and with sea-run fish. The coastal and estuary waters around Navarino are filled with crustaceans called squat lobsters, and the fat lumpy bellies of fish near salt water show that the trout feast on them.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how productive the mouse game was at Navarino. While our pre-trip information briefly mentioned the possibility of catching trout on mice, I found that in most of the waters, the trout were eager to attack a large meal. Mousing made Navarino one of my all-time best dry-fly adventures, and it was also a learning experience that will help me use mice more effectively on my home waters.
One of the main benefits of tying flies is it keeps you thinking even when you are off the water. It forces you to evaluate everything about the flies you use and the flies you tie. Every evening at Lakutaia Lodge my mind raced over the visual images of these great trout that at times were leaping out of the water after my mouse, or at other times like a toilet flushing below the fly, but then no connection. That is when the light bulbs started going off.
At first I thought the fish were just exceptionally sloppy, and not very proficient at eating mice. But the more I watched I became convinced that the fish rarely want to consume a whole rodent alive and swimming (and clawing). They either torpedo the mouse with intent to injure, or they swirl and nudge the fly in an attempt to grab a leg or tail and drown their prey before eating. Don’t set the hook when you see a splash or these types of commotions. Wait until the mouse is gone and the line comes tight.
In fast water I used mends to introduce some extra slack line into the system to prevent pulling the flies away from the fish. The mouse should barely make headway in fast water. Trout will often take the mouse while it is practically dead drifting.
For slow water you want to give the fly plenty of action, like plugging a bass popper with noise and bubbles followed by long pauses. This captures the attention of trout, then offers them a meal they know won’t escape.
For both fast and slow water, the trick was to watch for the take/attack, pause for two seconds, and then lift the rod. One of my companions, Peggy Stevinson, had great days mouse fishing with guide Mike Tayloe. He taught her to add extra motion to her swinging mouse pattern by “stripping and wiggling.”
In some mouse patterns, the hook point rides up to “hide” the hook and attempt to reduce injuries to fish, but I am a firm believer that a hook-down position results in many more hookups because the trout feeds from below, driving the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth. I use a small, stinger-style hook at the rear of a Morrish Mouse and use a tail of natural micro pine squirrel to help the fly move and breathe like a real mouse.
When the topwater bite was slow, our challenge was to deliver subsurface nymphs in fast, turbulent water 1 to 2 feet deep. We had success tight-line drifting in the riffles, but found a really effective technique was to use a Morrish Mouse or a Mr. Hankey as a strike indicator just like you would back home with a hopper/dropper combo. The buoyancy of the mouse seemed to jog and lift a Mini Leech Jig or Pat’s Rubber Legs through every bump in the riffle. It was amazing to watch trout swirl on the mouse and then eat the leech as though they intended to eat both items.
The seasons are reversed in this hemisphere, and January here is springtime, with long days and rivers full of snowmelt. February is the middle of summer, and winter comes again in March. This is the land of penguins. Summer doesn’t stay very long! Whenever you travel, you can expect to have a variety of conditions, with warm, windy afternoons, cold mornings, and the possibility of snow or rain on almost any day.
Single handed rods from 6- to 8-weights work for most of the rivers here, which are often just 30 or 40 feet wide. Even though there are migratory sea trout here, two-handed rods are overkill. The best fly lines are weight-forward floating lines like Scientific Anglers Amplitude MPX. With some deep runs we used Sonar Sinking Leaders ranging from 1.5 to 6 inches per second.
The End of the World
The question that most often comes up when I tell people about travel to South America is “Is it worth it?” Navarino Island is mostly undeveloped. It’s a long haul to get there, but I can honestly say that never once have I seen a brown trout so aggressive that it runs out of swimmable water trying to kill my mini Mr. Hankey, beaching itself with its fins flared for balance, trying to nip at the dry-docked mouse like a dog trying to steal food off the dinner table. That’s how wild fish act when they’re not educated by humans, and it’s a sight I’ll never forget. When I saw that display with Mike Roche on Navarino Island, we knew it was going to be an amazing journey. We looked at each other in silence at first, and then laughed in pure amazement at what we had seen.
Fly fishing is about so much more than catching fish. It’s those memories, adventures, and stories that all fly fishers thirst for, and Navarino Island gave us a lifetime of them.
Book Your Destination
Visit lakutaiahelifishing.com for more details, +56-61-2321044, firstname.lastname@example.org.
You should go to Navarino Island with the intention to throw big, meaty flies like the Mr. Hankey. To do this you’ll need stout 9-foot 0X leaders, and a fly line like the Amplitude MPX that is a half size heavy with a steep taper to push large flies through a stiff wind. Your lightweight boots should have rubber bottoms with an aggressive tread for all-day hiking, and no cleats due to helicopter rides to and from the fishing each day.
Winston Boron III Plus 9-foot 6-weight Rod, $875
bauer SST RX 4 Reel, size 6, $675
Scientific anglers amplitude MPX 6-weight line, $130
Smith Guide’s Choice ChromaPop Glasses Brown, $230
Simms G4 PRO Jacket, $550
Simms G4 Pro Guide Waders, $550
Yeti Panga 28 Backpack, $300
jeff hickman’s Mini Mr. Hankey Mouse, size 6, $5
*Landon Mayer is a Colorado fly-fishing guide and Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He lives with his wife Michelle and their four children in Florissant, Colorado. His most recent book is The Hunt for Giant Trout: 25 Best Places in the United States to Catch a Trophy (Stackpole Books, 2018).