November 02, 2022
By Ross Purnell
This article originally appeared in the 2022 Destinations special publication of Fly Fisherman magazine.
When most fly fishers think of Patagonia, they think of an arid southern steppe with a dusty gaucho moving along the horizon, or a grassy windswept plain where guanacos punctuate a distant horizon. But there is another Patagonia with towering peaks, sculptured hanging glaciers, dense Valdivian temperate rainforests, deep emerald lakes, and tumbling jagged rivers cascading over granite boulders.
The Los Lagos region of Chile is literally a “land of lakes” where the Andes butt up against the Pacific Ocean, and fresh water flowing from the atmospheric peaks—in the form of snow and rain—fills the steep valleys with waterfalls, spectacular rivers, and serpentine lakes that curl around snow-capped volcanoes.
Before the arrival of Spanish colonists, the Huilliche people called this territory Futahuillimapu, meaning “great land of the south,” although from the point of view of the Patagon people—after which the Patagonia region is named—it’s impossibly far to the north.
The Los Lagos region is home to Monte Verde, arguably the oldest archaeological site in the Americas. The widely accepted date for human occupation here is 14,500 BP, although some archaeologists have it pegged as old as 18,500 BP. The whole site contradicts the previously accepted theory that the Clovis were the first humans in America, beginning about 13,500 BP. The site was discovered along the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek, where farmers found strange “cow bones” in a bog that turned out to be from gomphotheres—elephant-like mammals from the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. Later excavations found hearths with charcoal, the remains of 12 huts, a human footprint, human-modified stones, and a chunk of gomphothere meat with preserved DNA.
In 1567, the Spanish landed on Chiloé Island, a wilderness so vast that the Spaniards likely didn’t realize they hadn’t yet reached the mainland. Due to the rugged, inaccessible landscape, actual colonization by non-indigenous people didn’t begin until the 1850s, when Germans began government-sponsored homesteading along the shores of Llanquihue Lake. Today, that German influence is still evident in the architecture, culture, and cuisine of towns like Puerto Varas, which have a distinctive Bavarian flavor.
The trout waters here would perhaps be more globally famous if the region was more populated and accessible. Lakes like Lago Yelcho and Lago Palena, and rivers like Rio Futaleufú and Rio Palena dominate the landscape, but are hidden from the global stage since there are only a few small farming communities near these fisheries, and the select few visitors who visit the region have it mostly to themselves.
There’s an old adage that says “In Patagonia, God created perfect trout habitat, but he forgot the trout.” That’s because there are no native trout or even salmonids of any type in South America. Trout are native only to the Northern Hemisphere.
German settlers in the Los Lagos region imported and stocked brown trout from the Hamburg region in the 1890s for recreational purposes. When English settler John Goodall introduced brown trout to the island of Tierra del Fuego in 1935, he didn’t get them from Europe. He received and reared brown trout ova from Puerto Montt, the major port near Llanquihue Lake. It’s likely that most or all of the brown trout distributed through Patagonia came via German settlers in the Llanquihue Lake region. Rainbow trout and brook trout from North America came later.
The three most common native Chilean fish species essentially became prey species when trout arrived on the continent.
Trichomycterus areolatus is a pencil catfish, and to fly fishers and trout, it’s basically a river sculpin. Two other closely related species from the family Galaxiidae—Brachygalaxias bullocki and Galaxias maculatus—are known locally in the Los Lago region as “puye,” [Spanish: puyen] which roughly translated means “eel.”
These ribbonlike, translucent fish aren’t eels at all, they are small fish a maximum of 3 inches long. Galaxias maculatus is the most common freshwater fish in the entire Southern Hemisphere, and is found in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and South America. In New Zealand these “puye” are called whitebait because their freshwater spawning activity can turn the water milky from so much sperm. In New York City, Auckland, and Sydney, you can order whitebait from restaurant menus and they will bring you a basket of these slender, deep-fried fish and you can eat them whole like French fries.
Some Galaxiids live in fresh water all their lives, but most of the widespread species like Galaxias maculatus have a partially marine lifecycle. The adults mate in freshwater—often near the high tide line—and the larvae hatch in a river, but they are washed downstream into the salt water, later returning to far upriver as juveniles to complete their development into full adulthood. When they are sexually mature, they move downriver toward estuary areas to spawn. In some ways their lifecycle is similar to Pacific salmon or steelhead, but puye actually feed and grow to adulthood in the river, whereas salmon return for a short period only to spawn.
When the tiny juvenile puye return to the river, they are less than an inch long and clear like translucent mini eels. Given their tiny size, they are weak swimmers when facing the current of large rivers. They migrate upstream by the billions through rivers and lakes, and the trout have learned to feed upon them at strategic pinch points
In the Los Lagos region, these ambush points are often the great river mouths called “bocas.” These bocas include where the Rio Figueroa flows into Lago Rosselot, or the last 400 yards of the mighty Rio Futaleufú where the river finally flows over a sand/gravel bar and into Lago Yelcho, or downstream at the outflow where the massive lake births the Rio Yelcho.
At these powerful transition areas, trout ambush the schooling puye, and at times you’ll see dozens of trout at a time, finning at the surface, gulping at thousands of the helpless glass minnows pinned against the surface.
As usual in these situations, catching the fish in the midst of a feeding frenzy is not as easy as it looks. The trout are right there, and feeding heavily, but they become very selective, and most flies are too large and bulky. Your best bet is a super slender, lightly weighted white Clouser Minnow with just one or two strands of black bucktail on top. The black eyes of puye are prominent, but you don’t want flies with heavy dumbbell eyes as the puye wriggle laterally near the surface when they are under attack, but they rarely jig up and down. Black plastic bead eyes, burned monofilament eyes, or a dot with a black marker will all work.
These flies that look “just right” can still be lost in the school of naturals, so be patient and efficient with your casting so the fly is in the bucket as much as possible.
When the trout are not on top selectively eeling, the strategy is to drift through the boca slowly, casting toward the shore, mending upstream to create slack and allow the line to sink, and swinging streamers steelhead-style through the runs. Most of the grabs come on a tight line when the line reaches about a 45-degree angle, the fly is at maximum depth, and the slight bow in your line causes the fly to begin to rise.
There are big trout feeding at these river mouths. Brown trout of 12 or 15 pounds are caught regularly, but most of them are 20 to 22 inches. The browns are brilliantly colored with fantastic red spots, and they have fat, soft white bellies from overeating. The hard-body rainbows seem to pack on muscle—they can almost lurch the rod out of your hands when you are swinging, and they take long, leaping runs, often heading from the river mouth toward the center of the lake.
Of course, the puye are only part of the equation in creating an ecosystem that grows large trout. Most of the large rivers that flow to the ocean—like the Rio Palena/Rosselot and the Rio Futaleufú/Yelcho river systems—also have wild, self-sustaining Chinook salmon populations that were seeded decades ago by commercial salmon aquaculture operations. Puerto Montt is a huge exporter of farmed salmon because the geography of Chiloé Island creates a massive protected inland sea.
Over the decades, the trout have grown accustomed to feeding on salmon eggs and salmon smolts. Rotting salmon carcasses bring nutrients from the ocean into the river just like they do in their native Alaska.
With all the smolts, sculpins, and puye in these river/lake systems, it’s no wonder that streamer fishing is such an effective and primary fishing tool—especially for the truly giant fish that develop a bite size and predatory instincts that allow them to become almost exclusively piscivorous. But there are mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies in all these rivers that hatch mostly in the evenings in the height of summer in January and early February. Earlier in the season and on cooler, cloudy days there can be afternoon hatches as well.
Despite the size of these rivers, the water is often as clear as from a tap, and on many days before boating downstream to the boca for the evening, guide Miles Marquez from West Yellowstone used the oars on an 18-foot Hyde Power Drifter to quietly drift in the huge back eddies of the Futaleufú where we could see the blue/green backs of rainbow trout hovering close to the surface, sipping odds and ends from the top. The currents were complex, and the trout and the boat were constantly in motion, but if you could place a Parachute Adams or Purple Haze in front of their noses, they’d eat it every time.
After an hour or two of sight casting to sippers in the river, we’d head to the boca and drift through the slot, swinging small white Clousers and other streamers through what is essentially a 400-yard steelhead run with a perfect tailout at the bottom. However, the tailout doesn’t end in a rapid or riffle—the river flows out into a fjord-shaped lake that covers 45 square miles.
If the puye aren’t running the boca, you can drift the steep forested shorelines of the lake, casting big, black foam flies against rocky shorelines and under overhanging branches. The fish in all these lakes feed on a variety of terrestrials, including ants and beetles, the biggest of which is endemic to Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina. Cantaria beetles (Chiasognathus grantii)—also known as Darwin’s beetle—are stag beetles that live high in the forest canopy. The females are up to 1.5 inches long, and the males are twice that size due to their massive pinchers. They use these mandibles not for feeding, but for fighting other males in a constant game of “king of the castle.” When they fight, one male throws the other from the tree branch, leaving all the food and the females for himself. This is good news for trout and for fly fishers. No black foam fly is too big when you are fishing near a forested shoreline. If you can cast it, the trout will eat it, and if the fly lands with a resounding “plop” that’s okay too.
You can also focus on the shallow weedy bays in other parts of the lake, where on warm days you’ll see swarms of dancing damselflies and the largest dragonflies I’ve ever seen. In terms of insects, the region is like King Kong’s island, where everything is gigantic. The dragonflies are as large as your hand, and the trout bullrush them when they see them on the water. I brought regular-size damselflies with me but they were too small. I don’t think you can even buy dragonfly imitations this large in the U.S. The guides in the Los Lagos region custom tie these giants.
Big bugs like this serve as great strike indicators as well, and it sometimes pays to drop a scud or a Mayer’s Mini Leech Jig Damsel below a black beetle or a dragonfly, although you’ll want a 7-weight rod and a Scientific Anglers Amplitude Textured MPX fly line to cast this kind of bulk.
Access to this fishing for many decades has been difficult and/or incredibly rustic, with small local outfitters unwilling or unable to invest in the infrastructure to support an upscale tourism operation that might run only three or four months a year. That all changed when Chad Pike, owner of Eleven Experience based in Crested Butte, Colorado, bought an existing luxury log hacienda in 2018 and after two years of extensive renovations, unveiled Rio Palena Lodge in 2020—just as Covid-19 was shutting down all international tourist travel.
After a two-year haitus, the lodge is open, and offers unparalleled accommodations and opportunity for adventure in the most remote and wild parts of northern Patagonia. What makes it all work is that like many other Eleven Experience properties around the world, Rio Palena Lodge is a heli ski operation in the winter, a fishing lodge in the summer, and has a host of other adventure activities so the lodge runs more months per year. This means the company can maintain and improve the property, and also attract and keep the best staff in a remote, large, mostly inaccessible area.
As the name implies, the Rio Palena Lodge sits on a riverfront property. Guests can walk from the ground-level wader room right to the river. There are also numerous full- and half-day floats to and from the lodge, and also for up to 40 miles downstream, where you’ll see nothing but brown and rainbow trout, massive lenga or coihue beech trees, condors overhead, and small family farms.
There is literally no one else fishing this river, and it’s bursting at the seams with small aggressive rainbows, and the large predator browns that feed upon them.
The fishing directly from the lodge is with three-person NRS rafts to navigate the complicated braided boulder gardens in the river just downstream from the lodge. The other floats are in hard drift boats, the same as you’d have on the Yellowstone or the Missouri. The drive to Eleven’s private property and boat launch along the Futaleufú takes about 45 minutes, and that opens the door to the whole Lago Yelcho river/lake system.
The greatest flexibility, of course, comes from the helicopter parked daily on the front lawn of the Rio Palena Lodge. A 10-minute flight in the chopper gets you to the Rio El Tigre, a small alpine stream where you can catch 50+ brook trout a day, some of them as large as 16 inches. Weather permitting, the chopper can also take you much farther afield to unnamed and/or inaccessible lakes where Eleven has boats stashed for days of trophy stillwater fishing. The type of fishing in these lakes depends on the elevation. Some alpine lakes at the top of the Andes straddle the Chile/Argentina border. These high lakes have rocky shorelines, with inlet and outlet streams and often a lot of logs in the water. They always have clear water, spectacular alpine scenery, and big rainbows, brook trout, and browns.
Some mid-elevation lakes are so remote that they are impossible to hike or horse pack into. These lakes are surrounded by thick forest and tall Southern Hemisphere beech trees. Overhanging limbs and reeds offer cover for large trout, so cantaria beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies are good bets. These are good spots to catch supremely fat 18-inch brook trout. Photographer Brian O’Keefe calls these picture-worthy trout “Girth Brooks.”
The lower-elevation lakes have an underwater jungle of aquatic plants. Dragonflies are numerous, so a lot of the fishing is with large dry flies. Eleven has boats with motors stashed at the high lakes, boats with oars at the mid-elevation lakes, and flies inflatable rafts with anglers and guides to the lower-elevation lakes. I’ll assume the fly-out lakes have names, but due to the equipment they have stashed out there, and the expense of researching and cataloging the best lakes, Eleven guides do not reveal the actual lake names or locations.
Eleven’s calling card is custom catering and flexibility. On my day on the El Tigre, I was catching brook trout on nearly every cast when an approaching storm threatened to end our day early. However, after some radio chatter, the pilot flew us and our guides to a gravel bar on the lower Rio Palena, where staff members had drift boats ready to launch and continue the day of fishing.
To expand on that flexibility, in late 2022 Eleven Experience acquired two additional lodges in the Los Lagos region of Chilean Patagonia. Before the opening of Rio Palena Lodge, these two Martin Pescador lodges were known as the top fly-fishing lodges in the region. Puerto Cardenas Lodge is one mile downstream of the outlet of Lago Yelcho, and sits 30 feet from the Rio Yelcho. La Junta Lodge overlooks the Rio Rosselot, and is close to the Rio Figueroa and several other trout rivers. Puerto Cardenas and La Junta both sit in coveted locations, and have outstanding reputations with experienced guide staff. Eleven Experience will upgrade the vehicles, boats, the accommodations, and both the lodges in the 2022 off-season, and they will open to the public for the first time under the Eleven Experience banner in November 2022. With three lodges in the Lago Yelcho region, it’s possible to combine two or more of them in a week of fishing to sample different waters and different activities, and reduce travel time.
Nonfishing activities at Rio Palena Lodge include world-class whitewater rafting on the upper Futaleufú, where the river drops from the Andes in a never-ending series of Class IV and Class V rapids; mountain biking on Trek full-suspension mountain bikes; hiking to scenic waterfalls and glaciers; kayaking; and river trips on Badfish SUPs. Even paddling underneath a glacier is an option.
The lodge has seven en-suite bedrooms, each one with a river view. After a day of fishing, you can relax on the deck, do more fishing in front of the lodge, soak in outdoor wood-fired hot tubs, or enjoy Pisco sours or any cocktails of your choice at the full bar. Of course, they’ll also bring you the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the hot tub or down at the river, whichever you’d prefer.
The Rio Palena Lodge chef normally presents artistic meals of fine beef, homemade pastas, grilled salmon, and locally grown produce. The pastry chef when I was there was incomparable. Every week there is a traditional Chilean asado in a wonderful barbecue area that’s just a short walk from the lodge, and lit with fire and hanging lanterns. If the fire isn’t warm enough for you, they wrap you in a traditional gaucho poncho so you can enjoy the fire-roasted lamb and red wine in true Chilean attire.
Located in a largely uninhabited region of Patagonia, Rio Palena Lodge is not just new to the fly-fishing world, it’s the first time this kind of upmarket lodge has been available in this largely undeveloped and uninhabited part of Chile. It’s an escape not just for the fishing, but to an adventure where you can truly immerse yourself in a wild place, and still be comfortable in bringing your nonfishing spouse or partner for a week of unparalleled comfort, relaxation, and adventure.
Book Your Destination
Guests fly to Santiago, Chile, then to Puerto Montt the same day. You catch a short charter flight to Chaiten the next day where a shuttle bus takes you along the boundaries of Corcovado National Park—the 726,000-acre park purchased by North Face founder Doug Tompkins and donated to the Chilean government as a mountainous coastal preserve. Doug Tompkins died in a kayak accident in the region in 2015.
Eleven provides Simms and Patagonia waders, jackets, and boots, as well as Thomas & Thomas, G.Loomis, and Scott rods along with reels and lines. There’s no need to bring your own tackle or outerwear, but you are welcome to. Here’s what I brought with me.
Ross Purnell is editor/publisher of Fly Fisherman magazine.