January 30, 2013
Some of the finest times I've had on the water have been carefully scripted, if not entirely familiar. I can often rehearse the event in my mind before it happens—I know the rock I'll likely be standing on when the evening hatch comes, predict the fly I'll choose from a box that has been carefully stocked for the hatches I know (or hope) will occur on that particular river during that time of year.
Even when I'm fishing a place that is new to me, I can consult fishing reports, talk to people who have been there, and gain an understanding of what to expect. It's a rare thing to step off into a river that doesn't have a name on any map, and likely has never before been fished.
If going fishing on your home water could be likened to a dinner date with your spouse—comfortable, predictable, and familiar—then fishing the rivers of Navarino Island is like roulette dating. You don't know what you're going to get.
In January 2013 I helped launch an exploratory trip to Navarino Island with eight other fly fishers, and the help of Chilean outfitter Rafael Gonzalez. Gonzalez (magallanesflyfishing.com) is a longtime guide on the Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego. TDF is often thought of as the farthest south you can get in Patagonia, but that's actually not true. If you stand on the south shore of TDF and look across the Beagle Channel toward the South Pole, you can see the snow-covered peaks of the Dientes Range that rise like fangs of a canine over Isla Navarino.
This remote and rugged wilderness area hosts enough trekkers, sailors, heli-skiers, and eco-tourists to support the spacious, modern, Lakutaia Lodge in the seabound hamlet of Puerto Wiliams. Looking for a new clientele, and a reach in the US market, Lakutaia and Rafael invited our group to explore the lakes and rivers on the island. As a precursor, Rafael fished two of the small rivers near their lake outflows on the north half of the island. He found resident brook and brown trout in the headwaters, but the rivers mostly flowed to the south and the west, eventually making their way into the frigid seas between the tip of South America and Antarctica. His hopewas that these rivers—like some of the rivers of TDF—would hold sea-run brown trout.
Flying in Style
Puerto Williams is a tiny Chilean navy base crowded between the protected shores of the Beagle Channel and the 1,000 meter peaks of the Dientes Range. The freshwater on the island mostly flows away from town, down the south and west sides of the mountains and toward the sea. These rivers are unfished because the area is incredibly remote, rugged, and roadless. While there are some good hiking trails to/from Puerto Williams and the Dientes Range, the wilderness valleys beyond are riddled with barriers: massive blowdowns, terraced beaver ponds, bogs, swamps, forest, and a patchwork of Chilean sphagnum moss (Sphagnum magellanicum).
The only way in/out of these rivers is by helicopter, and DAP Airlines (also interested in developing a future fishing tourism business) underwrote our trip by handling the flights and logistics. Each day our pilot (and owner of the family business) Nicolás Pivcevic flew a group of three anglers and a guide to a new location to test the waters and hopefully find sea-run brown trout.
Nico's priority was finding a safe place to land the chopper, and from there we explored the rivers and lakes by hiking upriver or downriver, often starting at a lake and working downriver toward the ocean.
If you were willing and able to hike long distances, hit the obvious best holding water, and then quickly move on, the fishing was exceptional. Not only did we find sea-run brown trout, we found sea-run brook trout (salters), and a few steelhead.
There were also resident versions of all species, but even within sight of the ocean, it was easy to tell the difference between the saltwater trout and the residents that stayed exclusively in freshwater. The resident brook trout were exceptionally colorful with fire-red bellies and almost back blacks with barely discernable vermiculations. The brook trout that were fresh from the ocean were silvery with pale bellies, and cerise spots with lavender halos.
Rainbow trout in the rivers were also dark, and heavily spotted, perhaps to match the dark bottom and tea-stained color of the water. Rainbows from the ocean were chrome-plated, and the sea-run browns were silver with a faint blue sheen the guides say is also a trademark of fresh sea-runs on the Rio Grande River. The resident browns had buttery yellow bellies the color of movie theater popcorn.
On my best day I was fortunate enough to catch a grand slam of all three species near where the Windhond River flows into the ocean. James Belken, Grace Smith, and I spent most of the day navigating the lower 3 to 4 kilometers of the river. From the air we estimated that we could fish from our landing spot all the way to the ocean, and then have lunch by the seaside. Our plan was to spend the afternoon fishing back upstream to meet the chopper at the same spot by 6 PM.
However, distances always look shorter and the terrain always looks flatter from the air. Once on the ground we realized that those tantalizing "riffles" were actually rapids that were too swift to cast a fly, and the steep, brush-choked hillsides made it impossible to fish for several kilometers. At 2 PM, after several hours of bush-whacking, navigating beaver dams, and sweating our way up and down the hillsides, we made it to the S-bends of the estuary where the salt spray and tidal influence slowed the river and kept the tree growth to a minimum.
This is where Grace Smith caught the first sea trout of the expedition, a leaping, high-flying ocean fish that was no bigger than some of the resident trout we landed, but had the telltale blue sheen that showed it was fresh from the ocean. In fact, Grace caught twin sea trout standing in that exact spot, swinging a gold conehead Krystal Bugger. Just downstream James Belden caught his first sea-run brown trout (and a steelhead), and I landed my best trout of the trip, a 30-inch sea trout that might have run 10 or 12 pounds.
We caught sea trout in two different rivers, in both instances very close to tidewater, and the sea trout we found did not rival the size of the fish on TDF's Rio Grande where 25-pound fish are common. But we did walk the banks of rivers that had never been fished, and the trout we caught on the south shore of Navarino represent what is likely the world's southernmost trout population.
And while the sea trout were certainly the goal of the expedition, the resident trout were in some cases larger than the sea trout, and certainly more prolific. Perhaps the best day I observed was when I fished with Joe Stevens of Michigan, and we walked a tiny stream that joined two lakes. We started at the in-flow of one lake, and spent the day walking upstream, hitting the obvious holding pools. Grace Smith caught some beautiful trout including a rainbow trout that had black spots on its lips, eyes, and even on its white belly.
Patrick Alfaro shared with us a traditional Chilean mate along with lunch, and afterward, it seemed like the big trout just couldn't resist Joe's #4 Yuk Bug as he pitched it under overhanging limbs, and twitched it along submerged log jams to catch 20- to 22-inch brown trout in a stream so small, I'd expect to catch 6-inch brook trout in it back home. That afternoon Joe seemed to catch a big trout in every hole he crept up to, and when he finally reached the lake, he capped the day with a 26-inch brown that was probably 8 pounds.
Looking under the rocks in these streams showed relatively infertile, and barren stream bottoms with very little in the way of macroinvertebrates. These are not particularly fecund trout streams, in fact I'd guess most of the dependable trout streams in the U.S. are capable of supporting a much larger biomass. The key to our success on Navarino wasn't a supercharged ecosystem—it was quite the opposite. It is a cold, clean, unmolested ecosystem where there are a few big trout in each good holding pool. If you're lucky enough to be the first to find them, the results can be staggering.