December 20, 2022
This article was originally titled "Tres Valles" in the 2022 Destinations special publications.
I was one of the last guests to fish at Tres Valles Lodge before COVID-19 put a halt to the 2020 fishing season. At the time, I was on the final lap to finishing my studies at the University of Texas when photographer Matt Jones called and asked if I wanted to fish with him at Patagonia River Guides (PRG) in Argentina’s wild and remote Rio Pico region. The trip cost me an extra semester because it came during my midterms, and I may have lost my academic focus while in Argentina. But I landed my personal best brown, rainbow, and brook trout, and created memories that will last forever.
I fished spring creeks and pulled 22-inchers out of water that I didn’t think could hold trout half that size. I sight fished to large browns and rainbows on the clearest rivers I have ever seen, and found a new love—stillwater fishing. If you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path trip to an exotic trout destination, PRG’s Rio Pico program—named after the small town and river of the same name—is certainly worth investigating.
PRG seemingly thought of everything for the Rio Pico itinerary, and I readied myself with detailed pretrip travel packets and brochures. I was so fired up that I devoured the information. Travel to Patagonia required a ten-hour direct from Dallas to Buenos Aires, where we transferred through the massive city and unforgettable 9 de Julio Avenue to the domestic airport so we could catch the two-hour direct flight to the Esquel Airport—the hub of Argentina’s Chubut Province.
PRG’s in-house travel team handled our flights, airport transfers, and everything else we needed. Most guests stay a night in Buenos Aires on the way down or back, and I regret not doing this myself to soak in the flavor.
PRG’s staff met us at the airport in Esquel, and we rode a quick 30 minutes to PRG’s Lodge at Trevelin for a snack and a drink before driving two and a half hours down the Andes to Tres Valles. It’s not necessary to stop at Trevelin, but we wanted to stay hello to PRG owners Rance Rathie and Travis Smith, and drop off a few supplies for their kids.
The drive may deter some people. However, the chance to see the countryside of Patagonia was one of the highlights of my entire Argentine adventure. On our drive, we saw nearly every kind of landscape Patagonia has to offer, from massive valleys at the base of the Andes to the endless Patagonian Steppe. The diverse terrain had me feeling like I was driving through different worlds, and with every mile it felt more and more remote.
When traveling, I am always looking for ways to connect with people and places in authentic ways. One of the things that has stuck with me since this trip is the authenticity of this region and the people in Rio Pico. I never saw anything that resembled gaudy tourism or a canned package during my stay. The people in this place work in unison to keep the tradition of the gaucho alive, and preserve the true spirit of Patagonia. Authenticity, to me, means staying true to yourself and to your heritage. There wasn’t a conversation or a wave from any man or woman in this area that didn’t feel genuine.
While we were there, we got a small glimpse of the gaucho way of life. As a Texan and someone who has grown up on horseback on different cattle ranches, it was special to see the differences and underlying similarities between cowboys and gauchos. These men and women are connected to the land they love and the animals they have been tasked with protecting.
The Rio Pico region remains true and authentic, with little influence from the tourists who pour into resort towns in the Lake District to the north, glaciers to the south, and marine parks to the east. Gauchos still ride the range as they have for more than a hundred years, tending to massive herds of sheep and cattle on large estancias, which are both ranches with over a legua of land (more than 6,250 acres) and smaller “campos.” To get an idea of how big some of these estancias are, we flew over an estancia of more than a million acres near Esquel, and drove through another half-million-acre estancia on the drive to Rio Pico.
The little town of Rio Pico has few services for tourists other than an official tourism office, which looks like it hasn’t had a tourist in it all year; three gas pumps; and a few small grocery stores. There are a few little cabins for rent and a large hotel, which opens and closes according to the owner’s moods. There is also a hospital, churches, pharmacy, government buildings, police station, and a bar.
While we stopped for diesel, I walked into a little store nearby. I always like to buy a local beer on my trips and went for a cold Quilmes, Argentina’s national beer. Pictures of giant fish—some were over 30 pounds—lined the walls. I was shocked and asked my guide, Emiliano Luro, where all those fish came from. “This is where some of the biggest fish in Argentina reside,” he told me. I immediately thought of Tierra del Fuego and Jurassic Lake and asked him if that might be stretching the truth a bit. He told me that I had a chance at fish over 20 pounds on this trip, if I wanted to target them.
As we approached Tres Valles Lodge, Emiliano gave us a brief history lesson about the Solis Valley. It was named after a man named Solis, who homesteaded the valley 110 years ago. Mr. Solis had two wives and 26 children, and to this day many people in the region bear the Solis family name. Fascinated by the struggles he must have gone through to homestead in this remote area, I was curious why he chose the valley. But I quickly understood when we crested the final hill before descending into what can only be described as breathtaking beauty. The drive into the Solis Valley will stick with me for many years. Finally, we had arrived, and the adventure had already been well worth it.
Tres Valles Lodge is an impressive, off-the-grid facility located on a large estancia within an hour’s drive of countless lakes and streams. The 10,000-square-foot main lodge sits in a splendid location just above Lago Vilches, a private lake, and with stunning views of Cerro Desnudo (Naked Mountain) and cream-colored Andes. Its five suites are divided among two wings, separated by an inviting great room with a massive fireplace, which had a fire lit the entire time I was there. The upper level has a library, fly-tying space, TV room (for sports only, they tell me), and an additional great room with balconies, where guests can spread out to read or relax.
Constructed of beautiful local wood, the lodge features interesting Argentine Criollo decor (estancia/country style), high ceilings, and large windows with views from every room—even the bathrooms. As the sun rises over the lake and burns off the fog from the night before, it slowly reveals unencumbered views of the spectacular mountains and the lake.
The guest bedrooms can be set up with a king or twin beds, and each room has a private deck, large closet, walk-in shower, and separate bathtub. The lodge is upscale, but lodge manager Guillermina Etchebarne has created a homey feel, treating everyone like family and staying true to the Argentine hospitality culture. It’s easy to relax and unwind when you are not fishing. With the lodge maxing out at ten guests, it was easy to enjoy good conversation and build relationships with the other guests.
Getting the chance to spend time with the other guests and hear about their day of fishing was one of my favorite parts of the entire experience. I made friends with anglers from London, Buenos Aires, and New York. I don’t think there are many places or activities that can bring such a wide array of people together.
PRG provided everything for my trip. I was skeptical and not used to traveling without any of my own flies or gear. In fact, I was extremely worried because other lodges in the past had claimed they would provide everything, but I’d had some disappointing experiences. But PRG has the best equipment available, including Abel reels paired with Winston rods, and Simms waders and boots. Everything was packed neatly in a Simms taco bag and dry bag, hanging in the mud room upon my arrival.
One of the interesting things on the tackle side is that during my trip I never fished anything lighter than 3X tippet. To this day it still surprises me that these fish were so willing to eat flies tied to such heavy tippet. In some of the spring creeks it’s necessary to use 2X tippet because of the thick vegetation and the size of the fish. PRG is always focused on having the best gear because losing the fish of a lifetime due to poor gear is not only heartbreaking, it’s completely avoidable.
Tres Valles Lodge is in a region of Argentina that’s home to some of the most incredible small-river and spring creek fishing in the country, and also some of the best lake fishing. With access to more than two dozen lakes in the area, there is a fishery for everyone, and guides can choose based on weather and other conditions. I grew up fishing in Colorado alpine lakes for brook trout. To me, a large brook trout was 10 to 12 inches. But in the lakes at Tres Valles Lodge, a 12-inch brook trout would be a snack for the hog brookies we chased!
These lakes offer such diversity that you could fish a new lake with a new tactic every morning and afternoon of your trip. The techniques include sight casting to massive fish as they cruise the shallows and bouncing large terrestrials off the bank. There are realistic opportunities for browns over 24 inches and rainbows over 30. Fly fishers not only hunt some of the largest trout in the Southern Hemisphere, but hunt them in the shadows of the Andes towering all around.
Rio Pico Program
The Pico River is born in the Argentine Steppe just east of the town of Rio Pico and flows east to west, finally crossing the Andes and the Chilean border, where its name changes to Rio Figueroa. It’s a brain twister to think that many of the rivers in Argentine Patagonia are formed on the dry eastern slope of the Andes, yet flow through the Andes to the Pacific Ocean and not eastward to the Atlantic.
The Pico is fed by numerous spring creeks as it winds its way through the valley and before being joined by a several freestone rivers, the most notable being the Nielsen and Las Pampas. The valley and surrounding area also are encircled by more than two dozen lakes. Just north of the Rio Pico Valley, and easily accessible from Tres Valles, anglers can also fish the mouth of the immense Vintter Lake and the Corcovado River and several smaller creek and lake systems holding trophy brook trout.
There are no paved roads in the Rio Pico Valley, so access to the rivers and lakes is always an adventure in this sparsely populated region. PRG guides all drive Toyota Hilux trucks with specially designed roof racks to carry all gear, including inflatable NRS rafts. When the weather turned bad in one location, we quickly jumped to another spot. The guide and assistant pumped up or broke down the raft before we could even handle our fishing gear. The ability to get to new places quickly, and the large amount of fishable water, greatly increase your actual fishing time.
I always imagined that trout fishing in Patagonia would be similar to fishing in other places in the world, but there are major differences. In addition to tolerating heavy tippets, Patagonia trout consistently eat large flies! The water is clear, so the takes are very visual. There is something special about casting a large hopper into a spring creek that is only a few feet wide and watching a 20-inch-plus brown do everything in its power to eat that fly.
The rivers, spring creeks, and lakes have such healthy populations of aquatic insects and terrestrials that these trout thrive on seemingly unlimited food sources. On some days I would just sit and watch fish fly out of the water chasing dragonflies, crushing hoppers, and sipping ants off the surface. All of us are familiar with legendary North American Salmonfly hatches and other situations that create fishing days we will never forget. These events usually last only days—sometimes just a few hours—and then the fish will no longer key on these big bites. In Patagonia, however, the terrestrial season runs from late spring until the middle of April.
The Tres Valles Lodge fishing program is flexible and depends greatly on the guests’ desires and skill levels. The plan can change at a moment’s notice due to weather and other factors. Guests typically leave the lodge after breakfast at 8 or 9 A.M., but we chose to leave a little earlier to pack more hours into the day, go farther, and see more variety. On the first day, we fished Lago Tres and the Rio Pico. We landed more than 20 rainbows and browns between 22 and 28 inches on Lago Tres fishing drys and droppers against the reeds for the rainbows, and streamers along the rocky shoreline for browns. Had we stayed all day, we could have fished the entire perimeter of the lake to experience the midday dragonfly action. Instead, we chose to drive a few miles to the spring-fed Rio Pico, which flows right by Lago Tres, allowing for some connectivity during winter floods. We ended up fishing some smaller channels and willow-lined banks of the river near where the Las Pampas and Nielsen join closer to the Chilean border, and quickly lost track of how many fish we caught.
The second day, we decided to stay on the estancia and fish the Las Pampas River and the Arroyo Negro spring creek. We could have also fished Lago Vilches, but were honestly too tired to make another cast. The Las Pampas is a beautiful freestone stream within the Tres Valles Estancia, and reminded me of something you’d see on New Zealand’s South Island.
You can ride horses from the main lodge to the Las Pampas, but we drove in the Hilux so we could move for a few hours on the Arroyo Negro in the afternoon. We covered a couple of miles mostly sight fishing, and landed several nice fish before our late lunch of beef from the estancia, fresh greens from Guillermina’s garden, and a great bottle of Malbec wine. While we finished lunch, the guides packed up, and we headed to the Arroyo Negro spring creek. The Arroyo Negro is 2 feet wide in places, its flow dark and tannin-colored. We fished hoppers and shared a single rod. This little creek is full of big fish, and the casting is challenging, especially with the frequent afternoon breezes. We landed eight browns and rainbows on this tiny spring creek—all of them were over 18 inches—and we lost or spooked many others.
On our third day, the game plan was to explore as much of the southern part of the valley as we could. The day started out with a colorful sunrise and a delicious breakfast prepared by one of the best chefs in the region. Our stomachs were full, and our minds were wandering with the thoughts of what the day might hold.
Gorillas in the Mist
The guides already had all our gear in the truck ready to go, and without delay we were heading out of the estancia in search of a specific brown trout our guide Miguel Fuentes told us about the previous day. This wasn’t just any brown trout—this was a 20-inch-plus mean-muggin’ fish that previously revealed itself chasing after large streamers. During our 30-minute drive to the river, Miguel regaled us with stories of previous clients who had come close but never landed this elusive fish. Little did we know that this brown’s home water was unlike anything we had fished in the previous days.
As we got closer, my anticipation brought me to the edge of my seat. Finally we arrived at the spot, but there was no water in sight. At the look of confusion on my face, Miguel realized that he had forgotten to tell us that we had to hike to the river. I put on my waders as fast as I could, pressuring the rest of our crew to hurry up. After maneuvering through the dense brush for a few hundred yards, we were welcomed by the spray of a 50-foot waterfall.
Walking to the water’s edge, Miguel pointed to the small plunge pool and said: “That is where the big fish lives. We will only have one chance to catch him. He is smart and wary. Make the first cast count.”
To say I was excited would be an understatement. Not only was I about to cast at the biggest brown trout of my life, but I was at the base of a breathtaking waterfall.
The cataract sprayed us like a mister on a hot summer day in Texas. Cast after cast produced no fish. But undeterred, we moved downstream, thinking maybe the fish had moved into some of the pockets in the creek below the pool. After catching a few dozen smaller fish on drys farther downstream, we decided to try for the big brown trout one more time. I waded across to get a different angle on the pool. Knowing that we were going to have to leave shortly, I made a Hail Mary cast under the waterfall. I let the fly sink for a few seconds, then began my strip. One, two, three strips later, nothing . . . then I saw a flash. The fish followed, but I still wasn’t sure how big it was until the big brown smashed the streamer only 6 feet from my rod tip.
The big brown fought toward the plunge pool, but our guide was ready with the net and bolted into the water after the fish. After a few misses with the net, we got our fish, and everyone started cheering as if we had just scored the game-winning touchdown at the Super Bowl. Our stoke was high as we snapped a few pictures and let her swim off to fight another day.
Perhaps the craziest part was that this was only 10 A.M., and we still had a full day of fishing ahead of us. Packing up quickly, we loaded the truck and headed toward Lago Dos. While we were eating, drinking, and talking about our incredible morning, the guides wasted no time getting the NRS raft pumped up and ready to rock and roll. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing with guides all over the world, and I have seen only a very select few work as hard as the guides at Tres Valles Lodge. The crystal-clear lake and turquoise water made me feel like I was fishing a white sand flat in the Bahamas, but the massive Andes peaks surrounding us reminded me that this was not the case. We spent the afternoon throwing large dry/dropper rigs at big brook trout, and using streamers to sight fish to cruising rainbows.
The next day we ventured north toward the mouth of the Rio Corcovado, which pours out of the massive Vintter Lake. We didn’t pass a single dwelling, or another vehicle, during the 45-minute drive from the lodge to the river. The area is totally uninhabited, with the exception of a few gauchos taking care of their sections of estancias.
The Rio Corcovado has the clearest water I have ever seen, and the guides knew exactly where to find pods of brook trout in select pools below the river mouth. Honestly, I was paying more attention to the scenery than to my fly, and truly felt like I was fishing in a storybook, with glaciers clinging to the giant peaks high above us. I swung and stripped streamers, and landed several brook trout between 18 and 22 inches. There are several lakes in the area with bigger brook trout, but those closed on March 1 to protect spawning trout.
Unfortunately, my trip to Argentina in 2020 was cut short by the closing of the country to Covid-19. At the time we were aware of the global pandemic happening in the outside world, but we were surprised that we had to leave the country two days early to get out before it was locked down completely. Things got a little stressful trying to get out of the country, but Patagonia River Guides handled the crisis perfectly, and we had no issues. My flight home was filled with thoughts of what I had missed, but it gave me confidence that when I return they can handle any situation.
Book Your Destination
To get to Tres Valles Lodge, you’ll take a commercial flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, transfer to the domestic airport in the same city, and take a two-hour flight to Esquel in Chubut Province. Patagonia River Guides will pick you up in Esquel and transfer you to the lodge, about a two-and-half-hour drive.
Patagonia River Guides – patagoniariverguides.com
Patagonia River Guides supplies everything you need for your trip, including Simms waders, Abel reels, and flies. If you wish to bring your own gear, here’s an idea of some things you’ll need.
Knox Kronenberg is 24-year-old photographer from Austin, Texas. He owns Packsaddle Productions, a media production company specializing in digital content creation through cinematography and photography.