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Mindfulness. It’s a quality that health experts say is one of the biggest wellness trends for 2019. It pops up as a buzzword throughout society. Mindful eating. Mindful parenting. Mindful marriage. Mindful exercise. Mindful fly fishing.
Since I’m a natural poo-pooer of self-help fads and wellness trends, it took a number of incidents and observations during a recent trip to the Patagonia region of Argentina to adopt this concept of becoming truly present.
For a guide, mindfulness has always been key. I guide with intention, all synapses firing, always present in an effort to give my clients the best experience possible. But as an angler . . . not so much. A nonwork day on the water typically reveals my carelessness, sloppiness, and lack of discipline, likely the result of distraction by life’s stressors: work, money, family. The Rio Limay changed that by teaching me that fishing with more consciousness doesn’t require being too serious or having less fun.
The transition toward fishing with intention began when I first arrived at Limay River Lodge and met guide Lalo Uriburu, who told me, “You will love this river, because anytime your fly hits the water, something amazing could happen. Not every time. But anytime. Anytime the fly lands you could end up catching the fish of a lifetime.”
Right then, I vowed to fish the Limay as if this cast was the cast.
Limay River Lodge is nestled on the rugged and isolated middle section of the Limay that runs through the Patagonia high steppe below Pichi Picún Leafú Dam. Operated by pioneer guide and outfitter Jorge Trucco and partners, the newly constructed lodge is brimming with mindfulness. The carefully designed fishing operation is a reflection of Trucco’s more than 40 years discovering, innovating, and honing the guided trout experience in Patagonia.
Trucco is widely known for spearheading Argentina’s first catch-and-release regulations and preventing the creation of several dams on multiple rivers. In the early 1980s, he catapulted fly-fishing exploration opportunities in Patagonia by becoming the first to guide from a raft, eventually importing wooden drift boat kits from the United States.
Such milestones don’t happen without a full hull of thought and awareness, made evident in the lodge’s details from the cuisine to the fire pit. “It isn’t easy to run a luxury eco-lodge in the middle of the Patagonia wilderness,” says Trucco. “But our entire staff is so immersed in this operation that they make it look easy. People arrive here and all their work stress or whatever was on their minds before just melts away.”
Notable fly fishers are often asked: If you could fish with anyone on the planet, who would it be? Pose this to renowned Argentine fly-fishing pioneer Jorge Trucco, and he’ll eagerly answer, “Any of my guides.” This, coming from a man who has fished with industry legends, Hollywood celebrities, and government leaders.
“There’s no one more passionate about fly fishing than a good local guide,” says Trucco. “All they want is to share their knowledge and love of the fishery with others. Good guides aren’t in it for themselves—they want the best experience for their clients, and get as excited for their fish as their own. Now, that’s someone I want to fish with, every time.”
Trucco formed his perspective over more than four decades pioneering and improving the guided trout experience in the Patagonia region of Argentina. He started guiding in 1978, and in that same year met a number of influential American anglers visiting Patagonia, including Mel Krieger, Phil Miravalle, AJ DeRosa, and Patty Reilly. DeRosa and Reilly brought their own inflatable raft, and Trucco became impressed by the increased accessibility it offered. “At the time, floating the rivers in drift boats and rafts was something that just didn’t happen in Patagonia,” says Trucco. “The local culture mandated that true fly fishing was only done by wading—not from a boat. Therefore, bigger rivers like the Limay were greatly disregarded by the small Argentine fly angling community.”
The next year, Trucco made his way to the United States, meeting up with his new American friends, along with eventual close friend Lefty Kreh at an industry conclave. Soon he found himself getting his first rowing lesson from Patty Reilly on the Green River in Wyoming. “The first time I got on the oars, the boat went whirling down almost out of control for a good stretch,” says Trucco. “Patty started coaching me: Now pull . . . ! Now pull with your right oar . . . ! Now hold . . . ! Pull again . . . ! Now with your left . . . ! I slowly started to get it until she finally was able to focus on her fishing.”
When he returned to Argentina, Trucco wanted to start guiding from rafts, but they didn’t exist in his country, and import taxes made it virtually impossible to buy them from the United States. So, he found a young, ambitious engineer willing to take a risk on building the country’s first inflatable river rafts, and by 1981 Trucco was the first guide fishing Argentina’s big rivers by boat.
Nine years later, he imported two Greg Tatman McKenzie River wooden boat kits. They were the first drift boats in Argentina. Trucco also championed significant conservation gains in northern Patagonia. Inspired by catch-and-release leaders Joe Brooks, Jorge Donovan, and Mel Krieger, Trucco drove a two-decades-long crusade to implement Argentina’s first-ever catch-and-release regulations. “That was for the Upper Malleo River, and under the new rule the fishery greatly improved and acquired international prestige,” says Trucco. “That success led to more momentum, and, by 2000, all the rivers in the Province of Neuquén were officially declared catch-and-release.”
Trucco also spearheaded a successful grassroots campaign to stop the construction of several large dams on a number of rivers, including world-class trout streams like the Malleo and Chimehuin rivers. In 1988, he attended International Rivers Network’s global conference in San Francisco at the invitation of IRN cofounder and river activist Mark Dubois. Armed with support for wild-river advocates from 26 countries, grassroots activism training, and scientific facts on the ecological impacts of dams on rivers, Trucco returned home to lead and win a revolution against the big hydro company’s plan for multiple dam projects in Patagonia.
Over his career, Trucco had a hand in developing ten fly-fishing lodges and outfits in Patagonia. He’s a passionate fly tier, rod builder, photographer, writer, and musician. Employees at his operations call him a true guide’s guide. Limay River Lodge guide Lalo Uriburu says, “We have fun when we can get him out here on the river with us. He’s a beautiful caster and he loves throwing streamers and big dry flies. But most of all, he wants visitors to have a great time and appreciate this special place. So he teaches us all the ways of the best guides he’s learned from over many, many years, and we are better for that.”
Tackling the Middle Limay
A tailwater, the Limay has ideal water temperatures, gin-clear clarity, and consistent flows that support strong populations of resident brown and rainbow trout, as well as sizable migratory browns. The water empties into the large, fertile lake formed by El Chocon Dam, out of which the migratory browns move midsummer.
Bring 6-weight rods with fighting butts, and both floating and sinking-tip lines. The wide river allows for hero casts and long streamer retrieves or swings, but there’s also plenty of opportunity for more precise presentations with dry flies along the bank. There are many braids in the river that allow anglers to spot-and-stalk big trout in skinny channels. Since they have no major predators and very little angling pressure, trout will bravely venture into mere inches of water to suck nymphs out of the intimate cobble riffles. For flies, bring your regular trout boxes but be sure to include olive pancora patterns like Cathy’s Super Bugger, Tan Jake’s Trigger Belly, Copper Johns with legs, and orange Stimulators.
Riverside Red Wine
Then, there’s the Malbec at lunch. Argentina is the main producer of Malbec grapes in the world, and it’s made in every wine region of the country. In Patagonia, the slightly colder climate and lower elevations yield wines with unique distinctions.
Montana guides don’t typically serve wine as part of our shore lunch. Yet, every day on the banks of the Limay, regionally specific Argentine Malbecs are as much a part of the program as fly selection, the casting stroke, and the hook-set. Slowly considering the drink’s notes under a shade tree in the breeze and sunshine heightened all my senses, not just my taste buds. I didn’t just eat the empanada in two bites as I might have at home; I enjoyed the thoughtfully prepared gourmet meal fully, without the urge to rush to back out to catch more fish. I heard a red stag call from far off, which my ears might normally not have picked up.
The most important lessons about mindful fly fishing, albeit ironically unintentional, came from my fishing partner for the week, Bill Pite of Connecticut, and our guide, Pablo Vinaras. Vinaras dubbed Pite “El Cormorán,” nicknamed after the widely-seen fish-eating birds known for their resourcefulness and diligence. Pite is a zealous fisherman. One day he sacrificed fish quantity in exchange for throwing a mouse pattern for eight hours straight because he had faith in the possibility that a massive migratory brown trout would smash the surface. It happened. Another day he committed to casting only his hometied Chubby Chernobyls. He earned his nickname by frequently casting to a sure-thing seam or bank before Vinaras gave the green light. Vinaras taught Pite to slow his approach, be more purposeful with each cast, and take in the entire scene before sending the line. Pite taught me to find deep meaning in the process of setting and reaching a goal. Through this, he set me up to win on the day of our trip’s toughest conditions.
On the windiest afternoon of the week, whitecaps seemed to curl in all directions, despite the 15,000 cubic feet per second of water shuttling our boat downstream. Our casting accuracy took a nosedive, so Pablo encouraged us to make every motion count, and let the current and boat’s position lengthen our drifts. While it seemed unlikely we’d find any fish this way, I remembered what Uriburu told me on the first day: Anytime the fly lands on the water, you could catch the fish of a lifetime.
Before my next cast became the cast, I eased myself into intention by clearing the line of errant tangles. I checked the leader for wind knots. I checked the drag on my reel. I waited for Pite to cast from the bow so I wouldn’t accidentally hit his line, then I released a short shot and started feeding line into the drift.
When the fish broke the surface, it wasn’t merely sipping, it was its entire, thick body hurled at the Jake’s Trigger Belly foam dry fly. As the fish landed on top of the fly, taking it down with its full weight, we all knew it was an impressive migratory brown from the massive reservoir downstream.
But the fly was now out of sight, and I couldn’t tell if the trout had eaten it on the way down. With all manifestation I could muster, I set the hook. The buck ran upstream in the heavy current and within seconds I ogled my singing reel, judging its remaining backing. Vinaras turned the boat so I could manage the upstream fight, but had to steer away from the main, faster channel so we could get the fish to softer water and bring him in with less stress. I knew the 3X tippet was strained at the front of so much line in heavy current, pulled in one direction by me and in another by a fish that had better things to do. With consideration, I risked a bit more pressure, then reeled quickly when he gave me an inch.
When I worked him closer to us, he took a hero run downstream. We all knew that if he got directly below us, it would be easier for him to come unbuttoned. Vinaras worked the boat to the bank in the quieter channel, looked at me with a grin, and said, “Yes, go for it, Hilary,” as we all knew I’d catch the fish faster on foot. I jumped out, keeping my rod tip bent with side pressure. I chased the fish downstream nearly a football field length until I could get horizontal to him. Then I started reeling.
Vinaras caught up to me and had the net held low and behind him, not bringing it out until the optimal second for a deep scoop under the buck. In the past I’ve joked about blacking out during an exciting fish fight, but this time, I was present in every second of the experience. I felt calm and complete.
My new friends and I let out a few whoops and snapped a photo. I had to retain my mindful state for another moment to be sure I absorbed the magic of the release. The trout kicked off with a violent tail slap, soaking me, and I thought about all that Jorge Trucco had done to secure catch-and-release rules in Patagonia.
Since returning home, I’ve attempted to build on my heightened commitment to being present. I even downloaded a guided meditation app on my phone, which has a selection of nature sounds to choose from . . . wind, water, birds.
But when I clear my mind as instructed, I can still hear the water of the Rio Limay choosing braided routes through the semi-arid high steppe of the Patagonia wilderness, and I see in slow motion, over and over again, the wide back and powerful tail of a wild, migratory brown trout kicking away from my shaking hands.
*Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips when she was a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. After a short career as a broadcast news anchor, she established the PR and marketing company Outside Media, and began hosting Trout TV. She now owns the fly shop Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters and a yellow Labrador named Jolene.
Argentina's San Martin region is home to many fine trout streams including the Rio Limay and the Rio Aluminé, literally translated as the "shining river" of the Andes. You'll find author Hilary Hutcheson's story on the Aluminé in the new Destinations magazine published by Fly Fisherman. Destinations is a 120-page, square-bound fly-fishing travel guide that gives you an insider's look at the finest fishing opportunities on the planet. You can buy the printed version of Destinations at osgnewsstand.com, or get the digital version at the Apple App Store or Google Play.