October 02, 2015
Fly fishing is a journey of discovery. Discovering what type of insects those rising trout are feeding upon. Finding an underwater rock pile that smallmouth gather around in a lake. Learning the best tides for bonefish on a saltwater flat. You're going to let the fish swim away, so it's got little to do with that primal hunter/gatherer urge buried deep in our genetic code. As catch-and-release fishermen, we can take more risks, travel farther, handicap ourselves in the name of "sport", and even revel in our failures because at the end of the day, we're in it for the adventure.
When Rafael Gonzalez first talked to me about exploring the lakes and rivers of an unfished island near Cape Horn, I was beyond intrigued. Here was a veteran guide telling me that there might be some sea-run brown trout there in the roadless wilderness of Navarino Island, but he wasn't sure.
The island is due south of Tierra del Fuego (TDF)—inarguably the finest sea-run brown trout destination on the planet, so there were certainly brown trout roaming the ocean waters in that region. He hadn't heard of anyone catching a sea-run brown trout there, but there were plenty of inland lakes with outflow rivers running down to the sea. And it seemed logical that some brown trout at some time had nosed their way up into those rivers. Or maybe not.
Navarino is also the last rocky outcrop before you hit the frozen desert of Antarctica, and the rivers could just be too spate, cold, or infertile to nurture the delicate freshwater-saltwater spawning cycles of sea-run brown trout.
In any case it was a gamble.
The helicopter dropped us off 663 miles north of the General Bernado O'Higgins Base on Antartica. We scouted the river by air and decided to start upriver, and fish our way down to the ocean. With miles of twisting, winding river, we figured it would take all day to get to tidewater.
The chopper dropped three of us off in a boggy clearing—Grace Smith, a pediatric cardiologist from Western Pennsylvania, me, and our guide, Patrick, who had never before fished the island.
From the air the river had looked extremely fishy, but as soon as we got our boots wet, we realized that the river was nearly at flood stage. Full to the banks, you couldn't walk down the shore, because there wasn't one. The river was a cascading snarl of whitewater, and the only way to navigate downstream was to go overland, trying to use high ground to avoid the endless tussock bogs and beaver swamps filled with fallen logs.
We stopped to wet a line here and there, but the gradient of the river was just too steep to hold much hope for trout.
A few hours later we emerged from the tangled highlands and stepped onto a grassy tidal plain where the river slowed, winding back and forth across the valley. Instead of roaring, the river bubbled over gravel riffles and swirled seductively as it bounced off cut banks of fallen sod.
Grace struck gold twice, and landed two nearly identical brown trout without moving her feet. We knew they were from the salt — they were silvery fish with pale spots, and that pale blue sheen on their cheeks that only saltwater fish have. To this day, I believe they were the first sea-run brown trout ever caught on Navarino Island.
Downstream, closer to the ocean, I connected with my own dream fish, a slab of Antarctic muscle that grew strong feeding on krill in the world's southernmost ocean. It had likely entered the river just that day, on the high tides caused by a full moon, and now my hands had interrupted its journey.
I released the trout, walked up onto the saltgrass, and laid flat on my back beside the bleached spine of a whale. I picked up a massive vertebrate, and looked through the empty spinal canal, watching shorebirds enjoy the feast of a falling tide.
How long ago had the whale washed ashore here? Were there brown trout then? Where had that brown trout come from exactly? And was this its home river? Had they spawned here for generations, every year returning to their natal streams like salmon? Or were these fish merely wandering interlopers, following some food source, or maybe just investigating the scent of fresh water?
I looked through the whalebone and took a mental snapshot of the river. A snapshot is all I'll ever have.
Rafael Gonzalezwww.magallanesflyfishing.com Email : firstname.lastname@example.org