Beneath the wind and whitecaps: A game plan for sea-run success
I am haunted by rivers, too. And tonight the big-shouldered sea-run browns of Tierra del Fuego people my fitful dreams as the wind rattles the roof of the Maria Behety lodge overlooking the windswept plain where the river snakes to the sea.
Things have changed in Tierra del Fuego. Over the past 25 years the sea-run brown trout returning to the Rio Grande have increased in numbers and in size; the river's guides have joined the top professionals in the world in fishing expertise; two-handed rods have become the fishing tools of choice; catch-and-release is accepted and practiced by all, including local fishers; the fishing techniques are more sophisticated; and the newly renovated or constructed Maria Behety
accommodations are world-class. The changes have made this 75,000-fish, sea-run brown trout fishery the best in the world. Joe Brooks and A. J. McClane, fishing editors for Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, respectively, who "discovered" the river for their readers in the 1950s, would be delighted.
Fishing for large Tierra del Fuego browns is technique intensive, requiring hard work and long casting when incessant winds rip from 20 to 45 mph onto your casting shoulder. Yet at other times, when winds drop and river flows are right during quiet evenings, some fishing pools produce multiple hookups on both drys and wets, and fish take you far into your backing, jumping repeatedly on their way downriver.
There is no other fly fishing for browns similar to Tierra del Fuego sea-runs. Spey techniques using rods from 13 to 15 feet are the weapons of choice because this is the ideal Spey-fishing river.
It is broad (80 to 140 feet across), low-profile, easily wadable, with cobble-bottomed runs, and a frequent downstream wind.
Spey rods will save your casting arm and shoulder, and their ability to cast farther — with less influence by gusting winds — usually equates to more fish caught.
Rio Grande sea trout have a predilection for holding right against the far bank. Of course, many fish are still caught midcurrent, or even on the inside at the end of the swing; but many more are hooked mere inches from the opposite bank, and powerful two-handed rods make it easier to reach those distances. More importantly, they make it easier to control line and fish your fly effectively at those distances.
The choice of lines in this fishing can be the difference between success and failure: Multi-tip Speys are the lines of choice to work the water column from top to bottom, particularly the RIO 24-foot Dredger VersiTip system, with its three 24-foot interchangeable tips (200, 300, and 400 grains). Teeny 200-, 300-, and 400-grain integrated heads or the RIO Coldwater VersiTip, with five interchangeable 15-foot tips, are also highly versatile and important for success on this river.
Here's why. Rio Grande guides point out that getting the fly down, in front of the browns, is the critical presentation, and two-handed rods, equipped with the right density of line tip, allow you to have your fly "in play" longer than when using a less efficient one-handed rod.
Two-handed rod casting is relatively easy using single-Spey or overhead techniques. You first make one downwind (to the left for right-hand casters) D-loop roll cast to set up the single-Spey then cast from 90 to 45 degrees down- and across-stream, from 60 to 100 feet to the far bank and follow with one or two 5- to 10-foot above-the-water lift-mends to sink the fly to near bottom.
The amount of mending depends on water depth and speed. (Your guide coaches you in proper mending techniques, which differ from pool to pool). One or two mends set up a proper drift as the line tightens. (Rio Grande guides are expert single- and two-handed rod casters who perform daily in high-wind conditions.)
Once the line tightens, begin 6- to 10-inch strips holding the line at the same spot in your line hand while smoothly stripping in and out with your rod tip low to the water to pulse the fly's rubber legs or marabou tail. This technique differs from the static wet-fly swing. The key is to hold the line in the same spot as you strip in and out with your line hand.
When your line reaches a full hangdown, continue to strip in and out for 5 to 10 seconds before stripping line in for the next presentation. (Fish often follow the fly, watch, then take on the hangdown.) Then make your next roll cast (45 to 90 degrees) to the bank to set up your next Spey or overhead cast.
The ability to cast a two-hander well (the majority of Rio Grande fishers now use two-handers) can dramatically improve your fish catching, but even a novice can fish successfully on his first outing with a two-hander if he can learn from the guides the roll cast and the easy single-Spey presentation. During a day of fishing with a two-hander, your fly is in the water much longer than when you fish a one-handed rod.
There are 100 numbered pools on the 30 miles of Maria Behety water, some of which are shared with the Kau Tapen Lodge and fishing operation. The pools are long, with extensive fishing reaches allowing for no interference between anglers.
The guides, all highly professional, English-speaking Argentines, each host two fly fishers. The pools are rotated, each fished in the morning by two anglers, then fished in the afternoon and evening by another pair.
You occasionally fish from the cutbank side of a pool, depending on wind speed and direction. In this case, your presentation is to a flow bubble line, with the fly swinging to the cutbank on which you stand.
The fish lie under the bubble line and along the cutbank, and the strikes usually occur in that taking zone, or occasionally to the outside of the bubble line in the far shallows. Working the pool methodically, presenting to "taking zones," is the key to success.
The Rio Grande fishing is by wading, which is low-risk if you do it sensibly. The pool bottoms are cobble, easily waded in felt- or rubber-bottomed boots. (To prevent the introduction of didymo or other invasive species, be sure to use new, preferably tungsten-studded, rubber-soled boots.) A stout folding wading staff (Simms) helps if you are frail.
Wading properly is important on this river. Your guide explains how far out to wade so that your cast reaches near the far bank and your mends set your fly presentation in the swing, on a tightened line, near bottom, 60 to 80 feet downstream and 20 to 30 feet off the bank, at just the right fly speed in the swinging drift. Your best casts land within a foot of the bank, where the fish most often lie and take. The fishing technique is similar to Atlantic salmon or steelhead wet-fly presentations. The guides are experts at netting and handling fish, using large, rubber-basket nets.
The factors that govern your success in Rio Grande fishing include: water speed, depth, and clarity; your casting and wading abilities; your willingness to learn from the guides, and your ability to follow their instructions; the number of fish in a pool (which may be up to 500 or more); and their willingness to take — no one knows why one week is "hotter" than others (with 100-fish/rod weeks) while others only average three fish landed per day.
The average size of the browns on this river is around 8 pounds, but it is the 30-pound-plus fish that make the Rio Grande the storied sea-run brown trout river of the world. Your expectations on this river should be: realistically 18 browns per week, including one over 18 pounds, and (serendipity, a life dream) a 30+ pounder. There are 40-pounders in this 75,000+ fish run, the largest a brown of more than 41 pounds taken in 2008 by Brian Yamamoto.
Clothing & Tackle
A 13- to 15-foot Spey and a fast, 9- or 10-weight one-hander are rods of choice to handle the tip-heavy lines you will cast (see line choices, above). Some airlines are now charging extra ($200/rod case one way for Delta) if your rod case is a third checked-baggage item. Duffels that can carry four-piece rods (as well as clothing or gear) help to avoid the extra checked-baggage charge. (Some airlines do not allow rods as carry-ons.) Some lodges have extra rods, but don't count on it. Maria Behety Lodge has an excellent selection of Rio Grande flies (the tungsten cone-head, rubber-legged, purple and black, marabou, segmented streamers are guide favorites), but lodge supplies are limited.
Tough, hooded stormwear jackets (with deep pockets for fly boxes) and polypropylene or Capilene (heavy and lightweight) underwear layers are essential due to the normal high winds in Tierra del Fuego. Also include two pairs of fleece or wool fingerless gloves, one for drying and one for wearing. Follow The Fly Shop's (flyshop.com) recommended list of required gear and equipment carefully — it is accurate on essential items for the Rio Grande.
Other essentials include a shorty fly vest (loaded), polarized sunglasses, and warm hat with ear flaps.
Flies for the Rio Grande
Many anglers are surprised to find that the most effective flies for targeting the large browns of the Rio Grande are often nymphs. It's hard to imagine fishing for potential 30-pound fish with #6 hooks, but many of the largest fish each season are caught on just these flies. Yuk Bugs, Bitch Creeks, Red-butt Bombers, TDF Princes, even the ubiquitous olive Woolly Buggers are proven patterns.
The one special ingredient that seems to play a factor in increasing hook-ups is white rubber legs. The preferred jigging retrieve imparts breathing motion to the fly, and the lifelike wiggle of the rubber legs seems to tantalize the trout. They seldom take the fly subtly, crushing it with the ferocity of an oceanic predator.
When sun eventually sets each evening, bigger, bulkier flies such as steelhead Intruders, string leeches, or even bigger Spey-style and articulated flies become effective. Black, blue, and purple are the preferred colors because they cast a strong silhouette in low light.
In those rare circumstances when the winds are not howling, the smooth waters of the Rio Grande are ideal for skating big waking drys such as steelhead Bombers and Muddlers. There are infrequent opportunities to fish this style, but every angler traveling to the Rio Grande should pack a floating line and a few big skating patterns, just in case.
Maria Behety Lodge
Estancia Menendez, founded in the late 19th century on a treeless river plain as a sheep ranch by Don José Menendez and now managed by his grandson, hosts up to 18 fly fishers — 8 at the newly restored, Victorian Villa Maria and 8 or more at the new Maria Behety Lodge located on a bluff overlooking the meanders of the Rio Grande. Meals are hosted at the lodge by Alejandro ("Alex") Menendez, scion of the historic Menendez family, whose extended members live primarily in Buenos Aires. With his guides, Alex, now in his seventies, is the most knowledgeable sea-run brown trout fisherman on this river, and proves it every day he wets a line.
The three-generational cultural history of the Menendez and other families in founding the Tierra del Fuego sheep estancias and interacting with the Ona and Yaghan (now extinct) natives is worth reading in Uttermost Part of the Earth, by E. Lucas Bridges, (E.P. Dutton, 1950). For a superb modern view of the region, read In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (Penguin Books, 1977). Also read Adrian Latimer's The River at the End of the World: Fly Fishing in Argentine Patagonia (Medlar Press, 2009).
My Moby Dick still swims the Rio Grande when snows sweep across Pennsylvania's hills. Then I glimpse in my mind's eye the Fuegian treeless expanses where the Rio Grande winds its way down from snow-capped Andean foothills toward the sea. I imagine myself standing knee deep in a long sweep of the river and casting to a far cutbank where a large dorsal has cut the water's surface. The wind gusts downriver and whips the tops off whitecaps as I flick one D-loop roll-cast off my left shoulder, upward and outward, and pull the rod butt toward my groin.
The wind catches the line and sends it long and tight toward the bank. The fly lands in the wind-whipped spray with a small, distinct splash. My heart quickens. The line tightens briefly, then stops with a jolt, then screams off the reel and into the backing. Moby Dick leaps from the whitecaps, again, and again. I awaken, sitting in the dark. Sweating.
John Randolph is publisher emeritus of Fly Fisherman and has fished extensively in Chile and Argentina over the past 25 years, including a three-week jaunt in 2009. Michael Caranci contributed to this report.