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Tierra del Fuego: Fishing on the Edge

When it comes to sea trout, it doesn't get any better than Argentina's Río Grande.

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The best sea-trout river on the planet is the Río Grande in Tierra del Fuego. This is a fact. There is simply nowhere else where they're so large or so numerous. The heaviest ever caught on rod and line—a leviathan 35 pounds 2 ounces—was taken from the Río Grande in 1998 and, as the fish are getting bigger with each passing year, every time you pitch a fly neatly within a foot of the opposite bank and watch it swing smoothly through a 70-degree arc, there is a remote but real possibility of finding yourself abruptly and violently attached to a new world record.

The Río Grande is a medium-sized river, roughly 80 miles long, on which there are just seven fishing lodges. Three of these are owned by Jorge and Fernando de las Carreras, direct descendants of the original pioneering Menendez family, which at the end of the 19th century came to own a 50-mile-wide chunk of Tierra del Fuego. Their leading properties are the legendary Kau-Tapen and Villa Maria, about 30 miles farther downstream. They are the two southernmost fishing lodges in the world. Villa Maria, a small but extremely comfortable guesthouse, has only four bedrooms and so is frequently rented by a private party of friends. Kau-Tapen, which accommodates a dozen anglers, is a much more stylish affair, with handsome wood paneling, gourmet food, and a sauna and steam room. Each lodge offers a different atmosphere, but one element is fundamental to both: the thrill of fishing on one of the most remarkable stretches of river on the planet.

The city of Río Grande, at the mouth of the river, is more than 1,500 miles south of Buenos Aires, but just 800 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula, so even in January, midsummer here, the wind that rips around the side of the terminal building carries a frigid and insinuating chill. After my fishing guide, Alejandro Aloras, meets me at the airport, a 20-minute drive brings us to a dirt road, and in another two or three miles we pull into the Estancia José Menendez, a collection of single-story iron-roofed buildings painted an unexpected shade of rust red. The estancia had once been a kind of self-contained village, with its own general store and even a library for the more inquisitive of the resident gauchos, but today, despite still being well-maintained, it has the slightly melancholy atmosphere of a place long since stranded by a receding economic tide.

Alejandro ushers me into the main living room of Villa Maria where, at midday during the warmest season of the year, a fire is burning brightly. The plan, he explains, is to eat, take a siesta, and then to hit the river at around five o'clock. As it wouldn't become fully dark until around midnight, we could fish until at least eleven o'clock.

"We get Americans here and quite a lot of Brits," he says, seeing me flipping through the visitors' book. "If you look back to December '99, you'll find George Bush Senior. Actually, he stayed at the main house of the Estancia, but fished the Villa Maria water."

The southern part of Tierra del Fuego rises to the 8,000-foot summit of Mount Darwin, while the western half of the island, which falls within the borders of Chile, is dominated by the final saw-toothed, snow-capped peaks of the Andes. The Río Grande, however, flows through a treeless northern region, where a landscape of tussocky grass is scoured by an incessant wind. Villa Maria has access to about 12 miles of river, divided into upper and lower beats, the fishing being shared with Estancia Maria Behety, which owns the opposite bank. Each day guests from the two properties alternate between the respective stretches of water. That evening I was to fish the lower beat, about half an hour's drive from the lodge.

On the way from the airport the terrain had seemed bleak and inhospitable, but in late afternoon theatrical shafts of sunlight pierce the swirling clouds—the once-forbidding landscape now strikes me as elemental and majestically austere. A herd of maybe 50 guanaco (the local member of the llama family) stand silhouetted on a distant ridge; flocks of ruddy-headed geese and buff-necked ibis keep a wary eye on a prowling silver fox; perched on a fence post beside the road a carancho, a large hawklike bird, surveys the terrain with a fierce and imperious stare.

Standing beside an unknown river, without having yet wet a line, is for me one of the more enjoyable experiences of life. There is a surge of adrenaline at the prospect of immediate action, plus a sense of infinite possibility, as yet untarnished by frustration or disappointment. But there is also the anticipation of getting to know the water, of coming gradually to understand its subtleties and its moods, the quirks of a unique personality. The lower reaches of the Río Grande, linked by fast runs of broken water, contain a succession of dark mysterious pools where potential world records lurk unseen. Even in bright sunshine it strikes me as a river that would keep most of its secrets.

Alejandro stands beside me in the water and we wait silently for the slightest sign of movement—a swirl, a splash, or a flicker of silver. The far bank is just about within the range of my single-handed rod, particularly as the wind is directly behind me.

"It takes time to get used to casting in a constant twenty-mile-an-hour wind," Alejandro explains—a considerable understatement: For more than an hour, losing an eye seems like an alarmingly real possibility.

The simple idea is to cast your fly directly across the river, landing it as close to the far bank as possible and then letting it swing round in the current, occasionally adjusting the line so that it flutters provocatively. The only real variables are the type and weight of line, which determine the depth at which you fish, and the size, color, and pattern of fly. Some types of trout fishing are as much concerned with aesthetics as they are with results. The art of casting tiny flies to a rising fish in extremely clear water is considered the pinnacle of the sport. In contrast, on the Río Grande the fisherman is motivated chiefly by the fish themselves: their size, strength, beauty, and the struggle required to subdue them.

Sea trout are a migratory variety of the common brown trout (in the same way that steelhead are a migratory species of rainbow), and as the food supply in the salt water is superior to that available in rivers, they often grow to more than double the standard size. Or at least they do in Scandinavia, Scotland, and other places where they are endemic. But Tierra del Fuego is very close to the stupendously rich marine environment of the Antarctic, where immense shoals of shrimplike krill support millions of seals and penguins, in addition to whales. There, sea trout quickly assume the proportions of Atlantic salmon, growing to ten or even 20 times the size of their diminutive freshwater cousins. (Brown trout vary in weight from a few ounces in a Scottish Highland stream to seven or eight pounds in the legendary rivers of New Zealand. A rough global average is somewhere between one and two pounds.) In 1985 a catch-and-release policy was introduced on the Río Grande, prompting an exponential increase in the size and quantity of fish.

Even though it's early in the season, when the flow is heavier, the water colder, and the fish tend to lie deeper, Alejandro suggests a floating line, for the unarguable reason that a client had been extremely successful with one every day of the previous week. However, after a couple of hours in which my only bite was a brown trout not much larger than the fly, I'm beginning to have some serious misgivings.

Fortunately, on most summer evenings in Tierra del Fuego the wind begins to die down at around 7:30, and on this bright night, as so often happens, a change in the weather produces an inexplicable reaction from the fish. All of a sudden casting is much easier and I notice honking geese passing in skeins overhead. Just ahead half a dozen sea trout begin to roll, their gleaming black backs cutting briefly through the surface of the pool. A shining silver torpedo hurls itself four or five feet into the air, falling back with a smash spectacular enough to send waves breaking on the pebble beach directly behind me. Without warning my line stops, the rod bends, and it feels like I've become attached to a boulder. I apply pressure and the line starts moving as the fish heads off downstream, taking with it 30 yards of fly line. There's nothing to do except chase down the riverbank after it. Rather than leave the pool altogether, the sea trout then turns and starts a series of gymnastic leaps. Each time I'm convinced it's thrown the hook, but frantically winding the reel I always somehow manage to regain control. By the time Alejandro slides a net beneath the fish, my forearm is shaking with the strain. Cradling the sea trout, he lifts it up for me to admire. I'm dumbstruck. It's perfectly proportioned, almost as much an abstract sculpture as a living creature. Gleaming silver, almost iridescent, it is clearly fresh-run, just hours out of the sea, an extraordinary embodiment of energy, health, cleanliness, and strength.

"Sixteen pounds," Alejandro says, squinting at the needle on his spring scales. "Not too bad a start." Of course, on the Río Grande such fish are an everyday occurrence, but on any other river in the world a sea trout this size would be the trophy of a lifetime. Swiftly removing the hook with forceps, he holds the fish in the water, its head to the flow of the current, waiting for its strength to recover. For perhaps 20 seconds the sea trout rests quietly, and then with a single magisterial sweep of its tail it vanishes back into the depths.

The next day, Jorge De Las Carreras drops by to join us for lunch, and we sit in the dining room eating Patagonian lamb and drinking red wine from the Argentine province of Mendoza. A friendly man in his mid-40s, Jorge has the ruddy complexion of someone daily exposed to the elements.

"The patriarch of this place, Jose Menendez, came to Tierra del Fuego in the 1880s," he says. "He was one of the first Europeans to settle here, so he was able to acquire land stretching from the Atlantic to the Chilean border. In the 1890s there would have been around seventy people working on this estancia; today there are just fifteen. Nowadays, in Tierra del Fuego we pay no income tax. But believe me, you still can't make money out of farming. These places made a fortune and were profitable until the 1950s. But times changed. The supply of wool from places like Australia and New Zealand increased, and some of our import markets imposed tariffs." He shrugs. "So here we are in this mess."

A brief silence falls on the room, a commentary on Argentina's present economic plight. After a while Jorge continues. "Nobody wants estancias anymore." He pauses and laughs. "Except for Ted Turner. He'sgot two: one up in central Argentina and the Estancia San Jose down here, which shares about four miles of the Río Grande with Kau-Tapen. It was my brother and mother who decided to try to make a business out of fishing. My father was against it. He said 'Ranches are for sheep.' But fortunately they ignored his advice."

In the afternoon Alejandro drives me 45 minutes southwest to Kau-Tapen, one of the most highly regarded lodges in the world. This low and unobtrusive wooden building, situated on a windswept ridge above the Río Grande valley, has a majestic view extending 20 miles to the jagged snowy peaks along the Chilean border. Inside, the lodge is paneled with a pale local wood called lenga; comfortable sofas face the fragrant and smoldering fire; piles of magazines and illustrated books vie for table space with whisky tumblers and crystal decanters; and covering every available square inch of wall space are photographs of enormous sea trout, held aloft by joyful fishermen. Sitting in a frame right next to the fly-tying bench is the certificate from the International Game Fish Association confirming that the world-record sea trout had indeed been taken by one Mark Gates, from Kau-Tapen's "Red Frances" pool, back in the summer of 1998.

As the lodge accommodates just a dozen anglers (for whom there are six guides) and the fishing season in Tierra del Fuego lasts only three and a half months (from Christmas through the middle of April), Kau-Tapen is not the easiest reservation to secure. The manager, Steve Estela, is diplomatic. "It's true that repeat bookings account for over eighty percent of our business," he says. "Guests get an option of a slot for the following year, so you can only get in if someone, for whatever reason, passes up the opportunity." I note that Kau-Tapen seems in some ways more like a private club than a fishing lodge, and Estela nods. "More than ninety percent of our guests are Americans; they've been coming here for years. They mostly know each other, and of course we consult them about what kind of improvements they'd like to see. For example, there was a request that we should raise the quality and increase the variety of the food, so we hired Pablo Massey, one of the top chefs in Buenos Aires."

The lodge is full, as usual, so it's impossible for me to fish the Kau-Tapen water. However, Alejandro takes me down to the river and explains from experience just how the fishing compares to that at Villa Maria.

"So which is better?" I ask, sensing a frisson of inter-lodge rivalry. Alejandro grins. "Well, right now, at the beginning of the season, Villa Maria is better, because we are closer to the sea and so there are more fish in our holding pools. And we always tend to have a larger number of bright, silvery fish. The longer a sea trout stays in a river, the darker and more troutlike it becomes. They do get fresh fish at Kau-Tapen, but fewer of them. The big difference is that downstream—closer to the Villa Maria—the Río Grande is wider and deeper, making it much more challenging to fish. Up at Kau-Tapen the fish tend to be within easy casting distance, and you don't generally have to wade out in deep water. Over a season you will always catch more fish at Kau-Tapen because there are 35 major holding pools in the course of 16 miles. But every fish that arrives at Kau-Tapen has to have come through Villa Maria's water first—and at this time of year you're definitely better off with us."

By lunchtime the next day I'm becoming rather cynical about this assertion, having fished for nearly five hours standing up to my waist in freezing water. I'd long since changed from a floating line to a heavy sinker, which felt a bit like trying to cast with a climbing rope. I had been through every single pattern in my flybox. My only reward was a solitary four-pound sea trout, which in this river seemed like a joke in very poor taste. Even Alejandro was beginning to look glum, despite being warm and dry on the bank.

By late afternoon things get much worse. Not only has the morning's gale been replaced by an apprentice hurricane, but the wind is blowing from the east, making it virtually impossible to fish any pool on our stretch of river. No matter how hard I punch the fly into the wind, it just comes straight back in my face, either to rap me on the sunglasses or to lodge in the front of my fleece balaclava.

"Paul's Pool is our only hope," Alejandro says. "There we can wade across the river, climb up the bank on the far side, and fish off the top with the wind directly behind us. You'll have to kneel down and stay well back from the edge, otherwise the fish will see you. You never know, we might get lucky." I don't bother to ask what would happen if, kneeling on a vertical bank 15 feet above the water, we hooked something big. We trudge off in silence.

One of the most wonderful things about fly-fishing is how quickly despair can be replaced by euphoria. No sooner do I struggle up the crumbling bank and narrowly avoid ripping my waders on a barbed-wire fence than a large fish rolls less than ten yards away. Even with a 40-mph tailwind I drop the fly, a red-and-black concoction with wobbly rubber legs, in precisely the right place. There's a tremendous swirl, and then I immediately feel as if I've become attached to a speedboat—without the benefit of skis. Pretty soon the fish has taken out so much line that it's hard to see exactly where it has gone. Then it hurls itself out of the river in a spectacular detonation of spray. Alejandro sprints downstream and wades into the middle of the river to head it off. "If it gets out of the pool we'll never be able to follow it," he yells, now waist-deep in the surging torrent of icy water. "You've just got to hang on." A grim, silent war ensues, lasting at least 15 minutes. Finally, Alejandro makes a reckless but successful swipe with the net when the fish, which is anything but exhausted, simply happens to be looking in the wrong direction. To my surprise Alejandro sounds mildly disappointed. "Seventeen and a half pounds. I thought this one was going to be well over twenty."

Fisherman's luck is like gambler's luck, intermittent and unpredictable, but for a while that afternoon the roulette ball comes to rest on our color every time. The wind drops, the sun comes out, and during two hours of delirious excitement, when every cast is golden, I land four more fresh-run fish, with an average weight of just under 15 pounds. It's nice when life sticks to the script—the best sea-trout river in the world delivers the fishing experience of a lifetime. Alejandro gives a thin smile. "Yeah, but it's a shame we didn't get a really big one. They're somewhere in that pool for sure."

Angling for Argentina

The Lodges
KAU-TAPEN is deservedly one of the world's most famous fly-fishing lodges, which means it can be difficult to secure a reservation. (The name means "House of the Fishermen" in the Ona language.) The lodge offers nine rooms for a maximum of 12 fishermen, escorted by six guides, on 16 miles of the Río Grande. The single-story wooden building is set on a windswept ridge and looks out across a magnificent landscape of rolling grasslands. Inside the atmosphere is warm, clubby, and masculine. Most of the guests are American and many are friends from previous years. The food is excellent (supervised by a top chef from Buenos Aires), and the amenities, which include a sauna and steam room, are of an extremely high standard. The modern bathrooms are fully equipped.

VILLA MARIA accommodates a maximum of six anglers in simply furnished but extremely comfortable rooms, three of which have their own modern bathroom (a fourth shares a bathroom). The atmosphere is that of a private residence, with a hostess, cook, and housekeeper. Guests, most of whom are either American or British, can relax beside an open fire and enjoy excellent meals in an elegant dining room. Two fishing guides escort anglers on 12 miles of the lower Río Grande. There is only one drawback: The upper stretches of the river are 30 minutes away.

The Fishing
Although the season runs from Christmas through the middle of April, the best fishing is from the end of January to mid-March. In the middle of February there are large numbers of 20-pound-plus sea trout in the river, fresh silver fish are running up from the sea, and there's every likelihood of success with a floating line and smaller flies. Being much closer to the sea, Villa Maria's water fishes particularly well early in the season. Later on, guests at Kau-Tapen catch a slightly higher number of fish, on average.

Villa Maria's stretch of the Río Grande is wider and has a stronger flow than Kau-Tapen's. A two-handed rod, which enables you to lift long lengths of line with greater ease and to control heavy flies in the wind, is best here. Guides generally recommend a 14-foot, nine-weight rod, perhaps a Sage 9141-4 or the equivalent. Many anglers at Kau-Tapen also use double-handed rods, but for those confident of their casting ability, a single-handed ten-foot, eight-weight rod, like the The Sage XP 8100-4, is ideal. Both lodges keep a good selection of reels, lines, leaders, flies, and so forth. Fishing conditions (and so the type and weight of line required) depend on the height of the water, which is unpredictable. The Río Grande is always cold, so adequate thermal layers inside your waders are essential. On sunny days the light can be intense, so sunglasses are a necessity, and the constant gusting wind makes some kind of eye protection always advisable.

The weather in Tierra del Fuego changes in the blink of an eye. Only two things are certain: It is never hot and always windy. Daytime temperatures in midsummer (January) reach 60 degrees. But the constant 20-30 mph wind mandates fleece vests and windproof jackets. In the evening the gale slackens, and for two or three hours an eerie calm prevails.

How to Get There
Both Aerolineas Argentinas and LAPA operate daily services from Buenos Aires to Río Grande (but check frequently). Most flights stop first in either Ushuaia or Río Gallegos, making the total journey time approximately four hours. Villa Maria is 20 minutes from the airport; Kau-Tapen is 45 minutes farther west.

Frontiers International Travel has decades of experience in South America. Its six-day, seven-night package at Villa Maria costs $4,595 per person and includes all meals, beverages, and guides; transfers and overnight accommodation in Buenos Aires are extra ($250- $400). A similar package at Kau-Tapen is $7,195 per person. Box 959, Wexford, PA 15090; 800-245-1950, 724-935-1577;

Andrew Powell wrote about luxurious game lodges near Cape Town in the May/June issue of Departures.


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