A WEEK UNLIKE any of the other 3,000 or so I have spent on Earth began as a birthday surprise from my wife. Seven days at a remote fly-fishing lodge in Argentina, in the far south of Patagonia. Here we were, the fly-fishing equivalent of duffers, booked to fish some of the most challenging bucket-list waters in the world. Patagonia is the land of lunkers—huge seagoing brown trout, steelhead, Pacific salmon—in big rivers that demand finesse and serious casting chops. The lodge’s list of recommended gear went on for a page: two-handed Spey rods, this and that fly line, flies with names like Woolly Buggers and Chernobyl Ants. “This is some pretty intense stuff, Shailagh,” I said to my wife, marveling at the materials. “We’ll figure it out,” she replied.
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That we had to bring our own gear was daunting in its own right. Once we had our new rods, a friend showered me with videos on proper Spey casting techniques—the two-handed method pioneered in Scotland in the mid-1880s to hurl flies across the gusty River Spey. We practiced on the Potomac River near our house in Washington—a sobering experience.
Our destination was the Estancia Las Buitreras, a vast and gorgeous sheep ranch three hours by jet from Buenos Aires and as far south on the globe as Labrador is north. It was a landscape reminiscent of the American prairie but with volcanic necks and huge random rocks of solidified lava that added to its end-of-Earth feel. Twenty-five miles of the meandering Rio Gallegos flowed through the ranch, bringing snowmelt down from the Andes and sea trout back up to spawn. That river would be our focus for the week ahead.
“ I felt like I had joined a monastic order committed solely to fishing. ”
As we settled into the lodge—crisp guest rooms upstairs, dining table for 16 and ample room to sprawl downstairs—we started to swap tales with our fellow guests for the week. A father and son duo from the far north of Scotland. A professional fishing guide from Wyoming. Two angling buddies fresh from fishing in Tierra del Fuego. Another guide, from Connecticut and his wife. In all, 13 anglers who had clocked thousands of hours on rivers around the world. Eleven men, two women. Including us, the dunces.
The intimidation factor ticked up a notch when I learned that the group included four certified master casters who spent whole afternoons on the lodge’s front yard practicing specialized casts and tossing around pointers. Masters instructing masters, like Tom Brady fine-tuning the screen pass with Aaron Rodgers.
Our first full day, well breakfasted and snapped into our waders, Shailagh and I set out at 8:30 sharp with our first guide for the week, Carlos, in one of the ranch’s mighty Toyota Hilux 4X4s. The plan was to fish the river’s six huge zones twice over the coming six days, once in the morning and once in the evening, so that we saw all of its varieties in all sorts of light.
Ahead of us stretched a lot of fishing. As in, a whole lot of fishing. Four hours in the morning, followed by a large lunch and a long siesta, and closer to five hours in the evening, from 5:30 until darkness fell around 11:00. For six days in a row.
Feet in the current, we were at last casting flies into a river in Patagonia, not quite elegantly but with enough distance to earn a nod from Carlos on shore. We’d arrived. We were in the hunt. I got lucky and felt an explosion in the first half-hour: a 12-pound sea trout that darted and leapt and splashed water in my face when we let him loose. With tips from the guides and a lot of practice, our casts improved. When we got the motions right, an action that seemed complex began to feel simple and the line shot through the rod with such satisfaction that I hardly cared about the fish. I became entranced by the rhythms, the flickering of the river and the abundant birdlife. Time itself took on a liquid quality and slipped by unnoted.
We drove back some nights across the pampas with the last silvery sheen of the day still on the river. Sheep, the ostrich-like rheas, the graceful guanacos, foxes, tall hares, caracara hawks and black-necked swans all scattered at our approach. As the swans took flight, they transformed from ungainly creatures to the quintessence of grace. The sheep remained clumsy no matter how far they ran, but their plenitude turned huge meadows into a glimpse of Eden.
The lodge resounded during the off hours with a singular obsession for fish. By the third day I felt I had joined a monastic order committed solely to fishing, with a vow of silence unless one was talking of fish. When not fishing, sleeping, eating, practicing casts or telling fish stories, this brotherhood sorted flies, swapped out lines on fishing rods, or studied the giant map on the wall to plot the next outing. We fished calm waters under gray skies and in full sun. We fished in the heaviest of winds, with gusts that would ground planes at LaGuardia. We fished when it was gusty, cold and wet—weather others would call miserable but that we somehow found hilarious. “That was amazing,” Shailagh said, piling into the Hilux after an hour casting against 40 mph crosswinds. I had watched in awe as the waves beat at the backs of her waders and the last light seeped from the sky.
We generally tally our travel pleasures by vineyards visited, mountains hiked, sunsets seen. Rarely do we set off on trips that demand mastering new skills. That test our dexterity and balance. In Patagonia, rod in hand, you just want the moment when you anticipate the huge sea trout, divine the pool in which he rests, and then lure him from the depths with the well-placed fly. The reward is a higher form of enchantment.
One evening I fell into a rhythm of making long casts to exact targets far across the river, casts that went taut straight to the reel, and thought: Please don’t let this end. Just a little more light. Just a few more casts. Such was the joy of standing there.
A week at Estancia Las Buitreras, all inclusive, starts at $4,990 per person and can be booked at flywatertravel.com
PRIME BAIT / SEVEN OTHER SPOTS TO ADD TO YOUR FLY-FISHING BUCKET LIST
Wood-Tikchik State Park: Vast, remote, stunningly beautiful, Wood-Tikchik is also home to five varieties of Pacific salmon, pike, char, you name it. Mosquitoes, too, when the wind isn’t howling.
Middle Fork of the Salmon River: Fish for native cutthroat amid utter gorgeousness on a 100-mile float trip. Lots of white-water included.
Pinedale: The waters around Pinedale and the Wind River Range teem with the ultimate in low-cost dirt-road trout fishing. Bucket-list travel needn’t be hard or expensive.
Upper Amazon: If you like jungles, snakes and dugout canoes, go land some golden dorado in Bolivia. They’re enormous, and fight like crazy.
Torres del Paine: If you can divert your eyes from the jagged peaks, the rivers here offer spectacular fishing for sea trout, browns and king salmon. Gauchos and hiking, too.
Baja, East Cape: Chase rooster fish, marlin and dorado from a panga, the local fishing boat, between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. Margaritas to follow.
Alphonse islets: These tiny islands are far—smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean—but the shallow flats abound with bonefish and seven species of truly giant trevally.
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