ONE WEEK I DON’T LIKE Any of the other 3,000 that I have spent on Earth began as a surprise for my wife’s birthday. Seven days in a remote fly-fishing lodge in Argentina, at the southern end of Patagonia. Here we were, the equivalent of fly fishing for fishermen, reserved for fishing in some of the most challenging waters in the world. Patagonia is the land of lunkers: huge marine trout, steelhead, Pacific salmon, in large rivers that demand delicacy and serious chops. The list of recommended equipment of the hostel continued for one page: two-handed Spey rods, this and that flight line, flies with names like Woolly Buggers and Chernobyl Ants. “This is quite intense, Shailagh,” I said to my wife, marveling at the materials. “We will solve it,” she replied.
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That we had to bring our own equipment was discouraging in its own right. Once we had our new rods, a friend bathed me with videos about Spey’s proper launch techniques: the two-handed method pioneered Scotland in the mid-1880s to launch flies across the Spey River. We practice on the Potomac River near our home in Washington, a sobering experience.
Our destination was Estancia Las Buitreras, a vast and beautiful sheep ranch three hours by plane from Buenos Aires and as far south as Labrador to the 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 sense of Earth’s end. Twenty-five miles of the meandering Río Gallegos flowed through the ranch, bringing the thaw of the Andes and marine trout back to spawn. That river would be our focus for next week.
I felt that I had joined a monastic order dedicated exclusively to fishing.
As we settled in the hostel (crisp guest rooms upstairs, dining table for 16 and ample space to lay down), we began exchanging stories with our fellow guests during the week. A father and son duo from the extreme north of Scotland. A professional fishing guide from Wyoming. Two freshly caught fishermen friends in Tierra del Fuego. Another guide, from Connecticut and his wife. In total, 13 fishermen who had recorded thousands of hours in rivers around the world. Eleven men, two women. Including us, donkeys.
The intimidation factor leveled up when I learned that the group included four certified master pitchers who spent entire evenings in the front yard of the cabin practicing specialized molds and throwing pointers. Teachers instructing teachers, such as Tom Brady adjusting the screen pass with Aaron Rodgers.
Our first full day, well breakfast and stuck in our wading bird, Shailagh and I left at 8:30 o’clock with our first guide of the week, Carlos, in one of the powerful Toyota Hilux 4X4 of the ranch. The plan was to fish the six huge areas of the river twice in the next six days, once in the morning and once at night, so that we could see all its varieties with all kinds of light.
In front of us there was a lot of fishing. As in, a lot of fishing. Four hours in the morning, followed by a great lunch and a long nap, and closer to five o’clock in the afternoon, from 5:30 to dark around 11:00. For six days in a row.
Feet in the stream, we were finally throwing flies into a river in Patagonia, not very elegantly but with enough distance to win a nod from Carlos on the coast. We had arrived. We were in the hunt. I was lucky and felt an explosion in the first half hour: a 12-pound sea trout that jumped and jumped and splashed water on my face when we released it. With advice from the guides and a lot of practice, our molds improved. When we got the movements right, an action that seemed complex began to feel simple and the line crossed the bar with such satisfaction that I barely cared for the fish. I was fascinated by the rhythms, the flickering of the river and the abundant birdlife. Time acquired a liquid quality and went unnoticed.
We return a few nights through the pampas with the last silver glow of the day still in the river. The sheep, the ostrich-looking rheas, the funny guanacos, foxes, tall hares, caracara hawks and black-necked swans all dispersed as we approached. When the swans took flight, they were transformed from ungainly creatures to the quintessence of grace. The sheep remained clumsy, no matter how far they ran, but their fullness turned great meadows into a glimpse of Eden.
The lodge resonated during free hours with a singular obsession with fish. On the third day I felt that I had joined a monastic order dedicated exclusively to fishing, with a vow of silence unless we talked about fish. When he was not fishing, sleeping, eating, practicing molds or telling stories of fish, this brotherhood classified flies, exchanged lines in the fishing rods or studied the giant map on the wall to plan the next exit. We fish calm waters under gray skies and in full sun. We fished in the strongest winds, with gusts that would land planes in LaGuardia. We fished when it was gusty, cold and wet, the weather that others would call miserable, but somehow we found it hilarious. “That was incredible,” Shailagh said, huddling in the Hilux after an hour of launching against 40 mph crosswinds. He had watched in amazement as the waves hit the bottom of their mosquitoes and the last light filtered from the sky.
We generally count our travel pleasures through the vineyards visited, the mountains walked, the sunsets seen. We rarely start on trips that require mastering new skills. That proves our skill and balance. In Patagonia, with the cane in hand, you only want the moment in which you anticipate the huge sea trout, guess the pond in which you rest and then attract it from the depths with the fly well placed. The reward is a superior form of charm.
One afternoon I fell to the rhythm of making long throws to reach exact targets along the river, throws that tensed directly to the reel, and I thought: please, don’t let this end. Just a little more light. Only a few more molds. 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 LIST OF FLY CUBES
Wood-Tikchik State Park: Wide, remote, surprisingly beautiful, Wood-Tikchik is also home to five varieties of Pacific salmon, pike, char, whatever. Mosquitoes, too, when the wind is not howling.
Middle fork of the Salmon River: Fish native wild fish in the midst of absolute beauty on a 100-mile boat trip. Lots of white water included.
Pinedale: The waters around Pinedale and Wind River Range are packed with the latest in low-cost trout fishing on dirt roads. The trip on the wish list does not have to be difficult or expensive.
Alto Amazonas: If you like jungles, snakes and canoes, disembark a golden dorado in Bolivia. They are huge and fight like crazy.
Torres del Paine: If you can divert the view of the jagged peaks, the rivers here offer spectacular fishing for trout, brown and royal salmon. Gauchos and hiking, too.
Baja, Eastern Cape: Chase rooster fish, marlin and dorado from a panga, the local fishing vessel, between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. Daisies to follow.
Alphonse Islets: These small islands are far away, right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but shallow plains abound with thorns and seven truly giant horse mackerel species.
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