I’m a fair-weather fisherman. Wading in Virginia streams in the winter, just because the temperature has reached the 50s, and a few trout might have awakened from their stupors, doesn’t cut it for me. I need to go south, way south, to find summer. There are really only three practical choices for a trout fisherman – Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. Two others, Australia and South Africa, offer some good opportunities but I would not go there only for the fishing. Those into exotica, or just in an argumentative mood, might suggest the mountainous areas of Sri Lanka, Costa Rica or Kenya, but travelling to those remote destinations just for the opportunity to fish one or two streams, mostly for small trout in a managed environment, has little appeal to me.
Of the principal destinations, Argentina and Chile are closest, though both require traveling over twenty hours, and probably spending two nights on route, before the fishing begins. Fortunately, all connections to the fishing regions in each country go through Buenos Aires or Santiago – two exciting cities that can entertain a traveler for a few days or more.
My first solitary trip to Chile came as a result of hanging out in a saloon (always a productive activity) in Idaho, while on a fishing trip. A late-night conversation with another angler led to the inevitable question, “where have you fished”, and he hooked me with a description of a lodge called El Saltamontes, on the Nirehuau River in southern Chile, where brown trout gorge themselves on grasshoppers (saltamontes), throughout the late summer. For many trout anglers, using hopper imitations is the ultimate fly-fishing enjoyment, because the natural insects often move quickly after falling on the water, causing the trout to attack them aggressively on the surface, lest they escape. I count myself among those anglers, so I booked a week at the Lodge for the following February.
Chile is one of the most topographically diverse countries in the world. From north to south it extends nearly 2,700 miles, farther than any other country. It is very narrow, averaging slightly over 100 miles wide. There is no road through the lower 700 miles or so, and I would guess that the people in the far north know almost nothing about those in the far south, and vice-versa. Kind of like inside and outside the Washington Beltway. The Andes Mountains run the entire length of Chile, separating it from Bolivia in the far north, then Argentina for the southern 2,200 miles. In the north, the Atacama Desert, which stretches for 500 miles, is the driest place on earth, with some sections having never recorded rainfall. Yet, Ojos del Salado, at 22,615 feet, the Atacama’s (and Chile’s) highest peak and the world’s highest active volcano, typically has snow on its summit for much of the year. Chile’s south (the bottom 1,000 miles or so) is a land of spectacular mountains, fiords, glaciers, volcanos, lakes and rivers – one of the most beautiful regions of the world to fly over or travel through. Punta Arenas, the southernmost Chilean city on the Straits of Magellan, can be reached only by flying or by driving for over 24 hours southeast from the southern end of the North-South road, into Argentina, then back to the west, with much of it on primitive roads.
In central and southern Chile, easterly winds blow moisture off the Pacific, which gets blocked by the Andes, and falls in torrents, often overflowing the rivers that run from the west slope of the mountains the short distance back to the Pacific. While the Argentine side of the Andes is quite dry in the summer, much of it being high desert, the central Chilean side has large rain forests and verdant agricultural land, producing fruits and vegetables that are exported in large quantities to the Northern Hemisphere in our winter. Chile has the second largest aquaculture industry in the world, and is also a major producer and exporter of wine, though the average Chilean prefers beer to wine. The 17.5 million Chileans eat a great deal of fish and poultry, unlike their Argentine neighbors who strongly favor red meats.
Chile has a vibrant democratic government and a thriving economy. Its GDP per capita is the highest of any country south of the U.S. It is a safe place, with crime rates lower than ours. I have driven through much of the central part of Chile – roads are typically well maintained, and Chilean drivers tend to be cautious and courteous.
But back to the fishing. I arrived at El Saltamontes Lodge, situated on a working estancia (ranch), after a full day’s trip across the Andes from Argentina to Puerto Montt in the central Lake District, then a 2-hour flight to Coyhaique in southern Chile, followed by a long drive on dirt roads, to find that the Nirehuau River was in flood – running dark brown and way over its banks, right up to the edge of my cabin. My guide said that it would not be fishable for at least two weeks, and that other rivers in the area had the same problem. The only option was fishing in some small ponds.
I was the only guest at the Lodge as they had been able to contact everyone else to tell them not to come. Unfortunately, I had been fishing the previous week in Argentina without internet access. The Lodge owners, Jose and Erica Gorroño, suggested that I try the ponds and if I didn’t like them, then fly back north to Puerto Montt, where the rivers might be in better condition. Although the fishing was disappointing, I enjoyed the evenings in the lovely Lodge and particularly meeting the Gorroños and hearing their beguiling stories. Erica was an Australian, who had met Jose while backpacking through Chile, married him and moved with him to the estancia. Jose was a mechanical engineer and, like Erica, a serious adventurer.
Some years earlier, the Gorroños had decided to take two years off and travel to Australia to visit Erica’s parents, with their two children. Jose decided to do it by sail boat even though he had never sailed before. So, he hired a firm in Valparaiso, Chile’s largest seaport, to build a 47-foot ketch, provided that they would let him observe the construction (so he would know the boat’s bones intimately). While in Valparaiso he undertook to learn sailing techniques and both GPS and celestial navigation, to prepare for the voyage. After leaving the port, heading west, they did not see land for over thirty days (which would have scared the bejesus out of me), but made it safely through the south sea islands and, after sailing for a year, to Australia. Her father, something of an adventurer himself, had funded the salvaging of a Dutch ship that had sunk near Indonesia in the 18th Century – loaded with the finest European china and porcelains. The Indonesia government had seized the cargo, claiming that it belonged to them. The father had fought the claim for a more than a year, but had finally given up, believing that the government would never acquiesce to an Australian. Jose said that he would like to give it a try, since he looked a lot like an Indonesian, and the authorities might not have formed any negative opinions about Chileans. It worked. After spending many months negotiating in Jakarta, and greasing the skids with some money, he gained possession of the cargo. The whole story seemed far-fetched to me, but then Jose produced the impressive catalogue from a major German auction house that sold the enormous collection – explaining its recovery and estimating the value at $2-3 million euros.
Jose’s next story was even more intriguing. Some years ago, he noted that alpacas were becoming very popular, and valuable, in the U.S. In fact, they had become something of a ‘collectible”, since they came in many color variations, some of which sold for a great deal of money. So, he sold his cattle, and travelled to northern Chile and Bolivia, where alpacas are native, and selectively bought the finest specimens that he could find, transporting them over 1,500 miles south to his estancia. His current herd was about 250, which I observed first-hand in the pastures on the estancia. His plan was to charter a large cargo plane, and fly about 200 alpacas to the U.S. (he estimated the initial value at well over $1 million), where he would breed and sell the animals.
His alpaca plan seemed both ambitious and risky, but then it turned bizarre. He said that vicuñas, a close genetic relative of the alpaca, were extraordinarily valuable in the U.S., because of their fine wool which can be shorn only every third year, but even more so because of their extreme rarity. He claimed that if he had a pure vicuña to the U.S., it could be sold for $500,000. The only thing I knew about vicuñas was that Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, famously had to resign because he accepted a gift for his wife of a vicuña coat, so it must have been valuable at that time. But $500,000? Anyway, it didn’t seem to matter, because it was illegal to remove a vicuña from Chile or any of the other countries where they lived, and it was also illegal to import a vicuña into the U.S. But Jose had the solution. He funded a project at the biology department of the National University to determine if a vicuña embryo could be implanted in a female alpaca, and delivered live by the surrogate after the appropriate gestation period. The biologists had determined that it was possible. So, Jose’s plan was to have vicuña embryos implanted in several of the female alpacas that he was sending to the U.S. If they delivered successfully, he would be in the clover because there was no law against removing a vicuña embryo from Chile, nor was there a law prohibiting the importing of a vicuña embryo into the U.S., and vicuñas produced in the U.S. could be legally sold there. The plan was ingenious and, though complicated, seemed promising.
I spent two days at the Lodge. Talking in the evening to Jose and Erica was fascinating. But fishing the small ponds was not enjoyable, so I left. Erica generously offered me the opportunity to return during the next season for free. I flew north about two hours to the Lake District, where I found excellent fishing, but that’s another story.
The next year I returned to El Saltamontes, with my son Tom. The Nirehuau was in good shape, but the weather was typical Chilean – rain every day. I had recently broken my collarbone on my casting side in a skiing accident, so I fished with my arm in a sling. Oddly, it improved my casting, as it forced me to keep my elbow close to my side, and to use shorter strokes, which are good techniques for trout fishing. Despite the persistent rain, we had good fishing. The only disappointment was that the fish caught in the river were not large on Chilean standards, mostly 12’-18”, but catching them on hoppers was exciting. We did catch a few better fish that resided in small, quiet backwaters off of the main river, the largest one being one of about four pounds that Tom caught. It was an unusually dark color, and when, Adam, our Canadian guide, saw the fish, he exclaimed “My god, you’ve hooked Albert”. It was disappointing to realize that, even in such a remote spot, we were catching a fish that was well-known to local authorities.
The Lodge was full of guests on my second trip, the food and wine were great, and the conversation enjoyable, as it usually is at fishing lodges. Jose was there only briefly, as he was busy working on another ambitious project – creating his new Dragonfly Lodge on the Picacho River. The Picacho was virtually unfished, as it was inaccessible by road, requiring a challenging motor boat trip of several hours over a lake and river to reach the Lodge site. Transporting all of the materials required to build a top-of-the-line lodge in such a spot, and to manage the construction, was a huge challenge. But, the intrepid Jose was up to the task. The Lodge opened a year later.
I asked Jose about his Alpaca projects. He did fly a herd of over 200 to the U.S., and they were ensconced on a rented farm in the Catskill Mountain region of New York. He was having problems with the farm manager, who he had discovered was selling and breeding some of Jose’s animals privately and keeping the proceeds. He had hired a New York lawyer to break the management contract, and was disappointed at how slowly and expensively the legal process ground along in the U.S. I told him that I was shocked! The vicuña embryo project had not produced a live offspring, but he was anxious to try it again.
I haven’t returned to El Saltamontes, but a few years later I was back in the Coyhaique region to fish for brown trout at the remote and enormous (350,000 acres) Estancia des Los Rios, in the mountains near the Argentine border – 400 miles by private plane from Puerto Montt. My friend Scott and I fished the river in the Estancia and its tributaries for five days. The river was beautiful and the fishing enjoyable, but we were disappointed that none of the fish that we caught exceeded 17”. On one day our guide took us to a small lake which he said had been stocked about eight years earlier with fish from the river. Fishing from a boat, Scott followed the guide’s advice, using a streamer (minnow imitation) just below the surface, while I obstinately fished on the surface with a large dry fly. In the first hour, I hooked nothing, but Scott caught two large fish. My envy triumphed over my devotion to dry flies, so I also tied on a streamer. What a day! We hooked about 25 exceptional trout, landing around two-thirds of them. The three or four largest weighed 12-15 pounds, by far the biggest that either of us had ever caught. The guide said that they fed on the profuse quantities of shrimp and scuds that lived in the lake. He said that there was a second small lake that was a challenging 2 or 3-hour ride on horseback high up in the mountains, that had produced even larger trout, exceeding 20 pounds. The fact that these were the same strain of fish that lived in the river where, at least in our experience, they rarely grew to even three pounds, demonstrates the power of diet and water conditions in influencing the size of fish.
The southern fishing area of Chile is rugged country. Coyhaique, with a population of about 50,000, and Puerto Aisen with about 17,000, are the only cities in the region. Otherwise, there are but a handful of tiny villages along the 500-mile stretch of road running north-south, most of which is unpaved, and connects only on its north end to the rest of the main Chilean road via a long ferry ride. Its dozens of wild rivers offer much for the angler, but it is also one of the most beautiful areas in the world for any tourist to visit.