Fishing in a secluded pool off the Paloma River, a renowned trout stream in central Chile. Credit Marcos Zegers for The New York Times
By Jon Gluck
On the final morning of a weeklong fly-fishing adventure to Patagonialast December, I finally found my white whale. In the preceding days, I had fished all manner of beautiful rivers and lakes and caught (and released) more than my share of fish. But I had yet to land anything truly special — a trip-maker — and this creature appeared to be just that.
My guide, an American expatriate named Monte Becker, his colleague, Hayden Dale, and I were on the Paloma River, a renowned trout stream in central Chile. We had begun the day by navigating a series of Class III rapids, then catching a handful of brown trout and rainbow trout that would have been considered whoppers on most other rivers, but here were just the latest in a series of ho-hum catches measuring 18 inches or more.
Just before lunchtime, we ran a stretch of white water that squeezed between a pair of enormous boulders, then opened into a small, hidden canyon. With its overhanging granite walls, moody light and silty water the color of sapphires (if the sapphires had somehow been electrified), the chamber bore traces of both the real-life Blue Lagoon and the fictional Middle-earth. It was one of the most striking spots I’ve seen, on or off a river.
For a time, we lingered there to fish, but with no luck. Then Mr. Becker rowed us downstream a few hundred feet to a small, unnamed island in the middle of the river, tied our inflatable raft to a tree stump, and instructed me to follow him to the top of a rock outcropping some 30 feet above the water. From that vantage point, we could see a near-perfect trout hide-out: a pristine, ice-blue pool protected on its upstream side by the island, but still adjacent to the river’s main current and its ready supply of insect life.
Mr. Becker pointed to the head of the pool. “Good fish,” he said. “Rainbow.”
Sure enough, there was a large, dark slab rising and falling in the water column, rhythmically picking flies off the surface for its lunch. We put him at just under 20 inches.
A moment later, Mr. Becker said, “Look at the bottom of the pool. There’s another one there. A big brown.”
I scanned the area, but all I saw was an underwater log. Then the “log” rose to the surface and ate a fly. The object in question was, in fact, the largest trout I have ever seen outside of Instagram, easily two feet long, perhaps longer. This was exactly the sort of moment I had come to Patagonia for. Now all I had to do was get the leviathan in my net.
A storied destination
Patagonia is one of the most celebrated travel destinations on the planet, a wild and remote expanse of towering peaks, rushing rivers and vast grassy pampas steeped in gaucho culture. The region’s powerful hold on the popular imagination is reflected in everything from the multi-billion-dollar outdoor sports brand that bears its name to Bruce Chatwin’s cult literary masterpiece, “In Patagonia.”
Patagonia is also one of the world’s most storied fly-fishing destinations, a place any angler worth his waders dreams of visiting. Globe-trotting fly-fishing enthusiasts can ply all manner of waters in the region, from big freestone rivers to deep azure lakes to tiny meandering spring creeks, and those waters hold fish in numbers and sizes (including bona fide monsters; fish over 30-inches aren’t unheard of here) that are hard to find anywhere else. Insect hatches are diverse and plentiful, and owing to the sheer scale of the area and the relative difficulty of getting there, much of it is still remarkably undeveloped. Even in the jet age, it is possible to find yourself fishing utterly alone, with no signs of civilization, for fish that have seen precious few, if any, flies. Comparisons to the American West of 50 or 100 years ago are not inaccurate.
Extending across Argentina and Chile, Patagonia offers blue-ribbon angling on both sides of the border. I chose to fish on the Chilean side, in the Aysen region, near the city of Coyhaique. That area is known for its combination of rivers and lakes, and is generally less windy than other parts of Patagonia (wind is kryptonite to a fly-fisher). I planned my trip for December, the start of the South American summer, and booked a room at Magic Waters Patagonia, a full-service outfitter (guides included) just outside of Coyhaique.
The hourlong drive from the nearest airport, in the city of Balmaceda, to the lodge, was like an episode of “Nature.” The Andes loom in the distance, their summits covered in snow, and impossibly clear rivers wind through valleys that stretch to the horizon in every direction. You could spend a lifetime just naming the shades of green. On the dirt road that leads to the lodge, we got stuck for a time behind a herd of cattle being driven to pasture by gauchos. “Patagonian traffic jam,” our shuttle driver said.