Some time ago, when I first started toying with the idea of a trip to Patagonia to fish for trout, a good non-angling friend asked me an interesting question. “Why,” she wondered, “would someone spend thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to catch the same kind of fish that could be caught in rivers much closer to home, and then, after all that effort and expense, release those fish back into the water?”
What seemed absurd to her seemed entirely sensible to me. “Because,” I replied, “that ‘someone’ is about to turn 70, because life is short and knees are weak, and the chance to wade in beautiful rivers in faraway places and connect even briefly with wild creatures is finite.” Actually, my answer was not nearly as polished as that, but one of the benefits of writing a fish story is the right to take some editorial liberties.
As for the part about putting the fish back in the river, I realize that catch and release fishing is a mystery to non-anglers, and I have given up trying to explain why conserving a fishery is so important, and why, as a famous angler once said, a trout is too beautiful to be caught just once. For the sake of the larger point here, let’s just move along.
The larger point has to do with time’s winged chariot hurrying near, as the poem goes, “hurrying” being the operative term. About a year before I was to turn 70, it occurred to me that I probably had about 15 good years left, if the family’s average life expectancy means anything, and that I should do those things that might not be doable for too much longer. Fishing in the Patagonia region of Chile was one of those things. Chile, in the language of the indigenous peoples, means “where the world ends,” which has a nice ring to it, bucket-list-wise. So I impulsively booked a trip to a place I had read about in a fly-fishing catalogue, the lodge at “El Saltamontes,” which means “the grasshopper.” It promised miles and miles of private water, from rivers to spring creeks to lakes, where huge trout were waiting for the grasshoppers that regularly blow into the water, providing a feast that is easily replicated by an artificial dry fly. The lodge only takes 10 guests at a time, providing fishing guides, fine cuisine, and spectacular scenery. I booked it for two, figuring I had a whole year to find someone who might like to go with me, or, as my brother John put it, “to get lucky.” I didn’t, so my brother volunteered to go with me, which turned out to be a perfect choice. We grew up in a family of anglers, and have shared many fish stories over the years. “Dad would have loved this!” became our mantra on this trip, uttered at least once a day, accompanied by the kind of reminiscing that could only have been appreciated by someone who shares your life history. At this age, in fact, we are the only ones left who share that common history, a point that was not lost on either of us.
Fly fishing for trout is a pleasure that stretches back to my childhood, which is probably why it has the power to make me feel like a child. When I wade into a river, peer below the surface of the clear mountain water, see the quick glint of sun reflecting off the back of a rainbow trout or the gold streak of a brown trout darting out from behind a rock or from under the riverbank, my heart quickens just a bit, and in a good way. I become absorbed in that place and that moment. And just for that moment, I forget about all the grown-up stuff I’ve left behind — demands and deadlines, taxes, and teaching. And if I’m lucky enough to fool that fish with an artificial grasshopper tied to the end of my line, I will have the thrill of seeing it charge up from a pool or riffle. And if, in that moment, I can summon the requisite skill, I will set the hook and keep the line tight enough to bring him to the net, where a quick meet-and-greet ends with slipping the hook out and releasing him unharmed back to the river. None of those steps — the cast, the strike, the landing, the release — is guaranteed, no matter how many fish have connected with my line over the years. Each encounter is brand new, an adrenaline rush that never grows old, even as I do.
Starting with my family, then with various friends and lovers, I have fished in some magical places, from Yellowstone to New Zealand, from the Catskills to Canada, from the Sierras to the Rockies, and in places with exotic names like the River of No Return Wilderness. Patagonia was the Shangri-La of them all, and while expectations are often “disappointments under construction,” as they say, my expectations in this case were not just realized, but surpassed.
Getting there involved a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Santiago, a three-day layover in that capital city, and a 3-hour flight to southern Chile’s Aisen region, to a little airport in Balmaceda, followed by a 2-hour drive to the ranch. Our host, Jose Gorrono, met us at the airport. In the fly fishing catalogue that first drew my attention to El Saltamontes Lodge, Gorrono is described as a “modern Renaissance man,” the real-life version of the “most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis ad. The skeptic in my journalist brain scoffed, chalking it up to typical tourist brochure hyperbole.
Then I met the guy.
Brother John Mansfield with the day’s catch
… photo by – George Lewis
During our week with Jose on his massive estancia, we learned that Jose had designed and built his own electrical generator back in the 80’s, and shared the excess electricity with the local community. He designed and built the beautiful lodge and cabins out of local river stone and rough-hewn logs from the ranch property, where he raises prize horses and alpacas. He had sailed the Pacific Ocean by himself from Chile to Australia many times, and once had to repair his own boat at sea to survive. He had searched for, and succeeded in finding, sunken treasure. And, he had pulled off a self-rescue after a skiing fall during an avalanche, managing to do so with a compound fracture of his arm.
What Jose does not do, apparently, is fly fish. It took a visiting angler (an American) to clue him in to the spectacular fishing conditions on his estancia, which prompted him to set up the fishing lodge some years ago.
Also, it should be noted, he is a quite dashing 60-something, with a head of dazzling white hair and a smile to match. So when Jose flashed those pearly-whites my way, it took me a moment to digest his first words to us. “I do have some news,” he said, adding, “You two are the only guests at the lodge this week.”
For some couples this might have been received as a great windfall: the whole place to ourselves, complete with a master fishing guide and a chef, not to mention a genial host with amazing stories to tell, and miles and miles of great trout-fishing water. My sister-in-law, Susie, would no doubt have been delighted at the prospect of a week to explore a strange land, with exotic birds and plants (she doesn’t really like to fish). But as brother and sister, the prospect of having to spend the next six days talking mostly to each other was something of a daunting prospect. To file under “watch out what you ask for,” we had been dreading the prospect of sharing our vacation time with, say, Americans who wanted to bring up politics at the dinner table. In fact, we were sure that the six very loud Americans aboard our flight from Santiago might be headed for the same lodge, and we were preparing ourselves for a lot of “letting it go” moments. When those guys headed off with another fishing outfit, and Jose told us the news that we would be alone at the estancia, we had to shift our expectations dramatically. This was not one of those moments where we thought, “Dad would have loved this!” Our parents were extremely gregarious people, collecting other people’s life stories like so many souvenirs of each trip. Could we really go a whole week without devolving into sibling rivalry, snarky remarks, and suggestions for self-improvement aimed, of course, at the other person?
The fact that we did so says a lot about a) the power of meditation, and b) the power of nostalgia and shared stories, the kind of stories that would bore other people, but not us, because we were the stars of these stories. There was the time, for example, on a family fishing trip to Yellowstone, when my brother abruptly interrupted his evening bath, stopping his ablutions midstream, because he suddenly saw trout rising to a hatch of insects. I have a lovely rear-view photo of him, wearing nothing but his boots and a hat, hooking a very nice fish. For his part, he regrets that someone (can’t imagine who) lost the video he once took of me false-casting a very, very small trout on my line, back and forth, back and forth, totally unaware that I had caught a fish. In my defense, and because I am the one writing this story, I want to point out that it was a very, very, very small fish. Anyone could have missed it.
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