Fly Fishing in the Land of Fire
The Rio Grande flows through a remote part of Argentina that offers up some of the largest brown trout in the world.
The river is responsible for five world-record brown trout—the largest being 35 pounds, 2 ounces caught in 1998. Fish ranging in size from 27 to 35 pounds are caught each season. Every week, 20-pound fish are caught and released.
“You will probably catch more big fish in one week here than you will in your entire lifetime,” says Richard White, an avid angler from London who fished here in March. He confesses the biggest trout he ever caught back home was a little more than 8 pounds.
From Buenos Aires, fishermen typically fly three and a half hours on an Aerolíneas Argentinas flight to Ushuaia—the southernmost city in the world and a jumping-off spot for exploring Antarctica.
Argentina’s Rio Grande River is responsible for five world-record brown trout—the largest being 35 pounds, 2 ounces caught in 1998.
From there it’s a four-hour car ride or a 35-minute hop via helicopter ($1,700/three passengers), depending on which lodge they booked. The anglers coming here “are a very unique fishermen,” says Hank Ingram, a South American expert for travel outfitter Frontiers International Travel (frontierstravel.com). “Because it is not the most hospitable place in the world, it’s about the experience and not necessarily the number of fish.”
Ingram notes that so-called “anadromous” fish like Atlantic salmon, steelhead, and sea-run brown trout tend to live in very wild and difficult parts of the globe. “All the keen salmon anglers love it here,” he says, adding that Scandinavians, Russians, Brits, and Scots are regulars. Americans come too—particularly anglers from the Pacific Northwest who are used to fishing for steelhead in freezing temperatures. “They seem to pride themselves on how much they suffer to catch a fish,” he says.
Fly fishing a remote river of this caliber attracts a fairly tight-knit group of people who travel in the same circles year after year, crossing paths in fishing lodges around the world. Accommodations along the Rio Grande have come a long way since Charles Darwin arrived in 1832 and described the landscape as a “savage magnificence.” Ted Turner has a 24,000-acre estancia called San Jose Ranch (tedturner.com), which rests on the border with Chile. However, it is not widely advertised and not well positioned for making especially big catches. “I have booked the whole river and know it well,” says Ingram. “The fishing just isn’t that great in the upper portion.”
Downstream where the action is, find Villa Maria Lodge (vmarialodge .com) near the ocean-fed, food-rich river estuary, where the fish fatten up for a year on a calorie-rich cocktail of krill and other snacks before returning to the rivers (much like Atlantic salmon) to spawn. On 120,000 acres with 40,000 sheep and 1,500 head of cattle, the lodge is owned by the De Las Carreras family of Buenos Aires and run by Nervous Waters (nervouswaters.com), which operates high-end fishing lodges around the world. With space for just six anglers, the intimate house is among the most difficult lodges in the world to book. “It’s about a two-year wait,” says Ingram. “We have groups of people that buy their week and never let it go. Though we might be able to get you in as a single traveler.” Costing $10,950 for the best weeks between January 10 and March 6, the experience grants anglers private access to approximately 12 miles of water, the main lodge, and a day lodge close to the fishing, so that guests can have lunch and a siesta without driving the 40 minutes back to their rooms.
Further upstream, Maria Behety (mariabehetyfishing.com) is owned and operated by cousins of the De Las w Carreras family. Between two separate lodges—La Villa and EMB Lodge—the property can host up to 18 anglers with access to approximately 30 miles of the Rio Grande.
The most well-known lodge on the river, another Nervous Waters destination, is Kau Tapen Lodge (kautapen.com). When it opened in 1984, it was madness to think anyone would visit here. Back then (pre-Internet), fly-fishing travel was not the international phenomenon that it is today. Owner Jacqueline De Las Carreras had heard tales from her estancia workers about the big fish in the river. Suffering from polio and confined to a wheelchair, she boldly started construction in the middle of nowhere, a move that was made even more difficult by her insistence that the lodge be both wooden and chic. (Concrete is the typical building material in the region.) Undaunted, she ordered lumber cut from Andean cedar and shipped it 2,000 miles on trucks from San Carlos de Bariloche.
Kau Tapen means “House of Fishing” in the Ona language of the local indigenous communities. “I like all the lodges, but Kau Tapen is my favorite,” says Ingram. “For the first-timer who has never fished for sea-run browns, this is your lodge.” Fishermen here are treated to chef-prepared meals and have access to a well-stocked wine cellar. The 10,000-square-foot, single-story post-and-beam building accommodates up to 10 anglers (and occasionally 12) who sleep on pressed cotton sheets and under fluffy duvets, as Patagonian temperatures dip into the low 40s. There’s a large formal dining room and a great room with a double-sided, wood-burning fireplace. Take lunches of barbecued local lamb and paella on the glassed-in porch, and unwind via steam room, sauna, whirlpool, and massage. Eighty-eight percent of guests are repeat visitors for the January to April fishing season, when an estimated 85,000 sea-run brown trout head upstream.
Unless, of course, it’s windy. The wind here can be fierce, registering above 50 miles per hour in season. In such conditions, guides move clients to the more than 50 pools—with names like Nirvana, Dead Guanaco, and Coffee Shop—to fish with the wind to their backs.
“I have been to Kau Tapen 17 times to date and hope to be going back in 2021,” says Chris Rocker, a banker from London who had a pool named after him (Chris’s Pocket) and who has caught hundreds of fish here, including a 28-pounder. “Next year I plan to do salmon in Russia, which is probably the only place that rivals Kau Tapen. But it is not as comfortable and it doesn’t have Buenos Aires.”
Another pool here is named “Bush Pool,” after the 41st US President. In a framed letter hanging on the wall of Kau Tapen, dated December 9, 1999, President George H.W. Bush wrote: “Dear Fernando, I write simply to say ‘Thanks’ for your key role in giving me the fishing trip of my life.”
Gearing Up for Tierra del Fuego
Kau Tapen Lodge has a complete fly shop and all the gear that you would need to hook a big one on-site. But for serious anglers, hauling oversize duffels and huge rod tubes around the world is part of the fun.
Fishing the Rio Grande requires a 12-foot Sage 8-weight 8130-4X Spey rod ($1,200, sageflyfish.com) and large-arbor Spey reel to accommodate a Rio Skagit Max VersiTip line ($190, rioproducts.com). Choose a reel one size larger than you need, such as the Abel Super 9/10 ($895, abelreels.com).
Simms makes the best waders and boots and the Simms G3 Stockingfoot Guide Waders ($550, simmsfishing.com) are less expensive and lighter than the company’s G4 line, which is designed for full-time guides. The Simms Flyweight Wading Boot ($200) is lighter than many Simms designs and thus is a pleasure to wear all day. To combat the wind, pair Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Underwear (from $44, patagonia.com) with the Simms Midstream Insulated Jacket ($200), the Simms G3 Wading Jacket ($450), and a pair of Simms Guide Windbloc Half Finger Gloves ($55).
For polarized sunglasses, pack a pair of Costa del Mar frames (prices vary, costadelmar.com). As for flies, Wooly Buggers, Zonkers, and Bunny Leeches are always popular, as are tube flies like a Sunray. Kau Tapen’s website has a good list of options and the lodge sells a full selection.