When you pass barns and sheds along the Rio Baker in southern Chile you sometimes see things that concentrate your attention - scary gape-mouthed trout heads mounted like trophy deer horn on a Montana barn. You hit the brakes for a closer look. The question lurks in your mind: "Where did trout like that come from?" That click on photos for larger viewis the question that exploring American fly fishers have been asking for decades. The answers may be found soon as the fishing explorers push southward from Coyhaique into vast glacial drainages and lake systems. Things are changing: The fly-fishing gringos are coming. (See also "Trout Under the Condor," September 1998 issue at www.flyfisherman.com/chile/.)
The Republic of Chile is a geographic sliver, extending 2,650 miles north to south on its Pacific coast but only 250 miles wide at its fattest east-west point. Its Andeanclick on photos for larger view ribs contain some of the tallest mountains in the world. It extends like a bony finger from warm latitudes nearly to the world's coldest continent - Antarctica. Its coast contains some of the world's most abundant, beautiful, and dangerous fjords. Its 16 million population - with the exception of the 5.5 million in Santiago - is sprinkled throughout 12 mostly rural provinces, with 3.9 million cattle, 80 million chickens, 3.2 million pigs, 3.1 million sheep, and a million goats. And it produces some of the world's finest wines and most beautiful women. But that's not quite the entire picture: Thanks to the mountains and their reliable snowpack, Chile contains some of the world's best (and least explored) trout fishing.
That is changing quickly. The Coyhaique region in the past ten years has become Chile's most rapidly developing fly-fishing destination. Trout rivers previously unexplored by fly fishers are being opened and serviced by American guides, outfitters, and entrepeneurs, lately led by Jay Burgin and Mary Jacques, owners of Five Rivers Lodge near Dillon, Montana, in parntership (Cinco Rios and Estancia del Zorro) with Sebastián Galilea, an influential attorney and member of a landowning family from Coyhaique.
The partnership has explored and opened new trout waters of the region (as far south as Rio Baker), leasing 20-year fishing rights from estancia owners and fishing well known public waters. The Burgin/Galilea partnership has established an outfitting/lodging/real estate service that caters to fly fishers looking to explore new waters and invest in land. Other established fly-fishing operations continue to serve the region, including Rex Bryngelson's La Posada de los Farios on the middle Cisnes; Christian and Marcelo Dufflocq's fine lodge at the Estancia de los Rios (www.anglingtours.com) on the upper Cisnes; El Saltamontes, operated by Jose and Erica Gorrono on the lower Nireguao; Maria Jenkins's new Heart of Patagonia lodge (www.heartofpatagonia.com) on the banks of the Rio Aysen, near the junction of the rios Mañihuales and the Simpson; the Patagonia Baker Lodge located on the banks of the Rio Baker; the Patagonia Drifters operating out of a new lodge on the Rio Mañihuales; the Yan Kee Way lodge located on Lago Llanquihue an hour drive from Puerto Montt; and Patagonia Base Camp (www.patagonianbasecamp.com) located on the banks of the Rio Palena.
The Burgin operation, Cinco Rios, includes a large new lodge and cabins to serve 12 anglers (under construction in 2005) on the banks of the Rio Simpson near Coyhaique with eight veteran fly-fishing guides (five American, three Chilean) and a second fully restored lodge, Estancia del Zorro, in operation 40 minutes away by car at Coyhaique Alto near the Chile/Argentina border.
The two operations guide clients to a broad range of public and private waters and spring creeks, all of them freestone waters ranging in size from small (the upper Nireguao, pronounced "neeteewow") to medium size (the rios Paloma, Aysen, Simpson, Mañihuales, Blanco, Deseques, and Pica Flora). Future plans include fishing and lodging operations around the Rio Baker and other rivers from a 3 to 4 hour drive south of Coyhaique.
Fly fishers visiting the current operation are transported by four wheel-drive vehicles to rivers and streams (some of them in nearby Argentina) on trips that range from 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours over rough dirt roads. The private rivers and streams are fished exclusively by the operation, but other local outfitters fish the public waters, the rios (rivers) Paloma, Simpson, Aysen, Mañihuales, and lagos (lakes) Frio, Castor, and Pollux.
The season opens in December (spring) and runs to the second week of April (fall), and the weather and fishing differences in these seasons are important to your trip-planning decisions. As veteran travelers to Chile and Argentina have learned, the Pacific weather front move from west to east, dropping heavy precipitation on the western slopes of the Andes foothills, especially in spring and fall. The spring and fall fishing can be strongly affected by this rainfall and spate run-off from the Andean foothills, especially on glacial-fed streams such as the Rio La Paloma. The larger Chilean rivers are steep in both canyon and gradient. Thus they rise swiftly in run-off and drop quickly once the precipitation ends. Fortunately there are smaller streams, spring creeks, and lakes that can carry the fishing when the spate rivers are in flood, and there are many within driving distance of Coyhaique.
Spring and fall clothing should include moisture-wicking synthetic layers from light to heavy, with a hooded storm jacket, fishing gloves, wool cap, and 30 to 50 SPF sunscreen. Strong wading boots, with high quality felt bottoms, are needed for the hiking and wading.
When fishing the Paloma and Simpson from boats, you pound the banks or stop to wade-fish long gravel runs or the deep, boulder-filled stretches on the lower Simpson. When the water is clear, the sight-fishing to large, powerful trout here is a world-class visual experience. And increasingly, Pacific salmon (kings and silvers) are spawning in these rivers, providing a powerful challenge when they are on or near their redds.
Trout - rainbows and browns on the Simpson and browns on the Paloma range in size from 6 to 30 inches, and on the Estancia del Zorro spring creek the chubby browns average four and run up to 10 pounds. Most small-stream trout (the upper Nireguao and Rio Mayo, for instance) range from 6 inches to 20 inches, providing exceptional 4-weight dry-fly fishing when the winds are down in the mornings and evenings.
The lakes include Frio, Pollux, Castor, Azul, Desierto, Elizalde, and others, and they are full of large browns or rainbows. The shorelines are sight-fished from boats or wade-fished, both to cruising and rising trout. Pancora crabs (a crayfishlike creature that dwells under rocks, swims backwards, and is imitated with an olive Whitlock Near Nuff Crayfish) are a primary food item for these large trout. Their bellies can be crammed hard with pancora, which also occupy the streams. The lake fish also rise to massive chironomid hatches, and small riseforms on calm surfaces often conceal large trout.
Small-stream fishing can also be spectacular or 4- or 5-weights, fishing drys (foam ants and beetles and olive nymph droppers to match the pancora) to browns and rainbows ranging from 6 to 20 inches. Lake fishing can also be exceptional to both rising fish and deep-feeding large browns and rainbows fished on sinking tips (200- to 350-grain integrated heads) from boats or float-tubes. Afternoon winds can make this fishing a challenge.
Where They Fish
Choice on Waters
The Estancia del Zorro spring creek has relatively easy walk-in fishing 200 yards from the lodge for large, heavy browns up to 28 inches. Its other private freestone streams (except for the nearby Petragosa) are located in both Chile and Argentina and are reached by 30- to 90- minute drives by four-wheel-drive vehicles from the lodge (a passport is required to cross the border). Many of these streams provide excellent 4-weight dry-fly fishing to relatively easy, fat browns and rainbows, but few of them have trout over 20 inches long. The Petragosa is an easily waded freestoner with small browns in its upper reaches and larger fish in its canyon. It's an ideal stream for learning dry-fly techniques while fishing to innocent wild fish that smack small drys (#18 Royal Wulffs) in dramatic surroundings. The Petragosa flows into the Rio Coyhaique, which flows through the Coyhaique valley and village.
The Rio Simpson is the crown dry-fly jewel of the Coyhaique region. It comprises three distinct river types: the smaller upper river with its gravelly runs and pools and the occasional deep pools that hold larger rainbows and browns; its middle stretches contain long gravel bars where king salmon spawn and long, deep pools that hold very large rainbows and browns and where anglers can wade and sight-fish with drys to large fish, including kings (up to 35 pounds) and many 5- to 10-pound rainbows that have escaped from estuary commercial fish farms and run upriver. The lower river, characterized by long, deep, boulder-filled runs, provides some of South America's best match-the-hatch fishing to large browns and rainbows rising to caddis, Baetis, and chironomid hatches and a host of terrestrials-all day in the spring and fall, but during evening hours in summer. Float and wade-fishing on this river are exceptional, at times comparable to the Malleo in Argentina. Foam rubber-legged beetles and grasshoppers are also favorites on the Simpson.
Recommended flies include #16-18 Stimulator, #10 Madam X, #10 Near Nuff Crayfish, #14 Stocking Sedge, #18 Troth Elk-hair Caddis, #14-16 Royal Wulffs, #14-18 Parachute Adams, #16-18 Bead-head Pheasant-Tail Nymphs, #18 Copper Johns, #16-18 Hare's Ears, #10 Chernobyl Ants, and Whitlock Hoppers, Renegades, selections of ants and beetle imitations, and trout-fly imitations including Matuka Muddlers and black, olive, and white Zonkers tied on relatively heavy wire. Summer hatches include Pale Morning and Evening Duns (#18-20) and, in the evenings, gray-and green-bodied caddis. The guides tie and supply most of the flies that are needed for fishing the Simpson and other area rivers.
The Rio La Paloma is a complex river system born in a snowfield, with the snowmelt running into Lago Azul, then into Lago Desierto, the outflow (boca) of which becomes the Rio La Paloma, which runs some 14 miles downstream to the Rio Simpson. The cathedral-like river and lake settings compare with the scenery of British Columbia, and the aquamarine lake waters grow large trout. They travel to and from the lakes via the interconnecting streams, including the Paloma, the De Leon, and the Azul-Desierto-Paloma connecting bocas. Tributary streams such as the Megote are worth days of exploration and dry-fly fishing, as are the Rios Deseques, Azul, and Alto.
Each water type on the Paloma provides a different experience, including sight-casting streamers and large drys from boats to bank-cruising browns on the lakes and in the bocas; wade-fishing and sight-casting to flats-cruising fish; float-fishing the Paloma from rafts, jet-boats, or johnboats; rapid-fire casting large foam hoppers and beetle imitations to shore cover as the boat drifts; or wade-fishing freestone reaches such as "Gringo Bend" and fishing hopper imitations upstream to large browns in clear water. The takes to large flies by large browns are heart stoppers, and the unique feature of the large browns is a blue-green halo on their gill covers. Accurate casting to 40 feet from a moving boat can make the difference between so-so success and breathtaking experiences. (Practice casting large drys accurately at 30 to 40 feet before you go.)
The rios Aysen and Mañihuales are guide favorites for large trout fished on large streamers while drifting. Of the two streams, the Aysen has more large browns and rainbows, but the Mañihuales is the more picturesque float.
Wade- and sight-fishing small flies to large cruising trout in the lake shallows can be one of life's most thrilling and demanding challenges, like stalking large bonefish tailing on quiet flats. The best fishing occurs during summer on the food-rich shorelines of lagos Frio, Pollux, and Castor, and the rainbows and browns are large and powerful, requiring 4x or 3x tippets and 12-foot leaders. For fly fishers who enjoy technical fishing- small drys, nymphs, and emerger imitations- this is the place to do it. The bocas of Lagos Elizalde, Azul, and Desierto can occupy you for hours stalking, casting, and playing large lake fish.