Fly Fishing the Rio Caleufu

The meaning of life is all about fulfilling dreams; one little dream at a time. And for the past several years I’ve harbored a little dream of my own; to float, camp, and fly fish the entire length of the Caleufu River in Patagonia Argentina. In December of this now-past year, I had the chance to join my friends at Andes Drifters for a three day adventure down the Caleufu from the head waters to the final pullout before it gives way to the mighty Collon Cura.

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The Caleufu begins its life at the confluence of the Meliquina River and the Filo Hua Hum (pronounced ‘fee-low-waa-oom’), in a spectacular series of rapids and falls, and twists its way through mountain canyons and stunning rock formations for about 20 kilometers before transitioning into high desert mesa for another 20K. Its color ranges from crystalline to emerald green in the deeper pools, and its character the full spectrum of tranquility to head-soaking rapids. Throughout the full length there are but a few places suitable for camping along the shore, and most of those reside on private land; which makes the use of a well-connected outfitter like Andes Drifters an important part of the equation. The length of stay on the river and unpredictable nature of Patagonian weather also require a significant amount of gear for the trip, which usually means a separate camp boat and crew.

In stark contrast to many of the other famous rivers in this part of Patagonia, the Caleufu has a significant imbalance of Brown Trout to Rainbows; in fact, estimates put the browns at 70 percent (+/-), and our fish take during this adventure verified that ratio. Fine by me, because I have an as-yet-unfulfilled need for landing really big browns; and we found plenty. The most curious thing for me during this three day trip was actually the lack of small fish taken; and I qualify a small fish on this river as something under 17 inches! In all seriousness, only about 10 percent of the 45+ trout that I put in the net across three days were under the average of 18 inches; and I released three that were over 22. The other oddity was the vast range of color in the brown trout, from deep bronze leopards, all the way to some that were nearly bluish-chrome in appearance. Seems there’s a wide range of genetic material at work on this river.
We began our float just downstream from the initial rapids of the Caleufu with the whole team from Andes Drifters in early December for a check out run and tackle test; (it’s a terrible chore that has to be done each year). The river is normally floatable from the end of November until only about mid-January each year due to the drop in water levels as the summer temperatures soar; and the few outfitters who run multi-day trips here need to be intimately familiar with changes in the river. Our dedicated camp crew loaded a raft with supplies, equipment, rations, and all of our excess gear and clothing neatly stowed away in dry bags, and departed ahead to power down river and set up our home for the night some 12 kilometers distant.

My partners on the river were Gustavo Hiebaum, the jefe at Andes Drifters, and Bruce Dancik, their Canadian Representative. Complete submersion in each other’s company for 72 hours through sunshine, rain, wind, and snow (typical Patagonia break-in weather), has a tendency to either solidify timeless friendships, or bring out the dark side in people. But when the fishing is good, weather stands little chance of defeating the camaraderie of passionate fly fishermen; and during the next three days, the fishing was good!
We started our trip with big dry flies and stimulators, taking fish almost immediately after pushing off down river; I had one on while I was still just enjoying the scenery and waving good bye to the shore crew! We stopped at a riffle set shortly after launching, and Bruce broke the ice with a brown trout that had his nose stuck in the base of the bubbling water. As he set the hook, the fish catapulted into the air and then danced in a series of tarpon-esque leaps downstream.  It was a scene repeated many times that morning before we stopped for a riverside lunch of empanadas and salad, and a well-earned siesta under the trees.

Afternoon rolled in with a storm that chased us down river all the way to camp; but we paid little notice to the rain and wind. We switched to heavy sinking line and streamers the size of small birds, and pounded one big brown trout after another as we floated along; stopping only occasionally to get a better shot at fish hiding behind large boulders. My first really big brown came that afternoon as we pulled over past a series of large rocks that lay only a meter or two into the river. We crept back upstream, and following Gustavo’s instructions, I made a short cast to the downstream eddy of a boulder and was immediately engaged in a battle. I love fishing with big streamers in fast moving water for the simple pleasure of how viciously the fish attack the flies.
As we neared our campsite that first evening, slightly damp, wind-burned cheeks, and big fish smiles still adorning our faces; the scent of slow roasting lamb wafted up river to lead us in. The camp crew had set up an immaculate array of tents, rain covers, generator driven lighting, and had a proper Argentine Asado cooking over a stone enclosed pit. We uncorked a couple bottles of fine Argentine wine, watched the skies clear under the Southern Cross, and recounted the day. No need for big-fish lies this evening; the stories were all true, and most had supporting photography. One of the benefits of the digital era is not having to wait for film development to begin the bragging.

Morning broke clear, cool, and crisp; and the mountain passage and river we had left behind the day before was draped in a blanket of fresh snow. Never attempt a trip like this without being prepared for anything. Patagonia is beautiful, fickle, and unforgiving to those take her mood swings lightly. I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag early, drawn by the smell of fresh coffee; and sat on the bank for a while and marveled at the weather still whirling above the peaks. It would eventually break loose and chase us further down river, but it never dampened the fishing. If anything, the changing weather may have spurred the trout into even more aggressive feeding behavior; and our arms grew weary over the next two days from fighting fish.
Along with the trout came a few other surprises for me on the Caleufu, in the form of some really huge Perca (pronounced ‘pear-ka’). Essentially, world class Small Mouth Bass that are native denizens of Patagonia, and oddly enough, considered a nuisance by most of the hardcore trout hunting fly fishermen. Gustavo told me it wasn’t uncommon to catch them in the 6-8 lb. range here; and I’ve now personally witnessed it. (All you “Smallie” addicts in the states take notice.)

The only bad part about fulfilling a little dream; is that sometimes, it turns out to be even better than you dreamed. The Rio Caleufu was exactly that for me, and I’m already calculating for a return in early December this year. My friends at Andes Drifters are not only good outfitters and guides, but a great bunch of guys and fun to share time with on the river.

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