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Fly Fishing Patagonia Chile by Helicopter Fly fishing Patagonia Chile by helicopter        

                                                                                  By John Joy, Tres Rios Fly Fishing and Adventure

We were kind of lost the first time I saw the river. We had spent the night in a Patagonia mountain lodge after floating and fly fishing 17 miles of sinuous wild river through road-less backcountry. I had been hired to provide the catarafts and guide service while the group had organized lodgings and helicopters. Their last day in Patagonia had been left a wild card and they handed it to me at the evening meal. Sitting where we were, with plenty of fuel and all the necessary gear, it seemed a no-brainer. We had to drop into the lake of legends,Patagonia Chile Lago Mentiroso, one few had ever seen, including me, since you could only get there by either float plane or chopper, both scarce items and difficult to arrange in Patagonia. A friend of mine had guided on the lake years ago for a fly-in operation that tanked and another friend had been hired to run up the outflow river of dubious return to salvage the boats and gear. Their stories were consistent as to the lake being a fishing Mecca that every Patagonia fisherman should visit if they ever got the chance. After years of haunting my dreams, zap, the chance materialized and I pounced on it like a starved Puma.

     As soon as the fog lifted in the early morning, the pilot and guides climbed aboard a Bell 206 loaded with fishing and floating gear. The pilot took us from 200’ to over 4200´ flying in a switch-back pattern to climb the shear snow capped ridge that separated us from our destination.This section of the Andes, a spiny range running uninterrupted north to south for 62 miles and doubling west towards the Andes Mountains Patagonia Chileocean at both ends, was a formidable vertical barrier that excluded settlers from the lands between it and the Pacific, leaving a true untouched wilderness without so much as a foot trail. When we finally cleared the peaks the vista was spellbinding, bald granite formations, pockets of blue glacial ice and permanent snow, trickles of shimmering silver rivulets and cascades running to shallow pocket ponds, lenga forests just turning color in a ring between definitive tree line and the dense green jungle below that covered all but the rock  outcroppings. Glistening gray tree trunks and dried branches reached above the ocean of tangled vegetation, the tiered tops of centuries old coihue trees, the climax species of this temperate rain forest. Obviously nothing had ever disturbed this land and from the terrain it looked as if nothing ever could. The lake was not in site but it had to be between us and the Pacific, probably on a tack a bit more to the north. Then we spotted the shimmering stream down in the crease to the south.

   I had studied the maps so often dreaming of reaching blue squiggles and blotches beyond the roads that I knew immediately the name of the stream, and it was a secret that had been whispered to me by the son of a pioneer in these parts, “Rio Escondido”. Taking advantage of being a little off course for the lakes I asked the pilot to follow the stream and began to assess it with an eye to fishing and logistics. Yes, there were beaches to set down on, good looking water, no land access in very rough and thickly forested terrain, and some nasty rapids that would impede navigation by jet boaters. Perfect. Satisfied, we altered course through a V notch in the jumble of mountains and our original destination appeared in the distance before us.

   On a beautiful sandy beach at the head of one arm of the lake we started inflating float tubes and a 3-man cataraft. The other chopper arrived just as floatation was ready and the anglers spilled out of the bird, trotted hunched over to water’s edge and fitted their pre-strung rods together, distractedly taking in the surroundings, wagging their heads in wonder, and mouthing an inaudible “Wow!”. It turned out to be a fairytale kind of day with a bRio Escondido Chilerilliant warming sun illuminating incomparable natural beauty. Spirits were high, conversation was jovial, all of us were intoxicated with the air of adventure and exploration that comes with dropping into an unknown paradise as if discovering it for the first time. The fishing seemed almost secondary with all that we were taking in but, although we didn’t find the world record brook trout that is supposed to be lurking there somewhere, we did find beefy and athletic rainbows along the tulles that satisfied all needs for tugs. I took two anglers and the cat down the outflow river and found it thick with trout. Outstanding among them was an three pound brookie and a four pound brown, the later hiding in the seam and where a colored glacial side stream merged with the transparent main stream. Every fish was in perfect condition and had magnificent coloration and markings.

   We continued down the then milky water towards to end of the day to check the fishing and to assess the river and rapids for jet boat access. Although the rapids were passable, running up the river presented sufficient logistical difficulty that it was practically impossible, requiring some open ocean passage, several days of favorable weather, lots of gear, and a desire to appear on “Survivor” to pull it off. It confirmed my suspicion that my buddy who had done it was a little “loco”. This destination would probably remain pristine with minimal fishing pressure for decades to come. The helicopter retrieved us and we neither left nor took anything in that paradise to indicate that we had ever been there, the only respectful way to visit unspoiled nature. Our footprints and ski marks in the sand would be wiped out in short order by the wind and rain.

   It was never far from my imagination, but it was some time before I actually made it back to Rio Escondido. Summers passed filled with land-based fishing expeditions, some of them passing at the feet of those barrier mountains, but we might as well have been on another continent as far as we were from reaching that water. In truth there was all kinds of great fishing to be had without a chopper, as most streams and rivers in Chilean Patagonia have limited access spots and then flow for miles through remote wilds until reaching a take-out point. We fished many watersheds with smaller dry fly and nymph streams, larger rivers with streamers, lagoons and lakes with trout rising to large dries, each piece of water with a distinct character and a fascinating geographic setting. Perhaps it was “g.o.o.b.phobia” or just looking for the lowest pressure water for our anglers, but we always specialized in finding the most remote and difficult to reach waters, and we had a blast. But once you fly, as good as it gets on the ground, you know that it gets even better from the air.

   Fly fishing in Patagonia ChileWhen finally we returned to check out Rio Escondido we approached from the north, slipping through a pass at 1978’ rather than climbing over the top as before. With the blue Pacific on our right and glaciered peaks on our left we traversed a low forested plain spanning about 40 miles and about half that in width. Impressive silent and shivering volcanoes stood erect at both extremes, dominating the landscape and forbidding passage into the wilderness. A milky river snaked across the plain, receiving clear waters from several tributaries, one draining an extensive wetland. Small lakes shimmered in the landscape, some solitary, some in chains, some with reed beds and abbreviated gravel beaches where short streams rushed into them, and others looked deep and mysterious, as if scooped out of the jungle, plunging immediately to depths that swallowed the enormous deadfalls of the old growth forest that ringed them. This all begged to be explored. On our way to complete one mission there arose so many more.

We surveyed Rio Escondido from bottom to top, starting where it spilled down a long rapid into the estuary up to where it divided into several smaller cascading streams as Rio Escondido Patagoniathe valley narrowed. The pilot asked me to call the ball and I chose a beach just below a rapid about a third of its run from the salt. Here we had good current in a long run between rapids, deep holes and an extensive oxbow lagoon connected by entry and exit channels. The main stream flowed like a weed-free spring creek speckled with timber and stumps. If there were any fish at all in the system they’d be in that bit. Having taken us into the wilds before, the pilot knew to stay off the water but, unavoidably, as we closed in to set down we all saw three huge fish move into deeper water. Bingo! They were here and I could relax now that rumor and legend proved true.

Before I even had the cataraft set up the excitement began as the group leader hooked into a good fish that had him calling us over to witness and help out.  Sea-run Brown Trout in Patagonia ChileVisibly excited, he nervously played the brawler through several long runs that appeared to be attempts to reach the midstream structure at the back of the pool. When it went airborne while still in the backing there was a chorus of “Hoooly shit!”. It was a magnificent sea-run brown trout longer than my arm. I had taken along a lip scale on the off chance that we’d get into something that required more than the usual – let’s not handle them - rough guestimate and I made an exception in briefly getting its stats of 31” and 12 lbs. Apart from size, it was the second most beautiful fish I had ever seen.

   From the cataraft we circled to the top of the pool, playing and releasing two more behemoths similar to the first. Already a fabulous day, we started down the stream, eyes straining to develop osprey vision. The water was absolutely transparent with the only the slightest green hue. Maybe there was a puma or pudu in the valley that could contaminate the water but it looked as pristine as anything sold in a bottle. Appearing to be 4” deep all across, the stream was about six feet deep near the undercut outside bank. Both banks were covered with impassable tangles of viney bamboo (quila), wild fuchsia, umbrella-leaved Gunnera, orange barked arrayanes anFly Fishing for monster Brown Trout in Chiled a host of other shrubs, vines and trees. These conditions called for stealth and my supposedly invisible “camo” line with a rubber legged dragon fly nymph-ish invention I was fond of, but a minnow pattern probably would have worked as well. There were brightly spotted, golden bellied resident browns 22” to 24” holding down behind stumps in about three to four feet of water, and there were clusters, or battle groups, of these resident fish around much larger sea-run browns 29” to 32”. The trick was to pull the fly away from the “small” trout that chased it and drop it in front of the sea-run without spooking the whole lot.

   Of the perfect days in my life this one still stands out. That afternoon we released seven sea-runs and twice as many resident browns. We had impeccable weather, an idyllic setting, superb companionship, professional and reliable men and machinery, a marvel of the creator stream, and big aggressive trout under challenging, but not impossible, conditions. About halfway down the stream the fisherman turned to me on the sticks and a buddy in the back and remarked “If you only knew what I’d pay for a day of fishing like this.” This man had hunted sheep all over the world, and owned both a steelhead lodge and a salmon lodge in BC, fishing when and where he pleased, and with that statement it was clear that this was one of his best days ever. For me it was one of those rare - now I can die in peace – experiences, and I didn’t even get to fish.

   On that and subsequent trips we explored many of the lakes and streams that riveted our attention while flying across the wilderness. Some waters were disappointing and others were phenomenal. Once again in setting down on a tiny beach on one of the lakes we experienced that flushing of big trout wherein all doubts evaporate in an instant. We had a hook-up before the rotors stopped and the lake turned out to be liberally populateVolcanos in Patagoniad by browns averaging four pounds. Time was never sufficient to get to all the lakes and streams and many remained on the “to do” list, prime adventure for anyone wanting to cut short trails from one to another in a chain of lakes, or literally drop into them. Trout surely made their way to the lakes from the streams during winter high water decades ago and remain there gorging patiently.

   Over the years the helicopter pilot and I have become close friends, and along with guides and ground support, all competent and good natured, an excellent team. We have logged many hours together covering Patagonia from the Lakes Region as far south as Villa O’Higgins at the top of the Southern Ice Field. Together we have had the privilege of witnessing many of the most awe inspiring masterpieces of creation in Patagonia Chile, as yet beyond the reach of development but within that of a chopper…a crater lake with colorful speckled rainbows, a brown trout river with a tug every two yards, blue whales gorging on krill in the archipelago, a volcano with different colored lakes in a daisy chain around its ashy apron, all memories for a lifetime. But no matter where we’re headed my eyes are always searching, hoping to stumble onto another Rio Escondido.

John G. Joy,

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