2015 started off with a bang for me, as I left California for Chile on January 2nd to start an epic 23 day fly fishing adventure to South America. The trip would have me visiting and fishing three different lodges and outfitters in Chile, and two lodges in Argentina – all in remote and beautiful Patagonia. The trip had been planned for better than a year out, but underwent some significant schedule changes, when Marcel of Patagonian BaseCamp, in early December, told me about his new program in Argentina at Las Pampas Lodge: “Rio Pico”, officially named PatagoniaOne (Patagonia without Borders). I had been reading and hearing about the Rio Pico region of Argentina, Patagonia for close to 20 years and heard some amazing stories from Mike Michalak about fishing this remote frontier with famed Argentina fishing guide Raul San Martin. To say I was chomping at the bit to see and fish it would be a gross understatement. A couple simple adjustments to my itinerary gave me six full days with Marcel, plenty of time to check-out his new fishery.
The following is a day by day journal account of Marcel and my experience at Patagonia Base Camp and Las Pampas, “Rio Pico”- the latter an intense two days and one night fast-track in the Fonterra!
10 JAN 15 – Saturday
After a wonderful few days with Jose Gorrono and his team at El Saltamontes, I am headed to Patagonian BaseCamp (PBC), Marcel and Caro Sijnesael’s fabulous operation on the Palena River. Jose drives me to the cross roads to Puerto Cisnes and Puyuhuapi , half way point between the two lodges. We take the back road over to Manihuales (30 +/-minutes ride). The entire transfer takes one hour and thirty minutes – it is an easy drive, much of it paved now. Marcel arrives at the meeting place exactly one minute before our agreed upon time, (love his attention to detail) and we transfer luggage, I say goodbye to Jose and jump in Carolina’s FJ Cruiser. It should be noted that Marcel had to get special permission from Carolina to use her personal vehicle and I think (hope) her decision was due to my visit. We needed to be at the crossroads before 11:00 a.m. as the road between there and La Junta (closest town/village to PBC) is under construction and they are blasting their way through solid rock to widen and eventually pave the road. They closed the section we needed to navigate between 1 and 5 p.m. every day to blow stuff up. As we pass the construction crews working on the road, we see them packing explosives in drilled holes and I comment to Marcel, “…I sure hope they know what they are doing….” Marcel and I make the drive with no issues or long delays. We stop in La Junta to top off Caro’s rig with fuel and drive onto the lodge.
We arrive at the lodge just in time for a super lunch. It’s worth noting that all the vegetables, meats, milk, all the staples that can be, are organic and grown or produced on the ranch in a sustainable manner. It’s a total commitment by Carolina in offering the very best table fare made with the freshest, home grown and produced ingredients. I get settled into my room, unpacked and got organized, as this will be my base for the next 6 days. Marcel gives me a tour of the ranch, and we check out his new boats, rafts, etc. – a couple container loads of equipment he ordered from the States, which arrived a week or so before. He purchased new 17’ deep v-hull LUND boats for the lake fishing. They’re nice boats, super stable and clean for fly fishing, and able to safely and comfortably navigate and fish Lago Rosselot and Lago Verde and other lakes, much better than the flat bottom jet skiffs. New jet motors, new rafts, life jackets, frames, oars, two new Toyota Hilux pick-ups, (one was crashed the week before, so he ordered another)…lots and lots of stuff! Marcel continues to invest in his infrastructure and program, like no other outfitter we work with. The lodge is in top form, the staff dialed in – Marcel and Carolina have it going – BIG TIME!
We enjoy a great meal that night and learn our schedules for the next 6 days. First on our itinerary is a two day, one night float on the Rio Palena.
At the lodge are Bob and Alice Schleusner, Rob Thompson and Ted Buchannon (TFS clients), along with three French friends of Marcel’s and a super nice fella from the UK, Mr. Jim Dick. I will be paired with Jim, and Bob an Alice will fish together; our guides are David Souther (new guide with AK experience, from MN, very nice and capable young man) and veteran guide and all around super-man, Greg Bricker.
11 JAN 15 – Sunday:
Breakfast is served at 8:00 a.m.: cereal, fresh fruit, cook-to-order eggs, bacon, toast, ham cheese, yogurt, raw milk fresh from the cow, fresh ground coffee from Argentina – whatever you want… We are out the door and loaded into the Excursion (like a Suburban) by 9:30 a.m. We drive approximately 1.5 hours to the put in sight, pulling a trailer with stacked pontoon rafts with small outboards. Jim and I will fish the first day with David. It’s windy and quite cloudy and I suspect we are in for some rain as the sky looks pretty menacing down river. According to Marcel, the fishing on the upper Palena had been challenging the last couple weeks. Jim and I cover the water well with big dry flies and streamers and move a few fish, one good brown on a black and white Dali Lama and Jim lands some small to medium size rainbows. The wind is getting stronger and then the rain opens up, heavy rain most of the afternoon. As we pull into the Palena Camp – it’s pouring buckets… We move camping supplies (coolers) and our gear into our Domo Shelters, big white dome tents, and get out of our waders, still raining hard. The NEW Palena Camp is in a great location and Nice! There are two large DOMO stand-up height tents for each two guests with real beds, fresh linens, towels and pillows. We have lights, night stands, a place to hang our waders, everything you need – this is deluxe camping. The tents and kitchen (also a DOMO) are all built on elevated wooden decks, connected by walkways, built in an ancient forest of Lenga. There is a flush toilet and sink for cleaning up. The main DOMO is where a simple kitchen is located and a divider in the large tent separates the kitchen from where the guides sleep and supplies are stored. David gets the short straw and has to cook dinner outside over an open fire “disco” in the pouring rain – it’s a new guide thing. Disco is a giant cast iron disk (plow disk) with three welded legs that is set over open flame and all kinds of vegetables, meat, rice and herbs are cooked into a delicious stir-fry. I have had this dish before with PBC on over-night floats and it is very tasty, filling and hits the spot after a long day on the river. There is an open bar, wine, dessert – what more can you ask for. It’s still raining hard when I turn in for the night 11:00 p.m. ready for some sleep.
12 JAN 15 – Monday:
Up for a quick breakfast, “simple” coffee cake, fruit, cereal, cheese and ham and French press coffee – just right after a big meal the night before. We are pulling out of the Palena Camp by 9:45 a.m. Greg Bricker, Jim and I are fishing the day together. We fish big dries and streamers through the morning off floating lines and move and catch some nice rainbows. The day is a spectacular early summer day in Patagonia, clear skies, some wispy clouds; a sky so blue it glows. Massive and rugged mountains are set in the background, freshly sprinkled with snow on the peaks. It’s warm, bright and the day has a promising feel about it. I take a lull in the action, to tie on a new tapered 2X leader, just on hunch that we are going to hit some big browns as we drift down stream into Hog Johnson water. Right before lunch, across from our designated lunch site, while fishing a clay bank wall with a medium sized Gypsy King I hook a BIG Brown as described by Greg Bricker:
But the story of the week is told by guide Greg Bricker when Pat caught a 28.5 incher on a dry fly in his boat. “Like most anglers in search of big brown trout, I usually anticipate seeing my largest browns of the season on dark, overcast streamer days, chucking baitfish patterns towards the banks, logs, or other structure in the hope that one of the giants living in the area comes out and inhales the fly. These days usually require hard work, perseverance, a bit of skill, and a whole lot of luck; most of the time, some nice fish are seen, hooked, and even landed. Even on the best days, most of the best fish caught with a streamer are hard-earned…
So, floating the Palena River, pitching big dries on a beautifully sunny day- typical of the height of our Patagonian summer – I really was not anticipating seeing the largest trout I have seen in Chile since 2006. While Gypsy King fishing is quite productive, and watching trout of all sizes attempt to eat this massive dry is unbeatable fun, it is quite rare to see the largest trout in the river come up to play. Big fish eat little fish right?
Needless to say, when this giant brown came up for a look, it caught the attention of everyone in the boat. The water was walking speed, the shelf along the bank was littered with structure, and the fish just appeared, hovering under the fly, following it downstream, all the while providing quite the show. He opened his mouth on the fly twice, turning away disinterested each time, all the while moving away from his spot, and swimming with the boat. Kudos to angler Pat Pendergast as he retained his composure all the while, not moving the fly or setting the hook, and talking the fish into eating just one more time…
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity and with the fly partially submerged, he ate it with a slow, deliberate, confident eat, and Pat set the hook! With the fish putting the tippet, knots, and drag to the test, I moved the boat away from the bank to the deepest part of the run. Ten minutes later, we were on the gravel bar, taking photos, shaking our heads, and grinning ear to ear.
An amazing fish, a painstaking eat, and a great fight- nothing more to ask for.”
The rest of the afternoon we fish Gypsy Kings and Fat Alberts with some action. We switch to streamers and get a few fish, rainbows and browns. Jim lands a nice rainbow on a fly called the “Dirty Hippie”. We start to motor our way to the lodge and have some issues with the outboard, so Greg rows us out back to the lodge – not too late for dinner, arrive about 8:00 p.m. We enjoy another wonderful meal, venison tenderloin – delicious! Tomorrow Marcel and I are off to Las Pampas “Rio Pico” to see the new program – PatagoniaOne.
13 JAN 15 – Tuesday:
Marcel and I are off to Las Pampas today. We drive to the TempleCamp, taking the shorter route past Lago Claro Solar – one hour drive. Marcel has made some enhancements to the TempleCamp, including covering the porch off the quincho, building a dry room with heater for guests’ gear and adding a separate DOMO for the guides and staff to stay in. In the past the crew stayed in the quincho. The new set-up allows guests to stay up at night if they like, while the guides and crew can go grab some sleep. The TempleCamp looks great, very clean, and cool. It has to be one the most unique and all-time greatest out-camps, anywhere in the world. We head out of the TempleCamp toward the town of Lago Verde, a 45 minute drive, where we will clear Chile Immigrations -very easy and simple. From there we motor into the Frontier, ”no man’s land between Chile and Argentina” to meet the Las Pampas guides, Martin and Pablo, nickname “Anka” as in Paul Anka from the Rat Pack. We shuttle Marcel’s vehicle back to the Chilean Immigration Office and then drive back into Argentina and down out of the mountains to the river valley. We immediately climb into our waders and fish some lagoons (all this before we clear Argentina Immigrations & Customs!). Marcel and I hook and land half a dozen nice rainbows and browns, all with big, foam body dry flies. It’s all sight fishing to large trout and a lot of fun. We also fish a brief section of the Rio Pico for a short period before driving to the Argentina Immigrations and Customs Outpost. The entry is relatively painless and easy, albeit the posturing of the officers, which are bored out of their skulls in this uber remote outpost.
We drive to Lago 5 to meet Augustine Fox “Augie” (manager and partner of Las Pampas Lodge) and fish the lake with him. We enjoy a great lunch with Augie, his family and the guides before our lake fish. The wind is really strong, probably blowing 35 – 40 mph with stronger gusts. We load up in the 14 foot NRS Otter raft, top it off with some more air and head out on the lake. The swells are no less than 3 feet high and Augie does all he can to hold the raft back from the shoreline as we tear down the lake hammering casts to the bank, #2 Gypsy King and #4 Fat Albert. We are going to cover the entire lake in about an hour – speed fishing! Everything is going fast and furious, everything but the incredibly slow and methodical eats on our dry flies by BIG rainbows and browns – we land trout to 24 inches, nothing under 20 inches. I hook one brown (resident) that literally took me into my backing – first time for me! We pound the bank and rock walls, move and land a dozen fish and then it’s over – we are done. This has to rate as one of the most enjoyable, successful and unique lake fishing experiences I have ever had. The wind, the speed in which we moved, the quality of the fish – all on dry flies, what an amazing hour of fishing! Martin and Anka meet us at the take out and we are off to the Las Pampas River and Terramoto (Earth Quake) Spring Creek where Rob Thompson and Ted Buchannon are fishing. Marcel fishes for about 45 minutes on the Las Pampas, a beautiful creek out in this arid dry valley. The creek is a classic trout fishery, gin clear cold water serpentining back and forth with all kinds of structure, root wads, clay banks, and undercut banks – loaded with rainbows. I mean LOADED! I bet you could have a 100 fish day on this creek. There must be some moss-back brown trout under those cut banks, but we don’t see or move any.
We make our way upstream and find Ted fishing to an aggressive, actively feeding brown (22 inches). Ted has been on this amazing fish for better than an hour and is not going to give-up. We leave Ted and Rob to their fishing and decide to head to Las Pampas Lodge. An amazing day – Marcel and I have seen and fished no less than 5 different, unique and amazing fisheries – incredible small water diversity, the perfect complement to PBC’s mountain rivers.
Marcel and I make it back to the lodge, have a well-earned beer, some snacks, grab a shower and make our way to the lodge for cocktail hour and dinner. Dinner is served at 10:30 p.m., squash soup, with queso and bife de lomo with locally picked morels – delicious with great wines. All the guests eat at one table and the guides join us for dinner – I like this. One of the guide helpers is an American named “Tucker”: young guy, just graduated from Harvard majoring in Fungi Biology, a family friend of David Ondaatje, owner of Winston Fly Rods, going to start growing truffles, back east in Connecticut . Marcel and I hit the sack at 12:30 p.m. Tomorrow we go to “Africa” – the braids of the Rio Pico!
14 JAN 15 – Wednesday:
Today, we go to “Africa” a maze of spring creek channels of the Rio Pico in a massive valley, surrounded by arid steppes and snow-peaked mountains. The valley floor is covered by thousands of braided spring creek channels, aquatic vegetation and sweet grass – loaded with browns and rainbows eating Caddis or whatever other aquatic insect is hatching. A short drive (5 minutes) from the Las Pampas Lodge has us driving through a locked gate and entering Nuñez’s 7,000 acre cattle ranch where our fishery awaits. It’s an amazing resource of small water sight fishing to free rising wild trout, exclusive to Las Pampas guests. My first good shot at an eating fish, lands a 23 inch rainbow taken on a Missing Link – thanks Mike Mercer! It’s all I can do to navigate the fish through a maze of obstacles as she leaps and runs in every direction – all seemingly at once. Marcel, fishing with Anka, lands a fat brown that is easily 23 inches just upstream from me, minutes after my bow is released. We sneak along the banks, crawl on our bellies and wade between channels sight fishing to sipping trout the next couple hours, (we each have our own guide) until the hatch finally quiets and the fish go rest. It should be noted that this is not tiny spring creek fishing in a channel that is three feet wide, five feet deep (which is not that uncommon in Patagonia). This water is wide, up to and over 40 feet in width in some spots and with good current, cold water and hard fighting fish, that won’t suffer being lined or a bonked on the head by a sloppy cast. “Africa” is classic spring creek fishing – the real deal and a lot of fun!
We meet up with Rob and Ted that have been floating the main Pico, once the myriad of braided spring creek channels combine to form a single channel and enjoy a quick and delicious lunch steam side, then Rob and Ted head to Africa and we jump in the raft with Martin to continue the Rio Pico float Ted and and Rob were on this morning. We have about 1.5 hours to fish, before we have to bail on the fishing, head back to Las Pampas, grab our gear and head back to Chile and Patagonian BaseCamp. The border crossing closes at 6:00 p.m. As we are getting into the raft, a fat 20 inch brown cruises by us, Marcel casts his Fat Albert in front of it and it eats – this is going to be good! This is super slow water, barely moving and bordered by a thick wall of willows that are partially submerged. We are actually fishing up stream, blown by the wind. Marcel and I cast a Fat Albert to the submerged willows, back bays, weed patches and cut banks and absolutely wail on the fish – all on dries, great takes, nothing less than 19 inches and fish up to 23 inches – amazing. I loose count of how many eats we have and fish we land, but it was non-stop action for just better than hour and Marcel and I are slack-jawed over the quality of the fishing and the fish!
We hurriedly get off the river, get the raft loaded on the truck and beat it back to Las Pampas to gather up our gear and head to the Argentine Border Outpost. We quickly clear Argentina, drive to Lago Verde, re-enter Chile and motor back to PBC arriving 9:15 p.m. The entire drive from Las Pampas to Patagonian BaseCamp, door to door, including the two border crossings takes 3 hours – flat. Marcel and I enjoy a simple and quick dinner and reflect back on the last 36 hours of our lives. We fished 6 different moving water fisheries, half a dozen lagoons, a lake, spring creeks, freestoners, and amazing variety of remote and incredibly productive trout water. We didn’t scratch the surface of what Las Pampas has to offer and even more remarkable, touched everything Marcel has to offer on his side of the Andes in Chile.
The new PatagoniaOne program combines the best of Las Pampas with the best of Patagonian BaseCamp. It is well-choreographed, a perfect blend of the large mountain-water fishing that PBC specializes in with the new small water, high desert wade fishing in Rio Pico – the very best of both worlds. This new program will no doubt redefine what an ultimate Patagonia Trout Fishing Safari is.
15 JAN 15 – Thursday:
We decide to take the next morning off. Marcel has some lodge and business things to handle and I take advantage of the WIFI connection (it is now fully functioning at PBC and works quite well with decent speed) and catch up on emails. I have lunch at Marcel and Caro’s house with Elena and we decide to float the lower Palena from the lodge in the afternoon with Greg Bricker, who is leaving tomorrow on the same flight to Puerto Montt, headed home for a few weeks before returning and finishing out the season.
We launch the raft from the lodge and start our float on the Lower Palena. Marcel is fishing a 24 ft sink tip, me a floater, both of us throwing streamers. I start with a black Home Invader with little or no luck and switch to an olive Home Invader and bingo, start to move some fish. Marcel and I hook 5 or 6 nice browns up to 21 inches and a lot of smaller rainbows. Marcel and I cover the water well, hitting all the right places; a well-placed fly gets some very aggressive strikes, probably due to the water color and clarity (glaciated) with meltwater coming from the Rio Frio upstream due to warm temperatures; overall there is about 30 inches of visibility. The fish don’t have time to think, they just strike fast! We all enjoy a nice afternoon with friends, lots of laughs and stimulating conversation.
Tomorrow I travel to Buenos Aires to continue my epic Patagonia Adventure.
Pat Pendergast – firstname.lastname@example.org