An Argentine Adventure

It was already past my normal bedtime when I boarded the plane at JFK International Airport. Generally not too enthused about long plane rides, I’ve learned to tolerate my time in the air as a conduit to beautiful places. However, this trip seemed different. There was excitement even if the flight to Buenos Aires was a nearly 11-hour red eye marathon. As traveling companion Mike Foley and I settled in for the flight, I couldn’t help but reflect. 

In many ways the seed for this trip had been planted over 40 years ago. Learning to fly fish in the 1970s had its challenges – no internet, no YouTube and barely any fly shops. My bible was Trout Fishing authored by Joe Brooks. Amongst the many relevant topics Mr. Brooks covered in its pages were several references to his travels throughout Argentina and the burgeoning fishery for sea run brown trout. I’ve been intrigued ever since and now, with the opportunity to trace his footsteps to the near southern end of the earth, I overflowed with excitement.

During the flight, I imagined what travel must have been like back in the 1950s and 60s, but as I sat crammed in my seat, I decided conditions had to have been more comfortable back in those days.

Adding yet another enjoyable aspect of the adventure was that it was the first ever Swing the Fly hosted trip. And after landing in Buenos Aires, we meet up with publisher Zack Williams and the rest of our Swing the Fly guests. Once checked into our hotels, the remainder of the day is spent relaxing and enjoying the diverse city. The next day we are off on a “short” three- and half-hour flight to our ultimate destination of Rio Gallegos. There we are met by smiling faces from Las Buitreras lodge. Right from the start, the vibe is professional, organized, and very friendly. That theme would continue consistently throughout the entire week with the guides, staff, and management. 

The Rio Gallegos is a stunning piece of water wandering and meandering through a sparse countryside. The rugged wind-whipped climate creates a challenge for native plants keeping limited growth close to the surface while creating a wonderful vast landscape clearly revealing its remote nature as our transport van ride leaves the population center of the city of Rio Gallegos. Upon arriving at estancia Las Buitreras the excitement is palpable. The welcoming staff assists with a smooth transition to our rooms and ready a delicious first night dinner. Fishing begins in the morning. Luckily, I am exhausted from travel otherwise getting any sleep would be difficult. 

After months of research and input from Zack, Chris Travis, and others that have fished the Rio Gallegos, I begin the first day with some trepidation. After all the effort, was I properly prepared? Spey fishing for sea run brown trout seemed a bit more complex than the basic step and swing one might experience on a wide-open steelhead pool. Being stealthy and calculating clearly had its place. But for me one of the most attractive features of this trip is combining Spey with a tactical approach impacting rigging, casting and fly presentation to match conditions and mood of the fish.

The first day gives us a taste of what southern Argentina might be best known – wind! It started fierce and continued relentlessly. Gusts pushed to 60 mph. It’s the type of wind that you need to lean into to stay upright. But, our guides all knew their water well and selected pools best suited to the wind direction. Being able to cast off both shoulders is a requirement. The wind never stopped us from fishing, but on the windiest days varying gusts created difficulty making casts in a consistent direction.  At times this left me feeling like the water wasn’t being covered thoroughly or efficiently. But, the wind is part of the deal. There is no room for complaining. Energy is best focused on just getting it done even though the wind exposes all weaknesses in one’s casting. 

The wind also isn’t all bad. When we arrived, the water is clear and slightly on the low side. Under these conditions the sea runs can become quite spooky. High sun and placid water add to the difficulty factor. But winds that obscure the surface and stir up sediment act as a counterbalance and create some mid-day success even when the sun was bright. Under low and clear water conditions, the last light of the evening was the magic hour. It seems like brown trout everywhere have a penchant for soft evening light and the sea runs of the Rio Gallegos were no exception. 

Low clear water conditions call for small flies. Nymph style patterns are preferred by the guides. I have swung nymphs in the past on some of my Great Lakes waters with limited success. But small nymph patterns are the bread and butter here when stealth is required. The Copper John, EMB, and Zug Bug all produce fish on the first two days. The common ingredient on each of these patterns is rubber legs. In the low evening light, larger flies had their place. Sunray Shadow and similar tube flies fished on the surface can bring explosive grabs. The stealth of careful wading and quiet casting movements are a key factor for success under calm quiet conditions. A small nymph resulted in a big hen on the very first morning for Mike Foley.

At the end of our second day water levels rose due to rain in headwaters. I welcomed the change. This may have been my first trip for sea run browns, but one thing seems universal in the pursuit of migratory fish – a bump in the water stirs the pot and infuses life into a river. For me, it is now about using bigger flies throughout the day in search of fresh aggressive fish inspired by the freshet. Bunny leeches and wooly bugger style flies are now on the menu and with the water rather stained after the rise, brighter colors excelled. For the rest of the trip I settled on the Yellow Yummy, essentially a big crazy-looking yellow wooly bugger with protruding yellow rubber legs.

The use of rubber legs on many of the preferred patterns makes sense in the context of fly presentation. In the higher, faster flows a straight swing of the fly proved productive on a few aggressive fish. But, the guides preffered a swing and strip approach. Varying the strip between short and sharp to long and slow, I attempted to keep it consistent while fishing one piece of water to maintain a grid-like coverage and not miss any potential holding water. Looking at any of the rubber leg patterns in the water, the strip causes the legs to flare and move instantly bringing the fly “alive”. The sea runs seemed to react to this seductive movement, and it was no coincidence that some solid grabs were experienced immediately after the strip.

The rise in water did create a few challenges, as well. A few days, the water was stained and floating debris and weeds clung to our flies on some pools. Zack countered this by fishing a tube on the surface, above the floating weed experiencing an explosive grab before landing a beautiful, bright sea run. But, as the debris settled, the bump in water worked as I had hoped. Some beautiful sea runs were encountered through the end of the week during both the morning and afternoon sessions by everyone in camp.

The fishing highlight of my trip occurred on the first day after the bump in level. The Bridge Pool is the most recognized piece of water at Las Buitreras. It is known for the impressive 90-year-old bridge that allows vehicle passage from one side of the river to the other. While marveling at the work that must have been involved in building this structure in such a remote part of the world, my Yellow Yummy was grabbed solidly after a strip of the fly. The fish was out of the water immediately showing its impressive length and girth. After a long run that ended in my backing, the remarkable sea run eventually found its way to the net. 

When hooked, sea run brown trout have similar characteristics to large inland brown trout. Typically, there is a jump or two along with some crazy runs and violent head shakes. The battle usually concludes with a toe-to-toe struggle to the net. But, these sea runs are no ordinary brown trout. These fish are thick and solid from months in the salt. Think a brown trout that spend a lot of time in the gym.

The first Swing the Fly hosted trip was big a success. A great group that learned from the challenges of the fishery, landed a few beautiful sea runs while enjoying the accommodation and comfortable feel of the lodge. Las Buitreras is a first-rate operation. General manager Felix Hansvencl and camp manager Lawson are knowledgeable and always available, ensuring the operation ran smoothly. The guides shared knowledge of their water and proper presentation in a way that made you feel prepared yet relaxed.

Going in I thought this might be a one-time adventure, but I have already made plans to go back next year to host another Swing the Fly week at Las Buitreras.