New species are being targeted (bass and pike fly-fishing are relatively common), tackle technology has gone through the roof and it is no longer unusual for a fly angler to pack a suitcase (or even brief case!), in the hope of some fly sport abroad. The only problem to confront when considering this last point is.. " Just where should I go?". Florida, for a Bonefish? Russia for a Salmon? How about South America for a Sea Trout? Believe me, put it high, very high, on your wish list.
During the last 10 years or so there has been huge interest in the southern-most regions of South America, notably Tierra del Feugo and the Rio Grande. As this interest has grown, so too has the need for new venues and lodges for the angler seeking the fish of a lifetime. One such destination I had the privilege to spend 4 months getting to know and love, in the capacity of a fishing guide.
The Rio Gallegos is situated in Patagonia, Argentina, just North of the Strait of Magellan and can be accessed through a flight to Buenos Aires and then a 3.5 hour hop by small aircraft to the shanty town of Rio Gallegos. From here a 4x4 truck awaits each new and excited angler before ferrying them to the base camp, Bella Vista (Spanish for "beautiful view "), roughly an hour's drive from the airport.
From the moment the first vision of this area meets the eye it is obvious to see that this is no ordinary fishing destination. In fact the huge rolling plains look like something out of a cowboy movie, not exactly what you would expect from one of the premier sea-trout venues on Earth! It is not an exaggeration to say that my chin scraped the floor during my first truck ride by dirt track to the base which was to become my home for the next 120 days. Before me lay a massive expanse of land, scorched yellow by the sun and providing protein filled 'hay' to the many thousands of sheep grazing upon it. Occasionally a small grey fox would peer at us in a suspicious manner while the odd Rhea (an Ostrich like bird) would race away at speeds of up to 30 mph, startled by the alien presence of our noisy truck. And there, below, lay the river, or Rio as they call it in this part of the world. This jewel was silent to my ears and yet it seemed to whisper "fiiisshh". The whole scene was framed by the most incredible of sun sets and I had to ask myself, was I in another world?"
As my reel began to scream at exactly 6.15pm on 25th December 2000, I certainly felt as if this may have been the case. Fishing on a pool known as Upper Monicas, suddenly my Teeny 300 had come to an abrupt halt and in a surreal moment, which I will never forget, a monster sea-trout launched itself into the festive atmosphere. Hardly believing what was happening I took a quick second to check my wrist watch before going into fish playing mode - otherwise known as blind panic! Any thoughts of log fires and the family gathering 10,000 miles away in front of the Bond movie were banished to the realms of the subconscious, as my fly line had long since disappeared and the 30lb high visibility backing was depleting fast. There was only one thing to do, get after it !
Playing a fish well over your personal best and in high water is always going to be a little fraught, but having already lost 2 fish during guide 'training days', I wanted this fish real bad. Rather than bore you with every clinical detail of the scrap, all that really needs to be said is that the fish played me! Fifteen minutes later and 280 yards from the original point of capture the most fantastic example of a sea-trout I had ever seen lay nestling in the folds of my knotless mesh landing net. At 14lbs and "white fresh", this specimen hen was a full 7 pounds heavier than any sea-trout I had previously caught. Elated. Gob Smacked. Nervous Wreck.. All of them, and much more! Coming to my senses, I realised my responsibilities and very carefully eased the barbless size 10 single carp hook from my prize's mouth. (I always use singles when fishing, preferring the carp style of hook for hooking power and strength when using tube flies).
The Bella Vista stretch of the Gallegos is strictly catch and release so, with one last admiring look, I carefully began to revive her. Within moments she had gathered strength and as a final farewell, smashed the water with a spade-like tail, drenching my wading jacket. I did not have a camera with me to record the moment and in a way I am glad as that fish will remain an indelible picture upon my hard drive forever more.
Meeting back at the trucks, the other guys did not even have to ask how I had got on, my Cheshire Cat grin indicating that I had just experienced the triumphant thrill which every visiting angler to this region seeks. The really amazing thing is that this fish is pretty average with fish in the high teens a regular occurrence and during the 2000/2001 season more twenties than ever before fell to Bella Vista rods. In fact fish to 28lbs have been landed on the Rio Gallegos system and it is quite possible that one day it may produce the world record. So just how did these mutant sea-trout come into being? Well, therein lies a story.
South America, and Argentina in particular, is well known for its sheep farming, the area surrounding Rio Gallegos being a fine example. It was one of the forward thinking sheep farmers who decided during the 1920s and 30s to begin stocking trout eggs imported from non other than the river Thames and Loch Leven. The idea was, no doubt, to create a source of leisure (I am not sure what you would do in this area if you did not go fishing!) and quite possibly another source of food other than endless lamb steaks. The experiment seemed to fail as little result was achieved in those early years after the initial stocking. All remained quiet until in the 1960s mother nature reared her head. Suddenly reports filtered through that 'Salmon' were in the Rio Gallegos Estuary. In fact they were sea-trout, a direct result of some genetic spark laying deep within each egg stocked previously.
There are many theories as to how and why this incredible phenomenon took place but what cannot be disputed is that when these fish finally found themselves in the South Atlantic, they had discovered "Protein Paradise". Feeding on an endless supply of Krill these first pieces of the Gallegos jigsaw began to pack on weight at astonishing speed. As an example a documented fish of 23lbs caught in March 2000 smolted at a length of 20cm in it's third year. By year 8 it was caught while returning to spawn having racked up another 71cm. Using the old scale this fish measured 36 inches long and 21 inches around the girth. It had already spawned at least twice ! (Evidence gained through scale readings by Dr Andy Walker of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory in Pitlochry.)
But it is not the food alone which aids these fish in their continued existence. The Rio Gallegos provides perfect spawning beds through small pea shingle pebbles, while the lack of large rocks means there are few obstacles to the Sea Trout migrating upstream. Couple this with the almost constant 50mph winds which provide highly oxygenated water and a short fishing season of only 5 months and you have the perfect medium to produce the kind of rod busting specimens encountered. With the aid of good fishery management these incredible creatures are here to stay.
As a final twist to the whole Gallegos saga you may remember that earlier in the article there was mention of the Thames and Loch Leven. To this day it is still possible to recognise direct descendants from each batch of eggs, the Thames Trout showing a distinct pattern of well spaced spots while their Leven cousins are cloaked in a much heavier camouflage. With this image, I will leave you to imagine one of these remarkable fish giving your tackle a serious work out. Next time I will detail the equipment required to target a specimen South American sea-trout while documenting the capture of the biggest specimen I have guided to date.
Nick Hart Fly Fishing
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