Trip Reports - El Encuentro

DATELINE: ARGENTINA
On-Site Report All About a Personalized Fishing Trip to Patagonia

Editor Note: Most trips to South America these days are off-the-shelf trips to individual lodges. But not this ten-day personalized trip to Patagonia. Subscriber Ed Swift filed the report. Enjoy!

It had been nineteen years since I'd last fished in Patagonia. I won't make that mistake again.

This past February our party of seven embarked on a ten-day trip to the Esquel area that was organized by Benjamin Beale, a charming Argentinean whose family has been hosting fly fishermen for over 30 years. The name of Beale's company is El Encuentro Fly Fishing. My wife, Sally, met Benjamin three years ago when she went to Patagonia with a women's fly fishing club, and her rave review of that trip (Benjamin actually brought in tango instructors for the ladies) made us want to put together a couples trip of our own.

We were met in the airport at Buenos Aires by Benjamin's ultra-efficient operatives and escorted to the stunning Hotel Alvear, which ranks among the world's most elegant hotels.

After exploring the nearby cemetery and finding Eva Peron's tomb, we had a fine dinner and rejuvenating night's sleep. The next morning we flew two hours to Esquel, in the west central part of Argentina in Chubut province, just a few miles from Chile, where we were met by the four guides who would accompany us our entire trip. All of them were native to the region and fluent in English: hardworking, companionable, and expert. They drove us to our first destination, Estancia Tres Valles, a 25,000-acre cattle operation some three hours to the south.

Because the Beale family pioneered the fishing/guiding business in and around Esquel, Benjamin has working relationships with seven different fishing lodges in the area, and access to hundreds of miles of private waters within them. The lodge at Tres Valles, with views of Lake Vilches and the mountains beyond from every bedroom, was a stunning introduction. It reminded me of certain parts of Africa: dry, dramatic, and remote. At dinner, which featured grass-fed beef from the ranch, the fishing options were presented to our group: the Rio Pico, a freestone river that held big browns and rainbows; the Materno spring creek, highly endorsed by a friend from an earlier trip; and a nearby lake that reputedly held 25-inch brown trout that sipped caddis hatches.

Unfortunately, we awakened to a howling, relentless wind, which blew at 40 mph all day, gusting at times to 50. It was, by far, the windiest day any of us had ever fished: it turned the lake into a washing machine. Nevertheless, bundled in layers, we headed out to face whitecaps on the Rio Pico, where, to our surprise, we still managed to catch fish. Some were big fish. Stripping large terrestrials near the bank to tease them from the undercuts, one of our group fought and lost three brown trout between 24 and 26 inches. I landed a 22-inch rainbow.

The casting was difficult, the rowing of a raft all but impossible, but Rio Pico fished well from the banks of its many braided channels and the trout were willing if you managed to land your fly in the right spot. We figured if we could have success in conditions like that, it was going to be a special trip.

Day two, the wind let up some, so we fished Lake Vilches, opposite the lodge, reputed to hold huge trout as large as 36 inches. Our guide, Alun Lloyd, a music teacher from Esquel, said the lake is one anglers either love or hate: not a lot of fish, but every fish is a good one, and some are of the once-in-a-lifetime variety. We cast from a river raft, slow-stripping large nymphs and streamers from sink-tip lines. Benjamin's brochure recommends bringing 5 wt and 6 wt rods, but I was very happy to have my 10-foot 7 wt rod along, which handled the wind, heavy flies, and sink-tip beautifully. By lunchtime I had landed a 25-inch rainbow that we estimated at 6 - 7 pounds, and another that measured 21 inches that looked like it had swallowed a football. I'd also missed a vicious strike that literally ripped the line from my fingers. Some people find lake fishing tedious. I do not count myself among them.

The lunches were uniformly excellent. The guide and his assistant would set up a portable table in the shade, drape it in a tablecloth, unfold chairs, open a bottle (or two) of wine-or other beverage if you preferred-and start you with a plate of cheeses, charcuterie, and olives, followed by a light main course of pasta or cold meats, salad, and dessert. One day we had caramel flan. It was the very definition of a civilized streamside lunch, and the fishing was so uniformly excellent I never felt the need for a siesta afterward.

The third morning was a highlight of the trip. I went to a tiny spring creek that ran through the ranch, the Rio Negro, small enough in many places to step across. The wind had finally died, making it possible to alternatively make long, precise casts with hoppers to slivers of open water, or dab a Fat Albert into a tiny protected pothole in the weeds. Santiago, my young guide, would spot a trout holding in the current, instructing me to cast the fly behind it, slapping it down as it landed. The holding browns would hear the commotion, turn, and attack the hopper from as far as 10-12 feet away. The wakes they made in that tiny creek were breathtaking. We used this technique all morning, casting over electric fences, under willows, beside thorn bushes, negotiating tall streamside grasses. In three hours I landed a dozen browns and rainbows between 15 and 22 inches in water that was little more than an irrigation ditch.

That afternoon we left Tres Valles and drove four hours to Benjamin's home base, El Encuentro Lodge, built on land his grandmother bought in the early 1980s. The lodge, which can accommodate up to eight guests, was gorgeously sited on the banks above the Futaleufú River, a tailwater flowing from a dam a few miles upstream. A mountain nicknamed "The Sleeping Nun" towered beyond the river, part of Los Alerces National Park. Benjamin's younger sister, Cecilia, ran the lodge. A former guide herself, she was married to one of our guides, Julian Gomez Villafane, and their two young daughters live at the lodge. It's very much a family affair, and one of the special pleasures of staying at El Encuentro (which means "meeting place") is you are made to feel part of this wonderful fishing household. Cecilia keeps a large garden where nearly all of our salads and vegetables were grown, and over an early-morning cup of coffee on the porch we could watch the dimpled rises of cruising rainbows feeding on caddis hatches. Bookend that with a late-evening cigar and a glass of homemade sour cherry liqueur, and I give you paradise.

When the wind is down, the fishing on the Futaleufú River is extraordinary. One day I started with a small (#16) Parachute Adams and Elk Hair Caddis, drifting them along the tricky eddies and foam lines near the lodge as 16- to 20-inch rainbows slurped the naturals and, occasionally, my offerings. We then switched to large terrestrials-the Gypsy King was a winner-presented along the banks. Before lunch we sight-fished to rainbows trapped in a landlocked channel, roll casting hoppers to the cruising trout. Later, we had luck with streamers and weighted sink tips, hoping to hook into the monster 36- to 40-inch brown that my guide, Martin Majul, lost near the boat last year. And finally, late in the day, we fished tiny (#20) midges, which a pod of rainbows were slurping in a backwater. It was as varied, and interesting, a day of fishing as I'd ever experienced.

The fish of the day, however, went to my brother-in-law, Charlie Lee, who accompanied my wife to the Rio Frey and landed a 25-inch, 8- to 10-pound hog of a brown trout. (We never weighed any of the fish. We fished barbless and released everything.) It was so fat it looked deformed, a huge hump protruding from its back like a salmon. It had a mouth that could have swallowed your arm. Just getting to that river was an adventure, and an example of the lengths Benjamin and his guides would go to to put clients onto rarely fished, trophy trout water. It required an hour drive to the launch ramp above the dam while trailering a small motorboat. Piggy-backed on the motorboat was the frame of a rubber drift boat. After being launched, the motorboat buzzed up the 10-mile reservoir, which eventually narrowed into a flooded canyon, past a waterfall, through stands of dead trees flooded by the dam, and finally into the Rio Frey. When the boat could motor no further, it was beached; the rubber raft was taken off and pumped up, the oars installed, and the fishing day begun. The whole process took over three hours, each direction.

But for the chance of an eight-pound trout? A no-brainer. The next day, friend Bill Crossman and I signed up for the trip, and after finally arriving at the rapids where the fishing was to begin, Billy was handed a 6 wt rod with a sinking tip and told to make a few casts to get the feel of it. Bill got the hang of it pretty quickly. On his third cast from the rocks a 24-inch brown inhaled his fly, jumped three feet out of the water, thrashed about, and eventually was netted. The raft was still being pumped up at this point. I was still assembling my rod. The fish weighed close to six pounds.

That was only the beginning. Two hours later, fishing a black Conehead Wooly Bugger with white rubber legs, Billy landed an even larger brown, 26-inches, out of the rapids. It was amazing to me that such a fish would hold in such turbulent water. After lunch it was my turn: two-hundred yards downstream I landed a 25-inch brown. We also had a number of rainbows in the range of 18-21 inches. Nothing small seemed to swim in that section of the river. By 5 PM we put away our rods and watched as the guides deflated the raft and reloaded it into the motorboat. The wind during the day had steadily built, so the 90-minute ride back across the white-capped reservoir was harrowing, but we got safely back at the lodge by 9 o'clock.

El Encuentro keeps a number of horses for riding, and Cecilia's husband, Julian, in addition to being a fishing guide, is an expert polo player and mountain climber. So the next afternoon two members of our party took a horseback ride and picnic into the surrounding hills, an option that is always available for non-fishermen. The last night the Beale family organized an asado, cooking a local lamb the traditional Argentinean way, splayed on an iron cross, beside an open fire, basted with garlic, herbs, water, and salt. A table was set up with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres near the asado, overlooking the river, so we were able to watch the final hour of the three-hour operation, then sample the kidneys (a delicacy) while Pinky, the chef, expertly sliced up the lamb.

By the time we finished the feast that evening and the last of the Argentinean Malbec, it was 11:30 PM.

We reluctantly said goodbye to El Encuentro the next morning and made the two-hour drive to our final stop, Tecka Lodge, one of two fishing lodges inside the massive Estancia Tecka, a 450,000-acre sheep ranch with some 65 miles of spring creeks and private access to the Rio Corcovado. The lodge itself dates back to the 1920s, when the ranch was originally settled, and is surrounded by 100-year-old poplar trees. While it did not have the views of our previous two lodges, it possessed an understated elegance that was welcoming and historic. The four bedrooms all had private bathrooms so large you could have done laps there.

By noon we were on the Rio Tecka, casting dry flies from the banks to pools so thick with small trout they raced one another to eat them. The wind had picked up again-it was blowing 20 mph and gusting to 30 mph-and the trick was to lure the bigger trout from their holes in the undercuts. Large terrestrials like Gypsy Kings, Chernobyl Ants, and Stimulators were all effective, but the biggest brown I encountered only showed itself when it tried to eat a small trout I was bringing through the pool. My rod immediately bent double as it grabbed its prey like an ear of corn. The big guy soon let go of my fish, which I landed and released, but this called for a change in tactics. Gregorio, my guide, tied on a big, heavy streamer, which I cast upstream and stripped fast. A 21-inch rainbow came out of the shadows to eat it. This was not the monster we had seen. It jumped, ran, made a commotion, and soon was netted. But I figured the pool was now shot. Gregorio, however, suggested we rest it a few minutes and try it again. I cast a second time, stripped fast, and a different big rainbow started following the streamer. Suddenly that trout veered away, and behind it the monster brown suddenly appeared. He was swimming straight toward me, so I didn't feel it take the fly. But Gregorio saw it from his perch on the bank, and hollered to strike. I did so, felt the weight, and the trout turned and thrashed on the surface, showing us his huge flank. Gregorio thought it was over two feet. Then it turned and ran back upstream, hard, yanking the line out of my fingers until I heard a sickening "ping." I had been standing on my slack.

Our last night we had another asado, this one indoors, elegantly hosted by the owners of the Estancia Tecka, who make a point of trying to meet all the guests who fish on their property. Anyone who has been there can attest that the Argentineans are wonderful hosts. Throughout our trip, the food was delicious, the wine bottomless, and the lodges accommodating of every request. Beyond packing and unpacking our bags, we never had to lift a finger the entire trip. The most stress we encountered was trying to decide who would fish where, and with whom. There were no wrong choices, only better ones. It was, we all agreed, the trip of a lifetime.-Ed Swift.

Postscript: Benjamin Beale specializes in putting together custom fishing packages and discovering new waters to fish in central Patagonia. The lodges he recommends often vary depending on your dates.

Reprinted courtesy of:
The Angling Report
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