We had fished only a short time; off to the left, through a hazy fog, glittering with gold in the morning sun, a small stream cascaded three hundred feet down a vertical slope to its sudden, roaring demise in the clear waters of the lake. My companion admired the eight pound rainbow I had just landed, but he was not satisfied. "Beautiful trucha," he remarked, "but not so big for Chile." This was his country, his water, and he was expecting better.
Six hundred miles south of Santiago, in the Chilean Lake District, is a land of rolling cattle country, snow-capped volcanoes and icy waters that are home to some of the largest rainbow and brown trout to be found on this planet.
Volcano Osorno dominates a landscape that is similar in many ways to what a trout fisherman might find here in the United States along the Appalachian Mountain range. There are at least two very obvious differences - the volcanoes, and trout that may exceed twenty pounds! The real surprise for visiting fishermen is that these giant rainbows and browns can be taken at or near the surface in rivers and lakes; there is no need to dredge the depths, even during late summer. Another surprise is that the trip can be made on a relatively small budget.
Stories of superb fishing have a way of paling when exposed to the revealing brightness of reality. Thus it was with mixed emotions that I had boarded a jumbo jet in Miami for the flight to Santiago and then on to Puerto Montt in the south of Chile. No matter, I was looking forward to the adventure; it was mid-winter in the States but my destination, south of the equator, was enjoying the warmth of late summer. I remember thinking that if only half the tales I had heard about Chilean trout were true, the trip would be memorable.
My itinerary called for sampling a variety of the available fishing on the lakes and rivers near the town of Entre Lagos, with headquarters at the Hotel Termas de Puyehue and Motel Nilque. My good fortune began on the first evening in the Termas Puyehue lounge when I chanced to meet one Jorge Barrientos, a dedicated and expert Chilean fly fisherman. Visiting Americans, especially fly fishermen, are nearly as scarce in Chile these days as Atlantic Salmon in Kansas; Jorge decided immediately that he would personally show me the fishing his country had to offer.
"I show you trucha in three areas," Barrientos explained in his adequate English. "Tomorrow we fish mountain lakes. Small. El Toro and El Encanto. They have rainbow and brown - maybe two, three pounds.
"Next day we fish Lago Puyehue for big trucha. How do you say.... oh yes, twenty pounds. I show you my scrap book later. Finally we take float on our Golgol River. Maybe good, maybe not. This is late summer."
We talked of the trout and the fishing for an hour or longer. Finally Barrientos produced his scrapbook; I could only look in amazement as he proudly turned the pages, revealing photo after photo of Jorge with giant trout - all over twenty pounds and all taken on a fly!
"Only fish fly for the trucha," the Chilean rancher proclaimed. I nodded in agreement. Our new friendship was now firmly bonded.
Sleep that night was impossible; I kept remembering the photographs in the scrapbook. In the morning we met for breakfast, a feast of scrambled eggs and medium rare steaks. Barrientos must have been reading my mind when he suggested a slight change of plans. "We go fishing for the big trucha today. I think you will like better." The broad smile on my face convinced Jorge that he had decided correctly.
After breakfast we drove around the lake, traveling bumpy gravel roads to the Rio Lican. Jorge explained the game plan as we traveled. The Lican is one of several small rivers flowing into Lago Puyehue. In late summer the larger trout tend to leave the rivers and congregate at the dropoffs where the rivers enter Puyehue.
Many of his largest trout have been taken by casting streamers at these locations. As a general rule this involves wading out into the lake to a point near the dropoff and then blind casting. Jorge prefers a sink-tip fly line for the lake fishing but I found a floating line to be nearly as effective. On numerous occasions the giant trout would roll on the surface, much in the manner of tarpon on the flats of the Florida Keys.
I don't want to mislead you; the trout do not strike on every cast. My first trout came to the fly after twenty minutes of casting. During the course of a day you could reasonably expect to tangle with three or more trophies. Just when you begin to become discouraged a large trout will roll on the surface and your energy is suddenly restored.
Some of the fish you see will stagger the imagination. Twenty-five pound rainbows push wakes as their backs break the surface; those who remain calm at the sight of such magnificent trout have ice water in their veins. Every so often the excitement takes a different turn, as a big trout chases one of the striped minnows that hide among the bottom stones in the shallows. A quick cast to a visible fish is likely to bring an equally quick strike. That's how Barrientos hooked his biggest rainbow of the day, a beautiful sixteen pound trout that took over half an hour to land.
Jorge was about forty feet from shore, with water lapping at the bottom of his vest and very near the dropoff. Behind him the Lican flowed into the lake; he was casting a Muddler style streamer into a small rip that formed where the cool water of the Lican met the still depths of Puyehue. He had lost several nice trout and was becoming frustrated; he wanted to show me a glistening, live trophy. The scrapbook was history. This was the time to add to that history. My eight pound rainbow and several smaller trout were not what had brought us to the Lican.
A trout swirled behind him, off to the left and close to the bank. Jorge lifted the fly line from the water, turned quickly, false cast once and dropped the streamer a couple of feet ahead of the fish. There was no water splashing strike; the rainbow inhaled the feathers with a deliberate take.
With a great swirl the rainbow began its dash for deeper water, pulling thirty yards of backing off the loudly complaining single action. The run ended with a head shaking, ponderous jump that reminded me more of a largemouth bass than a rainbow trout. After that initial flash of fighting with the style of a Sugar Ray, the fish changed tactics and slugged it out, a`la Rocky Marciano. But Barrientos was not about to lose this bout; he figured his reputation was on the line.
When the fish was finally beached, Jorge's somber face was suddenly transformed into a broad smile. "I am very, very happy," he said. The phrase was repeated often during our return drive to Termas Puyehue. But then, I had felt that way about the eight pounder. Indeed, I was also very, very happy. That evening we celebrated our success with a bottle of fine Chilean wine and fresh rainbow trout, expertly prepared by the hotel staff.
In the morning we were off to El Encanto, a tiny, sparkling lake in the mountains just above the hotel. Local guides were waiting with small wooden row boats they had carried down a steep path that had been cut through the thick undergrowth. The trout were also waiting. Ripples from rising trout spread outward from the weedy shallows toward the center of the lake and a lone Ruddy duck glided along in stately fashion, feathers glowing in the golden light of sunrise.
Here the trout were more plentiful than in the larger Puyehue. Mostly rainbows, one to three pounds, with a brown every now and then. Early on they were suckers for a dry fly dropped along the edge of the weeds. Any pattern seemed to draw strikes. As the morning progressed we were forced to fish wets at depths of four to six feet. My biggest was a four pound brown that took a black wooley worm fished next to a downed tree. By noon the action had slowed to a crawl. It was time for lunch and then on to El Toro where we enjoyed similar action in late afternoon.
In the latter part of the Chilean summer most of the larger trout have left the rivers, but no trip to this region would be complete without a float trip on the Golgol River. Averaging perhaps seventy-five yards or less in width, the Golgol is not a big river but it flows through some of the most beautiful country in Chile. Steep, thickly wooded mountain slopes give way to long gravel bars and snow cooled water that flows clear and swift. Low clouds drift across the valleys and every so often the snow capped heights of Volcano Puyehue come into view.
Local guides take fishermen on all day floats in the same comfortable row boats we used on the small lakes. Generally the casting is done as you float downriver; at better spots the guide will hold the boat in position or it is possible to stop and wade or fish from the many gravel bars.
Barrientos explained that during the Chilean spring fly fishermen can experience excellent dry fly fishing for big trout. Five to fifteen pound fish are fairly common for a good dry fly fishermen when conditions are right. We found mostly smaller fish in the one to two pound class, although I did take a nice rainbow from one pool. At the mouth of the Golgol, where it enters Lago Puyehue, Jorge hooked and landed a beautiful nine pound brown. Its crimson spots glowed like neon, even in the hazy light that filtered through the thickening canopy of dark clouds. A fine fish to end the float.
Later in the week I was invited by Marta and Frank Hamann to take an auto tour of the region. Marta is the Major (mayor) of Entre Lagos. The tour included a stop at Chile's fish hatchery on Lago Rupanco. Oscar Gonzales, the young biologist in charge of the hatchery, is working with biologists from the State of Oregon to introduce Coho salmon to Chile. While the project is still in the early stages and no fish have been officially released, a few of the salmon have escaped into Rupanco.
That afternoon, while visiting with the Lockes, a young American couple living near the hatchery, I was to land what could be the first Coho taken by a sportfisherman in Chile. It was a powerful, silver sided five pounder that nailed a fly on my first cast into Lago Rupanco where a small stream entered
The Lockes, like other Americans I met, are in love with Chile and its people. "Every so often we have a Big Mac attack but that's a small price to pay for living in this beautiful country," Gregory Locke remarked. Indeed, Chile is a beautiful country and everyone I met was friendly and cooperative.
A week passed so quickly. On the last day I visited the markets at Puerto Montt and found beautiful hand-sewn wool ponchos for my wife and daughter. The stalls of seafood vendors were laden with freshly caught fare from the nearby Pacific; how I wished there would have been more time to sample them. My expedition to the Chilean Lake District ended with a delicious late lunch at the Club deYates on the quay overlooking Puerto Montt's harbor. A twenty pound trophy had eluded me but I was still returning to the States a very, very satisfied fisherman.