Patagonia Diary by Michael Barnett

  (Blogger’s Note-I am particularly excited and thrilled to have a guest writer for this installment in my blog. My very good friend and world class fly fisherman Michael Barnett, has just returned from a trip to his beloved Chile. As I examined the etymology o the word adventure, I realized that the use of this word is truly fitting in describing Mike’s trip. The Latin form, adventum, means “to arrive”. Hence the Advent season just before Easter. Users of the various Romance languages added to that the concept of “to happen” or “to befall”. What befell Mike on this trip was a combination of unique and exotic fishing, hunting, and some political intrigue. I hope that you enjoy his tale as much as I have. )

I love to fly fish. I have been a fly fisherman for 55 years, and I have been blessed to travel the world. One type of fishing I especially enjoy is trout fishing, particularly when I can fish for my favorite species, the brown trout. In 1999, I discovered the wonderful trout fishery in that magical land called Patagonia at the southern tip of South America. Ever since, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the British, because the trout is not native to South America, but the British started bringing brown trout eggs on their ships to Argentinean Patagonia in 1904. That same year, rainbow trout eggs were introduced to Patagonia from North America.  Trout have now been spread throughout Patagonia, and they have grown remarkably in size and numbers. Patagonia boasts fishable populations of brown, rainbow and brook trout, Atlantic salmon, and all 5 species of Pacific salmon.

Figure 1: Map of Patagonia

            In late February, I made my 6th fishing trip to Patagonia, my 5th to southern Chile, and my 3rd to Salmo Patagonia Lodge, which is my favorite of the 5 lodges that I’ve visited in Patagonia.  In my opinion, it is one of the finest fishing lodges in the world. The food and accommodations are outstanding, the service is excellent, and the fishing, especially for brown trout, is world-class. The Lodge is located high on a scenic plateau on the side of a mountain overlooking Coyhaique, Chile.

Figure 2: View of Coyhaique from Salmo Patagonia Lodge

Figure 3: View from my bedroom window at Salmo Patagonia Lodge

Salmo Patagonia Lodge (http://www.patagoniadream.com/) is owned and operated by Luis Antunez, a Spaniard who founded the Lodge 25 years ago, and he gives his personal attention to every detail. He is not only a great host, but he is also one of the world’s best fly fishermen and fly casters. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing with Luis in Patagonia and Bolivia, and I never fail to learn new fishing secrets when I fish with him.

There are probably 100 different rivers, streams and lakes within a 2 hour drive of the Lodge, and Luis is familiar with them all. Every day at the Lodge begins with a leisurely breakfast, followed by a ride in one of the Lodge’s vehicles, driven by the guide, to the waters chosen for that day’s fishing.  When I first began fishing at this Lodge about 5 years ago, the length of each day’s drive, which ranges from as little as 30 minutes to over 2 hours, was more than I was used to.  It took me most of that first week to finally realize that the driving is actually a bonus, not a negative, since this is one of the most scenic areas in the world. Each day’s drive provides an opportunity to view in comfort the beautiful mountain scenery that many people travel all the way to Chile just to see, including such areas as the Valley of the Moon,                                Figure 4:  The Valley of the Moon at sunset

the magnificent rock spires and glaciers of the Cerro Castillo range of the Andes,

                         Figure 5: Mountain in the Cerro Castillo range of the Andes

                      Figure 6: Mountain in the Cerro Castillo range of the Andes

and numerous, unnamed valleys and mountains where great views are constantly changing in an interplay of clouds, wind and sunshine.

                                 Figure 7: View of the Andes near the Lodge

                                      Figure 8: View of the Andes near the Lodge

A cooler containing drinks and a sumptuous lodge-prepared lunch is sent daily with each set of anglers, and the guides will fish as late as their anglers’ desire. This is one of those Lodges, which I much prefer, where dinner is served to suit the anglers’ schedules, not where the anglers’ schedules revolve around a fixed-time dinner bell. I’ve enjoyed great dinners at this Lodge as early as 6:30 pm, and as late as after mid-night, depending upon how long I chose to stay out fishing.

The following is my diary from my most recent trip to Salmo Patagonia Lodge:

Day 1:  Arrived safely and settled in. Looking out my window now at the snow capped Andes. This afternoon, Luis and I went to Trapananda National Reserve, which is located in the Andes just above the Lodge, for a 3 mile hike to a beautiful grove of old growth forest, with magnificent Lenga trees over 1000 years old, and Luis loves them as much as I do.

                                    Figure 9: Trapananda National Reserve

                      Figure 10: Big Lenga tree in Trapananda National Reserve

We also saw 4 species of ducks, a covey of California quail, and several other birds.  They have had a busy season and had 23 guests at the Lodge last week, but so far as I can tell, I’m going to be the only guest here this week. I’ll start fishing tomorrow, and Luis has 4 or 5 great new places that he plans to take me. He says I have a good chance of bettering my personal best 10-lbs. brown trout that he guided me to last year.

Life is good.

Day 2:  I caught about 30 trout today, mostly on dry flies, including a strong, beautiful 20″ rainbow that jumped 3 times. I had lunch next to the stream with the sound of rippling water, watching a half dozen trout rise to a hatch of midges and mayflies (I saw one little brown trout chase a dappling mayfly across the pool, miss it 3 or 4 times, and finally jump 6 inches out of the water to take the mayfly in mid-air), with flocks of big, black-faced ibises flying overhead making their distinctive “tooting” calls, and many broken clouds racing with the winds across the peak of a nearby Andean mountain, creating a light show on the hanging glaciers. I thought, “Heaven must be a little bit like this place.”

   Figure 11: View at streamside lunch of Rio Emperador Guillermo, with the Andes in the background

Day 3:  Today was tough, cold and windy, with few fish, but in spite of that, I had a wonderful day with Luis high in the Andes, where he cooked us lunch at his cabin on an alpine lake, named “Butterflies Lake” in Spanish, located in the middle of a beautiful 2,500 acres tract he owns. 

                        Figure 12: View of Lago Mariposas from Luis’s cabin

                                           Figure 13: Luis Antunez at his cabin

We then rode his 4 wheelers about 5 miles from his cabin through the forest to fish one of the 5 trout lakes on his land.  

                     Figure 14: Taking the 4-wheeler to a fishing lake

                Figure 15:  4-Wheeler trail through the “Ghost Forest” on Luis’s land

Luis is absolutely one of a handful of the top fly fishermen in the world, and a fine and interesting fellow, and he is always teaching me new fishing tips.  We enjoy each other’s company, and we have become good friends.

            Day 4:  Today I fished with Luis’s Dad, 78-year old “Papa Luis”, with whom I had the pleasure of fishing several days last year, and he can walk my legs off when we start up a hill.  He wanted to take me fishing at his favorite river, so we fished the Rio Oro, where I landed 68 small to medium sized brown trout, plus 2 large rainbow trout of 19.5″ and 21.5″, all 70 on dry flies—I know the number because Papa Luis counted them.  He is a charming man who in his youth was a test driver for Ferrari in Spain, so riding when he drives is always an adventure.  He loves to fish as much as Luis and I do, and I don’t know who had more fun today, me or Papa Luis.

                                               Figure 16: Fishing the Rio Oro

                        Figure 17: Measuring a rainbow trout on the Rio Oro

                Day 5:  Luis took me hunting today as a change of pace. They don’t offer hunting at this Lodge, but he knows I like it, so he set up a day of hunting, and we took his dog, and he let me use his shotgun. I killed 5 ring-necked pheasants and a jack rabbit, and I missed a pair of ducks. The weather was overcast, and dead calm all day (a rarity in Patagonia), and the remote Andean valley where we hunted was magnificent.

                                    Figure 18: Pheasant hunting in the Andes

On the ride back to the Lodge, near sun down, we found that the calm weather had allowed the clouds to drift down into the valleys, so that they reminded me of the Smoky Mountains of NC.  Luis said that in his 25 years in Chile, he had never before seen the clouds like that, and he kept stopping the vehicle to take photos.

                     Figure 19:  A “Smoky Mountains” kind of day in the Andes

                      Figure 20: A “Smoky Mountains” kind of day in the Andes

                           Figure 21: A “Smoky Mountains” kind of day in the Andes

I don’t know what I ever did to merit being the only guest for a week at this world class fishing lodge, and having dinner every night in a dining room that seats 50 with nobody but me and Luis and his girlfriend Lou, and sometimes Papa Luis, and being treated like royalty, and being guided most every day by one of the best fly fishermen in the world, who seems to enjoy fishing with me and says I am a better fisherman than Lefty Kreh (which of course I don’t believe), but I am REALLY enjoying this. Luis says he is “almost sure” I will better my personal record of a 10-lbs. brown trout sometime during the next few days at one of the great rivers or lakes where he plans to take me, one of which is called Elf Creek.  This is a remote river he found some years ago, but he took NOBODY to it for the first 8 years after he found it, but only fished it alone. He says it is the best trout river he has ever fished.

Tonight, as we were driving back after dark from fishing, we looked down into the valley below the Lodge and noticed that nearly all the lights had gone out in the city of Coyhaique, population about 35,000, which is the capital of Region XI and the largest city in southern Chile (see the city as viewed from the Lodge in the first photo on p. 2 above).  When we drove up to the Lodge entrance, all the lights in the Lodge were out, and the electric powered gate was closed and not working.  A group of commercial fishermen in nearby Puerto Aisen have started striking, apparently seeking a government subsidy to allow for cheaper gas and seeking a larger fish quota for their boats.  The strike has spread to Coyhaique, other disgruntled Chileans have joined in with their own demands and protests, and tonight strikers threw chains over some of the power lines and cut others, causing a power outage across the entire city, and the area of the Lodge, which gets its power from the city.  We had dinner by candlelight, and by the time we went to bed half the lights in the city had come back on, but the other half of the city, and the Lodge, did not get power until the next morning.  The strikers are also stopping most fuel trucks from entering the city, and Luis is very concerned about being able to get enough fuel to run the vehicles, which are essential for each day’s fishing.

Day 6:  Just back from a long and memorable day of driving and fishing with Luis, and his girlfriend Lou, at a remote lake named Lago Lou, located near the foot of the spectacular Cerro Castillo range (see photos on p. 4 above) of the southern Andes.  Luis told me before we left the Lodge that his goal for the day was for me to catch only 1 to 3 trout, by sight casting dry flies, but that they would be large, and I ended up catching 5 big trout on dry flies. The largest was a brown trout we spotted cruising the shoreline, while we were wading and sight-casting along one of the shallow flats within this beautiful, high and crystal clear lake. We watched the fish swim from about 10 feet away to take my fly off the surface in slow motion. It was 26.5 inches long and weighed about 8.5 lbs, the largest brown trout I have ever landed on a dry fly, and it was a fish I shall never forget. On the drive back to the Lodge, just before dark, a puma (a/k/a mountain lion/cougar–a rare sight and the first I’ve ever seen) ran across the dirt road in front of our truck with a lamb in its mouth.

The adventure continues.

                                                   Figure 22: Fishing Lago Lou

Figure 23: Michael Barnett & Luis Antunez with a nice brown trout at Lago Lou

                                       Figure 24: Michael Barnett fishing Lago Lou

    Figure 25: Michael Barnett and Luis’s girlfriend Lou with Michael’s 26.5” brown trout at   Lago Lou

                Figure 26: Rickety one-lane bridge we had to cross to get to Lago Lou

                                             Figure 27: Sunset over the Andes

            Day 7:  Morning: The latest word this morning is that the strike is intensifying, and the strikers have blocked a number of roads, including the road to the airport again, so it looks like I may not make my flight home tomorrow. They are still blocking the gas trucks, so there is no gas to be had in Coyhaique or any other town within many hundreds of miles, if anywhere in southern Chile.  I don’t know how pervasive this strike is becoming, and it’s hard to get much news about it except the local reports from people that the folks at the Lodge know. We have siphoned the last of the kerosene from the tanks for the Lodge’s furnace to use in the trucks. Several days ago they turned off the heat in the Lodge to save the last of the kerosene, but we still have electricity, plenty of firewood and drinking water, and some food.

             Luis just came in from an emergency meeting of the tourist board and politicians in town, at which, if I understand correctly, the governor of this Region XI was present and the president of Chile was on the phone. Apparently the strike is restricted to this region XI, but they say it is getting worse, and the government has elections coming up soon and is hesitant to take strong action against the strikers, with whom many of the voters are apparently sympathetic. Luis is getting very worried about where all this is headed if the police or military does not step in soon to enforce the laws. The local government has now decreed that no gas of any kind can be sold to individuals, only to known companies, to try to limit access to Molotov cocktails. The stores are running out of food (the price of meat has doubled since yesterday), and the strikers have now blocked all or nearly all the roads in and around the perimeter of Coyhaique and several other towns in this region. Luis tried to get a man he knows in town to bring him a load of gas to the Lodge, at a price that would have been as much as the man makes in a month, plus the cost of the fuel, but the man refused, saying he would be killed if they found out he had done so. Luis is a very capable, well respected, energetic and persuasive guy, and he is working hard on the phone, Internet and in meetings to do all he can. He has talked to a friend who has a small plane, and he thinks he can get that man to pick me up tomorrow at a little local airstrip that the strikers will hopefully not be blocking and fly me directly into the nearest commercial airport at Balmaceda, if that becomes necessary, so that I can catch my commercial flight out tomorrow, assuming LAN Airlines does not cancel that flight because of the strikers’ blockage of access to the airport.

            In the meantime, we have enough gas to take me fishing once more, so if we can find an unblocked access to a river, I’m going fishing this evening.

            Evening: Luis and I went to fish Elf Creek this evening.  We found no roadblocks during the first hour of driving away from Coyhaique, but when we came across the top of a hill above the tiny village of Villa Ortega, population maybe 50 to 100, we found that the villagers had decided to join the strike in an effort to get the government to pave the road from Coyhaique to their village, and they had set up a road block with burning tires and homemade banners. There is a one man police station in Villa Ortega, but no policeman to be seen.

                               Figure 28: Road block at Villa Ortega

                     Figure 29: Michael Barnett at road block at Villa Ortega

After about an hour, the strikers let us through, and we proceeded to Elf Creek. We fished it from an hour before dark until about midnight, and it was the first time I’d ever fished for trout at night.  Luis knows this Creek like the back of his hand, which is the only reason we were able to fish it at night without lights.  I landed 15 big brown trout from about 16 to 21 inches, but not the 10-pounder we were hoping for.

            It has been a great pleasure and privilege to have spent the past week with mostly just Luis and me fishing, hunting, enjoying nature, dining, traveling, dealing with challenges, and sharing our views on life. Luis has had an incredibly broad range of life experiences, is at times impatient and does not suffer fools lightly, is a very hard worker, is smart and charming, and has taught me things about fishing that had been beyond my imagination. Tonight, for example, as we were fishing Elf Creek, he showed me how to catch the big brown trout that this river’s pools are full of, using only starlight in almost black darkness, when brown trout feed most voraciously.  He also showed me how to effectively fish some areas of rivers that I had long considered “unfishable”, a condition he refuses to acknowledge exists.  In one instance near dusk, we climbed to the top of a difficult to reach cliff about 20 to 25 ft. high above a pool, where we looked down on a school of large trout lying along the bottom of the river in about 4 feet of water. From the top of the cliff, I not only hooked several of the trout on streamers by swimming the flies in front of their noses and watching them eat the flies, which I could at least have imagined, but I also LANDED them 70 feet downstream by walking along the top and then along the steep side of the cliff around shrubs, rocks and boulders, with the trout still on the line in the river below, often out of sight over the cliff edge, to a point where I could climb down the cliff, wade into the edge of the river to land the fish, and then release the trout back into the bottom of the pool at the foot of the cliff. It was a feat I would never have tried or thought possible on my own, and a feat I am unlikely to perform again this side of dementia. Luis says he once fell from this cliff into the river while fishing alone, but fortunately was not badly injured. It’s a place he says he takes very few people to try, for obvious reasons, and he only took me on the last day of the trip, after fishing with me in many other challenging spots.  The following is a series of photos of me catching a trout as described above, plus a final shot of a fish caught at midnight:

                     Figure 30: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

                        Figure 31: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

                   Figure 32: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

                   Figure 33: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

                      Figure 34: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

                   Figure 35: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

                          Figure 36: Landing a trout hooked from a cliff at Elf Creek

Figure 37: Brown trout caught at midnight at Elf Creek

When Luis and I were leaving Elf Creek, it was a little after midnight when we got back to the truck, parked far back in the mountains about 2 hours away from the Lodge. As we were taking off our waders and packing our gear into the truck, headlights suddenly appeared from a vehicle that had been parked in a nearby grove of trees. The vehicle drove up to us, and it was the manager of a small, remote fishing Lodge located in that area. He had seen Luis’s truck and had been trying to find us in the dark on the river, because he needed some help. He had 4 Argentinean anglers at his Lodge, and because of the strike, he was down to his last couple of gallons of gas (the nearest gas station was 2 hours away in Coyhaique), he had run out of food, and they had been eating trout and some jack rabbits he was shooting at night with a .22 caliber rifle and flashlight.  He said his anglers were taking it well and considered it an adventure, but he was very worried. Luis gave him all the food and drinks we had with us in our cooler and told him he had already added his name to a list of area Lodge owners that Luis is trying to get the government to send a fuel truck to, and the man was very thankful.

We were hoping that the Villa Ortega road blockers had gone to bed, but they stopped us again after midnight on the way back to the Lodge, but let us through after about 45 minutes.  We arrived back at the Lodge in the wee hours of the morning, tired and a little worried about the strike, but happy.

Day 8: Did not make it to the airport today.  Hung out around the Lodge, hoping I’ll get to the airport tomorrow.

Day 9:  The police told a man Luis knows that 4 leaders of the “terrorist wing” of the Chilean Communist Party have recently arrived in Coyhaique to help organize the strikers. Also, a fuel truck recently tried to make a delivery to a gas station in Coyhaique, but it was turned away at the station by strikers, so it drove off and parked for several hours, and then it tried to slip back into the gas station about dark, but the strikers threw Molotov cocktails at the truck, trying to burn it and the station. The police shot some of the strikers with rubber bullets, and the fire was extinguished; this was the first police action we have heard of.  We have also heard that the government landed two C-130’s loaded with troops late yesterday at a little landing strip on a hill above Coyhaique. 

Luis was told yesterday that the strikers were going to stop blocking the road to the airport today, but as we left the Lodge this morning to take the paved road from Coyhaique to the airport, we found that the truckers had joined the strike. The truckers and other strikers had set up a major road block, with trucks lining the road on both sides for several hundred yards to leave one single, narrow lane, which they had blocked. There were TV crews on hand, which I considered a good thing, and a military helicopter was passing overhead.  See photos below. 

               Figure 38: Strikers’ road block on road from Coyhaique to airport

    Figure 39: Michael Barnett at strikers’ road block on road from Coyhaique to airport

     Figure 40: Cars backed up at strikers’ road block on road from Coyhaique to airport

    Figure 41: Military helicopter at strikers’ road block on road from Coyhaique to airport

The good news is that the strikers finally opened the road block briefly and let some cars through, including ours, just in time for me to arrive at the airport (Luis was driving 140 kph on a winding road) and catch my flight out of Balmaceda, with 5 minutes to spare.  It was a wonderful trip, but I was quite glad to get home.

      Figure 42: Passing through the road block on the road from Coyhaique to the airport

Figure 43: Passing through the road block on the road from Coyhaique to the airport

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About castingawayblog

I am a retired orthopedic surgeon with fly fishing in my bones! Living in coastal South Carolina, saltwater fly fishing is my passion, though I also love to use the long rod in freshwater. I have been known to use conventional gear as well.
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