People often ask me when the best time and place to fish Patagonia or Argentina is. It’s a largely impossible questions, as there is no absolute “best” time or place to go, and where you decide to concentrate your efforts will depend largely on personal preferences. The purpose of this article is thus to provide some useful information on the various angling options in order to assist with such decisions. Keep in mind, however, that the enormity of Argentina makes any generalization about it quite…well…general. Describing the entire country in a single overview is much like talking about “Fishing in the US” in one breath. Even if we devoted an entire book to this subject (which we did, by the way: www.FarawayFlyFishing.com/patagonia-guide-book/) it still might not be enough to capture all the nuances of this diverse landscape. Therefore, we’re not shooting for a complete review here, but rather to highlight the key aspects that will help anglers contemplating a visit get started.
Before arriving to the fishing grounds, every visitor to Argentina first pass through the capitol city of Buenos Aires, a thriving metropolis of over 13 million people. Often described as having more in common with its modern European counterparts than with the rest of Latin America, Buenos Aires is among the safest and most tourist-friendly cities on the continent. Much of this stems from the heavy Spanish and Italian immigration from decades past, which has produced a vibrant and unique urban culture. With its modern amenities, rich nightlife, famously beautiful women, and steaks-the-size-of-your-head, it’s sometimes a wonder that anglers ever get beyond this initial gateway point. A couple of days here is highly recommended, as it provides visitors with the opportunity to indulge in some cosmopolitan culture before heading off to the fishing grounds farther a field.
Avenida Nueve de Julio in Buenos Aires, the widest avenue on earth
Once the hangover wears off, you’ll have to make the difficult decision of where to fish. The two most popular regions among fly fishermen are the northern and southern extremes of the country. In the far south lies Patagonia, a captivating expanse of sparsely-populated wilderness reminiscent of the American West, where wild trout, salmon, and steelhead thrive in pristine waterways pouring down from the snow-capped Andes. In the far north lies a subtropical environment drained by the enormous Rio de la Plata basin, which is home to the voracious golden dorado and myriad other exotic species.
Patagonia is the name given to the entire southern peninsula of South America, roughly between 38 and 55 degrees south latitude. Its 380,000+ square miles are shared by the nations of Argentina and Chile, with the Andes mountain chain forming a natural boundary between the two. Patagonia’s mystique and raw beauty have irresistibly drawn explorers, mountaineers, prospectors, and naturalists alike. Today, Patagonia is one of the last fly-fishing frontiers on earth. In its more remote areas is still a sparsely-inhabited and rustic land as trackless and wild as it was a century ago, where many lakes and rivers remain relatively unknown and unexplored by fishermen.
Characterized by dramatic contrasts, Patagonia’s fishing could comprise anything from turquoise rivers cutting through temperate rainforests to tea-stained chalk streams meandering over desolate steppe, or from sight-fishing in a technical spring creek, to spey casting in a massive glacial river. And while the trout may technically be the same species as their Northern Hemispheric cousins, 100 years of uninterrupted adaptation within distinct environments has resulted in some exotic trout fishing unlike anywhere else in the world. Oversized trout chasing down equally oversized dry flies, explosive 20lb sea-run browns, or a unique run of Atlantic steelhead are just a few examples of the unparalleled fishing that Patagonia can offer.
Sight fishing in luscious Los Alerces Park
Of Argentina’s roughly 40 million inhabitants, less than 10% live in Patagonia, although its landmass comprises roughly 30% of the country (an area the size of Montana and California combined). Popular conceptions of Patagonia therefore continue to characterize it as one of our last frontiers, often quite accurately. At the same time, parts of Patagonia are bustling with commerce and feature deluxe fishing lodges and other modern amenities to keep any tourist comfortable, if not pampered. Far from being the static “no man’s land” that some may imagine; Patagonia actually exhibits a great diversity of infrastructure & population densities. Generally speaking, both are more concentrated in northern Patagonia, and gradually become fewer and farther between as you head south. At the same time, however, the fish tend to be larger the farther south you go, mostly because of the presence of anadromous species like Steelhead and Sea Trout in the southern reaches. Patagonia is thus logically subdivided into two distinct regions: North and South.
With a compact network of stony rivers pouring freely from large Andean lakes, northern Patagonia has drawn anglers from around the world for well over half a century, and for good reason. Offering unrivaled opportunities for traditional dry-fly fishing, enjoying a fairly hospitable climate (by Patagonian standards, anyway) and brimming with public access points, this area caters very well to the comfort and convenience of visiting anglers.
Bariloche on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi
The entire region straddles a distinct climatic transition zone, where temperate rainforests in the Andean mountainside abruptly give way to increasingly parched steppe to the east. As such, most of the rivers originate in forested mountain lakes and descend through arid, treeless valleys contrasted by lush riparian vegetation clinging to the river banks. Glacier-capped volcanoes and monolithic rock formations rise prominently over the surrounding landscape, providing a dramatic backdrop when fishing some of the region’s most popular waterways. Gauchos, or Argentine cowboys, on horseback and native Mapuches with ox-driven carts are also regular sights, and it’s not uncommon to see these antiquated modes of transportation unhurriedly passing through some of the smaller towns.
Trout are the main angling quarry in northern Patagonia, and can be found in nearly every waterway in the region after their wildly successful introduction over a century ago. Many the area’s lakes also happen to contain significant numbers of trophy-sized trout, some of which exceed 20lbs. While they can be difficult to pursue in the lakes, seasonal migrations to nearby rivers can produce some unforgettable encounters. Suffice to say that anglers could spend a lifetime exploring the region and still not see it all.
Migratory brown trout on the Limay
The best and the worst part of fishing northern Patagonia will likely stem from the same factor – generous public access. On the upside, tourist services, fishing guides, car rentals, etc. are easy to find here, and a short jaunt out of town will often bring you to any number of outstanding waterways, making busses, taxis, or even bikes viable transportation options. Combine this with typically good road conditions, and northern Patagonia is clearly the most feasible choice for the do-it-yourself fisherman.
On the other hand, all of those same factors make this one of Argentina’s most popular and accessible areas, visited by thousands of tourists each season. In this respect, the northern region can feel somewhat less “Patagonian” and adventurous than the more remote regions to the south. Since most of the fishing is located relatively close to several small population centers, some stretches do receive a modest amount of pressure. It’s still comparatively light by North American standards, however, and it’s entirely possible to spend a day without encountering another angler.
Spring Creek near San Martin de los Andes
•The Upside: Many waterways to choose from; good dry fly fishing, abundant access & tourist services.
•The Downside: More fishermen; average fish is somewhat smaller.
•What to bring: a fast-action 4-7 weight rod with floating line is ideal for most situations. Lake fishing & larger rivers may require heavier rods and heavy sinking lines.
•When to go: Trout fishing is good all season long. Early season (Nov-Dec) brings good lake fishing, but is more prone to high water and erratic weather. Many smaller tributaries fish best in with high water, however. Summer (Jan-Feb) means good hatches and easy wading, but is the height of tourist season. Fall (Mar-Apr) brings brown trout migrations from lakes, but low water and cold weather can make things challenging.
•Primary Towns: Alumine, Junín de los Andes, San Martín de los Andes, Bariloche, Esquel, Corcovado
Southern Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego:
Rio Grande Sea Trout
Once away from the northern region, where the trappings of civilization and tourism are never terribly distant, one enters a land that has largely preserved its frontier element. It is a harsh, sparsely populated territory where the pace of life slows perceptibly. The infrastructure is poor over great distances, and tourists are notably scarcer. Yet southern Patagonia is home to impressive anadromous varieties like sea run brown trout and steelhead, which provide more than adequate motivation to brave the elements.
This vast, Wyoming-esque landscape is characterized by short summers, intemperate weather and indefatigable winds. A scant population averaging ekes out an equally scant existence, save for a precious few port cities hugging the bleak Atlantic coastline. But within this inhospitable region one also finds a land of desolate beauty and dramatic contrasts, where angry spires of barren rock and icy peaks give way to a seemingly never-ending horizon of harsh, semi-desert steppe that extends several hundred kilometers all the way to the South Atlantic. A closer look at these barren expanses also reveals a surprising diversity of life. Among the more conspicuous native species are guanacos, rheas, condors, foxes, sea lions and even penguins, along with the elusive puma.
Trout are also the primary gamefish in the south, but unique conditions here have transformed many of their populations into anadromous runs. Instead of clear streams pouring over stony bottoms, the waterways in southern Patagonia are heavily influenced by glacial runoff and soil tannins. The result is cold, cloudy, and nutrient-poor water that usually cannot sustain healthy resident trout. As a response, both rainbow and brown trout have developed sea-run behavior, and the rich waters of the South Atlantic allow these fish to grow to record-breaking proportions. When these monsters return to the shallow coastal rivers to spawn, they produce angling opportunities that are unrivaled throughout the world. An average brown here is quite probably a fish of a lifetime most anywhere else, a fact which draws discerning fishermen from around the world, and has won the best rivers international fame (the Rio Grande, Gallegos and Irigoyen). Not surprisingly, access to these rivers is mostly controlled by private fishing lodges. While certainly worth the money, most anglers intent on doing it themselves best look elsewhere.
Jake Chutz and another Rio Grande sea run brown trout
The world-class sea trout fishing is certainly what draws the vast majority of fishermen to this part of the world, but that’s not to say that quality resident trout fishing doesn’t exist. To the contrary, but it can often be more challenging compared to northern Patagonia for a number of reasons. While some of the region’s fisheries may yield world-class trout fishing, others may prove to be quite uninspiring, yielding disappointingly small fish, or even none at all. Compound this hit-or-miss fishing with poor road conditions, vast distances between drainages, and a harsh climate, and it’s little wonder this portion of Patagonia is categorically the least-known and visited among anglers. Unlike the north, DIY trips are less feasible here, so hiring a capable and well-equipped guide is often crucial to success. Unless, of course, you opt for one of the premier lodges catering to sea-trout, which are on par with luxury resorts the world over.
Luxurious Kau Tapen Lodge on the Rio Grande
•The Upside: Unparalleled sea-run brown trout fishing; world-class lodges; untamed wilderness beyond.
•The Downside: greater distances between fisheries; high winds; public access restricted on many sea-trout rivers.
•What to Bring: a fast-action 8-weight rod with various lines, and/or spey rod to facilitate casting in high winds.
•When to Go: Sea Trout begin entering rivers summer (Dec – Feb) and continue to be fishable through fall (Mar-Apr). Steelhead season begins in late Feb and continues through Apr (only on the Santa Cruz river). Resident trout can be pursued all season long.
•Primary towns: Rio Gallegos, Piedra Buena, El Calafate, Rio Grande, Ushuaia
And that’s Patagonia in a nutshell. In part 3 we’ll discuss of the other fishing zone in Argentina – the domain of the golden dorado.