In 2003 a savings/endowment policy I’d taken out in a half-sensible moment matured. Just about to turn 40, selfishly, I decided to spend it all on me! I should say I have an amazing wife. A fisherman since 8 years old and a very keen salmon fly fisherman since the age of 30 (when I had been lucky enough to get for my birthday two days learning to Spey cast and drink whisky with one Hugh Falkus), I’d caught quite a few salmon on fly, mainly on the Eden and Derwent in England but also on a variety of Scottish waters.
But I was still pretty desperate to catch numbers of salmon on fly, so off to the Ponoi with Frontiers I went. And catch numbers I did… and, suffice to say, what was supposed to be a one-off trip became an addictive habit. Those trips completely changed my fishing life and helped in keeping me sane, nearly. Over the years I came to love the Ponoi and Ryabaga camp. The desire to catch lots of salmon on fly had been well and truly sated by a few spring and early summer trips. I then fell in love with skated flies and then, particularly, the truly amazing Ponoi Fall fishing.
An unexpected benefit of this type of thing is that you meet a lot of interesting people: both guides and guests. Yes, ok some of the guests (but not all) are very wealthy; and a few behave like it, but not many. A lot more are inspirational and fascinating people who have done incredible things with their lives and a number now spend a good chunk of time fishing around the world’s best fly fisheries. So GT fishing in the Seychelles, steelhead on the Dean river and mousing in Alaska were on my bucket list (the new entrant to my top five is Golden Dorado in Bolivia), but tales of fishing in Tierra del Fuego for giant sea trout caught my imagination more than anything.
Also influencing me towards Tierra del Fuego was that Max Mamaev, the superb Head Guide at Ryabaga, has spent the last 20 or so Northern winters in Argentina guiding at Kau Tapen Lodge on the Rio Grande in the Tierra del Fuego summers. I doubt there are few alive, possibly who have ever lived, who have caught more (or helped others to catch) Atlantic salmon on a fly than Max. He obviously highly rated the Rio Grande and that was the ultimate recommendation for me.
Having decided that, after 30 years of work, I needed a proper break, I decided to take a month off (thanks again to my wife and also my partners at work) and headed off to Argentina basing the whole trip around a week at Kau Tapen.
I’d been in Argentina for just over a week when I flew to Ushuaia in TDF from El Calafate after an amazing few days in the Glaciares National Park. The descent to Ushuaia being an experience itself as the plane, coming in from the north west over the Andes, loses height a in series of amazing spirals amongst the mountains and glaciers and through the clouds before landing on a narrow peninsula. Truly spectacular. They still applaud a successful landing in Argentina but this one was well deserved. The drive to Kau Tapen through the mountains (Argentina’s World Cup ski resort is down here) and the lenga (beech) forests was stunning too.
I was last to arrive at the lodge at around 7 pm and it being the first night everyone was going for a quick fish. Did I want to go? Well, yes and after a crazy ten minutes or so of personal tackle chaos I was geared up with everyone else and ready to go. I was off with guide Toby (from Northumberland, England and quite close to where I’m from) and a couple of KT veterans. Being the newbie, I was tackled up first by Toby who put me in the top of a typical Rio Grande pool. The river had been very low but had just risen and now was settling off very nicely indeed, and I was using my 14ft rod and some kind of leech (a fly new to me) and a slow sink tip.
On my first proper cast, as I retrieved the fly very slowly, as instructed, I had a huge pull and was attached to what felt like a small car but turned out to be a 13lbs sea trout which had been in the river a while. Suffice to say, I was quite pleased, given my biggest ever sea trout to date had been around 7lbs from the Ponoi, and in the UK about 5lbs from the Border Esk I had a few more casts but no more fish and it was back to the lodge for a few welcome drinks with the guides before dinner. Seemingly I was at risk of first cast jinx as someone had done this a couple of years ago… and well you can guess the rest.
It rained overnight and next day the Rio Grande was, well, a little grand. Up and a bit dirty. I had the 14ft rod up and put on a slow sink Skagit and a medium MOW tip and a big leech. Despite the conditions being considerably less than perfect, both myself and my partner David caught fish. At first a few smaller (!) ones of 7, 8 or 9lbs but then they started getting bigger. In the afternoon, whilst slowly jigging the leech as it started to swing I had a great take. Then a huge silver fish took to the air. That 20lbs fish jumped five times like a tarpon with its jumps being one, maybe two metres into the air; with its whole body swaying in slow motion as it powered upwards. An amazing fish.
Whilst the river was up for the first few days I stuck to the Skagit and MOW tips and caught fish steadily. All these fish were chromers and quite a few were 15 to 17lbs. Some fought hard and fast and jumped; most though, in the high and still slightly cloudy water, just powered away like heavyweight boxers.
Day 4 brought a change of pace. The river was by now lower. I’d caught plenty of fish and fancied trying the single-handed 7 weight I’d bought for the trip, for Jurassic Lake actually. Before coming to TDF I spent a few days fishing in north west Patagonia, drifting the Collon Cura river. Cold weather meant the dry fly fishing was not working, so I mainly fished with a full fast sinking line with streamers for the first time. Great fun it was too.
Anyway there we were by a Rio G pool with a typical deep belly and it looked good for a fast-sinking line. My guide Chandler Williams from the US offered to put on a full fast sinking line on the 7 weight so I could give it a go. This was the first time I used the rod let alone with a line which sinks like lead. But after a few casts I was getting into a rhythm of sorts and was putting out a fairly decent line into the slack on the far side of the main glide, mending upstream and then slowly, very slowly stripping through the depths of the main body of the pool. Even with most of the line retrieved it would take two or three powerful roll casts to get the remaining line to the surface after stripping round to the dangle, so it was getting down deep.
Content, I was talking away not expecting a great deal when I was attacked. The rod virtually pulled out of my hands. The intimacy of a 7 weight and a 20lbs sea trout deciding to kill your fly about 15 metres away is quite something. The fight on this rod was something too, although there were no aerial fireworks, maybe as the fish had been in a while.
The next day in a very similar pool with Head Guide Gaston, I tried the same rod, line and technique again. As if in a dream, exactly the same thing happened in the main belly of the pool. This time 22lbs and a much fresher fish and my right arm was actually, not just metaphorically, shaking after that fight. What can you say other than go to the gym first.
Later that night I caught an even bigger fish; this time 23lbs on a large Garry Dog-type fly, tied and provided by the excellent and fantastically enthusiastic Gaston. This was back on the 14ft rod, caught Spey casting into the falling dark and landed by head torch. My partner David landed a 15lber at the same time which he had to land on his own whilst Gaston netted mine. Size does matter!
No doubt the catches here would be even more amazing if you fished on properly into the dark as we do in the UK but quite frankly there is no need to…
On the final day I had the pleasure of being guided by Max. A couple of things will stick with me. In the afternoon he had started me at the head of a typical Rio Grande pool. I took a step or two into the water, mainly to help with the shooting line, but Max pointed to the sediment I was kicking up and how the angle of the current was taking it into the main part of the pool. He also told me this pool fishes right into the bank so to get out and stand well back. Well you do what Max says; and he left me to it, dutifully fishing down and standing a good five metres or so from the edge of the river.
I was maybe half way down the pool and the fly (I think it was a big sunray) had come around on the dangle and was about 15 metres beneath me. Then approximately level with my fly, but about four or five metres away, and literally right by the bank, and in inches of water there was a fish explosion; a huge and violent swirl/splash/spray morphing into a very fast-moving fishy bow wave headed straight towards my fly. The fish hammered the fly and then it shot off 40 or 50 metres downstream ripping the retrieved line from my hands and then line off the reel.
That fish can only have been lying in water just deep enough to cover its back. Whether it had seen the fly somehow or, perhaps, as one of the guides suggested afterwards, sensed it through its lateral line, frankly I don’t know. However, either explanation seems much more likely than it having been scared by me (which had been my first thought when it exploded) and then just happened to have headed for, and then taken, the fly. I have had some truly spectacular (physical/visual) aggressive takes before from salmon on fly, including quite a few which have followed a super-fast stripped fly into very shallow water and then hammered the fly right by the bank, but never one in reverse like this.
Then in the late pm/early evening I went through a period of raising, but not hooking, I don’t know how many fish to Sunrays. 15? 20 or so? I don’t know. It was ridiculous. Finally, exciting though this was and wanting to actually catch a last big sea trout, I binned the sunray for a leech for a quick last cast or two in the dark. I quickly hooked and lost a fish which was much bigger than any of the huge fish I’d caught. How big? I don’t know but it came out of the water and, in the gloaming, it’s silhouette looked like a small dolphin! That image is calling me back. Fish over 30lbs are caught every year I gather….
I got back to the lodge to find Dave Ingebritson had caught three fish that night over 20lbs – biggest 25! All three on a full sinking line too. I claimed three assists.
A truly superb week, five fish over 20lbs – two of which were on the single-handed 7 weight and the super-fast sinking line. Biggest 23lbs, a number between 15 and 17lbs and overall I think my fish averaged around 15lbs for the week. I caught three to six sea trout of these calibre each day. Incredible stuff.
And the Kau Tapen Lodge? Well as good as the fishing: world class. The food and wine were simply top notch and the overall experience was luxurious, if not verging on the decadent, but in a very nice way! All the staff (lodge and guides) were absolutely excellent. The other guests were very lovely: a mixture of Brits, Americans and Russians. Frontiers did a great job as always.