I find it interesting that while Patagonia is almost a household name in the United States, one of the most symbolic and environmentally friendly brands on the planet, and a trend setter in the outdoor fashion world, that people rarely think about its namesake as a destination. Unless you are a fly fisherman of course.
I spent 4 nights, with my amazing wife, in one of the most special places on Earth; Tipiliuke Lodge. Argentina is a gargantuan country, and Patagonia encompasses more than one-third of the entire country, starting in the lakes region and extending far south to Tierra Del Fuego. Tipiliuke Lodge is located in the lakes region near the town of San Martin de Los Andes. As fate would have it, the current owners’ ancestors arrived to Argentina in 1909, within a few years of the first trout which were shipped from the United States by way of South Hampton, England. The trout were then introduced to the magnificent and fertile waters of the lakes region of Patagonia. The Larminat brothers traveled from France by boat, bought some trusty Argetine steed, and headed west until they came to what is currently their 50,000 acre Estancia, on which the lodge is located. Just like every single guest that arrives today, these brothers were captivated by the wild and vast landscapes at the foothills of the mighty Andes. So enthralled were the brothers that they immediately purchased the land. All three brothers left the Estancia to fight in World War II, but before they left, they hiked to the top of Tipiliuke Mountain and each planted a cross at the summit – vowing to return to their sacred land when the war ended.
Fast forward a generation and the same family still owns and runs the Estancia. There is something to be said for multi-generation stewardship, and arguably no one benefits more from this commitment than the fly fishermen, hunters, and guests lucky enough to spend time there.
We arrived at the Estancia after nearly 15 hours driving on unpaved, unlit roads that switch-backed through the foothills of the Andes. There were more than a few “holy shit” moments on the adventure. We swerved around crater sized potholes, dodged fox, armadillos, freakishly monstrous hares, and were run off the road by 18 wheelers more than a handful of times. Lesson 1 in Argentina; DO NOT RENT A DAMNED CAR. Moving on.
I think the moment we took the right turn into Estancia Los Pinos, passing through a century old pine forest, our anxiety gave way to serenity. Our go cart of a vehicle had made it in one piece and we were ready for a bottle of Malbec and a shower. Kevin, the renaissance man who along with his amiable wife runs this fine lodge, greeted us with his laid back attitude and a traditional Argentine hug. He was quick to have our gear sent to the room and offered to drive me out to their man made spring creek to wet my appetite. As we walked through the pasture en route to the pond, the hoppers darted swiftly left and right leaving Kevin and I lunging like children as we fumbled to intercept a trout snack. Finally, I grabbed a lively hopper and tossed it onto a slower section where the pond fed the mouth of the spring creek. It didn’t take but a few seconds for a good sized rainbow to explode from the bottom, voraciously snatching the hopper before disappearing back to her lie at the bottom of the creek. It was important for Kevin to show me this man made slice of heaven because it was an enormous investment for the lodge, showcasing their commitment to providing unique and varied fishing experiences for their guests. Kevin is as genuine as he is professional. As you might expect, he has quite a resume complete with time running a top fly fishing lodge in Tierra del Fuego (think 25lb sea run browns) and more than two decades in ski instruction. Here is the kicker, his wife Mary Jo is as gregarious as he is composed (I later found out she casts a two handed spey rod like a champ). They are the ultimate host couple, Kevin looking over the lodge by day, and Mary Jo taking the reigns each evening. Both my wife and I were particularly appreciative of their willingness to share their varied stories and intimate knowledge of the history Argentina and of northern Patagonia. When an effort is made to journey to such wild and remote location, you want to feel a strong connection to its land and people; helping people to experience that connection is an undeniable gift of these two possess.
The Schedule at Tipiliuke operates effortlessly. Breakfast from 8ish, where our guide Federico (Fede) awaits us, then off to fish until early afternoon. We head back to the lodge around 14:00 for unforgettable group lunches under the hundred foot pine trees followed by a customary siesta. Should you choose, it is back to the river for the eternally productive evening hatch. As Kevin always reminds guests “better to return late than to leave early.” Dinner is served around 22:00 (10pm) each night, giving the relentless fishermen like myself ample time to chuck huge dry flies under the stars, hoping to coax up an infamous Chimeuin brown trout. More on that later – you’re going to lose your mind hearing about these fish. Pretty. Epic. Stuff.
As I mentioned, our guide Fede was always downstairs waiting for us in the morning, having already compared notes with the other guides, researched the wind and weather reports and planned our day accordingly. Listen, the wind is absolutely insane down there. I grew up on Cape Cod, where we had a saying for tourists “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Our first day on the river I was presented the same line. If there are two truths I can share with you about Patagonia – they are as follows; the fishing experience will be life changing and the wind will blow.
There is and abundance of renowned water to fish; almost ten miles of the Chimehuin River, the most famous in all of Patagonia, three miles of the Quilquehue River and another mile of spring creek water. You would need a veritable month to cover the myriad of waters Tipiliuke offers you. It’s a good thing they have such resourceful guides who fish the property on days off to scout this expansive watershed. Fede thoughtfully picked water according to what we wanted to do: sight fish to 20+ inch fish along the bank, throw huge attractor patterns or stalk fish in the picturesque side channels. Of course, for the masochists among us, there is always the option to chuck ugly streamers into big water. My advice: do not be shy. Speak up if you want to do something, even if it is unconventional. These guides are the best in the business, and know what works and what is a waste of time. They will be honest with you. They also appreciate learning new techniques and, as with all successful people, they are intent listeners. You will be captivated by the gentil and easygoing ways of the Argentine people; they are almost all descendants of European countries, more than 50% are of Italian descent. They are smart and attractive, outgoing people who love to share a stories over drinks or mate. These Patagonians have fishing in their blood. Catching fish started with shared smiles, progressed to high fives and culminated with chest bumps and awkward missed high fives.
Let me elaborate: We spent an incredible morning fishing a productive fast riffle, regularly pulling out 16” + meaty fish on dry-dropper rigs. Interestingly, rainbow trout (trucha arcoiris) dominate the population in most rivers in Patagonia by almost 5:1 over the brown trout (trucha marrón). You will fall in love with these rainbows. They are the hardest fighting trout I have encountered (think cutthroat on steroids). They are supermodels: flawless and colorful fish well fed by the epic hatches, sculpin, terrestrials and small vermin that find their way into the fertile waters. It is as if the fish gods took the best of all trout habitat, food and scenery and combined it into one place.
Back to the fishing. The wind miraculously dropped to a manageable 15mph so Fede was anxious to hike back to the 20 foot bank high above the river to search for feeding fish below the willows. It took but a few minutes to come across a 25” rainbow and an 18” brown feeding in unison a few feet apart in about eight inches of water. We were captivated watching this duo. At one point, the slender brown quite literally ate the larger rainbow’s lunch for a few minutes straight, darting in front of the seemingly unfazed pellethead. Brown trout are badass, territorial beings, sort of like people from Texas. The rainbow was patient and took his fair share of mayflies from the surface as well.
I walked back downstream and Fede held my arm as I shimmied down the ash laden bank using a small tree to balance as I turned to grab my weapon, a 6 weight Sage Method that arrived just in time for this trip. He laughed, somewhat in disbelief, when I reached the river a few minutes later. The cast was technical, balancing a strong headwind with willow trees that seem to grow longer with every false cast. Following the direction of Fede, I lay down a 20 foot cast tight to the bank, targeting the monster bow. Mind you, I cannot see the fish from my angle so I am relying 100% on the eyes of Fede. The fish rises to my small mayfly emerger and though I was told to mumble “God save the Queen” before I set the hook, I pulled the fly from the fish’s mouth. Fede crumbled to the ground, I reverted to hockey locker profanities followed by a sincere apology. While we regained our composure, attempting to forget the missed connection with a trophy fish, Fede informed me that the brown was still in her feeding lane. I threw back to same spot and while it was a good foot inside the fish, she eagerly moved to snatch fly. We moved up the bank about 200 yards, stopping to prospect areas that were not visible, and sight casting to those fish that Fede could see from above. We landed a half dozen quality fish all 18” plus in that stretch before heading back for lunch. In the car ride back Fede informed me that he was grateful for my patience and ability to sight fish with him, as it was his favorite kind of fishing, though not something he got to do often. I was honored to share fishing experience with Fede, and it was my first insight into this Patagonian culture that was undeniably drawing me in.
That afternoon we spent a few hours in the town of San Martin de los Andes to take in some culture and visit an outstanding museum which houses the sought-after works of the Miciu family. We both agreed the works were some of the most incredible paintings and photography we have come across our travels. In particular the fly fishing photography by Isaias Miciu Nicolaevici was astounding and affordable. We strolled the quaint streets of the town, taking coffee with Fede at his favorite café, checking out his law office (yes he is a practicing lawyer) and visiting some shops with traditional Argentine goods; blankets, quilts, belts and leather goods. The town feels more like a ski village in the Austrian or Swiss alps than an Andean tourist destination synonymous with fly fishing and skiing. On the twenty minute drive back to Tipiliuke, Fede pointed out the newly finished Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, which has become widely popular with locals and tourists alike. It is not well known that Jack Nicklaus is an avid fly-fisherman, along with tour pros Mark O’Meara, Nick Price, and Tiger Woods. Fly fishing has been a great compliment to many a career on the PGA Tour. In fact, I once read that Davis Love III would travel with a fly rod and leave it in the locker room every weekend so players could take it out to fish during practice rounds.
It was nearly 7pm when we arrived back at Tipiliuke and Fede and I were plotting to fish the final few hours of daylight. Luckily, my wife was ready for a glass of wine with some new friends we had met the night prior. Fede looked at me with a big smile “muy bueno, we go fishing.” Tipiliuke is so unique among lodges in Patagonia, because it can make even the most apprehensive wife or girlfriend feel at home and provide any number of distractions. We spent a long morning horseback riding amongst the wild fauna, Red Stags, Guanacos (llama cousins) and hiked the top of Tipiliuke Mountain to pay homage to the Larminat brothers. We had unobstructed views of the Andes Mountains, the Lanin volcano and hundreds of miles of open plains, which provide world class hunting for red stag, wild boar and various bird species. There is a sauna and massage room on property and more than enough hammocks and benches to pass the hours lost in a good book.
We drove a short distance to the home pool. I was immediately skeptical about fishing this close-by stretch but Fede assured me that beat had not been touched for over a week. Kevin and the guides manage this aspect of the experience so intently and it shows in the quality of the fishing. We parked the truck, shared a few sips of bourbon, and walked to the bridge to find a 25” rainbow feeding gracefully in steady current. I could have stayed there for hours watching this gorgeous, rose cheeked fish feed on nymphs and mayflies but Fede had other plans. He wanted to take advantage of the light winds to toss large attractors into the tailout of the pool. The mayfly hatch was thick in the air, and while fish were not consistently rising, it surely had the fish hot and bothered. It didn’t take long before fish started exploding on my beetle pattern. I caught and released too many quality fish to remember. The beetle pattern is just a killer down there. Of course, I lost a monster rainbow that ran me into a riffle and easily snapped my 5x tippet. The moment of defeat and angst was remedied by a hand on my shoulder and a few inspiring words “now we throw the mouse.”
To me, this is a pinnacle moment in a fly fishing career; throwing a mouse pattern in the dark, skating this massive art project across a slow pool trying to entice the nocturnal brown to have dinner with us. Fishing at night is the ultimate test of a fisherman’s skills, forcing him to rely on instincts and feel. It is THE time to harness the Jedi skills. It was four casts after we tied on my mouse pattern, which had sat idly in my fly box for several years. Then an explosion erupted forty feet down stream. It was voracious and loud and I reckon we almost jumped clear out of our waders. I would give anything to have a video recording of our faces when we heard the violent strike. After netting the fish, we jumped up and down in the river like teenage girls at a Britney Spears concert, celebrating in full embrace. As I released that fish I was emotional, the culmination of a trip I have dreamed about my whole life. I would be remiss not to say how that fish cemented an already budding connection to this wild place of Patagonia. At that point there was only one thought in my mind, hand the rod to Fede. His fly fishing acumen and skill was only overshadowed, perhaps, by his devotion to ensuring our well-being on the river each day. The passing of the rod to him, much like the passing of the mate every afternoon, was meant as a supreme gesture of gratitude. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I did not furnish the pictures below, but on his 3rd cast, just as he stopped twitching and the mouse lay still in the current, WHAM! another eruption from the pool. The sentiment was somewhere between disbelief, pandemonium and nirvana. I netted his fish, we recommenced the teenage girl dance and were lucky enough to snap a few memorable pictures before releasing the beast to continue her awesome domination of the mystical Chimeuin River.
I traveled to Tipiliuke with high expectations for the fishing. I left feeling utterly satisfied and appreciative of my time in this unique place.The lodge was world class, and both my wife and I agreed that a return was not an if, but a when. We have traveled the world, most often with a fly rod in tow, searching for places where we feel a unique connection. As we said our goodbye to Kevin and Fede at the airport, I could not help but recognize that while the fish were what drew me to Tipiliuke, it would be the people and rivers that ensured my return.
If you have any questions about this trip, want to talk through any or all of the details or want to contact me, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org! It would be a pleasure to hear from you.