Some time ago, when I first started toying with the idea of a trip to Patagonia to fish for trout, a good non-angling friend asked me an interesting question. “Why,” she wondered, “would someone spend thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to catch the same kind of fish that could be caught in rivers much closer to home, and then, after all that effort and expense, release those fish back into the water?”
What seemed absurd to her seemed entirely sensible to me. “Because,” I replied, “that ‘someone’ is about to turn 70, because life is short and knees are weak, and the chance to wade in beautiful rivers in faraway places and connect even briefly with wild creatures is finite.” Actually, my answer was not nearly as polished as that, but one of the benefits of writing a fish story is the right to take some editorial liberties.
As for the part about putting the fish back in the river, I realize that catch and release fishing is a mystery to non-anglers, and I have given up trying to explain why conserving a fishery is so important, and why, as a famous angler once said, a trout is too beautiful to be caught just once. For the sake of the larger point here, let’s just move along.
The larger point has to do with time’s winged chariot hurrying near, as the poem goes, “hurrying” being the operative term. About a year before I was to turn 70, it occurred to me that I probably had about 15 good years left, if the family’s average life expectancy means anything, and that I should do those things that might not be doable for too much longer. Fishing in the Patagonia region of Chile was one of those things. Chile, in the language of the indigenous peoples, means “where the world ends,” which has a nice ring to it, bucket-list-wise. So I impulsively booked a trip to a place I had read about in a fly-fishing catalogue, the lodge at "El Saltamontes," which means “the grasshopper.” It promised miles and miles of private water, from rivers to spring creeks to lakes, where huge trout were waiting for the grasshoppers that regularly blow into the water, providing a feast that is easily replicated by an artificial dry fly. The lodge only takes 10 guests at a time, providing fishing guides, fine cuisine, and spectacular scenery. I booked it for two, figuring I had a whole year to find someone who might like to go with me, or, as my brother John put it, “to get lucky.” I didn’t, so my brother volunteered to go with me, which turned out to be a perfect choice. We grew up in a family of anglers, and have shared many fish stories over the years. “Dad would have loved this!” became our mantra on this trip, uttered at least once a day, accompanied by the kind of reminiscing that could only have been appreciated by someone who shares your life history. At this age, in fact, we are the only ones left who share that common history, a point that was not lost on either of us.
Fly fishing for trout is a pleasure that stretches back to my childhood, which is probably why it has the power to make me feel like a child. When I wade into a river, peer below the surface of the clear mountain water, see the quick glint of sun reflecting off the back of a rainbow trout or the gold streak of a brown trout darting out from behind a rock or from under the riverbank, my heart quickens just a bit, and in a good way. I become absorbed in that place and that moment. And just for that moment, I forget about all the grown-up stuff I’ve left behind — demands and deadlines, taxes, and teaching. And if I’m lucky enough to fool that fish with an artificial grasshopper tied to the end of my line, I will have the thrill of seeing it charge up from a pool or riffle. And if, in that moment, I can summon the requisite skill, I will set the hook and keep the line tight enough to bring him to the net, where a quick meet-and-greet ends with slipping the hook out and releasing him unharmed back to the river. None of those steps — the cast, the strike, the landing, the release — is guaranteed, no matter how many fish have connected with my line over the years. Each encounter is brand new, an adrenaline rush that never grows old, even as I do.
Starting with my family, then with various friends and lovers, I have fished in some magical places, from Yellowstone to New Zealand, from the Catskills to Canada, from the Sierras to the Rockies, and in places with exotic names like the River of No Return Wilderness. Patagonia was the Shangri-La of them all, and while expectations are often “disappointments under construction,” as they say, my expectations in this case were not just realized, but surpassed.
Getting there involved a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Santiago, a three-day layover in that capital city, and a 3-hour flight to southern Chile’s Aisen region, to a little airport in Balmaceda, followed by a 2-hour drive to the ranch. Our host, Jose Gorrono, met us at the airport. In the fly fishing catalogue that first drew my attention to El Saltamontes Lodge, Gorrono is described as a “modern Renaissance man,” the real-life version of the “most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis ad. The skeptic in my journalist brain scoffed, chalking it up to typical tourist brochure hyperbole.
Then I met the guy.
During our week with Jose on his massive estancia, we learned that Jose had designed and built his own electrical generator back in the 80’s, and shared the excess electricity with the local community. He designed and built the beautiful lodge and cabins out of local river stone and rough-hewn logs from the ranch property, where he raises prize horses and alpacas. He had sailed the Pacific Ocean by himself from Chile to Australia many times, and once had to repair his own boat at sea to survive. He had searched for, and succeeded in finding, sunken treasure. And, he had pulled off a self-rescue after a skiing fall during an avalanche, managing to do so with a compound fracture of his arm.
What Jose does not do, apparently, is fly fish. It took a visiting angler (an American) to clue him in to the spectacular fishing conditions on his estancia, which prompted him to set up the fishing lodge some years ago.
Also, it should be noted, he is a quite dashing 60-something, with a head of dazzling white hair and a smile to match. So when Jose flashed those pearly-whites my way, it took me a moment to digest his first words to us. “I do have some news,” he said, adding, “You two are the only guests at the lodge this week.”
For some couples this might have been received as a great windfall: the whole place to ourselves, complete with a master fishing guide and a chef, not to mention a genial host with amazing stories to tell, and miles and miles of great trout-fishing water. My sister-in-law, Susie, would no doubt have been delighted at the prospect of a week to explore a strange land, with exotic birds and plants (she doesn’t really like to fish). But as brother and sister, the prospect of having to spend the next six days talking mostly to each other was something of a daunting prospect. To file under “watch out what you ask for,” we had been dreading the prospect of sharing our vacation time with, say, Americans who wanted to bring up politics at the dinner table. In fact, we were sure that the six very loud Americans aboard our flight from Santiago might be headed for the same lodge, and we were preparing ourselves for a lot of “letting it go” moments. When those guys headed off with another fishing outfit, and Jose told us the news that we would be alone at the estancia, we had to shift our expectations dramatically. This was not one of those moments where we thought, “Dad would have loved this!” Our parents were extremely gregarious people, collecting other people’s life stories like so many souvenirs of each trip. Could we really go a whole week without devolving into sibling rivalry, snarky remarks, and suggestions for self-improvement aimed, of course, at the other person?
The fact that we did so says a lot about a) the power of meditation, and b) the power of nostalgia and shared stories, the kind of stories that would bore other people, but not us, because we were the stars of these stories. There was the time, for example, on a family fishing trip to Yellowstone, when my brother abruptly interrupted his evening bath, stopping his ablutions midstream, because he suddenly saw trout rising to a hatch of insects. I have a lovely rear-view photo of him, wearing nothing but his boots and a hat, hooking a very nice fish. For his part, he regrets that someone (can’t imagine who) lost the video he once took of me false-casting a very, very small trout on my line, back and forth, back and forth, totally unaware that I had caught a fish. In my defense, and because I am the one writing this story, I want to point out that it was a very, very, very small fish. Anyone could have missed it.
And then there was the time we had just come back from a week long trip in Montana, when my father almost died from the rupture of an aortic aneurysm. When he was later recovering from emergency open-heart surgery in Billings, I asked him, “Dad, what would we have done if your aneurysm had ruptured just days earlier, when we were still in the back country?” And he responded, without even a pause, “I would hope you would have had the good sense to prop me up against a tree and keep on fishing. The trip was paid for, after all.”
With a lifetime of such memories to sustain us, and a full week of fishing to create even more of them, we soon settled into a daily rhythm on the estancia. Our cabin had two enormous bedrooms, each with a private bath, and a magnificent view of the river valley. Huge trout in the pond below our porch provided a spectacular air show every morning and evening, leaping for insects and plunging back down with a satisfying splash, producing overlapping rings backlit by some of the most astonishing sunrises, and lovely sunsets, I have ever seen. Each morning at 7:30 am, one of the ranch hands would show up to build a fire in our wood stove, and bring us coffee.
By 9:00 am, we had walked to the lodge to have breakfast with Jose and Brett Just, the chief fishing guide for the ranch who would be heading home for Alaska after we departed. We were there in March, which is late summer/early fall in Chile, and we learned that not only were we the only two guests that week, but we would be the last guests of their season. Over breakfast each day, Brett would help us choose that day’s fishing location from the many miles of private water on the ranch, which amounted to pretty much anywhere we wanted to go, given that we didn’t have to share the water with others.
At 10:00 am or so, Brett would show up at our cabin with a four-wheel drive vehicle, equipped with a picnic lunch for a streamside repast. All dressed up in our waders and layers of clothing, to be removed as rising temperatures demanded, we would head out for new stretches of the river or creek, or on one spectacular day, a lake with a view of snow-capped mountain peaks that mark the border with Argentina. The Patagonia region is spread across both countries, and the fishing is world-class in both.
Somewhere around 1:00 pm, we’d stop fishing as Bret spread out the lunch for us next to the river, usually delicious soup or stew prepared that morning by the chef, with fresh fruit and chocolate. Somehow, having a small bar of chocolate every day began to seem not only normal, but necessary. When you are wearing waders, the insanity of this is not readily apparent.
And then there was the fishing. One visitor, who later wrote about this place for a fishing magazine, called it “possibly the best trout-fishing water in the world.” I don’t have the credentials to make a statement like that, but I certainly can concur that the fishing was extraordinary. Every time I waded out into the Nireguao River, Brett at my side (my brother preferred to fish alone, a short distance away), and cast my line into a pool next to a rock, or some other stretch of liquid perfection, and watched a fish suddenly rush up from the depths and lunge for my fly, I was immersed in a moment of wonder, crystallized around my connection with what was at the other end of my line. I missed a lot of fish, which would normally be a bummer, but not here, because the opportunities to adjust your cast, your approach, your landing, were always there. So was Brett, who gave excellent advice on how to make those slight adjustments. More important, perhaps, he was there to lend his arm for support.
Once upon a (less-arthritic) time, I used to wade into the current with little fear, but I was due for a double knee replacement soon, and my shoulder had just undergone rotator cuff surgery several months before this trip. I was understandably much more cautious wading into deeper water than I used to be, but was surprised to realize that this did not make me feel old. It made me feel profoundly grateful that I could still find a way to do this thing I love so much, even if it meant hanging on to someone’s arm in tricky current, and relying on his steady stride. My brother, who is a few years older, has already had both knees replaced, and both shoulders repaired. He is in great physical condition, and a master fly angler, but even he relied on a wading staff much of the time. No matter. Slowing down has a lot of benefits, not the least of which is being more mindful of everything around you. Some of the best visual memories from this trip, now packed away in my overstuffed brain, had nothing to do with catching fish but with catching a glimpse of something brand new – an ibis staring back from the bank, a Kingfisher in the bough over the pool I was fishing, an alpaca staring through the trees, his fuzzy head framing enormous eyes.
At the end of these days, we would head back to the cabin for a warm shower before another wonderful dinner at the main lodge, preceded by homemade empanadas and local wines if you desire. There is no WiFi at the lodge or in the cabin, making it necessary to walk down the road a bit to Jose’s house if you want to connect to the outside world. Each afternoon, we would spend about a half hour in Jose’s kitchen reading our e-mail and catching up on news, but I was astonished to find that I needed no more than that. After a few days of internet detox, in fact, I debated whether it was really worth the walk. The first step to recovery, as they say, is admitting you have a problem. This was one of the biggest “catches” of the week for me, this realization that my life might be more expansive if my digital connections were more limited.
But this is a fish story, after all, so I should end with something more substantial and less metaphorical. Although, in this case, it may be impossible to separate the two.
Everyone always wants to know about the biggest fish you caught, but I have found, over the years, that the best stories are about the biggest fish you didn’t catch. This was true when I fished with an all-woman’s team in the New Zealand One-Fly Contest (you are allowed one fly on your line for the whole day) and hooked a brown trout so enormous that I thought I had snagged a log. Then the log moved. I fought that fish for what seemed an eternity (probably five minutes), finally getting him to the net, but not quite into the net. At that moment, he took off for another run, headed for fast water and broke off. I sat down on a rock, my arm aching from the effort, and said something to the effect of, “Well, I guess I’m out of the contest now so might as well just fish for fun.” The guide looked at me in horror. “How can you go on after that?” “Easy,” I responded. “That’s the biggest fish I have ever had on my line. I will be dreaming about that fish for a long time, with endless chances to get it right.”
It is humbling to be defeated by a creature with an instinct for survival that outmatches your desire for a “win,” whether that’s an actual score in a contest or a photo you share with friends. And it happened again, in a memorable way, on this Patagonia fishing adventure. One morning, Brett guided us up a small creek off the main river, a creek with lots of great places for trout to hide. The fishing here required some finesse, with fairly long, accurate casts. One bad cast could “spook” a hole and put down the fish. And it was in one of those moments where you just know you have done everything right, when the fly lands lightly in just the right place, so that it floats a few feet downstream to the deeper water where a fish might be hiding, when a huge brown trout, its gold color flashing in the sun, comes roaring up from below and bites that “grasshopper” with a force that almost throws you off-balance. “Yes, yes, yes!” Brett was screaming, more excited than I had heard him before, all the while urging me to keep the line taut: “Strip, strip, strip!”
“He’s huge!” I cried. “I have to get a picture of this one!” And in that nanosecond of hubris, while trying to get my camera out of my pocket, I let the line go just a bit slack, and the fish got off. Brett had that same look as the guide in New Zealand. “Despair” does not really do it justice. But I had to laugh, knowing that the golden creature I had connected with ever-so-briefly had no interest in being in my “selfie” shot, and that, once again, something with a brain the size of a pea had reminded me of the importance of staying in the moment, rather than following the ego as it races ahead to the finish line. The land known as “where the world ends” had been re-christened for me as “where the ego ends,” and where catch and release becomes more about release than catch. Release of expectations, release of vanity, release of anything that is out of the frame of “right here, right now.”
My brother had watched this epic failure from the bank, and I consider it a great gift (happy 70th!) and remarkable restraint that he did not laugh. Loudly, anyway. This took a Herculean effort, I am sure, as he fought against a deeply ingrained family talent for well-timed zingers. But we both agreed on one thing.
Dad would have loved this.