Patagonia, Chile

The best fishing destinations begin as myths. Chilean Patagonia is no exception.

In the 16th century, long before the first shepherds led their flocks through its valleys, this place was called Trapananda, and no one knew if it really existed. The story began when a Spanish explorer wandered out of the Andes with the tale of a great city, paved in gold and silver. Trapananda, he called it, the City of the Caesars, and as the legend grew, expeditions set off to find it. No one ever did. What they found instead was of no use to them then, but inspires a new breed of pilgrims today: They found solitude.

Solitude and serenity In fact, in Patagonia, you have wind Road to fish Timeless in nature Our Trapananda

Flying into this part of Chile today, it's still hard to find evidence of human life. The Andes are clear enough, big mountains down here, all shoulders and teeth. Beneath them lie vast golden swaths of pampas. And then there is the water, braided streams falling like root stems from the mountains, splicing together in the valleys to form the bigger rivers. In the sunlight, they look just like veins of silver.

There are nine of us altogether. We all have our day jobs; we are salesman, ad men, photographers and writers. But we are fishermen first, so even though we'll have work to do in Chile—there will be a photo shoot for SAGE, some field-testing of equipment, and the task of documenting the journey—when we convene in the Santiago airport, it feels like a bunch of guys getting together for the trip of a lifetime.

The final leg of our flight ends with a deft landing in a crosswind at the Balmaceda Airport, a red-roofed structure scarcely larger than a post office. Luis Antúnez is there to meet us, our guide and host, wearing a baseball cap, polarized glasses and a neon green bandana around his neck. (His go-to fashion accessory, we discover—he keeps a box of them in his room, in every color.) He has the chapped, dopey look of a fisherman who has just spent the day on the water. He's never met any of us, but a gaggle of gringos with pelican cases of cameras, duffels full of waders and rod tubes sticking out of our backpacks is hard to miss. He walks over smiling. "Welcome to Patagonia," he says, shaking our hands and slapping our shoulders.

Several of his guides are with him, and also his father, a short man with soft eyes and a floppy sun hat. The trucks are waiting to bring us to the lodge. I take my seat in Papa Luis' rig, and seconds after the doors are closed we are tearing down a two-lane highway, every one of us scrambling for handholds to keep our seats. Later we will learn that Papa Luis is a retired technical manager for Ferrari, and that his father was a salesman for Bugatti and Delage. This will explain his driving habits, but for now we are ignorant and fearing for our lives. After several miles, I manage to scrawl a single sentence in my notebook: "Papa Luis—his speed belies his age."

We drive past wide fields, where the hay is rolled in big, tidy bundles, just like Montana. Tall purple lupines line the roadside. When the wind picks up, I lean over to Papa Luis and try to make conversation. "Pretty windy," I say, pointing to the trees bending double outside. He considers this for a moment, and then says, "In fact, in Patagonia, you have wind." It's the most English we'll hear out of him all week, but he's absolutely right. We do have wind. Lots of it.

We reach the lodge an hour later. It's a beautiful log and stucco building hugging the edge of a bluff overlooking the regional capital, Coyhaique, home to about 50,000 people. The lodge staff greets us, armed with Chile's national drink, the pisco sour, made with whipped egg whites, lime juice, syrup, bitters and pisco, a grape brandy. They're cold, tangy and delicious. We have another.

Once we've drained our drinks, toured the lodge and gaped at the countless photos of giant fish on the walls, Luis pulls out the maps to get down to business. He makes no mystery of his priorities. "We don't have time for breakfast or lunch or whatever," he says. "We have time for fishing, and that sets the schedule." It's a rousing statement, but entirely untrue. Our upcoming menu will include giant fresh mussels, paella, poached Chilean sea bass, steak, spare ribs and an entire lamb, killed, butchered and slow-grilled for our pleasure at the side of a lake by a man we will only know as "maestro."

Factually translated, Luis means to say that, between meals, there's plenty of fishing to keep us busy. "We are surrounded by hundreds of different types of water," he says. "One day I was trying to make a list. And I put together 200 different places within two hours drive from the lodge." (I wonder if that's two hours by Papa Luis' reckoning, or a more casual driver's. It's the former.)

When Luis first came here from Spain, 24 years ago, there were few roads. Coyhaique had about 50 cars; most people traveled on horseback. "Everything was untouched," he says. He began fishing the nameless streams and lakes around him, sometimes walking miles into the hills and bushwhacking through forest. His efforts were rewarded with pristine water and giant brown trout that grew fat and old without ever seeing a predator. When Papa Luis came down to join him in the early 1990s, he knew his son had found something special. "The rivers were clean and there were not many fishermen," he recalls, in Spanish. "It was like being young again. It was a paradise."

With all the water at hand, and more to explore, Luis knew it was the perfect location to build his lodge. "It was always an adventure," he says. "You know the feeling when you find a place with huge fish and you feel that you are the first? You feel like the richest man in the world."

In the following week, Luis shares that wealth generously. The days fall into a routine. We wake up at a reasonable hour, have breakfast and coffee in the dining room, and load the trucks. The best waters are a couple hours' drive from the lodge, over what Luis calls "cocktail roads," because they're so rutted that they shake your innards like a martini when you drive them. (On some stretches, it feels more like a Home Depot paint mixer.) We fish hard when we reach the water, stopping for lunch around 5 o'clock. Sundown is about 10:30 p.m. in a Patagonian summer, and that's when we head home. It's almost 1:00 in the morning by the time we reach the lodge for a slap-up dinner, drinks and bed.

There's something about fishing, though, that even when it's hard work and long hours, it's never difficult to get up the next morning and do it all over again. It helps that we're having some of the most beautiful, productive and adventurous fishing of our lives.

Each day is different. One day we're fishing a mid-sized river in a mossy box canyon, the next we're clawing our way through dense scrub, bow-and-arrow casting caddis in the pocket water of a stream one of the guides has dubbed "Goddammit Creek," because he came up here with a lawyer once and on every cast, his fly would snag a tree and he would roar "Goddammit!"

We fish lakes, too. One day we raft out to a grassy island in the middle of Zed Lake. When we step onto the grass, we can feel the island moving beneath us, as though it's floating. It's an unsettling feeling. Soon the wind picks up so strongly that it lifts flurries of spray from the water's surface. We lean into it to stay upright. I sling out a wooly bugger, watch it land where the water gets dark, and then feel the hit of a 23-inch rainbow. After several great leaps from the waves, I bring it to hand and release it as the island rocks like a moored sailboat in a storm.

Another lake Luis named after his girlfriend, Lourdes. It is remote, nestled in the cradle of mountains, and very deep, carved by glaciers millennia ago. Its water is the otherworldly ice-blue of a sports drink. We fish the flats, casting giant foam cantaria beetles long distances to structure on the bank. Luis is in his element here. He works out incredible distances of line, casting tight, low loops over the water's surface. When there's no more line, he goes into the backing. We are watching a master at work. "He is one of the best," says Jose, one of the guides, who is watching beside me. "When you catch five, he'll catch 20." I remember what Luis had told me earlier: "Fishing is my religion," he said. "And this is my church."

But perhaps the most memorable fishing session almost never happens. The group has taken the day off to catch up on lost sleep, but by the afternoon, Luis is visibly restless. "Does anyone want to go fishing?" he asks to whoever is listening. Three of us are game. It's already dusk, but we throw our gear in a truck and Luis takes the wheel. He drives us to his favorite spot, a stream he discovered and fished alone for eight years before taking even his father there. He calls it El Arroyo de los Elfos, or Elf Creek.

The meaning behind the name is apparent when we pull off a road and walk into an old-growth forest with tall, gnarled trees draped in lichen. It feels enchanted. The creek cuts through a small canyon here. It has carved out a series of deep pools, one after the other. Luis guides us to the water, telling us to keep quiet and stay low. "You should be like an Indian," he says, "trying to be hidden."

"There are many, many, big, big fish here," Luis tells us, spreading his arms wide for emphasis. I've noticed this about Luis. When he is excited, he repeats his adjectives.

By now it's getting dark. A cub fox barks from the rocks above us. Small animals scramble in the undergrowth. Luis has told me that there is a type of pygmy deer in Chile that frequents forests like these. They are said to be so shy, they die of fright if they are ever touched.

Luis ties on his killer fly, a big caddis pupa, and rolls a short cast into a deep pool that runs along a rock face. He bobs the nymph up and down as it drifts downstream until we see a flash of gold, and Luis sets the hook. After a quick fight, he pulls a fat brown from the water by its tail. We all take turns now; the pools don't spook in the low light. When it gets too dark to see on our own, we cast and Luis watches, hissing "hook, HOOK!" when we've had a strike. Somehow he can still see, even though it's completely dark.

Finally, when my casting gets clumsy, Luis takes the rod and climbs onto a rock with a deep undercut beneath it. His feet find familiar purchase on the slippery rock face. He grips the rock with one hand, leans forward and flips a cast into the quiet water upstream. There are few things more exhilarating than the pause before a strike. Sure enough, Luis sees a flash and sets the hook. The pool's surface erupts with the somersaults of a heavy fish.

On the drive home, the sky empties of clouds, and for the first time in Chile, we see the stars. The Southern Cross is up there, and all the other constellations of the southern hemisphere, shining like jewels. The moon is rising, too. It's almost full and bright as a headlight, and as it rises, we see something I never knew existed. The moonlight catches the edge of a cloud and forms a rainbow without color, a grayscale arc in the sky. The car goes quiet. We had found our Trapananda.

Jacob Baynham is an international journalist and fly fisherman. He has written for The Flyfish Journal, Newsweek, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

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