by Scott Sadil
The Río Ibañez tumbles out of the spectacular Cerro Castillo mountains and rumbles through a train-wreck of massive boulders blocking the upstream autumn migration of brown trout leaving Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in all of Chile, where the idea of big mountain lakes is, for many first-time visitors, redefined.
Fish pile up below the falls. But today, as is so often the case, the river runs dark, run-off from glaciers and volcanic ash cast by geologic activity still recent in the memories of regional locals.
Still, a single glance at one of these over-sized browns, lifting through the murky surface as though a wandering chinook salmon, is enough to ignore the poor visibility and string up a two-hander and immediately start casting.
Hours later, and a kilometer or more down the river, the edge on my excitement has begun to dull as I wonder, as I often do when fishing for migratory salmonids, if we really have a chance. Cast, swing. Cast, swing. I know they’re out there, but by now conditions in the river have gone from bad to worse, my big black and blue Aqua Buddha disappearing less than a foot below the surface of the broad roiled river.
Plan B arrives in the guise of guide Pancho Vilches, my host and owner of Chile Trout (www.chiletrout.com), his new and exquisitely situated lodge above Lago Frio in the Coyhaique region of Chilean Patagonia. Pancho has towed his Cataraft to the river—and suddenly I spot him rowing down the Río Claro, my friend and tour guide Marc Whittaker riding with him as they slip between the banks of this small tributary and then enter the downstream eddy of the mainstream Ibañez.
Over the pontoon and into the raft I go. Pancho’s new plan is to float the river, motor through the vast sweep of off-color delta water, and fish the blue water surrounding a cluster of rock islands that look as much like small islands in the Sea of Cortez as anything you might think of as trout habitat.
But we’ve seen those big browns rolling beneath the falls upstream. And by the time we reach the rock islands, surrounded by clear blue water, Marc and I can both picture trout of profound proportions, an image no doubt enhanced by Pancho’s own enthusiasm for finding one of these brutish beasts.
We give it our best shots. Luckily for us, the wind remains relatively light throughout the afternoon, an anomaly on a lake which often features gale-like breezes and waves that would rival any during a storm on Lake Superior.
But nothing—until Pancho puts us on a small island and I drop my fly along the edge of the rocks and come up tight to a fish. A decent resident brown, it jumps once, twice—and just like that, the hook unbuttons and the trout is gone.
Is that it? Pancho refuses to quit. The day feels as if it may be ending soon, but Pancho keeps rowing or motoring to another island, trying his hardest to get us into one of the big migratory browns.
And then it happens. There’s a deep crease in the face of a rock cliff plunging into the seemingly bottomless lake. I fling my fly into the slot, find nothing, and then Mark follows with a heavy-headed pattern that plunges through the surface and something—something big—comes out of nowhere and eats.
It’s the real deal. The fish explode out of the lake a half-dozen times, each jump a moment of sharp worry before the trout crashes again through the surface, Marc’s rod still bent into the cork. For once, I refrain from telling him not to screw it up; this is far too serious for jokes.
Then Pancho has it in the net. Fist bumps all around the boat. Photos, smiles, laughter—and away this beautiful broad-shouldered beast goes, to where we can only guess after this very brief encounter with a wild fish from a wild place far from where most visitors ever get a chance to go.
Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil is currently at large in Chile, looking for big brown trout of his own.