Where the Rivers Flow Backwards

An education in Patagonian geology and far-south trout.

[by Miles Nolte]

THE GRAVEL BAR GLOWS YELLOW. Its medium-sized cobbles look like thousands of petrified honeydews extending to midriver, a blue trough of deep water lining the far edge. Grinning broadly, Argentine guide Gustavo Segovia drops me off at the upstream end of the bar with instructions to walk slowly and look for big brown trout. This river, the Rio Rivadavia, is only four miles long and flows between two vertically walled basin lakes—Lago Rivadavia and Lago Verde—in the middle of Los Alerces National Park. The deeper water is actually turquoise, and immense peaks veined with residual snow stud the horizon. If not for the 30-mile-perhour downstream wind and the tendrils of didymo waving in the shallows, I’d have to call BS on this whole scene. It’s a movie set, a glossy ad page, some sort of computer-generated projection from that James Hilton novel. And yet here I am, slipping slightly on rock snot as I exit the boat.

The evenly paced water 10 to 20 feet from shore looks optimal for fish. But all I can see are sunpainted rocks with just enough watery distortion to keep me guessing: Was that a fin?

I nearly step on the first brown trout. Two more paces and I could literally toe the fish’s jutting lower jaw. Why would a 20-inch brown trout lie in water barely deep enough to cover its back under a bluesky sun? Is that fish sick? I freeze midstep, try to reverse course in awkward slow motion, and the fish bolts with perfect vigor.

Farther downstream, its doppelgänger also lies motionless. I’ve started scouting closer to shore and spot this trout at 30 yards. I exit the river, creep through underbrush, and slip below the fish into ideal position—behind it and in shadow, an easy cast away. I strip off line, remembering to breathe, to savor the moment before I’ve either spooked or caught this fish. My first cast is accurate and soft. The hopper drifts inches above the big trout’s snout. As do the next 20.

That I came up empty is not a shock, but the habits of these fish are shocking. I’ve never seen trout behave this way.

The brown is a still life. Neither a terrestrial nor mayfly nor stonefly nor nymph pattern can break its reverie. I’m slapping casts on its head to draw any reaction. It is so motionless and unresponsive that I start to question whether it’s a stick formed in the perfect image of a trout, like the face of the Virgin Mary browned onto toast. But no, I can see the fleshy bump of an adipose fin, and can make out the white leading edges of the pectorals.

My eventual realization that this fish is asleep— or at least as close to sleep as salmonids can achieve– is not surprising. Large browns, not unlike myself midwinter, often enjoy extended periods of inactivity. What does surprise me is that these fish seem to be resting in the most vulnerable place possible: shallow, clear, unobstructed water, in full sun. That doesn’t happen in the northern regions I fish, where predators circle the sky.

Walking that gravel bar all the way to its tailout, I find a total of five trout, all browns 20 inches or better, and only one of them eats a fly, a Prince Nymph drifted into its face. The hook pulls free almost immediately.

My walk back to the boat is significantly shorter than the stalk downriver. That I came up empty is not a shock, but the habits of these fish are shocking. I’ve never seen trout behave this way.

I HAVE OFTEN READ OR HEARD PATAGONIA DESCRIBED AS “Montana 100 years ago.” Such analogies are insulting. They diminish the distinctive character of both places and rely on the audience to imagine a history they never knew. Granted, I missed out on Montana 100 years ago by more than six decades, but I’m pretty sure it lacked gauchos and mountains dropping almost directly to the sea.

I assume Patagonia’s dramatic cubist peaks are the feature that elicit such lazy comparison. Of course, it might also be the sparsity of the landscape, the hordes of stringy cattle grazing on foothill grasses, or the nonnative rainbow and brown trout that dominate the rivers.