Fishing for sea-run brown trout is very similar to fishing for steelhead in many ways. Like steelhead, which are anadromous (sea-run) rainbow trout, the brown trout of Tierra del Fuego actually return to the ocean each season to feed and grow. They return to their natal waters on the Rio Grande River to spawn each year, and offer an incredible opportunity for anglers to catch some of the largest and liveliest brown trout on earth! Sea-run browns on the Rio Grande average 10 – 14 lbs, and experienced fly rodders usually hook about a half dozen per day. Trophy fish in excess of 20 pounds are not uncommon and about one in 50 is a monster pushing 30 pounds or more.
The character of the water on the Rio Grande is for the most part wide and slow moving as it meanders down from its headwaters in Chile. It is perfect habitat for swinging flies with heavy single handed or spey rods to fish laid up in pools waiting to push up stream. Tackle and techniques on the Rio Grande are not very complicated. Anglers choose from a broad range of lines, tips and terminal tackle according to the water conditions. Experienced steelhead and Atlantic Salmon fishermen immediately feel “in their element.” Quartering downstream with streamers or dead drifting nymphs are the most common methods used, and skated dry flies are terrific when the conditions are right.
The Rio Grande is one of the easiest streams to wade in the Americas. The river is seldom more than thigh deep, and can be easily crossed between pools. There’s no moss on a bottom made of nothing but perfect spawning habitat ranging in size from pea gravel to golf ball sized rocks. Leave your studded boots at home because there isn’t a rock big enough on the Rio Grande to trip over.
A TYPICAL FISHING DAY ON THE RIO GRANDE
Fishermen start each morning with a light breakfast of fresh fruit, cereals, yogurt, toast and coffee, as well as a full American breakfast (for those that have the room), followed by a full morning of fishing. Each two anglers share a guide and vehicle. Their beat usually consists of two to four pools, all for themselves. Fishermen typically return to the lodge by 1 o’clock in the afternoon, where a delicious midday meal is served, perfectly complemented by local wines, followed by a well-earned siesta.
Anglers, well-fed and rested, fish the evening session right up to (and sometimes beyond) the brilliant Tierra del Fuego sunsets. They’ll then return to their respective lodges, in time to regale each other with tales of giant fish, then sit down to yet another meal that would put many five-star restaurants to shame. By this time you have been ridden hard and put away wet, only to rise the next morning and start it all over again. With two long fishing periods separated by lavish meals and sleep, its as if each fishing day has magically turned into two. What a wonderful way to be treated . . . EAT, SLEEP, FISH, EAT, SLEEP, FISH, EAT, SLEEP, FISH . . .
Hooking up with a big sea-run brown is an emotional fishing experience that defies accurate description. Most fish grab a streamer or nymph on the swing and your first notion is you’ve hooked a snag. But there are damn few snags in the Rio Grande. It’s about this time when the three-foot long “snag” starts violently shaking its head, and its time to plant your feet and get ready for a fight.
These big brown trout are much like Pacific salmon and steelhead, in that they’re most active in low light conditions. The scientists call them nega-phototropic, and as the sun gets higher, fish retreat to the deepest parts of the pools. Perhaps it’s because they’re used to the deeper sea, or they feel exposed to predators in bright sunlight, but it’s a fact they’re more aggressive and much more likely to strike a fly in the early morning, late evening, or when it’s overcast. In mid-day, when the sun is at its highest, they’re unlikely to respond to even the most perfectly presented fly. One of the reasons so many photos of the Rio Grande mega trout look like deer caught in the headlights is that most are caught early or late in the day.
Most anglers arrive shortly after first light and will see dozens of fish rolling on the surface of the pools in the blush of the dawn. Action is usually red hot for a couple of hours and then begins to taper off. The reverse is true at the end of the day, and it’s maddening to leave the river when the light has disappeared and the fish are still exploding all around. The fishing schedule is designed around the best fishing times. Really, the Argentines have mastered the art of squeezing two fishing days into one.
THE FISHING AND THE WIND
Much is said about the winds of Tierra del Fuego, and it is seldom good. The truth is that the Rio Grande isn’t super wide, casts are seldom seventy feet, and almost never directly into the wind. Competent casters have little difficulty adjusting to the almost constant gusts and even those that struggle agree quickly that the results are worth every effort.
Two-handed rods have become very popular on the Rio Grande and are excellent tools for covering the water, especially when the wind is howling or the river is up and wider than normal. In the last three years we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Rio Grande anglers using two-handed rods. 75 percent of the Rio Grande anglers are fishing the big double-handed guns now. Two-handed rods are arguably the most efficient tool to fish the Rio Grande; they make it easy for a lot of anglers, especially those with shoulder or elbow problems. Single-handed 8-weight rods matched with stout reels and an assortment of interchangeable tips still have their place on the Rio Grande, and in the right conditions fish can be taken on the surface. However, sink-tip lines, streamers, and nymphs account for the vast majority of trophy trout.