It started off with the most inauspicious beginning imaginable and ended up being one of the greatest fishing ‘finds’ in recent times. It was the angling equivalent of finding a Picasso in a car boot sale. This is a place where wild Rainbow Trout grow to gargantuan proportions; a place where Trout were introduced less than a decade ago but are now present in the numbers and size that would make our own put and take fishery managers weep with envy. This is Lago Strobel aka Jurassic Lake in Southern Argentina.
The proverbial car boot sale where information on this lake first came to light was in fact a fairly ramshackle workers’ lodge on the banks of the Rio Santa Cruz in Argentina. I was fishing for Steelhead, the sea running version of Rainbow Trout, on what is almost certainly the most powerful river you have ‘never’ fished. The Santa Cruz is a milky-blue coloured glacial-fed behemoth which runs west to east just north of the first of the two famous Sea Trout Rivers in Argentina, the Rio Gallegos and the Rio Grande.
Fishing the Santa Cruz is an experience in itself however after a productive day with Steelhead up to 18lbs we returned to find a splayed lamb outside our hut, being slow cooked over hot coals ‘asado’ style. This was the veritable slaughter of the fattened calf on honour of close friends of the estancia owner who were visiting and were keen to meet the ‘gringo’ fishermen who were test fishing this hitherto almost totally unfished stretch of the river. (Argentina is over 10 times the size of the UK with a population 50% smaller. Hence areas which are barely visited let alone fished are not uncommon). Over a cerveza or two our guests told us of a lake where the average size of the fish was 10lbs and you could catch 40 in a day…each! Having been privy to and part of more than our fair share of fishing tales in the past, my friend and I nodded knowingly.
Tall tales or not, the information gleaned was certainly intriguing enough to get the gears turning. It was relayed back to Loop HQ at Buitreras Lodge on the Rio Gallegos. A week or so later the first mission was launched to the lake and the results were phenomenal. The team of three returned with statistics of 80 fish between 8 & 20 lbs caught in seven hours. They also had pictures and film to prove it! (Previously I reduced the figure to 6lbs, as I did not think anyone would believe me!)
Two years have passed since that first visit to Jurassic Lake and one since I first visited last year. My initial experience at the lake was overwhelming. The terrain was as rugged and desolate as you are ever likely to encounter. If NASA really did conspire to fake the first moon landing then this would have been the place to stage it. The fishing was out of this world. The size, numbers and condition of the fish were unparalleled. In two days we caught more fish, broke more rods and landed a greater weight of fish than I have ever experienced before or after. My only nagging concern was that the fishing was too good. Ridiculous as it may seem, when one has been brought up in a country where for the most part you have to put in the hours and work long and hard for your rewards, could this experience be potentially ruinous? Would the same feelings of unashamed pleasure and guilt at having caught…and released….so many fish tarnish a second visit? For the sake of piscators worldwide I was willing once more to put carbon-fibre to the test and become an angling guinea pig.
At this stage it is worth tracing the real beginnings of the fishing here. To get to the lake requires a three-hour drive from the closest major centre of habitation. The drive has been described as tortuous by some whilst a photo safari by others. I have alluded to the landscape but what is more astonishing than anything is when at the end of this journey, as one creeps round the rocky outcrops which surround the lake and as the vibrant blue of the water threatens to overwhelm the contrasting red brown surroundings, one sees a tiny isolated settlement - a cabin, complete with vegetable patch, solitary hen, satellite dish and numerous cougar skulls.
The owner of the land that borders much of the lake lives here. Approximately 10 years ago he introduced the Trout into the only main feeder stream that enters the lake. He used a mix of both Steelhead fry from the Santa Cruz River alongside those of Rainbow Trout. Nowadays an act like this is considered environmental terrorism, but to a man who can count the numbers of people he sees in a month on one hand his perspective is understandably a little different. (The lake was previously barren of any fish). The results echoed the pioneering attempts to introduce Brown Trout in the infamous Sea Trout rivers of Argentina. For years it seemed as if his attempts were in vain, and then as if from nowhere the fish returned. Like the Brown Trout originally introduced in Tierra del Fuego, they headed downstream and found, rather than the sea a lake with a food source untapped by neither man nor nature. The pictures of the fish tell the rest of the story.
On this, my second visit, I chose to cut out the final 1 ½ hours of the vehicle journey and walk in following the stream. My start point was a sheltered valley where the track to the lake intersects the feeder stream. Reputedly some years ago all the livestock in the area sought refuge here to escape the ravages of a particularly harsh winter. Battling the environment and predatory cougars, every single one died. The area is littered with bleached brittle white bones; the nickname Jurassic Lake seemed more apt than ever. Natural falls and barriers prevent the passage of the larger fish from moving far up the stream, but although low after the summer it was teeming with fish up to ½lb.
As the stream finally flattens out and opens up into the ‘estuary’ any doubts on the impact that a season of anglers fishing the area might have had were dispelled. Crammed into this tiny stream are fish which dwarf their surroundings, some clearly in the teens of lbs, all jostling for space and the right to spawn. Before I unleash a critique on fishing during spawning time it should be pointed out that spawning takes place almost all year long. The reason seems to be that with a lake ten miles long and several wide, with only one significant stream in which to spawn, the fish have had no option but to break the natural seasonal cycle.
Our team was on the water within a flash of arriving, regardless of the ‘ravages’ of the long journey. As a fisherman, even in the dwindling light, you do not travel this far and then hold fire until the next day without a cast. Within minutes everyone had had their first Jurassic experience. Rods bent, reels singing and grins widening. Most Jurassic fish take the fly very softly. As you initially tighten up they blast off, taking line and porpoising around on the surface a combination of wind power and size kicking up geysers of spray as they do so. Almost all the fish are likely to demolish your previous best wild or reared Rainbow and only the sort of artificially reared slugs; a product of intensive feeding and ultra-violet light, may stand a chance of beating these fish in terms of size.
Primarily we used intermediate lines on 7 wt rods with the most productive flies being woolly bugger or leech patterns. When the wind is not blowing strongly you can scale down and it is possible to fish productively with size 16 nymphs and dries. The most prolific area surrounds the bay at the mouth of the stream where Loop have based their camp. Not only does the stream provide variety in terms of the fishing but it also acts as a magnet for the fish. It is certainly possible to catch fish away from this but the numbers spread out proportionately the further you stray. Like herons, our group, until absolutely sated, found it extremely difficult to draw themselves away from the hot spots!
The lake shoreline consists of bays and rocky bluffs. Wading around the bays it is perfectly possible to sight fish, and even when the water is fairly whipped up by the wind you will see shoals of fish cruising past. An island in front of the main bay provides a very different environment from which to fish from. Standing on the rocks you can see vertically down into the absolutely crystal clear water. The rocks themselves are encrusted with a mineral-style deposit which is as rough as hewn pumice. Not only can you spot fish but when you hook one the battle is played out in the deep water beneath you as clearly as if you were in an aquarium. The fish from the island must have averaged 10lbs or more. One fish had me scrabbling across the boulders having taken the best part of 100 yards of backing, on a drag set to stop Jurassic monsters. After a chase, which took me from one end of the island to the other, we parted company, the nylon cut on the razor sharp rocks. I played that fish for 10 mins with the line scissoring deep into the water at a 30-degree angle and I did not once get my fly line back on the reel. I never even saw it!
The fish at the lake reflect the different strains of fry that were originally used. Some are very snub nosed, typical of Steelhead, whilst being totally silver as if straight from the sea. Others are much more typical of Rainbow Trout with regular spots and colouration. Some have small mouths suitable for hoovering up the enormous population of scuds (small freshwater shrimps which seems to be the primary diet); others have cavernous mouths which must result from cannibalisation. (The biggest fish so far caught was on a trolled Rapala in the middle of the lake that weighed 26lbs; on a fly from the shore it is 24lbs). What you do not see are small fish. One must assume that until they reach a size to compete with their much bigger brethren they stay as far away from the stream and its surroundings as possible.
From a biological perspective one wonders whether the quality of the fishing can be sustained. Since their introduction the fish have flourished with no constraints on food. As the population grows there will surely come a tipping point where size will give way to numbers. It is possible that with so many cavernous mouths waiting at the entrance of the stream the fish will self regulate the numbers. Lets hope so because Jurassic Lake is a destination like no other and an experience second time round which was as remarkable as the first.
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