About the only, almost imperciptible, positive effect of the dreaded Covid is that having escaped the clutches of government travel restrictions, pre-tests, post-tests, variant A-Z and weighed up the chances of imminent mortality vs an indefinite ‘stay at home’ incarceration, is that the proverbial carrot (in this case a long planned trip to Argentina), when tasted is that bit bigger, sweeter and crunchier!
The most recent WhereWiseMenFish hosted trip to Las Buitreras on the Rio Gallegos had been planned for almost two years, having suffered a postponement over the 2021 season due to travel restrictions. Amazing as it seems, almost the biggest administrative hurdle that the Argentinean authorities threw at us this year, was trying to locate United Kingdom on the Argentinean passenger locator form, which went under ‘Reino Unido’. Note to self…do not expect all countries, when filling out such forms, to translate their country list into English!
Prior to departure, I had received what might have been considered a potential alert / heads up warning signal, to the extent that the river was low, although the pools at Las Buitreras were reputed to be full of fish. Low-water reports used to fill me with a reasonable level of foreboding, even more so when the journey does not involve 30 mins in the car but an 8,500 mile one way trip! With the luxury of sufficient time on the water and a more relaxed approach to catch expectations, although not immune to such worries I was not inclined to loose sleep over it.
The Rio Gallegos, compared to its sister Sea Trout river, the Rio Grande, is different in many ways. Despite the Rio Gallegos being a slightly bigger river, in general the pools are shallower and wider, with less of the deep cut-bank pools that characterise the Rio Grande. Fishing deep is definitely not a requisite on the Rio Gallegos and rarely is anything more than an intermediate tip required. That said I have long since stopped attempting to predict water conditions, wherever or whenever I am fishing and whilst not advocating packing the kitchen sink, a range of lines from floating to fast sink as well as flies in all sizes is an essential precaution.
The topography at Las Buitreras, in my mind is some of the most engaging in all of southern Patagonia. All of the six different beats at Las Buitreras have ample character and variation, complete with towering rocky escarpments, ragged cliffs, imposing banks and a wide and relatively lush flood plain filled with innumerate bird species and wildlife. As the day draws to a close all of which can take on a dazzling array of colours, from golden hues to vibrant oranges and visceral reds. The bulk of the pools are no less individual and whilst newcomers may not immediately take on board all of the Spanish names, most are visually different, each requiring a slightly different key to unlock them. The Rio Gallegos has always asked a bit more from its anglers, with degrees of success a result of experience but also the capacity to both listen to your guide and to do your best to implement their instructions.
I first visited Las Buitreras lodge in 2004, and I have clocked up a considerable number of weeks across the seasons over the intervening period. From November to early April, each week has brought with it varied conditions and although many will have a favourite time to go, unlike salmon runs, you genuinely can expect fresh fish over every week of the season. A number of years ago, over a two-week period during the last 2 weeks of March, close to the end of the season, on one week 20% of the fish were fresh, the following week that figure had been almost exactly reversed! I typically pick a week based on when I can get away, not when I think the fishing will be best, as the latter is far from certain.
The Rio Gallegos does not have any natural barriers that prevent fish from running in low-water conditions and it is not uncommon to see pods of fish powering past you over shallow riffles during the middle of the day. However, like all migratory fish, they do like a reason to embark on the upstream journey, so any rise of water, even small, can have a very positive effect. Spring tides following a full or a new moon may also encourage a good push of fish from the estuary, especially when assisted by a tidal surge brought on by stronger than normal winds . All good theoretical lunchtime banter and all part of the complex tapestry when it comes to understanding what may or may not be happening at the end of your line. There is no green, amber or red light regarding when or when not to go during the season! What has become more apparent in recent years, is that whereas in the past, the river tended to have bigger but less common rises during the season, that has shifted, with smaller but more frequent rises being closer to the norm.
Our first couple of days fishing treated us to some very typical Argentinean Sea Trout conditions. The wind was certainly in evidence, but for most pools it was a ‘good’ wind, the sort of wind that allows you to effortlessly cast twice as far as you might otherwise hope to achieve and crucially downwind. The river had had a small bump of water from the previous week and that certainly seemed to stir up the fish, with some pools alive with activity. The catches and indeed numbers of fish lost over the first two days reflected this. There was no doubt that the river was indeed full of fish!
Although the Sea Trout on the Rio Gallegos are the size of salmon, and over our week the average size was an incredibly impressive 10 lbs, that is where the similarities end. Most Sea Trout hit your fly in such an aggressive manner that although you absolutely should strike, simply having a firm hold of your line during the retreive is frequently enough. Salmon anglers do not worry, even the most disciplined of you, used to patiently letting the fish turn before raising the rod, will get such a shock as the fly is wrenched, that an inadvertent flinch strike is almost inevitable. (The harder part is returning to a salmon river and not striking). The violence of the take is one of the most exciting parts of fishing for these super aggressive fish and as you will be fishing near the surface, it is as often as not accompanied by a thunderous boil.
During the middle section of the week the weather underwent a full 180. From wearing multiple layers/every layer, including gloves and woolly hats, with lows of 4C overnight (which felt even colder with wind chill), the sun subsequently came out and the temperature soared. Layering was still required but with sunblock not clothing. During late morning and early afternoon fishing sessions, little more than a T Shirt was required. In such conditions an added level of skill, understanding and fishing finesse will play a bigger part. It would be easy to suggest that fishing for Sea Trout in these conditions is all but impossible, but there are enough pictures in this report, with a few fish caught from glassy smooth crystal clear pools to prove categorically that is not the case! In these conditions, succes was more frequently found in the streamy water pools or towards the end of then day.
Due to more typically strong winds and grey skies, past opportunies to use my ‘eye in the sky’ drone to see what is going on in tyne river has been limnited. Exceptionally clear water, bright skies and a lack of wind provided an exception this week alowing an incredible bird’s eye view into what was going on, not just in terms of spotting fish but watching their individual reactions to our flies. My first and most obvious observation was that there were a very significant number of fish in the river! Pods of 10-20-30-50+ fish could be seen across all the beats, not just sitting in the pools, but powering there way upriver, sometimes in a pod but also in extended lines, something I would associate more closely with a run of Sockeye salmon. Over the days when the fish were less inclined to show themselves with splashes or boils, the skies were blue and the sun bright, this knowledge certainly ensured that ‘giving up’ was not an option.
The second and maybe more interesting observation was quite how they reacted when the main body of the flyline passed over them. They would certainly spook with a heavy cast, but otherwise, and this includes the actual flies as well as the main line, (typically small size 8-10 nymphs - look for the white of the rubber legs in the video) the Sea Trout would quite calmly move away, dropping back or reforming once our offering had passed! Sadly, none took the fly whilst the drone was airborne, so I do not think one can draw any hard and fast lessons from what we saw, other than to say that in these conditions the fish see everything and stealth is of utmost importance when it comes to presentation!!
A final observation was that the Sea Trout were not all sitting under the far weed bank or in the absolute deepest part of the cutbanks, but as often as not, centre stream and making use of variations in the river-bed, holes, rocks etc. Nothing knew here but sage knowledge that is frequently ignored whilst striving to make the worlds longest cast! More ammunition behind the delivery of a good cast rather than a long cast and probably another good reason why ladies tend to do so well, pheromone theories and other such witchcraft aside!! That said, long casts do catch fish at Las Buitreras and in part I think that is down to your fly entering into the fishes vision from the shallow water/weed bed/bank, which the fish then ambushes, possibly a reason the takes are so solid.
There are, I feel, a few fundamental principles to adhere to when fly-fishing for Argentinean Sea Trout, specifically in low water conditions. None will guarantee fish, but it should result in more shots on target and consequently, overtime, a greater return.
With windy conditions, double-handed spey rods are really the only safe option to allow you to effectively cover the water, unless you are very adept at overhead casting a single-handed rod over both shoulders, with the line downwind of you at all times! When the sun is out and the wind drops, a single-handed rod certainly offers more finesse, as well as allowing you to cover the near bank more efectively. If you encounter a fish of any size, you can expect an exceptional fight…and when I say exceptional I mean it! A 15lb+ Sea Trout, in shallow water, on a light single-handed rod, is the Holy Grail of catch options!
Over the week I was fortunate to have had 5 fish from 12-16lbs on my Loop 7wt, 9ft single-handed rod, a rod that has served me for 15 years or more and was bought specifically for just such occasions at Las Buitreras. All were caught in shallow water, on size 10-12 hooks and a light leader, giving no room or margin to muscle a fish to the bank, as might have been the case with a bigger rod using bigger flies and heavier leader. With no deep holes to sulk in, all of these fish took me on a ride similar to what I would expect from a over-sized Bonefish. Long runs, the reel shedding line, deep into the backing, a requirement to have the rod held high above my head, ensuring that the line did not become entangled amidst the weed beds, a protracted downstream march/canter, centre stream, avoiding obstacles, until safety arrived in the form of guide and net or a smooth shingle beach, this has to be the very essence of what makes fishing at Las Buitreras so unforgettable. It is just one of the reasons why 50% of the team of anglers for this week, over the years , had notched up 10 or more trips to the lodge.
Unless you consider yourself a very proficient night fisher, which I am not, for the last hour of fishing, as it gets really dark, even when it is relatively still, I would normally consider reverting to a rod where I can make a spey cast. As the light goes and timing and instinct become your only senses, I have found myself to be unerringly proficient in producing not just a few wind knots but a proper birds nest, quite apart from the added chance of landing a hook somewhere you would rather it not be! Although Argentinean Sea Trout take throughout the day, those final few hours of fishing often offer the best chances. Sitting on the bank untangling or adding a new leader is precious time wasted!
All of the above hints, tips and experiences may suggest Las Buitreras suits an experienced angler. My friend and fishing partner for the week stands testament to this not being the case. Craig, who had relatively speaking very little fly-fishing under his belt and had never lifted a double handed rod or made a spey cast before the trip, almost matched me for Sea Trout landed over the week and proved far less adept at loosing fish than I was. There are few better places to learn, with an army of excellent guides to coach and the incentive that with almost every ‘good’ cast there is the potential to catch a fish that will imprint a memory and a desire to return that few places can equal.
I landed a 20lb Sea Trout on my first visit to Las Buitreras in 2004, on the last evening of that trip. It has taken me 18 years to beat that, again caught on the last evening of the week, with a fish of 21lbs. I can remember the fight from that first fish, 18 years ago, as well as I hope I will remember this one in 18 year’s time. It is a big fish for the Rio Gallegos but far short of the biggest, an enviable record caught by Anna Karin Sjoberg, a whopping 31.5 lbs monster. The Rio Gallegos does not always give up its prizes easily but that is exactly how it should be. I am no trophy hunter but will enjoy a well-earned reward when due and when not, I will happily enjoy the wonderful environment and all that comes with the chance to catch these fantastic Sea Trout in Southern Argentina at Las Buitreras.
An incredible trip, beyond my wildest expectations. This really was a trip of a lifetime, the lodge and guides spectacular and the fishing was amazing, especially considering I had never cast a spey rod before. C Gibson-Jan 2022
Where Wise men fish! Very aptly named, and as always, Justin, a great host, and the guides, spot on as, very knowledgeable, fantastic help and guidance..Great guys !!! They will take you to the fish....Paul Tortolano-Jan 2022
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