Sea trout have been established in southern Patagonia in Argentina for 100 years or so. The practice of netting them in the lower river is now confined to history, thanks to conservation efforts in recent years. It's for this reason perhaps and the passionate vision of people like Swedish fly fishing pioneer and LOOP founder Christer Sjoberg who opened Las Buitreras to the world, that the reputation of the Rio Gallegos as a sea trout fishery has reverberated around the globe. Of course, the locals and a fortunate few international anglers have known about it for years!
The river winds it's way across Patagonian plains that are as starkly beautiful as they are vast and wind swept, around beautiful rock formations, beneath caves previously inhabited by native Indians, through vast estancias like Las Buitreras. You could fit a small country within this estancia, but the inhabitants are of the non-human variety, reminding you just how far away from home you really are - Rheas. , foxes, armadillos, skunks, hares, hundreds of species of birds including birds of prey, flamingos, ibis, ducks, geese, gulls, pipers and plovers.
Farming of the extensive rather than intensive variety where a respectful and obviously mutually beneficial relationship has been struck between the landowners, gauchos who work the land and the guides and fishermen in search of the silver that swims in the river. As such, you'll at times find yourself sharing the riverbank with sheep, horses as well as the wildlife that coexist in this diverse animalean paradise. It appears that Solid Adventures have secured exclusive access rights. That is not to say that you couldn't just by your ticket to Rio Gallegos city and make your own way as the lands are private but river itself is public. You could in theory follow the locals lead and fish it yourself (public access points are placed between estancias) but the practical realities (distances to walk, lack of local knowledge, logistics, risk of run ins with angry gauchos) will prevent this for all but the most adventurous.
Doing it in style at Las Buitreras is a compelling proposition. The original old farmstead accommodation has undergone a thoroughly modern transformation. The result is is seriously comfortable accommodation where you will want for nothing, except at times a faster Internet connection (oh how thoroughly modern and spoilt we've become!).
Its like this river was designed by a fly fisherman, with lush weed lines, grassy edges, pools, riffles and runs, pools, holes, boulders and gravel bars. At the levels we fished it, many pools were concealed under broad water, making the guides intimate knowledge of the substrate invaluable. Despite this, its easy wading and there are few obstructions, other than the wind that can humble the most confident angler and is demanding of improvised casting techniques coupled with a 'whatever it takes' attitude at times. The pools are all named, with larger holding pools a prominent feature, along with cut away banks, trenches and seams where sea run browns on a long journey to mate like to hide or conserve energy.
Sensitive to seasonal climatic changes including rain, wind, snowmelt and air temperatures, the Rio Gallegos seems ever changing. We felt like we fished a different river every day. Rain prior to our arrival had added volume and colour. Unseasonably warm and stable weather throughout our stay set the stage for something special. Waters receded and cleared further each day, except on the final day when rains further upriver, or snow melt perhaps, began reversing this cycle. Other anglers commented on how much the structure of the pools and the fishing changed season by season – pools and flies that worked last week or last year no longer seems to. As luck would have it, along with perfect river conditions, the weather we experienced was warm with mostly light to moderate winds, which by all accounts is rare. Rio Gallegos, along with the rest of Patagonia is infamously known for its gale force winds (which we had experienced first hand at Lago Strobel the week before) but by the time we arrived at Las Buitreras, it had temporarily blown itself out.
Satisfyingly, the sea trout themselves stand (swim?) above all the other natural wonders in this enchanted place. They are big - average size probably 8-10lbs - super chromed beauties with snow-white bellies, fresh from the ocean. Long and sleek yet broad backed, muscle bound and powerful - Rio Gallegos sea trout have a tough yet refined look. Most carry few spots, though some carry battle scars - Seal encounters? Sea birds? Net marks? Line marks sustained during dogged battles with anglers? Some are much bigger. Many sea trout exceed 10lb and in the week we were there, three fish exceeding 20lb were taken (our tri nations trio were responsible for two of these including a 23lb monster). They move in pods and move around - migrating from zone to zone through the course of a week, giving away their presence at times by breaching or 'rolling', making a statement hard to mistake on account of their size.
Like sea trout around the world, the Rio Gallegos variety are unpredictable with a frustrating tendency to switch on and off - tentative in how they attack the fly one minute, then super aggressive the next. Suicidal, then untouchable (some strike the same fly twice with gusto, while others lie 'doggo' while you swing flies right past their noses). They fight hard with powerful, dogged runs and spectacular jumps. They also fight dirty, instinctively seeking out weed and burying themselves deeply underneath it, making them all but impossible to dislodge.
Sea trout share the river with boldly coloured and prettily marked resident brown trout. These fish typically 1-2lbs but same much larger specimens are also taken. Relegated as by-catch by most guides/anglers chasing chrome, these may not be the designated targets but we considered them a welcome distraction nonetheless.
Las Buitreras operation employs passionate fisherman who are also skilled instructors as guides. Most of the local contingent speak reasonable English and have few troubles communicating instructions to their eager sports. Supplementing the local contingent, were guides from Europe (Germany), creating an international mix amongst the guides, complementing the mixed clientele. Most guides have served regular seasons at Las Buitreras spanning several years and know the river intimately. Some have fished it from a young age. To top this off, they are expert casting instructors especially in the use of double handed rods. Some moonlight as rod designers for LOOP and as competition casting champions. On top of this some, several we're accomplished photographers and videographers.
All staff were punctual and courteous, exuding warmth and personality as they executed their jobs. It was their genuine enthusiasm to go above and beyond their jobs that stood out for me. This extends to the entire support crew - guides, lodge manager, housekeeping staff and chefs.
One story my fishing companion told me sums it all up for me. “After teaching me to cast a double hander during the first siesta break, an enthusiastic guide dropped me by the Bridge Pool for some further self practice. He left me with a radio transmitter and clear instructions to call him if I hooked a fish, so he could come and help me land it. Sure enough, within the hour I was into my first fish of the week and my first ever on a double hander. I radioed the guide and within two minutes, his 4wd drive sped into view and next he was in the river, waders barely on and hair a mess, helping to steer the fish out of the weeds and into the net. In this way, my first Rio Gallegos sea-run trout, a superlative 15lb chrome hen was landed and my confidence with the double hander was sky high for the rest of the week. I am forever thankful to Stephan for this”. All the guides shared a similar ethos to do whatever it takes
One downside of the friendly service in Argentina is that it can be frustratingly slow. Our record wait was 45 minutes for a cup of coffee in Rio Gallegos city. The lodge seems acutely aware that it is serving an international clientele not accustomed to waiting and paying a considerable sum of money to be there. Staff pre-empted our needs at every stage both on the river and off it. This included hot coffee and sandwiches on the river and drinks and meals served on arrival back at the lodge after each and every fishing session. This is a wonderful part of the overall experience that I am not previously accustomed, but could become so quite easily.
As an angler, the Rio Gallegos can humble you, exposing bad habits and demanding improvement from you. New techniques need to be learnt and mastered fast. We certainly learned a lot. Anglers in our group fished both single and double handed rods. Although to use singles effectively you need to have your distance-casting arm well sorted. Some struggled on the first morning to get the required distance to hit the right seams, using 7 weight single-handed rods. Other anglers had less trouble.
Within our tri-nations trio, none of us had used double handers but this wasn't to prove a barrier thankfully. The guide staff and lodge manager had us casting well enough to catch fish after one practice session on the lawn during the siesta break on the first day. We all took fish on the double hander later that day and never went back to a single hander. They are so effortless to use to achieve the required distance and by the end of the week we had a variety of casts to employ in different situations - e.g. overhead, roll casts, underhand and double spey, over right and left shoulder. In addition to long casts, accuracy is important to land flies into the right holding spots, following the guide’s intimate knowledge which is quite extraordinary. Then mending, twitching and stripping techniques come into play. For us, presentation became more important throughout the week as the river lowered and cleared.
In the fly department, the guides follow similar script for good reason - it works. Generally this consists of small flies in the morning (size 8-12 nymphs such as Copper Johns, Vitamin C's and Bitch Creeks), with some preferring to trade up to bulkier flies (woolly buggers, yuk bugs, girdle bugs in sizes 4-8) in the late afternoon. All opted for long, slim profiled black flies (size 2-6) heading into dark. My personal preference was to fish smaller black leech flies at night (size 6) and this was rewarded well in calm conditions. Yellow woolly buggers (yellow yummies) worked well in the first few days when the river was coloured. Basically, think rubber legs. Nearly every fly used has them and there were many familiar patterns in the box, such as the ubiquitous olive green woolly bugger, that had rubber legs tied in.
There is scope to experiment but this needs to be a balancing act between you and the guide. Changing your fly can be rewarded with hookups in water already fished so it's definitely worth trying different things if the guide's suggestion isn't working.
6-8 fish landed per angler per week seems a good result for this river. Owing to the favourable conditions, we got lucky and doubled this tally. But over 6 days fishing, that's only about 1-2 fish per day, which gives you some idea of the challenge involved. The most fish taken by an angler in a single session was 5 fish, 3 were taken several times, and there were even some double hookups.
All sections of the river could fire at once, while more typically some would work for certain periods and then be dead during others. The final hour of daylight, reached during January at about 10 pm at night, is the witching hour when the fish are moving and taking - this is a much-anticipated climactic period but you can't rely on it happening for you every night as we discovered.
I don't want to overplay the skill involved in fishing Rio Gallegos because my limited experience tells me equal measures of skill, luck and dogged persistence come into play on this river - it tests you physically, mentally, technically and emotionally. Expect to see, hook, lose and watch others catch more fish than you during a particular session. It's all part of it.
With around 8 anglers fishing the river in any given week, the fishing schedule needs to be well organised and structured, and it is. Las Buitreras's 40km stretch of river is broken into zones. We fished zones 1-4 during our stay. There is also a zone 0 and zone 5. Each angler is paired up with another and allocated a guide and a zone for the session. The anglers rotate through each zone after each session but the guides stick to their allocated zone for the entire week, getting to know it intimately.
This way, all anglers get to fish all zones both morning and evening. The morning session is 8.30 am to 1 pm and then evening session is 5.30- 11.00 pm, with afternoons given to taking siestas. Based on this schedule, you end up on the river for about 9-10 hours a day depending on travel times which varies by zone from 5 Min's to 30 Min's each way. This may stretch to 11 hours depending on the fishing. You are delivered right to the edge of the pool by 4WD and advised of how to fish the hot spots. You tend to move from pool to pool fairly quickly.
This arrangement may not appeal to everyone. If your group consists of an odd number of anglers, one of you may be paired up with someone else, with whom you may not fish well together. Some zones are further away than others, have greater travel times between pools, require different abilities to fish and may fire at different times. You don't get a say in which zones you fish when unless you can trade with somebody.
During the siesta break, you can fish at the Bridge Pool only, which is productive holding water. You cannot roam the rest of the river by yourself as you may end up 'poaching' in other people's zones. The whole concept of siesta was foreign to us and we were there to fish. So we fished, and caught sea trout, in the Bridge Pool. However, given the length of the days and the fact that you need your wits about you for 'happy hour', the last hour of the day, most ended up yielding to siestas and even came to look forward to them. Other activities that can occupy you during this time include casting practice on the lawn, horse riding, or continuous drinking as some of us chose at various stages.
Be prepared to pay about $6,500 for a week at Las Buitreras.
The meals are all chef prepared and first-rate (the beef is outstanding) and the drinks are free flowing all week. Local Argentinian Malbec red wine is particularly easy on the palette. For the experience we had, we all felt it was excellent value and it was incredible to experience fishing in comfort like this, at least once.
I can understand why many choose to repeat and I hope I will have the means to return there someday. Costs are pretty much all inclusive but one additional thing to factor in is the tipping custom, which seems pretty universal in destination fly-fishing. In a week, you are advised to tip in the vicinity of US $350-$400 to cover all the guiding and support staff. They work damn hard to make your stay a great one and earn very little, so these tips go a long way no doubt and should be factored in.
I will be hosting trips here in the future.
Las Buitreras lodge on the Rio Gallegos has been a firm and ongoing favourite since my first trip in 2004. The river is charismatic and varied, as are the surrounding, unusually so for this part of southern Argentina., The Sea Trout fishing is legendary!
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