Double the Run

Atlantic Steelhead and Sea Trout in Argentina

by Justin Maxwell Stuart - April 2014

Destination: Argentina

Holiday: Santa Cruz Steelhead

Organising fishing holidays may seem a little sedate compared to the experiences I had gained in almost a decade’s service in Her Majesty’s armed forces of the British army. That said, two or three weeks spent in Argentina every year was just about enough to satisfy at least some of my sense of adventure and the sort of excitement that kept me serving in the military for about four years more than I had anticipated. Chasing the huge and famed Argentinean Sea Trout on the Rio Gallegos was what first inspired me to make the journey to this remote part of the Southern hemisphere. It was a trip that I will certainly never forget and one that inspired a great many more!

Argentina was something of a new chapter in my life. It also opened up a myriad of fishing opportunities ranging from the ultra prolific dove shooting in Cordoba, the out of this world experience at Jurassic Lake, Steelhead on the mighty Santa Cruz and bare-teethed tropical action with Golden Dorado in Corrientes. For a while it even inspired me to try and learn Spanish as well as hit a polo ball around despite having no real experience or aptitude for horse riding and a remarkable talent for forgetting any Spanish I had learnt within days of departure!

The allure of the Rio Gallegos and beautiful surroundings at Las Buitreras – Saying goodbye to a Sea Trout at Upper Kitchen in Zone 1at Las Buitreras

The list of things to tick off certainly does not stop there. From my angle and from a purely fishing perspective there is still the King Salmon to conquer and the fabulous native trout fishing in Patagonia. Argentina is a huge country spanning 3,650 kms from North to South (Britain is a paltry 1450kms) and it has huge diversity in geography and climate as well as culture, sights and activities. Certainly enough to ensure there are still any number of gems to keep you coming back for more.

It is also fair to say that it is a long journey to Argentina, whether it be from America or from Europe. From a kms travelled to time spent ‘on activity’ ratio I have always felt you need a couple of weeks to do the journey justice, as opposed to the more regimented in and out with a weeks fishing itinerary. Sea Trout/Rainbows, Doves/Dorado, Rio Grande/Jurassic Lake, fishing/touring… and there lies the crux of the problem. Family and work commitments do not always allow for extended periods away and so after 5 consecutive years I took an enforced break of four years from my ‘Argentine portfolio’.

And then along came the Tres Amigos and their revamped Santa Cruz Steelhead package, alongside a request to come on a trip with me by Alain, a long-standing sufferer of my WWMF newsletters. Result; one bona fide excuse to look at Los Plateados, the new Steelhead lodge on the Santa Cruz as well as revisit an old friend, Las Buitreras lodge on the Rio Gallegos.

If asked I will always try to get the most up to date information on the fishing conditions at a specific lodge or location prior to a trip. Not always easy as guide and lodge managers faced with limited office time usually have more important issues to deal with rather than perpetual, ‘how is the fishing’ questions. When it comes to my own trips I am marginally superstitious about digging too deeply into what has happened on previous weeks. The rationale is quite simple. Poor reports and the excitement and anticipation can be marred. Overly good reports and you can build up a hype that may lead to disappointment. From personal experience when hosting a trip there is nothing more likely to encourage a Jonah like curse than to sit at the airport bursting with enthusiasm over the fact that the conditions are going to be perfect. With the vagaries of any fishing and with the unknown elements of weather and individual skill I have always found it best to try and contain expectations where possible.

Several thousand air miles later it was a pleasure to be back amongst familiar faces at Las Buitreras on the Rio Gallegos. Even more so to learn that after water conditions that had been the lowest for about twenty years across all of southern Argentina we had arrived following a significant rise with the river now at close to an optimum water height. Jackpot! On Day 1 I landed five Sea Trout, most bright silver, some with the absolutely magical blue hue that they have when they have just entered the river. Although none of these were above the 7lb mark that did stop the team of French anglers bagging fish of 21lbs, 20 and 18lbs over the next 3 or 4 fishing sessions. On Day 2 my fishing partner Alain took his place on the hot seat with 3 Sea Trout whilst I managed a colossal 8lb native Brownie. On the evening of the 2nd day the light wind was almost tropical and certainly enough to strip down to a single layer. I was eyeing up the best week of the season with what seemed like an obtainable target of 120 fish.

A huge resident Brown Trout - View of the Rio Gallegos from the cliff top looking to Little Corner that was not so little after an extra 80 cm of water

And that of course is when things started to go wrong. The following day a tempestuous wind of 80-90kmh blew up around midday and although most pools were castable by the early evening the wind stirred up the water bringing quite a lot of colour to the river. Sea Trout are quite fickle (true of most migratory fish) and do not seem to take nearly as well with sediment in the water. The river maintained its colour on the 4th day however unbeknown to us some serious rain had fallen in the Southern part of the Andes, the source of the Rio Gallegos. Approximately 36 hrs after the rain hit the mountains the river rose dramatically with a dry summer seasons riverbank debris joining the chocolate coloured water. In terms of catching ability that was pretty much the nail in the coffin despite valiant attempts with large intruders, double tubes and flies more suited to Steelhead than the size 10,12 nymphs that had predominantly been used from Jan-to mid March when we arrived. Despite the total for the week being some way off my lofty aspirations on Day 1 enough large fish of 18lbs or over had been caught to ensure a good proportion of the team went away with a story or two to tell.

Diego, long-standing guide, raconteur of the best sort of fishing stories (hysterical combinations of real events alongside some narrative ‘improvements’) and Buitreras lodge manager pretty much summed it up. "For 6-8 weeks for 6 days a week I have had 10 clients asking me every day when we will get more water. That’s approximately 200-400 times. And now everyone is asking me when the water is going to drop. This is one crazy season!!"

Of course for the less fortunate that was the end of the story, however Alain and myself were only half way in. With considerable enthusiasm we were now heading to the Santa Cruz to chase the only run of Steelhead along the entire Atlantic coastline. Most Steelhead aficionados will be used to fishing big rivers and the Santa Cruz is as daunting as it is visually impressive. It is chalk and cheese to the Rio Gallegos. The huge volume of water is almost 100% glacial melt-water and is a striking vibrant milky blue that cuts an unmistakable path through the arid landscape. Viewed from Google earth it takes on an entirely surreal and almost unnatural appearance.

We were to be the first anglers of the season. In contrast to most rivers the hotter the weather the higher the water level. As the melt-water runoff from the glacier increases with warmer weather so does the sediment making the river more cloudy. For this reason as Patagonia starts its descent into the colder autumn /winter the fishing in April the Steelhead fishing on the Santa Cruz tens to improve as the water levels drops and the river becomes clearer. As Murphy’s Law would have it as the rain fell in the mountains at the source of the Rio Gallegos the sun was beating hard on the glacier at Calafate.

Diego preparing lunch on arrival – Los Plateados fishing lodge and the Santa Cruz at Sunset

This was my 3rd trip to the Santa Cruz. On the previous two I had stayed at both Puedra Buena near the mouth and San Ramon further upstream from Los Plateados which sits roughly in the middle. We arrived from Las Buitreras around midday and were greeted by 2/3 of the Tres Amigos. Claudio and Pollo were part of the original and long-standing Buitreras guide team who was joined by Leandro, proprietor of Los Plateados which was our lodge and base for the trip. To compliment the team was chef Diego, also a former team member at Las Buitreras. Diego is a very considerable talent in the kitchen, more suited to running upmarket hotel kitchens vs our tiny team so culinary excellence marked this trip out from any previous Santa Cruz trips and indeed most fishing lodges!

After a hearty Asado feast, basking in glorious sun on the bank of the river we hit the Santa Cruz for our first afternoon session and what a start. Within the first hour we had lost two Steelhead and landed three, one of which was in the region of 18+lbs. By the end of the session a 4th had been landed alongside a number of takes. What a reintroduction to the Santa Cruz even if we had some leaner, more regular Steelhead days to follow.

Warm conditions meant that the water rose slightly on the second day although this has no real bearing on whether the fish run the river or not. It does however add more glacial sediment to the mix, reducing the already limited visibility and for that reason we were using larger flies than normal. It also meant that our best chances were to present the flies as close to the fish as possible and that meant getting down deep. Alain, a veteran of many British Columbia Steelhead trips, embraced this approach to its fullest and was consistently successful getting to where the fish were, even if his fly loss rate was quite prolific. That said the cost of 35 lost flies or so over a week really has no bearing on the proportional cost of the trip although being suitably equipped is important. Strong nylon and backing with having checked connected connector loops with a good supply of straightforward Steelhead flies should be considered par for the course if you want to maximise your success.

The ‘White Elephants’ – a Mesmerizing backdrop to one of the ‘go to’ pools on the Santa Cruz

Despite the daunting size of the Santa Cruz the fishable areas, with a little prompting, are for the most part relatively straightforward to identify. The Steelhead will hold wherever there is good slack water and during our week there were four major pools that produced the bulk of the action, all of which had significant visual variety with a number of good taking spots. As the season progresses and more Steelhead enter the system the fish will distribute themselves more widely, opening up plenty of additional holding water in numerous buckets and seams behind natural rocky groins.

Guanaco Bay was our ‘go to’ spot which on only one occasion failed to yield a fish or two. However of all the pools on the river it was the aptly named White Elephants that stood out as the most inspiring visual backdrop in which to fish. Getting around the river is a combination of boat and or trucks. The boat has more oomph as a means of transportation however the bulk of the pools can also be reached by 4x4 truck. Although cold days and strong winds were notably absent over our trip the cosy confines of a vehicle may be a godsend on more inclement days.

Alain with ‘Captain’ Pollo at the helm of the rib – 4x4’s provide options for every situation

Regardless of means of transport, what was never skimped on were the famous Santa Cruz bankside lunches. These are not snacks, hastily assembled at breakfast more akin to my BC and Alaskan experiences, but a full riverbank cooked lunch on a shore fire with fresh from the fridge ingredients. Each day I awarded luncheon scores from taste to presentation and location and everything in between. Although we never got to a round 10/10 (iced G&T’s and other superfluous nonsense) by the end of the week I was hard pushed to find reason not to award a 9.5!!

Catch expectations. On my third trip to the Santa Cruz I can now say that 1-2 Steelhead a day would be about right with 2-5 takes/day. Had our lost fish been tallied up as a result of user error our tally would have been higher. Next time I will be taking stronger nylon. The rocks and the wind tend to cause those funny knots in the line leading to breakages, the sort that I usually get when I had my rod to the guide…or so I like to say to myself!!!! Consequently we lost more than our fair share of fish that departed with a fly in the mouth!

Although the size of the Santa Cruz may be intimidating beautiful skies and amazing morning and evening light made the fishing mesmerizing

Fishing to one side the skies in this part of Argentina are absolutely inspiring. In low light the arid backdrop to the Santa Cruz may not appear barren but with exquisite cloud formations and warm or fiery morning and evening light it is a transformed experience. Add some sun and the river glows a vibrant blue like no other river you may have seen.

For the first clients of the season and indeed the start of a new programme I have nothing but praise for the attention to detail shown in every aspect of the organisation. The accommodation is fairly rudimentary but suitably cosy with unexpected attention to detail from fires being lit at breakfast to three course meals in the evening. The lodge location in the middle of the river has good holding water above and below it within comfortable distance. Waking up to look out on to the river basked in a fiery red sunrise or sunset is spectacular and the small intimate nature of the lodge, catering for teams of up to four anglers gives it a wonderful feel.

For our week between the two of us we landed 15 good fish of which extraordinarily 4 were Sea Trout. Alongside that we caught a good number of Rainbows and although some days were harder than others no more or less so than for any other migratory fish river. The Santa Cruz may not suit every taste but as a contrast or as an addition to a split Sea Trout / Steelhead combo, for my money it makes the trip to Argentina all the harder to resist in the future.

The vibrant blues of the Santa Cruz on a sunny day

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