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Primal Patagonia A Journey to Kooi Noom

Angler and guide survey the rough and tumble flows of Kooi Noom’s Capitan River. Photo: Ken Morrish PAGE 22

By Ken Morrish


PRIMAL PATAGONIA

W

Four years later, the Torchine twins, Alex and Nico, then 24 years old, struck up ind here is part and parcel of the landscape, as much a partner a random conversation with a young lady at a fueling station somewhere in the with as a byproduct of one of the most dynamic and spectacular middle of nowhere, Patagonia. When she learned that they were professional mountain ranges on the planet. Like many of the remaining great guides in search of new fisheries she mentioned that one of her relatives had places, our destination lay off the beaten path, in a no man’s land, some 400 planted trout on his ranch and that they were growing and multiplying quickly. km north of El Calafate in southern Argentina. Calafate has long been a hub Numbers exchanged hands and in short order the Trochines made their first for mountain people from which they set out to see the Moreno Glacier and the visit and they continued to visit at least once a season every subsequent year to formidable Fitz Roy massif. Fitz Roy’s jagged skyline was in fact so spectacular keep tabs on the system’s improvement. And improve it did, from plenty that it inadvertently became a symbol for the entire region when some of five-pound fish, to plenty of 10-pound fish, and more recently to 40 years ago is was immortalized by the iconic logo of the where they were seeing good numbers of fish pushing the 15 to fledgling Patagonia Clothing Company. 20 pound class. Then and only then were plans made to open The region north of Fitz Roy, however, was seldom Kooi Noom to traveling anglers for the 2013-2014 season. And traveled. For the past 100 years only the heartiest families that was precisely why we had pounded across 400 km of gravel road and gauchos had run sheep and more recently cattle in the hill to arrive at the lodge well after midnight; to be part of something country between the granite towers of the Andean spine and the Morrish truly new and exciting. arid, seemingly endless expanse of the Patagonian Steppe. Since Dir t y Bird As we ascended the steep dirt road in back of the lodge into the 1970s there had been a few masochistic mountaineers and the occasional trekker, but for foreign fly fishers such as ourselves the region the foothills above the steppe, everything seemed to glow with promise. To our left we caught our first glimpse of the Capitan River, a swift white ribbon remained largely unexplored. winding its way through deep cut khaki green hills. High above us three condors The reason fly fishermen were so new to the area was that the rainbow rode thermals to impossible heights and in the background brilliant white peaks trout that we were in search of were themselves newcomers to the region. Well shone through gaps in shifting cloud. On our left we passed a massive glacial north of the Santa Cruz province in the fabled waters surrounding San Martin erratic; a huge polished boulder carried down from the highlands thousands and Bariloche, fly fishing had an illustrious 70-year head start in which time it of years ago on a bed of flowing ice and laid to rest in its solitary, out of place had been fully woven into the fabric of the Chubut and Rio Negro provinces. location when the planet warmed and the ice melted away. Sheep and cattle But here in the rugged province of Santa Cruz, it was different. Only a small and the occasional guanaco dotted the landscape and on a small natural lake handful of fisheries had ever really taken hold in its harsh landscape, the most we saw swans, Magellanic geese and to add to the already surreal landscape, recognized of which was Lago Strobel, also known as Jurassic Lake, which two shrimp-pink flamingos strangely at ease in the buffeting cold wind. emerged in 2008 and quickly took top international honors for both the We parked the truck and descended cross country towards the river which size and number of its trophy trout. In Santa Cruz, it is either boom or bust. lay hidden in the canyon beneath us. Our footprints sunk deep into the soft Introduce fish into a system with scuds and freshwater shrimp and behold a soil; a strange combination of volcanic ash and ancient sea floor carpeted in a miracle. Absent that, don’t expect anything to write home about. splotched earth tone mosaic of stocky wind-sculpted shrubs, flowers and coarse In 2007 a hopeful bucketload of rainbow trout were introduced within the tufted grasses. The groundcovers clung to the landscape like lichen, careful 40,000 acre Estancia El Capitan; initially in the massive Lago Quiroga and subto keep a low, resilient profile. Scattered across the landscape like sacrificial sequently in several smaller lagunas scattered across the rugged sprawling ranch.

“In Santa Cruz, it is either boom or bust. Introduce fish into a system with scuds and freshwater shrimp and behold a miracle. Absent that, don’t expect anything to write home about.” PAGE 23


PRIMAL PATAGONIA remains thrown down from the mountains were the bleached white bones of events progressed it proved to be one of the day’s smallest specimens. As we cattle, guanaco, fox and countless sheep. I scanned our surroundings carefully sight fished our way downstream, I continued to be amazed by what we found: as we hiked, occasionally taking a quick backwards glimpse over the country Huge rainbow trout clinging to the smallest imaginable pockets adjacent the we had covered. The week before our arrival, Louise, the handsome weathered fastest flowing river I had ever fished. When we found larger pockets, spotting owner of the estancia, had killed another cougar near the river. When hung in a good fish was nearly guaranteed and when we found a rare piece of soft water the barn it tipped the scales at just over 100 kilograms. Large enough to make large enough to be deemed a pool, there were typically three or more fish in one’s mind wander. I opted to stay alert and took some comfort in our guide the 3 to 8 pound class holding in plain sight. I couldn’t help thinking about telling us not to worry, as life was easy for the pumas here. He said they could New Zealand and reflecting on just how much I enjoy sight fishing for big fish, basically kill a sheep at will and any given adult could take as many as 100 especially so many of them. In the same breath I was confused as to why animals a year. fish of this caliber were so numerous in such unlikely, hostile water. When we reached the river I was excited, concerned, That evening during the asado the mystery was solved. and confused. In 40 years of fishing I had never seen a Ken and Pete had driven up to the top of the river river like this. Above us was a contiguous boulder-strewn and then hiked down to the shelter at the outlet Lago staircase of white water. It looked like a giant recirculating Quiroga. This beat focused on the broad slow moving San ta Cr u z waterfall feature from a Cabela’s superstore, not a trout stream. section of the outlet. In November and December it had Sc u d In front of us was a seven-foot vertical drop crested with a little island. been packed with more than 200 huge fish, several of which bent the Beneath us the canyon opened up and the river wound its way downstream Boga-Grip past the 20 pound mark. Most of these fish eventually migrated like an angry white snake. I scanned the entire scene, more than a half mile of downstream in search of spawning habitat, making this upper beat one of Kooi water, and only picked out one mini-pool that seemed remotely fishable. The Noom’s best in the early season. But in late January, Ken and Pete had only system was impossibly steep and appeared to drop at least 250 feet per mile. found a few fish in the outlet as well as five very large fish in the best pool 400 Why had we hiked to this point? What was our guide thinking? And why was yards downstream. It was well past rainbow trout’s preferred spawning time so he staring so intently at unfishable water? The next moment he was pointing a majority of the chunky Quiroga fish were back in the lake getting on with something out to Nils on the far side of the river just above the waterfall. Nils their lives. Since the fishing was slow Ken and Pete kept hiking downstream, as made a gutsy crossing onto the little island, stripped out a few feet of line and their guide thought they should see the “falls.” They proved well worth seeing began high sticking a pocket no larger than a skateboard. He suddenly set, there as they were larger than the boys had expected and the lynchpin of the lower was a flash followed by a huge splash and then his line went limp. For those Capitan’s fast water fishery. of you that know me, I am rarely speechless, but right then, for a moment, I After another bite of the most delicious lamb any of us had ever experienced was without words. and a big mouthful of Malbec, Dayton turned to me on the subject of the falls, dropped his chin towards his chest and in a concerned upward glance said, “Let’s just say that the falls are clearly a one-way street. Once a fish backs The Most Remarkable River down them, they will never see that lake again.” It was the ‘aha!’ moment. Like Fifty yards downstream, tucked impossibly close to the bank, Nils landed many of our own race, these fish, in a hormone driven urge to reproduce, had the day’s first fish. It taped out at 23 inches and while we were impressed, as made a terrible decision. If they had been born with eyes in their tails, things

“I continued to be amazed by what we found: Huge rainbow trout clinging to the smallest imaginable pockets adjacent the fastest flowing river I had ever fished.” PAGE 24


Left to right, top to bottom: Surveying the improbably fast flows of the Capitan River; Jim and Nils with a nice double; Nils sight fishing an unlikely pocket; the long road from El Calafate PAGE 25 to Kooi Noom; Jim Mongillo with a handsome rainbow; the estancia. Photos: Ken Morrish


PRIMAL PATAGONIA might have been different, but that was not the case and now, like it or not, the Rio Capitan was their home. This simple fact explained everything; where they held, why they held there, as well as why some fish in some lies were poor fighters and other fish that had superior soft water lies fought so well. I was still somewhat amazed by the overall number fish in the river. If this system was still in its biological infancy and both the number and size of its fish were still ramping up, what might it be like next season and the season following? I would have to find out, that much was for sure. The other thing that was certain was that this was my kind of place: raw, wild and relentless. It was also seemingly surreal, a raging, crystal-clear, pocket water river with huge wild rainbows that virtually none of my peers in the fishing business had ever heard of, let alone fished in total solitude.

More at the Door I blame myself for not having spent more time at Kooi Noom and more importantly for having spent all of my days on the Rio Capitan. I just couldn’t help it. I was hell-bent to see and fish every section of the river as there are few things I enjoy more than sight fishing steep rivers and streams. Had my time been longer there, in addition to fishing all three beats of the Rio Capitan, I could have also fished several of the small trophy lakes that they call lagunas. The most popular one is set up with a lunch shelter and most days all the fishing is done to visible cruising fish. I have had guests take fish on this lake with every conceivable technique with the most outrageous catch rates resulting from stripping dry flies like bombers across the surface. Others elect to lead the cruising rainbow with smaller dries or nymphs and have compared it to Argentine bonefishing. With lots of hot fish in the 2 to 6 pound class and some fish pushing 10 pounds, these lakes are greatly enjoyed by guests and are a fun way to rest the legs between days on the river.

Notes

Parting Thoughts For those that relish true adventure and wilderness solitude and find pleasure and even energy in the crisp bite of mountain air, this is your type of place. Likewise, if you enjoy time spent sight fishing on your feet and the prospect of very large fish in pocket water, there are few if any places that compare to this. Frankly, I feel that a steeper, more spectacular trophy pocket water fishery will never be found. And last but certainly not least, if you like coming in from the cold to be greeted by folks that are truly warm; people that while from a different country and background are for whatever reason similarly attracted to this wild region for the unique and primal experience it provides, well, you are most certainly in for a treat.

Travel: Anglers will fly into Buenos Aires and then on to El Calafate, arriving in the afternoon.

Essential Tackle: 6 to 8-weight rods with weight forward floating lines

Season: November-April. The first half of the season is the most popular.

2015 Rates: Saturday to Saturday – 7 night/6 day: $4,750 Saturday to Wednesday – 4 night/3 day: $2,650 Wednesday to Saturday – 3 night /2 day: $2,050

Capacity: 6 anglers PAGE 26

Then there is Lake Quiroga itself. In spite of having a large boat with twin outboards, this massive body of water is fickle, and when the wind it up, which is most of the time, you had best leave it be. But when the wind dies down, it offers lots of fishing that both guides and anglers continue to explore, as well as several inlets that are stuffed with fish in the early season. The primary inlet offers some ridiculous fishing especially in November and December but on average it can only be reached one day out of ten. The other great system is an narrow, intimate, little spring creek that flows down from the base of the mountains and passed right in front of the lodge before entering into the Rio Capitan. This systems is packed with smaller gorgeous fish that go out of their way to eat the dry fly. Most are thick, heavily spotted specimens that are in the 8 to 12 inch class but throughout the system larger fish, some exceeding five pounds, have been caught. Just recently some browns have been added to the mix and we await their reappearance on the end of a lucky angler’s line. For this system we recommend bringing your lightest line weight rod and recalibrating to enjoy some of the best small stream fishing imaginable.

Top Flies: Santa Cruz scud, glo bug, dolly lama, dirty bird


Top to bottom, left to right: A calm day on a Quiroga inlet stream; Nils victorious after a long downstream chase; awaiting the asado; sight fishing Capitan’s pocket water. Photos: Ken Morrish PAGE 27

Primal Patagonia by Ken Morrish  

A Journey to Kooi Noom

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