he more I have fished for Argentine sea run browns, the more interested I have become in fishing for them in the early season. Some wonder why but for me the intrigue is hot, aerial, chrome-bright fish that haven’t seen any flies to speak of. It is also based around having the ability to fish larger flies and when conditions are right, my very favorite method: swinging skaters. Recently I acted on my early season impulse and spent three days in early January fishing with one of my favorite Argentines, Danny Lajous, and his crew at Estancia Despedida. “… FOR ME THE INTRIGUE IS HOT, AERIAL, CHROME-BRIGHT FISH THAT HAVEN’T SEEN ANY FLIES TO SPEAK OF.” Photos by: Ken Morrish
Sandwiched between the Rio Grande’s two prime tributaries (the Onas and the Menendez) Despedida’s section of the river is known to the locals as Corazon del Rio or the Heart of the River. Unlike chasing early steelhead or Atlantic salmon, I was 100% confident that the fish would be there. I knew that lots of fish entered the Rio Grande in November and December and that opening the lodge to visiting anglers in early January was ultraconservative by anadromous angling standards. I also knew that if the fish were anywhere, they would be between the Menendez and the Onas in the heart of the Rio Grande’s most productive water.
As Danny says, it’s almost unfair in this section because of the two “bocas” or confluence pools where countless fish stage before heading into their natal tributaries. I fully expected to be in to fish and would have been happy with a handful of bright specimens but what I didn’t expect was to experience some of the best sessions of sea trout fishing that I had ever had! “I KNEW THAT LOTS OF FISH ENTERED THE RIO GRANDE IN NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER AND THAT OPENING THE LODGE TO VISITING ANGLERS IN EARLY JANUARY WAS ULTRA-CONSERVATIVE BY ANADROMOUS ANGLING STANDARDS.”
My first evening on the river found the water fairly high (the highest I had seen), slightly off color from rain, and dropping. All of that worked for me. We were fishing an interesting seam that forms in back of Guanaco Island and leads into a long broad pool. I was borrowing tackle as both of my rods had been broken in transit. Guide Tommy Lajousâ€™s 14ft 3-inch 9wt was a lot more rod than I would have typically fished but in short order I saw the merit of the big rod. Matched with a Scandi head and Varivas mono running line, I was able to reach water that would typically be out of my range and on this particular evening it made a big difference.
In short order I went three for three swinging one of my favorite steelhead flies, a gaudy three inch long black and blue Cold Medicine. It was a fly I would never consider using in daylight in February or March, but on January 9 th at 6PM it was money. The fish took it without hesitation, turning hard with it and pinning the # 2 trailing hook right in the scissors. Proving that the big flashy stuffed worked fine and that the bite was on, I went to my end game and switched to my favorite dry fly, the Pom Skater and things revved up another notch. About three minutes after putting on the skater I popped a long cast over the main current and into some soft water. As it began to belly-out I gave the fly a few brisk “chugs” with the rod tip and a large fish exploded on the fly. After three cartwheeling jumps and some wild slack-inducing “double-back” moves a sixteen pound hen fish lay at my feet. She was chrome bright and her cheeks were still blue from the ocean.
As the wind continued to die down and the light began to fade the action picked up even more. Three additional fish were landed on the Pom Skater and at least four others boiled up on it. The memory that will stick out most was having guide Tommy Lajous at my side while I threw my longest possible cast. We were both squinting and craning our necks to try and pick up on the fly’s location. I chugged it a few times but still no sight of it. Was it even skating? I turned to Tommy and asked him if he could see the fly. It was essentially dark. He shook his head and said “no”. Just then, way out where we assumed the fly to be swinging, there was huge unmistakable boil and he turned to me and said “but I can see that!”
The next few days, as is often the case in Tierra del Fuego, were a mixed bag. There were heaps of bright fish around and we fished for them hard. Often they were dour and we could not entice them and then for whatever reason they would turn on. If we were covering the water well when they turned on, we were into them. It was that simple. One day we fished hard all day long. The wind was fierce and the cattle, guanacos, and even the foxes were all sullen and inactive with their heads down. We hardly had a grab all day. Then, as the light began to fade, two young calves began to frolic and the guanacos began to move about the open landscape, and exactly then my line drew tight. The air pressure had suddenly changed. I hooked hot hearty fish on two of the next four casts.
Had I gotten better or suddenly found where the fish were lying? Not a chance. The fish were simply turned on and I was there to enjoy the moment. That is the way it goes down there and is, in part, the mystery and beauty of fishing sea trout in Tierra del Fuego! Another evening I had a completely new experience of hitting a pod of moving fish. We were fishing a gorgeous piece of water at upper Seagull Island. As is customary, we were casting our longest line hoping to land in the deepest part of the run near the steep edge of the far bank. As our flies swung through the meat of the hole where we expected the fish to be lying, no takers, but as the flies swung to the soft inside, sometimes only a rod length out, we were into them. We took five fish this way in the course of 30 minutes before they had passed and then it was over.
What did I learn on this trip to TDF? Well a number of things. First off is that the early season is all that I hoped it would be and January is, in my opinion, the best dry fly month of the year. Maybe that was due to specific conditions or maybe it was more like a behavioral trend familiar to steelhead anglers who prefer the active fish on the front end of the season. I think the latter. Next, I became a mono running line convert for the Rio Grande. Only having one or two big loops of shooting line that easily pop out of the water is a huge advantage in the wind. Third, I listened to Danny Lajous and learned a little about watching the animals on the banks. If they are all head down and not moving, more often than not the fish are doing the same.
Does that mean I will stop fishing when the animals are inactive? No, but it means that whenever they are active I will be fishing my hardest. Last but certainly not least, I learned that I love the “heart of the river” and the bright feisty rewards that the early season has to offer. “I HOOKED HOT HEARTY FISH ON TWO OF THE NEXT FOUR CASTS…THE FISH WERE SIMPLY TURNED ON AND I WAS THERE TO ENJOY THE MOMENT.”
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