A Once in a Lifetime Journey to Jurassic Lake
By Chris Dawson
Very seldom do angling opportunities arise that sound so good they simply cannot be true. My father still speaks of the giant brown trout that haunted the edges of Lake Pedder (he only ever read the book by Ned Terry), in Tasmania during the mid ‘70’s to early ‘80’s. Stories of 20+ pounds of mudeye eating leviathans in plain site of the shore-based angler set my ‘big trout dreams’ up for life. In fact, these dreams lead to my obsession of chasing big trout that have, at times, seen me fishing through the night in an effort to fulfill the dream of flyfishing to, and catching, even one such monster. Dad’s ongoing regret of never having fished Pedder in its heyday was the only encouragement I needed to plan a November 2015 trip to Jurassic Lake (Lago Strobel) in the Patagonian Region of Argentina.
I am fortunate enough to have great friends who are not only like-minded in regard to flyfishing for trout, but also share the same passion of catching a true giant. A quick phone call in mid-January of 2015 saw the initial stages of the journey put into place and Pat Kennedy and myself booked. In the weeks after, flights were organised and the ten-month wait to get there began. Dreamy anticipation ensured those would be the longest ten months of my life!
On arrival at the destination, one cannot help but be impressed by the superb facilities made available to the visiting angler. On that first afternoon, with only two hours of available fishing time, every angler caught big rainbows and most caught fish over ten old fashioned pounds! To say I was excited would be the greatest understatement in the history of humanity. My guide for the afternoon was less impressed. In fact, he was a bit ho-hum about that initial session. He explained to me that after spending a season there, he now finds it difficult to get excited about any trout that are under the twenty-pound mark! Pat and my initial goal of catching at least one fish of 15plus pounds each had now been completely thrown out the window by this little black duck and I was now on a quest to impress! I wanted a twenty pounder. I needed a twenty pounder. I wanted to throw away my father’s regret of never having fished Lake Pedder. For me, at least, it just had to happen. The following morning, it did! And when it did, I cried.
An early rise of 5:30am saw Pat and myself throwing large streamers along the wind-blown shoreline that is the rivermouth area. We caught a good number of trout during that early morning session, some over thirteen pounds but no true giants. After a quick warmup and breakfast, we walked back down for another crack at them. Sergio, the very unimpressed guide, suggested we fish very slowly for these fish as their primary food source is scud, which are very slow moving. This made complete sense.
The slight modification to our fly retrieval technique saw better results again. And then, at 11:15am on Sunday, 15 November, a true giant grabbed my fly and headed towards the middle of the huge lake. The 17lb fluorocarbon and #8 Sage rod did everything it could to slow up the giant. This nervous, anxious angler could only stand and marvel at the fish as it paraded through the water with multiple, head-high leaps and surges, several strong runs to the backing and two heart-stopping swipes of the over-sized snapper net until we all finally saw the biggest trout I had ever encountered safely in the net for weighing and a few happy snaps. That trout weighed in at over twenty pounds. My mission had been accomplished but it didn’t end there. Now I wanted more. I wanted a chrome fish. This one was indeed a true giant, a leviathan, a beast by anyone’s standards. But it was slightly coloured up and full of ripe eggs and ready to head up the river to spawn. Sergio and I both agreed that some people are pretty hard to impress. In this case, however, he did manage a smile. In fact, it was more than a smile. There were tears, laughter and hugs all round.
I did manage that chrome giant I so eagerly wanted and needed. It weighed in at just over twenty-two pounds. It was taken mid-morning on a large wet fly tied on a very strong salmon hook fished slowly a short distance from the river mouth. After photographing, some more cheers, hugs, tears and release, Sergio noticed that the hook had been slightly bent during the fight. We agreed straightening the hook with pliers would improve further fish-catching opportunities with that fly. On the very next cast, another true giant leapt high into the air at the end of my line. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the line went slack and, upon inspecting the fly ten minutes later after several missed takes, I realised that the second giant fish had actually snapped the fly hook. Most likely due to it being somewhat weakened by the bending and straightening scenario. This is no mean feat and required incredible power on part of the fish. Perhaps that was my 30-pound plus fish? Its leaps and runs have been etched into memory and I will no doubt dream about what could have been.
After several more days of fishing, Pat and I were looking for new challenges. We had caught fish, a lot of fish, many more than we could have expected or even hoped for. We caught an awful lot of fish in excess of ten pounds, hundreds perhaps. At times, however, the variety of fishing did become almost monotonous. We actually began to expect fish on ever cast in some locations. In fact, if ten minutes went by without one of us catching or at least hooking a fish, we knew something was wrong and would change flies or locations. So with this in mind, we chose to fish dry flies only on the last day.
For a bit of fun, we headed up the river, a location we had largely ignored since much earlier in the trip when we experienced ‘a fish a cast’ for six hours. This time, however, we fished a variety of dries to challenge our angling skills a little more. And we had a ball. Once we had firmly established the requirements to fool these fish, one still had to achieve a long, drag-free drift, the giant rainbows did everything a dry fly fishing purist could dream of from smashing and slashing at Cheronbyl’s to sipping in relatively tiny (size 10) royal wulff’s much like a spooky brown on a clear, slow moving, South Island stream. This was sight fishing heaven. It was exhilarating, breathtaking and far more challenging but so delightfully rewarding. So much so that the morning we experienced on the Barancossa River has since dominated much conversation about our Jurassic Lake adventure.
As for highlights, there are many. Way too many to pen in one article. Friendships between like-minded anglers from many parts of the world have been forged. Dreams have materialised into reality. Goals set and achieved. Lifelong ambitions have been accomplished.
From an angling perspective, however, one does stand out for me though. On our last afternoon, the wind finally eased and blew from the south, straight out of the Bay of Pigs. As Pat and I entered the bay, we noticed several trout rising near a weed bed in one of the corners, close to where we had experienced unbelievable fishing using nymphs and streamers for much of the week. The ring formations from these rises looked to be coming from smaller trout, five pounders or less, so I chose to ignore them in preference to target areas we had caught much larger specimens, further along the bay. In no time, Pat hooked one of the ‘small risers’ and it exploded into life and proceeded to tear off with his flyline and some backing, leaping into the afternoon sun with fast, repetitive leaps much like a marlin desperately trying to avoid capture. Upon landing and subsequent weighing (somewhere around the twelve or thirteen pound mark), I needed no further convincing that we would both be using dry flies only for the remainder of the day, or at least until the wind dictated we no longer pursue that form of angling. As luck would have it, the wind stayed down and we enjoyed some of the most amazing dry fly fishing either of us has or will ever likely encounter.
After our morning sojourn to the river, neither of us had many usable dries left. We simply did not expect nor plan for much of this style of fishing. The dries we did have had largely been pulled to pieces by the teeth of the trout or the hooks snapped by oversized beasts. Our dry fly arsenal consisted of just a few size 8 stimulators, some size 10 wulffs and some other minute cdc dries that had somehow made their way into my nymph box on a previous adventure. In fact, the latter flies were tied on size 18 barbless hooks with 25cm grayling in mind during the Norway World Flyfishing Championships in 2013.
As the afternoon went on, we cast to, hooked and played a large number of huge, chrome rainbows. As we did so, almost all of our dries became useless. I was left with no choice but to tie on (to the 17lb fluorocarbon leader no less), one of the size 18 barbless caddis dries from Norway. This was real heart-in-the-mouth stuff. After spotting multiple fish swim past me in the crystal clear water, I chose one particular specimen to present this ridiculously tiny dry which I felt I may be able to land, if I played it carefully and skillfully and if luck was on my side.
Placing the fly about two metres ahead of the slow moving fish, one I felt would likely come in at around six to eight pounds, I watched as the beast rose from a depth of approximately five feet to engulf the fly like it was the last morsel of food left in the lake. A gentle lift saw me hooked up and playing a true giant trout. It was super fat, incredibly long and wide and best of all, was dressed in chrome. It ran and jumped and ran some more. I was forced to watch it swim and fly right across the Concheno Bay and along the shoreline on the far side. For one of only a handful of times, I could see my reel clearly on the underside of 150m of flyline and backing. To land this fish, more than luck would need to be on my side – I’d likely require a small miracle. And just as I felt I had absolutely no chance, this particular leviathan decided to turn towards me in such a way that it ‘arched’ its way back towards me, allowing time to keep some pressure on the barbless hook and get backing and flyline onto the reel. After twenty minutes, at least one missed swipe with the net, an attempted line grabbing by the guide, which was met with a desperate cry of ‘NO – the dry is tiny and will bend if you try to horse that fish into the net’ (delete several other expletives), 18 pounds of chrome lay next to me, ready to be photographed. To end our trip in such a manner was exhilarating and fitting. Would I recommend it? Absolutely!
This was indeed a fishing experience of a lifetime. To have done it with a close mate, an honour. To have had the opportunity to do what we did and fish at such a wild and remote destination, a privilege enjoyed by relatively few. This type of opportunity may only come around once or twice in a lifetime. Unlike my dad with Lake Pedder, I was in a position where I could grab that opportunity and take it with both hands. The same hands that one-week on still bear the scars from the small nicks and scratches encountered whilst releasing trout. The same hands that still feel cramped when I wake in the morning after seven days of clenching the cork grip of my trusty #8 rod and playing trout till I thought I’d drop on the spot. My body aches, my shoulders hurt. I may be paying off doctor and physiotherapist bills for the next year but it was well worth it. For seven days and in my dreams for the rest of my life, I was and will remain in chrome heaven.