Trout Bum Rio Pico and Golden Dorado River Cruiser Trip Report
Roger Bertsch with Harold Whitmore
I first met Just Witt, in 2014 where Justin was my guide for a wilderness float trip in Kamchatka, Russia. At the time Kamchatka was number one on my “Bucket List”. Number two on the “Bucket List” was Patagonia. If someone asked me today which is number one, having done my third trip to Patagonia, the answer is clear. I went first in 2016, again in 2018, and began planning for the 2020 trip well in advance. Harold and I were onboard to make the trip and we added four days on the Golden Dorado Cruiser on the Parana River. Spokane Fly Fishers has a blog site and I posted the trip intentions and ultimately David Moeshel and Rich Landers joined our group for the 10-day Rio Pico portion. Rich, a well-known journalist, sometimes retired, wrote an excellent article for the Spokesman Review which can be seen here: (https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2020/mar/local-anglers-find-trout-bum-nirvana-in-argentina/).
Rio Pico is a tiny town in the middle of the Argentine Patagonia and very close to the border with Chile. This region has some of the best, most interesting and varied fly fishing for three species of trout: Brown, Rainbow and Brook. Reminiscent of Montana, this area is truly “Big Sky” country with about one person per 100 square miles. The vistas are unlimited in the crystal-clear air. Staying in Rio Pico one steps back into a time where things are kinder, gentler, and the pace of daily life is how you choose it to be. The Trout Bum program is more than just the fly fishing, it is the experience of being part of something very special.
We stayed at Vasco’s, a two-bedroom, two bath lodge with a large common area. Meals were prepared by Karina, a most-delightful lady that pampered our every need. Her charm and smiling face really added to our experience. A cup of piping hot coffee woke us from each night’s slumber. This was followed by a hearty breakfast with eggs, cereal, toast, fresh fruit and juice. Vasco’s place was very comfortable and perfect for any fly fisherman who places the value on fishing over the 5-star lodge experience. We did have to purchase our own Malbec and local beer at a quaint but well-stocked grocery store. The good selection of Malbec wine was in the $3-$6 range and the quality generally better than what we have in the USA for double or triple that price. Trout Bum has a focus on fishing so our days were long, leaving Vasco’s by 8:30 and generally on the water from 9:30 or so and fly fishing until either near dark or so tired you wanted to go back and relax over a cold beer or a glass of Malbec. Supper was generally around 9:00 PM. Hearty meals were very good and the highlight dinner was the Argentine BBQ specialty, lamb Asado.
Prior to the trip, Justin knew what our interests were but knowing the weather, he would propose a daily recommendation to optimize our total experience. He recommended fishing Lago (Lake) Engano the first day because the wind would be light. This lake is part of a drainage of rivers and lakes that hold Brook Trout, some of which are huge. I fished with Harold and we had an epic day bringing many large, fat Brook Trout to the net. The fish ranged from 18-23”. In the morning we worked with streamers on our very adequate 7 and 8 weight rods and with tired arms after lunch opted for using lighter rods (6-wt) fishing with the Balanced Leech under an indicator very near the weeds. Black or Red seemed to be the favorites for that pattern. This worked equally well as casting streamers and was easier on both the guide and fishermen.
The Rio (River) Nilson (pronounced Neel-son) was the destination on the second day. A small tributary of the Rio Pico, the Nilson is free-flowing stream full of eager rainbows and brown trout. The Nilson is a beautiful creek in the Andean foothills surrounded by soaring peaks, whose summits make the border with Chile. I thoroughly enjoyed casting the “wand” or 5 wt rod with dry flies and sometimes a small nymph. Hoppers, mayflies, pheasant tail nymphs all worked well. My friend Pat Sleeth tied up about 4-dozen small dry and nymphs that worked extraordinarily well on the Nilson and elsewhere on the trip. A big thank you to Pat as his expert tying is far better than my own! While there were many smaller trout that rose to the fly, the larger fish needed to be sighted and that one cast had to be delivered on target or the fish spooked. My guide Nehuen, (nickname The Sundance Kid) was superb and we sealed the bond on the Nilson and became a real team. While most of the Nilson trout were less than 16” we sight-fished to several larger trout up to 20”. This was a very fun walk and wade day with plenty of action!
It’s rare in Patagonia to have a third day largely devoid of wind and Justin recommended Lago Tres (Lake Three). Known for large fish, the technique is to cast streamers on floating or sink tip lines to the shore vegetation until once across the lake you can fish the shallows and utilize leeches and nymphs under an indicator. I fished again with Harold and “The Sundance Kid” got us into fish all day long. The morning was casting 2 ½” streamers and the afternoon, the Balanced Leech again provided to be the pattern of choice. Harold’s 25” rainbow was our best fish but we have a several 22” to 23” including a nice brown and all of the “smaller fish” were over 20”. The tough part of using an indicator is watching the thing because the spectacular scenery tends to distract. However Nehuen’s constant, “Set, set, set” resulted in many fish to the net despite our lack of attention to the job at hand.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a backpack to the Patagonia wilderness. With some trepidation, David, Rich and I were accompanied by Justin, Nehuen, Nehuen’s older brother Alfredo. We shouldered our 35-40# back packs and began the hike to our base camp on a special river. I had met Alfredo at Lago Strobel in 2016 so it was great to have another “Amigo” with us on the backpack trip. While we shouldered a heavy load, the guides carried double what we carried. We were very lucky in that the guide’s trucks, the super dependable Toyota Hilux diesels were able to ford a creek without our feet getting wet inside the truck! This is a great truck with a 3-liter diesel that I wish we had in the USA. The creek crossing made for a shorter 5-6-mile, 90-minute backpack to the base camp. After setting up camp and lunch, the three of us with Justin and Nehuen headed downstream in search of large brook trout. Leap-frogging those working a special spot on the river we cast streamers on our 8-wt rods. We all caught some nice brook trout, but the river monsters evaded our flies. The next morning, another beautiful day in paradise, the plan was to have all of us fish up stream where generally the larger fish are hooked. I suggested to avoid the “leap-frogging” from the prior day’s experience that Justin take David and Rich upstream while Nehuen and I fish downstream below where we stopped the day prior. I think this was a good call as David landed a 25” Brookie that was the fish of the trip. I elected to fly fish with the “wand” and used my 5-wt that day. On the downstream section, Nehuen and I had a spectacular day catching and releasing brookies in every place we fished. A couple of 22” brookies and many, many nice fish. One huge fish, never seen was hooked and fought for quite awhile before getting off the hook. Maybe this beast was a challenger to David’s special fish. This was a very exciting day. The third and final day of the backpack trip we again divided into two groups with David and Rich going with Justin to fish Berta Creek, a fun place with lots of eager brookies and the occasional lunker, like the 28” one-eyed monster from my 2016 trip. Many nice fish brought to the net. The river monster, nevertheless evaded us. At the end of the fishing the hike back to camp began with the entire sole of my right boot coming off. Clever Nehuen with duct tape and 0X leader made an on the spot repair for the hike back to camp. Seeking a short-cut, we entered “caterpillar” forest necessitating a quick retreat as while the insects don’t bite, these fury caterpillars have a nasty sting when exposed to uncovered skin. Changing to my New Balance trail runners we hiked out of the “wilderness” back to Hilux for the drive back to Rio Pico.
Being tired from the rigors of the backpack, I again paired up with Harold and this time with Justin we floated the Rio Corcovado, a river I had twice floated but not this section with it’s Class II and Class III rapids. The “Cork” is famous for its large but difficult to catch Brown Trout where the fly fisher casts large 4” streamers with a 200-grain sink tip on the 8-wt. As they say about steelhead, these Brown’s are a fish of many casts. I hooked one at the put in and that was the last tug on my streamers. Harold and later me caught and released some nice rainbows. These were on dry flies with a dropper. The highlight of the float was Harold’s exit from the rubber raft with two fly rods in hand floating the “Cork” whitewater feet first for maybe 75 yards to safety waiting for Justin’s rescue. While not an overly productive day for the fly fishing, the “Cork” is a beautiful float in an area totally different topography than anything we had experienced.
Back with our regular guide Nehuen we headed to Lago 4. We met the nice young game warden we first met in 2016. They do check licenses and record who was fishing where. The light wind quickly picked up and we head for the leeward side of the lake and worked the shallows. We spotted some unwilling large Browns and had to settle for a few nice 18-19” rainbows that took Gypsy King dry flies and streamers.
Ask a fly fisherman what is the greatest challenge and many will say fishing a slow moving, gin clear spring creek with vegetation both in the creek and tightly along the bank. These fish are extremely spooky and such fishing requires the best of the guide and fisherman. This is Christmas Creek. I knew we were in for a challenge. Rich said of Christmas Creek, you get one chance and need a perfect cast and that proved to be true. We hiked down stream for over an hour to Christmas Creek and saw its gin clear water with fly-eating brush lining both sides of the creek and various vegetation growing in the creek. We began both sight fishing and some blind casting into the most promising pools. It was hard not to spook the wary trout calling this creek home. One large Brown spooked from 50’ away while others allowed one or sometimes more casts. Like me, Nehuen likes to change flies especially after a refusal and this tactic worked well. It was not a high number of trout caught and released day but several nice Browns 17-19” and one 20” rainbow made for a very successful and fun day. The rainbow was the “Rich exception fish” as we had cast to a large Brown that refused and out of the weeds came this large rainbow attacking our fly. Christmas Creek yielded the “slam” with all three resident trout species (Brown, Rainbow, Brook). Large Browns and Rainbows and several smaller, colorful Brookies made for the catch of the day. I’m truly amazed that when we saw a fish, Nehuen could say whether it was a brown, rainbow, or brook trout even from a distance! Christmas Creek completed this most memorable trip to Rio Pico and set the stage for the final leg of this journey to Argentina.
The Parana River is second in length only to the Amazon River. Stretching for some 4,880 kilometers it runs through Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. We were met at our hotel in Buenos Aires by our driver and for about 2 ½ hours made the drive to the river where we boarded a small 22’ boat for the 2-hour ride to the Gypsy Cruiser, a house boat that would be our home for the next four nights. The main river reminded me of the Mississippi River at New Orleans and about the same size and color. The Gypsy Cruiser had been renovated into literally a 5-star floating hotel with nice rooms, gourmet food, wine, beer, and other assorted beverages. With a superb chef and staff, the “Cruiser” provided a very pampered and relaxed experience. We had been warned that the Parana, the many lakes, lagoons, and tributaries were blown out with water clarity measured in centimetres. I said the water varied from milk chocolate brown to dark chocolate. The river which normally is a high number fishery was at this time due to the unusual rains fishing very poorly. After a gourmet lunch and siesta we ventured for a one-hour boat trip up stream to try our luck with the fly rod for Golden Dorado, the target species for this leg of the trip. Neither Harold nor I came close to touching a fish. At supper we chatted with the guests who had been fishing all week and barely touched a fish. Pretty bummed out, we were intent to make the most of it. The fishing is divided into two sessions. The morning session begins at 8:30 returning to the houseboat in time for the 2:00 lunch and avoids the heat of the day. The evening fishing began at 5:30 and returned prior to the 9:00 evening meal. The temperatures ranged from the high 60’s early in the am to over 100 degrees in the early afternoon. The evening temperatures were near perfect! The next morning the fly fishing was dismal so we switched to bait and I caught my fist Golden Dorado and a large one at maybe 7-8#. A second treat was catching and releasing a large catfish. A highlight was the hooking of a huge Vampire Fish estimated at over 3’ that we got to the boat and got off while trying to net! I’ve never seen a guide so excited.
We had heard that a fish called a “Wolf Fish” were easy to catch on a fly rod and seeking some action that became the quarry for that evening. The Wolf Fish provided non-stop action with a strike on almost every cast. The tough part was to set the hook as these fish have jaws of steel. Many 16-20” fish were caught and released. I had, however, yet to catch a Golden Dorado on a fly and was determined to do so despite the off-color water. Harold took the morning off, so Franco and I ventured off for Golden Dorado. We were both very determined. Franco drove the boat close to two hours to a spot where casting a large white streamer on the 8-weight began to work. Some strikes and finally a good setting of the hook yielded the first of four Golden Dorado on a fly! The one good thing about off-color water, was these were all large fish over 5# with the largest approaching 10#. A good day for sure. The evening fishing was closer to the house boat and another successful session with the Wolf Fish. That evening Harold caught a Sting Ray! The next morning was another go for the Golden Dorado on the fly rod and a few nice fish landed. Having cast the 8-wt all morning, I opted for leisurely bait fishing for the evening session and that proved successful with a nice Golden Dorado netted, a couple of large catfish and a huge river monster called a Surubi (Pseudoplatystoma) of some four feet in length.
While the Parana did not live up to expectations due to the unusual water conditions, it was a most interesting and successful experience. Despite the conditions, we were happy with our results. The murky water did yield larger but far fewer fish than expected. The “Golden Dorado Cruiser” is an easy add-on for the person doing a trip to Patagonia. It is a totally different experience that the fly fishing in Patagonia. Argentina’s international air travel is out of Buenos Aires and adding the Golden Dorado Cruiser does not require additional air travel.
All in all, this was the best of my three trips to Argentina and I will be back for more!