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Fall 2006 Issue
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A Tough Assignment
On the Fly in Patagonia
By Bruce M. Smithhammer

Jim Ferguson scouts a river in Patagonia.

We were two days on horseback from the nearest settlement as we approached the remote Chilean campo. Two men laid down their tools as we approached with our backpacks and fly rods. With a smile they gave the standard rural greeting: “Welcome! How can we help you?”

Our current mission ranked as one of the highlights in my 11 years with NOLS—scouting potential locations for the Patagonia Fly Fishing and Backpacking Course. The brainchild of veteran NOLS instructor and fishing guide Jim Ferguson, this course teaches fly fishing in the context of a self-supported backcountry expedition.

In recent years, Patagonia has emerged as one of the hottest international destinations for fly anglers, boasting countless pristine, crystal blue rivers and lakes nurturing large—ok, really large—rainbow and brown trout. We wondered if there would be a market out there for adventurous folks who wanted to experience amazing angling, forego the luxuries for foot access to remote waters, and carry their “lodge” on their backs. Were there people out there who wanted a real educational opportunity to learn fly angling for the first time or refine existing skills, add backcountry travel skills to their repertoire, and learn about the amazing natural and cultural history of this place? This sounded like a tough assignment.

Jim holds the gilled fruit of his labor during a thorough tour of Patagonia’s best fly fishing spots.

Through the campo, there is a tributary flowing west. The farmers encouraged us to explore after confirming for us that it was full of trout. As we headed upstream, we scanned the clear moving waters for likely holding spots for the bounty. Just wide enough to cast across, it would have been hard to create a more textbook fly fishing river: water an almost unbelievable blue, an average of a few feet deep, but scattered with many deeper pools, numerous boulders providing shelter for fish, and eddies swirling around features along both shores. For both trout and angler, we were looking at a little slice of nirvana.

Arriving at a fork, I selected a small olive-colored streamer, and lobbed it less-than-gracefully upstream, watching its drift intently. The line hesitated for a moment, indicating a possible strike, and I lifted the rod tip. Apparently the fly had hung up on the bottom and drifted free again. As it continued past me and downstream, the line paused for just a second, and then headed at an odd angle to the current direction. I quickly lifted the rod tip again, immediately feeling life on the other end, burrowing deep against the drag on my reel. A minute later, I was cradling a gorgeous brown trout at my feet, allowing oxygen-rich water to course through its gills as it regained strength. With a quick, powerful flick of its tail, it shot off and disappeared into the mottled colors of the streambed.

As we hiked back in the evening light, I reflected on the last several days—the buttery hues of the spectacular brown trout we’d encountered, the simple straightforwardness of the two farmers we’d met, and the vast vistas of trout heaven stretching endlessly to the horizon. Though I’ve since been fishing from California to the Yukon Territory, I’m counting the days until I can return to Patagonia and wet a fly again in the most stunning waters I’ve yet laid eyes on. And I can’t imagine it would be hard to convince other devoted anglers to join me.

Bruce Smithhammer is a senior NOLS Instructor and Program Supervisor who has worked in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Mexico and Chile. He is seeking out a 12-step program to help deal with his angling obsession, and blames Jim Ferguson for all of it.


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