Several years ago I read a statement that I found unbelievable – Steelhead were being caught in a river in Argentina that, naturally, emptied into the Atlantic ocean. No such thing, I thought. Steelhead are a Pacific ocean product. Then I started researching the possibility. A friend of mine and I were planning a trip to Rio Gallegos, just south of the Rio Santa Cruz (where the steelhead were reported to ascend). After talking to the lodge owner at Rio Gallegos (Alex de Tomaso), we decided to fish a couple of days at Santa Cruz (to check it out) after fishing 3 or 4 days at Gallegos. Everything was set. That is until a few days before we were scheduled to leave. An ice dam upriver on the Rio Santa Cruz had broken and the river was high, dirty and unfishable. The trip to the Santa Cruz was off.
I was disappointed that we weren’t able to fish such an anomaly of a steelhead river. But the alternative of fishing 6 days on the Rio Gallegos instead of 3 or 4 was not bad news. This was my first time to fish for Sea-Run Browns as well as fishing in southern Argentina. I was blown away when I saw the river on our first morning out. I was used to fishing rivers with rocky-bottomed, fast-moving rivers of the Northwest. Rio Gallegos, upon first sight, seemed like barren frog water with no trees guarding the shores (or anywhere in sight). There was a very noticeable lack of big rocks and boulders. Where would the fish hold? When we got closer to shoreline just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, we could see current folds and creases where a fish could feel comfortable. There were even some rocks and boulders here and there to break the current flow. I got recharged and was at full capacity when we got to our first run. As is customary in Argentina, we shared a Mate (pronounced maw tay).
A ceremonial tea (yerba mate) that is prepared by our host, then passed first to the person to his left. There are ornate vessels (most made from a gourd) in which the tea is brewed with a permanent, metal, straw. There is a protocol to be observed according to customs. I kind of liked this idea. Although not quite as mind altering, it reminded me of sharing a joint (in the old days) with friends standing around a campfire. I liked the communal aspect of sharing a Mate in a tradition. I have done this at several other places and have always enjoyed the activity. For some reason it brings people closer. I actually like the taste of Mate so that helps a lot. A much weakened commercial brew of the Mate is Morning Thunder Tea (by Celestial Seasonings) is close but not the same. I am not much of a tea drinker, but I do like Morning Thunder for the memories it brings to me. I get distracted so easily. We are discussing Sea-run Browns on the Rio Gallegos.
After Mate, we strung up our rods and made our first casts to fish we had never seen before. The wading is absolutely the best ever. So easy; like walking across the living-room floor. I was in heaven. Cast, swing, jig, hang down, step down a step or two and start over. There was something that jogged your senses in that last sentence, wasn’t there? JIG??? There is this locally engrained method of swinging the fly across the current. Instead of just hanging on and letting the fly swing on a static line, guides of the southern Argentina and Tierra del Fuego will tell you to jig the fly as it swings. It works!!! I don’t know why I haven’t tried it for Northwest Steelhead. Maybe I will in the future when a straight swing isn’t producing.
The first day or two did not produce any fish, but the fishing was so new to us and so much fun it didn’t really matter too much. The early-morning approach to the river was full of suspense and anticipation, I always felt full of confidence. Dawn and sunset in this country are the two of the awesomest events on earth. The schedule every day assured a spectacular view at dawn and sunset. It is not so much as looking at a sunrise or sunset but being a part of it. They envelope you. These events include not only looking at them, but participating in them. One thinks of “watching” either one of them: Watching the sun do its best to dazzle you as it rises or sets. But there on the Rio Gallegos it includes 360 degrees around you. You are a small part of it. You can see sunrise or sunset all around you¸ not just looking east or west. It is just too far-out to describe. You have to experience it.
Besides being in awe of my surroundings, we actually caught fish. Some of the Sea-Runs were more steelhead-like than some steelhead I have caught. Our best times were very early and very late in the day. Our daily schedule was the most perfect I have ever encountered. Wake up way before dawn, have hearty breakfast, go to the river, fish until around 11:00 AM. Return to the lodge for a giant lunch served with one of the country’s wonderful Malbec wines. Nap until about 4:30 – 5 PM. Return to the river and fish until dark (after 10 PM). Return to the lodge for a huge dinner with more delicious Malbec. Go to sleep about midnight or 1:00 AM. Sleep until pre-dawn. Repeat. Every day. I loved it.
One of the flies that impressed me most was a tube-fly that was only dressed with a clump of black-bear hair. It was ungodly simple and skinny; about 4 inches long. It worked! Maybe it was eel-like or worm-like or ??? But it was effective. We even had one afternoon of fishing on the Little Rio Gallegos for streamborn brown trout sipping caddis. What a difference switching from swinging big flies for big fish to tempting sipping brown trout in a small spring-creek. It was a fun divergence. When we got back to the lodge after the small stream experience, Alex told us that his contact at Rio Santa Cruz just telephoned to tell him that the river had cleared and dropped enough to make it fishable. Did we want to drive up to Santa Cruz to give it a try. Of course, we said yes. It would be worth it just to see where this takes place.
We started the 4 hour drive north way before the stars disappeared. We had breakfast-type burritos in the car on the road. We met our guides at the river and then got our gear and lunches in the motor powered rubber raft. We powered upstream in a river the size of the Columbia River. It was huge. I could not imagine catching steelhead in these conditions. But we were here and it was a beautiful day. Let’s go for it!
We got to our destination and beached the raft. It was the most unlikely looking place to fish for steelhead. The bottom was mud. The river colorization was like coffee with cream. The current was faster than I thought was comfortable for steelhead. We were told to wade as deep as we felt comfortable and start casting out, start swinging the fly and jigging it. Our efforts were reward-less for the morning. But after lunch, we started connecting. My anticipation was actually very low. This is not common for me. I usually see success in a mud puddle. We ended up hooking 5 very wild steelhead; with 3 landed after lunch. They were all bright and full of spirit. I was beside myself. I didn’t think it would be possible but it happened.
One just can’t give up. If there is a chance, it is possible, maybe even probable. I keep thinking that an Atlantic Steelhead is a rare phenomenon and I and my fishing partner and our guide were privileged to catch one or more each. If I were offered a chance to do this again, I would jump on it. Alex gave us the chance of a lifetime to catch an Atlantic-run steelhead. He was the guy that made it happen. I will always be grateful to him for making this possible. He now runs a lodge in the southern Yucatan in Mexico. Quite a switch from the rivers of southern Argentina and TDF. But Alex is indeed an adventurer. I have been to his lodge a few times and am planning a future return in two years. I am looking forward to seeing Alex again and fishing the flats of the southern Yucatan with him. The rumors of big permit are gathering and I intend to find out if they are true. Alex is the one to make it happen. Follow the rumors. The adventures are always worth it.