Early this century, John Goodall, the manager of the now famous Menendez Estate, stocked the first fingerlings into the Rio Grande.  His intention was to provide some trout fishing for himself and other enthusiasts.  Little did he know that he was creating what has become one of the greatest sea trout rivers of all.

The fingerlings thrived and a resident population established itself but there was not enough food to sustain them.  Nature’s answer was to send the fish to sea to the rich Antarctic feeding grounds.  Hence, a strain of large sea-run brown trout established itself over a relatively short period of time.

Early Days

These fish were enjoyed by the local people as well as a select few foreigners who were guests of the large estancia owners.  Due to the rules of trespass in Argentina, no fishing is private though access can be controlled.  The Rio Grande provided good numbers of wonderful thick-set sea trout averaging 10 or 11 pounds.  But there was little or no conservation practiced and fewer and fewer fish successfully spawned until the runs reached an historic low point in the mid 1980’s.

Over the past 10 years the several estancias that control access to the upper reaches of the Rio Grande, where these mighty anadromous brown trout spawn, have each imposed fly fishing only, catch and release restrictions to help sustain this remarkable fishery.

Dramatic Increase

The result has been a dramatic increase in catch results from a low of 207 in 1985 to a previous high of 1200 in 1994, to an astonishing 4,436 fish landed in 1996 by 100 rods, according to the log book at one estancia.  Some 400 of these fish weighed 15 lbs. or better, and the average size was between 7 and 11 pounds depending on the week of the season.

Studies of scale samples from two released Fuegan brown trout specimens revealed that the 10 lb. fish was eight years old and was returning to spawn for the third time, and the 20 lb. fish was ten years old and returning to spawn for the fourth time.  Two pretty convincing arguments for a no-kill policy.

Two other points should be noted as one examines the success story of this river.  In 1985 fishing knowledge of both the guides and the guests was very limited and river access was not nearly as easy as it is presently.

The dry fly was used successfully by a few rods but it was not until 1994, when there was lower water and plenty of fish, that the guests set aside enough time to really test the skated fly.  This has now become a highly successful method.  Not only has the river grown in stature but knowledge of these fish has grown with it over the years.

Catch statistics show an almost unfaltering upwards curve since 1985, with the exception of 1991 & 1992 which were hampered by unusually heavy rains.  It is rare to lose fishing time to weather and water, but the river can become colored with heavy rain for a day or two and muddy conditions also make getting to the river more difficult.

As for the wind, it does blow very hard but practically always down the river assisting fishermen to achieve their longest ever casts! It is far from bitter cold and the wildlife still has little fear of man.  The journey is not the ogre it first seems.


Sea-run Biology and Behavior

The browns, which spawn in river headwaters, hatch in the headwaters, spend two years growing to smolt size, then migrate to the sea where they stay from one to three years in the salt water before returning to the rivers to spawn.

Sea-run brown trout are European in origin and can be found from the spate rivers of Scotland to the renowned River Em in Sweden, as well as in other European rivers.  Small runs of sea-run browns have been introduced into the US in a few Atlantic Ocean coastal tributaries, but they have never flourished the way the Fuegan fish have.

What is it that differentiates the sea-run brown from the freshwater species (Salmo trutta)?  Nothing, except the fish’s sea-run behavior.  But this sea-going wanderlust turns a relatively small river fish into an overstuffed, energized anadromous torpedo.

Sea trout take the fly savagely and fight with bullish, sizzling runs.  When they are fresh from the sea, their takes are arm-wrenching and their fights heart-stopping.  As in Atlantic-salmon fishing, it’s a mystery why these fish take the fly:  They do not feed on their spawning run.  The browns enter the rivers during spring runoff in September.

The Fuegan Techniques

Sea trout must be approached stealthily for best results.  As with all browns, they take the fly most readily in low light – early morning and late evening. (Night fishing is the norm in the United Kingdom, but night fishing is not allowed in Tierra del Fuego).  The most skilled anglers ease quietly into the pools and move slowly, working far banks with long quiet presentations of Clouser Deep Minnows (chartreuse and white, black), Woolly Buggers, Flashabuggers (black, chartreuse, white and green), Mel’s Bunny (black, brown, and purple), Matuka streamers (black, brown and chartreuse), Montana Nymphs, Bitch Creeks or Damsel Zonkers, all dressed on heavy-wire hooks, with the points triangular sharpened until they will stick in a fingernail when placed there – sea runs have sea-toughened mouths.  When the water is low, dry flies riffled and skated across the surface can bring spectacular strikes.

Two-handed rods have recently made their appearance on the Rio Grande, a broad, flat-profile stream with large gravel bars and excellent wading.  Two-handers make a full day of casting much easier than hauling or roll casting 8 and 9 weights on a one-hander.

Sea-trout fishing technique is not difficult, but it requires casting skill.  During daylight hours the fish often lie in a narrow, shadowed slot alongside a far cutback.  To reach them and to sink the fly quickly, the preferred lines are Teeny T-Series 200, 300 or 400 depending on the water flow and depth.  Casting these 24-foot tapers from 60 to 80 feet demands at least a fast-action 8-weight with plenty of reserve power in the butt, or preferably a stiff 9-weight, at least 9½ feet long.

When the wind is up, guides place the fishermen on downwind river bends.  A fly fisher may spend an entire day roll casting a 200-to-400-grain taper from 30 to 80 feet downwind.  Your roll casting must be up to snuff and your wrist strong enough to take the all-day punishment.  Two-handed rods make downwind roll casting a piece of cake.

The Waters

The lower reaches of both the Rio Grande (100 kilometers long) offer the brightest, hottest fish (plateados, “silverplated ones”).  As with summer steelhead and Atlantic and Pacific salmon, when the fish first arrive, they are polished silver in color and packed with energy from their feeding at sea.  The Fuegan rivers are short and relatively easy traveling for the fish. As they move upriver, they gradually assume the darker colors of the river bottom.  When hooked, the darker fish fight strongly but with less of the tippet-popping sizzle of the bright fish.

The Rio Grande (“large river”) is relatively small (about 90 feet wide in its lower reaches) and shallow with a gentle gradient as it slides through treeless grasslands to the sea.  The flat love-it-or-hate-it monotony of the landscape is broken only by the occasional road ribbon stretching to the horizon.  The emptiness is relieved by the flourishing wildlife – Magellan geese, rheas, guanacos, caracaras, foxes and of course the majestic condors.  The world’s largest winged carrion eaters, they are drawn from the Andes to the region by the thousands of sheep, some of which die and are quickly consumed.

The river can fish superbly during the main runs of fish but fishing can be sporadic – six-fish days, followed by empty ones.  Fly fishers (pescadors del moscas) who hit a large run of fish may have from 20 to 30-fish weeks, with the average fish weighing 12 pounds and exceptional ones in the high 20s.

Fishing is sporadic; the wait becomes a psychic struggle between fishing dreams and fishing angst.  But when the weather breaks and the wind drops, the payoff can be spectacular.  A six-fish day on the Rio Grande can equal Atlantic-salmon or steelhead fishing at its best.

Most anglers fish the relatively calm early-daylight hours, then retire at midday for a siesta and then return to the river in late afternoon for serious fishing until full darkness.  The typical schedule at San Julio is breakfast at 7:30. Depart for the river at 8:00 am. Fish until 1:00 pm.  Have lunch and a siesta.  Fish again until dark, which varies with the time of year.

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