I stood out on the back porch of Alumine River Lodge and felt the gentle evening breeze of the early March evening wrapped around me. The calming sound of the Alumine River flowing 50 yards below me mingled with the whisper of the willow leaves from the trees lining the bank. I looked up to the sky and was greeted with more white twinkling lights than on Clark Griswold’s home at Christmas. The Southern Cross seemed to anchor them all into place. I watched for several minutes and paused to reflect on my travels to get to this northern Patagonia river and tomorrow would be a new day and a new chance to meet an old friend.
I spent the previous day traveling getting from El Calafate in southern Argentina to Alumine River Lodge located an hour and a half north of the town of San Martin de los Andes. It was a long Aerolineas Argentina flight from El Calafate to Bariloche but once there I was welcomed by a familiar face. Nestor Zuniga is a fishing guide that I had known for nearly ten years. He met me at the airport and drove me from the city of Bariloche around the northeastern shores of the massive Lago Nahuel Huapi.
Some of the most memorable experiences in South America have been getting from place to place. I have been driven over the Andes between Argentina and Chile several times and the experience of seeing Chile from atop the Paso Cardenal Antonio Samore is a sight that I will never forget.
Nestor drove through the town of Villa Angostura and we marveled at how this alpine town has grown since I was last there in 2007. A mixture of tourists and locals were dining in outside cafes and going in and out of the quaint stores along the main street. We headed north on the Seven Lakes Road- which indeed does have seven lakes on it. I enjoyed this stunning drive through the mountains that is very popular during the summer months. In fact, it can get rather clogged with tourists during this time. However, today in early March and in the middle of the week we had no traffic issues at all. We drove through the town of San Martin de los Andes, which is one of my favorite places to visit in northern Patagonia. It’s like one of those outdoorsy towns that you find in the American West like Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone. Yes, there are the tourist trappings that you will find here but there is also a laid-back feel that you get especially on a warm summer night when the locals relax in the cafes, restaurants and in the parks around town. I have stayed there several times over the years and enjoy it a lot. We made it to the lodge in time for dinner and after a couple glasses of fine Malbec wine and gazing at the stars, I retired to my spacious room for the night.
I awoke to a sunny morning, got dressed and went downstairs to eat breakfast. Danny, one of the owners of the Lodge and something of an amateur chef, cooked me a savory vegetable omelet. After a few cups of coffee, I was ready to go fly fishing. Nestor, I and a local guide named Santiago were heading out to fish the Rio Alumine for the day. This is a river that I had fished several years ago and was looking forward to fishing on it again. We drove up the graded two-lane dirt road to a spot above the Pilo Lil Bridge and put the inflatable pontoon boat into a side channel of the river. We shoved off and headed down river and began fishing.
The Alumine does not have many gradients or river drop – so there are no rapids or terribly difficult areas to navigate while in the boat which makes for a very pleasant day on the river. I wore my waders and wading jacket as the day was a little crisp as the gathering clouds had taken away the early fall season sun. I cast toward the river shore at the channels formed by rocks that were deposited in the river from the last receding glacier. These were productive areas the last time that I fished the river and good holding spots for the brown and rainbow trout that lived here.
Throwing a streamer proved productive early as the trout were happy to eat a nice large meal, but later, I changed tactics and worked flies on top of the water. A foam fly called the Tarantula got a lot of response from the trout. I caught several as they sucked the fly in from the water surface. Each trout was scrappy and fought well. After a photo or two, they were released back to their homes again unscathed. Nestor then added a small nymph to the bottom of the Tarantula dry fly. The idea was to tempt the trout with a small insect floating helplessly in the water column and the dry fly would indicate if there was a strike by twitching on the surface or even being pulled under the water. It worked like a charm. Trout were eager to eat this easy meal.
We floated around a bend that really looked “fishy” and Nestor and Santiago pulled the boat over so that I could wade. The bend had its headwater some as shallow riffles on our near bank that gradually got deeper toward the far bank. It was a perfect place to find trout. I put on a strike indicator and tied two small nymphs to my leader and worked this water. Immediately it paid off with a nice 14” rainbow which ate the smaller nymph. I worked up to the head of the riffles and let my flies drift from the shallow water into the deeper greenish-hued drop-off. Again, a rainbow was waiting for my flies and another fell into the net. Nestor’s stop paid off, but we got back into the boat to cover more water as mid-day approached.
There is something about taking a break after a productive morning and eating a sandwich, salad or whatever the chef has prepared while drinking a glass of wine or having a cold beer and talking about fishing experience with your friends that makes the day perfect. We pulled over to shore beside a massive rock face and ate our lunch. I have found that even though there can be a language barrier between guide and angler that catching fish and the smiles that come from it translates perfectly. Our eyes caught movement and above us, a large black bird was riding the thermals not far above our heads. Nestor quickly pulled out his phone and tried to capture the bird on his camera. “Condor,” he said excitedly. He went on to tell me that they never fly that low and this was a rare sight indeed. Seeing the condor was the best desert possible.
The rest of the day working was spent working the river and catching fish. I was marveling at how “fishy” the river looked. There was a great mix of faster water for rainbows and slower and deeper brown trout water. I saw lots of rocky shoreline that held ambush points and willow-lined banks that were defoliated by the green gusano worms in mid-summer. These worms, in particular, are a delicacy for trout and they go out of their way to eat them when they blow off the water into the river.
Our float ended at the Lodge and we climbed out of the boat and headed up the river bank. Waiting for us was Danny and the other owners of the Lodge and my friend Jorge Trucco. Jorge has a long history outfitting and guiding in the San Martin de los Andes area and in Argentina fly fishing circles he was a pivotal person to the growth of the sport to what it has become now. He formed the relations with the landowners, which gave rise to the modern fishing lodges of today and he has always been very conservation minded in protecting these wonderful rivers.
The next day found Nestor, Santiago and myself driving north from the Lodge to fish the Pulmari River. This is an hour and a half drive that took us up north past the town of Alumine to where the Pulmari River is formed as an outflow from Lago Pulmari. I had never fished this river before and was excited to fish it and learn its characteristics. I am inquisitive by nature and learning new waters is an exciting part of what I do selling fly fishing trips for a living. I love to share my knowledge of a river and the experience with others. I get a big thrill when a client returns home to tell me that they had a great trip and that the fishing was exactly as how I described it to them.
Nestor launched the pontoon boat at the mouth of the river and I began to fish. I was struck by how slow the current was on the river and then I noticed how deep and clear the water was. There were thick tractor trailer-sized weed beds below the surface but in between were the dark spaces of open water. I knew that the trout would hide in the weeds and eat insects while using the open areas to cruise from place to place. Indeed that proved to be true. We saw trout cruising in the open areas and occasionally feed on the floating elegantly-profiled mayflies sitting on top of the water.
Several nice trout on streamers came to hand while throwing toward the river banks and stripping the fly toward me. We pulled over for the customary photo and released the fish. What I really like about this northern river is the presence of the Araucaria trees. Also known as “Monkey Puzzle” trees this species of tree is related to the evergreen, but instead of being covered with needles the trees have branches that are filled with layers of a thick green scale-like leaf that is sharp to the touch. Araucaria trees are often known as living fossils with mature trees living as long as 1,000 years.
We finished fishing and started the drive back to the Lodge stopping in Alumine to briefly see the town. It was late afternoon and the shadows were growing long. It was a beautiful time to drive back to the Lodge with the light dancing on the Alumine River water and the high cliffs bracing it. I spotted four or five fishermen fishing from the bank on the long drive home, but for the most part, the river was left to sleep for the rest of the day.
The narrow road led us back to the Lodge that rose high above the river offering fantastic views of the countryside. The light was perfect so I could not help but stop and take some photos of a large rocky mass that stuck out of the earth above the river. I was later told that inside that rocky outcropping the ancient Tehuelche Indians had drawn pictures and had used a cave located there for shelter. I know that this is a place that I want to see on my return.
Alumine River Lodge is very comfortable and bedrooms are spacious, but I feel that what makes a fishing lodge terrific is the feeling that you get from being there. Certainly, the accommodations, food, and staff play a large part in the experience but if you feel comfortable and “at home” then your visit goes to another level. Though Alumine River Lodge is new to the fly fishing world I get the feeling that clients who come here will feel right at home. I know that I did.
By: Ben Hoffman