Las Pampas’ head guide Martin had me at “hello.” You rarely know what you are in for before it actually happens, but this time, shaking his hand in the tiny Esquel airport, I somehow knew that my ultimate Patagonian trout fishing experience had already begun.
My hunch was spot-on, and while it took months for the details and nuances of the experience to fully sink in, I can now clearly identify all the elements that, in my mind, make Las Pampas Lodge the quintessential Argentine trout fishing operation. Its unique location, welcoming staff-driven atmosphere and its highly diverse multi-species trout fishing program combine to make this a Patagonian classic that is extremely hard to beat.
Gem of Chubut
As Martin and I began the three-hour drive south from the airport to the lodge, I thought I was getting a feeling for what our final destination’s landscape would be like. Not so. In the first hour we passed through arid lands reminiscent of Utah, then an hour later things looked more like eastern Montana, and then finally regions that reminded me of Yellowstone and Montana’s Paradise Valley. By the time we reached the lodge it became clear that this was a place unto itself, both familiar and totally unique at the same time. Ultimately, we were tucked up against the base of the snowcapped Andes, in a fantastical landscape with endless diversity and intrigue. Well beyond the lush bustle of Bariloche to the north but shy of the harsh, almost uninhabited steppe typical of the Santa Cruz province to the south, this region of Chubut seemed a mature mix of everything one could want. We were well past where the good roads ended and just outside a tiny border town where the outermost tendrils of rangeland blended into native bush and steep scree-faced peaks. There were countless lakes, rivers and streams and they were virtually ours and ours alone.
To those familiar, this region is called Rio Pico and took its name from Octavio Pico who helped engineer the border lines between Chile and Argentina in 1881. It is appropriate that this unique region was named after him and equally appropriate that he was Argentine: drawing the border to deviate from the Pacific/Atlantic divide model and designating the upper 25 miles of the glorious spring-fed, west-flowing Rio Pico as Argentine. It is a remarkable region nestled east of the Andes’ highest peaks where fertile lake systems and multiple spring creeks coalesce into an intimate and iconic South American trout stream, which ultimately slips west across the border into Chile and on to the Pacific.
When it comes to available water types, fishing styles and trout species, Las Pampas Lodge may be unbeatable. With a multitude of spring creeks, small to medium-size freestone rivers, and trophy still waters as well as a mix of rainbow, brown, and brook trout all within a relatively small radius, anglers are presented with far more options than they could experience in a two or even three-week stay. This provides anglers the opportunity to sample multiple different types of water during their stay or concentrate solely on those they most prefer. Generally speaking, rainbow trout make up the quantity of one’s catch with brown trout providing the size. Highlights of some of the key systems follow.
The Rivers: The Rio Pico begins as a small willow-lined spring creek and grows quickly as additional spring creeks and small freestone rivers add to its volume. These upper reaches are accessed very easily by Las Pampas Lodge. As the river flows westward, the Pico breaks into multiple channels that flow swiftly through open pasturelands. Below the channels the Pico is joined by two small freestones, first by the Rio Pampas and further downstream by the Rio Nilson. The next ten miles of the Pico offer abundant and sometimes large rainbows and fewer but larger browns that can surpass the 27-inch mark. Although these sections of the river are public, they are very hard to access, requiring two things that Las Pampas has: permission from local landowners and keys to locked gates! All in all, the Pico offers more than 25 miles of water, endless wade fishing opportunities and five distinct floats before crossing into Chile on its way west through the Andes.
In addition to the much-touted Rio Pico, Las Pampas Lodge fishes two additional systems, the Rio Pampas and Rio Nilson. These can best be described as medium-sized freestone rivers where anglers typically see steady action sight casting to rainbows and browns in the 10 to 20-inch class. Both streams offer miles of fantastic walk and wade opportunities.
Spring Creeks: The Rio Pico watershed is home to nearly a dozen spring creeks, all of which ultimately feed into the Pico. Varying greatly in size, length, depth and current speed, each creek presents its own unique set of angling challenges. For lovers of small and at times technical waters, these often-overlooked gems have a great deal to offer. Most of these intimate spring creeks hold surprising numbers of good-sized rainbows and browns that are all too willing to rise to a well-presented dry fly.
Stillwaters: Despite the wide array of river and stream fishing options, the Rio Pico area is best known to locals for a series of five highly productive lakes scattered throughout the region’s rugged hills. Though each lake has its own nuances, they all share similar shorelines dominated by rocky outcroppings and thick vegetation. Typically the Las Pampas guides will row their anglers just off the shorelines enabling their guests to both blind cast and sight cast large dry flies towards the banks. While many northern hemisphere anglers immediately dismiss the thought of lake fishing, we feel it remiss to visit this region without giving it a go. Not only do these lakes produce the region’s largest fish but they also can provide very exciting fishing complete with crushing top-water takes and memorable sight fishing opportunities.
Finding Fontinalis: In late March and April some very specific waters in the Las Pampas lineup mature and offer visiting anglers a unique chance to target some of the world’s largest brook trout. During the majority of the season these monster brookies inhabit a number of key lakes where they are hard to catch, but in the austral fall they migrate up a number of key rivers including the Rio Corcovado and the Rio El Tigre where they become easier to target. These systems are hard to reach and are the subject of the Patagonia clothing company’s film Finding Fontinalis, in which the guides at Las Pampas take Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard on an expedition in search of the elusive ten-pound brook trout. For anglers serious about big brook trout we recommend booking this special extension trip onto a standard lodge stay.
One of the most unique elements of the Las Pampas fishing experience is that every pair of anglers is assigned a guide and assistant guide each day. At first this might seem overkill but once the truck pulls up to the first of many gates en route to the fishing grounds it becomes very apparent how much this subtle difference enhances the experience of every angler. Outside of being the official gate-opener and closer, the assistant guide is constantly busy in the background and takes care of the initial setup of client rods, prepares rafts, runs shuttles, and prepares lunch so the main guide can focus on the guests and creating the best possible experience on the water.
Their enthusiastic and passionate guides are the best in the area, and for good reason: they are real locals and they spend the entire 180-day season fishing the Rio Pico region. With that many days on the water these guys know where and when to find the best fishing. Typically anglers and guides leave the lodge in the morning in well-equipped 4x4 trucks and spend the majority of their drive time on rough, unimproved backroads that are interesting and adventuresome in their own right. This well-choreographed fishing program delivers a level of customer service and genuine adventure that puts Las Pampas in a class by itself.
Methods: Las Pampas guides are dry fly junkies. They push beyond the boundaries of what most dry fly enthusiasts would consider optimal top-water conditions. They challenge their anglers to stick to their guns and use dries at times when most north Americans would back down and switch to subsurface techniques. Best of all, they make it work. Despite their strong tendencies to focus on head hunting for rising fish, when conditions dictate, they happily switch into their signature “we do what we gotta do” mode and approach the water with dry/dropper, nymph, or streamer rigs to get their clients into fish.
The appropriate gear to most successfully fish the Rio Pico area is simple and familiar. If you could only bring one rod, a 6-weight rigged with a floating line is without doubt the best all-around option. However, 4 and 5-weight rods have their place on some of the smaller spring creeks and when the wind blows hard or when casting sink tips with weighted streamers, a 7-weight is nice to have on hand. Another unique feature and highlight about Las Pampas Lodge is that the guides provide all terminal tackle including leaders, tippets, and flies. No more filling your boxes with often-unneeded fly patterns or worrying about how old your tippet is, Las Pampas has you covered. In Martin’s words, “this way we know every angler has the right stuff for every fishing situation we put them in.” Should you want to fish your own flies, a diverse selection of large foam terrestrials along with an assortment of classic western dries, nymphs, and streamers will serve you well.
Local Lodge Culture
In addition to stellar fishing, the entire Las Pampas experience is infused with a special and incredibly appealing vibe. The staff calls this soulful, inclusive, yerba-mate-fueled way of being “Las Pampas Style.” In my eyes, this character-rich friendliness gives Las Pampas Lodge the “it” factor that puts their lodge experience in a class by itself. They create a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere that makes every guest feel at home and part of a larger, fun-loving family.
With a trusted dream-team at his side, it comes as no surprise that lodge co-owner and general manager Agustin “Oggy” Fox is grateful to have such a fine crew of dedicated individuals to work with. They possess a natural team chemistry that enables them to consistently deliver more than just a good day of fishing. It doesn’t take long after meeting the guides and staff to realize the depth and sincerity of their passion for the region and their eagerness to share it with their guests. At the time of this writing in 2016, Las Pampas is in its fifth season of operation and the lion’s share of Oggy’s 100% local Argentine crew have been with him since day one — something that speaks strongly to what has been created in this special part of Patagonia.
The Lodge Experience
Las Pampas Lodge is a beautiful European-style log and stone structure featuring a main common area with a guest lounge, dining room, and bar which is flanked by four spacious double occupancy guest rooms, all with private baths. Each guest room opens onto a cobblestone veranda overlooking the surrounding mountainous landscape. The inviting main room has a central fireplace surrounded by a semicircle of plush built-in lounge chairs where guests can gather each evening for cocktails and share their daily adventures. Generally speaking, the lodge has every amenity you’d expect from a classic trout lodge without being too over-the-top.
The cuisine at Las Pampas Lodge is best described as gourmet farm-to-table cuisine. Their head chef, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, is passionate about the food he prepares and uses only the freshest local and organic ingredients. Many of the vegetables are grown by the community in the nearby town and sold to raise funds for the local school. Eduardo, the lodge’s full-time caretaker and cameo breakfast cook, collects fresh eggs daily and prepares fresh cuts of chicken, lamb, and beef from the free-range livestock that roam the property.
Breakfast is a standard yet filling meal featuring made-to-order eggs, toast, bacon, fruit, coffee, tea, and juice. Lunch is served streamside by your guides and commonly includes homemade gourmet dishes, salads, beverages, and desserts. Dinner is served late evening in traditional Argentine fashion and the typical menu is comprised of inspired choices that range from fresh lamb and vegetarian dishes to thick-cut steaks and chops, all of which are paired with local Argentine wines.
All in all, Las Pampas is a truly remarkable place and one that I feel fortunate to represent. From its location way out at the end of the road, to its spectacular mountainous backdrop, to the depth and diversity of its fishing program, few places can claim all that it offers. Add to that a dedicated, friendly and inclusive local staff, and it comes as no surprise that Las Pampas Lodge captures the true essence of Patagonia.