Chile on the cheap
November 7, 2009
To a fly fisherman, Chile is the Shangri-La of the trout fishing world. It’s one of those places most of us have on our life list of places to go. Being no different than any other red blooded fly fisher, I wanted Chile on my list of places fished. The biggest obstacle was going to be money. Most of the lodges in Patagonia charge around $500.00 per day based on double occupancy – well beyond my budget. But with years getting the better of me, I needed to do it while I still could.
A Norwegian friend of mine Jan Gunnar Furuly had fished the area around Coyhaique while on a work assignment and told me I should just go down and fish without doing it through a lodge. “With your rich history of adventure travel, and fishing and guiding experience in the American West”, Jan assured me I’d have no trouble. Subsequent trips in January 2008 and 2009 have taught me a lot about the area and how to fish it.
Where to go
Chile is a long narrow country stretching from 17 degrees 30 minutes south to 56 degrees south in Terra Del Fuago. The fly fishing portion of the country begins near Pourto Montt at about 42 degrees and continues south to about 52 degrees south. That covers a lot of miles. My internet search and Jan’s advise both suggested that the area around Coyhaique should be my destination. Coyhaique has several characteristics that make it the ideal base station. The three main considerations are the size of the city (approximately 40,000); daily air service less than 30 miles away; and the wide variety of fishing options within 2 hours drive of Coyhaique.
Being south of the equator, Patagonia’s seasons are the reverse of ours in the Northern Hemisphere. Our winter is their summer and that is the time to go. Chile’s season opens on the 1st of November and runs through the 30th of April. My experience has been that the best fishing starts to really pick up during the second full week in January, the equivalent to the second week in July where I guide in Wyoming, and continues into mid-February. Further south into southern Patagonia and Terra Del Fuago the prime season starts later.
Several airlines fly to Santiago, Chile. From Santiago there are two options for continuing on to Coyhaique. The fastest way to get to Coyhaique is to fly from Santiago to the area’s regional airport Balmaceda (code BBA) via Puerto Montt, a flight of just over 2 hour. The round trip fare is just over $600 on LAN. A smaller airline, Sky Airline, also flies between Santiago and Balmaceda. Sky’s prices are often significantly cheaper but they don’t show up on web searches and their web site is in Spanish; however, if you call you can request an English speaking agent.
A second option is to take the overnight bus from Santiago to Puerto Montt. From Puerto Montt you fly to Balmaceda via Sky or LAN. The Salon Class provides deep reclining seats, a light dinner and breakfast for a modest price.
Doing it cheap means driving yourself. There are several local car rental agencies in the area but I suggest opting for a major international company such as Budget or Hertz. Almost all the roads, including most of the Pan American Highway and the Carreterere Austral, are gravel, and while 4 wheel drive isn’t a necessity, good ground clearance is – an SUV or small pick up truck will take care of driving needs. Most local road maps are in limited detail and accuracy and show only the major roads so it will help if you have a reasonable sense of direction.
Where to stay
Coyhaique has a wide range of lodging options, including hotels, cabins, B and B’s and private rooms. As you can guess, the prices cover a similar range. By far the most economical option is one of the many “hospedaje’s”. These are rooming houses and cost between $11 and $15 per night with a shared bath. Hotels are between $50 and $70 per night (single). For a group of 3 or 4, cabañas are reasonable at $100 to $150 a night.
Outside of Coyhaique there are few places to stay. Manihuales, a small town about 40 miles north of Coyhaique has one hospedaje with 3 rooms but it is generally full. Stopping and checking on availability in the near future is possible.
As the regional trade center for central Patagonia, Coyhaique has all the services you could need including banks and ATM, two supermarkets, restaurants, a fly shop and, hopefully not, a hospital.
Places to fish
Fishing is either in the rivers and streams or in the lakes. The big lakes are known as largo’s while the smaller ones are laguna’s. If you are looking for BIG trout the relatively shallow and fertile laguna’s are the places to fish. Other than a few areas of the shore line and possibly the inlets or outlets they are virtually unfishable without a boat.
For rivers and streams the answer of where to fish in Patagonia is “anyplace there is a stream!” They all have fish. Rules in Chile state that if you can access a stream at a public location, such as a bridge, you can walk along its banks and fish. The routine is to approach a bridge, find a place to pull off the road, get down to the river and fish. The Chileans’ love of fences will sometimes bar your way to many stretches of bank.
Not staying in a lodge means you are primarily limited to the smaller wadeable streams and rivers. It is hardly worth your time trying to fish the big rivers like the lower Simpson or the Manihuales without a boat. But there are more than enough smaller waters to keep you occupied. In a week you can easily fish close to 20 different locations if you want to.
The character of the rivers is determined in large part by their location, in the mountains and foothills or up on the pampas. Mountain and foothill rivers tend to have better habitat than the pampas rivers but are often have limited access. They’re either located in steep narrow valleys or had carved an impassable gorge through the rock. Often a gorge is only 50 to 100 yards long before opening back into a valley.
Pampas rivers are wide open and don’t have the limitations of how far you can fish without running into a gorge or other restriction. Their problem is the WIND and limited amounts of quality habitat. The substrate, baseball to softball sized rock, doesn’t provide much holding water. Even at bends, undercut banks rarely develop. But anyplace there is habitat there are fish, lots of them and often a good fish or two.
And then there are those rivers in the transition between the mountains and the pampas that have the best of both worlds – long easily accessible reaches with good habitat. These locations produce a lot of fish and some very good sized ones.
The quality of the fishing
Don’t be lead on by the hype from the magazine stories and the lodge ads. If you are, you will be a bit disappointed in the fishing. The truly big fish come from the big floatable rivers or the lagunas. The number of fish you catch each day is amazing – it’s not unusual to catch 50 + trout a day, including a few real specimens. Most fish are around 12 inch. Maybe one in ten goes around 14 or 15 inches, and one in 20 will be around 18 inches. A 24 inch fish is not out of the question even on one of the smaller rivers. All the fish are extremely healthy and very acrobatic. On more than one occasion I’ve been sure I had the “Oh Sh*t” fish, only to have it be 14 inches.
Your “home water” rig will more than likely work just fine. A 4 or 5 wt rod will be suitable for most every situation.
The Coyhaique area streams and rivers are a dry fly fisherman’s paradise. And the fish are not picky or selective. A selection of 3X – 4X leader in 71/2 feet lengths will be just fined. If you need something finer a roll of 5X tippet will be adequate. With regard to flies, a caddis – color of your choice – or an Adams in size 14 will work just about anyplace. For Pampas rivers and streams a few hoppers are nice to have along. 2010 will be a beetle year so make sure you have some along. That doesn’t mean that you should leave your nymph and streamer boxes at home. There will be opportunity enough to put them to good use.
Chile is not a second or third world country populated with “banditos”. While it is relatively poor, and many areas are very remote, it is safe and the people are friendly. The water in Coyhaique is good to drink so you can fill your canteen without buying bottled. Otherwise you only need observe the same safety precautions you would any place else you fish.
Several airlines provide service to Santiago with connections to Patagonia. While price is always important it should be balanced with travel time. You may want to consider a day’s layover in Santiago to recover and taste the wines.
Stream Side Adventures offers a 6 day - 6 night hosted Chile Adventure that includes pick up and drop off at the Balmaceda airport, use of a vehicle, local lodging, and maps, directions and advise on where to fish each day. Stream Side Adventures staff are always available to help and accompany you. Packages are available between January 14th – 20th and January 22nd - 28th. Stream Side Adventures will make every effort to accommodate you if these dates do not fit you schedule.
Website: Stream Side Adventures