Chile on the cheap

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.

Getting there

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.

Getting around

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.

Foothill stream

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.

Start of the gorge

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

Perfect rainbow trout

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.

Equipment

Your “home water” rig will more than likely work just fine. A 4 or 5 wt rod will be suitable for most every situation.

A perfect brown trout

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.

Safety

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.

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15 thoughts on “Chile on the cheap

  1. Hi my name is nick and I am going to coyhaique in a couple weeks. I have never been there and I am looking to fish some good waters and am willing to hike to get to them do you have any suggestions as to where to go? I love to fish were no one else is, and am willing to hike long distances to do so. I would appreciate any info you have.
    nick
    nicksbobcatservice2005@yahoo.com

    • Hi Nick, i’m pretty sure Norm is in Chile right now. He may or may not have internet access. if you don’t hear back any time soon you might contact StreamSideAdventures, Norm’s business, call 913-645-1994. Someone there might be able to help. Good luck with your adventure. Raif

    • Nick,
      Popular misconception is that you can “hike” in to get to back country areas that aren’t visited often. The geology/topography makes access to many back areas next to impossible due to gorges and canyons that are not passable. Look on google earth to see what I’m talking about.

      The lodges don’t do the small streams. They float or jet boat the big rivers. So while a lot of people base in Coyhaique you don’t run into guides with clients except on a couple of streams and then just very short stretches.

      Chile has “Montana Rules.” If you can access at a public location/easement you can walk along the banks. So just get out and drive, find a spot that looks good and fish. You do need to have a vehicle. 4WD is not necessary as rental fee is very high.

      It is very hot here right now – 35+ – which is making the fishing tough. Weather reports call for a nice cool down. When are you coming? I’ll be in Coyhaique for another couple of days and then going north for about a week. I’ll be out of internet from the 25th to the 5th.

      Norm

      • Thanks for the info, I will be there on the 3rd of february. I appreciate the info, hopefully the weather will be better.
        nick

  2. I’m bussing into Pucon tomorrow to start working south toward Coyhaique. If anyone wants to get together to fish, or even for a beer, shoot me an email.

    Thanks for this article, you’ve provided some great info!

  3. Hi guys,

    Graham from Scotland here. Heading over from Argentina 29th, would be happy to share a beer or some stories with Nick or Matt. My partner is with me but she loves just chilling and reading books so transport is available as we hire car 29th from Puerto Montt. Nice fishing here at the moment and getting a lot cooler, 31 now down to 23 in a few days.
    Tight Lines
    Graham

  4. Never have heard anything from you guys who were coming down fishing in Patagonia. I have 5 more days of “me” fishing before I fly home.

  5. Back in Scotland, made a mess of Chile and hardly fished at all
    Enjoyed your writings
    Cheers
    Graham

  6. Thank you for the post!

    I will be in Puerto Montt for business in the first week of April and plan to take a trip to Coyhaique for some great fly fishing.

    I’m in my twenties and love backpacking/camping instead of the expensive lodges (a reason i loved this post). Where is camping permitted in Coyhaique?

    I saw you mentioned hiking in and fishing wasn’t as doable as it is in other places because of the landscape. Do you have any suggestions of areas it could be possible? Is there any way to do it without a rental car? Hitchhiking possibly?

    I’d appreciate any help you have to offer. Even with all the research i’ve done on Coyhaiqe, I still don’t have a great idea of what to expect.

    my email is mattbrooker1@gmail.com if that would be easier.

    Thank you!!

    • Couple of things to think about:

      I’ve never been here that time of year. I’m generally heading home just about now. In fact I leave on Thursday. 7 weeks gets long. Fun but long. I have no idea what the fishing will be like in April. This is mostly Brown trout and they will be into the spawn about then. Could be great or they could have lockjaw. Don’t think the small streams we concentrate on will be that great. Rivers/streams near Purto Montt area might be a bit better or even over in Esquel area of Argentina. Big Brook Trout around Largo Vintter. Bus from Purto Montt is good.

      Truck rental is high but if you balance fishing time and access against cost it is the way to go. Hell company has payed your trip here and back. spring for the extra and make it worthwhile. Hitching and camping is romantic and makes for a lot of drinks back home when you tell the story. It would likely take you a day just to get to the Valley of the Moon and that is Just 60 Km from Coyhaique. Add more time to get to a decent place to fish – if you get a good one on first try. http://www.traeger.cl is the best rental spot for price.

      Assuming you rent a truck, there are all kinds of Hospedajas in Coyhaique. For about 10,000 CP you get a room with shared bath, likely kitchen access, and WiFi. I use Hospedaja Monduca at 571 Simpson. owner Veronica is nice and the place is super clean.

      DON”T think that you are going to catch one 20 inch trout after another. We all put big trout in ads. One 18 incher a day is good if you are walk/wading. Every once in a while you get great days. “Went to Valley of the Moon like I planned. Walked 45 minutes downstream to a fence. Stream only 5 feet wide, deep, and lined with reeds and sedges in lots of areas. Lot of places impossible to cast. But when you could!!!! Might have been one of the best days of fishing I’ve ever had. 5 18 inch browns and too many to count 13-15inch fish. Pictures next week when I get home. What a day!”

      But don’t expect that. Big fish come from lakes. Consider bringing a float tube and fishing around the inlets.

      Take the advise of an old guy -I’m 65 – rent a truck and explore. I still strike out on some exploratory days but I win some good ones!

      Norm

  7. I was down there January 24 to February 3. Rented a truck and backpacked and camped. It was fantastic! Will be planning the same trip same time next year.

  8. Hi,

    This is Philipp from US. I plan a fly fishing trip to Coyhaique in the beginning of Dec. How is the fishing during this time? Is it worth to go or should I consider a region further up north?

    Thanks for your opinion!

    Philipp

  9. Hello,

    I’m going to be in Chile for a month in Feb 2014 with my girlfriend.. I’ll be heading down to Puerto Montt and working my way up to Santiago.. My girlfriend isn’t too keen on watching me fish, so was wondering if anyone knew of some cheeky spots along the way I could get a day or two in.. Or if someone is going to be there then, and happy to fish with me, I’ll happily pay for a days car rental..

    Email me jb_85_@hotmail.com

    Thanks for your article Norm there is basically no info for DIY fishing Chile..

    Hope to hear from you soon..

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