Fly Fishing: Re-thinking Patagonia’s lakes

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Photo: Rex BryngelsonPhoto: Rex Bryngelson
By Rex Bryngelson
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 1.
Lakes tend to get a bad rap. I must admit, I too used to be among the hordes of unenlightened fly fishers who look at lakes as some lesser entity, not near so sexy as a glistening stretch of freestone river. However, since I began guiding in Chile several years ago, my attitude toward lakes has been drastically transformed. Now, when weighing my fishing options at the beginning of the day, its often a toss up as to which way to go, river or lake?
The primary reason for this is that, aside from the coastal fjords, I know it is the lakes, not the rivers, where most of southern Chile’s biggest trout are to be found and, during the warm summer months of December through March, the surface action on the lakes can at times only be described as nothing short of a religious experience. 
However, there is plenty more to it than just good bug action and big fish. The lakes of Patagonia can simply be a great place to be even when the fish aren’t showing. Whether its leaning back to watch a condor ride the air currents above a high mountain ridge, or having a curious little chucao wren come sit on your foot when you step into the woods to relieve yourself, the lakes can be medicine for the soul. 
The unique geography of this part of Patagonia – with the Andes rising from the west coastal fjords and quickly giving way to the vast, dry pampas to the east – makes for a tremendous variety of lake environments. Some to the east are high mountain lakes surrounded by dry, open steppe. Others to the west are tucked beneath jagged glacier-capped peaks, surrounded by lush impenetrable rainforest.  As such, each lake possesses its own unique character with vastly distinct scenery, birdlife, insect activity – and trout behavior. 
Several regional lakes have prolific caddisfly and mayfly hatches that take place throughout the summer, but it’s the dragonfly action on many lakes that really steals the show. December and January is when the dragonfly activity is at its height in Patagonia; its not uncommon on warm, sunny days to see countless, large wild trout launching as high as four feet above the water capturing dragonflies. This is especially true on the smaller, shallower lakes that hold an abundance of brown trout.  
The best part is that, when the browns are keyed into dragonflies, they can be incredibly unselective and voracious.  They can often go into a literal feeding frenzy and almost any big, ugly dry fly will work if fished correctly. Trout can get crazed during one of these dragonfly frenzies: I once hooked and released the same 23-inch brown twice within a 20-minute time span. 
I rarely use standard dragonfly patterns. Aside from having the tendency to twist your tippet into a slinky, they rarely perform well when stripped or skated; herein lies the key. I´ve discovered that, when the browns are on to dragonflies, skating or stripping a large dry – a Chernobyl or Madam X – can provoke explosive takes. Not that this technique can in any way be assumed to accurately imitate a struggling dragonfly. For whatever reason, it works and can be a blast. It’s common for big browns to completely clear the water as they devour the fly. 
Lakes anywhere can dish out their fair share of excruciatingly slow fishing, and I don’t want to try and give the impression that the lakes in this part of Patagonia are any exception.  A little experience can go a long way toward telling you when and when not to go fish the lakes.  That still doesn’t mean there won’t be days when you’ll be caught out there wondering where in Hell all the fish went. 
That’s just fine with me.  Maybe for a little longer, I can still consider it a crowded day at the lake if I see anyone else at all.