After a flight halfway down the world and another halfway across Argentina, an all-night bus ride and jaunts on subways and taxis, after dreaming and planning about this day for over six months, there I was—finally—standing on the banks of the Rio Malleo in the foothills of the Andes.
The river was roughly the width of the Au Sable’s Holy Water stretch near Grayling and just as clear. But it was slightly deeper, possessed a much stronger current and its bottom was composed of round, slippery rocks and small boulders. I immediately regretted not bringing a wading staff. I stepped into it gingerly and cautiously moved toward the center of the river with my guide, Marco, urging me on from behind with what little English he knew.
On my first cast I was still getting organized when a trout took the No. 14 parachute Adams, a dry fly Marco selected and tied on for me. I totally missed the fish. On my third cast I was ready and after setting the hook watched with amazement as the trout leaped out of the water repeatedly and then ran with surprising power before I could reel it in to Marco who was standing guard with a net.
It was 12-inch rainbow, a beautiful fish with a bright pink splash of color along its sides. A 12-inch trout is a nice fish on Au Sable. A 12-inch trout is a great fish for me on the Au Sable. But before I could get my camera out Marco had removed the hook and slipped the trout back into the river, saying three consecutive words of English for the first time that day.
“Call your momma,” he said as the fish darted off.
A 12-inch trout was not a great fish to Marco.
Up to then, my only experience with guides was as part of a driftboat float, targeting steelhead. I had never had a guide for wading until Marco showed up at 11 a.m. my first day in Junin de los Andes, a small town in the Patagonia region. He was supposed to pick me up at 10 a.m. and that’s when I learned everything runs an hour late in Argentina.
We drove north of town, to within 20 miles of the Chile border, to a stretch of the upper Rio Malleo that Marco obviously knew well. The river was part of the country’s famed Lakes District. Preserved high in the Andes within Lanin National Park were a dozen huge lakes whose rivers descended towards Junin de los Andes.
They were rivers with cold, clear water and filled with rainbows and browns. Every one of them was designated flies-only and catch-and-release, the reason this small town is known as the fly fishing capital of Argentina.
Within the first hour there I hooked and released a dozen rainbows. I also managed to snag my fly a half dozen times in a branch which wasn’t easy, considering the lack of trees along most of the bank. At first it was embarrassing. Marco would rush over and retrieve the fly and untangle my tippet or replaced it. He also insisted on untangling my wind knots and, with a steady breeze throughout the day, some were ugly.
Often our conversation in the beginning was little more than me saying “sorry” for another wind knot and Marco replying “no problem, no problem.” But after a while my embarrassment eased up. Having somebody untangle your tippet was nice.
Other times he would say “mend” which I knew well but was struggling to do in the wind. Or “coast too close” which I quickly realized meant he wanted me further from the bank or else the trout I was casting to might spot me.
I spent seven hours that first day slowly working the pools and runs with him a couple yards behind me, watching intently. When my cast was a poor one, he’d quickly say “again.” When I nailed a particular hole he’d say “good cast” and eventually hearing a complement was almost as satisfying as catching a 12-inch rainbow.
When we broke for lunch, Marco set up a small folding table and chairs on the bank of the river and covered it with plates of crusty bread, thin pieces of chilled beef that had been coated and cooked like chicken-fried steak and marinated potatoes. We washed everything down with cans of ice cold beer that been sitting in the river.
For as little as we knew of each other’s language it was amazing how much we conversed. I learned he was 30 years old and his wife was expecting her first child. He once attended a university near Buenos Aires but hated the sprawling city so much he returned to Junin de los Andes within a year, vowing never to leave the Patagonia again.
He learned this was my first trip to Argentina and possibly the only chance I’d ever have to fish his rivers.
By early evening the wind had eased up and we were working well as a team. I had found my rhythm, casting steadily and needing only one or two false casts to re-position the fly and lengthen my line. From behind I heard a constant “good cast…good cast…good cast” as I caught and Marco released numerous trout in the 12-14 inch range and an occasional 15-16 inch fish.
When we came to a tree that fallen into the river we both instinctively knew there was probably a trout in the patch of quiet water it created. I managed to drop that fly right against the tree so it could float across the smooth surface. From behind I heard “best cast.”
I smiled and might have turned to say something to Marco but almost immediately a dark, elongated shadow darted from underneath the fallen tree and slurped in that fly. I set the hook and it ran hard downstream.
The fish never broke the surface but one point I was within a few feet of my backing. I patiently work line back, only to watch the trout take it out again at will. At times it sat so still on the bottom of the river I thought the hook was snagged on a submerged log.
Then it would run again.
Finally after 10 minutes, the fish tired and I was able to work it in close enough for Marco to scoop it up with his net. It was a 22-inch brown trout and for a minute or two we both just stood there gazed down at the fish.
It only the third time I had ever caught a trout 20 inches or larger on a fly and I suspect Marco sensed this was a personal trophy for me.
He smiled and said “day awesome, huh Jim?”
I laughed at hearing another unexpected word of English and there was only one thing I could say.
“Day awesome, Marco. Day awesome.”