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The Lure of Patagonia

Clear streams, endless skies, and elusive fish bring two best friends to the ends of the earth

My buddy Bill Erickson holds up his trout-slimed hands and inhales. “Patagonia nose candy!” he yells, making sure his voice carries across the waves of the deep Argentine lake from his raft to mine, where the stench of failure was starting to settle. My guide, Diego Ravi from Esquel Outfitters, has tried everything to improve my casts—bilingual profanity, mournful sighs, repeated instructions in the manner of a dog trainer working with his first cat—without much effect. Meanwhile, Bill revels in his triumph.

I’ve seen Bill catch many hundreds of fish over the years. It wouldn’t surprise me if he could provide the exact number. But he’s never caught fish like these, and never in a place like this. And I’d never experienced the kind of vicarious thrill, albeit tinged with envy, that swept over me as I watched Bill land the six-pound rainbow trout that inspired his exclamation.

Here’s a typical fishing excursion for Bill and me: Bill shows up in my driveway in Billings, Montana, about one hour before sunrise, about two hours earlier than seems reasonable to me, and we drive 90 miles to a section of the Bighorn River on the Crow Reservation in the eastern part of the state. We fill those miles talking about our kids. His youngest and my oldest were once second-graders together; now they’re both college age. We also talk about bad movies, worse music, and tax policy. Lots of tax policy. I get the sense that Bill spends the weeks or months between fishing trips collecting talking points designed to drive liberals crazy. One liberal in particular. “Half the country doesn’t even pay taxes at all,” he says. “Make them pay something. They should at least have some skin in the game.” I don’t understand how a hardworking guy who grew up in hardscrabble Minnesota can sound so much like Mitt Romney, but that’s the price of admission for a day on the water with my best friend.

When we reach the Bighorn, we get out of his Camry, put on our waders, light up a couple of grape-flavored Swisher Sweets cigars, and hustle to our favorite stretch of the river. The prairie gleams in the early morning sun, pheasants fly out of the brush, and Bill invariably comments on the sheer beauty of the scene. “Woolston, look at this bluebird day,” he says, even if the wind is howling and frost is already building up on our glasses. Bill sets up his rod, takes his stance, and repeatedly casts his tiny quill nymphs and pink sow bugs into the same riffle, all day long. I restlessly move up and down the river, trying to find some action. I walk, Bill fishes. I nearly fall in up to my neck when I trip over an underwater rock, Bill fishes. I start singing “Raspberry Beret,” and Bill suggests that he really didn’t need that song in his head. Then he goes back to fishing.

Even if we aren’t catching fish, we stay all day. Bill has a saying: Never quit five minutes before the miracle. Unable to predict exactly when that miracle will arrive, we end up fishing until our eyes are bleary and our faces burned by sun or wind or cold, sometimes all three.

Fishing guide Diego Ravi packs his fly box with flashy facsimiles of ants, beetles, and grasshoppers.

This Patagonia trip is a little different. Instead of Billings to the Bighorn, it is Billings to Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to Lima to Santiago to Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche. This is my first excursion to South America, and it is Bill’s first time out of the United States. Previously, in all the 15 years I’d known him, he’d never once expressed any interest in foreign travel. In life, as in fishing, he was just happier staying in one place. But if there was anything that would get him out of his comfort zone, it was this: a chance to go with me to Patagonia, famous for big fish and real bluebird days.

The trip almost didn’t happen. From Bill’s perspective, everything almost didn’t happen. A few months after I had first planted the idea of catching some fish in Argentina, he had a whopper of a heart attack (the doctor called it a “widow maker”) while playing tennis with his brother in Minnesota. Bill was 48, with his first grandchild on the way, and he somehow managed to hold on until he could get to the operating room. Never quit five minutes before the miracle. Four stents later, he swore off red meat and even stopped smoking Swisher Sweets on the river.

With Argentina in the works, he starts to worry—not about his heart but about the possible hassles of leaving home. “You’re going to have to lead me through the airports,” he says over his iced tea during one of our typical nights of dominating at bar trivia, our other major hobby. Bill is a substance abuse counselor who hasn’t had a drink since he was 16, so he’s not exactly in his element at the Grandstand Bar and Casino. He’s unassuming and plainspoken in the Minnesota fashion, but he’s the sharpest (and soberest) guy in the room, and we clean up.

While the quizmaster calculates our huge score, Bill goes on. “Are we going to look like a couple of ugly Americans down there? What are the chances that our cabdriver is just going to drive away with our stuff? I bet we’ll see armed mercenaries in the streets. We’ll have to watch out for the police. I don’t want to end up in some windowless cell.” For a guy who knows a lot about the world, he sounds reluctant to experience it.

Until he does. As one of our guides, Marcos Jaeger, drives us on arrival from Bariloche to the lodge three hours away, jagged Andes peaks and broad river valleys roll past the windows. Sitting in the backseat, Bill is quieter than usual. “I choked up a couple of times during that drive,” he tells me later. “A lot of people say that time matters, but they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

After a dinner of roast chicken, rice, and morel mushrooms, we stand in the backyard underneath the blazing Milky Way and the Southern Cross. It reminds me of a Crosby, Stills & Nash song. I keep this to myself.

As the sun starts to set, and the sharp heat of the day finally fades, we pull up to the lodge, a former country mercantile that Marcos’s parents converted into a bed-and breakfast in the mid-1970s. The living room is stocked with Patagonian fishing books, photo albums, and an open bar with tequila and Quilmes, the ubiquitous, flavor-challenged Argentine beer. Bill goes straight for the bottled water. After a dinner of roast chicken, rice, and morel mushrooms, we stand in the backyard underneath the blazing Milky Way and the Southern Cross. It reminds me of a Crosby, Stills & Nash song. I keep this to myself.

After a deep sleep and an early breakfast, it’s time for our first day of fishing. Along with Marcos and Diego, we head to the Río Rivadavia, which flows through a dense forest of beech trees and South American bamboo in the mountains of Los Alerces National Park. An ongoing drought has left its mark. The road seems to exhale dust, and the bamboo leaves have dried into papery husks that look ready to ignite. And then there’s the river, so low and so clear it’s like a liquid magnifying glass, bringing every rock and fish into sharp relief under a cloudless blue sky. Diego tells us that the river holds a few hulking brown trout in the 10-pound range that just might take a swipe at a perfectly cast, expertly retrieved streamer. In other words, we don’t really have a chance.

With Bill at the back of the raft, me at the bow, and Diego at the oars, we launch our Patagonian fishing adventure in a flail of pathetic casts, especially at the front. Diego heroically dishes out advice: I need to hold the rod more upright and pause longer during
my back cast; Bill needs to spend less time wrapping his line around the anchor. Every once in a while, one of us, usually Bill, drops the streamer right in front of a decent-size trout. “Nice cast,” Diego says. But again and again the fish ignores the offering, prompting Diego, who teaches English at the local high school, to call on his mastery of the language. “Piece of shit motherfucker.”

Diego drops anchor at the edge of a deep blue pool where a pod of rainbows is hanging out. He bites the line (no surgical scissors required) and sets us up with small nymphs tied below a strike indicator, the fly-fishing version of a bait-fisher’s worm and bobber. I make a short cast. The strike indicator drifts gently through the pool, and in a silver flash I have my first Patagonian rainbow, a 12-incher that shimmers in the net. Bill soon has a rainbow of his own, a real leaper. “Fish on!” he yells. Diego nets the trout and releases it into the water, giving Bill and me a chance to pantomime a high-five from opposite ends of the boat.

On a Patagonian river near Esquel, fishing guide Marcos Jaeger demonstrates a perfect cast.

In our normal lives Bill and I don’t have the money to hire guides. I learned most of my fishing skills from my Grandma Peg, and Bill learned from his Uncle Cecil, two old-school experts who could fill coolers with their catch but were still more interested in quality time on the water than the finer points of casting. We’re amateurs by comparison to those two, which only sweetens the rare moments when the line tightens, the rod bends, and a trout explodes from the water. We always let our fish go—sorry, Grandma—but the rush of that hookup, that feeling of connection, keeps us coming back to the water, whether it’s in Montana or Argentina.

Marcos and Diego set up a leisurely riverside lunch of salad, breaded veal, and, for me, red wine. (Bill’s personal ban on meat was taking an Argentine vacation.) The savory scent of the spread catches the attention of a fox skulking around in the bushes. Bill and I reminisce about our favorite fishing spots in Montana, and the guides talk about the select few clients from the past who were even more inept than we are.

We return to the river, Bill on Marcos’s raft and me on Diego’s, and approach the stretch where the truly huge browns live, a fact that makes my fingers twitch. And then I see one:
a dark torpedo lurking near the bank. “There he is,” Diego says. “You might only get two
or three chances at one of those all day.” I somehow drop my woolly bugger right in
front of his snout. And he doesn’t budge. “Piece of shit fish,” Diego says. As we near the boat-takeout point, Diego and Marcos agree that it’s time to put away the rods and call it a day. But Bill sees one last chance for a bonus cast against the brushy bank. A chunky rainbow ambushes his streamer, Bill’s rod bends dramatically, and I stand up and cheer, nearly falling over the side. “Does anyone else hear the theme from Rocky?” Bill yells. Never quit five minutes before the miracle.

“That was the best fishing day of my life,” Bill says that night over a plate of fire-roasted lamb and garlicky house-made chimichurri sauce. I figure he’s referring to the beauty of the water or the excitement of casting to specific fish instead of fishy-looking spots. But no. He likes the criticism. “Marcos kept telling me that my casts needed to be more precise. He said, ‘You need to be better.’ I can’t remember the last time anyone has challenged me like that. With anything.” I grab a rib from the plate. “We both could have been better,” I say. “But we’re here. Pata-goddamn-gonia.”

The next day, we drive for a couple of hours from the mountains to the vast, dry Patagonian steppes, a land of short grass, grubby sheep, and 50-mile views under a blue sky. Startled rheas, the South American version of the ostrich, flee from the side of the road like giant feathered jackrabbits. Long-necked guanacos (related to llamas) graze in the distance.

Diego enters the combination to a locked gate. In Patagonia, much of the best fishing water is on private property. We bounce across a pasture to the Río Gualjaina, a skinny, meandering stream with just enough water to support a healthy population of browns and rainbows. The idea here is to drop imitation grasshoppers into the likeliest-looking pools, preferably without wrapping your line around a branch. In theory, it’s simple: When a fish splashes for the hopper, you set the hook, reel it in, and admire your skills.

With Marcos at my side, I take a different approach. Cast. Splash. Miss. Cast. Splash. Miss. The fish are trying to take my hopper, but I’m reacting either too late, too early, or somehow a combination of both. I land a few, and Bill does even better. After catching and releasing several decent rainbows, he plops his hopper into a swirling pool under a spray of willow branches. Suddenly, the water explodes as if he had set off a depth charge. Bill yells, “Hey! Hey!” And that’s it. El Jefe, as Bill now remembers him, spits out the fly and goes back to his life of menacing other, lesser trout.

That night, we have dinner at a restaurant in Esquel, a mountain town with about 30,000 people and not a single traffic light. I have a venison steak, and Bill orders a cow brain pasta that he doesn’t quite finish. We engage in the typical frustrated fisherman conversation, the kinds of things you talk about when you can’t celebrate a spectacular fish. “It was great just being in that place,” I say. “I missed some chances. But just seeing the fish take the hopper is the fun part.” Which is mostly true.

After two days of Patagonian fishing, we had seen some knockout scenery and hooked up with some gorgeous, lively trout, but we were still missing the trophy moment: the one big fish that would outshine and outclass anything we’d caught before, the fish that could fill pictures for our friends and family back home, the fish that we could store in our memory banks and talk about during lulls in the trivia. There was still hope: The final day would take us to a private mountain lake full of big trout willing to overlook anglers’ inadequacies.

Marcos and Diego always refer to this place as “the lagoon,” which conjures images of Gilligan’s Island, but it’s really a good-size lake surrounded by alpine grass and the charred remains of a forest that burned six years ago. Like the river the day before, this lake is behind a locked gate, but this time we need a hacksaw to get in, because somebody had changed the lock. The wind blows in our faces and whips up waves, but Marcos isn’t worried. “It would have to be blowing 100 miles per hour for us to quit,” he says. I climb onto Diego’s raft and trail an olive-green woolly bugger in the water as he paddles against the wind. Before long, wham, my rod jerks violently, and I catch a two-pound brook trout, a bronze beauty flecked with blue and purple spots. “Way to go, homie!” Bill yells, right before he hooks a solid rainbow of his own.

Bill Erickson on a long day of fishing in Patagonia.

I struggle with my casting all day, and by afternoon the wind has sapped most of the heat from my bones, but I still have a case of Argentina perma-grin. Watching Bill battle and catch his six-pound rainbow, Patagonia nose candy, is my favorite moment of sports fandom, ever. After dragging him all the way down here, I needed him to have his trophy and triumphant moment: a big, beautiful, slimy “screw you” to the widow maker. I catch a few fish here and there, including a four-pound rainbow of my own, and I have a feeling that I’m not done. When Diego and Marcos decide it’s time to start heading back, we’re about half a mile away from the trucks—a lot of water and a lot of fish between me and the finish line. With Diego rowing slowly, I cast my streamer right along the bank, and pow! It’s a brawny brook trout like I’ve never seen, the last fish of the trip, the miracle that keeps a person from quitting.

We grab our final dinner in Argentina at the Esquel restaurant. It’s 10:30 at night, and families with kids are just arriving. We have to get up early the next morning for the drive to Bariloche to start our long series of flights home. My elbow hurts from reeling in fish. Bill’s eyelids look droopy. “I can’t believe we did it,” I say. “There were a lot of moving parts to this trip, but everything worked out perfectly.”

“It was fantastic,” Bill says. “And I’m going to have a steak.” Most Patagonian fishing trips are longer than ours. Marcos’s next batch of clients signed up for nine days. But this feels right. In three days of fishing we traveled from the mountains to the steppes. We had an adventure far away from the Bighorn and seemingly farther away from the realm of possibility. We got what we came for. We also caught some fish.

The driver who delivers us to the international terminal in Buenos Aires barely speaks a word of English, but he manages to express his love of the Boca Juniors fútbol team¡Boca es Argentina!”—and he shows us a picture of his baby grandson, something he and Bill have in common. As we weave through traffic, Bill is already making real plans to come back, preferably with his son. “I can’t believe how nice the people are down here,” he says. “The guides, the waitresses, this dude right here. Imagine if you dropped a poor bastard from Argentina who couldn’t speak English into the middle of Billings, Montana. I doubt he’d be treated as well as everyone treated us.”

It occurs to me that another world traveler has been born. As a bonus, we have a new team name for bar trivia: Patagonia Nose Candy, a team that’s going to keep winning for years to come.

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