BARILOCHE, Argentina — It’s their size and attitude that make Patagonia’s trout and land-locked salmon exert a siren call on the world’s fly fishermen. Introduced from Europe a century ago, the fish have thrived in the region’s remote, unpolluted water courses, often growing to near-record sizes.
Wild rainbow trout, which average 8 pounds in North America, are routinely landed at 20 pounds. Brown trout, which weigh in around 10 pounds in Europe, are frequently found at more than 30 pounds. Both species are cunning and difficult to catch.
Given that kind of challenge, most fishermen would drop everything to pit their wits against Patagonia’s finest. Those with the cash — from media mogul Ted Turner and singer Rod Stewart to actors Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Lambert — have snapped up tracts of Patagonian land in order to guarantee access to some of the most challenging fishing spots in the world.
Visitors, too, can fly-fish, troll, and spin in Patagonia’s ice-cold waters. The chief obstacle is cost: Exclusive fishing lodges charge as much as $850 per person per day.
Yet landing a king-size trout need not cost a king’s ransom. When a fishing buddy proposed a few days’ casting near Bariloche, Argentine Patagonia’s outdoors hub, I shopped around and found a fully-guided, four-day trip that didn’t break the bank.
We had to forgo the convenience of a lodge, which generally combines private fishing spots with gourmet food.
Instead, we got four days in Argentina’s bucolic Lake District, with its untouched forests, raging creeks, and shimmering glaciers, two guides with a pickup and a semi-rigid inflatable dinghy, and the use of rods, lines, and flies. We stayed at a decent, three-star hotel overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi, with food and wine included. At $400 per person per day, it was just within our budget.
The first morning, our guide, Allan Withington, pushed the dinghy into the fast-flowing Río Limay and we floated through an open landscape of steppe grasses, cypresses, and blackthorn, where Andean condors soared far above.
On the second day, after tramping through thickets of lenga southern beech, we pulled on wading galoshes at the shore of glacier-fed Lago Hess.
Each lunchtime, Withington conjured fold-up chairs and dining table, tablecloth and silverware, setting them out under the spreading boughs of a criollo willow or Lombardy poplar. Utterly alone in Patagonia’s big-sky landscape, we feasted on free-range, alfalfa-fed steak, washed down with enough beer or wine to quash the thirst of a football team.
By imitating the locals, it’s possible to trim costs even further. Those with a rod and line can simply pick up an all-Patagonia permit, find a stretch of deserted riverbank or lake shore, and make full use of Article 2341 of Argentina’s Civil Code. The law permits anyone to access — and fish — any river, lake, or coast, provided you get there by boat or by foot along the water’s edge.
When doing it on the cheap, the main difficulty lies in reaching fruitful fishing spots. Fitful local buses and hitched rides can work — but only if you’re happy to let fate’s caprices take you where they will. A tent, food, and stove are essential.
A sensible compromise is a rental car. Last year, I spent a week on Río Aluminé, a pristine, 100-mile river that parallels the Andes as it flows southward from northern Patagonia’s monkey puzzle forests toward 12,293-foot Lanín volcano’s perfectly symmetrical ice cap. At $450, the car was my biggest expense, but it meant I could sleep in campsite comfort (around $10 a day) and search out remote beats by day. In the week, I saw just a handful of other fishermen.
There are ways to trim costs further — by dispensing with flies, nets, and sinkers altogether. Not even a rod is strictly necessary. On southern Chile’s salmon-rich, glacier-scythed Pacific coastline, I once found the 16-year-old daughter of a hostel owner perched on the rocks, casting for feisty Pacific salmon. Her line, bobbing in the ocean spume, was fastened to nothing more robust than an empty drink can.
I made a quick calculation of costs: 30-pound nylon line, $15; salmon lure, $5, canned drink, $1. This was budget-trimming taken to an extreme.
“I’m out here every morning at 6 ,” she told me, proffering her chilled, chapped hands to prove it. “My dad’s fishing buddies come out a few hours later with all their fancy kit. But they’re too late: By that time, I’ve caught all the fish.”