By Mark Kuipers
This January I experienced an amazing trip to Chile at Magic Waters Patagonia Lodge. Magicwaterspatagonia.com (The website is being revised so it might not be available right now.) The trip was hosted by Chris and Tara McCreedy of Big Fork, MT and there were a total of 6 of us on the trip, 5 from Montana and 1 from Washington State. The lodge can hold a dozen fishermen. We joined the video team of David and Amelia Jensen who were video documenting the fishing in the area. Check out this incredible video or go to their website for a full catalog of videos. It will give you more than a taste of the Chilean fly fishing experience.
We caught lots and lots of large brown trout on big dry flies and small streamers casting to fish that are rarely fished for. The lodge combined comfort and understated luxury. The staff, warm and gracious, made us feel at home. The guides, friendly, helpful and knowledgeable, knew the waters and were fun to fish with. Everyone spoke excellent conversational English. Not surprisingly, the food exceeded expectations. Our group was copacetic in all regards and we had a great time fishing and then telling stories around drinks and dinner. Chile, strikingly beautiful, reminded me of Montana, Alaska, western Washington State and even central California with multiple micro-climates giving us visual surprises around every corner. Now the details.
It is impossible to state just how varied and extensive the rivers, streams and lakes are in Patagonia. And how empty they are of other fishermen as we saw no one else fishing. The hardest decision was deciding where to go for the day, although there were no bad choices as all the fishing was excellent, striking the perfect balance between not too easy and not too hard. The first afternoon, I fished a small spring creek that demanded accurate casts, small flies and careful presentations. My first cast rose a nice brown and there were many more to follow. No big fish presented themselves but I had a ball and know there was a 5 pounder in the little creek just waiting for the right fly and presentation.
The next day I fished the Simpson, which reminded me a lot of Montana’s Bitterroot only without the woody debris. Wading was easy on the gravel and cobble and the fish held where fish hold when there is no pressure. I found 20” fish holding in slow, soft water just a few inches deep as well as in all the typical lies. I fished alone as the guide focused on helping our 85-year old fishing buddy, Skeets, make the most of the day which he proceeded to do. While I’m not much of a fish counter, I think I caught between 50 and 60 trout, mostly browns. The typical fish was 16” to 18” with some up to 20” and only a few smaller. While fun to fish, I found the Simpson a bit too similar to my home waters but others in the group said it was their favorite river.
I fished mostly big dry flies like Fat Alberts and Chubbys as the fish were not selective and are terrestrial focused for the most part. Just for fun, I went old school and swung some soft hackles. The trout liked them a lot.
The second full day I fished a river that was so different from anything I had ever seen or fished. I also fished it the last day. Much of the river flowed over ledge rock with a depth of just a few inches. Covered in weeds and fairly uniform, the wading was pretty easy. Throughout the ledge rock were slits or crevasses from 18” to 4 feet wide, a couple of feet deep and 30 to 50 feet long. They held large brown trout looking for food. A precise cast to the high potential spot would yield a rise about 30% to 40% of the time, often when the fly hit the water or just as it was ready to wash over a rock. Very exciting and visual fishing. Fish were in the 16” to 20” range with a few larger and hardly any smaller. All the fish were fat, thick bodied and strong quality fish.
This river also had sections of sand with deeper water and undercut banks, but I found that a bit boring and skipped up to the fun water, certainly bypassing some good fish to get to others. I loved this river.
For bigger fish, we traveled to a lake about an hour from the lodge. It was about 4 miles long and a third of a mile wide, mostly very deep with some reedy shallow areas and dead fall on the banks. We saw big browns leaping out of the water capturing large dragon flies in midair! Casting a fat bug to the shore, letting it sit and then giving it a twitch was the ticket. Sometimes they would smash the fly and other times daintily plucking it off the surface. More like bass fishing than trout fishing, the lake yielded fish in the 20” to 22” class with some bigger ones missed. They were deep bodied and very strong.
When the surface fishing got slow, to the guide’s skepticism, I put on a Light Spruce in size 8 and worked the bank on a floating line. They ate it like candy! I also fished another old school pattern, a small Black-Nosed Dace. Easy to cast in the wind and the fish chased it down just like the Light Spruce. No need for a big heavy streamer.
I caught a dozen or so fish and lost twice that many on the strike or in the reeds. What a place! And I haven’t even mentioned its beauty, steep mountains plunging into the lake with peaks of the Andes in the background.
Another day, we drove to a lake with a raft and motor in tow. A 5-mile trip up the lake, through a channel into another lake and another 5 or 6 miles brought us to another river channel. We beached the raft and walked to the outlet at the far end and fished upstream. Pure clear water yielded big browns coming through the fast water and sucking in our big dries. My fishing buddy that day was Chris McCreedy and we spanked them good. For a change of pace, Chris put on a #14 caddis dry as there was a sparse hatch. They ate that very well.
The wading was easy although the current was strong and there was a lot of deep water preventing us from fishing both sides of the river. The mountains there went straight up and between the near peaks we could see the vast snow fields and glaciers of the Andes. Not another fisherman or even a boot print in the sand.
The second to the last day, my guide and I drove about an hour to a small mountain stream where we were met by a gaucho and three horses. We rode horses maybe three miles upstream and got out to fish while the gaucho build a fire, roasting half a lamb the traditional way on a wooden cross. We met him after fishing about four hours and began feasting on the lamb and sides and putting a big dent in an excellent bottle of Chilean red wine, happily breaking my rule of not drinking during fishing hours. This excursion exemplifies what the lodge does to provide an exceptional experience beyond the fishing.
One thing I have yet to mention that is important for the visiting angler to know: this is a windy part of the world. On the first day on the river with the ledge rock, we had to get on our knees a few times to avoid being blown over! While gauging wind is hard, we estimated gusts to 50 or 60 miles an hour, with a more steady wind of 30. Most days the wind blew closer to 20 miles an hour. This is just a fact of life, although the guides said this was the windiest they had fished in. Come with that expectation in mind although I understand that March is less windy. This is not a place for a beginner but anyone with average casting skills will do just fine.
I fished a 5 weight Winston, which was a bit under gunned for the big flies and the wind but that is what I have. A six weight would be better. My friend Lee Haskin tied me some twisted leaders and they were a huge advantage in turning over the flies in the wind. I mostly used 3x or 4x except in the lake where I used 10 pound Maxima. The trout were not leader shy but the lighter tippets provide a better drift.
A day’s fishing began with breakfast a 7:30 and then meeting the guides at 8:30 for the trip to the river or lake. We generally travelled 30 minutes to an hour to get to our fishing spot and then fished until 6:00 pm or so. Lunch on the river was usually soup, sandwich and salad and sometimes a nice nap occurred. The temperature ranged from the 60’s to mid-70’s so a light jacket and a windbreaker was all that was needed, although like Montana any weather should be prepared for. We had no rain during the day beyond a few drops.
I waded every day except for the day on the lake but others floated larger rivers and talked of the exceptional scenery, fun rapids and great fishing. If you prefer to float rivers, you could do that every day.
The Lodge, Food and Staff
The spacious lodge faced a small lake that was full of nice trout although we never fished it. After all, how many trout do you need to catch in a day! We gathered in the main room for cocktails and appetizers sharing stories of our fishing. A large fireplace crackled and the view of the mountains included grazing horses and cattle. On cue, a condor flew by! The Pisco Sours were delicious and a bit dangerous as one easily led to another. The apps ranged from crab, scallops, salmon, tuna, skewered meat, empanadas and other Chilean delicacies, all of them delicious and abundant.
Traditional Chilean food was served for dinner starting with a light soup and salad. Everyone commented on the freshness and quality of the lettuce, not a thing people usually rave about. But it was really good! The entrees included salmon, Chilean sea bass, beef tenderloin, an amazing mixed grill of chicken, lamb, beef, pork and sausage, ravioli and lamb roasted in the traditional South American way. The desserts were fancy and delicious.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wine. The reds and whites were excellent and flowed freely throughout dinner. One had to be careful so as not to impact the fishing the next day.
Breakfasts included fruit, bread, meat, cheese as well as a small egg dish or French toast or crepe. The coffee was excellent.
The staff was all Chilean, along with one North American guide, and very friendly and warm. They all spoke English very well and it was fun to chat them up about fishing, Chile and their families. The hard working guides focused on helping everyone get into fish and have a good time. Eduardo and Consuela, the lodge owners and hosts, run a fantastic operation and everyone felt at home. It is a real testament to their skills and vision to have created this lodge and operation. I’ve enjoyed a half dozen other fishing lodges and Magic Waters Patagonia is right at the top in all respects.
The last night at the lodge, Eduardo and Consuela had arranged for a group of local musicians to play for us. I for one would have just as soon turned in a bit early. But that would have been a mistake. They played and sang their hearts out with talent and passion and everyone had a great time. This is another example of what makes Magic Waters Patagonia such a special place.
Before the trip I struggled between trepidation and anticipation because of the length of the trip and all the Covid requirements. Well, it is a long trip from Montana to Chile but that is one of the prices we pay for living in Montana. I left Missoula to Salt Lake City at 5:50 am and then on to Atlanta where we had an overnight 9 ½ hour flight to Santiago. When we arrived it took about two hours to go through Covid testing and customs. I was impressed with how efficient the testing was and we got our results in a few hours via email.
Without Covid requirements we could have gotten on a 737 jet flight to Balmaceda that morning, but instead we went to a nearby hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn, had lunch, took a long nap, ate dinner and went to bed. Santiago, a city of 6.7 million and looking like LA from the air, is supposed to be an interesting place to visit but we decided to just catch up on sleep and be ready for fishing. That was a smart move as we fished long and hard!
The next morning we were at the airport at 8 am for a 10:32 flight to Balmaceda, a 2 ½ hour flight south, about 1,000 miles to Patagonia. The airport has 9 737 jet flights a day from Santiago as it sits on the only flat area in Patagonia and serves a wide area of very sparse population. It is also a way for climbers to get to Argentina for ascents of Aconcagua, at 22,837’ the highest mountain in the Andes. There were about a dozen North Americans on the packed 175 passenger flight. The lodge met us at the airport and an hour later we sat down to a delicious lunch of chicken stew, with squash and corn.
So it took us 2 ½ days to get to the lodge. Without Covid it would take 1 ½ days.
On the way back we had 44 hours of straight travel. We left the lodge in the morning, caught a flight to Santiago and then on to Atlanta where we ran into a winter storm that had the southeast in airline chaos. Instead of going to MSP and then on to MSO and getting home around noon, we got on a plane to SLC, suffered through a 10 ½ hour layover and got home at 1 am. A very long two days.
Surprisingly to me, it is about the same distance from Montana to Chile as it is Montana to New Zealand, with about New Zealand being 500 miles further. The advantage to Chile is a 4-hour time difference rather than 10 hours in New Zealand so it is easier with the jet lag.
So the fishing time to travel time ratio was a bit out of whack. I’d do this trip again but I’d extend my time by a few more days at the lodge or rent a car and do some trekking and fishing on my own. The stream access laws are similar to those in Montana meaning that if you can access a river at a bridge or another public area you can fish the river. There might be a bit more pressure on those spots but nothing walking a half-mile wouldn’t solve. Some Spanish would be helpful because Patagonia is a very rural and isolated place and few local people outside of the lodges speak English. I just might attempt learning some Spanish before my next trip and I am going back for sure!
Covid Protocols in Chile
Chile is about 93% vaccinated and is very strict about testing, mask wearing and sanitation. We tested before leaving the US, on arrival and before departure. We were required to report our health by email every day by filling out a short questionnaire. Masks are required indoors and outdoors in public areas and there are temperature checks and hand sanitizer stations at public markets. The lodge was self-contained so we went mask-less during our stay and we all felt very comfortable and safe.
On the way home, our Covid documents were checked at every stage of our travel, but it was efficient and easy to comply. Our family is way on the extreme of Covid caution and I was very comfortable with all aspects of the Covid safety in Chile although they are going through the same spike as most of the rest of the world. We had no incidents of poor mask wearing on planes and airports. It was probably safer traveling than going mask-less to the grocery store in Missoula.
So, if you have always thought about a trip to Chile, I hope this encourages you to act on it. Yes, the travel is tough but things that are tough often yield the best results. And that is the case with Chile.
Chris and Tara McCreedy are going to host a trip in 2023 and you can contact them at email@example.com. Or contact Magic Waters Patagonia directly.