Rio Grande, Kau Tapen Lodge, 2nd to 9th March 2013
This trip began to evolve at the Game Fair of 2011 when I saw Santi Seeber from Nervous Waters and met my cousin who was keen to come down and try the legendary sea trout of Tierra del Fuego. We are a party of 11 in total with one friend unable to come at the last minute and what an excellent group. You know that things are going well when nobody minds who they sit next to at dinner and the teasing is robust!
The last time I was down on the Rio Grande was 1998 and before that was my first visit in 1992. Things have changed a great deal since then with the evolvement of two new lodges on the lower water and the massive increase in number of fish and the subsequent settling of numbers to a more realistic level. I think it is a magical place with a unique atmosphere, stunning landscape and big, big skies. It reminds me of Iceland with its ever-varying pastel skies and changing weather. I headed south with great anticipation, inquisitive to see for myself how things have changed and evolved.
The British Airways flight leaves at a perfect time of day, 2145. You can have dinner in the airport and plan to sleep once on the plane or, it is not too late to wait for dinner on the plane and then hit the sack. We arrived on time at just before 9am. As you leave the plane, the airport is very new and smart but passing through it seems to get a little more tired. The line for passport control looked long but went impressively fast with booth number 9 out-performing all others! The luggage was a little slow and ‘coming through’ was a little crowded with the hustle and bustle of a busy airport but we were soon whisked away by Bianca (our meet and greet lady) and soon we were on the bus to the Loi Suites, a journey of about an hour. One point to note; have $15 handy to tip Bianca ($10) and the driver ($5) if in a group and maybe a little more if on your own.
Our rooms were not ready so the team headed out to lunch and tucked in to Argentine steaks at Fervor (http://www.fervorbrasas.com.ar/), a short walk from the hotel. In the afternoon I went and looked at some cheaper hotel options and was impressed by them all, with the best being the Pullitzer. The Lancaster was a close second. These are approx $150 night hotels and were really good value including breakfast and Wi-Fi. We all met in the bar in the evening and had a relaxed early supper at Loi Suites ready for our 3am start!
Bianca was there to meet us again and we headed to Aeroparque, the domestic airport in Buenos Aires for check-in. Those in Premium Economy were allowed 32kg of luggage and were just about in weight but we were all stung for overweight with a 15kg limit in economy. I have made a note to recommend Business because at $600 more for four flights (we were headed to Cordoba shooting after fishing – see report here), it is almost more cost effective after overweight and much more comfortable. We decided to have some croissant and coffee before we went through security because the choice was wider. Security was quick and easy with not too many people and no need to pull laptops out and minimal extra searching of bags. In fact, this was the case throughout our internal flights. Aeroparque in general was not a bad experience even at that hour of the morning. Eventually we headed south after an hour delay because of a very heavy rainstorm. The flight was 3 hrs and 30 mins and passed quickly after we all slept for at least half the flight. Arrival was easy. The sun was out, the bags came through quickly because we were the only flight and soon we were headed to the lodge with the team of guides, Max (from Russia of Ponoi fame), Matthew (from Ireland, also a Ponoi guide), Maxi (from the UK, soon to be a Ponoi guide), Ale (the house manager), Fabi and Charly (from Argentina) and Jean- Baptiste (from France) the fishing manager.
Upon arrival at the lodge, my team was absolutely delighted with their rooms. Kau Tapen has a wonderful, warm, ‘woody’ atmosphere with a big fireplace as the central focus. The rooms too have the same warm atmosphere, as does the dining room. Soon, welcome speeches were made by the house managers Carolina and Ale as well as the fishing manager Jean-Baptiste.
The plan was to rig rods, have lunch and a well-deserved siesta and then head out to the river in teams of three for a ‘practice session’ to get the gear all sorted. The rest of the week, we would be in pairs with a guide. Each lunchtime the guides swapped over and moved our gear out of their car into the next guide’s car for the following evening and then morning session. The practice session was very good to get everyone sorted and using the right gear in the right way. Wading and back casts are not really an issue with nice shingle bottom and no trees or bushes! I had a couple of very fresh 3lbs fish but others did better with the best fish of the evening being a 16lbs fish.
I felt that meals were handled very well and the food was excellent. Each morning before or during breakfast we would choose a main course and desert for lunch. We would have breakfast at 8am and then head out on to the river about 8.30 returning for 1pm. Lunch was a salad course followed by your choice of main (always a choice of wonderful meat) and then pudding. The puddings were always delicious, and included various choices of ice-cream or sorbet. After a siesta, we would meet for a cup of tea with some of the team playing bridge. At this time we would choose from the dinner menu for our return from fishing about 10.30. Everyone would come in in dribs and drabs and gather around the bar but we headed in to dinner as soon as we could because it was getting late. Hors d’oeuvres at the bar acted as the starter to save time to get everyone to bed earlier if they wished. The food was excellent from start to finish.
The lodge facilities were excellent as one would expect of a lodge of this reputation. Crisp linen upon comfortable beds, an assortment of quality toiletries provided in the bathrooms, plenty of hanging and cupboard space. There are two large wader areas as well as the large space provided outside the front of the lodge. The tackle shop is well stocked with excellent flies, all the heads and tips needed for the main brand lines and plenty of rods for sale and loan. Note: they do have plenty of rods for loan. At the west end of the lodge is a fine mini-spa with a wet and dry sauna and seating area. There is internet throughout the lodge and it works well. The only minor downside is the timing of the generator which results in everyone charging their iPads etc in one place in the main sitting room. The house staff were friendly and did a very fine job.
Fishing conditions were poor and remained basically poor throughout the week with no significant rise in water. They had been suffering from low water for much of the season and this has led to a lack of fish making their way up from the lower river. Consequently, the lower water was doing well and Kau Tapen has been comparatively struggling. To add to this, the famous Rio Grande wind did not materialize for us at all. In fact, when there was a little wind, it was from the north or upstream from the east. This made fishing low water pools more difficult with some real stealth required and lines required to land gently on the water. We fished lighter rods with the most popular being a 12ft 8wt. We fished intermediate lines and across the week the most successful, and therefore the most popular, fly was the green machine fished slowly (in terms of swing) but with movement via stripping. There was also success from small bead-headed nymphs and later in the week, when we did get a couple of inches rise in water, we did catch fish on sunrays and leeches.
My team was inexperienced (some almost novice) with very few salmon caught amongst them – with one or two exceptions – so they were all hoping for the biggest fish of their lives. This is where Rio Grande shines no matter what. It is the undisputed producer of great numbers of the biggest sea trout in the world and sure enough all my guests caught their biggest fish from 16lbs up to 22lbs. My biggest of the week was a beautiful hen fish of 20lbs. We landed 149 fish for the week and the whole team was delighted. I am sure if we had had a more skilled team we would have done better but most important is that everyone had some great fish and achieved something special for them personally.
The two fishing sessions are very different experiences. With us the morning light was wonderful and the pools were often still when we arrived with huge sea trout breaching, the noise raising the heart rate as one makes one’s way down the pool. Often we would catch fish in the first hour and then things would quieten down as either our casting noise took its toll on the windless pools or the east wind started to blow and switched them off. The afternoons would usually start slowly but soon the skies would begin to glow and it was at this point, rather than at dark, that we often had the most success. There is no doubt however that the gloaming through to darkness itself was a very special time especially if the sea trout begin to breach in that classic aggressive way. A hard take in the darkness, the reel screaming without really knowing if the fish is heading up or down river until the almost inevitable moment of silence as the fish is airborne for a second or two before the deep…ka-splosh as it hits the water; these are truly magical moments by any standards, anywhere. My 20lbs fish took off downstream well into the backing on two different runs. The evening skies were truly magnificent and the display of colour went on for so long before real darkness fell.
As we head back north I reflect on the week. Despite clearly poor conditions with inexperienced rods, the week could not have been more of a success. The party gelled better than one could have ever imagined and as I mentioned earlier, when nobody is picky about whom it seems they will be sitting next to, you know it is a great group. Without exception, everyone caught their dream fish though admittedly sights for this team might have been lower than they might be for others. In fact, I question if this team had their sights set on anything, which I believe is the best way. It avoids disappointment. So often, not catching quite what you hoped for spoils what is otherwise a great week. Two of the team did a day trip to Ushuaia, which they also really enjoyed. For me, I was relaxed about the fishing, more focused on how my group fared, but I loved it and was re-enchanted by Tierra del Fuego in general. I think the landscape is wonderful, the light so moody and mystical, and the wildlife characterful: the ever-present Magellan geese, the guanaco, the beavers that you see plodding about in the half light, the buff-necked ibis that make such a racket, foxes and their scavenging partners the caracara, the equivalent of our buzzards. There is simply no place like it in the world and in my book that makes it a ‘must do’ place from a fishing point of view, just like Alaska. Both destinations are an acquired taste but then isn’t every location?
TDF is a real ‘experience’ in every way and in my view something that certainly should be tried, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to return in such good company. With many thank to Nervous Waters and the Kau Tapen team.