A few days fishing in the north of the Neuquén province, in Argentina, made us realize that we can still dream about Patagonia and other sites that have not yet lost the magic that enchanted Darwin in his trips.
We were traveling again to the north of Neuquén looking for its diversity of sceneries and its wild trout, leaving behind Junín de los Andes and the Boca del Chimehuin (this river’s inlet) that had treated us very well, clearly reminding us about the mistakes being made there. We had the brown trout Mecca and, like with many other things that do not have a political benefit, we threw it down the drain of ignorance.
Without realizing it, while making many kilometers through the changing Nature and looking at the Catan Lil River and the endless fossil slab quarries, we went through the town of Zapala and kept on going to Chos Malal.
An outrageous wind accompanied us, moving the trucks and lifting dust in the air high up to where the vulture flew.
We then found out that the people did not recall days with such wind in recent times, it took down trees and roofs all over the place.You could not even see Zapala at our right; the dust completely covered it, resembling a circus dome.
With some shakes and with very little gas we arrived to Chos Malal, “yellow corral” it means in the Mapuche Indians’ language, and it is the opening place for the Neuquén north area. Located close to the meeting of the powerful Neuquén River (that ran muddy) and the Curi Leuvu River, it is the most important city of the area.
They still maintain the houses with big terracotta color bricks and old irrigations where the crystal water runs. We found an enormous cultural heritage that illustrated very well how life was in Patagonia towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.
From the road the colors were amazing and gave life to a valley fenced by yellowish and ochre hills, plus an impressive blue color from the enigmatic Cordillera del Viento where the Domuyo volcano dominates with its 4709 meters of altitude.
Without getting any fuel we went on, optimistic, to Andacollo leaving behind Chos Malal through bridges that crossed the Curi Leuvu river.
A big pack of goats opened their way through the dust and heat with their keepers on horseback, taking the animals to the high valleys where they would be during the summer, an ancestral transhumance that has been unaltered regardless of time and modern progress. In very few places we can appreciate the life of the keepers of these animals in a pure state.
To get to Andacollo one had to go past colored hills, grayish and black. In many places, the surface shows signs of the primitive sea that covered the Patagonia millions of years ago; uncovered marine fossils, including ammonites, stand out.
Although we only found signs of them, there are millions of bivalves, and some really big.
Andacollo’s past is linked to minery but during these days the main activities are animal raising, forestry and tourism.
Close to Andacollo, the town of Huinganco lived a gold frenzy, which took the soul of many struggling diggers. Today the gold on the surface is no longer there and only mines with great resources can go on working underground. Huinganco had to survive and, with the effort of many people, turned out to be a garden where forestry and many kinds of fruit trees prosper. Close to Cañada Molina there are still cypress tress with more than 1200 years, the oldest in America, which are natural monuments that give us an idea of how brief our presence is.
The great “Torcho” Ordoñez was, as always, waiting for us in Andacollo. He was the owner of the La Sequoia inn, a philosopher who has a deep knowledge of the area besides being a fly-fisher. In the back, a spiral of bluish and translucent smoke gave signs of a good barbecue. Torcho and his wife were determined to impress us with a hospitality that we had already enjoyed the past season, during a golden fall that convinced us that we had found our place in the world.
The La Sequoia inn (which does have a huge sequoia at the entrance) is the perfect base to explore rivers and lakes of the area, a place where to listen good tales of pioneers, good music and alternate with geologist and miners in the search for gold.
Before getting the rods ready, Torcho told us new stories about of the Andacollo town, the Cordillera del Viento, the mines and the nearby villages that survive at the edge of the unpredictable rivers and streams.
In the northwest of Neuquén the landscape is mountainous; the population is spread in a series of valleys that limit to the west with the Andes, and to the east by the Cordillera del Viento. The rivers that run through these valleys are fast and temperamental, with big slippery rocks at the bottom.
From Andacollo to the beautiful Nahueve River there are only 12 kilometers; from there on we followed this interesting emerald colored river up to the Epulauquen ponds, going through the Buraleo River that in this occasion was muddy and not good for fishing. It´s a very personal river, full of multicolored rocks, fast and slow waters that invite you to fish with nymphs and dries.
It did not take long for Torcho to tell us that the upper Buraleo is really good but that you had to walk quite a while in a rough and hostile land or get there by horse from a next door neighbor.
The siena colored waters of the Buraleo did not get together with the limpid waters of the Nahueve for a long stretch; a totally clean Nahueve guaranteed an interesting day if we kept going upstream.Before losing our minds in the Nahueve, that has an unbelievable charm, we followed the track that took us to the ponds, going thru the border patrol.
In the Epulauquen lakes we found the first signs of the Patagonia Andean woods with dense pellines oaks, big lengas, ñires, plenty of colihue canes and its flora with the best flowers, which we loved.
We almost got to the second pond through a flooded sand and pebble beach, bleached by the sun. The branches dragged during the winter and an almost erased track stopped us from getting there, so we had to look from the distance.
We would have walked, but the wind was monstrous, it whipped us to the point that we could hardly see, with all the sand that was blowing. Even the birds looked for shelter.
The pond was totally turbulent and frizzed, we found the same situation in the first one, so we all decided to eat something at the inlet of the Nahueve, that is born in the first pond, and from there on check what the river had to offer in this place that was totally unknown for us.
The Nahueve is born calm and low in the east side of the pond. The first meters it goes over a bed of fine gravel with big dark stones located as if it were a Japanese garden. If one looks up towards the east, the foothills of the snowed Andes start to show us a transition between the damp austral forest and the rocky mountains of the Argentinean Cuyo area.
The inlet itself looked like Hawaii because of its waves, so we started to go down the river. In the first stretch, the plain bottom indicated we had to use small nymphs, and we ended catching lots of trout of a modest size.
About two hundred meters down from the inlet, the Nahueve rebels and changes its character flowing over a rocky river-bed, inviting us to cross carefully.
In times were the north of Neuquén was present only in our dreams, we imagined its rivers in a different way. We pictured small rivers, easy to wade, but in reality, when we finally visited the place a few years ago, it showed us a really different thing.
At the beginning of the season these rivers are very powerful. Even the Nahueve is difficult to cross and the Neuquén River goes down with rage like the Colorado River.
November greeted us with lots of water and it only allowed us to fish the pools located on the edges along the track.
The first trout big enough to take some backing line from the reel came by in a rocky area downstream from the inlet, and we caught them with sculpin imitations. Fat rainbows with small heads and intense-blue backs. It is interesting to notice how different these trout are, so used to fast waters and harsh winters. They fight like demons, taking backing line from the reel no matter what kind of drag we have.
A small gully held a long pool next to the shore; we took half a dozen good trout that seemed to be aligned along the shore waiting for the streamers.
We tried to fish with floating lines but the water ran so fast that it had no point. Changing the direction of our casts and using big rubber-legged dries, like the fine PMXs, did not help either. The water did not go past 5°C so the fish remained close to the rocky bottom. Shootings and lines combined with a fast sinking line of 200 grains worked perfectly.
At one point the road climbed and we found a rocky formation where there is a good place to leave the truck. A hundred meters down, the Nahueve forms a couple of deep blue-colored pools that then become a run between colossal boulders that invite you to dream with a big fish.
I struggled with the spines of calafate and ñire plants to reach the first deep pool. I could only try a rudimentary roll cast but I caught three good rainbows this way, two of them were brilliant colored males due to recent spawning. I had a good one that cut off the line because I did not tie the fly again in the first cast, but I rapidly caught several others until I decided to stop because of the rocks and the gorge in that place. This was the second time I fished the Nahueve and it keeps surpirising me with better spots and trout. It is something that tortures me at night because I know I have only had a small taste of a river that is almost unknown to others for 100 kms.
We came back to La Sequoia gladly impressed by the Nahueve that we would like to walk thoroughly when the waters come down.The wind kept howling when the first sun rays came through the curtains. It was the only thing that could make us doubt, we had had to deal with it hour by hour the day before. But the thought of new rivers ahead in the north kept us going.
We went back to the track that goes with the Nahueve but headed to Las Ovejas, pintoresque village on the mountains, where we can still hear the silence, surrounded by the Andes and the Cordillera del Viento.
Pablo Gonzalez, in love with this area, was waiting for us with Torcho, the other guide. Las Ovejas, with less than 2000 inhabitants, mainly lives on sheep and goat cattle but forestry is growing and there are some facilities for tourists too.
Always heading North towards Varvarco we got to the La Puntilla mirador, where we stood on long scary wooden planks to see a deep canyon shaped by the Neuquén River and also the Domuyo and the Cordillera del Viento.
The path goes through Invernada Vieja up to Manzano Amargo, another small village of about 800 inhabitants located in a canyon formed by the high Neuquén River. Forestry can be seen here and also the La Fragua stream falls on basaltic rocks.
Before Manzano Amargo we find two important streams, one of them is the Ranquileo, which is small but really interesting. In the tiny pools, small trout rose for the egg-laying caddis. It is the perfect place for a 2 weight (or lighter) rod, and Torcho said it had good surprises. In spite the magic enchantment of a miniature river is strong on me, we kept walking to the next stream, bigger and with a tempting name too, the Curamileo.
We walked upstream. Some meters ahead, a huge rock made the stream bend and the water move slowly. A dark shadow of a known figure undulated in the jade colored waters. The distance and a big willow tree made casting at it impossible. We settled with watching it for a while before keeping on, walking by a rock fence that kept us away from a straw ranch with loud chicken. A couple of tired horses slept by the door but nobody came out although we waited there for a while.
The Curamileo goes down a steep canyon and we had to climb sometimes to keep going. It ran high, so we could not cross it and had to walk the south shore. The rock bed shaped runs and endless small pools, all filled with rainbow trout. Not far from the bridge, I tied a brown Matona fly (created by Navas) for old times sake, and caught a rainbow that swam all over the place; the water was cold but this fish kept jumping around and resisting like it was on steroids. We took several like these afterwards, it was clear that these had not seen many fishermen before.
Later on, a vertical boulder made of granite blocked the path protecting new treasures and we were too tired to keep on climbing; plus, we were walking with heavy wading boots. The high Curamileo would have to wait for our next visit, with low waters, light boots and no waders.
I forgot to say that a park ranger on a motorcycle made sure that we were respecting the fishing regulations, I do not remember his name but do congratulate him for taking such an important task so seriously.
Pablo and Torcho did not stop, we had to get to the Pichi Neuquén to try the spot where it joins the Neuquén River but the weather kept getting worse because the mad wing was being accompanied by a storm front. We went through a native forest of ñires and an iron bridge together with some isolated araucarias trees reminded me of a lost time when life began in Patagonia.
The Pichi Neuquén was swirling, with deep blue color waters, the fly line touched the water and it seemed to bounce. Still, Torcho caught several trout down the confluence with the Neuquén in a pool where water was not as violent.
There was no time to explore the upper Pichi Neuquén and the rain seemed imminent so I walked directly to the confluence. Only after the meeting of the waters, the Neuquén River becomes really powerful. A thin steel cable bridge with old pieces of wood was used to cross animals and people on the other side. The wind kept moving and threatening it as two boys with ragged clothes and a couple of thin dogs went across it in a minute with no difficulties.
The Neuquén was a little cloudy but the clear waters of Pichi Neuquén formed a long attractive section before mixing into the coast. This time I decided to use another old glorious fly, the traditional black Woolly Worm with its hackle inclined forward. I think I had not fished with one of these in twenty years, and I had a couple that I had tied during the winter to remember past walks down the lower Caleufú, before using rafts.
Here, the black Woolly Worm regained its magic as the yellow Woollys that I used at the old Caleufú. One after the other, the rainbows kept biting with fury that Woolly Worm, sometimes several times until they were hooked. Finally, they even got my two flies to themselves and, frankly, I did not even try another one, I had caught enough.
The rain came fast without warning and we left the place and the good fishing because of the cold that came with it. Torcho had no warm coat so he went to the truck, we followed him so we went back to Las Ovejas and then Andacollo where we could rest from the wind.
Each visit we made to the north of Neuquén was short and did not feel like a big thing. But each cast proved to us that beyond, where we had not gone before, there were valuable treasures, much more than the gold that made the region so well known. The idea is to come back, every time we can, so we can see the place where these rivers and lakes are born and where we will probably find what we are looking for, our place in the world, the araucaria trees and what these transmit us; the beginning of life.