Former guide and renowned artist Bob White was awarded "1988 Guide Of The Year" by Fly Rod & Reel magazine. At that time he was guiding for Patagonia Outfitters in Argentina and for Tikchik Narrows Lodge in Alaska. Here is another article he wrote for his newsletter in February of 2005 about his early days as a guide in Patagonia (1986 and on). I thought this could be of interest, that's why I'm posting it. -- Jorge Trucco
Thursday, February 5, 2004 / February 3, 2005
FISHING WITH GHOSTS --- by Bob White
"There are many ghosts at the Boca…" Jorge Trucco
My first season of guiding in Argentina was like a dream. When I wasn’t floating one of the big rivers, I was usually at San Huberto, guiding on the Malleo River. Although I struggled to learn the language and the water, my fishermen caught their fair share of trout, because as my friend and teacher, Jorge Trucco, so aptly said, I was a very lucky guy.
As the golden days in March fell away, the subtle hints of that first season’s end, at first indecipherable, became increasingly noticeable. The Arucaria trees grew heavy with their giant pine nuts. Storms in the cordillera would hide the volcano, Lanin, for days at times and drive squadrons of parrots down to the valleys, where their bright colors and noisy squawking seemed out of place. When the clouds were finally ripped from the mountains, a fresh white mantle of snow seemed to reach nearly to their base, and condors soared high over the peaks.
In the mornings, the low sun would warm my back, but my nose would chill as I stared into the shadows trying to find another good fish. At a streamside lunch, sitting in the sun seemed like a good idea and offers of hot coffee or the mate' gourd was no longer politely declined. Evenings came sooner now, and as the shadows lengthen Venus hung bright and low in the western sky. The red stag roared their challenges long into the night and the fireplace in the bar was (a nice place to end the day) no longer merely ornamental.
The end of a fishing season always brings with it a bittersweet mix of emotions... a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of a job well done, the excitement of travelling to the other end of the earth for the next season's work, and a bit of sadness and regret with the leaving.
As that first season wound down, my only regret was that I hadn’t guided or fished the Boca of the Chimehuin. The opportunity hadn’t presented itself because most of my fishermen wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience. Finding a client with the temperament necessary to appreciate fishing The Boca was a rarity because, like every other "big fish" spot that I’ve guided, it was a lot of work with no guarantees. A guide measures his clients with a critical eye before suggesting that they fish there, and even a talented angler might not be asked if it's judged that he doesn’t have the discipline necessary to fish hard all day for perhaps one strike. With just a few weeks left in the season, my hopes of fishing there were quickly fading when Jorge told me that a writer and his photographer would be visiting the following week, and that they hoped to fish the Boca. Much to my delight, he suggested that we all go together.
Today's painting is a precious little oil on canvas, titled "Big Water". It shows a fly fisherman spey casting on the big stuff. The Boca of the Chimehuin was my inspiration for this image.
A few days later, Jorge and I sat at a tiny table in the airport at Chapelco sipping small, strong coffees and excitedly planning the trip. It was cold there inside the tiny stone building that served as a terminal... its sole source of heat was a small fireplace and the coffee we drank. There was a bitter wind blowing out of the mountains and the woodsmoke trailed off over the runway as the jet touched down.
Jorge and I had been through the process of meeting and sending off fishermen so many times before that it had become automatic. We both wagered our guesses about which of the Americans crossing the tarmac with a carry-on in one hand, and desperately trying to hold their hats on with the other, were our clients. Once their identities had been established with hand shakes and introductions, a bit of small talk and offers of coffee or drinks followed. Jorge played his role as host perfectly and sat down with his customers to answer all of their questions while I identified the bags and loaded them into the truck. Once this was done, a nod to Jorge through the door was all it took to get the ball rolling and start us on our way to the Boca for an evening of fishing before finally driving to San Huberto.
As we entered Junin, Jorge, in a moment of inspiration, took a right turn and wound his way through town to the old Hosteria Chimehuin. I had started my season with exactly the same tour, but I was anxious to relive it after guiding and fishing in the area for almost four months.
“We’re going to take you to the Boca next.” Jorge said, as we entered the darkened hotel lobby. The tobacco-stained walls were covered in old black and white photographs.
“To know the Chimehuin and the Boca, you must first understand its history.” He began. “That’s why I’ve brought you here. These are the people who make the river a legend," he said, gesturing to the photographs.
“When I was a young man Bebe Anchorena and Prince Radziwill rented apartments in the Hosteria for the entire season. It was common to see them here with Jorge Donovan, Laddie Buchanan, and many other famous Argentine fishermen. Roderick Haig-Brown stayed here in the early years, and your Joe Brooks, Ted Williams, Billy Pate, Mel Krieger, and others were always around…”
As Jorge continued, I drifted away from them and moved across the room from one faded photograph to the next. After a season of fishing, they had more meaning to me. I recognized the “Manzano Pool” in one frame and recollected some story I’d heard about “La Piedra del Viento”, in the next. I had just fished with the little girl in another photo, Florencia Donovan, who proudly held her father’s fish at “El Puente Negro”. She was now a young woman, and she and her husband, Sindo, were friends of mine.
Jorge’s voice seemed to fade away as I sensed the presence of others around me…I smelled pipe tobacco and wet wool, heard the soft mummer of conversations punctuated by laughter and the clinking of wine bottles on glasses…“Ah, the Boca has been kind to you, Joe. You should write about it in your new book. Would you like some more tinto?”“The big fish rose to my skating spider as if he was a youngster… who would have thought! “
“How was your fishing, my old friend? You fished, “Las Viudas”, this evening, no?”
“… and that’s how I lost my biggest fish... what a depression!” Jorge exclaimed, and I was snapped back to reality. He paused, shook his head and shivered slightly. I could see that the memory of losing that fish still troubled him and that it always would.
Jorge drove in silence for the next forty minutes, as we followed the Chimehuin upstream to its source at Lago Huechulafquen, and I answered our new friend's questions. As we approached the middle of the last bridge near the Boca, Jorge brought the truck to a stop, turned slowly to us, and said, “There are many ghosts at the Boca.”
We were in luck! Standing in their waders around a small warming fire, sharing mate, and their stories, were the legends of the Boca. “Hola, Trucco! How have you been?” Asked Bebe, switching to English for Jorge’s American friends, and hugging him.
“ Very good, Bebe, very good… and you?”
“Oh, I’m well enough… but the fish are better… Hoy, no molestado. Today, I’ve been a good boy… the fish are untouched! Who are your friends?” Bebe asked.
“You know Bob… ‘Señor Roberto Blanco’.” Jorge said, as I blushed and Bebe laughed.
“Oh yes, I’ve heard all about him!”
“And these are my friends, Peter and Richard, from New York City.” Jorge continued.
“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.” Bebe said, shaking their hands. “Let me introduce you to some old friends of mine... this is Prince Charles Radziwill and Jorge Donovan.”
Introductions were made and the mate gourd made its rounds while we pulled on our waders and asked about the fishing. Reports had gotten back to Bebe that a number of big fish had been seen dropping down into the river. They’d all fished since dawn without success, and were warming themselves while deciding whether to continue into the afternoon.
“No hay suerte.” Announced Bebe. “Why don’t you all fish and we’ll stay next to the fire, where it’s warm, and watch."
Fishing at The Boca is as much of a social event as a private one, there are certain, specific places that one casts from. A fisherman casts methodically for 15 to 20 minutes and moves to the next position, relinquishing the spot to the next angler who follows. There are four or five such stations before the “Fools Pool”, and the big bend. The lead position is one of respect, and the most senior fisherman in the group is usually asked to begin. In this case, our clients were the most important and they were asked to start.Jorge read my mind as he watched my gaze drift from the river to my unopened rod case.
“Why don’t you follow, ‘Señor Blanco’.” He offered. “There’s not much guiding to be done here today.”
I’d been waiting for the opportunity for the entire season, and my rod was strung up in record time. I was tying on some fresh tippet, while Jorge led the others to the water, suggesting that they use a large, dark fly.
Peter and Richard had fished through the sequence twice, very quickly, before Jorge joined them for the third. Jorge is a very thoughtful fisherman, who knows the value of fishing such a place in a slow and methodical rhythm, and his two clients were finished long before he’d reached the second position. I suspected that he would give much to have another shot at the big fish he lost in 1976.
As a sign of respect, I waited until he was at the third position before I started. I tested the strength of my knots, and the sharpness of the hook, stripped line from my reel, took a deep breath, and began false casting until my timing smoothed out, and made that first long cast. I remember feeling then, like I feel now, when I buy a lottery ticket. Don’t tell me about the odds… I just KNOW that this is the time that I’ll hit it big.
The first cast hit the water and started to swing in the current as the sinking tip pulled the big, black, maribou muddler under the surface and through the current. I saw in my mind's eye, what I dreamed might happen, as the line straightened out at the end of the swing. I tensed… and stripped it back... and felt exactly the same way, as when my lottery ticket doesn’t win… this next time just HAS TO BE THE ONE!
I paced myself to Jorge, casting as he did, and letting the fly swing it’s entire arch before starting a retrieve. Soon, the rhythm of our casting was the same and neither of us watched the other... lost in our own dreams and memories. We both fished through the stations without a touch and Jorge wisely decided that it was more important to attend to his customers and catch up with his old friends than to chase ghosts.
“You go ahead, Bob, fish it through again. These guys are all having a good time… and I’ll open some bottles of tinto.”
I walked back to the lake as Jorge went to the truck for wine. Someone added wood to the fire and a shower of sparks towered into the sky and drifted before the wind.
By the time I’d reached the second station, the wind, the sound of the waves, and the repetitiveness of the casting had me in a trance. I was thinking about ghosts and what Jorge had said when it happened. The line came tight and my rod bent double, nearly hitting the water. Line hissed through my fingers and arched out into the lake across the crests of the growing waves. The fish had taken all of the slack and was now on the reel as he powered out into the depths of the big lake. The reel screamed and I was applying as much pressure as I dared when the big brown cleared the water and seemed to hang there for seconds before landing slab-sided in a trough, between two waves.
A cheered erupted from behind me as the fish jumped a second time, and a third. I was just beginning to feel in control of the situation when the line went sickeningly slack, and the crowd, now gathered at the water’s edge moaned like a mortally wounded beast. As my heart sank, the fished rocketed from the waves again… and again… and one last time! Everyone was cheering now, this time for the fish, and I bowed my head in defeat, like a tragic character in an apocalyptic opera.
The crowd called out their condolences as they drifted back to the fire, inviting me to share some wine and tell them my story...but I couldn’t... I felt like someone who, after years of trying, finally won the lottery, and then lost his ticket. It was too painful to relive so soon. I thought of Jorge and his big fish and knew that he’d understand if I continued to fish.
The crowd reassembled around the warmth of the fire, which grew in size as more wine was shared and evening approached. I moved down stream to the next station, focused my energies as best I could, and prayed to the Fish God for one more chance at a big fish from the Boca. On my second cast, as the fly swung deeply through a small pool in the center of the river, a good fish took and ran down stream, through a field of boulders and towards the depths of the “Fools Pool”. I got my rod tip high and threaded my way downstream to the lip of the big corner pool. It circled there, unsure whether it should go further downstream or make a break, back upriver for the safety of the lake. I empathized with it’s dilemma, and understood its choice to stay there and bide its time… after all, there is a certain sense of safety in indecision. How many times had I done the same thing, I wondered?
I wore her out carefully and gradually, her frantic efforts into the green depths of the pool growing less and less determined. Finally, after she’d already spent the energy necessary to escape, she decided to try gaining the safety of the lake. Again, I comprehended her decision and felt insight into my own life through her struggle. Failing in her attempt to reach the lake, she finally decided for an escape downriver. As she turned and ran past me, I swung my rod low and left, turning and lifting her, as she neared the shore.
She lay there panting, her eyes rolling down... always focused on the world she’d just been taken from.
“Great fish!” Said Prince Radziwill, as he grasped her through her gills and lifted her as a trophy for all to see. “Congratulations…”
“No!” I screamed, taking her back from him and walking her out into the current. “God damn it!” I thought, as I watched a slight trace of blood pumping through her gills.
I knew from experience, that once a fish was bleeding from its gills, it was unlikely to survive its release. I revived her as best I could, and let her slip from my hands. She swam upstream towards the lake and safety.
“I’m so sorry.” I said, turning to the Prince. “I meant no offense… I was just taken with the moment… please forgive my outburst."
“ I understand.” He said. “Times have changed… and I think for the best. Please forgive me… I was also taken with the moment. Would you like some wine?”
“Yes, please… that would be wonderful. Thank you.”
A week or so later, I sat on the left side of an airliner as it traveled north along the spine of the Andes, and watched the setting sun. There was so much to think about… so much I wanted to remember, and more that I was afraid to forget.
“There are many ghosts at the Boca.” Jorge had said.
I wondered about those ghosts. Were they the ghosts of fish or men? Weren’t the two really intertwined into one memory, and wasn’t that the essence of the ghost? If you fish hard and the fishing becomes your life, sooner or later you’ll fish with ghosts… and eventually you become one.
There’s much to say after this story…
I didn’t stop fishing and join the others for wine and warmth after releasing the brown. I stood on the lip of the “Fools Pool” and hooked a third big fish. I was determined to do everything right, and I played it as best I could. The big male threw the hook on its third jump and sulked in plain view until dark. Upon losing the fish, the crowd gathered around and cheered... this time... it was for the both of us.
Later, upon inspecting the fly, I found that I’d fractured the hook on a low backcast, and that it was broken at its bend. There was no point to it.I still see that first big fish… my ghost… suspended above the waves of Lago Huechulafquen.
A few days before leaving Argentina, Jorge and I visited Bebe at his home, on the Chimehuin. As we walked onto the grounds, we saw him standing by the river, playing a good fish. Bebe asked me to assist him in releasing it, and Jorge snapped a photo of the two of us at that moment. It’s a most treasured memento.
Since that first season’s end, I've lost many old friends to accidents and the vagrencies of time. Jorge Donavan and Bebe have since crossed over... I don't know about the Prince. I can’t imagine fishing the ‘Pak’ without Howard or Jacque. I never fish the Malleo and not think of Florencia… or the Kinni without remembering Ed. Now, whenever I’m on the upper Nush or Kvichak, Finn and Rupert will be there with me. There are many others… too many others... I hardly fish by myself anymore.
Thank you for visiting,