When photographer Francisco Bedeschi was about to publish his second fly-fishing book ‘Best Rivers’ (of Patagonia) in 2004 he asked me to write the main introduction and texts on the Collon Cura and Quemquemtreu Rivers. Pleased and honored as I was, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed since, over the years, I had developed a strong bond with two rivers in particular: the Malleo and the Traful. I would have really loved to write about the Traful, which is to me the river of magic, of heroic episodes.
Ernie Schwiebert, who devoted a whole chapter to it in his book ‘Remembrances of Rivers Past’, called it "The River of the Spirits" I couldn’t agree more. Mystery shrouds its overwhelming landscape with its striking rock formations, aggressive rapids, deep pools, gin clear water, white bottom and above all, its fish.
The Traful is a river of mystery and imagination, of magic and surprises, of sacrifice and reward; it’s indeed a river of memories. And the spirits are there, without a doubt, you can feel them in every bend, in every pool. When you fish the Traful the feeling that something extraordinary is about to happen is always present. And it always does.
Joe Brooks must have felt it the first time he fished the Traful, and the feeling has been with him ever since during his life, year after year. The same feeling Ernie had about his ‘River of the Spirits’. I never had the privilege of fishing the Traful with Joe Brooks, but I did fish it with Ernie. Although I have always regretted not sharing an evening in 1991 when he caught his 17-pound plus landlocked Atlantic salmon after several days stalking the monster fish in a pool called “El Malcriado” (The Spoiled One). Unfortunately, I arrived later that evening when everything had already happened.
Fishing and guiding in the Traful brings back countless memories. Stories of huge fish caught, of monsters lost in a never-ending cycle! I remember many years ago, on my first visit to Estancia Arroyo Verde in 1980, long before it became a fishing lodge, I didn't know the river or the names of its pools very well. At the time, you could only fish in Arroyo Verde if you were invited. Little did Iknow then what a wonderful, long standing friendship I’d develop with Meme and Maurice Larivière, its owners.
That day I had been invited to camp out by the Traful by friends who were guests of the Larivières. All of them were novice fly-fishermen whom I was supposed to show the basics of fly-fishing to. On arrival I was introduced to Maurice Larivière, who courteously led us to our camping site. I’ll never forget his answer when I asked him about the location of the best fishing spots. He said,“young man, this is a great river and it’s full of great fish everywhere… it just takes a good fisherman to figure it out”. I came to appreciate his advice; it was just a matter of getting into the water and following my instincts.
It was January 6, I distinctly remember because it was “Three Wise Men” day in Catholic Argentina, when children get presents left by the fireplace in returnfor water and food for their camels. The river was still high and it was a bright and sunny day. There were strict rules to fish the Traful. If you were an Arroyo Verde guest, you could only fish the pools on the north bank. Likewise, if you were staying at La Primavera, which at the time belonged to Maurice’s brother Felipe, you could only fish the South bank. Crossing the river was not allowed, whatever the reason. If you were on one side you stayed there, period. Maurice had forgotten to tell us about it, so we were oblivious of the fact.
Despite the usual high water level in early January, I managed to cross the river back and forth whenever I deemed it necessary as I explored pool after pool with my friend Coco Bullrich. He was so fanatical about learning to fly fish that he didn’t mind wading wet in January’s freezing cold Traful River water. There were no hatches and not much surface action either. But I knew there were huge trout there and strong, acrobatic landlocked Atlantic salmon as well. I decided to fish streamers and picked a yellow marabou muddler I had tied which I had been having great success with on big browns at the Chimehuín Boca.
Although we ignored it, we were camped by a pool known as the Red Rock Pool. It is not generally considered a very productive pool, though I only learned that after I started guiding in the Traful eight years later for over ten years. There is a good looking stretch below it where I decided to start fishing. I don’t remember whether it was my first or second cast, but pretty soon I found myself fighting a big strong brown.
It turned out to be a great fishing afternoon; I caught two browns in the 5 to 6 pound range and a landlocked Atlantic salmon about the same size, together with various 20 to 22 inch rainbows. I was very pleased with my first day fishing the secluded waters of the upper Traful, while totally unaware of the fact that the great, unforgettable moment was yet to come.
That evening at about 9:00pm I was fishing a section called “The Rapids” when we decided to call it a day and head back to camp. On our way there we walked by what I later learned was called the "Horse Shoe” pool. I stood there staring at it and said to Coco Bullrich "you know what… a pool like this one… needs to be fished late in the evening…at dusk… like right now".
"Go ahead and fish it!" he said. I explained it was just theoretical. Anyway, I had already taken my rod apart and had my reel in my vest pocket. But he insisted, "If this is the right time to fish it, do so! Rig up and fish it!" After re-rigging, when I was looking in my fly-box I suddenly recalled that about a week before, on New Year’s Eve, a friend of mine Raúl Sammartino had caught a 15 lb brown at the Boca of the Chimehuín River on a Mickey Finn streamer fly. The Spirits of the River, as Ernie had christened them were sending me a sign, a mysterious message. And I heeded it.
I looked for a Mickey Finn, but the only thing I could find that came close to it was a "Strawberry Blonde" streamer I had tied some time before but never actually fished. Without giving it another thought I grabbed the Strawberry Blonde and tied it on to my 8 lb. tippet. I made a short cast to test the water nearby, just in case there was something right there though it didn't seem to be the real hot spot when I saw a huge boil… and I came up tight.
The female brown trout never jumped, it fought deep and took me a long way down the Federico pool to the head of the rapids where it held for about 30 minutes without surrendering an inch. I prayed the fish wouldn't go into the rapids: it would have been the end of the adventure.
By 10pm the big brown gradually started giving up and after several attempts I managed to beach it. It was the biggest trout I'd ever caught, a monster brown from the Traful. How can I describe that heavenly moment! A dream come true…! A grand achievement! The mother of all trout had taken my fly, fought for its life and been defeated in a most dignified battle…and I had done it! On the very River of the Spirits!
I stood there, staring at the great fish as I held it by the river, not quite believing what was happening overcome by a feeling of eternity, of almightiness.
The expression on my face suddenly changed when I realized I was at a crossroads, I felt that the moment had come to make a tough decision, one I’ll always regret.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Coco.
‘We’ll have to let the fish go”, I replied.
Despite the fact that “catch and release” was not at all mandatory by any regulation or law in Patagonia in those years (one could kill 4 fish a day!), influenced by Jorge Donovan and Mel Krieger I had already become an outspoken “catch and release” activist in Patagonia and had stated countless times that I would release any fish regardless of its size. Always! No matter what! I had even written articles for local fishing publications proposing catch and release regulations for every river. I had argued with Carmen and Carlos Olsen to persuade them not to let guests kill fish on the Malleo River at San Huberto Lodge. I had even participated in TV programs explaining the need for the strict practice of catch and release in our rivers. And in spite of it all I was about to betray my principles, throw my integrity flying out the window. I was torn between letting the great fish go and risk nobody believing me, and killing it to show the world what a great fly fisherman I had become.
Although Coco remained silent, I could almost sense what he was thinking. It was a lifetime record and nobody would believe what had happened. All I could do was stand there, staring at the fish. It was indeed a very old female brown, huge but sort of ugly – though in my eyes it was the most beautiful fish ever created. It had a distinct hump right behind its head, a smaller one behind its dorsal fin, a pronounced oversized belly and a big rounded tail. We measured the fish: its length was 33” and girth 19.5”. It may not have been a pretty fish but it was still a seven-kilo brown trout from the Traful.
“Do whatever you like. It’s your call” said Coco.
Without further ado I took a rock and hit the fish over the head.
We walked back to camp in the dark, taking turns to carry the heavy trophy. The boys couldn’t believe their eyes when we arrived. They tried to figure how much it weighed, one even ventured 10 kilos. “Over six, I believe…” I said, and went in the tent to get my scale. My Chatillon showed 15.5 pounds, exactly 7 kilos.Then it hit me, it was something that happened once in a lifetime. It was “Three Wise Men’s” day and I had got the best present I could ever have imagined. The possibility of catching another 7-kilo brown in the Traful or anywhere else was very slim. I wanted to perpetuate that moment for ever.
So we decided to take pictures, an enormous amount of pictures in all angles and positions. But pictures weren’t enough, I thought, and created another problem for myself. I began to consider mounting the fish, but how, where? I didn’t know any taxidermist nearby, all I knew was that Bebe Anchorena had had his 17-pounder, caught on a dry fly at the Chimehuin Boca, mounted over his fireplace at his home on the banks of the Chimehuin River near Junín de los Andes. I had to move fast, I had to see Bebe and find his taxidermist in the next 24 hours or the fish would rot. “I have to leave now” I said to the boys. “I can’t stay, I must find a taxidermist” so I jumped into my truck and took off.
I stopped at the Larivière’s home before leaving the property to show Maurice and Meme my great catch, but it was already too late. The lights were out and nobody seemed to be awake. I didn’t want to waste any time, I had to see Bebe at once so I drove all the way to Junín like a maniac hoping he would stay up late as he usually did. Finally I got there, knocked on his door repeatedly but nobody answered. All I could do was drive back home to San Martín, put the fish in a freezer and set my alarm clock early to see Bebe first thing the following morning.
“You have reached 'big time', Jorge” – said Bebe while he stared at my fish. “It’s a new dimension for you from now on…”
I was flattered; Bebe was admiring my fish and congratulating me. After telling him how I had caught the great fish and that I wanted to have it mounted like his, he told me to go straight to the Natural Museum in Bariloche and speak to Mr. Alberto Anziano, who was or had been the museum director. Mr. Anziano was the taxidermist who had mounted his trout.
On my way to Bariloche I stopped by a place named Nahuel Huapi to see A.J. De Rosa and Patty Reilly who were running float trips on the Limay River. We had shared many hours fishing different rivers in Patagonia and the US and I wanted to show them my great catch. I wanted to tell them what Bebe had said about my reaching “big time”. They couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the size of my fish. They were extremely happy for me and I was honored and flattered. But that wouldn’t be the case with everybody as I soon found out.
When I got to the Bariloche Museum I was told Mr. Anziano had already gone home and that I could find him there.
“What an ugly fish” were his first words on seeing my catch. “It’s big but it’s really ugly. Look at those humps, look at that belly, it’s a big old fish and it’s ugly!” he insisted. “It’s too ugly, I won’t mount it…” he concluded.
I was devastated; not only was he insulting my lifetime achievement but refusing to perpetuate it. I begged him to understand my predicament. I knew it was not a pretty fish, but who cared? I believed the only thing that mattered was its size and weight and the fact that it was an unusual trophy. So I insisted…
“Mr. Anziano, this is the trophy of my life, I know it’s not a pretty fish, but please mount it! This trophy needs to be immortalized” I said.
“I want people to admire my work so I only mount pretty specimens, otherwise my reputation can suffer”, he argued.
“Mr.Anziano, please, you need to consider this an exception, this is of the utmost importance…” I begged.
In the end, he gave in and said, “OK, I’ll see what I can do; I’ll try to make it look good. Come back in a month”.
Time crawled by, the end of the month seemed never to come. I was longing to bring my mounted trophy back home; I couldn’t wait to see it. At long last the day came and I arrived at Mr. Anziano’s expecting to be overwhelmed at the sight of my trophy.
“What do you think?” Mr. Anziano asked.
I looked all round the room full of mounted fish and other animals but I my precious fish was nowhere to be seen. I was completely baffled.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Right here, in front of you!” he said
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was pointing at a slender jumpy beautiful looking brown trout that didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to my fish.
“This can’t be my fish” I mumbled.
“Well, I had to change it a little bit. Now it really looks good, doesn’t it? he said proudly.
It was a crushing disappointment. I was expecting to see the fish I had caught, with its original shape, color and looks, and that one certainly didn’t look like it. Without the belly and the humps it looked thinner and lighter, and I really didn’t feel like taking it back with me. I didn’t feel like showing or keeping it.
I said nothing, paid Mr. Anziano for his services, loaded the mounted fish on to my truck and drove home. That was when I fully understood the absolute uselessness of having killed the trophy brown. I felt ashamed of myself and absolutely miserable.
As years went by the entire episode became buried in the past as I got more and more involved in my profession as a fly-fishing guide and outfitter. The Traful River was not part of my program then, and I dedicated thousands of hours to the study of rivers such as the Malleo and the Collon Cura. But my relationship with the “River of Magic” would acquire an entirely new meaning when Meme Larivière called in 1988 to offer me the use of Arroyo Verde as a new lodge for my fly fishing operation.
It was the beginning of a new era for the Traful River and of a wonderful friendship with Maurice and Meme Larivière whom I hold close to my heart. Maurice, the genuine gentleman of unlimited knowledge and sophisticated mind; Meme, the undisputed queen of refined ways and unsurpassable integrity, the soul of Arroyo Verde.
Guiding in the Traful River in the '80s and '90s was a unique privilege, there was always a surprise in store and the “River of Magic” always delivered. I’ll never forget back in ’89 when I was guiding international fly-fisherman Ken Dunston who had come to Patagonia in search of a “two-digit-brown” meaning a brown trout 10 pounds or more. Ken was an avid, energetic fisherman who would fish 12 hours straight without even stopping for lunch. His first two days on the Traful were memorable: he caught dozens of browns, rainbows and landlocked salmon of all sizes, but none of them broke the 10 pound barrier. I wanted him to fish the “Horse-Shoe” pool late in the evening on the second day, hoping he would have some of the luck I’d had nine years before. For some reason we ended up fishing it earlier than planned… but it happened anyway!
Ken stood on the exact same spot as I had been nine years before. He made a gentle cast and as his streamer drifted across, his fly-line suddenly became tight. The river exploded as the big silvery brown broke water. The fish jumped three times before it started fighting upstream like brown trout often do. Then a long downstream run followed by an everlasting hold down deep. After about 30 minutes and a couple of shorter runs the fish started giving in and Ken finally managed to land it. My Chatillon scale indicated 10 ¼ pounds and Ken had accomplished his mission, at the very “Horse-Shoe” pool! Once I’d taken several dozen photos Ken returned the big brown into the gin-clear water of the Traful River.
Ken’s excitement was beyond description as was his gratitude. He asked me to give him a lot of photos of the 15.5 lb brown I had caught at the same “Horse-Shoe” pool in 1980, together with the exact weight, length and girth measurements. One year later he sowed up with a big wooden box. When I opened it I was amazed to find an exact replica of my fish made by taxidermist Robert Fenton. A fantastic work of art…what a gift! I decided the best thing to do was to leave the trophy mount where it belonged, hanging on a wall at Arroyo Verde…, where it still is.