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Chilean Castaways

Shaun Tolson

The resonating whir of rotor blades above us is faintly audible as we skim low over the shoreline in a Bell 407 helicopter. Rays of early morning sunshine are beginning to break through the cloud cover and paint this rugged and uncut landscape in softer hues. Turning away from the surging waters of the Pacific, our pilot flies higher and heads inland, passing over steep hillsides overgrown by temperate rain forest—a forest that receives torrential rains each winter and is known among the locals as cold jungle. With heavy pockets of steam rising from the lush green valleys below us, and with the unmistakable lyrics of Jimi Hendrix playing through our headsets, it’s as if we’ve been transported to 1970s Vietnam—inasmuch as Hollywood often chooses to portray it.

Soon, however, we catch a glimpse of the glacier up ahead. This is not Vietnam; that much is clear. Rather, we are flying low over the Patagonia region of southern Chile, a landscape as wild as any that Vietnam might offer. And while Tim O’Brien eloquently recounted the life and times of a soldier in his literary work The Things They Carried, on this trip, my comrades and I are carrying only tackle boxes and fly rods. We are seeking trophy-size brown and rainbow trout, and we’ve come to the tranquil, untouched waters of Patagonia’s fjord- and river-rich southern coastline to catch them.

This particular day of a weeklong fly-fishing expedition offered by Nomads of the Seas (www.nomads.cl) finds us fishing the streams and tributaries of a region that the company recently incorporated into its portfolio of bountiful fishing spots, though it is one that our guide, Fernando Anwandter, discovered years ago via Google maps. Having scouted the area the week before, Anwandter laments an unavoidable reality familiar to any experienced angler. “This is where we were last week and caught some big fish,” he says, standing thigh-deep and casting a heavy line into a swirling pool along the far bank of the stream, “but today, they are not here.”

While only partially true—the shadowy outlines of sizable fish are visible along the stream’s rocky floor, although no fly or streaming technique can coax them into striking—Andwandter’s comment emphasizes the fact that while the striking fish may not be here, the area also is devoid of any signs of other existence. We truly are, as they say, away from it all; and that, more than anything else, is Nomads’ rarest offering. “It’s a fly-fisherman’s sanctuary,” says Mark Sorensen, a lifelong fly-fisherman from Chicago who has accompanied me on each leg of this expedition and has fished the most remote areas of North America. “You might think that you’re isolated up in Alaska, but I find this place to be far more isolated. It’s a fly-fisherman’s paradise.”

Norman Maclean, another famous fisherman with ties to Chicago who lived and fished before Sorensen’s time, wrote in his acclaimed work A River Runs Through It, “One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while, nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing.” Any fisherman who has spent much time on—or in—the water can attest to that, and I venture to say it is all the truer when wading through the cold, rocky streambeds of southern Patagonia.

Where The Wild Things Are

Nomads of the Seas was founded five years ago by Andres Ergas, a Chilean entrepreneur with a passion for fly-fishing and for preserving—and promoting—the vast, untouched southern wilderness of his homeland. Operating from a base aboard the Atmosphere, a 150-foot expedition ship that can accommodate 28 passengers along with 32 crew members, Ergas’ company leads expeditions that offer guests a firsthand experience of one of the few remaining natural wildernesses of the world. “When you mention Patagonia, people say ‘let’s save the earth and be tree-huggers,’” he says, suggesting that some might belabor the point. “But it’s very important for people to know what virgin areas are about. It’s important for people to know and to see these places of the earth and to keep them clean and preserved for future generations.”

Ergas, now 44 years old, first began to explore Patagonia 25 years ago and would fly floatplanes—like a Cessna 206 that once belonged to Jacques Cousteau—into the region for multiweek camping trips to scout the ideal spots for adventure activities and prime fly-fishing. “Once you fly over them, you see cool places to kayak, [to observe] wildlife, and great places to fish,” he says.

Nomads’ founder took up the art of fly-fishing when he was about 10 years old. Since that time, he’s experienced the foremost fly-fishing experiences that other exotic destinations can offer, including Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, and Mongolia, and he says that the Patagonia experience combines many of the best attributes from all of those other locations. Chilean waters were stocked with trout only once—in the 1930s—and while there’s still an abundance of fish, the fact that they are all native to those waters (and have been for decades) means they’ve developed exceptional instincts. “You’ll always catch fish,” Ergas says, “and there are enormous trout. But you have to be on the above-average-to-good side of fishing to get a lot out of it. It’s pretty technical fishing.”

The addition of unpredictable and volatile weather exacerbates the challenges that a fly fisherman might encounter, but as Ergas sees it, that’s the way that it should be. “You get two days of sunshine, two days of rain, and two days of I don’t know what,” he says. “It’s a gamble. Here, you find wild fish, wild terrain, wild weather, wild everything.”

The unpredictable weather patterns challenge more than just the fly fishermen; they also impact the crew and its ability to deliver a successful trip each week of the Nomads season, which runs from October to the end of April. Because the Atmosphere travels as far as 400 miles south of Puerto Montt—the company’s headquarters—before gradually making its way back there over the next six days, the region’s limited connectivity to the rest of the world and a complete lack of docking and fueling stations requires precision when planning routes, activities, and the necessary logistics. But Ergas believes all of those elements and the potential difficulties that they present have protected that region of the world from overdevelopment. He also believes they are the reasons there aren’t more companies trying to duplicate the Nomads model.

Spots Of Time

Though Ergas emphasizes the fact that Patagonia offers many waters that require an experienced fly fisherman’s skill, there remain areas that accommodate fishing abilities of all levels. “There are plenty of fishing opportunities for people who are not skilled,” says Sorensen, “but there are plenty of opportunities for the highly skilled fishermen who are looking for something unique and challenging. The Nomads team does a great job matching a fly fisherman’s skill with the appropriate water.”

One such spot, a vast lake with shorelines punctuated by reed beds and other fish-attracting flora, has become a mainstay on the Nomads itinerary; and provided that weather conditions are good, it all but assures copious amounts of action over the course of a day. It is the spot where, after two days of challenging conditions and no fish to speak of, I land my first rainbow of the trip. But it also is where I suffer the heartbreaking—and the all-too-familiar—experience of the “one that got away.”

“Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment,” Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It. “No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.”

For me, that fish was a healthy-sized brown trout. Its actual size will remain a mystery, though from the brief moment it jumped, gyrating in an attempt to free itself from the line, it appeared to dwarf the rainbow that I had caught only a few moments before. The leap proved successful, as it momentarily distracted me, and in a reactionary moment of panic that painted me as a true fly-fishing novice, I dropped the line in favor of the reel and instantly lost my prize.

Yet, despite this spot’s notoriety for numerous strikes and trophy-size trout, it’s a location that does little to excite the Nomads guides, at least in regard to their own preferences as experienced fly fishermen. “It’s an amazing fishing spot, but it’s too easy,” says Fabian Naimann, a 31-year-old who first learned the art of fly rod casting when he was 16. “I like more technical [fishing]. It’s not just about fishing for me; it’s the landscape and the scenery.”

Naimann prefers a smaller lagoon where the fish aren’t as plentiful, but it’s one that requires more skill and presentation work to catch them. “The fish aren’t the biggest, but in that lagoon, you use everything,” he says. “It’s sight-fishing.” More than that, it’s the landscape that makes the difference. “The scenery is beautiful,” he adds. “There are times when I just have to say ‘thank you’ because it’s so beautiful.”

The guides may hold contrasting views to many guests’ opinions of Patagonia’s prime fly-fishing locales, but they can be an invaluable resource, even for the veteran anglers on an expedition. But, as Naimann remarks, those guests first must be willing to seek out that advice. “Casting and fishing are like walking,” he says. “Everyone walks differently and everyone fishes differently. Some anglers have their own way to fish, and we can’t force them. They have to be open to our advice before we can give it to them. But usually, when they are open to listening and taking advice, they have a good week.”

A Privileged Existence

The beauty of a Nomads expedition is that it’s not just about fly-fishing. It certainly can be, if that’s how guests choose to spend each of their days on board, but the company also offers a variety of wildlife adventure activities every day. Provided with the details of the next day’s offerings each evening, fishermen can choose which experience they prefer. However, due to staffing logistics in regard to fly-fishing guides, guests who commit to a fly-fishing expedition can partake in the wildlife adventure activities, but it cannot work the other way around. Regardless of which package a guest chooses, a Nomads of the Seas expedition costs the same—$9,850 to $16,647, based on the style of accommodations and occupancy.

From sea kayaking, snorkeling, and whale watching to glacial trekking and afternoons spent relaxing in natural hot springs, the company has a wildlife activity for everyone. There is even an adrenaline-inducing adventure known as “hydrospeed,” which, at its core, is nothing more than white-water rafting without the raft. Wearing wet suits and flippers, life vests and helmets, guests brave rapids of varying size and severity while clinging to an inflatable boogie board. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it will—without question—change the way you view a fast-moving river.

Consequently, those nonfishing activities make an international fly-fishing trip an adventure suited for couples, even if only one person in the relationship is a fisherman. “When I heard there were alternatives to fishing, I was really excited and started packing two weeks ago,” Annette Kimball, the wife of an avid fly fisherman from Texas, tells me during the trip. “I was excited that there were things that I could do if I chose not to fish. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Like the fly-fishing outings each day, almost every wildlife adventure activity involves transportation to and from the Atmosphere via helicopter, which allows the company to introduce this untouched wilderness to guests three ways: by land, water, and air. After all, air travel allows guests to experience a glacial trek thousands of feet above sea level in only a few hours. It is on such a trek that the lead wildlife adventure guide, Felipe Saini, an outgoing and charismatic 31-year-old Italian with a penchant for rock climbing, reveals his lighthearted disposition. “I like to take the more challenging routes [to walk], so I have to hold the ladies’ hands,” he says with a grin, a wink, and a slap of my arm.

But in the next moment, he takes a brief respite from such banter and reveals how appreciative he is of the world around him. “Being here is not a right,” he says, gesturing to the lagoon at our feet, the glacier looming above, and the vibrant temperate rain forest all around us. “It’s a privilege.”

Fishing on the Fly
Keeping it close to home, two companies help anglers find great fly-fishing in the United States.

To know of Steve Lentz’s childhood experiences fly-fishing the golden trout waters of the Kern River in California is to understand that for Lentz, who founded Far and Away Adventures (www.far-away.com), no other career would do. “There wasn’t a soul back there, and I fished the area every summer of my childhood,” says Lentz, recalling the daylong dirt bike trips that were necessary to access that slice of wilderness 9,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. “It was an amazing area to grow up in.”

When Lentz first experienced the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho as a young teenager—the stretch of river upon which Far and Away Adventures now operates—he vowed to work as a guide as soon as he was old enough, a goal that he fulfilled in 1975. Five years later, he launched his own company. Since that time, Lentz continuously has elevated the quality of the experiences that his company provides, primarily by upgrading the gear he uses and refining the food preparation techniques and services offered to guests. But the initial vision that he had for the company—to provide a refined wilderness experience—has not wavered since Lentz led the first Far and Away expedition three decades ago.

Of even greater significance are the similarities that the Middle Fork shares with the Kern River flats where Lentz learned the art of fly-fishing as a child. “The Middle Fork is one of the prime dry-fly wilderness rivers in the lower 48 states,” he says. “Having a totally wild river … it offers a very profiled fishing experience. The water is very stable and the fish get very accustomed and just feed all day long. It makes for a very active experience for a fly fisherman morning through evening.”

A Far and Away Adventures expedition down the Middle Fork is more than just fly-fishing, though. With intricate trail systems and natural hot springs, the river’s surrounding areas offer activities geared toward the nonfisherman, while hot showers, massages, fine dining on white linen–dressed tables, and luxuriously appointed tents with raised beds let all guests enjoy the isolated areas without feeling as if they’re roughing it. Six-day trips cost $2,960 for fishermen and $2,590 for nonfishermen, while shorter, three-day trips are $1,860 per person.

Still, with a river so remote and with such a thriving cutthroat trout population, it all comes back to the fishing. “You can take a nonfisherman and have them catching 20 fish a day the very first day,” says Lentz. “Then you can really take off with someone who understands the art of presenting the fly, and gosh, 100 fish a day is possible.”

Like Lentz, Donny Beaver grew up with a fly rod in his hand. In a family where his father and grandfather both were fly fishermen, Beaver came of age fishing the remote rivers and streams throughout North America, not to mention waters in far-off destinations on the other side of the world. Initially, Beaver’s career was rooted in environmental cleanup, but when he noticed that the waters of his native central Pennsylvania were overfished and underregulated, he took matters into his own hands and secured the rights to miles of trout streams. However, it wasn’t something that he did with profitable intentions. “It wasn’t a business, it was merely my way of coping with the fact that I couldn’t travel to Patagonia,” he says, explaining that having a family of his own made international fly-fishing trips things of the past. “I wanted my own Patagonia experience in my backyard.”

After hosting some of his clients on those waters, Beaver found that his clients began offering to pay him to outfit their clients, as well. That was when he realized he could turn what had been a 15-year personal project into a profitable commercial venture and launched Homewaters Club (www.homewatersclub.com) in 1995. “I wanted to have a world-class experience, so I developed a way to manage the stream so the [fishing] experience could remain high, and eventually, people offered to pay me to do this,” he says. The business took a form similar to the destination club model, but where destination clubs offer access to great homes, Homewaters Club offers access to great trout streams. “We’re trying to offer fly fishermen the Alaska, Patagonia, or New Zealand experience,” Beaver says, “but they only have to hop in a car and drive a few hours to get it.”

The club has evolved over the years to include a portfolio of approximately 70 miles of fishable waters throughout Pennsylvania and Colorado, and with that expansion, it also has grown to offer luxury-appointed accommodations and access to spas, golf courses, and other activities aimed at the nonfisherman—a valuable feature that Beaver learned firsthand. “I’ve been married for 37 years,” he says, “and I still can’t convince my wife to fish. She’ll come along if she can shop, if there’s a spa. She hikes and mountain bikes and loves floating on a river and reading a book. If she can do those things, I selfishly get my fishing time.”

The Homewaters Club model offers one-time, introductory memberships ranging from one to six days ($950 to $8,900), which allow prospective members to—quite literally—test the waters before joining. After that, annual memberships range from 7 days a year to 21 days a year ($19,500 to $59,500), with annual dues ranging from $7,400 to $10,000. “We look at club membership a lot like marriage,” Beaver says. “We want them to date us for a while and then fall head over heels and realize that they want to be a part of this.”

The fishing experiences are varied at each Homewaters Club location; and each provides its own distinctive qualities. But when asked to pick a favorite, Beaver inevitably reverts back to where it all began. “When the mountains in Pennsylvania are blooming at the end of May and early June and the mayflies are all hatching, it’s magical,” he says. “Everything smells fresh and clean. You couldn’t drag me away from these mountains, that time of the year.”

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