A perfect rainbow
A recent trip to Argentina's Lake Strobel changed Matt Harris's perception of rainbow trout forever. And for good reason too.
My week at Estancia Laguna Verde was coming to an end. I wrestled the quadbike up the hill once more, weaving up out of the ragged caldera. I eased around the jagged crags of calcified rock and was finally cresting the high ridge overlooking the lake. Up ahead, my guide and new-found friend, lodge manager Luciano Alba, was already heading for home, kicking up dust as he picked up speed and raced his ATV back across the pampas. I thought about that first glass of vintage Malbec waiting back at the Estancia, and yet I found myself lingering, gazing back across the vast, aquamarine waters one last time.
Lago Strobel is a bewitching, uncut gem of a lake, set high up on the remote Patagonian steppe. I watched as the low evening sunlight danced briefly across its sapphire-blue water, and reluctantly bid farewell to surely the world's most astonishing rainbow trout fishery.
Rainbow trout often get a bad press back home. We brew them in stock-ponds, feeding them up on pellets, before throwing them – flabby and split-finned – into our small put-and-take fisheries, where they have nowhere to hide and are unceremoniously “hoiked” out before they ever even start to feed on the natural larder around them.
I've met any number of British anglers who, familiar only with these poor, wretched creatures, have poured scorn on Oncorhynchus mykiss, and they can be forgiven for their misconceptions. However, if, like me, you enjoy targeting the big, grown-on fish that lose themselves in our vast British reservoirs to become big, sleek and self-sufficient, you'll have a good idea about a REAL rainbow trout's fighting prowess.
In truth, good-quality rainbows – whether from Rutland, Grafham, Montana or Alaska – leave our indigenous browns for dead when it comes to a fight. Once hooked, they make our sullen, skulking browns look positively dour. Yet despite the excellent sport to be had with the big rainbows from Rutland or Grafham or perhaps further afield, nothing can prepare you for the mighty creatures of Lake Strobel.
Firstly, there's the size. While a typical Grafham or Rutland rainbow might stretch the scales to a little over 2lb, the fish at Strobel average 10lb. Read it again. Ten pounds. And that's the average. Not bloated, pellet-fed stockies, mind you, but fish that are as wild as the winds that whistle over the vast lake: absurd, chrome-silver torpedoes that hang languidly in the icy blue waters, waiting for your fly.
It doesn't stop there. Much as I enjoy it, most of our reservoir fishing is blind fishing – prospecting in likely areas with nymphs and dry flies. At best, we might get to cast at an occasional rising fish. At Strobel, you really can go looking for the fish. Look hard into the waves and suddenly, there – right there – you'll see one of these magnificent monsters.
And the fight. Let me tell you about the fight. While our ‘grown-on' reservoir rainbows will always give an excellent account of themselves, the Strobel fish are simply in a different league. To watch one of these vast, rock-hard silver leviathans go sizzling across the shallow waters before launching into a series of huge cartwheeling leaps that would put many a tarpon to shame, is to experience one of the truly special moments in fly fishing.
Strobel has acquired an unwonted reputation for being an “easy” fishery. Prior to my visit, I had feared that after the initial thrill, a relentless massacre might render the fishery a bore. The fish can indeed be a cinch when they stack up in the Rio Barrancoso river mouth prior to spawning in November and March, and anglers based there have caught insane numbers at these times. But for the rest of the season, the fish spread out around the vast shores of the lake, and to my mind, this is when the fishery really comes into its own.
Having painstakingly hacked out a rough track using a hired excavator, the Laguna Verde guides, armed with their quadbikes, can access long miles of shoreline, including some beautiful sheltered bays – perfect sight fishing terrain.
Unlike the huge wolfpacks that sit in the stream mouth at spawning time, the fish we were hunting were often singletons – big, wary and requiring stealth and caution. You can blind cast in certain spots and it will yield fish, for sure, but why would you want to? Better to prowl the shores, peering into the waves and looking for one of the vast chrome submarines that patrol the banks. They really can be quite tough. The reason is that the vast trout that swim in Lake Strobel have grown huge on “scud-soup”. Scuds are tiny freshwater shrimps, and they are incredibly prolific. Add some huge clouds of daphnia into the mix and the fish simply need to swim around with their mouths open in much the same way that whales feed on krill. The fish aren't as big as your average whale – not yet, at least... but they do seem to be getting there. And bearing in mind that they were only introduced to the fishery in 1996, it's truly astonishing how quickly they have proliferated and grown into the monsters that have made Strobel famous.
Because of the way the fish can feed in such a lazy fashion, they are disinclined to chase anything – they simply don't have to – and understanding this is the key to unlocking Strobel's silver treasure. Luciano explained the optimum approach perfectly. The key is to spot your fish and then make pinpoint casts, keeping your fly very high in the water column and right across the fish's nose at an almost painfully slow speed. Use nothing but a floating line and use flies that do not sink at any more than a snail's pace.
This is real hunting – on a par with trout fishing the fabulous lakes of New Zealand but, crucially, for much bigger and much stronger fish.
Some days, when the Pacific winds came whistling off of the Andes far to the west, the fishing was testing. The fish were very hard to spot and even once located, presentation could be difficult. At some spots, where wading was necessary, the waves would literally crash over our heads. On such days, we would sneak into the handful of sheltered bays and gain what we could in terms of protection from the savage gales. On one of these days, I experienced one of the singular moments of my trout fishing life. I was about to wade onto a wide shallow bar when I realised that I was looking at a dozen double-figure rainbows ranked across the knee-deep water. I had all but trodden on them. I backed up slowly and pitched my unweighted Woolly Bugger across the nearest fish. The cast was perfect, and with plenty of Strobel's monsters now under my belt, I fully expected a take, but as the fly came across the fish's nose, it had a fleeting look and then pointedly refused my fly.
I made half a dozen more casts with a number of flies, but each presentation was steadfastly ignored. Then, from nowhere, I had a moment of inspiration. Earlier that day, we had eaten a fatally gill-hooked trout for lunch, and while Luciano had been frying the beautiful, rich-red fillets over an open fire, I investigated the stomach contents of the fish. It was packed full of the little amber scuds as expected, along with a good helping of daphnia, but what stood out was the number of chunky little black snails.
The great thing about these snails is that they float. I've caught a number of those big Grafham fish on small floating black foam imitations, and now I fished out the nearest thing I had, a big black foam Cicada pattern, and tied it on. The fly rode the big waves and started to drift across the bar. As it passed over one of the enormous shapes hanging in the gin-clear waters, I watched something very special happen: the huge trout that I'd targeted tipped up, and very, very slowly inhaled the fly.
I set the hook hard and the fish shot across the shallow bar with a speed and ferocity that would have put many a bonefish to shame, before hurling itself into an astonishing, vaulting leap. After an indecently long fight, I was finally cradling a fish that anywhere else would be the fish of a lifetime, but here, in this trout fishing wonderland, was just another run-of-the-mill 12lb rainbow.
The long days were packed full of magical moments like this. One day, we found a big concentration of fish along a wild, windswept shoreline and despite the blustering onshore wind, I managed well over 20 giant fish, mainly thanks to Luciano's brilliance at spotting them through the white-capped waves. Despite catching plenty, every one was special.
The evenings were special too – after racing back across the wide, wild lands of the Estancia on our trusty quadbikes, I would dash down the hill below the lodge to fish the little Lagoon that gives the Estancia its name. With my 6wt, I would pick off a series of stunning rainbows, browns and brook trout – fish of 2-7lb that fought like tigers.
Finally, I'd kick off my waders and join Luciano and the other guests for a few icy beers and a plate of delicious empanadas, before we feasted on a fabulous Patagonian supper of roast lamb or vast steaks, washed down with excellent Argentinean Malbec. The lodge has an easy, informal atmosphere, full of banter and laughter. After dinner one night, I managed to persuade the guides to pull out their guitars and we played and sang into the small hours, drinking fabulous local port and brandy that would make a Frenchman weep.
Too soon, my last day at Strobel came around. After a prolific morning at a favourite spot, Luciano and I spent our last afternoon exploring, trying some new locations that hadn't really been investigated before. One spot, to the east of a beautiful azure bay nicknamed ‘Tasmania', looked particularly promising. We worked our way along the craggy shoreline, peering through the waves, in search of the 20 pounder that had so far eluded us.
The wind was particularly savage on that last day, and I was about to suggest that maybe we should seek out a more sheltered spot, when suddenly, far out, I caught just the briefest flickering shadow of a big fish. I peered into the waves for a long time, willing the fish to betray himself, and then just as we were about to move on, I saw him again. I drove a cast out into the gale and somehow put the fly on the fish's nose. I held my breath and watched as the fish languidly turned on the fly. I set the hook hard and the great trout exploded into the wide Patagonian skies. I watched in awe as this last, titanic fish put on an eye-popping exhibition: a tour de force of rocketing, reel-fizzing rage and fabulous high-flying leaps that no trout anywhere else on earth could hope to emulate.
The great fish finally capitulated. Luciano lifted the net and we found ourselves gazing silently at the perfect rainbow. Not the 20lb behemoth that I'd hoped for – just another 16 pounder – but surely the most utterly magnificent rainbow imaginable: a gleaming, chrome-silver colossus of a fish – broad-shouldered, deep-bodied and as wild as the wind.
Believe me, if you love to fish for trout, you simply must come here. There are no finer rainbow trout on earth.