Patagonia gets all the attention when it comes to fly fishing in Argentina. Monster 30lb brown trout on the Rio Grande in Tierra del Fuego and lively rainbow in the pristine waterways of the Lake District have foreign anglers struggling into their waders and tripping over their rods in a frantic effort to get down there while the fish are still biting. Specialist fishing lodges dot the landscape and many charge as much as $1000 US a day for the privilege of planting yourself by the riverbank. Outfitters are willing to pay as much as $6 US a click for a Google ad that appears when somebody types “I want to go fishing in Patagonia please.”
Menwhile in the North lies Mendoza, basking in sun and set amongst the dramatic Andean scenery. Not long on the tourist radar, the area is content gaining a reputation as the perfect escape for those who love reveling in the lush vineyards and sipping Malbec whilst gorging on icecream scenery. People believe the only fish you get here is on a plate and the lack of bugs mean a fly is just another term for a trouser zip. Yet the fact is there is a community of locals who like nothing better than pulling on rubber tights and spending their weekends dancing in mountain streams trying to catch that big one. They do it in Uspallata, they do it in Potrerillos, they do it in San Rafael and they especially do it in Estancia San Pablo in the heart of Valle de Uco.
Valle de Uco is a fertile plain 80km southwest of Mendoza City. Nestled between the low Pre-Cordillera and the towering blunted peaks of the Cordon de Plata, it is a high altitude zone producing excellent grapes, pears and peaches. It also produces a wily, intelligent, querulous trout. The valley is particularly stunning at daybreak when the snowcapped peaks reflect the bright orange and pink of the rising sun. Also bathed in such chocolate box glory is Estancia San Pablo, a 40,000 hectare working ranch that ripples along the Andean foothills the whole way to Chile. 3000 rust-colored cattle dot the hills, watched by monogamous condors and shy guanacos. (The estancia loses several cattle a year to wild, elusive puma that stalk the higher mountain slopes).
The main draw here is the crystal clear Rio San Pablo, a fast moving mountain stream that gushes over brown stones and through a long green sliver of valley that opens the mountains to Argentina’s Pacific neighbor. This river is jumping with trout – wild fighting rainbow that are small, super quick and hard to catch.
They frustrate the most experienced fishermen and challenge the most adept. Skilled anglers can spend hours trying to read the river and coax something from the clear pools and out onto the lawn-like banks, yet end up troutless. Then along comes owner Walter Sibila. He shouts “lunch time!” and within 15 minutes has four fat beauties ready for the frying pan. Lunch is a riverside spectacular of that same trout, cooked in white wine sauce, accompanied by fresh salad, the finest meat and excellent wines made from the estancia’s very own vineyards.
Then back to the river. The somewhat humbled fisherman take comfort from Walter’s account that he fished this river for one year before he caught anything and for several years before he learned all its secrets.
“Now it’s the most convenient fish store in the valley” he says.
They then get a crash course in fishing the San Pablo, learning that here the trout are no fools and must be approached in a completely different manner with a different fly and with a different technique. They also require effort and speed.
“The more you work, the more you catch.” He declares. Such advice pays off. By early afternoon the river reveals itself as teeming with rainbow colored stone dwellers that want to come out to play. In fact the river has too much trout and for this reason Walter has no qualms about keeping some for the dinner table. The excited fisherman stalks the riverbank, willing the sun not to set anymore and reveling in such remarkable fishing.
Of course the sun eventually sets and we must go home. Home is a comfy five-bedroom lodge further down the river with a vineyard out front and a wine cave set amidst the trees. The décor is “rustc deluxe” with bare rafters, flagstone floors and assorted estancia memorabilia. Every room has an immaculate ensuite bathroom. We join Walter’s family for an excellent dinner with most of the food grown on the farm.
“Here the chicken comes wrapped in feathers, not plastic.” He says as we sip the estancia’s wines which have the label “Un Lugar en los Andes”. Walter is in fact a trained winemaker and studied in Bourdeaux.
Later we enjoy a nightcap outside. The night sky is an incredible disco ball of infinity. The star formations are completely unfamiliar to those who are used to the northern skies and we argue over which is the famous Southern Star. Easier to see is the Magellanic cloud – a hazy cluster of galaxies first observed by the Portuguese sailor as he sailed around the World. A revelation indeed, on a day of revelations.
By Charlie O’Malley
Published in the October/November 2013 edition of Wine Republic