Back, for a minute anyway, from some serious messing about in boats

Hey Folks. Whew, really has been a long time this time huh? Well, the thing is, I’ve spent far more nights beneath the moon and stars these last two months than I have with a roof over my head, and that situation not only fails to lend itself to making blog updates, it also tends to become addictive and self-perpetuating, at least for some of us. So – where do I start? Migratory spawning fish, in general, salt-run or not, are really a whole nother ballgame from “normal” salmonids. Just ask Paulino and the boys under the bridge every November and April on the Corc, Potamodromous and Anadromous ain’t all that dog gone different when it comes down to hooking the buggers with a fly. The main variable in that equation is always the same see; the fish have to be there. And this is exactly the problem with migratory spawners, lots of times when you’re there, they aren’t! And vice versa. This is something I have had to come to grips with over the last couple of months through thousands of miles of driving, hundreds of miles of floating, and possibly millions of Spey casts (ok, that last one may be an exaggeration, but then again, who was counting?). The thing is, these fish have their own agenda, and for the most part not only does it have nothing to do with eating, it is also extremely dependent on some sort of exactitude of conditions. The problem for us is, how that exactitude of conditions actually works is more or less a mystery. Long story short – high water, low water, high temperatures, low temperatures, lots of silt, little silt, big tides, little tides, clouds, sun, wind, calm, – we hit em’ all; and apparently we hit em’ all wrong. This is not to say that fish weren’t caught. Fish were caught. Steelhead, sea-run browns, lake-run rainbows, and lake-run browns all felt my finger and thumb around their tail along the way; but it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a slug-fest.

As always with road trips and float trips though it wasn’t just the fishing that sticks out in my mind as I sit here at my desk today and write. As with any long excursion of the sort there was plenty of good, and plenty of not so good, but with folks like Dr. Tweed and the gang alongside who understand the drill, the rhythm, and the silence of a thing like that, it is a pleasure in the end all the same. Along the way there were fossils and petrified trees, Tehuelche artifacts, and windstorms that threatened to sand blast the skin from our very faces. There were days that we floated for miles and miles, and days that we stayed in one camp and beat the runs to death. There was the day we snapped the oarlock, and the day we found the cave inhabited by the Puma. There was even a whole long night that we floated beneath clear skies and a beautiful full moon, rowing amongst reflections of the Milky Way and listening to our iPods as we navigated our way towards the sea. We explored abandoned estancias and saw the vestiges of what that life too was like in the buildings and equipment left behind, even tasting a bit of it in the fruit we picked from their still producing orchards. And, after running from the rising tides in Piedra Buena all the way to the Red Stag infested plains of Piedra del Aguila, I finished the whole damn thing up with wader-clad swim all the way across the Rio Limay Medio at full generation, wearing a backpack full of meat for good measure, then warmed myself back to life next to a raging brush fire built by Paulino luckily just in time for the occasion. And such is the life. Now it’s off to the North, not quite far enough to reach the majority of you all, (at least not just yet) but into the Amazon basin and more rivers, more country that needs to be explored. I have no idea what my connectivity will be over the next two months or whether or not I’ll be able to make any updates but will certainly do so if I can. In the meantime, since there’s a week or so between now and when I leave, all of you please write me an email to let me know how you are!

But now, to keep you entertained in the meantime, (I mean, what do you people do when you’re not reading this blog?) here’s another addition of “Stuff typed into Google that landed people on this website”, from the amazingly confounding data-maze of Google Analytics.

• “Only Interesting Topics” – I’m guessing this person spends a lot of time looking up trivia on the internet. The thing is, there’s just so much out there, and with a few simple keystrokes, there it is at your fingertips. How do you narrow it down? Well, you type “Only Interesting Topics” into Google of course! Duh! Honestly though, I’m glad to have been included. Most likely my blog was in the first ten results that showed up for this search, don’t you think?

• “One Interesting Topic” – Our guy is getting desperate here. The cubicle camouflage has worked its magic all too well, and he’s down to the very nitty gritty of the thing, searching for all he is worth, searching his little heart out, searching till it hurts, looking for the one thing, that one reason to live that will make his life have meaning once again, and discarding all that has come before. Just. Give. Me. One. Interesting. Topic! And still, somehow my blog is in the result list he ends up with. And. He. Clicks. On. It.

• “Brook Trout Skype” – I can see it now; Tweed and I are walking up the Rio Shaman into the Cordillera and the brookies are all logged on in a massive river-wide chat session. “They’re rounding the bend. The ugly one is already wearing those goofy rubber pants. The other one has one of those long bendy things. OK, everybody! No matter how much it looks like a juicy swimming morsel of food, DON’T EAT IT! DON’T EVEN SWAT AT IT!!!” Actually, seriously though, what was this person trying to Google, and how did they end up here?

• “Cattle Round Up Jokes” – Ha! That’s a good joke in and of itself. There can certainly be some jokes that get passed back and forth once the round up is done, but trust me, no one is joking much during the actual process of the work. Speaking from first-hand experience here, cattle round ups are not what they look like in the movies. It’s more like riding a twelve-hour hunter-jumper set up while paying only peripheral attention to the direction of your own animal, since the cattle themselves require the majority of your focus. This one is fairly easy to track, although still, I think the searcher must have been disappointed. There was a round up that I posted about, the one I did with my friend Tizo a couple of years ago up above Estancia Tres Valles, and there was a joke in the same post, but the two things weren’t related. Hope the poor fellow got a laugh out of the whole it anyway though.

• “How Make Homemade Table Saw” – Geeze. I have no idea! We should probably ask Philip or one of the other Voghs.  I’ve scrounged and scrounged through the whole friggin’ history of this site and cannot for the life of me figure out how this one works. Must be Google’s just playing jokes on people, like that news post they did April 1st about the new “Google Nose” smelling app for Smartphone’s. I’m so disconnected from what’s going on in technology up there these days they actually almost got me with that one. Almost.

• “Just Another Day Post Office Music” – Awesome. I can totally see why someone might type that in, especially if they were in the middle of a long hard day of actually working at the post office. There’s got to be tons of good music that comes up from such a search (hehehe) and I’m sure they could easily find what they were looking for. I just hope it wasn’t gangster rap though, or anything else that might have had the potential to incite violence (you know how those postal workers are). Seriously, how many pages of results did this person have to click through before they ended up here?

• “Patagonian Tube Animal Sex” – Oh boy. Here we go again. Tube flies, all kinds of animals, Patagonia, sure, we’ve got you covered. But as far as I can tell the word sex has never appeared in the content of this site until I typed it here just now. Can’t wait to see what that attracts next time I look at the reports…

• “What Constitute the Theory When Writing a Report on Bench Work?” – No clue bro.

• “The Fly Fisherman Justin Witt” – So I’ve been reduced to that. I can remember my life before, sometimes anyway, especially if I’ve had a glass of wine or am half asleep, or watching a beautiful sunset that allows me to have forgotten where I am for just a moment. There was the “Goofy Looking Kid with a Bowl Cut” Justin Witt (I even have pictures of him), the “Student” Justin Witt (grades may have had something to do with the fact that this is all we’re left with now), the “Son”, or “Brother”, Justin Witt (I wish I saw my family more often, but they stubbornly continue to live more than five thousand miles away from here), The “Flipside of Pain” (don’t ask), or even “The World Wandering Sporadically Employed Vagabond Reader, Fly Fisherman, Beer Drinker, and Sometimes Writer of Short Stories, Poems, and Novels” Justin C. Witt (the by-line from one of my earliest published works in a smallish New York Literary Journal, hence the middle initial). But now,.. just this. The Fly Fisherman. Justin Witt. Oh well. I imagine there are worse things one could be reduced to in this world.

• “Legendary Patagonia Fishing Guide” – Honestly I do like this one better. But still, come on….

• “Gaucho Knife Fight” - Now, that’s a good one. It may be that the poor fellow who initiated this search was simply looking for some entertainment. Let’s hope so anyway. Because if there is one thing you don’t want to do ladies and gentlemen, it is get into a knife fight with a gaucho. What is a guacho, you ask? That’s a good question, and while the answer these days might depend somewhat on who you ask, I’ll break it down like this: Historically, gauchos were nomadic cowboys, working here and there across the estancias and vastness of the Patagonian landscape, with nothing but their horse, a few dogs, their tiny satchel, and a penchant to move when they decided a change of venue was in order. There aren’t as many of them now as there used to be, but believe me, they’re still around. When they get into knife fights though, it isn’t something that generally lasts long enough to become a paying enterprise on cable television. One of my friends in Rio Pico, Mario Riasnianski, worked as a radiologist in the tiny hospital there (which is named after his mother) for many decades before becoming a fly fishing guide full time. While he has many wonderful stories about the medical history of that region and its people which I won’t go into here (not even the one in which he catheterized a woman who was giving birth in the back-country with a sterilized peacock quill), when it comes to the gaucho knife fight stories he says the losers only ever came in with one of two wounds. The ones who were alive had been sliced across the back of the knee so as to sever the most important ligaments and tendons of the leg, and render the fellow unable to continue the dispute. And the ones who were dead had been stabbed just to one side or the other of their sternums, with the knife blade angled in between two ribs and straight across the top valves of the heart. You see, that’s the thing about gauchos. They’ve spent their entire lives with that knife in their hands, using it in the killing and taking apart various large mammals that are anatomically very, very similar to human beings, and as a result they can probably picture the mechanical inner workings of your body better than your family doctor can. Seriously guys, gaucho knife fight – only takes a half a second or so, but a very, very bad idea.

• “The Party is Well Under Way Now and We’re Starting” – Of course! Why wouldn’t it be/we be? I mean, what?

• “Christmas Creek Rio Pico” – Ha! Good try. The way this one works is like this: When we find new water around here that makes us happy and to which we would like to return, we give it a name. Much of this new water of course already has a name, something the gauchos call it or the Tehuelches called it before the gauchos where there, but we don’t much concern ourselves with those names. We like our new ones. I mean, what’s in a name, anyway? With or without people giving streams their names, the streams are there, flowing along like always, and they themselves really couldn’t care less what we call them if you ask me. But it cracks me up to see this search, because it means that some poor soul who saw a photo of a fish, in this case likely an enormous brown trout with a tiny spring creek in the background, thought that Google, of all places, might be a good place to find out where it was that we were fishing. Sorry pal; we named it Christmas Creek because we found it Christmas day, and if you want to fish there, you’ll have to ask me personally where it flows.

• “Wild Bunch Legal Leather Chaps” – Is this some sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Village People fetish? More importantly, actually MUCH more importantly, what the hell does it have to do with me?

• “Hilux Fishing Truck” – I didn’t previously realize that the Toyota Hilux was a fishing truck. Most of the photos I have seen of them in the media have shown Taliban drivers and huge bed mounted machine guns being fired by insurgents at my infidel brethren in Afghanistan. But I like this new picture better. The Hilux is definitely the four wheel drive tool of choice for those of us plying our trade here in the Andes, so why not? Too bad they don’t sell them in the states.

• “Little Piranha Juvenile Delinquency in Peru” – It’s a ongoing problem. Every year the newly spawned toothy little critters in the Amazon get uppity, and think they have every right to barge right in on the most tender parts of whatever hapless mammal falls into the river. Meanwhile, the elder Piranhas, many of whom engaged in such unseemly behavior throughout their own fingerling years, find themselves with only the second rate morsels of innocent flesh, but rip them from the thrashing skeleton of the still alive innocent creature they are devouring all the same. Such is modern piranha culture. Actually, the “Little Piranhas” are apparently a gang engaged in violent acts of crime on the streets of Lima. I tested this search myself, thinking “Google’s nuts”, but we were the 18th result in the list, after a couple of news articles about the gang, the lyrics from an “Old Dirty Bastard” song, and a bunch of other nonsense. So,… Hello? Google? WTF?

• “Quail Beekeeping” – Now see that sounds interesting. I’m into all kinds of goofy intertwinings of activities. I like quail. And bees. So why not? If the person who did this search is reading – could you please get in touch with me and let me know how it is I can combine the two?

• “Capybara Body Parts” – GOOGLE! Buddy! Seriously! I’m going to switch over to Bing if this keeps up! This has gone too far. Please explain yourself.

• “Lioness Eating Testicle” – I gotta go, again, before I laugh myself to death here…

Christmas, Pumpkin Pie, and a Float Trip on the Rio Corcovado

Merry Christmas Everyone!  Ok, so I’m a couple days late.  The crew here had a big Yankee style Christmas for once in Esquel, with Tweed and his fiancé Marcela, Trey and Shelby Scharp, and Ana and I all around a table that the Negra sat beneath.  I made a pumpkin pie from scratch (none of that canned stuff down here), and stuffing from scratch as well, and Trey scored us a Turkey that barely even fit in the oven.  As evidenced by the fact that none of us could walk, move, or really even breathe without discomfort at the end of the meal, everything turned out to be delicious!  We had all more or less digested sufficiently by morning though, and so Ana, Zach, Negra, and Marcela and I drove ourselves down to the put in for the Corcovado and floated the river all day.  The weather was beautiful, the tabanos non-existent, and for all that the fishing was a bit off in terms of catch-size, everyone had a wonderful time.  We swam, and rowed, and played, and Tweed introduced his Chilean bride to be to a lot of little Argentine brown trout along the way.  I hope everyone up in North America had just as good a time, and can continue that same strategy on into the new year!  I am about to be headed out on the client trail for a while now, so if you don’t hear from me just know I’m putting blisters on my hands with the oars and loving every minute of it; I’ll be back in touch as soon as I can!

The Long Walk

I guess I won’t try to compare it with The Long Walk from Northern Siberia down to India, but I will say this: the Rio Corcovado passes through a lot of country on its way from Lago Vinttner to the Chilean border. Unable over the last several years to find anyone in Esquel, Rio Pico, or the town of Corcovado who could describe for me the whole path of the river’s course, I decided this year to just walk it and see for myself what was out there.
Now, having done so, I can say with some certainty that my questions were mostly unanswerable anyway, at least within the space of a short conversation or, as it may be, a blog entry posted online. The river is long. It winds its way through Estancia Tecka and down into the canyon above Estancia Poncho Moro putting on a thousand different faces along the way. At times it is almost unrecognizable in comparison with the easily known brook trout structure just below the boca or the long stretch of king salmon and browns between town and the frontera. It is, I can now say, easily the most diversely structured river I have ever known anywhere in the world; and it is immensely impressive and beautiful for being so.
It rained on me almost the entire trip, (I even heard my first thunder ever in the region) and between the water in my waders and the sometimes more than twenty miles a day that I walked my feet became blistered and sore to an alarming degree. I did not do as much fishing as I would have liked, but I took a lot of photographs and marked a lot of interesting waypoints with the GPS. I saw no one the entire time. It was a long walk, wet, and cold, and tiring, but I am glad I did it (an easy thing to say from the comfort of my recliner in the kitchen in Rio Pico). Now I just have to get my feet healed up so I can get back out and do some fishing.

My First Encounter With Rio Pico – This is a place I could call home

Hey Folks, here I am; sorry for the long time no update. After leaving the Simpson I continued north on a path that more or less paralleled, and sometimes crossed the Carretera Austral (otherwise known as Ruta 7). This road is the main and often only one running north and south through Chile, and as such crosses all of the rivers that run off the Andes and into the Pacific.

The first one that I spent much time on was the Cicnes, a monster of a thing with that incredible blue glacial runoff color. The stretch that I spent the most time on was pocked with incredibly deep pools that were often hidden in twisting canyons of vertical limestone. Beautiful in a way that defies my ability to describe it.

From there I continued north to the Figueroa, which is another big glacially fed river, more open but with ripping currents and incredible scenery.

Coming from the states where real estate like this is near impossible to get hold of, it is just amazing to hike for days and days through million dollar-an-acre land that has no one and nothing on it. The rainbows in this river were interesting in that they all had this weird blue-green sheen to them that I have never seen anywhere else. They tasted more or less the same as everywhere else though.

One of my nights on this river I made the unfortunate decision to try for some big browns in the dark and tied a monster-heavy fly and the sink tip onto my eight weight. Predictably (in hind-sight, which should have been foresight, since I did this once before with the same rod on Cape Cod) I ended up with a broken eight-weight and no big browns. The next day though I hiked way upstream from that camp with the five weight and ended up in an epic battle with a R.O.U.S. (rainbow of unusual size) which I hooked on 7x tippet and had to play from the tops of the cliffs along that river; so ended up ending my time there on a pretty high note.

When I felt like I had traveled far enough north through the Chilean west-running drainages I decided to hop over to the other side of the mountains and choose what looked like a nice low pass that would land me on the Rio Pico. This decision, and this route, turned out to be fateful in a number of ways.  The pass was considerably higher and longer than my map led me to believe; it is roadless and without any government control save for an outpost of the Carabineros on the Chilean side, and one of the Gendamaria on the Argentina side, separated by many, many miles of high-country wilderness in between. I checked out with the Carabineros, mooching a few supplies off of them to try and stave off the insanity that can result from an all-trout diet, and started climbing.

What a place.

For the most part this stretch of the trip also defies description, and I can only attach just so many pictures, so suffice it to say that the crossing was an experience I will never forget. One of the most interesting things that occurred along this route happened on a small stream on the east-facing slopes after I had crossed the peaks. I was sitting on a rock with my pack laid beside me drinking some water and watching a small trout rise to spinners in the pool when a horse that I had never even heard approach snorted loudly only a few feet behind me.

Spinning around I was confronted with a sight that not many people have seen of late, and even less will have the opportunity to see in the coming years; a real life honest-to-god gaucho. He was a tiny man, roughly Philip-size, on an enormous horse, and had three dogs sitting on the trail next to him waiting to see what he wanted them to do. I said hello and good day and waited to see what would happen. He turned out to be a nice fellow, and we talked for a bit about the country. Gauchos, I think, are like this. They aren’t really interested in who you are or what you are doing there, less so in telling you any of the same. Instead they speak in a sort of hyper-controlled yet totally wandering verse. No wonder they are all poets.

I managed to get a couple of pictures of him, including this one of his knife, and I want to say a few things about that. The Gaucho’s knife is the most basic and important tool that he carries, and generally speaking, my understanding is that he has been in possession of it for most of his life. It is a simple thing, not much different than the sort of knives that most of us have in a block in our kitchens, but it is wrapped in a leather sheath and omni-present in the rear waistband of the Gaucho’s pants. He uses this knife for almost everything, and it has been in his hand so much of his life that it has become a sort of eleventh digit. I watched this man cut some dried meat for his dogs as we talked and his handling of the tool was so distinctly different than any knife usage that I had ever seen that it struck me as incredible. It also struck me that this tiny man, if he had a mind too, could almost certainly hop down off of his enormous horse at any moment and reduce me to the same pile of organized, separated parts that he had no doubt reduced thousands of sheep and cattle to throughout his evidently very long life on the cordillera. And there would be absolutely nothing that I could do about it.

That’s just the feeling that you get from these guys, that they are capable. Over the course of our conversation I gathered that this one hated the church, and didn’t really consider himself to be Argentine or Chilean and likely don’t have papers of any sort in either country. He had no idea where the United States was, and had never even heard of Iraq or even World War II.  It is an amazing thing that these guys still exist, and I salute them. When we said goodbye I was sorry to see him go, but off he rode, dogs following him, to tend to whatever herd of cattle or sheep he had most recently been hired to bring down off the high country and return to their rightful owners.

When I finally made it down out of the mountains I landed on the Rio Pico and made camp. That night while I was fishing I was passed by two men on horseback who ignored me as they rode through the rain wearing green-cured furry sheepskin leggings with their hats pulled down so far over their eyes I couldn’t see them. They seemed not to see me. The next day though when I decided to head downstream I ended up passing their little house and stopped to ask if I could buy some eggs. The two came out of the barn where they had been working, both covered in blood and holding those knives, and frankly scared the heck out of me when the first thing they wanted to talk about was that I was camped on their land. In the end though it all turned out alright, and they even invited me inside for a sit-down.

The man was pretty nice, but the boy, who I judged to be about 14, never ceased to give me the feeling that he would rather kill me than talk to me. It turned out that their family had been on this land since it was first settled by non-natives, and that for over a hundred years it had been pretty much the middle of nowhere. They ran cattle, and had several thousand hectares.

Of late, however, they had been getting a lot of North American and European visitors, and all of them carrying fly rods. It wasn’t a problem, but it was clearly something they were having to get used to. The inside of the house was incredible, hand-made shoes and leather and wood everything, a bunch of skulls of javelina that they had killed (with their knives) and just all kinds of really neat, mostly indescribable stuff. I left with a dozen eggs and an invitation to dinner.

I fished the Rio Pico for a few days with mixed results, plenty of small fish but few really large ones, and noticed that I was running out of BIG flies.  This may have been due to the fact that trying to cast them on a 5-weight, often as not on a backwards-spooled 8-weight line, was a less than optimal set up.  Had a dog for a couple of days here, he just showed up and decided to hang out, so I let him fish with me and fed him trout. Neat dog, but I was not so sad when he finally decided to go home.

The next stop was the Gendarmeria, roughly three miles from my camp, and on that stop I was given a few supplies but also asked to translate the English language user’s manual for their diesel generator. This I was glad to do, and the next day when I was passing through I also carried them a stringer full of trout, in return for which they showed me an enormous hand drawn map that they had hidden behind a wall tile that I couldn’t take pictures of because it was Top Secret. Top secret or not it was enormously helpful and I used the information on it to plan my routes past Lago 5 and 3.

On the way to Lago 5 I came across this completely unbelievable horse. A draft horse of some sort, enormous in bulk and stature, it appeared to have been living more or less wild for a long, long, time. I have never seen a horse’s feet in as bad a shape as this fellow’s, yet there he stood, for all the world like he belonged out there. Clearly he had once been someone’s property, as he let me touch him and hang out with him, even lift his feet and have a look, but just as clearly it had been a long, long time since anyone had done anything with or for him. An amazing creature to be sure.

Lago 5 was OK, Lago 3 was incredible. Here I caught rainbows up to 26 inches, God knows how many pounds, in broad daylight wading in waist deep water. Here I also met my ticket out of the wilderness in the form of three really nice young fellows from Wyoming who had driven there in a four wheel drive truck. They were about as startled to see me there, and without wheels, as I was to see them. It was a fortunate meeting though and I hopped right into the group with their gracious invitation. We spent the next several days driving allover that area, making time that I could barely comprehend through the use of that amazing internal combustion engine they had hidden beneath the hood of their truck, and fished other areas of the Rio Pico, Lago Vintner and its outflow, and a few seemingly unexplored rivers that I will not name here on the blog with sometimes incredible results.

I got my first Patagonian brook trout out of the outflow from Lago Vintner, and a nice 22 inch brown from the same Rio Corcovado down below. Then they dropped me off in Esquel, which was a good thing for me because the equipment failure thing had gotten completely out of hand during the border crossing. The zipper failure theme had continued, coming to a climax with the complete malfunction of the zippers on the flies of both of my pairs of pants, which I then sewed shut.  Whatayagonnado?

So in Esquel I have purchased two new sets of pants (which has helped a bit with the smell too), and various sundry other items that were badly in need of replacement. Bad news is that another dog here has now more or less destroyed the vestibule section of my tent, which had some problems already after all this time, and that is not something that I can easily replace. Oh well. This is Patagonia.

My mood was elevated, then torqued out of shape, then elevated again yesterday when I woke up to find that fall had fallen here.  Fall has always been my favorite time of year, and the memories that flood me when it shows itself through the bending of light and cooling of air are powerful.

It is strange to have it happening in March. And yet, maybe not so much. Everybody be good. I will try to update again soon.