Northwest Steelheading Techniques Take Big Trout in Patagonia by Harry Morse
Who could resist the offer to fish a stunning river with big trout in an exotic location? A river you fished and guided on 20 years ago. Was the fishing as good as you remembered? Were the rumors that the trout were bigger true?
Jack Mitchell, owner of The Evening Hatch a fly shop in Ellensburg, Washington couldn’t resist the offer to come fish the famous Rio Petrohue in Chile by Yan Kee Way Lodge owner Michael Darland.
Despite a killer of a schedule running three fly fishing lodges and guiding, he vowed to make time. Five months later he was in Chile on the Rio Petrohue River pointing out a riffle to his wife Jennifer where his clients in the 1990s had consistently hooked big brown and rainbow trout. Without hesitating she placed a picture perfect cast at the head of the riffle, waited and started stripping in Jack’s favorite streamer.
Jack took a different tack. Over the years, Jack has experienced success fishing steelhead with multiple techniques including nymphing (specifically using yarn) for Washington summer- and winter-run steelhead in the fall and winter out of his lodges on the Klickitat River and the Olympic Peninsula. Wondering if this might be the ticket to success here, he dug out the needed terminal tackle to set up a nymphing rig.
Floating past the mouth of San Antonio Creek, on the lower Rio Petrohue, Jack hit pay dirt with his technique. Each drift of 2-300 feet past the mouth produced strikes and fish. In less than 30 minutes he landed eight and lost several more. Moving downstream a half mile to several braided areas he hopped on shore and caught two rainbow—12 and 18 inches. The bigger trout spit up half dozen salmon eggs as Jack released it.
Meanwhile Jennifer was struggling. An expert flyfisher in her own right, she quickly figured out that streamers were not producing and she switched to the nymphing technique using yarn. It took her several drifts to adjust the strike indicator to the right depth and she was into fish.
What was significant about the success of Jack’s nymphing technique was that this was classically the toughest time for guides to consistently get clients into fish. Trout were adjusting feeding patterns based on a new source of high quality protein, salmon eggs. Anglers sticking to dry fly top water patterns, traditional nymphing techniques and streamer had to work harder, fish earlier and later to be successful.
The easily available protein salmon eggs provided was hard to beat with an artificial.
Salmon were just starting to arrive in this section of the river and were holding in the main channel below where San Antonio Creek poured into Rio Petrohue. With coming rains and another couple of weeks of salmon migration San Antonio Creek would be alive with spawning salmon and the dark shadows of thousands of salmon would be visible in the side channels downstream for nearly a quarter mile.
The proverbial saying, “The fish were so thick in the river you could walk across on their backs,” was captured in cell phone pictures by guides the previous year in this section of the river and creek. The grainy pictures showed salmon in the 50 pound class pursuing their mating ritual with giant tails protruding out of the water.
While trout fishing was what they were here for, they really wanted a crack at one of the big salmon.
They marveled at the pictures of the 60-pound salmon flyfisher Jeremy Stern had landed in one of Jack’s favorite pools the year before. It inspired them to pack Spey rods and salmon flies just in case the opportunity presented its self.
Rio Petrohue is famous in Chilean fly fishing circles as a consistent producer of rainbows and nice browns.
It is a river flanked by magnificent forest and snowcapped volcanoes offering a challenging variety of waters to fish. Today, you can add giant Chinook salmon into the angling mix. Starting in the early 1990s Chinook salmon were able to get a spawning foothold in Rio Petrohue. Over the last decade with no commercial take in the river and estuary the salmon population has thrived.
The question of exactly which North American Chinook stock the current salmon are from awaits genetic testing. Stocks were introduced from Puget Sound and the Columbia River and escapees from the massive commercial net pen industry now migrate and spawn in various Chilean coastal rivers.
The effect spawning salmon have on the food base of resident trout population is changing the dynamic of trout populations in the Rio Petrohue and the way anglers approach fishing late in the season. Over the past 20-plus years Michael Darland, owner of Yan Kee Way Lodge has recorded these significant changes. His guides have kept daily logs of fish caught, estimated weigh and size of fish their clients catch and release.
“Today, Rio Petrohue has a much higher protein source available to resident trout. Over the past decade my guides have seen a slow but consistent increase in the average size of the trout. Late in our trout season, once the salmon come in the trout move in behind the spawning salmon and feed on salmon eggs. The timing is perfect since we are going into winter and this provides the trout with an excellent food source to maintain extra body weight.”
Paulo Silva, current president of the regional flyfishing association, confirms that the average size of rainbows has increased over the last decade.
Today 18- to 24-inch rainbows are consistently caught on the Rio Petrohue. A decade ago the range was closer to 16 to 20 inches. He says the fish are heavier and deeper bodied. In tributaries like the San Antonio trout sizes have increased from 8 to 14 inches with the occasional 20-inch fish, to an average of 15 inches with 20-inch rainbows caught and released most days.
Fishing season starts November 15, and ends the last day in March. When spring arrives and fishing season opens trout are on a feeding binge and they have not seen a fly in months. Fishing can be mercurial with anglers experiencing some 30 to 60 fish days during the first 30 to 40 days of the season.
Streamers and nymphs are the main producers but some days are just made for dry flies. December and January fishing ranges from good to excellent with consistent water flows, cool water temperatures and morning hatches. Salmon trickle in starting in January and the main runs arrive over the next two to three months. By March the salmon biomass in the river begins to peak and trout fishing with streamers and nymphs is challenging.
The trout are there, food is plentiful and anglers must work hard at getting fish to bite.
Bringing Pacific Northwest Nymphing Techniques to Chile
Darland believed Jack’s experience and knowledge gained from fishing numerous western rivers would help his guide staff increase their daily catch during the March period when spawning salmon massed in the river.
Yan Kee Way Lodge’s assortment of new jet boats, pontoon and rafts were at Jack and Jennifer's disposal. Working with their guide, Paulo Silua, they sketched out a fishing plan for the next four days. They would fish the middle and lower stretches of the river and several of the tributaries on the lower stretch. They would work streamers, nymphs, egg patterns, beads and yarn from the banks out to the middle of the river.
The last morning they would go to the mouth of the river and fish the incoming tide at dawn for salmon and sea-run browns using Spey rods and big streamers.
Jack and Jennifer came prepared with an assortment of Thomas and Thomas, Eco and Sage single-handed and Spey rods in 6 to 10 weight for trout and salmon, Skagit Head Lines, a series of standard fly lines, assorted tips and leaders. Not to mention enough flies and material to open a new fly shop!
As a guide working at Yan Kee Way Lodge in the 1990s Jack didn't have time to enjoyed the pleasures of the new lodge being built. Now he and Jennifer enjoyed the stunning food and atmosphere. Fillets, fine wines and deserts to die for were now evening fare for visiting anglers. Somehow Darland enticed a four star Chef to take over the lodge’s culinary duties and opened LATITUDE 42 Restaurant on the property.
His creations were awarded recognition as one of only two Four Star restaurants outside of Santiago in all of Chile.
Jennifer was delighted with the superb food, beautiful chalet and dining room over looking lake Lago Llanquihue with snowcapped Osorno Volcano looming in the background. She wished they had more time to enjoy Yan Kee Way's other offering from photography and cultural tours to canopy tours on a nearby zip-line. But they were here to fish. Working with Jack in their two lodges and helping run a third, she understood the demands of finding fish for clients.
While this was a great reunion trip, they were on the hunt for fish.
Once on the river it was apparent the salmon run was late. After two days on the water looking for salmon in riffles, side channels and small tributaries it was clear that the main salmon run had yet to arrive. Paulo had photos from last March showing salmon stacked in shallower areas turning the river bottom dark with fish.
They started with nymphing techniques using a bead, and selected their offering from a wide assortment Paulo used successfully the previous year. The local favorite was a resin bead the size of a small salmon egg bonded just below the eye of a number 10 hook. Pale orange was the hot color last year.
The first hour drifting and casting from their pontoon boat Jack and Jennifer fished in six- to nine-foot-deep water with sinking lines. It was not productive. Jennifer landed one nice 15-inch rainbow.
Moving into shallower water they began working the shoreline in three to 6 feet of water landing several fish in the next hour, but fishing seemed to shut down as the sun glared on the water.
A side channel yielded a 14-inch rainbow for Jack. Switching colors they tied on beads set up with the hook dangling several inches behind the bead. No strikes.
Back to the drawing board.
At this point Jack switched to a successful nymphing technique perfected on Washington summer- and winter-run steelhead.
He set up a bobber to work as a strike indicator, tied on a leader and twisted a paper thin wrap-able weight to the leader two thirds of the way down and began working his way through a selection of yarns pre-tied on various size hooks. The trick to success with this technique was adjusting the bobber and line length to match the depth of the river and drifting just off the bottom and finding the color the fish wanted.
Jack felt that on any stream where salmon spawn, both anadromous steelhead and trout will capitalize on eggs. At times you may find a congregation of fish behind salmon waiting to take part in the “smorgasbord” of eggs being swept into the current behind the redds and fish.
He was right, at the mouth of San Antonio Creek the technique quickly produced several nice rainbows.
After several successful passes they decided to move down river and fish braided areas that looked like excellent salmon spawning habitat. In these areas the strike were consistent but not as fast as below the mouth of each of the tributaries.
Salmon were just beginning to move into this section of the river and things would just get better with each passing day as the salmon run increased in size.
Jennifer rigged up like Jack and soon hooked into a bigger fish and fought it while Paulo expertly brought the pontoon boat to shore and netted an 18-inch rainbow. Deep and sleek it was the class of rainbow they were seeking.
The day ended on a high note with Jack landing a fine brown trout which Jennifer netted.
That evening they discussed the results of the day. Jack’s steelhead technique definitely worked. Now it was up to the guides to work with their clients and add this method of fishing to their arsenal. While it was a straight-forward technique, it takes time and patience to get the presentation depth correct and find the color the fish wanted.
Paulo suggested they take a jet boat and try an early morning of fishing at the mouth of the river where they could test the waters for sea-run browns and salmon at first light and motor upstream later for trout. The previous year in March, one of his clients had landed two sea-run browns in the four to six pound range on the turning of the incoming tide and a 40-pound plus salmon.
It sounded like a perfect way to close out the trip.
- written by Harry Morse