Chiles New Salmon Fishery written by Harry Morse
Featured in Oct/Nov 2015 STS
“Do you think anyone is going to believe us when we tell them how big they are and how many fish are down here,” said Gary Loomis. “This is an amazing fishery. We have landed more chinook salmon in the 40 to 50 pound class than below 40 pounds. This is a new Alaska before the 50s.”
Fishing with Clancy Holt, Gary Loomis, Vern Dollar and I caught 16 chinook salmon in five hours of trolling. Only two fish weighed less than 40 pounds. Loomis caught the biggest, it tipped the scale over 60 pounds, and six were over 50 pounds and seven were between 40 and 50 pounds. It was the first of five incredible days of fishing.
Loomis was right—the fishing is amazing.
This assessment coming from one of the most experienced salmon anglers in the world is a tribute to this emerging fishery.
Where is it? Alaska, Russia or Canada? No, it is in the Patagonia of Chile an hour and a half by air to the south of Santiago on the Petrohue River, home river of Yan Kee Way Lodge. The Petrohue winds it way down from the Andes into a giant fjord, which flanks the Pacific Ocean. Similar to the Cowlitz River, it is a winding muscular river fed by over 80 inches of rainfall annually.
Long known for rainbow and browns in the 6-10 pound range, the salmon fishery was the red-haired stepchild until Michael Darland, owner of Yan Kee Way Lodge and Southern Chile Expeditions realized its potential and turned it into reality for traveling anglers.
Gary Loomis holds up one of several chinook salmon he landed and released in Chile.
While Loomis and Holt racked up significant catches at the mouth of the river in the estuary, up river, fly fisherman Jeremy Stern was fulfilling a life long dream of catching a chinook salmon on a fly. His wife bought him the trip with Southern Chile Expeditions for his 50th birthday.
Guide Reinaldo Ovando Vásquez, an experienced Chilean fly fisherman and guide took Jeremy upstream by jet boat to one of Petrohue River’s crystal clear holes.
Massive salmon were tucked in against the far bank. Jeremy could see their sleek dark torpedo forms. He cinched on a hand tied streamer, judged the distance for his first cast in Chile and let it fly. Several strips into his retrieve the fly stopped. He thought he was snagged, and then the rod was nearly jerked from his grip.
A 45-pound chinook was stripping line and headed up stream.
Jeremy was into his backing as Vásquez fired up the jet boat and followed it a hundred yards to the head of the hole. It then spun around and passed them going down stream. The fight was on. Thirty minutes later Jeremy slid the massive fish into ankle deep water for a quick photo and release.
Basking in 70 degree sunshine, the Andes in the background, Jeremy wondered; “How could it get any better.”
Then it did.
A half hour later he hooked an even bigger salmon and held on for dear life as it circled the deep pool. It made one long run and then went to the bottom of the 16-foot-deep pool and sulked for ten minutes giving an occasional head shake. Jeremy could not move it. Then it started slowly cruising the length of the pool seemingly oblivious to the big fly hooked in his jaw. They followed it in the boat and 45 minutes later it tired and Jeremy led it to knee deep water where corralled it for his picture of a lifetime. Its estimated weight was over 60 pounds. It was released promptly.
"Why This Fishery Now?"
The Chilean Salmon fishery has been in the making since the 1980s when chinook eggs were transplanted from Pacific Northwest rivers. The original intent was support of fish ranching—the harvesting of planted salmon upon their return from the wild to their “adopted home” river.
Fish ranching never proved successful. At the same time Chile started massive commercialization of salmon net pen technology to become one of worlds leading exporters of Atlantic salmon.
Clancy Holt admires a bright 50 pound Chinook he caught while guiding in Chile
The remnant of these chinook making the Petrohue River their home is impressive. Other rivers along the Southern coastline of Chile also are experiencing this phenomena.
Over the last decade returning chinook stocks to the Petrohue River consistently filled available spawning areas according to Yan Kee Way Lodge owner Michael Darland of Bellevue, Washington. With no netting allowed and no commercial take in the river or estuary the salmon run has thrived.
One of the major hurdles to fishing the Petrohue River for both residents and visiting anglers is the lack of access to major portions of the river from land. Only a handful of jet boats and a few drift boats ply the key 20-mile stretch of river.
Few makeshift launch sites exist in the lower river and estuary.
There is little fishing infrastructure from tackle to guides. Fly-fishing tackle and accessories can be found at local mom and pop stores, salmon tackle is hard to come by.
Sinkers weighing over 2 ounces are non-existent.
Traveling salmon anglers have a tough time finding guides, lodging, transportation and appropriate boats for salmon fishing through out the region. Yan Kee Way Lodge and its Southern Chile Expedition guides is the exception.
In March 2014, I visited the area and tried to book a salmon trip including lures and bait. It was the peak of the run. I could see salmon passing under the Petrohue River bridge. The guides for hire along the river had fly fishing gear for trout or ancient spinning gear.
Two had name brand 4- to 6-weight fly rods and good fly-fishing gear but marginal spinning and conventional gear. These guides worked the river fly-fishing for trout. One guide specialized in casting spoons and bragged of averaging one to two salmon per day.
None had fish finders, top-notch conventional rods, reels, lures or GPS. I had hit a dead end and did not fish there in 2014.
This year (2015) Southern Chile Expeditions brought in Clancy Holt to refine Yan Kee Way Lodge’s guides exploratory gear fishing techniques and to assist in putting Southern Chile Expeditions salmon fishing program at the forefront of the expanding salmon fishery.
A "Salmon Grande" is netted and released.
Darland, saw the salmon fishing potential of the river ten years ago. He launched a program to remove gill netting from the river and sought a way to have experienced Pacific Northwest gear fishermen on the river to fish and to record their results. He met with Gary Loomis in 2008 and offered to donate guided trips for two fishermen, per year to Yan Kee Way Lodge to be auctioned off for the conservation organization Fish First.
The donation was made for a good cause and acquired experienced anglers who provided written results of each trip’s salmon catch. The results were stunning.
Over five consecutive years the group’s results painted a portrait of a unique salmon fishery. In 2014 group’s angling records show that they caught and released over 80 chinook in the 6 days. The majority of the fish were over 40 pounds. On their worst day, they recorded 11 salmon with 9 being over 50 pounds.
During this time period fly fishing clients at Yan Kee Way were incidentally catching chinook in the 40 pound range. After witnessing the success of the visiting anglers several of the guides quickly adapted the fish techniques and caught massive salmon. However, their overall gear fishing experience was limited to setting up for salmon using KwikFish. Darland knew they could improve overall catch rates with expert tutoring.
"Time to open the outstanding fishery and bring in expert guide Clancy Holt"
Darland invited Loomis and Holt down to fish in Chile in 2014 to render their professional opinions regarding launching a full-fledged guided gear fishery on the Petrohue River. They packed their bags and headed to Patagonia on a new adventure. After fishing a week with Darland on the Petrohue River, they gave it high marks.
Ironically it was same month I was wandering the dirt roads along that river trying, unsuccessfully, to find a guide to go salmon fishing with. Neither of us was aware the other was in Chile.
The Petrohue River reminded Loomis and Holt of the Cowlitz River with two big exception—No dams and lots very big salmon. Test fishing in 2014, they hooked 30-50 pound Salmon pass after pass for three days. Several salmon scaled 60 pounds, this was no fluke and the fishing was definitely better than they imagined. They gave it their seal of approval and by 2015 they were salmon fishing out of Yan Kee Way Lodge. The lodge added new jet boats to their fly-fishing fleet to accommodate new salmon fishing clients.
While Loomis was fighting a 50-pound salmon, he filled me in on how he helped prepare for this year's opening. First and foremost he is a salmon fisherman who designs and builds exceptional fishing rods, he designed a new fly rod and a conventional salmon rod, which could handle salmon over 50 lbs. It is a sweet rod and I can vouch for its ability to handle the abuse doled out by 50-pound chinook. The new fly rod is a 9’2” four piece for traveling which handles up to 600-grain line. Gary added fighting butts and strengthened the tip of the rod to fight these fish. Guides that have used it say it is one of the best made.
Part of Holt’s assignment was exploratory fishing, on the Petohue River system as well as in the estuary and on Lake Llanquihue. He also provided advanced training to the Chilean guides, consulted on equipment and aided in setting up the new equipment to fish.
Four new 18' Smokercraft jetboats with 60-horse-power Yamaha motors were an improvement over the 16 and 17 foot sleds Holt and Loomis fished out of the previous year. Loomis’s newly designed rods arrived together with assorted salmon gear and equipment for the season.
Drought Changes Fishing Tactics
Originally the majority of fishing was slated for the Petohue River upstream of the main bridge. Downstream of the bridge the river widens out entering an estuary and fjord connecting to the Pacific Ocean below Puerto Montt. Tides up to 20 feet flow in and out of the estuary where salmon mass to move up the river. The main run of salmon move into the river starting in November and the run peaks in late March.
This year Chile experienced its most severe drought. This resulted in record low river flows and high water temperatures. Schools of spawning salmon, sensing conditions were not yet right in the river, congregated in the estuary. Some moved up and ended up in the traditional pools where Jeremy caught his fish of a lifetime. But the majority of the fish were either late or holding in the estuary waiting for the river to pulse with a rain event and for water temperatures to drop.
Holt’s job was to find and catch these fish. He has a lifetime of experience fishing tide waters from San Francisco Bay to the Columbia River at Astoria and figured this estuary was not that different.
He just had to find the right spots in the massive estuary to catch these salmon. Darland’s guides knew the location of the few primitive launches on the estuary and recommended areas to try they had caught some salmon at. Darland and Holt sent out to test these waters. The results were stunning.
The first day they caught and released six fish, the smallest was over 40 pounds. Darland caught a personal lifetime record of one 50 plus pounder and one over 60 the same morning.
Gary Loomis and his rod maker friend Vern Dollar joined Holt the next week on the estuary. Fishing only got better as Holt charted the channels and holding areas figuring out the tidal actions and when and where the best bites occurred.
I joined them the following week. The first day I fished, we caught and released 15 salmon. Loomis was high man with eight fish. I caught three and a personal best over 60 pounds.
These salmon were massive.
Netting 40 -60 pound salmon not only requires some skill it also requires muscle to hold the
My first fish ripped out over 400 feet of line. Watching the line counter on the reel I began to panic. Holt spun the boat around and we followed the fish. At first it ran near the surface of the glassy bay waters, then it sounded and came right back at us. I reeled frantically loosing line tension and then the fish shot out away from the boat jolting my rod. Over five days of estuary fishing we totaled over 100 salmon caught and released.
We never fished the river. When Holt asked where we wanted to fish, the Estuary always got a unanimous vote. Holt says that once rains hit and the river fishing peaked it was very very good with many salmon in the 40, 50 and some in the 60-pound class. Holt and Yan Kee Way’s Chilean guides served an average of 6-12 clients daily during the next two months and their salmon and trout catches were outstanding.
Now is the time to explore the salmon fishing of Chile!
Fishing is conducted out of the Yakee Way Lodge in the shadow of snow capped volcanos.
- written by Harry Morse