Jurassic Trout ... by George Krumm
- relating to or denoting the second period of the Mesozoic era, between the Triassic and Cretaceous periods.
Funny, the Jurassic Period was part of Mesozoic Era, which is commonly referred to as the Age of Reptiles.
It makes sense, and it follows that the movie series “Jurassic Park” is about dinosaurs—creatures that have come to symbolize the Jurassic period—even though they weren’t the only creatures evolving in the period. Birds came from the Jurassic, too. As we bumped and jolted our way across the barren, rocky southern Argentinian desert and began to descend towards the azure waters of Lago Strobel, I pondered why Lago Strobel came to be informally referred to as Jurassic Lake.
It wasn’t any reptile that made it the best place in the world to catch mega rainbows.
What’s more, the Age of Fish is the Devonian period, not the Jurassic. I guess people equate Jurassic with big, or larger-than-life, and that makes sense; Jurassic rainbows do seem larger-than-life.
Nick Amato and I were in the back seat of a Toyota pickup being driven by one of the Jurassic Lake Lodge guides, Rodrigo. We’d left El Calafate that morning after two days of travel from Portland, Oregon. The fatigue of the journey began to fade away as we descended along the Barrancoso River replaced by boyish, hard-to-contain anticipation and excitement.
The desolate landscape devoid of any real trees, the low scrub brush and the basalt boulders, the cataract-like descent of the river through the arroyo—plus the wind which blew so hard it would sometimes make you lose your balance—were all evidence of an inhospitable environment. Yet, arguably the world’s best rainbow trout fly fishing fishery was flowing right beside us and in the lake just a couple hundred feet below us.
My friend Bob Daly of Chicago reached out to me nearly two years ago about fishing Jurassic.
He’d made claims of 20-pound rainbows. He’d been to Lago Strobel several times and said he sometimes caught more than 40 rainbows a day that typically weighed between six and twelve pounds. He said there was no place in the world like it, and he invited me to go with him in October of 2017. I accepted, of course. I’d been dreaming of fishing the lake for years.
Years ago, it didn’t have any fish in it.
The Barrancoso River, the only tributary of Lago Strobel, was stocked with McLeod-strain rainbows from California and has since established a naturally reproducing population that spends much of its time in the lake. Now, it is the premier fly fishing destination in the world for huge rainbows.
In the months leading up to the trip, I read as much as I could find about the fishery and the lodges on the lake, including Jurassic Lake Lodge where we’d be staying.
I talked to several people who’d been there to tap their brains about what to bring, what works, and so on. One friend of mine, Joe Winchester of Reno, had sent me pictures of fish in the 20-pound class from Jurassic. Joe fishes Pyramid Lake a lot and he’s been to Jurassic four times. In talking to him, it became clear to me that switch rods would definitely play at Jurassic. Joe shared a wealth of experience with me that proved very helpful on the lake. He also explained that while almost anything will work, he did best on his last trip out of Estancia Laguna Verde with balanced leeches fished under an indicator.
I made a mental note to tie some up prior to the trip.
I couldn’t believe I was finally at Jurassic Lake Lodge. I looked out at the windswept lake as we were shown to our rooms. We had lunch, and head guide Llewellyn Claven gave us the rundown on how the week would go. Nick and I were assigned to guide Jose and were told we’d fish the Bay of Pigs, also known as Cochinos, that afternoon.
For the remainder of the trip we would rotate between the three main beats they fish that time of year: the Bay of Pigs, the First pool up in the river, and the River Mouth. Each day we’d start in one of the beats, then after lunch rotate counter-clockwise to the next for the afternoon session.
Bay of Pigs
We hastily assembled our gear and suited up. Following my friend Joe’s advice, I strung up a Temple Fork Outfitters Deer Creek seven-weight switch rod with a RIO Switch Chucker line, a three-foot, 30 pound-test butt section with a five-foot tippet of 20 pound-test Seaguar STS Fluorocarbon. I knotted an olive ‘bugger to the tippet.
To say anticipation ran high would be a severe understatement.
We strode the couple hundred yards from the lodge to the bay. As we left the relative shelter of the lodge buildings and approached the peninsula, the wind blasting us in the face was daunting. Two and three-foot waves smashed against the shoreline. Gusts of wind ripped water from the surface of the lake and sent is spiraling through the air like phantom clouds. After we’d walked out about two-thirds of the way along the peninsula. Jose stopped, pointed at the water, and said, “Fish here.”
He took Nick another 15 yards up the rocky shoreline and told him to go fish off of a prominent rock at the water’s edge. The wind was howling at us from about one or two o’clock, the shoreline more reminiscent of ocean surf pounding a rocky shore than a lake. I hesitated, noting the towering rocks behind us and wondering if I’d be able to get a fly to fishable water. It would require a high, backhanded back cast. My first attempt at a forward cast was timed perfectly with a hard gust that blew my fly line right back to the shore on my left. I found that I’d have to try to time the gusts in order to get the fly out.
Despite the conditions, we began to get our flies to fishable water. A forty-foot cast was a good one; it wasn’t long before we were both hooking fish with regularity. And man, what fish they were!
The small ones were five or six pounds—beautiful, chrome footballs that repeatedly leapt clear of the surf and ripped out yards of line.
The average fish was larger—perhaps eight or 10 pounds. Occasionally we could see fish cruising by in the clear water just beyond the wind-stirred turbid water along the shore. This turbidity extended out 30 feet or so, and there was noticeable current flowing from left to right.
My fly rarely turned over completely; the wind would pile up the leader, effectively shortening my cast. I switched to a balanced leech, thinking the heavier fly might turn over better. It did, and I began to hook more fish.
We kept Jose busy, hustling back and forth between us to net, measure, and release fish. The biggest fish of the afternoon was a 33-inch, 17-pound brute that took the leech 20 feet from the bank in the turbid water.
We fished the Bay of Pigs twice more during this trip.
We found that despite the difficulty present by the wind at this beat, the windier it was, the better the fishing. It seems heavy wind stirs up the bottom and perhaps dislodges the scuds on which these fish reportedly feed. No wind at the Bay of Pigs generally means slower fishing. Winds of 15 miles per hour, just enough to get whitecaps forming, were ideal as it was enough to churn up the bottom and create some turbidity, yet it was still very fishable from a casting perspective. However, when it blows, it generally blows harder than that.
Our second day at the Bay was incredible.
We were pared with guide Rodrigo, and there were three of us: myself, Nick and Jim Schmid. We took turns fishing different places along the rocky shoreline. I stuck with the balanced leech, but had decided to fish it under an indicator for a variety of reasons. First, once it was out there, the waves would animate the fly and it would stay out where the fish were for a long period of time. This meant less casting, more catching, and less fatigue. The water we were fishing didn’t appear to be all that deep. In fact, thought I moved the indicator around on my leader to try a variety of depths, the best depth seemed to be about two and a half feet below the indicator. With a moderate wind as opposed to a gale-force blow, it was possible to use a variation of a Perry Poke cast to launch the line out to good water. Anything beyond 30 feet would do, and I could cast with this method out to about 50 feet into moderate winds; considerably farther in calm conditions. With a single-hand rod and conventional weight forward line, this casting technique wouldn’t have been possible. It’s significant to note that I used the same casting technique at the River Mouth beat. Anywhere in the lake, this was my go-to method of delivering the fly. Also significant, once I put on the indicator and balanced leech combo, I never took it off. It was consistently good. I did change fly color, experimenting with balanced leeches in black with red or blue highlights, olive with gold and brown highlights, and brown with burgundy highlights. All of them worked. I caught most of my fish on a black one with blue highlights, but that’s what I fished most. The indicator I used was an Airlock ¾ inch.
My biggest four fish of the trip all came from the Bay of Pigs. Three of them were chrome, football-shaped beasts that when weighed in the net, weighed 19 pounds each. The longest fish (mentioned previously) was 33 inches, in spawning condition with a huge red stripe, however, it tipped the scales a little less at 17 pounds.
A quarter of a mile from the lodge and River Mouth is the beat referred to as the First Pool, or the Pool. It is located on a wide bend of the river and is indeed the first real pool in the river.
The first day we fished it, the mercury was well below freezing. Nick and I struggled to get our feet into frozen wading boots, then grabbed our rods and followed Jose on the trail that led up to the hole. We crossed gullies along the way, some of them littered with carcasses of huge rainbows that were stranded after the last high water event receded.
It was intimidating to imagine the amount of snowmelt flowing down from the Andes that would fill the entire arroyo, creating such a circumstance. Once at the pool, we were disappointed to see rafts of slush flowing down the river and shore ice on the banks but encouraged by all the huge fish we could see lazily finning in the pool. It was going to be a tough morning.
The Pool is ideal for single-hand fly rods, floating lines, and any fly you might want to try. It is an especially good place for dry flies, and this is probably the best place in the world to catch a rainbow of 10 pounds or more on top.
For this beat, I used a custom 9’6”, seven-weight Sage SLT rod paired with a weight-forward, floating line, and a nine-foot leader ending with 17-pound STS Fluorocarbon for the tippet. I’d heard hoppers were the dries to use, but with the rafts of slush flowing down presentation proved difficult. Despite this, both Nick and I managed to get a few fish to rise to foam-bodied hopper imitations. We caught a few on various nymphs as well. Note that these fish are, for the most part, much larger than typical rainbows. It is helpful to use heavier-gauge hooks when tying flies for Jurassic. I had a few nymph hooks open up due to the weight of these fish.
The next time we fished the Pool was a couple of days later, in the afternoon.
Air temperatures were in the upper 50s, so conditions were much more conducive to dry fly angling.
Lew (head guide), Rodrigo, Nick, and I went up the trail. Lew, a great photographer, brought along some of his equipment to try to capture some dry fly eats on film.
After our first day at the Pool, I was somewhat reluctant to go back up there. After my first two casts resulted in oversized ‘bows casually slurping in my hopper, my feelings changed. What an afternoon!
We all landed numerous fish on hoppers ranging from six to perhaps 14 pounds!
We fished the Pool itself, but we also detoured up the river to try fishing some rather challenging pocket water.
The pockets were short holding lies, usually on the far side of the river, with fast water between us on the fish. It required a pinpoint cast, sometimes a reach cast, followed by successive, rapid mends to hopefully result in a drag-free drift of a few seconds. When we executed properly, fish invariable ate our flies. In this pocket water, we fished mouse imitations as well as hoppers. We didn’t skate them, though. We dead-drifted them. It reminded me of fly fishing I’d done years ago in small, Rocky Mountain streams—except the fish were often eight to 10 pounds, not eight to 10 inches.
We fished the Pool one more time on this trip.
On this last trip to the Pool, we caught the majority of our fish on hoppers.
We caught a few skating the fly, but dead-drifting it generally produced better. Note that almost all of the fish in the river at this time of year are in it to spawn. They typically show rainbow trout spawning colors with greenbacks and huge red stripes. However, newly-arrived fish are often brighter, more akin to the “chromers” caught in the lake.
The River Mouth
Looking out at the lake from the lodge, you’re looking at the River Mouth beat. There’s a long section of beach to the left that starts at the peninsula dividing Bay of Pigs from the River Mouth. To the right, the river flows into the lake. Since we were there at the end of winter or beginning of spring (October in South America), large numbers of rainbows were gathering in the vicinity of the river mouth in preparation for their spawning run. As implied earlier, many were already in the river.
The bank along the beach is sloping, but not steep like it is at Bay of Pigs.
Because of this, single-handed and two-handed rods are both good choices. I stuck with the switch rod to try to gain a little more distance. The wind typically blows from about 10 o’clock here. As such, right-handed casters can cast off their strong sides.
I think it’s safe to say we caught more fish on this beat than any other.
We also caught some large fish. Though my biggest four all came from Bay of Pigs, Nick caught his biggest right at the river mouth one evening. I recall being about 20 yards to the right of the river mouth.
Nick was just left of the river mouth, chatting with Rodrigo. We were both regularly hooking fish, and though we weren’t far from each other, I couldn’t hear the conversation due to wind. The occasional fish rolled out in front of me. Suddenly, a huge fish erupted from the water in the flow of the river. It launched itself again on my side of the river mouth. I heard Rodrigo whoop and then noticed Nick had that fish on. I retrieved my line and crossed the river to watch from the beach. Nick’s Echo rod was bent to the cork as he carefully played the fish.
The serious look on Nick’s face and the excitement in Rodrigo’s said it all—this was the fish Nick was looking for! The tension was palpable as Nick worked the behemoth into range of Rodrigo and the net. A sure scoop and Rodrigo and Nick waded to the shallows to admire it. Though I don’t think we had a scale with us, we agreed the fish looked to be about 20 pounds.
This was the last beat we fished on our trip; it couldn’t have ended any better for Nick.
I was happy to see him land the rainbow of a lifetime.
The Switch rod and indicator with a balanced leech setup was my go-to for the River Mouth. We caught fish from the beach over towards Bay of Pigs, but the action was more consistent closer to the actual river mouth, and just past the river mouth. While I stuck with the balanced leech, Nick employed a variety of flies and I believe everything we tried caught fish. These fish weren’t selective.
Jurassic Lake Lodge is the best place I know if in this world to have a shot at a 20-pound rainbow on fly gear. It is also the best place I know of to catch a 10-plus-pound rainbow on a dry fly. Both Nick and I accomplished the latter several times over. The season is roughly six months long (late October through April), and the fishing is different at the end of the season compared to the beginning of the season.
The spawning migration happens at the beginning half of the season.
Anglers can expect a mixture of fish ranging from robust chromers to vividly-colored spawners. In general, based on my limited experience the huge, 20-plus-pound chromers are more likely to be caught in the lake than in the river. However, I saw fish as big as 17 pounds landed in the river on this trip.
Late in the season, far fewer big fish are in the river; most are in the lake then.
Traveling to Lago Strobel is a long journey. Jurassic Lake Lodge now has an airstrip about 20 minutes from the lodge. I highly recommend you pay a little more to take the charter in and out. This saves you a full day’s fishing time. Additionally, I recommend flying direct from the US to Buenos Aries if possible. The customs situation in Mexico City is time-consuming and energy-sapping.
Be mindful of how much gear you take.
Check the weight restrictions for the carriers you use. Some of our group were charged with excess baggage fees. Additionally, be sure everyone in your party takes extra rods. Not only is it possible to break one (these fish are BIG), but sometimes airlines lose stuff. An airline lost the rods of one guy in our party and he used someone else’s extra rods during the trip.
It is wise to start planning your trip two years out. With limited slots, space gets booked far in advance. Be sure to have your passport well before the trip. I recommend six to nine months out.
Use heavy-wire hooks. Standard lake fare doesn’t cut it here. Additionally, de-barb your hooks. Barbless hooks are way easier on the fish, and it’s much easier and faster for you or your guide to remove them. Guides were a little rough with the pliers. Most of the flies I went through were destroyed by pliers, not fish. As such, I unhooked most of my own fish. With barbless hooks, you can remove them with your fingers, thereby avoiding damage to your flies that pliers can cause.
For the river, a nine- to nine-and-a-half-foot, single-hand rod, foam hoppers, some mice, some standard dries, and some impressionistic nymphs work well. Heavy tippet of 15- or even 20-pound-test mono works well for dries. Don’t use fluorocarbon for your dries as it sinks, causing drag that is impossible to remove. A weight forward, floating line is all you’ll need in the river. Regarding reels, anything that can hold 100 yards of backing is more than you need in the river. The lake is a different story, so if you plan to use your single-hander in the lake, I recommend a reel that will hold 150 yards of backing. I used on old, Ross Canyon 3 on my single-hand rod.
For the lake, a switch rod will make your fishing and casting much easier.
I recommend an eight weight. Next time I go, I’ll use an eight-weight switch rod with the RIO Switch Chucker floating line for all of my lake fishing. Most likely I’ll use an indicator, but the Switch Chucker can be used without an indicator, too. Use fluorocarbon for your leader and tippet in the lake. Again, the fish aren’t leader shy so heavy tippets of 15- to 20-pound-test will be durable enough to last for many fish, and will help avoid the downtime of frequently replacing tippet. I used 20-pound-test Seaguar STS Fluorocarbon most of the time.
For reels, capacity is an issue in the lake. Since fish of 25 pounds or more are within the realm of possibility, with a huge amount of water in which to run, I recommend you use a reel that can hold 150 yards of backing plus your fly line. I used a Redington Behemoth 7/8 fly reel with my switch rod. I put 50 yards of 30-pound Dacron on it, uni-knotted to 75 yards of 50-pound Power Pro, uni-knotted to another 50 yards of 30-pound Dacron for a total of 175 yards of backing. This reel would not be able to hold 175 yards of 30-pound Dacron plus the Switch Chucker line.
Regarding flies, in my experience, these fish will hit almost anything.
Buggers and balanced leeches in a variety of colors from size 4 to size 8, foam hoppers or crickets in light colors like yellow or off white, some mouse patterns and standard nymph patterns in sizes eight through 12 all have their day. If I were going tomorrow, I’d start with balanced leeches under an indicator in the lake, and foam hoppers in the river. Regardless, it’s always wise to ask the lodge what has been working lately.
The fishing is so good at Jurassic, it’s easy to overlook the accommodations, guides and food.
As remote as it is (the nearest town, El Calafate, is roughly 5 hours away), the food was great. Big meals, steaks, Asado, eggs and bacon and desserts are all part of the deal. Beer and wine were complimentary and bottled water was available in plenty. Each room has its own shower, and the rooms are heated. The guides all spoke English, and worked hard to be of service.
It is not cheap to go there, but it is definitely the trip of a lifetime.
If huge rainbows, with average fish running eight to ten pounds and 20-plus pounders possible, as well as the possibility of catching a 10-plus pound fish on a dry is on your bucket list, there is no finer option than Jurassic Lake Lodge.
- George Krumm is the Editor of Fish Alaska magazine and Hunt Alaska magazine, and writes the Stillwater column in Fish Alaska. He hosts an annual trip to Jurassic Lake Lodge in late April. If you’re interested in going on future trips, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.