I’m stuffing waders and boots into bags on a Tuesday night in early April, when Jason Jagger blows up my phone with the news.
Jagger, who spends his January through April months guiding in Tierra del Fuego on the lower Rio Grande, describes a river that’s quadrupled in size. Catch-rates have fallen off a cliff, he says. Fishing has turned into searching for anything with a pulse in brown currents, spewing chunks of flotsam and debris. And while it’s great to know guides in far-off places, at this point his words make me yearn for the home I haven’t left.
April in Southern Hemisphere marks the pirouette of seasons from summer to autumn. Fall’s arrival is also the finale for most lodge operations on the Rio Grande. The wear on the guides’ faces shows when I arrive at Kau Tapen Lodge two days later. Talk of girlfriends in Buenos Aires dominates the chatter. Grouse hunting in St. Petersburg, Russia, awaits some. Mayfly hatches in Ireland are on the cusp of combustion for others. The tribes will soon part ways, destined for comforts that exist beyond living in utter remoteness. Over the past month, the deluge of events Jason had relayed has exacerbated this countdown to the season’s close. But for this gringo, it’s about holding out for a miracle in overtime.
Over beers and rod-rigging sessions that first evening, Matthew Solon, head guide at Kau Tapen Lodge, tells me the weather has stabilized. No more rain. Tierra del Fuego’s notorious and nuking wind has mysteriously departed. Although, in a thick Irish accent, he remarks that the fishing still sucks. Days one and two confirm his story. I catch some borderline sea-runs, nothing weighing more than three pounds.
Good news is the river has dropped and water clarity has gone from an Oreo blizzard consistency to a deep tannin color that sparks some measured optimism. That second night, I check the rotation board—the daily list of who’s fishing with whom. It reveals that I’m paired with The Russian, and when we meet on the grass outside the grand lodge the following morning, he’s short on pleasantries and anxious to get rolling. So we load the car for a day of fishing on Max Maimaev’s terms.
Maimaev is one of the top fly-fishing professionals on the planet. In addition to almost 20 years at Kau Tapen, he’s the big cheese on Russia’s Ponoi River—famous for massive Atlantic salmon runs returning to the Kola Peninsula. He’s an expert Spey caster, who has a penchant for the deep wade. And when he opens up, his words stir intrigue into the day with tales of hi-jinx and superlative encounters with asshole French, English, and American clients.
At Dude’s pool on our morning beat, I follow the lanky Russian into the water, up to my nipples. This particular run requires a long bomb to the far bank. So I dig my heels into the riverbed, lean hard against the current, and throw everything into a cast that falls just short. Max implores me to pull more line off the reel. And then more.
“Is this enough?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders. I proceed. Another cast, a little longer, and my Sunray Shadow fly lands with a standard Skagit “thunk” and begins its slow crawl through glassy water. Lighting strikes at the top half of the swing, and we’re into a good fish.
Russians aren’t known for outpourings of emotion. Take the country’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, for example. He always looks pissed. Even when he’s shirtless atop a horse, or hoisting a massive pike into the air—dude is all business. And at this precise moment, Max is much the same. As I moonwalk back toward shore, my Russian river commander ambles slowly toward the car to retrieve a really, really big net. We land and weigh the fish: a 16-pound hen, as chrome as a freshly polished bumper—and an end to several days of being shutout.
Tierra del Fuego is far from everything, but in this instant it’s the familiarities that strike me: wading deep, lobbing casts in a run dubbed “Dudes”, and that soothing catharsis that stems from finally connecting. I smile, and shout, and practically skip back to the car for the camera. Then I look back at the Russian for affirmation. All I get is a straight face, and something in his eyes that resembles satisfaction.
It’s April, after all, and it’s time to go home