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Chile’s Reigning Kings

Fly Fishing for Austral Chinook

Story and photos by Ken Morrish

If 25 years ago someone predicted that in 2017 Chile would be home to some of the world’s heathiest returns of wild Chinook salmon, I would have predicted that by 2017 they would be long since institutionalized. But the facts of the matter speak differently. Today Chile is a powerhouse producer of ‘wild’ kings, most of which run larger on average than those in their natal northern waters. How did this come to be? Is it a miracle or a mess? Likely time will tell.

For those who have not visited the rivers of southern Chile’s Pacific coast, with the exception of differing plant species, their resemblance to some of the of the Pacific Northwest’s greatest rivers, like the Dean, are at times, uncanny. So why not dump a few salmon smolts in a few likely rivers where they might take hold?  Interestingly, Chile’s efforts to establish naturalized returns of Pacific salmon go back as far as 1924. Since then there have been many attempts with multiple species, all of which failed until Japanese ‘fish ranchers’ invested heavily in 1978. From 1978-1989, these ranchers released hundreds of thousands of Chinook smolts from the lower Columbia’s Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery into the Petrohué River and the adjacent systems of the Reloncavi Estuary (41.5 degrees south, the southern equivalent of California’s Klamath River). 

Using stock from hatcheries in the U.S., rivers in southern Chile have seen an influx of “wildized” king salmon returning to several watersheds.

Their plan was to release smolts into the rivers and commercially harvestthem when they returned. For multiple reasons, including the long saltwater life cycle of Chinook, the Japanese were disappointed by the results and abandoned their efforts before they amounted to much. Their business venture failed, and they went home. But there was one subtle success: a small percentage of the smolts survived, lived at sea, and successfully spawned to create a unique “wildized” form of South American Chinook. This, in turn, forever changed the landscape and trajectory of one the world’s greatest gamefish as well as the angling opportunities for those that love to fish for them. 

By the early 2000s, rivers like the Tolten, Puelo and Petrohué were receiving large runs of Chinooks, many of which were over 40 pounds. At the same time, this new race of southern kings was aggressively expanding its range, from the 39thparallel south all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Ultimately, they rounded the horn of South America to the Atlantic and then migrated north into southern Argentina’s mighty Santa Cruz system. For whatever reason, our northern kings found a well-suited home away from home in South America. Today there are likely hundreds of systems of all sizes and types that support ‘wildized’ returns of kings in Patagonia.  Irrespective of their common origins, run timing is highly variable making it hard to say if these are now spring-, summer- or fall-run Chinook. Some systems receive fish as early as November and others get their last bright fish as late as April.

Over my 30 years in the fly fishing industry, I would be hard pressed to say that I have ever met an individual, let alone twins, that have a higher drive for angling exploration than Alex and Nico Trochine.  When I first met them on Argentina’s upper Rio Grande they were 19, highly skilled and had already guided several seasons in Iceland. That fall they were heading out to explore Tierra del Fuego’s southernmost sea trout rivers. Over the course of several seasons this developed into their operation called Far End Rivers (known today as World’s End Rivers and operated by a different outfitter). Next they were off to explore, float and outfit an exceedingly remote dorado system in Bolivia. From there, they went on to find and establish Kooi Noom; an ultra-steep river-based trophy rainbow fishery north of Fitz Roy massif on the edge of Argentina’s Patagonian Steppe. 

Techniques range from swinging flies from boats, to stripping flies with single hand rods through deep slow pools. This remarkable river has great water for all of the above and best of all, these fish tend to use all of these water types.

In 2014 Alex and Nico embarked on a new mission to set up the ultimate program for targeting Chilean kings on the fly. The only problem was where. They had already explored and fished a great many of Chile’s most prolific king rivers, but due to their size, clarity, or distance from the ocean, all fell somewhat short of their ideal setup. Their criteria were simple. They needed big chrome-bright fish, clear water and a system that was relatively remote with the right structural elements for swinging flies. They pored over maps and Google Earth and made trips to a multitude of potential systems. Then, mid-king season 2015, Alex and his girlfriend Laura got off a boat near the mouth of the last promising river on their list. Donning heavy backpacks, they snuck up the system, surreptitiously camping and fishing the runs they could bushwhack into without a boat. After landing several chrome-bright fish in the 30-pound class and getting introduced to the landowner, they knew they had finally found what they had been searching for: their own slice of Chinook heaven. 

Alex and Nico worked with the landowner, selected a spectacular site and built an elaborate and appealing tent camp. They named it Austral (meaning southern) Kings. Their inaugural season was 2016 and it was a major success. The unnamed river was loaded with fish, water conditions were, for the most part, favorable and a good many kings, some of which were in the 40- to 60-pound class, were landed. 

The river where Alex and Nico set up their operation is located several hours south of Puerto Montt, a city best known for its location to the Andes Mountains and the Patagonia fjords. During the 2017 season they ran two parallel programs: the Austral Kings Camp (which I visited), and the Austral Kings Lodge, which they co-managed with a local accommodation. The 2017 season proved to be a very tough sophomore year. While it was likely that there were plenty of fish, there was even more water. The season started with high water and culminated with a biblical high-water event that the locals deemed unprecedented. While it was a different season than their first, the river showed glimpses of its potential. 

The Austral Kings Camp, located several miles above tidewater in the heart of the upper river’s prime pools, will take four anglers per week. They will share comfortable double-occupancy canvas tents and have access to a main dining tent, flush toilets and showers. It is a super location and setup for those who don’t mind roughing it a wee bit, for it has a fun, lively local flare. Austral River Lodge is also back in play with a new European outfitter that will have experienced Canadian fly fishing guides. The Lodge, which overlooks the lower tidal reaches of the river/bay, will also take four guests per week. Here, folks will have their own single occupancy rooms with attached bath and shower and enjoy a rustic but comfortable Chilean lodging experience. Both the lodge and the camps share all the beats of water, rotating between them.

Ken Morrish with a cover-worthy king.

In North America, we enjoy a tradition of fly fishing for king salmon that, in California, dates back to the 1920s. In subsequent years throughout Oregon, California, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, a great many independent and somewhat isolated fly fishing methodologies arose organically among unique regional fisheries. In many ways, this spirit of king fishing innovation is still alive today as seen most clearly through the Spey fishing revolution. One of the great characteristics that Chinook salmon share with other great gamefish is that there are many techniques that can lead to success, with some, depending on conditions, being more effective than others. 

Due to the sheer number of fish that enter the Austral Kings system, there will be a wide variety of angling opportunities, ranging from traditional step and cast Spey fishing, to swinging flies from boats, to stripping flies with single hand rods through deep slow pools. This remarkable river has great water for all of the above and best of all, these fish tend to use all of these water types. The rivers steep, clear flowing river that slow considerably, creating great holding water before emptying into a fjord. It is not uncommon to see chrome bright fish rolling in the estuary as anglers arrive to the region by boat. With tides that average 20 feet there are lots of great tidewater opportunities. The upper river is turquoise colored and runs through a lush green valley surrounded by glacier-capped granite mountains and has a variety of fishy structure, including gravel beaches, big boulders, classic tail-outs and deep runs.More often than not, these fish roll so you will know when you are onto them making this some of the most exciting king fishing imaginable. 

Despite a wide range of regional variations, it is my opinion that there are two basic, distinct and reputable methodologies when it comes to fly fishing for king salmon: the northern school and the southern school. The northern school is practiced throughout most of Alaska and British Columbia and favors large flies, heavy tips and strong short leaders. These basic principles have also become the core of the Spey fishing movement for Chinook salmon and are what most think of when targeting these great fish.

The southern school is much older and in many ways more established and technical. It was refined in the 1950s in California and evolved rapidly through the 1980s by luminaries like Bill Schadt. It continues to be practiced and refined in Northern California and Oregon, especially in tidewater and in the lower reaches of coastal rivers. It relies on single hand rods, a wide range of 30-foot shooting heads, mono running lines, long leaders and small flies that are retrieved while fishing from prams. It has long been my belief that the farther north one fishes for Chinook, the more aggressive and grabby they become, and the farther south you fish for them, the craftier one must be. The upshot is that both the northern and southern schools of thought are well suited for where they are practiced. 

In traveling to Chile, it was my assumption that we would employ the northern methods with 14-foot, 9-weight. rods, Skagit heads and relatively large bright flies. For many anglers, and under many conditions, this is the clear method of choice. Then at the last moment, I heard that the river was low and clear and the sun was shining and that were lots of fish rolling but very few biting.  So, as an afterthought, I threw in all of my small bonefish flies, as well as some Clousers and California comet-style flies. This proved a good move and while we caught fish both ways, it seemed that as the river dropped and cleared and visibility increased to over 10 feet that fishing small flies on 12-foot leaders clearly out-produced standard Spey tactics. With that said, let it be known that despite one’s prowess with a wide range of techniques, this river is tough and its fish qualify as finicky. While the numbers of fish are high, landing one quality fish a day is a sign of both good fortune and accomplishment. 

The Austral Kings Camp is located several miles above tidewater in the heart of the upper river’s prime pools.

As one might expect, the Trochines have had the benefit of guiding experienced Pacific and Atlantic salmon fisherman from around the world. As part and parcel of that, they have had the rare opportunity to test and develop their own methods for their river, often mixing it up for each specific pool. To date, they employ both the northern and the southern methods as well as blending the two. They, and the new team at Austral River Lodge, are lucky indeed. Not only do they have a river that has some of the largest and most beautiful kings in the world today, but they have a unique opportunity to reveal the preferences and peculiarities of a new race of Chinook that not long ago, could have only been imagined. 

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