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“Boca Fever”

by Cameron Chambers

The choicest spot on a river is the boca, the first pool just below the lake from which the river runs. “Boca” means mouth, and in the Argentine foothills the place where the water pours out of a lake to form a river is called a boca—Boca Lolog, Boca Chimehuín, and so on. Big fish? The word “lunker” must have been coined by a fellow fresh from a boca. Joe Brooks, Joe Brooks on Fishing

There are two questions asked of every American angler in Bariloche. Do you know Mel Krieger (the most famous American fisherman in Argentina)? And, have you fished the boca? The two questions measure fishing enlightenment. The best answer would be that you took a fifteen-pound brown trout while fishing the boca with Mel Krieger. Short of a perfect answer, it seems to be enough to just say you’ve been to the boca.

The boca holds a special place in the hearts of the Argentines. Even those who don’t fish know the boca and speak of it with spiritual reverence. Fishermen’s eyes glaze over with a distant look, as if the mere mention transports them to some prior time, some epic battle—or perhaps a future bout—with their perfect fish. They speak in the tone reserved for the Virgin Mary, a tone that conjures grand thoughts and celestial energy. Then you fish the boca and you feel for yourself.

The mystical power the bocas hold stems from their incredible ability to produce big trout. At the pinnacle of the big fish years, anglers took multiple fish per day in the ten-to- twenty-pound range. Fishing Northern Patagonia bocas in the mid-1950s, Joe Brooks reported that six-pound fish weren’t even considered keepers. He went on to say, “A competent angler can be sure of a ten-pounder and, now and again, a twelve-, fifteen-, or maybe twenty-pounder.” Joe’s words were not just fishing hype peddled to the Field & Stream crowd for whom he wrote.

Since Titcomb’s days at the turn of the century, Argentina’s introduced fish had been left to their own devices. The trout adapted to their new environment, taking advantage of food sources missed by the native fish, as well as preying directly on the native populations themselves. Without natural predators or competition, they grew to enormous sizes by the time the early anglers appeared on the scene.

When anglers finally took note in the fifties, fish were improbably huge and misleadingly plentiful. Photos from the period show browns and rainbows hoisted on sagging rope stringers and lying in still lines on grassy banks. A photo taken at the Hotel Correntoso shows a banquet table stacked thick with fish. Of the twenty fish laid out there, only a few fit within the three-foot width of the table. Another photo shows a huge kype-jawed brown in silhouette, a man’s fist entirely lodged in the huge open mouth. Some of the fish remain as stuffed remnants of a bygone time on the walls of restaurants, hotels, and fishing clubs. Most trophy fish were likely thrown out after a few pictures. There were always more, and perhaps the next would hit the twenty-pound mark.

Having seen enough glazed-over fishermen and oversized stuffed fish, I boarded the laboring number 71 municipal bus at the bus stop in Barlioche’s central square. I found a hard plastic seat near the back and set my daypack in my lap. I stowed my rod tube against the wall and trapped it there with the outside of my leg. I settled into the journey by watching the faces get on and off. Tall and small, light and dark, no person looked alike. It’s said racism doesn’t exist in Argentina for the simple reason that there are no pure races. Bruce Chatwin echoed the sentiment in writing, “The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory,” referring to the hodgepodge of names from all nationalities that fill its pages. It’s a country of immigrants, filled with a mixture of old-country and native names with a population that has mixed several times over during generations.

For seventeen kilometers the bus wound through the city then east toward the outskirts, past the defunct train station, and on past the site of Titcomb’s first hatchery. The road traced the edge of the lake while the distant peaks under their snowy hats bathed in a golden haze of afternoon light. Past the small hamlet of Dina Huapi the bus continued to the last row of houses and a rough turnout. I gathered my rod and backpack and jumped out onto the wide shoulder of the road. A few hundred meters ahead the highway bridge spanned the river with the provincial police checkpoint and a small fishing access point on the far side.

The vantage from the bus stop revealed the intersection of landscapes that makes the country so diverse, stark, and beautiful. In the west a high pitch of dark mountains reflected the low sun in a row of snowcapped, dagger-point peaks reminiscent of a jagged crown. Tall and cold, they resisted the onset of spring in their white winter cloaks.

Across the lake to the north, the mountains fell away in a steady decline, their spiky cathedral tops giving way to round-shouldered foothills. Long slides of red rock provided witness to the prominent peaks these mountains once formed. A few outcrops still held on in defiant resistance to the inevitability of time and erosion. The odd swale concealed a trace of winter snow, but spring grasses shot green in the fading light of dusk giving proof of winter’s lost hold on the intermediate elevations.  As the foothills slid down to the east end of the lake, the mountains failed completely into the broad, flat Limay valley. On the valley floor the signs of spring were well established. The harsh soil of the steppe was filled with an assortment of prickly, thorn-covered plants, all bright green with the exuberance of spring growth. The little branches flexed subtly under pressure and sprang back to their original location with a healthy bounce. The Lombardy Poplars displayed bright yellow sprouts along their vertical limbs. A few early buds unrolled to reveal the stout beginnings of leaves. Even for the steppe, a landscape barren and brown, the scene had a wonderfully alive and hopeful feel.

As cars rush by on the tarred highway I feel the pull of the boca ahead. Through the belched diesel smoke I feel a strange purity like the sun’s warmth sensed through thick clouds. Something outside the realm of normal life is happening at the water’s edge.

I stop on the bridge to watch the dark water slide quietly beneath. It splits into little white tongues to race around the pillars. In the fall, browns migrate out of the lake to spawn, stopping for a time in the long run cut by the bridge. In the right light a person can look down to find a half-dozen dark outlines of fish biding their time near the bottom. That close to the bridge, they are safe. The ones further up in the current and near the boca make easier targets.

It’s the wrong time of year for the browns, but I can already see the silhouettes of several fishermen working the boca. It’s early enough in the season for fish to remain in the river’s current before moving back into the lake. But fishermen work the boca any time of year. There’s always the chance of a big lake fish dropping into the river to feed. Even if there are no fish to be found, there’s always someone convinced of the possibility of it. That’s part of the magic of the boca. It is one of those rare places so poised with possibility that it can raise the expectant spirits of the most cynical angler.

I rig my six-weight with an intermediate sinking line and attach a huge black bunny leach. I pull my waders and boots on at the small dirt parking lot and trudge off down a worn track. The path loops across a short cutbank and under the bridge where the trail dips to the water. A decrepit old fence of rusting wire and a collection of pipes forms an obstacle course. Above there are several smashed-up cars being taken over by grass. The small junkyard feels at odds with the beauty of the rippled golden surface of the lake ahead.

From the fence the trail follows the edge of the river; this early in spring it’s all under a few inches of water. Here, like most everywhere in Patagonia, the bushes push themselves right to the water’s edge in a thick wall. Particularly nasty for fisherman, each plant has its own network of spiny branches and thorns adept at grabbing and entwining fly lines. Once a line is entangled, a recovery mission to extricate it poses hazards for hands, eyes, and especially waders while pushing through the sharp labyrinth.

I move past this wall of green and push upstream toward the mouth. I sneak behind a man clad in full fly-fishing regalia working a long Spey rod. He uses an offhand form of the snake roll, forming two quick loops in his downstream line that remind me of the ribbon toss in gymnastics. Then with two more quick thrusts he puts in a D-loop that looks beautiful and mystical in the afternoon light, and his line shoots out in a powerful rush three-quarters of the way across the channel.

I venture a tentative, “¿Hola, hay muchas truchas hoy?

No, no hoy,” the angler says.

Even though my first question met with an answer, there are other messages conveyed by nonverbal means—annoyance, for one. Still, I want to stand there and ask a million questions. What was that cast called? What flies do you use here? What weight of sink tip are you throwing? Where do you recommend fishing with a single-hander? I don’t know how to ask them in Spanish and I doubt he wants to give up his cast-step-cast-step rhythm to explain them to me. I watch him for a short while longer, drowning in my ineptitude and convince myself that he doesn’t want to be bothered with incoherent sentences fumbled out in rough Spanish. “Suerte, ” I say and trudge away before a reply comes.

The water from the boca cuts a wide continuous channel making it very difficult to wade early season. Almost everyone fishes with long traditional Spey rods to deal with the lack of room to back cast and inability to wade. They have an unwritten code among them of slowly working downstream with the bottom man returning to the top, new anglers also rotate in at the top of the pack.

New water always brings a jitter, especially when other fishermen are involved. There’s so much emphasis placed on etiquette in our gentlemen’s sport that simply discerning where to fit in on a new piece of water poses challenges. I’ve had my share of days ruined by rude or inappropriate anglers, and I fear giving foreign anglers a bad name by making a misstep. I don’t want to jump in too close, or jump in above someone, making them feel obligated to shuffle downstream into less-productive water.

Standing on the bank of one of the most hallowed fishing spots in Patagonia doubles the usual hesitation. The boca of the Limay is one of the three famous bocas that form the heart and soul of Argentine fishing culture.

In the beginning the founders of fly fishing in Patagonia came to the bocas and, in a way, it was the bocas themselves that brought fly fishing to Argentina. In the ’50s and ’60s the first fly fishermen didn’t come for spring creeks like the Río Malleo or the productivity of the Río Chimehuín; these rivers are new bleeps on the fishing radar. They came to fish a few hundred yards of the Chimehuín, the Correntoso, and the Limay. They didn’t care much for a day’s amble along a small creek tossing hopper patterns to eager little trout. These anglers set up positions like pillbox entrenchments and cast hour after hour into the same small stretch of water. They cast to the first hundred feet of the river where the water sucks down like it’s being pulled by a vacuum cleaner. It’s here where wind and current push the entire lake’s worth of food to a single collection point. The fish move out of the protection of the calm lake into the river to let the current pull the collected food into their waiting mouths. This quantity of food and ease of acquiring it produces fish of incredible size.

I hold my rod at my side and watch to find a pattern in the angler’s movements. It looks as if the three who are fishing my side are spread out and hunkered down wherever they’d found a decent-looking spot. I wade into the boca upstream of the snake roll caster as far from any angler as I can get to work back downstream. I begin on the backside of a poplar grove that stands a few feet under water. I wade out far enough to have a short back cast and throw everything I have into a forward cast. My fly travels a quarter of the distance of the angler ahead of me before splatting into a dead-looking pool. After my recent escape from infirmity in an orange tent I find immense satisfaction in my first poor cast. I work all the way back downstream to the bridge, casting with clumsy overweighted steeple casts as far out into the current as possible. A seam line with promising characteristics runs near the middle of the river, but I have so little chance of reaching it with a one-handed rod that I give up and look for any little pocket or riffle within twenty feet.

I half-expect my first run-through to meet with a great boca brown. In my imagination the calendar reads 1950 and the boca holds enormous browns all year long. But it’s not 1950, and it’s documented that the size and quantity of boca fish has declined since the late ’60s. Fish in the twenty-pound range are now a myth, and outside of the fall spawning months, few fish above five pounds are taken. As a newcomer to Argentina I’m aware of this fact. I’m sure the four anglers spaced along the boca are also aware of it. After all, it is they who come night after night. Yet, as I look upstream and out across the golden water to the far side, I see men casting as if the calendar in their head is stuck in the 1950s as well.

Perhaps this is the magic of the boca. Despite the decline in the fish, the sense of spirituality surrounding the boca only grows. Perhaps the fishermen in this Catholic country fill the time between gigantic fish with saying prayers for the next big take. If this were the case, the number of anglers at the boca would have long since made it the holiest place in the country. More likely it’s a simple relationship between effort and appreciation. Anglers now work hard for rare trophy fish and cherish those moments of success.

The power of their vigil seeps into mainstream Argentine culture. When someone hooks into a fish, the entire boca pauses, transfixed. Cars and busses stop mid-span on the bridge with people’s noses pressed tightly to windows, construction workers forget about turning cement mixers, other anglers’ rods droop into inactivity as they fall into a captivated stare to watch the unfolding drama. They call it “boca fever.” The landscape, the history, and the fish combine to form an environment that some never escape.

Sitting on a large gray-brown rock at the boca watching local anglers cast sunset lines, I feel the magic that draws them out each night to throw cast upon cast. The twenty-pound trout becomes inconsequential as the sun reaches its lowest rungs before slipping to the other side of the world. The scene reflects across the lake where long Spey casts glide across pools of gold.

Without so much as a bump on the rod, boca fever infects me and spreads through my body. I leave after dark knowing I will return to the boca time and time again. I ride back to Bariloche with the belief that my perfect cast on the perfect night will fool my perfect fish at the breaking point between river and lake, where fifteen-pound brown trout sulk on the bottom, lying in wait for the perfect fly.

After the boca I make my way back to Bariloche with a new sense of confidence. I hadn’t caught a fish or even fished hard that evening, yet I enjoyed myself immensely. Instead of focusing on fish as the only determinate of a successful trip I slowed down and felt the infusion of the boca. I took time to appreciate the scene and the importance of the event for those anglers collected on that particular November evening.

There’s more to the journey than fishing, and there’s more to fishing than fish. I have a new path, a desire to capture this feeling of fly fishing in Argentina. I know without asking that it’s the fisherman I passed using the off-hand snake roll and the angler silhouetted in the evening sun farther up at the edge of the boca who know the answer.

 

From Chasing Rumor: A Season Fly Fishing Patagonia by Cameron Chambers. Copyright © 2015 by Patagonia®. Used by permission of Patagonia®, www.Patagonia.com/Books

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