Fishing in the time of Coronavirus

February 26-28

Part One

Buenos Aires shone like old gold in the late summer sun of February.  Once off the airport’s toll road motorway, the city rose around my taxi in mixtures of ancient and modern, but all of it gleaming. People walked the streets and parks and coddled their coffees at pavement cafes. The women were dressed in shorts, tee-shirts or summer dresses and skirts, as if the beach were nearby, instead of the sluggish river Plate, the nation’s border with Uruguay. “Argentina has the most beautiful women,” said Pedro, my meet-and-greet guy. “They are all pretty. And if we find an ugly one, we send her back.”

Buenos Aires at dusk

It was February 27, 47 days after China announced its first death from the Coronavirus; the disease was now in France, Italy and Iran too. Three days earlier Trump had asked Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funding to prepare for the epidemic. On February 26, the day I began my 19-hour flight to Argentina, Brazil reported the first case in Latin America. But it still appeared to be a problem of Asian origin, and not yet a global curse.  Quite a few people at Dubai airport sported the heraldic symbol of these times, the mask. But I saw only two the day I arrived in the Argentine capital.

I wasn’t too worried either. Coronavirus seemed a distant nightmarish speck at the edge of a lovely dream, and I was going fishing in what has become the favourite destination in my fly-fishing world, the Rio Grande river on the island of Tierra del Fuego, a barren windswept last stop on the way to the Antarctic.  When I closed my eyes on the flight, I could see silver speckled princes of the tide, Seatrout, flicking massive tails disdainfully as I released them to continue their migration from the ocean to their spawning grounds.

A Rio Grande Seatrout from my trip

It was past ten in the evening when I checked into the Loi Suites hotel, where some staff recognised me from the year before and knew my name. It was still fairly light. My watch delivered Dubai time, my phone Argentine time. To sleep in the Argentine night or to obey my watch, which said five in the morning? While I thought about it in my room, I fell asleep in my armchair fully clothed.

It was hot the next day, the eve of departure for Tierra del Fuego and the wonderful Kau Taupen lodge. It was the perfect day to sit outside with a drink and watch a seemingly untroubled world go by, an under-estimated pleasure and a special one in a Buenos Aires summer. I watched rapt as a man with an alto sax set up shop in the middle of a pedestrian precinct and played Gershwin’s “Summertime.”  I felt confident “fish are jumping” at Kau Taupen.  Men in shorts and women in shorter shorts meandered by.

And he was playin’ real good for free

I’d met Sandy Scott at Kau Taupen last year and we hit it off as fishing partners and friends and agreed that we would come back for two weeks in 2020. He duly arrived, slept and was ready for an evening out.  We visited the nearby Alvear Palace hotel, a monument to classical Belle Epoque French styling, Argentina’s heyday in the early 1900s, and sheer wealth. Guests over the years have included Fidel Castro, Sharon Stone, Al Pacino and Nelson Mandela. We were in good company as we toyed with our drinks and our olives. 

La Belle Epoque Buenos Aires style

Argentina has struggled ever since the 1920s through military and civilian rule and misrule and its tax base is still less than 10% of the working population. Foreign exchange controls had been clamped since our last visit to prevent money flowing overseas, at least visibly. Legally, Argentines have to declare their dollars and turn them in at the official rate. That was then around 60 pesos to the dollar but if you paid your bar or restaurant bill in dollars it was closer to 90. It made eating out well ridiculously cheap. All through my working life overseas black markets have sprung up where governments try to hoard the foreign currency they need to pay their debts. It’s a futile exercise that forces decent people to prioritise a subversive sense of survival over surrendering to the state for the common good. We ate at a favourite pavement café surrounded by working people enjoying a balmy evening over food and drinks. It all felt Mediterranean rather than Latin American. Sandy, a doctor and heart surgeon, and I talked fishing and disease. Italy had 800 cases, France 57, and cases were being reported in the Baltic states and Africa.

February 29-March 7

The Lodge at dusk

It was late afternoon, windy and cold, when our minibus of anglers bounced down a potholed track to Kau Taupen lodge after a flight to Ushuaia, 3,000 km south of Buenos Aires. The lodge is a single storey building made of galvanised sheeting with a red roof.  It sits alone on a small rise and its lights were on. It reminded me of Irish President Mary Robinson’s symbolic candle in the windows of her Dublin residence, Phoenix Park, to welcome returning migrants home.  The staff were all there to greet us after a jarring journey with welcome-home smiles and this-will-help cocktails. The routine on arrival day is well oiled (as were many of the anglers a couple of hours later); welcoming drinks and assembly of tackle by the guides, a tapas dinner and briefings by the amiable manager Guy, and Chief Guide Hernan. I felt a sense of homecoming with so many familiar faces among the guides – Hernan, Paolo, Nick. The three Fishketeers. These and others are the modern-day Trout Bums that writer John Gierach has identified as 21st century cowboys. They are usually young people who make their living guiding clients as the globe revolves and seasons change; this quarter Kau Taupen, the next Norway and Russia, or perhaps saltwater fishing in Venezuela, Cuba or the Seychelles. It’s not for the money. Salaries are small and have led to the growth of “gratuities” being included in the pre-fishing documents anglers receive. Usually it’s 10-15% of the price of each week, which can mean thousands of dollars on top of the original cost.  I feel a little uncomfortable about companies formalising an act that should be personal and voluntary. But I have always complied.

Ain’t it the truth?
Nick (l) and Paolo

The guides do what they do for the love of wild places, wild fish and an off-the-grid unconventional lifestyle. These are people who eat, live and drink fishing and could probably tie a woolly bugger in the dark. And they are energetically young and usually happy.

Envy is a wicked thing, especially in the old and the ageing. It distorts and disfigures while doing nothing to turn back the clock.

Part of the first-evening ritual is to assemble guests’ rods in the lunch room; for about half an hour this space is like a tackle shop on steroids as guides mingle with guests to see what they have brought for the week and to take the made-up rods out to the cars to await the next day. So there were 10 or more anglers, each with at least two 12-14 foot rods, screwing on reels and threading lines through rod rings. Similar scenes must have attended medieval jousting competitions, or the examination of weapons brought to insurgent commanders before a peasant rebellion against a tyrant.  The exercise is both practical and personal. It ensures the guides get to know their clients a lot better before their first day of fishing, and also what extra tackle or ancillaries they might need. “Should I put a 10-foot T-11 tip on this or would a 12-foot T-14 be a better match?”  asked one guest.  I needed a translator for that. Such questions marry enthusiasm, anxiety and the sort of trust in the guides that people normally reserve for doctors. If there was an expression to describe the best qualities of guides, it would be a good rodside manner.

The following day the United States announced its first coronavirus death and imposed travel restrictions.  The number of global infections was pushing 90,000. Sandy and I caught up on the news as we plundered the capsule coffee machine around 0600 every morning before breakfast. Every pair has a different guide every day and ours on the first day was Hernan, a bustling Argentine promoted to head guide since our previous year’s visit and a man of wicked humour and ready smile. We’d been warned that the conditions were capricious because the river was rising and falling due to rain and snow melt. Seatrout are like goal kickers in rugby. They like everything to be settled, calm and predictable.

The whimsical nature of the conditions made communication between the guides, each with two fishermen in their truck, critically important. “What’s the river doing?” Hernan asked Paolo over the radio that first morning. “Still flowing downstream,” replied Paolo. A German, based in Cologne, Paolo looks like a young university professor, runs in waders with his legs flapping like a goose taking off, and casts in a gale like a Jedi throwing lasers. He is very funny, whipcrack wit masking the unplumbable depth of a passion for fishing and a brain schooled in America and Europe.  Like many guides, he takes great photographs too. But not many others play the cello and trumpet. He does.

Off the mark. Sandy and Hernan with a marked beauty.
Day one.

My notebook for the first week makes quick reading because I caught very little. Other people had good, bad and indifferent weeks too. James, on his first visit, inspired us all by catching a 23lb fish and whether he fished above or below me, Sandy scored doggedly in both the morning and evening sessions. My casting had deserted me since the previous year, and it took the patient ministrations of Hernan and a new guide, J.J., to reassemble both my Spey casting and my confidence. It came back slowly but surely. I needed a different style of line too, a “Skagit” head capable of firing heavy flies long distances, and heavier tips to get the lures down where the fish were lurking. The expensive lines and the rod I had brought with me were not up to the conditions. Seatrout are the prick teasers of the water. They will roll in a flash of silver spray just where you are casting, but they will not “put out” and take the fly. I learned a great deal that week, especially from the casting tutorial I got from J.J. two feet behind my right ear.  “Lift slowly at first when you are making a Snap-T cast. Then faster. Then snap, and in one motion bring the rod back to where it started, raise it first at the side then become vertical and punch it forward, all in one motion. Don’t stop. I said don’t stop. No, that’s wrong. Do it again. And do not overthink it.”

Getting this wisdom out of my brain and into my subliminal cache was like transferring old fashioned cassettes to MP3 files. Tortuous. Painstaking. But, oh so worth it. In the end.

There were a lot of small fresh fish in the system but many of the bigger ones were dark and had been in the river for a while.

By the end of that first week I was catching decent fish. They ranged from 8 to 15 pounds.  Probably the best was one that Sandy came down to watch me land. It was big and dark, meaning it had been in the river a week or so and was waiting to spawn. “This is a nice fish,” said Luca, my guide for the day. Adding, unnecessarily but echoing my own anxiety, “Try not to lose it.” With three grown men around the waiting net, one with a rod in his hand, ground control and Major Tom lost contact in one memorable instant.  The fish was about three feet from the bank and had lost its early bruising resistance when suddenly there was no resistance at all, and we saw the fish sweep its tail with a splash and disappear. Sandy pulled my fly line out of the water. The fly, an EMB, had snapped at the bend of the hook. I felt a guilty surge of relief that it wasn’t my fault. And began to laugh. I’d nailed a really good specimen and brought it to my feet. All that was missing was a glimpse of its puzzled eyes, its tiger sides, and a photograph. All these seemed mere trifles at that moment, and even now, months later. I felt indescribably happy.

No words needed

The flies we used ranged hugely in size and weight; big and small black and purple leech flies seemed to do well, as did a chartreuse variant. Sandy seemed to start every day twitching a Sunray Shadow across likely lies; the EMB was widely trusted and a go-to. The Green Machine was rolled out most days in most pools. There were all sorts of weird and wonderful flies I had never seen elsewhere, like the Vitamin series. But the American Girdle bug variant I had used in Montana was a successful lure as well. We used small tube flies, like the Intruder, but in general only a dozen patterns accounted for fish and the guides happily gave them to those in need. I was. Practically none of the 100 or so expensive flies I had ordered and had tied for me in America the previous year ever got wet. Maybe I’ll try them in Ireland, or on the river E-Bay. How deep the flies sank and how slowly seemed more important. I took an apprenticeship in the technical world of Mow tips, Skandi shorts and Skagit Classics. There was no written exam. Only a bankside oral.

The flies Kau Taupen gifted every angler this year

It was heart-warming to be back with Nick again. He is a guide with a serious side, but will by boyish, even when he’s 90, and still fishing, if not guiding. He fishes internationally for his home country, South Africa, and he and Paolo together are the Laurel and Hardy, or Gin and Tonic, of the Kau Taupen setup. They make everything seem fun, even when it’s deadly serious. The constant radio communication between the six guides, Hernan, Paolo, Nick, J.J. , Luca and Eugene, made sure that we knew what technique was working and what wasn’t.

The Internet and mobile telephony have become as much part of fishing as flies and rods. The fishing world is joined together in a series of digital knots stretching around global websites and chat pages. The Kau Taupen Internet was a blessing and a curse. It allowed me to keep in touch with family and friends and share pictures. But it also allowed in the bleak Corona news.

My Irish fishing friend Peter Wolstenholme, cloistered back in County Cork and forbidden to fish, seemed unimpressed by the fish I was taking. “Andy’s traveled half way round the world to catch these stale old fish. Where’s the bright silver fish ones?” He wrote on our club Facebook page. I told Hernan this, and that night, I hooked a big, fairly fresh fish and made a video inviting him to go forth and multiply. A still from this is below.

Greetings, Peter.

On the Friday night of a fishing week at Kau Taupen there’s a video show culled from the guides’ best shots; champagne, a prize for the biggest fish(erman), Tapas with all the guides and a cheerful buzz masking the sad end to things. Sandy and I were staying another week and felt somewhat privileged. No four in the morning shuttle to Rio Grande airport for us, at least not for a week.  Saturday, changeover day, is when the guides get to fish and we were happy to be invited; it was a merry band. Except that the wind had turned from fierce to brutal, whipping waves and spray upstream. We tried but it was no fun, and if fishing isn’t fun then it’s not worth doing. Instead we obeyed inner commandments to declare the seventh a rest day, and after a pleasant lunch, I went to sleep. In the adjacent bedroom, BBC Radio 4 played on Sandy’s IPAD. It was pleasantly soothing, if incongruous, but I couldn’t make out much beside the words “Coronavirus, Covid, infections, deaths and China” through the walls. I was awake in time for the arrival of the new batch of guests from America and Europe. Sandy and I joked that we would have to rub elbows with them instead of shaking hands.

They had come from the so-called Real World. We had been living for a week in something pretty close to paradise.

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