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The river dropped through mountains, pausing in deep green pools. Above our camp at Pichi Traful, where the river eddied among mossy boulders, large trout rose softly beneath the trees. The fish I had fought was done in, writhing and rolling, bright silver above the bottom gravel. One last, violent splash and it was shimmering in my net. My shout echoed far down the river: "Rainbow! Rainbow!"
Flocks of geese rose startled from the shallows. I shouted again, a tribute to the first trout we had taken from the white-water rivers of Patagonia. It weighed six pounds. Nothing special for these waters.
Lying in both Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is the trunk of the elephant head which is South America. It is a vast anachronism of feudal ranches, remote cavalry posts and hill bandits; partially wild sheep and range cattle outnumber its people 50-fold. The landscape varies from saline wastes to broad meadows to alpine lakes reminiscent of Switzerland; and occasionally the pampas are coned with volcanoes as symmetrical as Fujiyama. Although no game fish were known to exist there until fingerlings were introduced in 1904, the tumbling glacial rivers that drop from the Andean forests into the barren foothills now abound with several kinds of trout and salmon.
Patagonia was discovered in the 16th century by Vespucci and Magellan, but its interior was largely unexplored until Darwin probed inland with whaleboats in the early 1800s. It remains a land of paradox and promise. The Patagonian Andes are among the few uninhabited temperate regions left on earth, and in their lakes and rivers is some of the finest fishing in the world.
Not long ago I visited Patagonia at the invitation of Bob Zwirz, who was evaluating the area's fishing opportunities for the Argentine government. Accompanying us was Berni Schoenfield. It was the fish that lured us there, absurd as it may seem to travel such a distance for rainbow trout. We flew to Buenos Aires and drove about 1,100 miles to the Andes in a pick-up truck.
Our month was a bright, wet Baedeker of peerless trout and salmon rivers. We restlessly traveled and camped and fished across the Andes. Our odyssey was filled with rumors of rivers bottomed with salmon and of enormous trout that gathered under glacier-fed waterfalls. We even heard that some Patagonians considered rainbows trash fish because they were so large and numerous.
One day we reached a remote trading post near the Chilean border. We purchased ponchos and Patagonian berets for fishing in the fierce winds and silver-ornamented gourds for yerba mat�, the potent herb tea.
Zwirz bought two kilos of mat� herbs. "We'll make some," he said, "and check the legend out."
"Legend?" we asked.
"Sure," Zwirz explained. "The Indians believe that mat� will bring you back to Patagonia."