The Falkland Islands are situated in the South Atlantic, off Argentina. There, on a stony ridge above Skull Pass in the Mount Maria range, lie the bones of a sailor, picked clean a century ago by foxes and buzzards. Scraps of navy blue serge and some brass buttons are clues enough to his occupation and his lonely death. Three hundred and fifty miles to the southwest lies Cape Horn. Ship after ship, a hundred years ago, was beaten back from the Cape or, weathering it, made a desperate landfall on the Falklands only to be smashed on its reefs and headlands. From such a wreck, this poor man had somehow got ashore and scrambled as high as he could, searching for a sign of habitation. Finding none, he had died from cold and despair.
On the blue-sky morning that Syd Lee told me the story, he was wrestling his Land Rover across stone outcrops, through peat bogs and over high tussocks of grass to the Warrah River, which we could see shining beyond Skull Pass. It was so benign a day it was hard to believe that the islands could be cruel. The hills around us were surely the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Small flocks of upland geese, instead of skyrocketing out of sight on our approach, casually waddled away. They are peculiar fowl, so easily shot or brought down with a stone that they offer no sporting challenge whatsoever. In the grass there were wild Falkland strawberries that looked like double-sized raspberries and tasted like neither fruit but had a delicious flavor of their own. There were also delicate pink and white teaberries. And, as I had already discovered, the streams and rivers of the islands held magnificent trout, in particular some of the biggest sea-run brown trout in the world.
Even if he had had the strength or the means to catch them, though, the unlucky sailor commemorated in the name of Skull Pass could not have saved himself that way, for the trout is the most recent of all immigrants to the Falklands. Precisely when they established themselves is not known: an implantation of eyed ova from Chilean stock was made in the early 1940s and another batch, a gift of the Chilean government, arrived in 1947. There were further consignments from Scotland and England in the early '50s, but it was in 1954 that Falklanders, fishing in traditional style for a small, indigenous perchlike fish, with mutton for bait, started to catch trout.
To begin with, they were not especially impressive trout. They were slow growing and not very well nourished. A nine-incher, it proved, took four years to achieve that size. The Falkland rivers were acid and peaty, with little natural food. Altogether, it looked as if the trout were going to prove a bad bargain.
Then, on Feb. 25, 1956, Norman Cameron, wet-fly fishing in the Malo River, caught a 3�-pound trout. After that, the barriers came down. Within two years, trout up to 15 pounds were being taken. In the cautious words of an ichthyologist who came out from England to investigate the fishing, "These fish...appeared to have been feeding in the sea and resembled sea trout." Well, yes, indeed. Sea-run brown trout, brilliant silver, dappled with small black "x" markings that made them resemble Atlantic salmon. The Falkland Islands are surrounded by dense concentrations of krill, as well as immense schools of smeltlike fish. The small trout that local anglers had been catching before 1956 were unambitious stay-at-homes. But others had dropped downstream to the estuaries and the inshore waters around the islands, where a rich supply of food, hard to match anywhere in the world, awaited them. The same ichthyologist who had been so tentative in labeling the fish sea trout found that their condition was far better than that of sea-run browns in Britain.
The word was slow, very slow, to emerge in the world of angling. That was understandable. The Falklands, which consist of 202 islands, with a total area of 4,700 square miles, are extremely remote. Fewer than 2,000 people live there, principally on the main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland—Scottish and English sheep farmers for the most part—in one of the last vestiges of the British Empire. To some, the Falklands would be forbiddingly lonely. "An undulating land, with a wretched and desolate aspect," Charles Darwin called the islands in 1834. In the same year, Captain Robert Fitzroy, Royal Navy, commented tersely, "Admirably suited for a penal colony."
It is certainly true that the Falklands are not the Costa del Sol. Fronts build up over the Andes, cross Patagonia and 300 miles of cold South Atlantic to give the islands a kind of manic-depressive climate of sunshine and cloud that alternate bewilderingly. It is almost always windy, sometimes ferociously windy. There are exceedingly few trees and those planted and carefully nurtured. But the islands have a fragile, delicate beauty that is hard to put in concrete terms. The colors are muted greens and browns; the sky is constantly changing; the settlements are brilliant patches of red roofs and white walls. From them, faintly, comes the reek of peat smoke: the West of Ireland or the Scottish Hebrides transported 7,000 miles into the Southern Hemisphere. With, however, much larger sea trout.
No angling magazine carries advertisements for Falkland fishing. My own journey began, in unlikely fashion, at the Fly-fishers' Club in London, appropriately enough over a lunch of lamb chops. "Three sixty-five," said Sir Edwin Arrowsmith, an ex-governor of the Falk-lands, indicating my plate. "Three sixty-five. That's what they call lamb," he explained. "In the Falklands, they eat a great deal of it, you understand. You'll develop a taste for it in the end."
It was not easy, he told me, to reach the Falklands. For more than 100 years, Britain and Argentina have claimed them and until 1971 the only way to get to them was by sea, from Montevideo. Since then an air link has been set up between Comodoro Rivadavia, in the south of Argentina, and Stanley, the capital (and only town) of the Falklands. The plane flies once a week, on a Monday, but before you can reserve a seat on it you have to hold a special visa from the Argentine Foreign Ministry. This has to be obtained the previous Friday in Buenos Aires. Because you have to be there by the Thursday, it is best to leave New York on the Wednesday....
So, this way and that way, it took almost six days to make it to Stanley, where, naturally, the wind was blowing hard from the southwest. Stanley has one hotel, the Upland Goose, where I had planned to stay, having meditated also on the problems of getting to the rivers. Land Rovers were the chief means of travel, I had been told, and because there were no roads outside of Stanley, this meant proceeding at an average speed of around four mph over the wickedly rough terrain. It seemed as if the number of rivers I would be able to visit would be severely limited.