TRAVEL / The lure of Chile: a fisherman's tale: An angling dream came true for Bruce Sandison when he ventured deep into the South American rainforests to the trout-filled waters of Lago Yelcho.

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The Independent Culture
SOME ANGLERS are born lucky, others have luck thrust upon them. That's how I found myself spending much of last winter in Chile, enjoying some of the world's most exciting fly-fishing for wild brown, rainbow and brook trout. It was work rather than play, looking after a fishing lodge on the shores of Lago Yelcho, 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) south of Santiago. But the bonus was the stuff of angling dreams.

Lago Yelcho lies deep in the heart of the temperate Chilean rainforests; the principal fishing location is at Isla de Monita, a small island at the south end of the lake. This is an isle as magical as Prospero's, 'full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not', embraced by a continuous range of 1,500m snow-capped mountains. I found myself instantly captivated.

The Lago Yelcho area is a trout angler's paradise, where even the wildest dreams come true, day after day; where the fly-fisherman will almost certainly catch the largest trout of his angling life: wild fish, perfectly shaped, gloriously attired and fighting fit, designed by gods for the pleasure of men.

There are few bad fishing days, only some that are better than others. Truly outstanding sport can be found on the main lake itself (which is 43km long by up to 5km wide), on the Rio Futaleufu, and on a series of five superb lagunas - small lakes varying in extent from 20 to 60 hectares.

I was working at a comfortable lodge on the island - indeed, the only one - set into a small plateau and surrounded by a sweet orchard full of cherry, plum and apple trees. Humming-birds drink deeply from scarlet fuchsia; black-necked swans, mirrored in the lake, parade by in solemn procession; white-faced ibis cackle crossly amid the forest; and from the lake comes the haunting call of the huala, the Chilean great grebe.

The south bays of Lago Yelcho are reed-fringed, and fish lie close to their cover. Rainbow trout of up to 9lb were taken last season, and these were in splendid condition. Brown trout are also caught in the main lake, together with some fine brook trout - particularly in the vicinity of La Cabana, where a mountain stream glides softly into Lago Yelcho.

One evening last February, Martin Lang, an English visitor, had two trout each weighing more than 5lb from the stream mouth. I was fortunate enough to catch my best-ever brook trout there, a wonderful fish which weighed 4lb 8oz. Further up the lake, a 40-minute sail away, there are more fishing opportunities at Ventisquero Bay (the Bay of the Glacier), 5km of tree-lined shore where fine trout lie.

But perhaps the best of the Isla de Monita fishing is to be had on the small lagunas - deep, reedy waters, refreshed and replenished each winter when flooded by Lago Yelcho. There are five principal fisheries close to the island - Chava, Chava Chico, Verde and Rosa - and Hillman's Lake, 50 minutes' sail and a stiff hike to the north. These lagunas offer, quite simply, the best fly-fishing in Chile. They all hold good stocks of wild fish, whose ancestors were introduced during the later years of the 19th century, from Loch Leven in Scotland, the German forests and, later, rainbow trout and brook trout from North America.

The habitat is ideal, encouraging a healthy growth rate and healthy fish, some of which reach more than 10lb in weight. The average weight of trout is in the order of 3lb, but fish of 5lb and more are regularly caught. What they principally feed on are dragonflies the size of small helicopters, and fishing during a dragonfly hatch is an amazing experience.

At times, the whole surface of the lake is covered with eagerly feeding trout and the only problem is deciding where to cast next. Huge fish dash from the reeds to seize their prey, sometimes leaping two feet into the air to take dragonflies in mid-flight. Anglers watch, breath-baited, as other trout - great, grey, ghostly shapes - glide up through crystal-clear waters to grab the well-presented fly.

Trout fishing in Chile is controlled by central government - but sadly, as has happened in so many other countries, lack of management and over-fishing have severely damaged trout stocks in many areas, including the once-famous Chilean Lake District. Anglers in search of sport have had to travel further and further afield - and until recently, getting to the Lago Yelcho area was a big undertaking.

This changed with the building of the Carretera Austral, a long, narrow, rocky, dusty road which is opening up the temperate rainforest area. But the journey is still a big undertaking: a two-hour flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, then a 45-minute hop from Puerto Montt to Chaiten, followed by a 1 1/2 -hour bump up the Carratera Austral to Puerto Cardenas at the northern end of the lake.

There are two 70ft launches stationed at Puerto Cardenas, the Puma and the Christina, both of which take parties of anglers fishing on Lago Yelcho. Guests live on board during their stay, while the boats ply the lake, mooring at the best fishing spots. Anglers spend their days fishing from small boats, returning for lunch and in the evening for dinner - robust, traditional Chilean meals.

The Rio Yelcho flows out of Lago Yelcho at Puerto Cardenas in a green and white flood of tumbling waters mixed with snow-melt from the surrounding hanging glaciers. The river offers exciting fly-fishing for wild trout, from boats and from the bank - and the excitement of shooting the rapids under the graceful span of a splendid bridge built as recently as 1989.

On the west shore of Lago Yelcho there is an excellent campsite and self-catering complex which also offers fishing on the lake; and at the south end, a mile up the Rio Futaleufu near Puerto Ramirez, there is another comfortable hostelry and campsite situated right on the bank of the river.

Anglers looking for even more sport will find many virtually unfished streams and ponds scattered throughout the region. Although most are difficult of access, the services of a good guide can help the intrepid explorer discover fly-fishing of outstanding quality.

There is plenty to keep non-anglers fully occupied, too, including a two-hour haul up to the foot of an amazing hanging glacier; and the occasional local events, such as frantic bare-back horse-racing or the well-organised frenzy of a rodeo - complete with music, dancing, bronco-busting, bull-riding and much roping of anything with four legs.

Apart from the trout fishing, the most memorable moment I had was not during the day but at night. One hot summer evening I slept on the hill, in a small, sweet-smelling meadow above the lodge on Isla de Monita. The night sky was dream-like, a black, star-studded canopy dominated by the Southern Cross, Castor, Pollux, Procyon and Regulus. The memory lingers hauntingly still, drawing me irrevocably back to Lago Yelcho and the green forests of southern Chile.

TRAVEL NOTES

The following tour operators specialise in tailor-made angling holidays abroad:

Sport Elite Holidays (0935 891477, contact Tony Valdes-Scott): trout-fishing in Chile, Nov-Apr; other tours include fishing trips and tours in the Argentine, the Falklands and Nova Scotia, for trout, salmon, sea trout, brown trout, brook trout and steelhead, plus botanical tours of Chile and estancia holidays.

Nimrod Safaris (0285 810132, contact James Naylor): Chile, brown and rainbow trout and steelhead, Oct-Apr; other tours include Argentina, brown and rainbow trout Oct-Apr, sea-trout Jan-Mar; Mexico, bonefish, tarpon all year round; Costa Rica, tarpon Jan-May, snoek Sept-Oct, big game sailfish, marlin and dorado all year round; the company caters for non- angling members of the party.

Passage to South America (071-602 9889): trout-fishing in Chile, Oct-mid-Mar; other tours cover most of South America, including Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil and the Galapagos Islands, plus farm and fishing holidays.

(Photograph omitted)

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