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Casting Call

Sublime Trout Fishing Draws Hollywood Heavyweights, Power Brokers and Ted Turner to Patagonia's Traful River
| By Jonathan Kandell | From John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

The sun burns off the morning mist and slowly unveils the Andes, first the tan, crenellated foothills, then the purple, majestically craggy peaks. A red stag bellows and bolts away as a duo of horseback gauchos canter through a prairie of yellow forsythia, blue lupine and gray-green sagebrush. A gentle wind carries off the whistles of low-lying quail. I can feel the bracing coolness of the Traful River through my rubber waders as I follow Marcos, my fishing guide, upstream against the strong, shallow current. All that's missing is the thrill of hooking a giant trout.

It's not for lack of effort. For two days, we have worked this temperamental river, and come up with fish no larger than a foot. Fine for a Catskills stream, maybe, but not reason enough to travel almost 6,000 miles south of New York to what is reputed to be the best fishing lodge in the world. I'm determined to stay until I reel in a trout closer to two feet, no matter how long it takes. It isn't exactly a vow of penitence, I admit, considering the breathtaking scenery.

The name of this legendary place is Arroyo Verde, and it's located in Patagonia, a 300,000-square-mile plateau in southern Argentina. Over the years, the monster trout and landlocked salmon in the Traful River here have drawn some of the most renowned anglers, including President Eisenhower and Belgium's King Baudoin. Lately, Patagonia, whose landscape bears remarkable resemblance to Wyoming and Montana, has lured a more acquisitive generation of the rich and famous. George Soros and Italy's Benettons have bought huge estancias, as ranches in Argentina are called. Sylvester Stallone has reportedly closed a deal for several thousand acres, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is rumored to be on the verge. * But the most talked about new Patagonian rancher

is Ted Turner, who in 1996 purchased the 10,000 acres that border the southern bank of the Traful River. Arroyo Verde, with its 12,500 acres, lies on the north side, and has thus far eluded Turner. "Of course, he wants it--he's asked several times," says Meme Larivière, wife of Arroyo Verde's owner, Mauricio Larivière.

Turner spent $6 million for his side of the Traful Valley, about as much as he pays the number four starting pitcher on his Atlanta Braves for a single season. Presumably, he would be willing to spend even more to enjoy Arroyo Verde for many seasons. "We're not selling," Meme says resolutely. "Arroyo Verde has been in my husband's family for generations. It is an extraordinary place--a place of great privilege."

The Larivières know something about privilege. Mauricio's French-born father, Felipe, was one of the largest landowners in Argentina. He spent half the year in Paris, a few months in Buenos Aires looking over his cattle and grain accounts, and the southern hemisphere's summer (December through February) in the Traful Valley, which he bought in its entirety during the 1930s to entertain family and friends with fishing, boating, hunting and horseback riding.

Over the years, the Larivières have parted with a good deal of their properties. But they still enjoy an enviable lifestyle, dividing their time between their Patagonian estancia and fishing lodge, and Buenos Aires. Their ample apartment in the Argentine capital is decorated with Impressionist paintings and overlooks Avenida Libertador, the local equivalent of the Champs-Elysées. Meme, an attractive woman of late middle age, uses the residence as a reservations office for Arroyo Verde and to pore over the texts of coffee-table books she publishes on such subjects as Argentine estancias, gardens and polo.

In addition to operating the lodge in Patagonia, Mauricio, a tall, slender septuagenarian, is a breeder of thoroughbreds who spends a good deal of time in Buenos Aires at the San Isidro Racetrack, where he is a member of the Jockey Club; it is there that we agree to meet for our first conversation. This particular Saturday happens to be the most memorable event of the season--the Copa Latinoamericana--when the best three-year-olds in South America run for the continent's bragging rights.

Built in the Art Deco style of the 1930s, the racetrack's clubhouse displays the elegance of a charity ball on this occasion. Diplomats and socialites from all over the continent congregate in the upper-story dining room and bar for an unimpeded view of the track. I locate Mauricio, suavely dressed in a gray suit and brown suede shoes, in deep discussion at the bar with some horse breeders about the colts running in the preliminaries. Over a lunch of grilled chicken and chilled Chardonnay, we watch the races, getting up periodically to place our bets. I keep my decades-long losing streak intact. "Better luck with the trout," says Mauricio, who will accompany me the next day to Arroyo Verde.

To get to his Patagonian estate, Mauricio's father and his entourage used to take an overnight train from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, where a convoy of chauffeured cars took them the last 50 miles of the journey. Like most people nowadays, we make it to Bariloche in two hours on a scheduled airline. We are met at the airport by Magdalena Bustillo, who at the time acted as the unofficial overseer at Arroyo Verde, ensuring that the lodge operated smoothly. Tall, tan and athletically trim, she is wearing a fleece vest, an Australian bush hat, jeans and cowboy boots.

While driving us in a minivan, she tells Mauricio the news. Three American couples are staying at the lodge, and her husband, Marcos, is guiding them to choice river spots. Several hunters from Mendoza, a wine-growing province to the north, are poaching deer and wild boar on Mauricio's property even though it is supposed to be under the protection of the nearby national park. "The park rangers are doing nothing," says Magdalena, who leaves no doubt about how she would deal with the trespassers. "Now, now," says Mauricio soothingly. "I'll have a word with them myself."

"Oh, yeah, I almost forgot," adds Magdalena. "Turner called: he wants to have lunch with you on Friday." Using a private jet, Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda, have been flying to Bariloche directly from Atlanta about once a month during the U.S. winter. Mauricio grimaces and says: "Well, I know what he wants."

We speed past a constantly changing landscape, sometimes empty except for sagebrush, sometimes lush with poplars and fir trees, and, always fenced in by the Andes, corrugated and bare as if its vegetation had been scraped away with a dull knife. Closer to the highway, the foothills, eroded by millions of years of storms and tremors, take on fantastic contours. One limestone monolith, called La Ventana (The Window), has a hole near its peak, and at its base lies a boulder shaped exactly like the missing part--as if it had been poked out just weeks before.

On our right, a broad, turquoise river, the Limay, curves like an oxbow and then straightens out for most of the rest of our journey. It is joined by the Traful River, and at this confluence, the road turns to gravel and we enter the valley, entirely owned by Turner and Larivière. Rabbits scamper out of our way, and Hereford cattle stop their grazing to eye us warily. Across the river to the south, Mauricio points out the large estancia house owned successively by his grandfather, father and younger brother, Felipe, who sold it to Turner along with the surrounding acreage. "No, I'm not angry at my brother," says Mauricio. "Just sad. I lived at that house for months at a time during 42 years."

We pass by the green creek that gives Arroyo Verde its name, and the fishing lodge suddenly comes into view. It is a large cottage, built of stone and cedar. On its porch, rubber waders hang from red stag antlers. A 16-pound brown trout (an exception to the strict catch-and-release policy at Arroyo Verde) is mounted over the doorway. The English-style garden has a profusion of roses, lavender, buddleia, petunias, phlox and foxgloves. A pond is framed by firs, plum, ash and maitén, a native species that looks surprisingly like an olive tree. The mountains on the horizon have the same beautifully asymmetrical silhouettes as the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

Inside, there is a cozy elegance to the place. Easy chairs and sofas are upholstered in old paisley fabric. The Persian rugs are fashionably faded. Sepia photos of family and famous guests decorate the living-room walls. On either side of the crackling fireplace, shelves are filled with leather-bound classics and recent bestsellers. The dining room is furnished with turn-of-the-century English sideboards and French tables and chairs. Four double bedrooms, each with a private bathroom, offer spartan but comfortable sleeping quarters.

The best lodging at Arroyo Verde, however, is at a cabin one and a half miles away from the main cottage. It's perched on a shamelessly romantic promontory overlooking Lake Traful. Pintail ducks and Magellan geese ply the placid, deep blue waters below and circle the rocky islands. Thick pine forests sweep up from the lake's shores into snow-flecked mountains, completing one of Patagonia's most gorgeous tableaus.

Trout and salmon were introduced into this pristine wilderness from hatcheries in the United States during the first two decades of the century. The salmon came from Lake Sebago in Maine, one of the few places in the world where they exist with no access to the ocean. In Argentina, these landlocked salmon failed to survive, except in the Traful Valley and one or two other Patagonian locations. Anglers and biologists are at a loss to explain why the Traful River and its lake are so propitious for salmon. They average four pounds and often reach twice that weight.

The salmon make little attempt to hide. Several of them will often float in a school at various shallow depths in the lake or in the stiller stretches of the 10-mile-long Traful River. This doesn't make them easier to catch, as Eisenhower discovered on a brief visit here in 1960. When the salmon paid no attention to his casts, he tried to spear them with his rod in exasperation.

Trout are more plentiful, and likelier to snap at a dry fly. Rainbow, brown and brook trout abound throughout Patagonia. With fewer human predators--Patagonia has less than one inhabitant per square mile--the trout tend to grow a few inches longer and a pound or two heavier than in the American Rockies. They fatten themselves on a steady diet of perch, insects and small freshwater crabs called pancoras.

Though I arrive at Arroyo Verde in the late afternoon, I prefer to skip the welcoming libations and instead head out immediately to the river with Magdalena's husband, Marcos. He chooses as a first spot a horseshoe bend where the record trout decorating the lodge's entrance had been caught some years before. The bank here is broad and bare, with no trees to snag my fly on the back cast. The riverbed consists of sand and smooth pebbles, making it easy to wade. The water flows slowly, with deep, clear pools that make fish and angler visible to each other. Choosing from his assortment of dry flies, Marcos picks out a Royal Wulff. We can see and hear fat trout break the surface to snare real flies with a slurping sound. Our casts whistle through the air and drop tantalizingly close to the fish with no result. "We've spooked them," says Marcos. "If we can see them, you can bet they can see us."

We head a couple of hundred yards downstream and the Traful suddenly becomes an altogether different river. There are rapids, and the bed is covered with large stones, forcing us to wade with more care. The rushing water churns up abundant oxygen and food for the trout, which wedge themselves in front of boulders waiting for nymphs and other insects caught in the fast flow. But only the smaller fish are biting, and we hurl them back, barely giving them a glance.

The Traful runs in an almost perfect axis west from its lake headwaters to its confluence with the Limay in the east. With the sunset behind us turning the sky and the river a fiery red, we decide to return to the lodge and resume our fishing in the morning.

In the United States, anglers seem eager to start the day close to dawn. In Patagonia during the summer, there are 15 hours of daylight, so I'm glad that Marcos feels no compulsion to hurry us back to the Traful before 11 a.m. "No use getting there before the hatch, anyway," he explains. With no new mayflies and caddis flies to feed on, the trout won't show.

On the way to the river, we pass the hunters from Mendoza. They are in their own minivan and appear headed straight for the main fishing lodge. Are they going to be given the heave-ho by Magdalena, I wonder, or will they succeed in appeasing Mauricio?

Five minutes later, we park our minivan off to the side of a dirt road and walk through sagebrush, which emits a pungent, sour smell whenever we step on it. Marcos points out several young pine trees whose branches and trunks seem to have been deliberately snapped. The perpetrators, he explains, are red stags, who rub the pine tar on their antlers to blacken them and thus look more menacing to rivals, now that the rutting season has begun.

The Traful is a bit trickier at this spot. The steep bank has willow trees and a thick underbrush. I marvel at Marcos's graceful casting. Using a reverse cast, he faces the riverbank as he flicks his rod and in the same smooth motion makes a 180-degree turn and drops the fly in midstream. At other times, when the riverbank's vegetation is too overgrown and the water flows too fast and deep, he uses a roll cast, keeping the line in front of him. We are lucky to have a puelche, a wind from the east, which carries our casts straight up the river. But still, we are hooking only smaller trout.

I find myself humming some classical music, and I'm suddenly reminded of a Scottish friend, Bruce Sandison, a great angler, who in times of desperation always sings verses from Handel's Messiah to lure trout, and claims that the aria "He Shall Feed His Flock" has never failed to land him a fish. But Marcos is a firm believer that our chances will improve immeasurably if the fish don't hear us approaching.

Sandison is also fond of saying that nothing is more predictable than the unpredictability of trout fishing. "Each new adventure is a new voyage of discovery," he once wrote. "No matter how well you think you know a river or lake, by the end of the day you will have acquired some piece of additional, vital information to add to your store of knowledge." Here, he gets no argument from Marcos. "It's especially true for the Traful," says Marcos. "This is a river that changes many times in the course of the season. I learn something new about it almost everyday--some pool that becomes deeper or more shallow, a bank that broadens or narrows."

I'll never have time to familiarize myself with the Traful. But what impresses me most are the many guises of the river. In two days, we fish it at a dozen points, each with banks and bed and water flow so distinct that in retrospect it seems we have spent a week on several rivers.

Whether by chance or design, Marcos leaves our most memorable foray for last. He picks a steep, thickly vegetated stretch of riverbank. Through the branches, we spy dozens of 12- to 18-inch brown trout feeding between boulders. The current and bed are too treacherous to attempt wading, so we cast from the shore. Almost immediately, Marcos catches a foot-long rainbow trout. Holding it by its fat midsection, we can feel the pancora crabs in its stomach. Marcos points it upstream, letting the water rush through its gills until the fish recovers enough to swim off.

A moment later, I hook the big one. The reel whines and the fish strips 50 yards of my line as it rockets downstream. For the better part of 20 minutes, I alternately pull it in and let it run until it slowly exhausts itself. As I reel the fish ashore, it turns out to be a brown trout close to 30 inches long and over six pounds. Before we can remove the hook, the trout revives, snaps the line and vanishes in a flash. Is it the biggest trout I've ever caught, or the biggest one that got away? "Your call," says Marcos, generously. I'm still mulling over that question.

The two other puzzles of my visit to Arroyo Verde--the fate of the poachers and Turner's quest for the fishing lodge--also near ambiguous resolution. Over dinner that night, Mauricio regales his guests with anecdotes of fishing and history, his twin passions. He asks what we think of the wine--a Weinert Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza--and we all agree it goes perfectly with the leek soup and veal. The hunters, he explains, handed over two cases of the wine to make amends for their poaching, and have promised not to trespass again.

The three American couples who are staying at the lodge turn out to be from Atlanta. So, inevitably, much of the rest of the dinner conversation is devoted to Ted Turner and his newfound enthusiasm for Patagonia. Mauricio says his conversations with the media baron remind him of a scene from Casablanca in which Sydney Greenstreet offers to buy Humphrey Bogart's nightclub, but is turned down. "You haven't heard my offer yet," remarks Greenstreet. "It's not for sale at any price," replies Bogie.

We all chuckle at the aptness of the anecdote. Later, though, I remember that Bogie did indeed sell his prized property. Now that I think of it, Turner's company even bought the film.

Jonathan Kandell, a freelance writer in New York, was formerly a correspondent in Latin America for The New York Times.