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One Honkin' Big Brown
A little after 10 p.m. one night last March, I was hosing down my waders outside the drying room at Terra del Fuego's elegant Maria Behety Lodge when Brian Yamamoto came rolling in. Yamamoto, a dentist from Fairbanks, carried his 15-foot Snowbee spey rod and sported a smile as wide as the Argentine pampas.
Our little fishing party had just reeled in for the last time during our week on the Rio Grande-a medium-sized, shallow, gravelly river flowing off the Chilean Andes and snaking across the two-million-acre, century-old Menendez family sheep ranch. We were about as far south as you can get before greeting blue ice and penguins.
"There's a new king!" announced Michael Kendrick, a retired neurosurgeon from Bend, Ore., and the dentist's fishing partner. "Nobody tops this."
We gathered around Brian's digital camera as he scrolled through pictures of what looked like a chinook salmon. Only it wasn't-it was a brown trout.
"What did it weigh?" we blurted out in unison.
"We're not sure," said the Alaskan, who has caught more than 400 king salmon and knows big fish. "Jorge said 28. But it bottomed out the Boga-Grip [scale]. I think it was over 30."
"Hell, yeah," Michael added. "Way over."
All week the wind had howled. When we set out to our respective beats this afternoon, conditions were startlingly calm. It seemed like a different river. Gone were the whitecaps. Yamamoto and Kendrick had drawn Maxi's Pool. Brian began working his way downstream with a Woolly Bugger fished on a 15-foot type-3 sink-tip on his 750 Rio Skagit line. Right away, he hooked and released an eight-pounder. But his fly kept picking up weeds and hanging on the bottom, so he clipped the Woolly Bugger and tied a size 4 Muddler Minnow to his 16-pound fluorocarbon tippet. That did the trick-it floated up from the bottom just enough to keep most of the swings clean.
About 7 p.m., Brian cast across the pool to the opposite bank. He gave his line a good mend upstream, jiggling the Muddler as it moved off the shallow shelf and into the seam. The fly stopped. He felt five or six jolting head shakes. The thick sea trout streaked away and came crashing out of the water four times, its tail alone dipped in the water.
Brian kept steady side pressure on the monster. The fish moved up the pool about 15 yards and paused there before taking off downstream to the bottom third of the run. Brian and his net-toting guide, Jorge Castro, ran down the bank to catch up with the fish and get perpendicular to it, all the while spouting instructions and exclamations. As the backing was on the reel and Yamamoto started gaining fly line, Castro yelled, "Don't let him get to the next pool or we'll never get him in!" Constant pressure forced the trout to move upstream. It jumped three more times on a short run, and then Brian worked it close in and moved it into some frog water at the bottom of the pool. Twenty minutes after the fight began, it was over. The spotted bronze fish lay thrashing in the net.
The guide kneeled beside the huge trout, pulled out his vinyl tape and stretched it from snout to caudal. "Forty-six inches," he proclaimed. Then he stretched it around the fish's belly: "25."
So what did it weigh? Since it was too heavy for the scale, Brian got an answer a week later from Sarah O'Neal, a fishery biologist at the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station. Applying a formula that calculates weight with 95 percent accuracy based on length and girth, she determined that the fish weighed between 38.5 and 44.5 pounds.
Whatever the exact figure, it was clearly the largest sea-run brown caught in the splendid Rio Grande since an English meat-packing refrigeration engineer planted the first bucket of fry in the river during the 1930s. It bests a fish weighing 35 pounds two ounces that was beached almost exactly a decade earlier, in March 1998. It's also likely the largest brown trout ever caught on a fly, anywhere.
Rio Grande, Argentina, which has a 6,561-foot paved runway
WHEN TO GO:
December through March
BOOKING YOUR TRIP:
The Fly Shop, www.theflyshop.com, (800) 669-3474