TROUT OF PATAGONIA
A Brief History
Within the last century or less, Argentina, and Patagonia in particular, has become one of the world’s definitive fly-fishing destinations. Generations of anglers have fallen hard for the region’s pristine waters and robust fish populations, not to mention the cultural backdrop that highlights them. As ease of travel combines with an increasingly adept local guide and outfitting resource, Patagonia has positioned itself as the trout fisherman’s Valhalla; it is remarkable, therefore, to think that prior to the 20th century, trout did not exist in Argentina, at least by official record.
Representative species of the family Salmonidae are native to the cold, clean waters north of the Equator, and it is only through human introduction, aquaculture, and subsequent wild reproduction that they have come to inhabit the watersheds of the southern hemisphere. The history of trout in Patagonian Argentina is a remarkable tale in itself, one of rapid and widespread ecological capitalization of a resource, and the hard work and vision of a few adventurous men. It is the tale of fish eggs that traveled three continents by ship, rail, and horseback, to spawn an international tourist economy that has come to support communities up and down the Andean steppe. Foremost, however, it is an origin story, one that describes the genesis of the very best trout fishery that the world has ever known.
There is an old saying among Argentina’s angling historians that ‘In Patagonia, God created perfect trout habitat… he just forgot about the trout!’ It would seem that this is true: in the cold, productive rivers and lakes of the eastern Andes there were historically few fish species extant, and no true gamefish species at all. The waters of Patagonia instead played host to relatively lean populations of endemic ‘Pejerrey’ silversides (Odontesthes bonariensis), Patagonian perch or ‘Perca’ (Percichthys trucha), and swarms of ‘Puyen’ (Galaxias maculatus), the predominant baitfish. This scarcity of quality food fish was of great frustration to Dr. Francisco P. Moreno (later differentially known as Perito Moreno) during his expeditions throughout Patagonia at the end of the 19th century. Moreno had been charged by the Argentine government (as well as a personal wanderlust) with exploring the mountainous regions along the Chilean border, and he’d hoped to rely on local and native food sources to supplement the rations required by his entourage. In the context of the grand and seemingly productive waterways Moreno encountered in Patagonia, the dearth of gamefish was a bitter disappointment. Belly empty but single-minded in his vision, Moreno returned to Buenos Aires with a vision of clear flowing streams full of trout.
Moreno’s opinion of the potential for Patagonia’s fishery was not unfounded: he had traveled the US and Europe, and in the mountainous countryside of each he had noted prolific numbers of cold-water game fish that were prized not only on the plate, but also by recreational anglers. Upon returning to the capital from his extensive expeditions, Moreno made the official recommendation that the Argentine government pursue the establishment of gamefish in the Patagonian watersheds, in the hopes of replicating what existed in much of the American West and mainland Europe. Moreno’s vision ostensibly extended beyond the creation of a food and game resource to encompass the potential for a budding tourist economy; he likely could not have known that a world-class fishery might evolve from his early recommendation, but his conviction in the potential was strong enough that, under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, naturalists Dr. Fernando Lahille of France and Dr. Felipe Silvestre of Italy were invited to assess the feasibility of introducing salmonids to the lakes and rivers of Patagonia. With the blessings of these experts, plans for an official introduction were inked, and in 1903 Argentina identified the man who would head up the project.
At the start of the 20th century, an American named John Wheelock Titcomb was serving as Chief of the Division of Fish Culture in the National Fisheries Bureau. In that role, he was among the world’s most qualified experts on salmonid rearing. At the bequest of the Argentine government, he made the long journey to Buenos Aires and then overland to Patagonia. Upon arriving in the Andean foothills he worked his way steadily north until he reached Lake Nahuel Huapi, in the then newly formed Nahuel Huapi National Park. It was there that he envisioned the foundations of his life’s defining work. At a waterhole he called the Molina spring, Titcomb established Argentina’s first fish hatchery, and eventually introduced salmonids to Patagonia’s cold, flowing waters.
Simply having a vision, however, is a far cry from seeing it materialize. The actual transport of viable trout and salmon eggs from the northern hemisphere to Patagonia was a feat to be reckoned with. Titcomb assigned a colleague Edgar Allen Tulián the daunting task of collecting the heartiest and purest strains of fertilized trout and salmon eggs from points across the US. With the eggs sourced, collected, and secured for travel, Tulián left port in New York on January 19, 1904 bound for Buenos Aires. It would be a months-long journey.
Tulián first made landfall in Southampton, England. Under his care were 7 crates containing 1,000,000 Whitefish embryos (Coregonus cupleaformis); 102,700 Brook Trout embryos (Salvelinus fontinalis); 53,000 Lake Trout embryos (Cristivomer namaycush); and 50,000 Landlocked salmon embryos (Salmo sebago). Upon landfall in England, the eggs were shifted to a British freighter which featured refrigerated cargo space designated for the transport of beef between Argentina and Europe. The ship set a course for Argentina, and after weeks at sea, arrived in Buenos Aires. Under the watchful eye of Tulián, and after further weeks moving overland by rail and horseback the eggs arrived in Patagonia. Throughout this voyage, Tulián had worked tirelessly in the care of his precious cargo, and a testament to his extraordinary stewardship was the small percentage of viable embryos that were lost in transit. On March 4, 1904 those eggs were transferred to the hatchery near Nahuel Huapi lake, and the course of angling history officially and permanently took a turn.
Ironically, the initial introduction of salmonids to Argentina was weighted heavily towards Whitefish, as that species was favored to find greatest reproductive success in Patagonian waters. 900,000 fingerlings resulted from the initial Whitefish incubation, and all were placed in Lake Nahuel Huapi. This introduction, however, proved a failure. Regular monitoring of fish stocks in the lake over a period of years would prove that a viable population of the Whitefish failed to take, or even grow to viable size. Trout and Landlocked salmon, on the other hand, proved a very different story.
The trout and salmon eggs that were initially reared in Titcomb’s distributed through lakes Nahuel Huapi, Traful, Espejo, and Gutiérrez. A second import of 50,000 fertile Steelhead eggs (Salmo gairdneri) and 50,000 Rainbow trout eggs (Trutta iridea) followed in 1904. Unlike the Whitefish, these fish saw instant and widespread success, encouraging both Titcomb and the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture to expand the fish rearing and stocking programs. With that in mind, Tulián embarked on October 19, 1905, for Europe and the United States, to source and ready the shipment of Atlantic salmon eggs (Salmo salar), Brown trout eggs (Salmo trutta fario), and eggs from a smattering of supplemental North American trout and salmon species.
These initial sourcing trips, and subsequent rearing/stocking programs, represent the official origins of salmonids in Argentina. That said, it should be noted here that there are unofficial reports of earlier ‘rogue’ efforts at trout introduction that took place largely in Buenos Aires province. In the early years of the 20th Century, Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, was a hub of the global economy. Rail lines, agriculture exports, timber, and a host of additional natural resources drove the Argentine economy, drawing presence from an associate congregation of international businessmen. Chief among these were British entrepreneurs and capitalists who brought with them to South America a decidedly European sporting appetite. Arguably, the English were the first to introduce trout to Argentina, though not in a manner that was terribly successful. The Hurlingham Club, which was founded in 1888 in the largely English neighborhood of Hurlingham, Buenos Aires, was a social and sporting club that was structured in the model of classic clubs of the UK. The focus of the membership both then and now was a focus on lawn and field sports, trout fishing among them. To support the endeavor, rainbow trout were introduced to nearby Arroyo Morron, but the warm temperatures and lack of aeration and current kept the fishery from supporting any viable population.
Similarly, there is conjecture that several spring creeks in southern Buenos Aires Province were stocked with trout as a means of entertaining expat and traveling British railroad executives, who had similarly cultivated a taste for sportfishing back home. Moreover, the anadromous brown trout of Tierra del Fuego may well have been introduced by independent landowners, some of them European, rather than by government officials, according to the genetic record. Though the sea-run strain of brown trout throughout the southernmost Rio Grande were officially sourced from Denmark, the fish now in the rivers of Tierra del Fuego have genetic markers that lead fisheries biologists back to Scotland, and the sea-trout rivers of the British Isles.
Regardless of the genesis of Argentina’s earliest stockings, sanctioned or otherwise, it was Titcomb’s work in the primary rivers of Patagonia that lay the ground work for today’s storied Patagonian fisheries. The stocking and aquaculture programs in Patagonia continued and expanded through the 1930’s, though additional stocking in the northern provinces of Cordoba, Juyui, Salta, and Tucuman took place as far back as 1907 (though almost entirely on a put-and-take basis). Throughout the early history of these stocking programs, Argentina noted some challenges, and some unprecedented successes. Pure strains of McCloud River rainbows, brook trout from northern Maine, and landlocked straight from Sebago Lake took hold nearly instantly, and proliferated. Anadromous Atlantic and a variety of other salmon subspecies failed to take hold to any significant degree, and German brown trout similarly established slowly, and without immediate vigor. Eventually, supplemental stocks of Brown Trout were requested from Chile, and a shipment of viable eggs were delivered in the early 1930’s. It was these eggs, and fingerlings from previous embryos sourced from Germany, Denmark, France, and the UK that eventually pushed both Salmo trutta fario (non-anadromous) and Salmo trutta trutta (sea trout) into viable reproductive numbers, and allowed the fish to take hold. Somewhat slower to start, brown trout remain less prolific than rainbows in Patagonia, but they do generally grow to greater size.
Through the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s the trout of Patagonian Argentina proliferated, and occupied that econiche that Moreno had noted might provide fertile ground. Growing fast on a diet of native baitfish, insects, and invertebrates, the populations bloomed throughout the major Patagonian watersheds, and anglers began to take notice. With the arrival of the later 1930’ and 40’s, both Argentina and Chile took the opportunity to promote a tourist economy based on fishing, and fly fishing in particular. The fishery just seemed to oblige, turning up an increasing number of fish in world-record size through a rapidly expanding range.
In more recent times, the direct genetic lineage of those early stockings has moved through nearly all suitable waters of Patagonian Argentina. Though certain rivers undoubtedly favor populations of certain species, it would be hard to find a section of cold, flowing water in Patagonia that did not play host to a viable population of trout. What’s more, the genetics of these trout are virtually unadulterated, and the limited evolutionary time period that has passed since introduction represents a living evolutionary history of sorts, and a handful of species trapped in time.
What matters to most of us, however, is that trout are trout, and Patagonia is full of them. To think that little more than a century ago, the world’s finest trout fisheries were essentially barren… in many ways, the introduction of trout to Argentina is an unfathomable success story that continues to inspire anglers the world over. At the very least, it provides a world’s worth of fly fishers a destination to dream of, and an adventure to aspire to.
All images courtesy of Isaias Miciu from his book “Wild Trout”. To purchase his book, please contact us for more information.