We’ve all spent enough time in the fly-fishing industry to be a little jaded. I’ve run guides teams in Russia and Belize, and fished six continents as a photographer and consultant. Zach and Skylar are both professional fly-fishing guides who have worked in Chile before. Sky now spends her winters in Florida and her summers in Alaska, guiding anglers into bucket-list salmon fly fishing experiences. Zach’s happily retired from his trout-guiding days and, when we all met up in March 2020, was completing a multi-year expedition, driving his weathered 1994 GMC Safari van, raft and impossibly fluffy dog Shale from Missoula, Montana, to Chile.
Our rendezvous was a celebration of the end of the trip — though, as it was early March 2020, things ended with a slightly different “bang” than planned. But more on that later…at this point we were blissfully unaware of what lay ahead.
Zach had originally purchased the van off a Missoula back street for $1,000, then spent a month building out cabinets and a bed before living in it for several months to see how it all worked together. Eventually he added a Dometic fridge, solar, a deep cycle battery, ARB awning and BF Goodrich tires before pointing the creation south and heading out on an adventure. The goal? To explore, and to fish as he went.
From bribes in Mexico and Nicaragua to an attempted break-in in Honduras (thwarted by Shale’s barking), the trip lacked neither fishing nor adventure. Zach estimated he picked up more than 100 hitchhikers along the road, giving plenty of opportunity to practice his Spanish, which he rated as a “5.5/10” with the note, “It’s gotten better on this trip.”
Zach noted his most important piece of gear is the fly rods. “That’s the point,” he opined. Trout were in no shortage throughout; he was able to catch various trout species in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
It wasn’t all fairy-tale lakes and happy trout, however. The van, dubbed Shakira by Skylar because “she shakes and has a big booty,” was not impervious to long miles on hard roads. Along the way Zach and Shale managed a broken drive shaft seal in Mexico, an electric short to fuel injectors in Columbia, an incessantly temperamental — and then outright broken — 4WD and various undiagnosed issues in Ecuador and Peru. By the time we met up in Chile, the door handles were all broken so the only way in and out was the stubborn sliding side door or the driver’s side door.
It’s a lesson all adventurers learn the hard way at some point in their lives: things will go wrong. It’s inevitable. Murphy’s Law is a thing. But if you’re lucky, there’s a fluffy mutt riding shotgun and a friendly gas station mechanic somewhere in the next town.
We met up at the Balmaceda Airport, a small operation near its namesake village in Chile’s Aysén Region. I’d fished with Zach once in Montana and never met Skylar; though, that particular friendship was quickly established as I straddled my Pelican case in the back of the van, using it as a makeshift bench seat/workspace as we headed to the nearest grocery store to stock up on cheap yet excellent Chilean beef, potatoes, wine and the basics for a week of camping.
If you’re going to generally live like nomads, Chilean Patagonia is a grand place to do it. For the next week we drove from place to place, eating, sleeping, fishing and living in that same ceaseless wind. Every few days we’d pop into the nearest small town, stocking up on gas station empanadas and checking in with the real world with the occasional free Wi-Fi in city squares. The world was beginning to get chaotic. Borders were closing, “Covid” was suddenly a word in our vocabularies — but we couldn’t find it in ourselves to be too concerned. When life is a cycle of sleep-eat-fish-campfire-repeat, the news cycle tends to fade away into background noise.
In any case, the wind tended to crush any noises not of nature. It’s one of the glories of Patagonia: she wraps you in the constant whirring of wind like a giant sound machine, lulling the rest of the world away.
Trout anglers around the world speak of Patagonian fly fishing in hushed and revered tones. Hailing from trout-savvy Montana, I was curious to see if Patagonia lived up to its reputation. Within the first day, it did. Charmingly. We fished rivers Skylar and Zach had visited in the past, then explored new waterways. Shakira jostled down corrugated dirt trails, eking though traffic jams of gauchos and their herds to seek out the fairy lake, and we fished muddy shorelines for days, pulling some of the largest brown trout I’ve ever seen from underneath floating peat pads that threatened to sink if we didn’t step just right.
Each night we’d hunker in the relative shelter of the van, cooking slabs of beef over the fire or reheating the latest round of gas station empanadas. Our supply of surprisingly excellent box wine inevitably led to evening storytelling and contemplation about the next day’s fishing, all with the unhurried ease of new friends who enjoy the others’ company. Shale Dog, an unshakable mass of fur and warmth, was a mobile heating unit when nights got cold and quickly took up residence as the team’s mascot. We were, after all, using her van as our base of operations, and all she demanded was a petting session here and there.
Our next port of call was the town of Coyhaique, where we stocked up on groceries and more empanadas (always) right before the tire rod snapped in the middle of town traffic. Zach coaxed a shaking Shakira to the nearest mechanic and vied for parts while Sky and I took a long walk to the city center in search of Wi-Fi. We got sidetracked by a café, happily gobbling up caffeine and cake while looking like vagabonds, and eventually found the internet connection in the city center park. Hours later Zach and Shale appeared, the van back in operation. Celebratory, we headed to the outpost of Chile Trout, where Sky’s friends Karina and Pancho greeted us with gorgeous steaks and open arms, the epitome of Chilean hospitality. They ushered us into sumptuous rooms in their gorgeous lodge (when he’s not guiding fishing trips, Pancho is a skilled architect and designed the place himself), and when Sky and I stepped inside the lodge we looked at each other and laughed. For one of the first times in nearly a week, we were out of the wind, and it was strangely quiet. The night was filled with laugher, wine and — as is customary for fishermen all around the world — trading stories.
We fished nearby Lake Elizalde with Pancho the next day, each dozing off in the raft floor despite the rough, windy conditions. The lake, in Pancho’s words, proved to be home to much “muey sexy” water…it just looked like a good place to live if you happened to be a trout. By the end of the day we had successfully brought more Patagonian brown trout to the boat, and headed back to the lodge in high spirits.
The trip, as with all trips, was doomed to come to an end. We all knew we’d part ways. What we hadn’t anticipated, however, was a global pandemic. Borders closing, airports shuttering. As the month of March 2020 stomped onward, we received notifications that airline schedules were beginning to change. The phrase “repatriation flights” began to be used. Sky and I were able to hop onto flights back to the States, but for Zach and Shale life was far more complicated. Zach was able to sell the van and the raft, getting them both back on one of the final flights to the U.S. before the world shut down.
Sky’s Alaska season was canceled. I had nine photo shoots — both international and stateside — cancel that first week I returned to Montana; a year-and-a-half of work gone. Zach’s otherwise successful trip had ended on a note none of us could have anticipated. We all returned to the States with our own challenges ahead, and considering that perhaps we should have just stayed in Chile, camping, fishing and making our own empanadas.
A few months later Zach and I met up at a familiar Montana reservoir to fish. I hugged Shale. We talked about Chile and future plans and the weird fact that three relative strangers could meet up in Patagonia and live together seamlessly. That no matter how chaotic, confusing, and outright alarming the world was at the time, that there was magic in just going and doing the thing…and exploring far, far off the beaten path.
I think the lake fairies would agree.