Although I’m not very good at it, there are few things in this world that please me more than spending a day on a river with a fly rod trying to trick fish into eating small plastic insects. I had actually planned on carrying a rod with me this entire year. But it turns out Southeast Asia isn’t known for it’s fly fishing, and I had enough stuff to carry already. Thankfully, my parents and brother were kind enough to lug some gear to Australia so I could fish in NZ and Belize. But the rods were cumbersome so I sent them home from Central America. Big mistake.
After seeing dozens of small trout as we followed the river on the last two days of the Santa Cruz trek outside of Huaraz, Peru, I was determined to find a way to go fishing in the Peruvian Andes and profusely kicking myself for sending my trout rod home.
Alison was kind enough to come with me as we circled the entire town of Huaraz, asking anyone and everyone for relevant information. I finally got the number for a guy named Edwin – in basic spanglish we agreed to meet at our hostel and discuss a game plan for making this happen. We spoke at length about fishing and other stuff. I knew how much he wanted me to pay him and I knew we would be fishing for trout. Besides that, I knew nothing. But I didn’t need any other information; that was enough. So while Alison explored a few other glacial lakes in the area, I agreed to spend a few days in the Andes searching for fish with Edwin.
Except I wouldn’t be fishing with Edwin. Not 30 seconds after we’d agreed on everything, Edwin’s “brother” Freddy appeared out of nowhere. Turns out Freddy, not Edwin, would be my fishing companion. This handoff was a bit odd and concerning, but I was but so excited about the prospect of getting on a river that I let it go, against my better judgment. So we shook hands and I agreed to get the food for two days and a tent, and Freddy would pick me up in the morning to head for the mountains. We were all set!
Freddy picked me up on time and all was going smoothly on the way up to the trailhead. We stopped for some additional supplies, including hooks and fishing line. When I inquired about the rods, Freddy told me we’d get them “up there.” At this point I was starting to get a small sense for our tactics. It was going to be very raw, and interesting.
We drove up to a small village, apparently to pick up Edwin (why did we need to pick up Edwin???). We got to Edwin’s home, which was in the middle of nowhere up in the Andes with literally nothing and no one within miles. I was already a little nervous about the situation given that I had completely winged this whole thing and the “handoff” to Freddy was very odd. Peru is not exactly suburban Charlotte.
When I stepped out of the car and saw Edwin wielding a 4-foot machete, I panicked. Oh shit, this is it. I’m done. I had brought just a few extra dollars above what we’d agreed upon so that there wouldn’t be much for them to rob (just in case) but at this point I was just praying they didn’t kill me. We exchanged pleasantries and I smiled as big as I could. Edwin insisted I sit in the front seat, and I obliged hesitantly as he got in the back, leaning forward from the middle seat with his right hand wielding the machete. My heart was racing.
They were big mountaineers. Both had climbed Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru, and Freddy had been recruited for Himalayan expeditions. Edwin asked if we (Alison and I) wanted to climb a 6,000 meter mountain after the fishing trip. This was a good sign. I tried to sound as excited as possible, to at least delay any possible death, knowing full well there wasn’t a chance in hell I could climb a 6,000 meter peak. If he thinks we’ll pay him more money maybe he’ll spare me, I thought. Or was he just playing with me?
Ten minutes and a lot of small talk later, I was still alive. At this point I felt a little better, assuming they would have killed or robbed me by now, rather than go through the trouble of spending the gas money to get to the trailhead.
I was even more relieved when the car stopped near a nice little river and what looked like the beginning of a narrow trail. When Edwin sped off in the distance I was about 80% sure I was going to make it back to Huaraz in one piece, which was a nice feeling.
So Freddy and I started walking. He spoke no English, so our conversations were limited and basic. We spoke of family, food, climbing, and fishing, of course. All subjects of mutual enjoyment, and of which I knew a handful of applicable spanish verbs and nouns. I started to like Freddy. The scenery helped his cause – we were walking up a valley that led to a beautiful mountain range, and Freddy pointed out all the peaks he’d climbed that were staring at us.
We took a long rest after 3-4 hours of hiking. We were up to about 14,000 feet at this point. I was looking at the snow capped peaks, wondering how hard they were for Freddy to climb, when I heard a rustle off the trail. Freddy was hacking away at a small tree with the machete.
Aha! I thought, the machete was to cut down limbs for our poles. Through the machete hoopla I had completely forgotten about our lack of equipment. Now I was starting to get more comfortable with this whole thing. It was time to go trout fishing, Peru style.
Freddy said we’d be using “insectos” as lures, which I assumed were homemade plastic flies and weighted nymphs, the typical western trout lures. So I chuckled a bit when Freddy pulled out a bag of live worms.
“Did you buy these?”
He said something I didn’t understand. Then we played international charades and he did a digging motion to suggest he’d just dug them out of the ground on his own. Well, of course.
So our fishing supplies consisted of heavy green line, two tree branches, a handful of hooks, homemade weights, and live worms. This was going to be awesome.
We made our way up the small stream and started fishing both sides. The water looked excellent. Plenty of small pools and riffles. But were there trout here? And in numbers like we’d seen a few days before in a different range of the Andes. And how would this homemade concoction of a setup work out?
I watched Freddy work a few small pools to get a sense for his technique. Because there was no reel, we were limited to casting the length of the tree branch plus the 6 or so feet of line attached to it. But given the small stream we really didn’t need more than that. The issue was trying not to spook the fish, given our close proximity. Freddy was always laying or sitting down, hiding behind rocks. I tried my best to emulate his technique.
Within 30 minutes, Freddy was holding up 3 fish, 2 rainbows and what looked like a brook trout, the largest of which was about 10 inches. They weren’t big, but they were there. An hour later I was on the board.
By the end of the afternoon, we had caught upwards of 30 fish (mostly Freddy’s). The trout fishing here is completely unregulated, and trout is a primary source of protein for the locals, who mainly fish for them with nets. Freddy insisted on keeping all of our fish. Every fish tossed back took away food for his kids. Although a foreign concept to any western trout enthusiast, this is the only mentality in Peru. There’s no fly fishing tourism industry here. Trout are food, to be eaten, not protected and admired. So we ate trout soup that night.
It started pouring down rain after dinner and Freddy and I huddled into our tent for the night. I pulled out my phone and tried to engage him in a game of chess, which he feigned interest in for about 5 minutes. Then he pulled out an old camera and started going through his mountaineering pics, rattling through all the peaks he and Edwin had climbed over the years. It was quite impressive.
We were up at 5:30 the next day for another round. The weather early didn’t cooperate but toward midday the skies were overcast and the fish started eating. We caught another 20 or so fish by noon, packed up camp, and headed back to civilization.
The Peruvian Andes are full of trout. They are small in the streams, but beautiful and a ton of fun. They get bigger, too, in the lakes. I saw some monsters in Santa Cruz but wouldn’t have a clue on how to get after them save lugging a canoe for two days up to 4,000 meters. The small ones are fun, too. And I’d bet not a single one of the 50 fish we caught has ever seen an artificial fly.
So if you’re heading to Peru and like to fish, throw your fly rod in the pack and give it a go. You won’t regret it. And if you forget the fancy gear, there are plenty of sticks laying around.