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"Think of the rod and line as a bow and the fly as your arrow," says Lucas Buxton. We're in southwestern Argentina, fishing a stretch of the Chimehuín River called the Isla de los Chivos, or Goat Island. Between casting tips, Lucas – the other local guides call him Little Lucas, but his hip waders are plenty tall – coats my Parachute Adams fly in chimichurri. That's his word for the water-repelling silicone gel that helps my fly to float, but now all I can think about is saucing up a nice hunk of grilled Argentinian meat.

For the fly fishermen whose rod tubes stripe the luggage belt at tiny Chapelco airport, just outside the ski town of San Martín de los Andes, a visit to the 20,000-hectare, century-old Tipiliuke Lodge means massive brown and rainbow trout. I've arrived with dreams of landing the big one too, but nothing's biting right now, so we hike up onto dry land with our fly rods.


Wild horses couldn't drag Melissa Arnot away from the views of Cerro Tipiliuke.

Water is treasure here in the high desert of Argentina's Patagonian steppe. Located at the eastern base of the Andes Mountains, which block Pacific-originating precipitation from crossing into much of the parched terrain of Patagonia, the Lake Country and its frontier-spirited residents rely on Andean meltwater to fuel this network of rivers, lakes and streams for sustenance and sport. In search of exactly that, Lucas guides us farther downstream, where I hook (and unhook) a couple of small rainbows. But when I slip on the rocks and tumble ungracefully into the river, filling my waders up to my ankles and nearly drowning my iPhone, it's clear the chimichurri would have been better used on me.

I wake up early the next morning to the sound of silence drifting through the pine forest that surrounds the lodge. Setting out for the summit of Cerro Tipiliuke with Melissa Arnot – an American mountain guide with sturdy legs and a blond ponytail, who explains that the narrow peaked mountain's name means "upside-down heart" – we tackle the terrain together, all sand and crumbling rock and bramble bushes. "There's something very rewarding about walking yourself to a view," says Melissa, who has five ascents of Everest under her belt before the age of 30 and is here in Patagonia for a little light winter training. "Horses are like glorified trams."


Clockwise from above: Tipiliuke Lodge provides solo riders the option of bringing a radio just in case they want to be picked up; hip waders hang to dry at the lodge (waiting to get wet again); time flies when you're having fun.

Melissa describes her glamorous occupation as "walking slowly uphill," and that's exactly what we do until we reach the summit – peering northwest to spot the majestic snow-capped Lanín volcano, which forms the border with Chile. But the sighting that really delights Melissa comes on the descent, when an armadillo – her favourite animal – scrambles across our path. The body-armour-clad creature seems well suited to the tough country that surrounds us. It's a survivor.

Once I've emptied a desert's worth of sand from my hiking boots, I grab one of the lodge's mountain bikes and hitch a ride uphill in a pickup truck with Kevin Tiemersma, the lodge co-manager, who sports a floppy tan boina – the beret-like headgear of the Argentinian gaucho, or cowboy. We ramble up a dirt path along the Lirios ridge, spotting a puma and a big red fox. Kevin points out scattered veins of green scarring the yellow hills: mallin, they're called, the verdant growth signalling the mountain springs that seep slowly down the slopes. Or do they? "Remember, we're in the southern hemisphere, so all water runs uphill here," jokes Kevin.


Lago Lácar, a popular waterway for kayakers, stretches west from San Martín de Los Andes and nearly to the Chilean border.

Crashing down the wrist-busting Lirios ridge on my bike, I speed through trickling creeks that splatter my legs with mud. I also confirm that gravity does, indeed, operate quite the same here as it does north of the equator when I tumble from my bike into a prickly bush. But it's not all strenuous summits and descents, thank goodness. Plunging into the Chimehuín's bracing waters to wash my muddy post-biking legs clean, I see another of the lodge's fishing guides, stern-faced Boris Mamontoff, emerging from the trees with two fishermen in waders. I manage to coax a smile from him by bursting from the water and shouting, "¡No soy un pez! ¡No soy un pez!" (Translation: I am not a fish!)


Seeing the wine cellar for the trees: guests enjoy a glass of Argentinian malbec or pinot noir alongside a country-style lunch prepared by Eva, who helms the lodge kitchen.

Since fishing is catch and release throughout Tipiliuke's 36 kilometres of waterways, there's no catch of the day at dinner. Today's handwritten daily menu reads simply but enticingly, "Asado." The gauchos have been manning a firepit outside, cooking beef and lamb and pork sausages over the white-hot chakai-wood coals. As I spoon actual chimichurri atop my meat – this red-tinged Patagonian variety spiked with oregano is far too delicious to waste on a fly – a Patagonian pinot noir from a Saurus vineyard, located five hours northeast of us in San Patricio del Chañar, is poured. I can taste the dry climate and cool Patagonian nights: It's a wine with energy and vitality, dry like the desert but easy enough to slosh down a second glass.

On my last day, I head out with Boris, exploring the Chimehuín in a Matuka drift boat. I take my seat at the front of the boat, with my new Coloradan friend, Ted, at the back and Boris manning the oars to keep us on track. He instructs us to cast into the gaps between hanging willow branches at the river's edges. "That's where the big fish are hiding," he says.


Left: The nine-room lodge sits at the centre of a property established in 1909 by the Larminat brothers, from France. Right: One of Tipiliuke's gauchos, who wrangle some 4,000 head of cattle, sports the traditional boina hat.

I feel my bow-and-arrow technique improving, but the big one, wherever he's hiding, doesn't seem to share my opinion. "That cast deserves a fish!" Boris proclaims on several occasions. The fish refuse to comply.

We stop casting to refuel from the cooler. I mix Italian fernet with Coke, unofficially Argentina's national drink. Boris, who claims that his Russian heritage won't allow him to let me drink alone, stirs his own cup with his gaucho knife before toasting: "Na zdorovie." The bitter bite of the fernet revives me for one last shot at the big one, and Boris changes my fly from a PMX to a Yellow Stimulator.

Just before we reach our takeout point at the confluence of the Chimehuín and the Quilquihue, it all comes together. Maybe it's the new flies or the fernet or the sun setting on Cerro Tipiliuke in the distance, but the hits come, and they come fast. I bring in a nice rainbow, and Ted follows right away. Boris starts paddling furiously backward to keep us in place, and a minute later Ted and I hook two fish simultaneously: a doubleheader. He uses the net to land his, and I manage to release mine by hand, my fingers coated in a slimy layer of the fish's own chimichurri.


Cerro Tipiliuke, the upside-down heart, rises from the estancia's parched 20,000-hectare terrain.

I quickly send out another cast. Bam! This is my hardest strike of the week. It's the big one; I'm sure of it. I set the hook, put my fingers to the reel and… ping. My fish snaps the line and it's gone, along with my magic fly. I'm disappointed for a split second, but I quickly realize that the fish really doesn't owe me anything. After all, this river in the middle of the Patagonian desert is his watery home and I am merely dipping my toe into it.

Don't be a fish out of water: get geared up before you go

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