Big fish – Big business.
Tourism. The Argentinean Fernando de las Carreras, 53, has made his company Nervous Waters one of the best addresses for fly fishermen worldwide. And built an exclusive travel empire around it. One of the reasons why the business is flourishing is because the wives of the anglers also feel at home in the exclusive lodges - and therefore enjoy travelling with them or even fishing themselves.
He can still do it, even if he seldom finds the time for it in the meantime: As if it were the easiest thing in the world, Fernando de las Carreras lets his aerobatic fly land on the water exactly where he wants it, on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande. He treats his two-handed rod as lovingly and virtuously as a world-class violinist treats his Stradivarius.
The storm typical for Tierra del Fuego, which can make casting an embarrassing slapstick performance for an average angler down here, is no problem for him. Fernando is used to the strong wind. He has known him since he first picked up a rod as a teenager on the Rio Menéndez, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Since he caught his first trout there with a fly rod at the age of 15.
Tierra del Fuego, which was divided into an eastern part - Argentina's Tierra del Fuego province - and a western part - Chile's Magallanes region - in 1881, is now considered by many to be the end of the world. At the turn of the 20th century things were quite different. The southern tip of South America, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan, was a pivotal point. All the ships coming from Europe, which had the west coast of America as their destination, had to pass here.
On the Chilean side, the flourishing trade and lucrative sheep farming enabled the family clan of the Braun-Menéndez, for example, to build a veritable empire - estancias, whaling fleets, slaughterhouses, mines, shipping companies, import companies and banks. Even the southernmost railway on the continent was part of it. The area of the size of Belgium - the land covered three million hectares - was the largest contiguous landed property ever in Chile. Argentina, then the seventh wealthiest country in the world, also benefited greatly, until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 put an abrupt end to the economic miracle in the south of the continent. The Strait of Magellan was no longer needed.
Tierra del Fuego is now sinking into a deep sleep. At best, it is still a summer holiday destination for wealthy Argentinians. This is also the opinion of Jacqueline de las Carreras, who grew up in a noble family in Buenos Aires and owns the Estancia Retranca in Tierra del Fuego.
There she hears that in 1935 an American named John Goodall spread 60000 trout eggs in two tributaries of the Rio Grande. The descendants of this brood are said to have grown to enormous size by now.
Jacqueline de las Carreras knows absolutely nothing about sport fishing. She couldn't even fish herself, because she contracted polio at the age of 15, only two years before the vaccination was developed, and has been dependent on a wheelchair ever since. But the enterprising and resolute Jacqueline, whose family lives primarily from sheep and cattle breeding, suspects that this should be an attraction for fly fishermen from the USA.
She consults with her son Fernando. The good-looking teenager sees his mission for the summer more as hunting pretty girls instead of slippery trout. But he promises to think about it. Shortly afterwards, a friend of Fernando's acquaintance introduces him to the grey eminence of fly fishing in Argentina, the guide and then general importer of Orvis rods, Jorge Donovan, "He brought fly fishing into the country. And he was the first to take Americans fishing as paying guests," Fernando recalls. "I was his last student."
Why should what worked further north in Patagonia not work down here at the Rio Grande? Donovan suggests building a six-bed cabin on the river. Your lodge - you've never set foot in one before - is to be called Kau Tapen. It means 'House of Fish' in the language of the indigenous Ona tribe who once settled here and who had been wiped out by the Spaniards.
The only difficulty is that wood is needed for the construction of a lodge, which is not available in the almost treeless Tierra del Fuego. So Jacqueline has the lodge built in northern Patagonia and has its individual parts transported by truck to Tierra del Fuego, where it is being rebuilt at the foot of a hill overlooking the river. 1984 is the first season, Jacqueline takes over the role of hostess. She hires a grumpy cook and hires guides. One comes from Minneapolis. On the flight to Argentina he quickly reads a book about sea trout to bring at least some knowledge with him.
Young Fernando also has to fill in as a guide. After all, the graduate of an English-speaking private school can communicate properly with the US guests. Even more: Jacqueline makes it clear to her offspring that she herself does not want to get into fishing tourism. She sees the small lodge more as an existence for Fernando and his brother. "She encouraged us back then to take the step into entrepreneurship," remembers Fernando. "We borrowed money from her to pay the rent for the lodge. By the way, it's still the same today: Kau Tapen belongs to my now 83-year-old mother - I'm just the tenant."
The premiere is mixed. Travel for fly-fishing enthusiasts was still a rather exotic product back then. Only 12 fishermen find their way to Tierra del Fuego in the first summer, 18 in the second season. The first guests are an elderly Methodist minister and his brother from the United States. Sea trout are mainly fished by British and Scandinavian fishermen at that time. Only the British are not welcome so shortly after the Falkland War, nor are they particularly motivated.
Nevertheless, word quickly gets around in the scene that the biggest trout on the planet are waiting at the "fin del mundo", at the end of the world. Soon competing lodges open: after all, anglers pay a lot of money - today it's 8000 US dollars for one of the best weeks of the season.
Nevertheless, Fernando - his brother is soon to leave - succeeds in remaining market leader and even expanding the business. On the Rio Grande he opens the lodge Villa Maria, which also offers the chance to hook a world record trout. He had the Pirá Lodge in northern Argentina, where golden dourados are fished, built in 1999, when no one had this fierce fish species on their radar yet.
When he then hears from guests that they miss first class accommodation in the Bahamas, he embarks on a 30-day scouting trip. Fernando scouts island by island to find the best fishing spots. Make sure that the lodges are within easy reach. Does a country specific risk analysis. Brings on board experts who know the Bahamas well. And then builds two dream destinations for fly-fishers with the lodges Bair's and Abaco. He now calls his company, in which he holds 60 percent of the shares, and his college friend Santiago Blaquier the rest, "Nervous Waters" - fly fishermen call those places in the river where the current and the nature of the river bed create short, "nervous" waves, where fish prefer to stay and lurk for prey.
Since four-fifths of his guests not only fish but also hunt, Fernando soon dedicates himself additionally to this area. His portfolio today includes "David Denis" (lodges for shotgun game hunters in Córdoba, near Buenos Aires and in Uruguay) and "Red Stag Patagonia" (lodges for red deer hunters in Mendoza, near Buenos Aires, Junín de los Andes and in the Valle Central in Chile). The hunting business now accounts for about half of Nervous Waters' profits.
Asked about the secret of his success, Fernando shakes his head. "There is no patent remedy. It has always been important to me to make our customers happy and offer them the best service. That can only be achieved with hard work. If I had to choose a profession again in another life, I would like to be the butler on a large estate like Downton Abbey. I suppose I have something of the butler gene in me.
One thing's worth mentioning, though. It seems many of his clients have more money than time. So the week's fishing trip he longs for often leads to arguments within the family. "So I thought about what I had to offer to make the wives accompany their husbands."
He raises the service, equipment and cuisine of his two lodges to five-star level, working only with the most renowned guides and chefs, the most modern boats and vehicles and uncorking the best Argentinean wines. The concept works. In the beginning, many women only travel with us to read, but later on, they themselves take a liking to the big trout. Today, many couples, especially from the USA, are among the regular guests. "Three out of five guests probably come back because we were the first in the business to take care of the ladies. The couples tell friends about their wonderful experiences. Word of mouth is still our most important marketing tool, even in the digital age."
Of course, celebrity names among the customers also helped. Kau Tapen was visited by former Fed boss Paul Volcker, US Vice President Dick Cheney and George Bush senior, among others. Fernando must smile when he thinks about the Bush visit. Normally he doesn't talk about VIP guests, but some media had got wind of Bush's visit anyway: "We wanted to do everything perfectly. But nobody at the White House had told us that he was left-handed. But now the best spots on our side of the Rio Grande are much easier for right-handed people to fish. So we had to go to the other side. Bush's guide had no choice but to cross the river with him. This was of course against all regulations. Because they had no waders, the security people were soon blue with wet and cold. Luckily Bush caught a nice sea trout. The pool's been named after him ever since.
What if the distinguished guest hadn't caught any fish? "It is precisely because we cannot control weather and biting behaviour that it is so important to make everything else perfect. A tender steak and a hearty Malbec from Mendoza offer comfort after a hard day on the water."
Today, Fernando de las Carreras owns 21 lodges and makes several million dollars in annual sales. "Our goal is to add another lodge every year, maybe two." So in ten years that would make a total of 30 to 35 lodges. "But we will only expand if everything fits: Location, fishing and hunting grounds, exclusive access for our guests. There is no growth plan to which we are committed." The fishing for golden dourados in particular has great potential: "We already have four lodges for it and of course we have to fill these beds first. But that is only a question of time. Besides, I could also imagine to transport this idea to other countries." The lodges for fly game hunters would also grow rapidly: "We have already increased the number of beds there by 30 percent. There will be another lodge for pigeon hunters and another for duck hunters, in addition to the four already existing." Fernando is not interested in owning as many lodges as possible. He wants the best ones: "If we have the feeling that it no longer fits because, for example, the fish are missing, we close the lodges - but this has only happened twice in 33 years."
The only things he finds difficult are issues he can't control himself. One of his two lodges in the Bahamas - Abaco - was completely destroyed on September 1, 2019, when Hurricane Dorian devastated Great Abaco Island. Although the building was insured, the employees lost their jobs. Fernando immediately initiated an aid programme for the affected families, made donations himself and also called on his guests to do so. In the process, a low six-figure US dollar sum was raised. In October 2019 he was on site: "We do not know yet whether we can and want to rebuild the lodge. It looks terrible there. Everything, really everything was destroyed."
The fact that in the same month the liberal-conservative president of Argentina was voted out of office and his country is now - once again - threatened with hyperinflation and national bankruptcy, on the other hand, hardly weighs on him. After all, almost all customers come from abroad and pay in hard currency. "We have become accustomed to the crises at home."
He's obviously at peace with himself, this Fernando de las Carreras. Mother Jacqueline is now 83 years old. Her life is her grandchildren and her foundation that helps handicapped people get jobs. Fernando's daughters are eleven and 13 - still too young to introduce them to the company. "I don't know if they will be dancers or doctors one day. If they don't like what I give them, they can sell Nervous Waters. Well, I myself will definitely not sell unless I'm forced to."
Then he tosses his fly. On the Rio Grande, where it all began with a little shack. Where the wind sometimes blows so hard that the doors of his land cruisers, which take guests to the river, are torn out of their moorings. "I love this feeling when the line disappears in the water. Any second I can hook a world record fish here. The surprise, the adrenaline rushing into your body - that's what life is all about, right?" ®
Author: Dr. Günter Kast