I learned to fly fish when I lived in Cody, Wyoming, known as the Rodeo Capital of the World. The Cody Stampede in July and the Cody Night Rodeo all summer long have entertained tourists and locals since the days of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
My friend Rich Lindsey taught me to cast a fly rod my first summer there in 1980. One day, I was casting a fly into a puddle in my driveway for practice when a driver stopped to laugh and ask if I was catching anything. A few weeks later I actually caught my first trout on a fly in a small lake in the Bighorn Mountains. It wasn’t long before I was landing cutthroats and rainbow trout on rivers and creeks in the Shoshone National Forest, in the Beartooth Mountains, and while floating the Snake River in Jackson.
Some 40 years later, I’ve fly fished from Utah to Labrador to the Caribbean. And, of course, every June I fish with the Boys of the Grant at the confluence of the Swift and Dead Diamond Rivers in northern New Hampshire.
Until this trip, I had never traveled to South America. Patagonia has long been on my “someday-maybe” list of exotic places to fish. So, when Ed Baldrige started organizing the trip and a few of the Boys signed on, I knew it was opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Fly fishing in the pampas, the land of cattle and gauchos, offered the chance to rope in some big fish that buck like broncos if they don’t throw your fly in eight seconds or less. Someone commented that Patagonia is like Wyoming on steroids, without the people. I was ready to saddle up for a special fishing adventure.
But I didn’t expect to see an actual rodeo.
My brother-in-law, Eddie Mrozik, has been around horses all his life. He worked at Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks on Long Island in his younger days. When he met my younger sister, Nancy, they embarked on a laudable mission rescuing and rehabilitating horses suffering from abuse, injury or abandonment. In 2002, they co-founded Crane Mountain Valley Horse Rescue, now located in Westport, NY where they care for up to 20 or more horses, seeking to adopt their charges out to forever homes.
For Eddie, the trip to Patagonia would be his first time fly fishing since he was 10 years old. He’s been an avid fisherman all his life, an expert with spinning gear in lakes, rivers and the coastal waters. He too has fished all across the U.S. from New England to New Mexico, so he knows as much about rivers and trout as anyone. Eddie had long dreamed of a trip to an exotic place like Patagonia, but running a horse farm doesn’t allow for many days off.
At Thanksgiving, I mentioned we were looking for one more person for our group of eight. I didn’t see Eddie’s eyes light up, but Nancy must have. She quickly volunteered that Eddie would love to join us, noting that the barn manager they hired a while back could manage affairs while Eddie took his first vacation in 20 years.
I contacted Ed Baldrige to tell him we had an enthusiastic recruit, and then called to let Nancy and Eddie know he was confirmed. When we started discussing what gear to bring, I was surprised to learn that Eddie didn’t own a fly rod. I knew then, and he surely knew, that he would have some work to do to get his casting and fly presentation up to snuff for the challenging Patagonia conditions, including the persistent winds out of the Andes.
In February, my daughter, Rosa, visited Eddie and Nancy at their farm. She texted me: “Uncle Eddie has been working so hard to practice his casting and study everything there is about the place you are going. He’s quite impressive.” I heard later that traffic would stop on the highway in front of their house when he was out casting in their snowy, windy yard. It sounded like he’d do just fine.
When Eddie and I met up in the airport in Buenos Aires, we walked past an ad for a dude ranch in the pampas. I suggested that perhaps Eddie might have a chance to ride a horse during our trip. He laughed, “Hey man! I’m on va-CAY-shun! I don’t want to SEE a horse, SMELL a horse, or STEP in any horseshit!”
And so we were both surprised when our host and guides at the lodge suggested we go see the local rodeo. “Usually it’s in January, but it got postponed this year. It’s not too fancy, but it’s a big weekend for the local folks.” We could hear the PA announcer chattering in Spanish from the lodge. The rodeo ring was about a mile away.
We hopped back in the truck and drove down the dusty dirt road. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon. At the bottom of a hill was a grassy park with grandstands, a band stand, and a rough rail fence surrounding a ring 100 meters in diameter. The sign above the bandstand read "XXI Fiesta Provincial de la Cordillera."
Horses were gathered off to a far corner, many of them saddled. Gauchos in colorful, traditional outfits and stylish berets periodically rode across the ring and back. A teenage boy, with jet black hair under a maroon beret, showed his skills by galloping a black horse that matched his hair full tilt across the arena and parading around the perimeter. A young woman cantered her mount in figure-eights.
Eddie commented on the beautiful horses, noting that “all the livestock I’ve seen down here are really well cared for, even the sheep. These people love their animals.” Then he pointed out one horse, “get a picture of that roan with the white face. Nancy will love it.”
None in our group spoke Spanish, so we had to ask one of the guides what was going on. There was a break in the action because one of the rodeo riders had been injured. The saddle bronc riding would resume in a while. In the meantime, we soaked in the sights and sounds of the gaucho culture.
A young girl, maybe eight or nine years old, was rocking some cool riding boots and a white crotched wool beret with Rio Pico lettered in red. I gestured to ask her if I could take her picture and she nodded, then climbed on the fence to pose for a few shots. Then she climbed into the saddle on a big silver mare and rode expertly in circles among the shade trees.
The announcer called for the opening ceremony to begin. A color guard gathered near the bandstand and the Argentinian national anthem blared from the speakers. (It’s a long one; nearly three minutes.) And then the bronco riders returned to action.
We drank a few beers and ate some snacks brought along by the guides while we watched several courageous riders and feisty horses make the best of their moments in the sun. Before long it was time for dinner. A few of the guys walked back to the lodge, while Eddie and I rode back in the truck.
This wasn’t my first rodeo. It wasn’t the fanciest of events, but it was authentic and sincere. The eight of us were treated to an unadulterated expression of life on the pampas, by the people for the people. It was a reminder that we were visitors, not tourists.
Tomorrow the fishing would start. It would be a big day for all of us. From a fly fishing perspective, this would indeed be Eddie's first rodeo; he'd never caught a trout with a fly rod. He'd have plenty of opportunities in the week to come. Despite his comment at the airport, Eddie enjoyed the horses: "hey, it's nice that I don't have to take care of them." And, fortunately, we all avoided stepping in horseshit.
At dinner we all agreed that our afternoon at the rodeo was an excellent way to start our trip. Time now to go fishing.