Backpacking the Forks of the Kern River Trail

July 24-27, 2014

There are very few positives to California’s worst drought and water shortage in over 100 years. One of them is the spectacular fly fishing on one of, if not the wildest and most dangerous rivers in California: The Kern. When the Upper Kern River is low it can be waded; and there are a lot less places where a fish can hide from a good cast. Like I told my son Mark, “This is a very technical river to fish, but if you know how to read the water, it does reward a good cast.” Let’s be clear: I am a fly fisherman who backpacks; not the other way around. So, excited, me, my 19 year old son Mark, and his two buddies, Shane and Taylor dawned the backpacks for 3 nights of primitive camping and 3 days of fly fishing above the fork of the Upper Kern and the Little Kern Rivers. This was a special trip not just because I knew the fishing would be good. But, because this was my last shot at quality time with my son before he headed off to college in Bozeman, MT and Kelly and I become empty nesters.

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The Fork of the Kern is a reverse hike; meaning you go downhill when you are heavy (full with food) and back up the 800 feet of the canyon when you hike out. And it’s physical….very physical. This hike is not for the faint of heart. The temperature can be brutal and when you combo that with the altitude and the relatively treacherous trail it’s right up there with the hardest hikes in the sierras.

And let me tell you, the Kern was low… easily 4 to 5 feet lower than normal for July. My guess is that it was 1/3rd of its normal flow for that time of year.

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When you fly fish as often as I do, and still have stretches where you get skunked you just get that feeling like the lord owes you one. Well, in Lake Tahoe the weekend before on a little hike in the desolation wilderness with the huckaby clan I tried a few casts in Echo Lake: nothing. I didn’t even see fish. Then on the way to backpacking from tahoe, Mark and I tried one of the blue ribbon stretches of the Truckee River near the Truckee Bridge for a couple hours: nothing. We slept in the back of my truck Wednesday night before hiking the forks hike at the Johnsondale Bridge parking lot. While waiting for Shane and Taylor to show up Thursday morning I fished the kern about a mile above the bridge (20 miles short of our hiking destination) for 30 minutes….nothing. So, we headed to the Forks of the Kern Trailhead with me thinking, “the fishing is going to be good and the Lord owes me one.”

We set out for the journey from the Kern Fork Trailhead late morning and made it to our favorite primitive site to camp in record time: well under 1.5 hours. The first thing I noticed was just how low the river really is….at least 5 feet lower than normal… that has to be 50,000 CFS lower than normal. The great thing about our favorite site is that it is a great stretch for fishing…especially rich in risers. Unfortunately, it’s normally not crossable for a mile in either direction at this spot and it’s an impossible cast from the camp site to where the risers are. My first thought was I can cross the river and turn an impossible 75 foot reach cast that has to clear a 5 foot space between two trees behind me into a simple 15 foot roll cast upstream from the other side of the river. Now I was really excited!

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The boys were wrecked, though. I had been training by running and mountain biking for 6 weeks in advance. Let’s just say drinking beer and chasing skirts were more of a priority for the boys leading up to this trip than getting in shape. So, I set up my tent quickly, rigged my Sage ZXL 5wt quickly and hit the river while they relaxed. It was mid-day, clear and hot, though; the exact wrong time to fish. I didn’t care. And Within 30 minutes I had over ten strikes on my huck-hopper on top. Within two hours I had close to 20 fish landed and released. I was right. It was good; really good.

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So, for the next 2 and a half days I fished…and the action never stopped. I never fished a good run where I didn’t get at least one strike. I fished dries or huck-hopper-dropper the entire time. And with the river so low I never had to hike more than a hundred yards to the next good run. Typically it was about 100 feet between runs. I am not much of a fish counter, but my guess is 30+ fish landed every day with about 50+ strikes; All Kern River Rainbows with some hybrid goldens mixed in. Half of the fish went over 14” all the way to 20”. I failed to land a few above 20”. Some of the battles went forever with me chasing fish down river. I was even getting them on the swing. And if you are a fly fisherman and get fish on the swing you know that every once in a while you catch fish accidently as you start your cast…. The fishing was so ridiculously good I even started picking flies out of the box I was sure wouldn’t work. And the bigger the fly I dropped, the better the fishing got. In one 3 hour stretch I dropped the biggest most nonrealistic stone fly nymph imitation I have ever seen…and it killed.

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Highlights:

· I had my fly rod ripped out of my hand on one of the most vicious strikes I have ever received. I have only had that happen once before, in Gates of the Mountain, Montana during the spawn. Unfortunately, if you lose pressure on a Kern River Rainbow, you are going to lose the fish…which I did. My guess was one of those 24”s the kern is famous for. It was on the swing so there was tension on the line. I panicked and practically dove in the river after my rod.

· We ate a couple trout. After days of powerbar like backpacking food it’s hard not to. I’m not a trout eater… I even catch and release salmon. So, on this trip I pack in a little white wine, olive oil and lemon juice and do it right. And the teenagers love it.

· I had so many epic battles won and lost I can’t even list them all. The one I remember the most ended in me saying to myself, “my god, that is the most aggressive 12” fish I have ever battled.” That little fish took me a hundred feet up stream and then 100 feet downstream. It included 3 separate shamu like jumps before I brought him to hand.
The 2nd one I remember the most is going to haunt me for a while. It was a 20”+ fish that jumped ten feet in the air. What are you taught when a trout jumps? To lower the rod and release tension. I did not. It shook its head violently in the air and snapped me off (5x). I looked at Mark, shook my head and said, “That was completely my fault.”

· My top highlight was not even me. On the last night as the sun started to go down the risers started at the site. My son Mark got up and started fishing the rise with his rod. I got up and asked him what he was dropping, and he said nothing; that it broke off earlier. I said, “Take my rod; it’s rigged. And let’s go up stream a couple hundred feet under the trees. So just Mark and me. father and son headed to fish alone. I carried a cup of JD and he carried my fly rod. We bushwhacked through the heavily overgrown stretch, guarded by trees on both sides. I said like I always do when guiding him: “What do you see?” He said, “I see two good runs with two separate seams.” “Yep.” I said. “You also see it guarded by overhanging trees on both sides and water too dangerous to wade so you’ll have to sidearm roll cast it under the trees.” First cast, whack! Miss. I don’t think he was ready for a vicious take on top. Second cast, Whack! This time on the stonefly nymph dropper. 10” brought to hand quickly and released quickly by Mark. A few casts later, Whack! This time it’s a big fish. I looked at his face and I could tell. Nothing was said as he fought the fish for an eternity until I said, “if he gets any farther down river you are going to have to chase him.” That fish ran again down river, shook his head and he was off. We both laughed. Sometimes losing a fish is as fun as landing them. He took a few more casts and caught and landed another 12” fish. By this time it was dark. 20 minutes, 4 takes, 2 landed. We walked back to camp and I said, “My god you have become a good fisherman. And man am I going to miss you.” He said nothing; which meant everything.

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As I hiked out with the boys I tried to think if I ever had a better 3 day stretch of fishing in my relatively short, decade long fly fishing obsession. Certainly my trips in Montana measured up in terms of quality and quantities of fish…but many times that was guided on drift boat flinging the bobber….just not the same as hunting wild fish wading on a technically difficult river. And there was the many October trips in float tubes in Lake Crowley. But, lake fish don’t fight as hard as river fish and stripping streamers just is not as technical or difficult for that matter. So, yea, this probably was the best 3 day stretch of fly fishing I have ever had. Of course having my son Mark with me, just a few weeks short of him moving out of the house and off to college weighed in heavily on that conclusion too.

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