Backpacking to the headwaters of the Little Kern River – Failed

May 14, 2020

I have failed my mission into the golden trout wilderness to fly fish the headwaters of the Little Kern River.  I’m home; I’m supposed to be in the wilderness fly fishing.  Yesterday turned into 2 separate 5 hour drives to and from the trailhead, plus a brutal, miserable, & frustrating 5 mile out and back hike at 8000 feet with 45 pounds on my back.  Once it got too hairy, I did the safe thing and turned back.

normally i wouldn’t take a picture of a simple bear print.  i see so many.  but, this one was so fresh and so big.  It meant the bear was really close and with 20 feet of visibility in the fog it put me on high alert

My mission was to find a place that was backpackable within 5 miles to fly fishing that still fished well during the runoff stretch March to July when the Upper Kern river was too blown out to be fishable.  A place that I could lead many beginner backpackers and beginner fly fishermen/women that would reduce the misery of backpacking and enhance the fun of fly fishing.  I talked to many experts about it and the Headwaters / upper stretch of the Little Kern River seemed perfect.  Couple that with a variety of tributaries of the Little Kern in the area that supported an abundance of one of the most concentrated species in the world, the Little Kern Golden Trout.   And finally a place that during the pandemic was legal to hike into and fly fish (unlike the entire eastern side of the sierras).

I had planned this trip for weeks.  I studied maps and satellite images for weeks.  I had been looking forward to this.  This quarantine thing is killing me.  And it’s killing my wife kelly that I’m home 24/7.  I have travelled hard for 20+ years of my career.  This year was going to be my 2 million mile milestone on United.  I just don’t have the personality to handle the monotony of doing the same thing every day.  It’s like I’m stuck in the movie groundhog day.  Although I have been getting out and hiking, mountain biking and running the Carlsbad open space hills for weeks getting in shape, it is not enough.   Work is stressful; that is why they call it work.  The virus has acerbated the behavior of some of the people I work with.  It’s hard for me because one of the few genes I got from God (along with good teeth) is being able to manage stress….well, at least I think I do better than most under stress.

But… the dirt roads to the trailheads are still closed for the winter.  Each year the western divide ranger district has the herculean task of clearing the roads from fallen trees, rocks and other debris that just happens as a byproduct of the erosion of melting snow and winter storms.  Well, that and the damage that the pine beetle does to the trees.  It’s not like the State of California is wildly funding these efforts.  Over the last 20 years we have seen a shrinking of budget to the point where we can’t even keep our trail markers and signs intact.  And the lack of care (ie: budget) for the California wilderness is a true shame. That is a key part to this story.

So, I was not able to drive to the trailhead I actually wanted to try and explore.  Because the roads are not open yet.  So, my plan was a 6-7 mile trek (on the summit trail) to the actual trailhead I wanted to take (Clicks Creek) to the headwaters of the little kern river.  The total hike looked like around 12 miles and my plan was to break that up in 4 segments (2 hikes out and 2 hikes back; breaking camp each day and hiking in the mornings).

Here’s what happened:

As I drove up the Tule river on 190 (Porterville) it went from hot and sunny, to overcast, to rain… by the time I got to the trailhead around 7500 feet…which was not that easy to find, it was completely fogged in, lightly raining and 42 degrees at 1:30PM.  Leading up to the trip, I had watched the weather like a hawk.  It was supposed to be hot and sunny for 3 straight days.  The satellite image over the area was totally clear that morning as it had been for a week, lacking any form of clouds.  My worry on this trip was mosquitos…not snow or rain or visibility.  I did not pack any of my cold weather backpacking stuff, short of a down vest.  But, since I drove all the way out there 5 hours, planned for weeks, I set out anyways.  I had 6.5 miles to hike in the first day to make it to the Clicks Creek trailhead.  At the trailhead or a few miles down the trailhead, I was told there was fishable water for the little kern golden trout so that wouldn’t have been a bummer to fish the evening hatch, then camp for a single night.  Remember, the only reason I was doing this summit trail hike was because the road in was closed which prevented me from just driving dirt roads to the actual 4.2 mile trail I wanted to take.

My first heads up of concern: The trail marker at the road was unreadable and weathered.  I knew I was in the right place from the GPS in my truck.  But, the trail itself was barely distinguishable.   and it was cold.  The first mile of the trail is switchbacks, very steep up hill, much brutal than the forks at points.  And I was at altitude and even though I had worked hard getting in shape for months I was definitely huffing and puffing.  I had talked to a few experts and got a tremendous amount of help from “Steven Ojai” and others.  I was told I wouldn’t be alone on that stretch of the trail; that it was very popular.  I was alone.  Alone not only because of the weather I learned as I kept hiking.  I was told I’d see mountain bikers.  And there was no way a mountain bike had been there for 6 months.  The trail was filled with deadfall, fallen trees and branches, etc.  there were no human footprints.  And it was really steep.  I was the first of the season on that trail for sure.  The real concern/bummer was that I could not see more than 10 feet at times it was so fogged in.  I was told it is a beautiful part of the sierras, with giant sequoias everywhere…but, I couldn’t seem them.  Plus, it was hard enough just staying on the trail it was in such bad shape: I had to keep my head down.  Every once in a while I could see a set of horse tracks going the other way…that looked to be a couple weeks old.  That kept me encouraged.  But, zero signs of any other human being on that trail for months.  Hmmm…

uhhhh… Am i supposed to march through that?  is that the trail?

I knew what was ahead of me… a north bound trail, but, a winding trail for miles of N, S, E and west turns as it navigated over and down mountains and around marshes and meadows.   I knew I’d have to reference my maps and GPS.  So, I was a little concerned.  But there was always going to be a dirt road generally close to the trail.  And I had my Garmin InReach 66i; a handheld gps with txting ability.  And I had printed maps at a resolution with enough detail that I had confidence.

I got to the top of the switchbacks huffing and puffing.  Then the trail headed basically headed straight down hill on the other side of the mountain.  After 1.35 miles the trail intersected a dirt road and ended.  I stared at my gps and the maps and couldn’t figure out where I was.  This dirt road wasn’t on my gps so I speculated it could have been one of 2 places on the paper maps.  But, the mileage was off from my paper maps….as if it was not on my paper maps.  So, I had to assume the dirt road was the trail.  But I had to guess at which way to go…west or east because it did not match anything I had on the maps.  I went west. ½ mile later I figured out that I guessed wrong.  That turned into a half mile long detour on a road that ended into a temporary horse coral with no trail continuing in any direction…especially north where I was ultimately headed.  I stared at the map again and the gps and just couldn’t figure it out.  It didn’t match to what I saw on the maps.  The gps has a tiny screen and it’s hard to navigate with simply by staring at it’s topo map.

here’s an example of the visibility…and this is on a road!

So, I went the other way backtracking the ½ mile on the road.  And other ½ towards the east there was a trailmarker off the side of the road headed north.  but it was badly weathered and not distinguishable so what trail it was, who knows?  I  said to myself, “this has to be it.  But, if I have to continue getting lost and losing the trail this is going to be a long day and I might not make it to my destination by dark.”  I took it for a mile and it was very steep downhill.  It ended up in a marsh/meadow.  At this point the trail was almost impossible to follow.  It would disappear and reappear 100 feet later, but I could only see around 20 feet so I ended up wandering in an 180 degree circle while bushwhacking trying to find the trail.  I lost the trail a bunch of times like this…wasting more time and getting more frustrated.  Around 2.75 total miles (which included all the lost detours so I was in the middle of the wilderness, but still fairly close to my truck) it seemed like the trail crossed this marsh / meadow to the other side.  But, I couldn’t tell.  I couldn’t see and I couldn’t imagine a trail going through a foot of water and the sinking mud that might go with it.  It appeared something had crossed fairly recently but it wasn’t a human.  At points it seemed to be a foot of water or deeper.  And it was so foggy I could barely see across.  I managed to get across hopping fallen trees and such.  But, my boots were wet for sure now.  That was much better than sinking into mud to my waste and dying of hypothermia not being to get out….  On the other side it kind of looked like trail, but it dead-ended into bush on two sides and foot deep of water marsh on the other.  If I could see, I would have bush wacked to try to find the trail.  But, I couldn’t see farther than 20 feet so it wasn’t like I could look far ahead for trail.  The bushwhacking literally looked like dense forest.  I stared at my gps and could see a dirt road fairly close, but there was no way to get to it without one hell of a bushwhack or trek through marsh.  And I was not convinced it was North road; the road that was closed that ultimately I’ll just drive to the Clicks Trailhead with.

Realize I’m getting close to 2 hours of hiking and although I have 4 more hours before the sun goes down I am worried about losing time.  I’m way way off the 18-20 minute per mile pace I’m used to.  This was going to be a two hour hike of 6-7 miles and close to 2 hours and I have only gone around 2 miles.  So I wandered the edge of the marsh for 30 yards or so in water/mud bushwhacking against the trees trying to find the trail.  That is when I looked down.  My foot was right next to a very fresh large black bear print.  Since it was drizzling it was easy to see that the print was very fresh.  It was in mud with water all around it; yet the paw prints were not filled with water yet.  A max of 10 minutes fresh.  I could hear things in the woods on my trek but, I couldn’t tell if it was just the wind, rain, or bears.  Black bears don’t scare me.  I have had tons of encounters with them.  They are not typically attackers like the grizzly unless they are startled or threatened.  I had bear spray with me.  I know how to be “loud” on the trail so they scatter long before you see them.  But, with so little visibility and the loudness of the rain and wind, it would have been impossible not to startle them or them startle me.  Startling a bear scares me.  I had heard animals in the woods the entire way as I hiked.  I just couldn’t see them.  I assumed deer.  But, now with that print I knew at least one big black bear, just out of hibernation was close.  I did the “hey bear!  Hey bear!” thing.

Then I contemplated…  Dejected, I said to myself, “That’s it.  I’m calling it.  I’m already an hour behind and I’m not even sure I’m on the right trail to start with.”  I hiked that  brutal ~2 miles back to my truck discouraged with the realization of my failure.  “Doing the safe thing” just didn’t console me.  I didn’t treat myself to the delicious beer that was waiting for me because I felt like I didn’t earn it.  At my truck, I contemplated my options.  I could wait out the storm.  But, it was only 4pm.  But, that meant waiting 4 hours for the sun to go down with nothing to read, see, etc.  It meant eating backpacking food off a highway in the rain.  then sleeping in the back of my truck.  I was not close to cell signal nor a hotel.  So, I just sucked it up.  Accepted my failure and drove 5 hours back home.  I could have waited out the weather.  But, I would have lost a day meaning a 12 mile hike to my ultimate destination…on a trail I could barely follow.

In hindsight…if I had prepared to do it, I should have just hiked the closed road.  Next year I’ll do that.   It would have been another 2 miles making it a 7-8 mile first day to the trailhead.  But, seemingly easy to follow.  But, since I lost so much of the day that was no longer an alternative.  This was supposed to be a fishing trip not an hiking / adventure / survival trip to find a fairly easy 4-5 mile hike to the Little Kern River for others.  losing a day with the thought of either trying to navigate that trail again in the morning….or to alternately hiking a road for many extra miles to the real trailhead I wanted to get to.  Turning a total 12 miler into a 18 miler with only two days to cover it.  That would be a lot more hiking than fly fishing which I was not up for.

I’m bummed.  But, it was the safe thing to do.  I knew the weather was supposed to be good.  In fact, today, the next morning I can see it is sunny and beautiful there like it’s supposed to be.  I hit one of those freak sierras storms that just appear from nowhere.  I also just noticed from Mountain Bike bill’s website in his notes of mountain biking the area that he makes a number of comments about how badly the trails are marked.  In addition to my Garmin InReach 66i satellite tracker I was wearing my Garmin 735 watch.  It’s not really so good for real time, but it does have a 2” resolution, so after downloading you can see your actual treks with amazing accuracy.  So, I can see that was I standing right on the trail.  But, I just couldn’t figure that out because it was so overgrown.  I can see that I was not supposed to cut across that marsh.  The trail actually goes around it.  There were a number of fallen decaying trees that just made that route look impossible.  So, I just took a fairly dangerous (because of the water / mud) short cut across it.  I can also see that I was just 300 yards from north road…that closed road that ultimately gets you to the trailhead.  It’s just that it would have been the most awful, brutal bushwhack through dense forest and fallen trees to get to that road.  I didn’t see any way to do it even without the backpack on.

this is an example of good visibility: because at least i can follow the road.

Ironically I insisted on doing that trek alone.  I have lots of fishing buddies that wanted to join me, but, like me they hike to fish… they don’t hike for hiking sake.  I wanted to figure it out before I subject anyone to any undue backpacking suffering.  I just knew these guys (and gals) were not up for a 6-7 mile trek just to get to the trailhead that went to fishing…and the misery and anxiety that went with a place or trail I have never been to before.  I knew it would be physical and anticipated frustration.  So, it was a blessing not having anyone with me on this failed hike.

I’m not giving up, of course.  My new plan is to simply wait until early June…just a few weeks for the roads to open.  Then I’ll drive that dirt road to the actually clicks creek trailhead and do the supposedly moderate 4.2 mile hike to the little kern river.

I can’t say I don’t have regrets.  I do have regrets.  But, when backpacking alone you have to be smart and savvy.  You have to deal with calamity.  You have to make tough decisions which end up being safe. Sometimes “safe” is the opposite of fun.

Upper Kern River – Johnsondale Bridge Trail

April 3-5, 2020

A big Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 grey Huck Hopper Hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, the COVID-19 work at home thing is killing me.  let’s just say in addition to the stir crazy I was stepping all over my wife’s (of 31 years) toes.   I travel a lot in my job and have for over 20 years.  So, because i have been home full time for weeks, my lovely bride of 31 years is ready to kill me.  My wife is not used to me in her castle.

As for the stir crazy…. well, it boiled over last week for me.  Being home 24/7 for a guy that constantly travels in his job and loves talking in person to engineers… I couldn’t take it anymore.

So, I backpacked the johnsondale bridge (JBD) trail and camped for 2 nights on the upper kern.  I called the Western Divide Ranger district before going and short of verifying my 2020 CA fire permit and the social distancing advice I got, they were totally supportive.  The JDB trailhead is about 20 miles downriver of the forks trail crossing of the little Kern River above the confluence of the Little Kern River and the main fork of the Kern.   The JDB trail has a lot easier to access on right on mountain road 99 just 15 miles north of kernville.  I really wasn’t worried about social distancing on that trail.  And I was right.  I hardly saw any humans for 3 straight days.

The contrast in the JDB trail and the Forks trail is significant: The JDB trail is pretty flat with very little elevation gain or loss.  but, unlike the Forks trail which is mostly dirt, the JDB trail is a lot rockier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best thing about this trip, though, was meeting up with a couple young fly fisherman who found me through this site.   These two, Jason Headley and Joey Castellanos are over 20 years younger than I am.  And because of meeting them I am no longer convinced the generation below me is doomed and going to destroy the world because of their lack of interest and experience and knowledge of the wilderness.   Because of these two, I have hope for humanity after I’m long gone.   I’m used to teaching kids about the wilderness.  These guys taught me things!   Do you know how to identify a Jeffries Pine and that it smells like vanilla?  I do now thanks to them… and now I am motivated and have already started learning about the native pine trees of the sierra Nevada mountain range of California.  These guys joy of wilderness, and their joy of the fly-fishing experience and their positive attitudes was intoxicating.  It made me rethink the way I have taken some of the fly-fishing experience for granted.

One of the great things about the Upper Kern River is that the crystal clear water sometimes allows you to spot fish.

We txt’d on my way up so I knew they had a couple hours of start on me.  For some reason, I was skeptical I’d actually run into them while hiking.  The trail is rugged, wild and gets away from the river in spots.  But without seeing a single soul I ran into them in a primitive site right off the trail just 2.5 miles upriver.

Another Big Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 Huck Hopper hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I initiated the discussion about the virus immediately.  I’m a traveler and have been in airplanes just ~4 weeks ago.  So, with social distancing in mind we agreed to camp next to each other, but, 150 feet apart.  Clearly you cannot get close fly fishing together.  On the trail we kept the proper distance and even at the campfire we were separated appropriately.  We did the cleanse hands thing with any food we shared.

Interestingly enough, I had only backpacked and camped on the JDB trail once before.  A few years back.  It was the first time I ever backpacked alone.  And this was the exact same primitive spot.  I knew the run in front of it was a great spot to fish.  But, I didn’t want to get any expectations up with Jason and Joey because I wasn’t so sure the river would fish well so early in the season.  So, we started to set up camp, geared up and commenced to fish right in front of the site.  I hooked up on a dry fly on my 2nd cast….hmmm…  we continued to hammer the stretch of river right in front of the site and we all did well.  Hmmmm….

Joey And Jason- lifelong buddies and fly fishermen:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We leap frogged each other for the rest of the day.  I tend to move quickly….to my discredit… I’ll do about a max of 20 drifts and move.  So I got way ahead of Jason and Joey at times.  Not a problem.  I just didn’t want to worry them.  We did well that first day.  By the end of the day I reflected that I fished dry flies all day long.  There never was a reason to switch to nymphing.  There were bugs and rises all day long.  Caddis first, then a pretty epic mayfly hatch.  Midges were around all day.  There were scattered huge (like size 14) mayflies that appeared to be drakes.  Those Kern River rainbows really keyed on them.  I did not have anything to match that big bug and it really didn’t matter.  My hook to land ratio at the end of the day was pretty bad.   In the Upper Kern I am happy with a 50/50.  That was not the case this day.  I hooked a lot of fish.  I only landed very few.  Tiny barbless dries and those native and wild Kern River rainbows are just a bad combo for landing even for the experienced.  No big deal with me.  I want them to shake off at my feet and not have to touch them anyways.

Icicles do not make for a pleasurable “sun shower”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, we got back to camp by nightfall, and it got cold quickly.  The campfire helped. We feasted on fresh food.  I hiked in a pork steak and they had a deer tenderloin.  After eating plus of few sips of JD, I was exhausted so I hit the sleeping bag early like usual.  I woke up a number of times during the night like usual.  My broken down old body just doesn’t relieve me of pain when I sleep on the ground.  So, I knew it got cold.  I just didn’t realize how cold. In the morning there were icicles on my sun shower.

This huge frog was sitting in pocket water. it’s hard to imagine it surviving the winter in that cold water while at the same time surviving brown trout attacks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2, Saturday.  This was going to be a big day.  A full day of fishing.  I suggested to the guys that we hike to where we stopped fishing the day before and start fishing up stream from there.  They loved that idea.

By the end of the day we made it so far…so many miles upriver….to places I have never been before.  In staring at what my Garmin InReach 66i tracked me doing it looks like we made is almost 6 miles upriver from the JDB.  Amazingly beautiful stretches of river.  What is tantalizing is that the trail goes 11 miles.

Who knew?!  the Huck Hopper still got a ton of takes even though in April we are months away from the grasshoppers appearing

We all caught fish all day long and I mostly fished dries.  It was a great day.  Very physical.  25,000+ steps; many of which were climbing or fighting current.  We ate and the guys hiked out at sundown.  I was on my own now.  After warming up to the fire I put it out, then hit the sack early.  It didn’t seem as cold.  At 2am I figured out why.  It started raining.  There’s nothing worse than camping in the rain.  By the time I got out of the sack in the morning it was still drizzling.  This put the kabosh on another day of fishing.  I just wasn’t up for 40 degrees and raining knowing that would have squashed the hatches.  Still happy, I packed up camp first thing in the morning and hiked out in the light rain.  Then drove home, plowing through LA with zero traffic because of covid-19 and everyone working at home.

Hey, Jason took a picture of me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have written many times before that there are always calamities in backpacking.  And that backpacking is about managing calamities.  Well, I had my share this time.

Calamities:

  1. When I put my 6 weight Winston b2X together the lower section folded in half, broken. It wasn’t from the backpack in.  that is for sure.  My guess is TSA broke another one of my rods.  It’s not the first time it has happened.  They see the graphite in the metal detector and take the rod out of it’s sheath and case.  And they never put them back correctly.  I was in montana fishing just 3 weeks prior and that is undoubtedly what happened.  Unfortunately, Winston, although they make awesome rods, is not one of those fly fishing companies with awesome customer service nor warranties.  It costs $150 to fix that rod.  New ones list at $900 so it’s a tough choice to get it fixed.  It’s not the first time I have broken that rod.
  2. My garmin inReach 66i failed again… I didn’t send messages. It has not worked right ever since I purchased it 6 months ago.  It’s a drag because my delorme inReach worked for about 10 years flawlessly.  It still does.  I have been through 3 bouts of technical support with garmin.  It sure looks like the device itself is the issue.  I sure hope I can talk their tech support into replacing the device; even if I do have to pay a fee.  Because many times already I have stress out my wife, kids and friends telling them they can communicate with me while in the wilderness and I’m dead silent in return because the device has never worked well.
  3. My truck was broken into while I was in the wilderness. Right in the Johnsondale Bridge parking lot.   That is a real bummer.  The stretch of river from Kernville to a few miles out of town is well known for car break ins.  Like many small mountain towns, Kernville has its drug related issues too.  The bad guys pulled the back window on the shell of my truck, locked, hard enough to where it bent and popped open.  I have had bears do that twice to me (hilarious stories in themselves), but never by humans.  Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the back of the truck.  They stole my arctic 7 day cooler. It’s a yeti knockoff; but still expensive.  The cooler had 2 Coors lights in it.  They also stole an empty fly rod tube.  There was no damage to my truck.  So, the loss was minimal.  It just kinda’ sucks….honestly makes me feel badly for people who feel the desperate need to do things like that.

Jason in release

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When all was said and done, I did not see another fly fisherman other than Jason and Joey the entire time Friday to Sunday.   I did run into a couple really cranky old guy spin fisherman on a day hike.  It was 30 minutes later when I found out why.  As I waded up stream I ran into a huge kern river rainbow resting on the bank in 3 inches of water.  He had a huge mepps lure with the treble hook hanging out of the side of his face.  I sure wish he would have let me pull that out of his face.  Even with those barbs, that hook will disintegrate after a few days and work it’s way free.

Jason in battle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t excellent or great fishing, but it was good.  I fished dry 90 percent of the time and hooked a lot of fish.  When I did switch to nymphing, twice, I immediately stopped because the rises started again.  I tried a streamer once for 10 minutes in a deep pool and failed.  I switched back to dries and had success in the very same pool.  There were really good mayfly hatches in the afternoons; midges all day.   Even 7am rises.  Really fun.  I will now plan at least one trip up the JDB trail each spring before runoff forever.  The key is hiking in as far as possible up stream.  The River has already started its runoff period so my next chance in there will be on the forks trail mid-summer when it gets back under 500 CFS.

Here is the current river conditions as of this writing (April, 2020):

https://www.dreamflows.com/graphs/yir.681.php

Notice how the river is way way under the beginning of runoff even in the drought years.   Since we had a normal snowpack year that tells me we are going to get a herculean jump in river flow in May which will provide very dangerous conditions.  They call it the Killer Kern for a reason.  I always wonder if the river can get to 20,000 CFS putting the bridge in Kernville in jeopardy.  I’ll be watching that river like a hawk…and dreaming of getting back in there in the summer.

March in Montana

Montana, March 7-9, 2020

 

I used an excuse to pick up some fly-fishing equipment I had ordered to go visit my son Mark in Montana. When I saw the long weekend airplane flight of $250 I grabbed it.   The plan was to fly into Bozeman. Fish DIY with my son and his buddies, then make the drive to the Clark Fork River Outpost to fish with my buddy Mike Hillygus. Then fly home from Missoula.

March 6th To get the cheap airfare I had to fly out of Ontario International airport. It’s an awesome little airport, but 90 minutes from where I live in Carlsbad. Well, I got to Denver just fine, but my incoming plan was delayed 6 hours out of Newark. So, I had to spend the day in the Denver Airport and missed the opportunity to fish the Gallatin with my son. He worked that night, but I did get to take his roommates out for dinner at Montana Ale Works (my favorite restaurant in Bozeman).

Mark Huckaby with a big rainbow in spawning colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 7th With Mark on 3 hours of sleep because of work, we were joined by Mark’s Roommates: Burnsie, Bovoso, Jacob & Carter. And we were joined by legendary Cuban Fishing Guide, William, who is credited as one of the 2 guys that invented the Avalon Permit fly. We headed East on the 90 toward Livingston. then we followed the Yellowstone River South, upriver, towards the park and into the Paradise Valley. We had rod reservations at the Spring Creek at Armstong’s ranch (directly upstream from Dupuy’s). I love fishing the spring creeks of the Yellowstone River and if you catch the timing right, it can be epic. The boys got a 30-minute jump on me because I had a couple conference calls. By the time I caught up with them I expected them to be doing well and they were not. I fished dries mostly all day with a little nymphing and streamers mixed in. I didn’t catch a lot of fish and certainly nothing worthy of a trophy shot, but I did get to fish with Mark alone for a stretch and he nailed a beautiful male rainbow staging himself for the spawn. It was a fun day, of course. The sun was out and weather was in the 50s so totally comfortable. But the wind just killed us. We had sushi together that night and, exhausted, turned in as early as possible.

Mark Huckaby in Battle on the Armstrong Spring Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 8th In order to get a full day’s float in Mark and I had to leave his house at 6:30AM. As nice as the day was the day before it was not this day. After my alarm went off I peaked outside to find it snowing with 4” already on the ground. Well, I scraped all the snow off Mark’s little Honda Civic and he slept while I drove. When I got on the 90 heading west towards Missoula it was a bit hairy. To be safe I was going 45 in an 80. It didn’t get safe from weather until I crossed over the Continental Divide. On the other side of the continental divide it was sunny, dry, but really cold.   Mike Hillygus of the Clark Fork Outpost (CFO) met us at the Missoula airport where we stashed my son Mark’s car. We hopped in Mike’s Suburban towing his drift boat and off we went headed north-West, following the north flowing Clark Fork River to the town of Saint Regis and then another ~5 miles into the wilderness to the lodge. It’s about an 1:15 drive to Mike’s Lodge. We launched the drift boat right from the Lodge and did my favorite float of the area. I have done that float so many times now I feel like I could guide it. I pretty much knew from memory all the “fishy” spots, the big foam patches in the eddies, etc. What I cannot do is row the rapid that is in that float. That rapid is a pros only deal. We caught fish nymphing and on dries. It wasn’t crazy good, but it really shouldn’t be in March. It was, however, snowing; bitter cold at points. The biggest excitement of the day wasn’t the big west slope cuttroat I nailed on a dry feeding in the foam. It was cruising by a large herd of rocky mountain sheep that just stared us down. Mike said we were super lucky to see them. This the same float we ran into a bear cub in a tree a few years back. It’s in the middle of the wilderness. No cell phone signal. Super fun day spent with my son and my good friend Mike at the oars. We hit the closest restaurant, Quinn’s at the hot spring resort and had a great time.

Herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

 

 

March 9thWell, between several conference calls I had to do and Mark simply catching up on sleep we got a late start. And that was a good thing. With overnight temps in the teens there was no reason to rush out to a cold river. In Fact, when the sun came up there was fog on the river because the river temp was much higher than the air temp. We put in up stream and did another fun float I love to the town of Saint Regis. It is there that the Saint Regis river enters the Clark Fork. That confluence of the Rivers has always produced in all times of year, so we had that to look forward to in ending it. For the first time ever…and I have fished this river a lot over the last many years… it was slow. We couldn’t get anything to move in all the spots that usually produce. We tried several tactics from dries to nymphing to streamers. Nothing was rising and we were not fooling any trout; not even nymphing. Then to top it off the sun disappeared, it snowed lightly, and the wind was howling. It’s undoubtedly that drop in the barometer that caused the fishing to slow down. They have a saying in Montana: “It’s Montana”. That means you never know what you are going to get from the weather. The forecast said sunny in the high 50s. I have to admit it did cross my mind that even at the confluence we were not going to do well and it simply would be my first poor fishing day ever on the Clark Fork river. Oh was I wrong. Right before the confluence we pulled over to the side and Mike rigged Mark and I up both with fresh nymphing set ups. As we pulled up to the confluence, I got a tug, then lost the fish to a head shake. 10 seconds later I hooked up with a big fish that we landed, pictured and released. Mike pulled across the confluence so we could fish the run (the mix of the two rivers) from the inside. That is when it started to get nuts. For the first hour at the confluence, we basically did laps in that run with Mike back-rowing so we could fish it over and over. Mark caught so many big fish (West Slope Cutthroats, Cut-bows, and Rainbows) that he lost count quickly. From the back of the boat I was railing fish too; big fish. Then, for the 2nd hour we basically anchored, caught a group of big fish, moved the boat 20 feet downriver and did it again. All in all, I bet Mark landed ~15-20 fish over 16” in ~2 hours. It was absolutely nuts. I learned later from Mike is that all those big trout were simply staging. They were waiting for the Saint Regis to get big enough so that they could swim up and spawn. Which totally explains the spawning colors of many of the males we caught and released. Epic Day.

After hitting Quinns again (which honestly if Mike is not cooking; he is formally trained, is the only decent restaurant for miles) we tried to hit the sack early but, between cocktails and packing and the excitement of the day….well, lets just say the alarm at 345am was brutal. And now I’m on the trip home already in the reality of work and wishing I was in Montana with my youngest, Mark Huckaby, who has turned out to be an outstanding fly fisherman. Epic trip.

If you want to:

  • fish the middle of the Montana wilderness guided by the best
  • catch and release a bunch of wild trout from the comfort of a drift boat
  • Stay at lodge that is a fraction of the price of the “normal” high end lodges of Missoula and Bozeman

Then contact my buddy Mike Hillygus at: http://stillwaterriveroutpost.com/ or 406.721.2703.

 

Fall Fly Fishing on the Forks of the Kern – November 7-10, 2019

Pushing the Boundaries of Safety a little too far….

Check out the racing stripe on this bad boy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lied.  In my October (2019) post I wrote, “So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020” fully thinking at the time that I would not be able to get back to the upper Kern before the season ended on 11/15, let alone be crazy enough to do it (because of the cold nights).  Well, work has been so stressful I needed a weekend in the mountains just to clear my head and organize my thoughts.  Plus, one of the great things about doing this blog over the years is that so many of you are really good about keeping me updated with fishing reports and other intel by email.  One reader I can definitely call an “internet friend” is Peter Persidok.  Peter is clearly a good fly fisherman.  It was Peter who wrote me an email and inspired me to go for a simple 2 nighter over the weekend.  He went into the Forks last weekend and did well above rattlesnake creek.  He also inspired me to hike past the Huck Site, and camp up river, over the mountain.  I rarely get to do that stopping at Huck camp because of the group I am with.  But, on this trip I went alone.  I have plenty of strength and stamina for an “old guy”.  On this trip I camped at “sand camp” which is about 7-8 miles from the trailhead and a mile short of kern flats.  But, it was quite the adventure just getting there.

I know there is tons of guidance telling you not to back pack alone, but I’m a lot safer than I was when I was young.  Plus I carry a Garmin InReach 66i satellite tracker / safety device.  That means not only can loved ones (or the curious) track where I am on an internet site, but I can use the device to txt through the satellite network.  In the case of a true emergency there is an SOS button and it would call the cavalry to come save me.  I also carry bear spray.  And for the first time ever, on this trip, I had to not only unleash the bear spray (which I have done a few times), but also take the safety off and point it at an animal.  That is a first for me.  more on that later.

 

Hiking alone in the dark

If it was not so hard to plow through LA to get to the Forks, I bet I would go a lot more often.  For about $75 of gas, plus backpacking food and fuel I can’t think of more entertainment bang for your buck in the wilderness for the fly fisher.  Clearly, it’s not for everyone, but it is for me.  Well, I had an important meeting at work Friday late morning that precluded me from going the night before.  I got on the road at 11am thinking I’d be safe.  I was not.  LA’s traffic just nailed me.  yea, I use a garmin GPS with traffic data and waze on my phone at the same time, but this was just one of those Fridays.  I lost a full hour in traffic.  Normally that would not be an issue.   But, this is the time of year where the sun goes down at 5pm.  As I kept losing more and more time I kept telling myself how badly it would suck to have to sleep in my truck at the trailhead.  It was only a 2 nighter.  Let’s just say once I got on mountain road 50 I started pushing it…. clearly speeding.  After almost plowing 3 deer in the road I slowed down.  I didn’t get to the trailhead until 4:45 pm.   I have never backpacked in the dark, let alone done it alone. That is when I told myself, “the moon is almost full and it’s a totally clear night.  That will help light the trail.  I will target the “confluence site” which is at the bottom of the hill, only 2 miles total.  And I won’t have to cross the little kern in the dark.  That will give me a 2 mile jump on the long morning hike ahead of me.”  The other complication was temperature.  My decade old tundra (Huck-Truck) may have a cassette deck, but it does tell me the outside temp… which had fallen into the 40s before the sun went down.  So the clothes I laid out to hike in with were totally inappropriate.  I had to go into my already packed up backpack to get long hiking pants, a fleece and a down jacket.  That cost a little more time.

Well, I took off right around 5pm.  It was already twilight, but I was confident in my plan.  Unfortunately, at many points that canyon and the trees shaded the moonlight so I wasn’t half of the way down before I needed my headlamp.  “Not a problem.” I kept saying to myself.  “I know the trail so well I could do it blindfold.”

I’m not afraid of bears and mountain lions and wolves as much as I am afraid of tiny insects like ticks and mosquitos that give you uncurable diseases.  They key is not to startle an animal like that which means “hiking loud” and always having bear spray at the ready.  Being that said, while hiking alone in the dark, I couldn’t help but focus on Peter’s email about him running into the two mountain lions on the trail right at the bottom by the Little Kern crossing.  I have seen them.  I have heard of plenty of sightings of them over the years.  They are two adult females and I’m sure they do well on deer (I have seen my share of carcasses there) and many other smaller animals down at the Forks.

The first complication: as I got to the bottom I could see two separate camp fires.  And one was in the confluence site.  That was a bummer.  That meant I was looking at a Little Kern River Crossing in the dark and having to find a primitive site to camp in on the main fork of the Kern River.  With the Main fork of the Kern at 285 CFS the Little Kern crossing was well below knee deep.  So, it was not a safety thing at all.  It was just so frickin’ cold.  And a bit creepy.  I’d post a picture here, but none of them came out it was so dark; totally shaded from the moonlight by trees.  Upon getting my shoes back on I reflected on what to do next.  I could either b-line for the river and stumble into the first available primitive site.   But, that would be off trail in the dark.  There are a few primitive sites right there above the confluence.  Or I could stay on the trail and grab the first available site close to the trail.  There were very few cars at the trailhead; not a surprise for November, but that would mean plenty of sites open.  So, I stayed on the trail.  I saw the other group with the campfire right away.  What I didn’t realize is that in the darkness you cannot see the primitive sites that are not close to the trailhead.  At least not with the weak headlamp I was using.  I know I passed a couple without noticing them.  But, I kept pushing on the trail.  It was only around 6pm.  If you know that trail well, you know the primitive sites stop for the next mile as the trail narrows in a canyon.  There is a fantastic site I have never stayed in around 3 total miles from the trailhead.  I have never stayed in it mostly because it’s always full.  The trail looks down on it and it’s on a bend on a plateau above the river.  There is a great run around the bend in front of it I have fished many times.   For the next 30 minutes I basically was praying that site would be open and then, in my head speculating at the few sites, leading all the way to the huck site that I would target if wasn’t open.  I needed to find camp because it was dark and I was alone.  I was pushing the safety thing.  Thank God the site was open.  I got a fire going quickly.  I got my tent up quickly.  It was really cold now.  I couldn’t tell how cold but I could tell it was close to freezing.  I had hiked in 3 frozen lamb chops.  Another complication I am not used to: they were still frozen.  So, I did a little makeshift thawing fire side.  After bbq’ing on the backpacking grill I hiked in, eating and a little jack daniels even the fire couldn’t keep my warm.  I was in my tent and asleep before 9pm with the plan of breaking down camp and backpacking as early as possible with another 4 miles or so to the “sand camp” in the morning.

one of my favorite traditions at the forks: hiking down a hunk of meat to be grilled on the first night by campfire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gear Review

What I learned from the last couple October visits to the Kern is that I do not have a pad and bag that “works” in cold weather.  It’s fine in the summer.  But, in early Spring and the fall my stuff just doesn’t work.  It’s not designed for cold weather.  I literally wore every piece of clothes I had and still shivered my way through the night on those October trips. At times it was awful. So, this time I borrowed my buddy Martin’s Big Agnes Helium 15 degree down bag and his Big Agnes Q-Core SLX and Pumphouse Ultra. Now I cannot live without them.  I will be purchasing them immediately; I don’t care what it costs.  Firstly, the bag is so much warmer than my 20 degree backpacking bag.  I actually slept in my hiking boxers with bare feet.  Secondly the pad is so much thicker than my thermarest so you are much higher off the ground.  And it packs down just as small and light.  On my thermarest the cold floor of the tent goes right through it.  if you slide off the thermarest you feel the bitter cold right through the bag immediately.  Lastly, the stuff sack for the bag doubles as an inflator.  It’s genius.  No more blowing up pads at altitude and getting dizzy for me.  I have become a huge Big Agnes fan in the process of learning backpacking.

Check out how you simply open the Big Agnes pump house ultra stuff sack, fold to seal and roll it down to fill the pad.  It’s genius.  i pilfered this image off the Big Agnes site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s up with the Coyote?

Well I woke up around 5AM and immediately felt the shock of how cold it was.  I dreaded getting out of the bag to pack up.  So, I tossed and turned until I forced myself out of the tent at 6am.  I never do a morning fire.  This time I had to.  The first thing I noticed was my backpacking plate, knife and fork: frozen solid.  I didn’t want to wash dishes in the cold at night so I just filled the plate with river water and let the dishes soak until I could deal with them in the morning.  Now I had to figure out what “dealing with it” meant.

look carefully at my buckknife, frozen solid in the mix. it took me a while to break that thing free

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 8:00 I had eaten and was fully packed up and back on the trail.  There is a primitive site I stayed in once with Kelly and Mere that is directly across from one of the best fishing runs in the stretch from the confluence to rattlesnake creek.  It was right before that site that I saw something in the trail.  As I got closer I could tell it was a coyote.  In Carlsbad, CA we are backed up to a wildlife preserve that sports a few healthy populations of coyote packs.  There are no outside kitties in our neighborhood and frequently dogs get taken.  I run into them at dawn and dusk constantly and upon seeing me they flee in fear.

Now I was within 50 feet of the coyote and it had not budged; sitting in the trail staring me down and not moving.  I did the hooting and hollering and waving my backpacking poles thing to scare if off the trail as I moved closer.  It didn’t move.  At 30 feet I stopped.  I had to.  It was right in the trail facing me staring me down.  and there was no legit detour around it.  It wasn’t like I was scared.  His tail was between his legs which means subservient; not aggressive.  if he charged me, I could have beaten the thing with my trekking poles.  I just couldn’t figure what the coyote was doing.  It occurred to me it might be part of a pack, distracting me, but, I looked around and didn’t see any others.  So, I grabbed my bear spray and continued to shout at it.  It just stared at me in steely silence.  Well, I had lost my patience with it.  I wasn’t about to let this thing get between me and fly fishing so I pulled the safety latch on the bear spray.  While pointing it right at his face I veered off the trail about 15 feet and walked right by it.  It simply turned and watched me.  then continued to stare at me as I hiked away (trust me.  I looked back at it a number of times).  Weird.

I took this picture from ~15 feet away as this coyote stared me down. notice the angle of the camera. i’m actually looking down at it I’m so close.  Also notice the tail between the legs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hiked over the mountain and made it to “sand camp” around 9:30AM.  I know from the October trip that the river fishes really poorly in the cold of the morning, so that gave me the time, to set up camp: make firewood; fill my sun shower and 3-liter Katadyn, etc.

 

The best nymphing on the Upper Kern Ever

 

Another big Kern River Rainbow let go at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 10:45AM I set up my 6 weight to my “go to” upper kern river rig: a 3x leader to a size 4 huck hopper on top.  Not because I thought a huge Huck Hopper would work, but because I knew it could float the weight I was going to tie under it.  I just rarely fish a bobber anymore.  Nor do I use a net.  That’s just me.  You never know when troutzilla might take a size 4 fly so why use a bobber if you are ok with the tangling or loss risk of 3 flies?   4 feet of 4x below the huck hopper I tied on a Beldar’s Stone.  It has 3 tungsten beads so it gets down quickly.  I have found this bug to simply just work on the Upper Kern, in all seasons without fail.  When I tie this bug I don’t do anything different except for I tie it with tungsten cones.  Frankly it works so well I should just sell them on the site (even though I didn’t invent the fly) as part of a “Upper Kern River Special”.  In fact, that is not a bad idea. And now I have the off season to do that.  A foot to 1.5 feet of 5x below the Beldars stone I tie on a “huck bow warrior” which is a derivation of a rainbow warrior fly I have developed and evolved from countless hours of fishing on the upper kern.  I tie it in both a flash back and crippled way.  It doesn’t really imitate anything in nature.  But, for some reason (well, it’s quite the attractor fly) it just kills.  Actually, it kills everywhere, but it just seems like the go-to fly on the Kern.

check out the Huck-Bow-Warrior hanging out of this big boy’s face.  You can tell from the red head.  it’s just a killer fly for all seasons on the Upper Kern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I make my first cast right in front of camp.  It was not a special cast; I didn’t cast it far, just to the seam in the river right in front of me.  Sure enough that Huck Hopper goes down and I set hard.  Within minutes, after a number of jumps, I landed a 14” Kern River Rainbow, unhooked and let him go without even taking him out of the water.  I laugh to myself…and then the sobering thought hits me, “a first cast fish. I just jinxed myself and am now going to be skunked for the rest of the day.”  So, I moved 100 feet up river to another run and hooked two more; fighting one to my feet (no net: perfect) where he popped off and landing the other.  “hmm…” I say to myself, “This could be one of those days.”

That is a big Beldar Stone hanging out of this guy’s face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the next 4 hours (11am to 3pm) I only fished a mile. I typically move pretty quickly and cover a lot of ground.  I have been called an impatient fly fisherman.  If I don’t get a take in good holding water on a good drift, I move on.  Only making it one mile is a testament to how good the fishing was. I hooked big wild kern river rainbow trout (14” to 19”) all day.  In every run, pool and pocket.  It was one of those, “my arm hurts from battling fish.” days. My landing ratio was about right for someone nymph fishing without a net barbless: about 50%.  I battled so many fish I worked on setting them free at my feet without touching them by holding the line tight 3 feet above the fish with my hand.  It works about 1 third of the time.  The weird thing is that for over a decade I have always experienced that catching a fish in the upper kern puts the entire pool down.  man, did I prove that theory wrong.  I caught multiple fish in runs multiple times.  It was almost like a spawn was going down.  and from some of the colors on the males I was catching it could have been true.  I’d love to talk to a biologist to verify if the upper kern produces a winter spawn like there is in the Upper Owens River.  Anyways I guess I landed 25-30 fish; all big and got takes and/or hooked and lost about that many.  That type of fishing is just bananas.  I don’t know any other way to describe it.  To top it off I fished the exact same rig 98% of the time on this trip.  There was no reason to mix it up short of the few late night casts I made with dries.  I did change out 3-4 huck bow warriors because the trout chomped them to the point they were so beaten up they unraveled.  And by the time I was done my beldar stone looked like it had been through the wars.  The big Huck Hopper floated all day long without me needing to dress it in any way.

Sometimes, if i can’t unhook them easily in the water i take them out and before letting them go i snap a quick picture..  i’m holding this big one as far out from me as possible and he still doesn’t fit in the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was about 3 hours into this crazy action fishing session when I got this weird unsatisfied feeling.  My first thought was, “I’m doing so well this is getting boring.  I am switching to dries to make it harder on me.”  And then I realized what my feeling was about: It was not that I was bored or it was too easy.  It was that I wished I was guiding a beginner instead of actually fishing myself.  When I teach someone on the Upper Kern River I always include a statement like, “We’ll most likely hook some today.  Landing them is a totally different.  It’s not likely.  I hope we do.”  It’s very rare when the fishing is so good and when it is there is nothing more fun than the joy of teaching someone how to do it; beginner or not.  Since the Upper Kern is so wild there is just so much preventing a beginner from doing well that is not how active the fish are.  it’s the overhanging trees, the current and getting in a position just to be able to cast to holding water, let alone get a drift.  This was one of those days where the beginner’s odds would have significantly been better.  That would have been fun for me.  As it was I experienced it all alone without a sole in sight.  Which was also super fun.

BTW, I wet waded instead of carting my backpacking waders down.  And that was a mistake.  At points my feet and legs were numb.  At points the fishing was so good I’d catch and release in the water, then wade out of the river to warm up in the sun just long enough to wander back in and catch another in the same spot.  After hooking 4 or 5 in the same place I was so numb I had to hike away just to get feeling back in my legs.

i am not a good photographer by any stretch, but every once in a while i get lucky.  in this pic you can see me staying tight by my shadow and the fish is still in view in the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guidance: Fish the other side of the river

Let me give you some guidance related to success in the Upper Kern: Fish the other side of the River.  I have always done well on the other (South-Eastern) side of the river.  The reasons are numerous.  But, the main reason is that the other side provides casts to places that just don’t see artificial flies all season long.  I love the other side because it’s the “Left handed side”.  I’m left handed.  On the other side I’m casting up stream with my left arm over the river.  On the “normal” side of the river I’m handicapped from making big casts because I’m doing it over my shoulder or forced to role cast. The problem, of course, is that they don’t call it the “Killer Kern” for nothin’.  It’s a wild and dangerous river.  This November the river was 285 CFS as measured at the Fairview dam.  That type of low flow means there are a few thigh high crossings that are really mellow at the Forks.  There is some irony that for this entire 2019 season the upper kern was only crossable safely in the last 3 weeks of the season.  That is what happens in a big snow pack year.

It pleases me when i stick them right on the nose exactly where you should on a good set

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Two

Since I only fished up stream a mile I crossed back over the river at kern flats and walked the mile back to the sand site and was back at camp by 4pm.  I checked the sun shower and it was way too cold to use; bummer.  There was not going to be any cleaning up on this trip.

So, I re-rigged to dries.  I got a rise from a small trout right in front of camp on a size 18 (anything).  And that was the only rise I had on the trip.  During the awesome day before I did not get a single rise on the huck hopper.  I saw very few naturals which explains why.  It’s just too late in the season for that.

I had in my head something else that Peter told me.  that he did really well on mouse patterns the weekend before right as it got dark.  I have never even seen a mouse at the forks.  But, I had to try.  So, until it got too dark to see, I tried a number of casts with a mouse pattern and failed.  Peter said he was using small mice patterns.  I only had one big one and that probably led to my failure.  It was still fun, though.

Now it was dark and cold.  I had to get the fire started quickly.  I burnt a lot of wood that night sitting in my backpacking chair enjoying the fire.  After jack daniels and eating some backpacking food I said to myself, “I wonder if I should drain the sun shower and the 3 liter katadyn.”  I should have.  Lesson learned…

Sunday – the hike out

The next morning my sun shower and both Katadyns were frozen solid as a rock.  My wading boots and wading socks were also frozen solid as were a number of other things.  So, I did another morning fire and dealt with that as best I could.  I was looking at the 6 miles hiking back to the little kern crossing and then the 2 miles up the hill.  I wasn’t dreading it.  I was kind of looking forward to it as part of the adventure. I’m glad at my age I can still hike up that mountain in less than an hour, frequently passing folks younger than me.

In the October trip, we hiked out early to get home early and just got hammered by LA traffic.  This time I was purposely going to hike out later, and target getting home by 8pm (reasonable enough to pack and make my 6am flight for work the next morning).

Well that left me an hour to fish before heading up the mountain.  I put down my pack and rigged up (the exact same way) at the site at the confluence (which was now empty).

The view of the Little Kern entering the “big” Kern from the confluence site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I told myself not to get my hopes up because this stretch had now been hammered for months.  However, within 30 minutes I caught 5 more big trout.  Ridiculous.  One of them went over 20”.  I tried to follow it down river as best I could.  It was quite the battle as he did numerous jumps and runs.  I told myself I would mind losing him by breaking him off because the river bank downstream from me didn’t exist.  I would have had to go waste deep in the clothes I was hiking out in to chase him down stream.  So I laid the wood on him.  I pulled him back to my feet, reached for my camera and he popped off there at my feet.  I laughed.  I didn’t get the picture, but, I did not have to touch him.  He’ll be 22” next season.

So, now it’s over until next season.  At least for me.  but, if there is anyone fly fishing up there in the next 3 days before the end of the season they are going to do well.

 

Fly Fishing Guidance for Hawaii

Fly Fishing Guidance for Hawaii

Kona and Kauai – September 21- October 5, 2019

 

One of the big blue Trevallys I caught and released

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s taken me over a decade.  But, I have finally figured out how to successfully fly fish the game fish from the shoreline in Hawaii.  This guidance article is for the many fly fishers that visit the Hawaiian Islands (on vacation or otherwise) and want to “Do it yourself” (DIY) fly fish from the shoreline.  I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert here.  I will keep working at it until I am.  But, I have had success and I wish I knew 20 years ago what I just recently learned through literally thousands of casts, trial and error.  I would have had a ton of success if there was legitimate guidance on the internet.  I have not found that yet.  I have read a bunch of guidance on the internet for fly fishing the ocean, even specific to Hawaii, from the shoreline that just does not work in Hawaii.

Background

We have a timeshare in Poipu, Kauai.  It’s at the Marriott Waiohai.  We go for a couple weeks every year; mostly in September.  And we have every year for ~20 years.  I just cannot sit on a beach for hours and hours like my wife does.  I’m not very good at relaxing.  So, I always bring a fly rod.  I have had a lot of success and provided a ton of guidance on fly fishing for trout on Kauai.  But in the ocean in Hawaii I have not experienced much success short of occasional small reef fish and needle fish (Aha).

I snorkel quite a bit and I could always see the big trevallys (Omilo) and jacks I was targeting.  But, I never had success in catching them…until just recently.

This is the guidance that I have been scouring the internet for… for years …it just does not exist…. It should get you some success.

i almost stepped on one of these green sea turtles staring into the water looking for trevallys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other than just not being able to sit still one of the reasons I didn’t give up was one of my favorite “big fish lost” stories.  I lost the giant blue trevally from the cliffs of Mahaulepu on Kauai about 4 years ago.  And I basically was roll casting from 20 feet above the water.  It was pure luck that it shot out from nowhere and took my fly.  I was so surprised I didn’t get a good hook set and lost the fish of a lifetime.

Strip as fast as you can

I might as well start right up front with the most important guidance of all that became an eye-opening revelation to me: Strip as fast as you can.  I didn’t start catching big game fish on Hawaii until I started stripping as fast as I could.  Now, I have been stripping streamers for trout for years.  This is not that.  This is literally stripping so fast a stripping basket is useless.  Don’t bother with one; you wont be able to hit the basket because you’ll strip the line so quickly in such large strips that it will fire behind you missing the basket.  I’m talking full arm’s length strips of the line that fire the line 4-5 feet behind you.  Honestly, this is the guidance for using a stripping basket I had been reading on the internet for years that is just plain wrong.  I use a stripping basket in the surf at home (Carlsbad, CA) and it’s wildly valuable for all the reasons of why we use stripping baskets: line management, preventing tangles, preventing the line from swinging around in the surf and wrapping around your ankles, preventing the line from catching sea weed, etc.   in Hawaii every fish is hunting and being hunted and they are fast swimmers because of it.  You have to strip fast to fool them; to induce strikes.

Trevallys aren’t the only gamefish you nail in Hawaii. this is some from of wrasse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, stripping fast also means the process is very physical.  And it requires agility and practice.  And, overstating the obvious: this type of fly fishing is not for beginners.  Being that said a beginner could really improve their stripping skills on a week-long vacation of practice.  and with that practice a beginner could easily see success.

Now if you have thought this through then you are saying to yourself, “Without a stripping basket that limits me to stripping the line where it won’t tangle and get caught.  That means stripping in the water or on the sand”.  Yes, absolutely true.  This is the handicap; the limiting factor.  Much of the Hawaiian shoreline is lava.  Lava is the exact wrong place to strip line onto.  Let me give you an example. I recently broke this rule.  I saw a trevally crashing on bait fish.  I said to myself, “I’ll run over there make one cast and risk the line getting tangled in the lava.  After the cast the waves pushed my line back into me forcing the line to embed so deeply into the lava it took me 20 minutes to figure out how to free the line.  No one wants to lose a $90 line to lava.  But, it does happen.

i’m pretty sure this is a GT (Giant Trevally). just a tiny version of one

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The limitation of stripping so fast without a stripping basket is the line ends up at your feet, in the water, reef, sand or lava.

So the Hawaiian shoreline is not a lake; you will battle the current and the surf no matter how small the wave conditions.  Any north shore in any of the Hawaiian islands is going to be a challenge to fly fish in winter because of the surf.  Alternatively, you will get the calmest conditions in summer on south facing beaches.  Standing in the water (allowing you to strip the line quickly behind you where it floats) in bays and casting out to the structure that does sit on the edge of the bays will produce success.  The flat water of the bays will also reveal the hunters crashing on bait fish.  Casting into bait balls will produce success.  But, success often means wading out in waste deep water or higher and battling the surge or surf.

Finding water without humans in it or around it is tricky. 

Beaches are a good choice to strip fast because your line will not get tangled behind you.  But, beaches also produce people.  I cannot tell you how many times someone has wandered up from behind me without me noticing while I’m in my back cast to say something like, “I didn’t know you could fly fish in the ocean.”  I haven’t hooked a tourist yet, but I have come close.  So, you would think that fishing the early mornings before the beach gets filled with sunbathers is a good time to fly fish.  Well, yes, but because of the 3 hour time difference from PST and 6 hours from EST there always seems to be people on the beach at 6am that can’t sleep.

So, what do you deduce from this: well, finding the ideal spots to fly fish in Hawaii can mean wandering for a while until you find a spot conducive to stripping quickly which doesn’t have people.  Hiking is almost mandatory.  That is why I like to fly fish on Kauai or the Big Island: there are so many undeveloped beaches and bays on those two islands.  On the busy islands like Oahu and Maui it’s going to be harder to find fishable water without humans.

Read the water / Scout it out

If you are an experienced trout fly fisherman you know where the trout hold; you know where to cast.  It’s not practical to jump into the river with a mask and snorkel to see where the big trout are.  In Hawaii, it can be.  I nailed a big blue finned trevally in front of our place at the Marriott Waiohai in Poipu simply because when snorkeling I saw a bunch of them holding on a submerged reef not visible from above the water.  On the big island I watched the water.  I saw a huge blue trevally crashing on bait fish in the small surf.  I literally got to make the 40 foot cast right in front of his face.  Now that I know I can catch them, I am a lot more observant of them in the water.  Of course, as I have, you will see fish you’d love to cast at, but just can’t because of the lava or the length of cast or the wind or….

Put the wood on ‘em

I have read many a story about hooking the big triggers or trevallies and them darting to the bottom of the reef in a cave to find cover and then losing the fly line because of it.  So when you do hook a fish put the wood on them: Fight them hard.  Do not let them dive for cover.  Keep them on top as best you can.  Because a fish that carries your fly line into a cave at the bottom of the reef is going to tangle your fly line in coral and snap off the leader leaving your expensive fly line tangled in coral 20 feet deep.  Diving into surge to untangle your fly line 20 deep is going to be dangerous if not impossible to retrieve.

What to bring: Everything

There are no fly shops on any of the Hawaiian Islands.  If you want to fly fish you have to bring everything.

Rods: sure a 6 will work.  But casting a 6 into that wind will not.  Most likely you’ll bring a fast action 8; not to help you with fighting the fish as much as it will help you punch the line and weighted fly through the wind.  My current favorite for Hawaii is a Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO) TiCr2 9’0″ 4pc. 300-400GB Lefty Kreh 10 weight which I needed every bit of when fighting a big blue finned trevally on the Big Island.  TFO has replaced the TiCr2 with the Bluewater SG (see below) and now i want one.

https://tforods.com/bluewater-sg-fly-rods/

Reels: sure a trout reel will work.  But, if you bring a trout reel you need to be extra diligent at cleaning it after each use with fresh water.  The salt and sand will kill a fresh water reel.  So, sure you can pull off your fresh water gear for a week.  it may not be worth it for a week’s vacation in Hawaii to buy a salt water fly reel.  They are expensive.

Fly Lines: forget the sinking or intermediate sink lines.  This was another one of my problems that lead to so much failure over the years.  In the surf of San Diego you need sinking lines to get the fly down.  that is where the fish are; in the sand in the depressions and channels.  A sinking line in Hawaii just gets your fly tangled on the bottom (lava or coral) quicker.  You will want to use a floating line.  They are also a lot easier to cast than a sinking line. The predators will frequently be in the top of the water column chasing bait fish.  They can be on the bottom and in the reefs but, even if they are, they are looking up.  That is where the bait fish are; on the top of the water column.  Sure you can get away with a trout line that is a floating line.  But, if you can justify the expense the Rio outbound tropical short is the perfect line for the Hawaiian islands (inshore or offshore) and many other warm water oceans.

Leaders / tippet: 20 or 30 lb flouro about 4-10 feet in length.  No need for fancy tapered leaders in Hawaii.  No need for lightweight tippet you are stripping so fast.  I believe flouro is necessary because it’s so invisible in the water.  But, I have never used mono so I don’t have a standard for comparison.

Flies:  baitfish patterns in small sizes like 4-6-8 are effective.  Also, they are a lot easier to cast into the wind.  For Hawaii, clousers are perfect.  I have not found / tied the perfect color combination yet.  I will in time.  but, from the successes I have had, I suspect white or silver on bottom and very light blue, black/grey or green on top match most of the bait fish.  I like the clouser style patterns because they ride hook up…. reducing the number of snags.  And let’s face it, if there were a single fly you had access to for ocean fly fishing it would be the clouser.  Now, I have also had success in Hawaii with bonefish patterns that imitate a shrimp.  So, I’ll be working on designing a few clouser patterns and a pattern that is a shrimp imitation in a clouser format that I’ll sell on the site, once I know they are proven.

Interestingly enough, and another reason for my lack of success in Hawaii over the years, is that this type of fly fishing is totally different from the way we fish the ocean in san diego with giant anchovy and sardine patterns in 1-0 and 2-0.  in san diego we use giant anchovy and sardine patterns to fly fish off shore for tuna.  To fish in the surf we use tiny sand crab patterns.   In Hawaii I have not found success with large patterns or tiny patterns.

What to wear

There is no shocking news here.  You’ll want quick dry clothes with sun protection including a hat.  It’s fly fishing and you’ll be hunting by staring into the water.  polarized lenses in sunglasses are a must. Wearing glasses while hooks are flying around are a must.  The water is warm.  No need for waders.  But shoes are important.  There are inexpensive “reef shoes” that work great.  Any water shoes that can stand up to the slipperiness of the rocks while at the same time can stand up to the razor-sharp lava are going to work great.  No matter what, you will give the ocean your blood.  Trust me.  it’s part of the deal.

You have to be able to produce a decent overhand cast

I wish it weren’t true, but this type of fishing in Hawaii is just not for beginners.  I know a legion of friends who’s fly fishing is limited to lobbing a bobber 20 feet off the front of a drift boat.  That “cast” is deadly on the Missouri River in Montana, but will not help you in Hawaii from shore.  It’s not like you need to do an 80 foot double haul.  But, you need to be able to overhand cast into the wind; frequently more than 40 feet.

Culture

Fishing licenses not needed when fishing the ocean in Hawaii.  I wish there was a tourist only, inexpensive fishing license you could buy online with that money going straight to conservation.  But, there is not.  You can fish without a license and kill anything you catch (short of in some dedicated marine parks).

Fishing is part of the Hawaiian culture and they do it well with long traditional rods with bait set ups.  And they eat everything they catch.  There is no catch and release culture in the Hawaiian islands like there is in fly fishing.  “I can’t believe you just let that fish go.” is something I now have experienced a few times.  I rarely notice people behind me watching me fly fish (But, I always look into my backcast).  There are exceptions to everything.  But, typically the natives do not typically like sharing the water with tourists.  Of course most of the natives are fishing off the lava cliffs where you can’t fly fish anyways so it’s rarely a problem.  The Hawaiians are fishing to survive.  I am fishing for sport.  And I always catch and release because with so many fish being taken I just don’t feel it’s my right to catch and keep.  I can always go to a restaurant.

 

Bonefish

Heads up: the guidance in this article does not apply to the Hawaiian bone fish.  I have not yet figured out how the catch the Oios (bonefish) without a huge amount of hassle.  Frankly, it may be impossible to have success with bones unless you are willing to sacrifice tons of flies and /or be willing to fish for 4 hours without a single cast.  If you are patient and don’t mind losing 20 flies per hook up you can have success.  When snorkeling I can see quite a few bonefish now that I look for them.  Not, huge bones, but lots of them under 1.5 feet long that sift through the sand for crustaceans.  You fish the bones just like you would in the Bahamas: slowly.  In Hawaii slowly means getting snagged on the bottom.  Now, there are exceptions.  About a half dozen times, I have seen the bones; big bones, run up on the beach in 6 inches of water,  unfortunately every time that has happened I didn’t have a fly rod in my hands.

The Hawaiian Bonefish – i still haven’t figured out how to catch them without snagging a ton of flies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there it is….  Feel fee to reach out to me by email or download the guidance document which has location information.

 

 

Forks of the Kern: Fall Fly Fishing on the Upper Kern River

October 17-20, 2019

Is that a huck hopper hanging out of that big kern river rainbow’s face? yes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was only the 2nd time I have done a trip to the Forks in the fall…after over a decade of trips into the canyon. This annual trip is with what I call the “gear group” because many of the guys that join this trip are actual reps in the outdoors industry. All great guys; this year 5 of us. I learn so much from them in terms of outdoors gear and food and clothes. I gladly do a little fly fishing guiding (and provide the flies)…which is so fun for me.

The first and most striking contrast to the spring and summer down at the Forks is the colors. It has been consistently shocking how many trees are not pines in the canyon; trees that turn colors in the fall. And leaves that fall in the river providing more interesting challenges (and annoyances) to the fly fishing. The Fall also produces cold nights and cold morning temperatures. Backpacking gear is expensive and I slowly upgrade through time, but man is it cold in October. I need better cold weather clothes and gear. The day time temps are fantastic, in the high 70s. but, the nights get into the 30s.

The most surprising thing about the Upper Kern in the Fall is the Beautiful Colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other striking contrast from Spring/Summer is the fly fishing. Since I have only been twice to the Forks in the fall, I’m really learning a lot about the difference in the fly fishing that Spring, Summer and Fall produce at the Forks. In the Fall the river is cold. I measured the water temp in the morning on this trip: 44 degrees. By eod it only got to 48. The ideal water temp for trout fishing is 54. That meant really slow mornings. I knew that going in. I have had plenty of buddies and “electronic buddies” from this site giving me fishing reports on the Upper Kern. So, there was absolutely no rush to get to fishing after staggering out of the tent in the high 30s in the morning. On the 3 days I fished I rarely got any action (or saw any rises) before 11am. Plus, let’s face it, wet wading in 44 degree water is…well…not fun. I not only experienced that sharp burning sensation of bitter cold, but also having my feet and ankles go numb. And here is a first for me. just washing my face with river water in the morning gave me an “ice cream headache”.

One of the guys that joined me on the trip was a longtime friend, Martin Löef. Martin reps Katadyn….who’s products have made my life so much easier at the Forks. On this trip I had a one liter and a 3 liter Katadyn Befree. They are a godsend. I can’t imagine backpacking without them. I have not used my steri-pen in a couple years because of the Katadyns.

My buddy Martin took this picture of me worshipping the giant NY i hiked down for us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a time where we thought this trip was just going to be me and Martin. I told him from the start I’d guide him and enjoy doing it.   After setting up camp at the huck site, upon arrival, Martin and I did a little bit of fishing right in front of camp. The rest of the group wasn’t due to arrive until that night. I could see right away that Martin had casted a rod before….so that was encouraging. He also expressed the desire to only throw dries flies. Guiding someone with that attitude is a pure pleasure. So, the next day, the first full day, Martin and I headed over the mountain (rattlesnake creek) and didn’t start fly fishing until the other side. There is a run over on the other side that has always produced excellent dry fly fishing for me, so I was still curious to see if it produced under these fall conditions with zero bugs in the air. It requires some agility to get in place and Martin, a bit older than me, is quite the fit, agile outdoorsman. Sure enough the minute we walked up to it, we saw an aggressive rise of a small fish which is typical of the Kern River Rainbow. After I explained where I wanted him to stand (on a rock in the river) and cast from, I contemplated a number of things that were a bit of a concern:

  • That run requires at least a 30 foot cast to be effective. 40 and 50 foot casts with long drifts are more effective.
  • You have to cast straight up stream with the fly coming straight back at you. That is a not only a line management nightmare for beginners but, typically a late setting frustration too.
  • putting a huck hopper on him. there we no rises or even bugs in the air. That rise we saw was on something emerging…most likely a midge. Huck Hoppers in the forks of the Kern tend to induce rises.

No need to teach Martin the Overhand Cast: check out that loop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, purely to check out his overhand (because a small fly is easier to cast than a big ‘ol huck hopper) cast I decided I’d leave the size 16 parachute adams on that I tied on the night before when he was fishing from camp. I’m so glad I did. It couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 casts before he got a rise to that fly. He was slow to set, as I imagined and there was line g. I screamed “Go!” (I have this weird new habit of yelling “Go!” Instead of “Set!”).   Well, I laughed and congratulated him on fooling the fish. I counted 6 more strikes on his casts without success in setting before I decided to intervene and do a little drift and line management lesson. Once we got that worked out he landed his first Kern River rainbow. Which he fought with the line in his teeth instead of his non casting hand. We worked that out next. But, he kept missing the sets. I could clearly see the trout taking the fly down but he was so slow to set. It’s then he got honest with me. “I can’t see that far.”

“casting beyond your site.” We have all done it. Either because of glare or simply because of that big 60+ foot cast is beyond our site. Setting on the splash (or in this case your buddy screaming, “Go!”. It’s not very effective. Until it is. The truth is that martin admitted he needs glasses or contacts or something to see far. I laughed and told him I’d continue to scream “Go!”. Which I did a few casts later. And this time he hooked a big fish and tightened up on him. He was pulling hard enough to pull the fish’s head out of the water and sure enough snapped that fish off on 5x. it was pretty cool though. Martin missed a lot of sets, but fooling trout is still enjoyable even if you miss them. So, I was having a blast, hooting and hollering. I think martin got 12-15 fish to rise, hooked 3 and landed two when all was said and done. we had a great day together and hiked more than 4 miles up stream from the huck site.

Here’s Martin with one of the Kern River Rainbows he landed on the day we fished together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some other things I noticed that is so different from fishing the spring or summer that will be of help to those sneaking in to the forks this year before it closes or simply any time in the fall:

  • I caught 4x as many fish on dries then I did nymphing. That exact thing happened the last time I fished the forks in October. It was the strangest thing not having success on the nymph and still getting a significant number of takes on top on the huck hopper. I may not have been getting it down far enough in the faster runs. In fact, that probably was the case. My “normal” spring / summer rig is a size 4 huck hopper (that is huge), followed 4 feet down by a large rubber legs which is super heavy, followed another 18” down by a huck rainbow warrior or huck green caddis nymph.   That rig is wildly effective there in spring or summer. I was floating a smaller huck hopper I was prototyping (see below) that couldn’t support the weight of my “go to” rig. So I went without the heavy rubber legs. The only thing is…. I put the other beginners on the bobber; which could support the normal rig and they were not getting a lot of takes.
  • In my trip this summer (august) I noticed an abundance of grass hoppers that were light grey in color and from size 8 to 12.  There are a myriad of different species of grass hoppers down in the canyon and one day I’ll be able to identify all of them. I’m not a total believer in color because I have read a lot of the science and trout see colors differently in different light conditions and distances. What does matter a lot more is size and shape. But, I did tie a number of prototype grey size 8 huck hoppers and, as I suspected because they matched the naturals in size and color they really worked.I caught at least one trout every day right in front of the huck camp. And half of them were quality fish. I believe it’s not so much about that being a great pool, run and tail-out as much as it is the times of day I fished. The point: in the fall, fish until the sun goes down. That last 2 hours as the day closes is the most effective time. And that is most likely because that is the part of the day where the water is warmest.

    Another big Kern River Rainbow with a grey Huck Hopper stuck in his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river was just a little too high and cold at 330 CFS for crossing safely. There were definitely places in the river, maybe a handful, over the 6 mile stretch I fished, where you could cross at knee level. But, 1, the river was so cold to wet wade and 2. once across there is no river trail and not being able (or willing) to trek in the river meant it was long stretches of bushwhacking before finding a cross back to the other side.

  • Note: the “Forks of the Kern” trail sign which indicates where to turn on the dirt road that takes you to the trailhead is not only still broken, but, in even worse shape: both poles broken and propped against a tree. It’s really easy to miss now. the directions are painstakingly detailed in the guidance doc, but, the right turn for the trailhead is exactly 36.8 miles from the junction of Mountain Road 50 (MR-50) and Mountain Road 99 (MR-99) near the tiny town of Johnsondale.

 

This years fall “Gear Guys gang” at the Huck Site: me, Garrett, Greg, Geoff & Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Unfortunately, the cache near the huck site has been compromised and pillaged. It’s not the first time. It’s a bit discouraging. But, it’s not like I’m devastated. I have accumulated a cache of extra supplies, tools, fishing equipment and even a spare tent over the years. Those that download the guidance document are encouraged to email me if they want to use it and I email very specific directions to finding it. Many readers of this site have added to the cache every year which is really great. For instance, the tools that others have left behind to help cut back the willows and branches making it easier on beginners have been a god-send. They are now gone. As is most of the cache.

 

I have received some criticism, even within my own awesome fly-fishing club about publishing how special the forks of the kern is on this site; how special it is to catch and release a wild trout that can only be found in a 20 mile stretch of river in the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Using this site to enlighten and encourage fly fishers to visit the Upper Kern by way of the Forks trailhead has been a mixed blessing in terms of getting the word out on how special the forks is. I believe in conservation by awareness. I believe to stop the slow death of the great sport I love; to have the sport of fly fishing thrive to where it once was, us advanced fly fishers should give away their secret spots even to the point of giving up their favorite holes to beginners; especially young fly fishers. Some of my peers do not share that view.

There is more positive on this than negative. For instance, one of the downloaders of the guidance doc and users of the cache emailed me a few weeks back that he “put some work into the fireplace”. When I got to the site on this trip I was pleasantly surprised. The stonework at the huck site is in great shape right now. best ever. He must have put 2-4 hours into making that fireplace better.

But, the cache has been pillaged and needs to be built up again. What was different about the vandalism this time is that the gear in the cache that was too big to carry away (like the spare tent) and steal was actually hid a few yards away. As if these vandals were going to use it as their own for them and them alone on their next time in. I was lucky to find it.

 

So Fear not. As soon as I can get in next spring I will start building the cache back up and so will the many forks of the kern lovers and readers of this site. But, I have been forced to move the cache. It’s still not completely safe to vandalism again: it’s farther away yet still not a brutally physical hike/climb to find. I’m hoping it will not be as easily found randomly as where it was located for so many years prior so close to the huck site.

 

So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020 (assuming a normal winter which this year was not) I’ll be writing about other my other fly fishing and outdoors adventures. And hosting a few guest posts.

Martin rolling out another well loaded overhand cast

 

 

Forks of the Kern – Upper Kern River – August 15th, 2019

In my years of hiking into the canyon to fly fish the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trail I don’t believe I have ever gone in August. It’s always hot; brutally hot in Kernville in August. Trout don’t like hot. In the drought years the river was just too warm. But, in all honesty in the one of, if not the biggest snowpack years in recorded history, I had been waiting since April, watching the flows almost every day, for that river to back down enough to be fishable. I literally waited 4 and a half months. I can’t believe I have gone in there in April in the drought years and had to wait all the way until mid-August in a big year. It’s going to be a short fishing season on the Upper Kern in 2019. But, August means big hoppers. And there were tons of naturals. I noticed that the majority of them were grey. I have never tied Huck Hoppers in grey. As a result of this trip I now do. BTW, there we also a significant population of yellow grasshopper naturals: Both in wing and body color.

Abby with what looks like a monster…. a little trick i do with the camera.  That trout is 6″

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joining me on this 3-nighter were two of my sister’s kids: my niece Abby, 17 and my nephew Tommy, 15. Tommy went in a couple summers ago with me. This was Abby’s first backpacking experience. Both are beginners as fly fishers.

The river was between 750-650 CFS.  That means the Little Kern River Crossing was easy for me; about at my thigh. But, I’m a “goat” and have 30+ years of wading experience.

Tommy Crossing the Little Kern River.  He’s taller than me for sure and it was over his knees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The key to this hike in and out was going early because of the heat. We left their house in Pasadena at 4am. That got us to the trailhead in time before it got super-hot. Note: the sign at the dirt road turn to the Forks trailhead was broken in both poles and propped against a tree. Very easy to miss.

When we got to the trailhead there were two young fly fishermen hiking out. Since they had fly rods I approached them and asked how the fishing was. After just chatting for a couple minutes one of them said, “Wait, you are Tim Huckaby!” I laughed. His name is Casey and he thanked me for giving him guidance in email. I do that so much I didn’t even remember. Great kid. Passionate about fly fishing. He was in the middle of the California Heritage trout challenge. We need more fly fishing kids in the world.

So we said our goodbyes to the kids and the 3 of us took off before 9am. By the time we got through the Little Kern Crossing I could tell the both of them were losing steam. This is the xbox generation and let’s just say there wasn’t a lot of training by them before the trip. I said to them, “We only have 2.2 miles to the Huckaby site. But, there is a chance that there will be people in the Huckaby site. There are plenty of other good sites before it. But, we may have to double back; to get to the ones after it, it’s another couple miles and over the mountain. And I don’t think we’re up for that today.”   I could tell there was relief by looking at their faces. Well, the last good site before mine is the one with the long cement picnic bench and the remnants of a cabin that burn down many years ago. When we got to it I could tell they were exhausted and hot. I told them, “I have camped in this site before. It’s a good one. Why don’t you guys stay here and I’ll hike to the Huckaby site to see if it’s open. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”   Again, I could tell by their faces they were relieved. So, I picked up the pace and hiked towards the site I have been working on for years. And sure enough a large family was in the site I developed. Disappointing, but not the end of the world. We only saw 2 groups the entire 4 days in there and one of them was a big family in the Huckaby site. We had not seen a sole until I ran into this nice family. They were super nice people. mom, dad, grandma and 3 teenage kids.   They were going to be in the site 2 of the 3 nights we were going to be there. Not a problem. I love that people use that site. Many take my guidance and improve it. Many have added to my “not so secret cache.” We talked about fly fishing and I offered a ton of guidance. Eventually the dad said, “Wait, you are the guy with the blog! I love that blog.” I smiled and said, “Yea, I’m Tim Huckaby.” He said, “Tim Huckaby, Yes! I need to buy your flies while you are down here.” I said, “You will not buy my flies. But, I will give some to you.” Which I did, of course….twice…the 2nd time with him wandering into our site at night begging me for more of my green crippled caddis nymph and convinced it was the only fly in the world that was working.

Tommy Fishing the deep pools from a high advantage point

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I doubled back to Tommy and Abby and we set up camp in the “picnic table site”. Little did we know what we’d be barraged with over the next 3 days: 5 separate visits by rattlesnakes. At least 3 of them unique snakes. Two of them I had to shoe out of the site with a tree branch. The irony was that on the hike in I said, “I once saw a rattlesnake here. I know they are in here, but I have only seen one over the years.” My guess is because of the big winter we were one of the first to camp in that site this season and the snakes simply moved in when it got hot in June. After seeing humans I doubt they’ll hang around long.

One of the 5 rattlesnakes that came to visit us in the picnic bench site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is always a calamity backpacking. Little mistakes become calamities backpacking because you cannot easily fix them being so remote and such. And this trip had two of them. The rattlesnakes was the first one.

After setting up camp I started stringing the rods. The first two were rods I use as loaners. It’s not smart to let teenagers pack and fish with expensive fly rods. But, when I opened the reel case for one of them I said to myself, “oh no…” It was a reel with a sinking line on it. In a case that said “floating”. I lent it out and it came back in reverse and I didn’t check before leaving. Normally that wouldn’t have been a crisis. But, I didn’t have any streamers with me!   Honestly it turned out great because we had 2 rods with floating lines, and sure one was a $900 rod being used by a teenager, but it survived. And I guided 95% of the time which is the right thing for Uncle Tim to do in the first place.

Another big Kern River Rainbow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We hiked upriver and both kids caught fish. Abby was the first on the board. What is it with females? They take instruction so well. By the time we left Abby was not only proficient with a fly rod, but figuring things out about how to move into position to get a good drift that I didn’t even tell her about. Both kids landed 3-5 Kern River Rainbows each of the 3 days we fished. There were a lot of missed sets and long releases as you’d imagine with beginners. Abby caught the most (most likely because I spent the most time with her).

Abby with one of her Kern River Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tommy caught the biggest fish: a 17” football. I still can’t believe he landed it because it shot downstream after he hooked it. I rock hopped over to him. he was standing 10 feet above the water on a rock so I couldn’t instruct him to chase it. There was nowhere to go (safely). I was thinking the entire time, “…barbless hooks…” But, he stuck him good. I told him, “Tommy, see if you can swing him into the soft water against the rock. Only there will you have a chance to pull him back.” And sure enough he did. Awesome fish.

Every day we saw good fishing until about 11am. And then it just shut down for them until around 4pm. I have seen lulls in the upper kern before, but not that long. It’s august after all. Well, because of the lull these two tuckered out (or just got bored) each day by about 5pm. That is when I snuck in an hour or so to fish by myself while they rested in camp. And I just killed. All dry flying. I can’t tell you which huck hoppers worked the best because they all worked in all colors in all sizes. There is always a late afternoon wind there before the sun goes down so I imagine that has a lot to do with it.

Tommy battling a monster…and losing it downstream…until i coaxed it all the way back up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every night we’d have appetizers, then S’mores in that order before dinner. We’d cash in early too exhausted from a long day of hiking and fishing. These teenagers slept so long I ended up doing a ton of work on the “picnic table site.” I cleared the entire beach. At one point I had climbed one of the trees and was sawing off the branches that impeded casting. But, I failed to catch a trout right in front of the site. It was not for lack of trying. The water was just too high and ferocious there.

On the first morning I woke up with the sun and after a coffee I decided to see if my secret cache was in tact. I needed the tools to clear the picnic table site. When I got to the Huckaby site that entire family was sleeping. And the cache made it another year! In fact it was in great shape.

On the 2nd day we hiked up stream to fish all day….Beyond Rattlesnake (the mountain crossing upstream from the Huckaby site). We were easily 3 miles up river when two kayaks floated by. I could not believe it.   I was so shocked I didn’t have a chance to say hi. I said to Abby and Tommy, “I have no idea how they got in here. They must have been dropped off by a helicopter.” I later learned that you can float the entire section of the Kern from the Eastern side by Mount Whitney to the Johnsondale Bridge with a brutal 2 day hike carrying a kayak. Hiking back, as we looked at raging rapids and waterfalls one after another we kept say, “I can’t believe they Kayaked this.”

Over the mountain there are numerous fallen trees blocking the trail. It’s pretty obvious that not a single pack of horses or mules had been on the trail yet this season. I guess there were just not enough resources in the budget of the forest service to clear the trees. I wish I could figure out how to help.

Abby, Uncle Tim & Tommy – those are good looking anglers….