Upper Kern River End of Season 2021 Fly Fishing Report

BlackRock Trail Head -> Jordan Hot Springs -> Painters Camp

11/12/21 to 11/15/21

Mark Huckaby with just another huge Kern River Rainbow. Notice the fall colors in the background

Intro Summary

My 26 year old son Mark (the fly fishing guide from Bozeman, MT) and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in 2 days.  It was ridiculously good fishing for the wild and native Kern River Rainbow.  I mostly fished dry/dropper with a Huck Hopper on top and Huck perdigons dropped below.  The backpacking hike in and out was not easy; in fact, it was a real challenge.

The Hike

I was “jonesing” to get a backpacking fly fishing trip in before the fishing season closed on 11/15.  With most of the forests that encompass the Upper Kern River closed, it was a real challenge to figure out how to get to the Upper Kern River.  I did hike all the way back from the forks to the Johnsondale bridge in the summer with my buddy Marty Jansen…and that was awful.  The Rincon trail is a motorcycle trail which makes it awful.  Well, sure enough Marty talked me into hiking to the Upper Kern River with 45 pounds on my back…. From the east side… the 395 side.  This time from the Blackrock Trailhead.  We were joined by fellow SDFF member and buddy Bruce Bechard and my 26 year old son, Mark, who is a fly fishing guide at my two favorite lodges in Montana: The Clark Fork Outpost and the Stillwater River Outpost.

From Left to Right: Mark Huckaby, Bruce Bechard and Marty Jansen….all smiling still because it’s the beginning of the hike down.

For over 20 years I have had a dream to access the Upper Kern River from the Eastern Side of the Sierras.  The problem is that access is just brutal.  For the first decade I hike it, I always thought backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail was difficult.  I know now it is not.  The Blackrock Trail is difficult. I never knew how spoiled I was by the Forks of the Kern Trail until I tried accessing the Kern River miles above the Forks.  From the Forks trail I had never made it all the way up river to painters camp.  it’s a challenge just to make it to the first up river bridge crossing from the Forks, which I have fished to many times.

Well, the Blackrock Trail goes to Painters Camp on the Upper Kern River.  It’s only 8.8 miles… which doesn’t sound that bad at all.  But, it starts at 9,000 feet of elevation and you lose 3,800 feet doing it.  We did the entire 8.8 miles with 3800 feet in one hike.  Never again.  Not that the hike in was easy.  It’s steep and I had 45 pounds on my back.  but, it was sheer agony on the hike out: 6.5 hours of misery.  The altitude and steepness was one thing.  But, doing it in November meant many parts of the trail were iced over or snow covered.  Bruce went down 3 times…and it was so slippery he had trouble getting back up.

From the Blackrock Trailhead you hike to Casa Vieja Meadow.  From there you hike steeply downhill to  Jordan hot springs in a canyon that follows 9 mile creek.  And from Jordan Hot Springs it’s a brutal downhill single track, through canyons and miles of fire damage that make it look like the moon down to the river.  In hindsight we should have broken the trip out into 2 days.

Was that hike worth it?…

The fishing

I’m not a counter, but my son Mark is.  That is what guides do for their clients.  That is how I know Mark and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in two days. The fishing…my god… It was stupid good fishing.  Most of the time, I fished a large Huck Hopper on top and trailed them with Huck Perdigons.  And yes, I did catch most of the fish on the Huck Perdigons.   I’d guess 75% of the fish i caught were on the Huck Midge Perdigon, size 16.  But, it was November and I did catch a number of fish on size 4 Huck Hoppers.  Where else in the western hemisphere can you consistently catch fish in mid-November on huge hoppers?  During the witching hour as the sun went down i fished size 18 BWOs right in front of camp.  And did well.  At that time of year, other than the midge, the Blue Winged Olive Mayfly would be the only hatch on the Upper Kern.  There were plenty of double hook-ups on this trip and Bruce even caught 2 at once!

And yes, we did pack waders and wading boots into our backpacks…worth every ounce at this time of year.  Understand 150 means fish landed.  The Kern River Rainbow is wild and native.  I have written this many times: The Kern River Rainbow fights like hell and they just don’t give up.  I cannot tell you how many fish I hooked, but failed to land….which is normal for that river.

Does this stretch look like dry fly paradise or what?! just upstream from camp i caught a 19″ KRR just about 200 feet upstream from Mark

The reason?  Well, I have my speculations that I will share with you:

  1. These fish have not seen an artificial fly in a year and a half and most won’t for over 2 years. The fire closures just have made it really hard for “normal humans” to get into the upper kern to fish.
  2. I have now fly fished 4 end of season (11/15) closings on the Upper Kern River. And I have killed every time.  I believe the trout just know that winter is coming and the food supply is about to grind to a halt so they go nuts feeding in anticipation of a long miserable winter.
  3. The River is always low in November. It’s crossable and there just are not many places the fish can hide from a good cast with a good drift.
  4. I think it’s also interesting to note that this part of the river is in a steep canyon which makes the days at this time of year super short. We didn’t see the sun until after 8am and lost it around 2:30 pm.  Fishing NOT in direct sunlight could help.
  5. A winter spawn? There are rainbows that spawn in the winter…like the Steelhead.  But, Kern River Rainbows are Spring Spawners.  Some of the fish we were catching looked like spawning males because of the colors.  They were dark and colorful not like the chromers we catch in the summer and fall.  Lately I challenge myself to see how quickly I can hook a trout, get it to hand and release it.  I wish I would have taken more pictures.  I also noticed what I thought were spawning behaviors.  I caught one decent sized fish and a huge fish followed it in.  that is normal, of course.  But, what wasn’t normal was this 2 footer was nuzzling next to my hooked fish side to side like a male trout lines up next to a female on a redd. I watched this behavior 3 times before I released my fish.

Notice a few things in the video above.  Firstly, the colors of the rainbow i have hooked.  then look closely at the huge 2 foot+ rainbow following it.  normally i wouldn’t have played that fish so long in front of me.  But, i was fascinated by the behavior as if they were in spawning mode.

My favorite stories from the trip:

  • On the first day Mark and I fished up river from where we camped. Bruce and Marty fished downriver to Marty’s favorite runs at Kern Flats.  Well, within a couple miles of fishing Mark and I wandered into the series of Waterfalls we had heard about.  We had already done really well.  Hiking above the first waterfall was pretty easy on the eastern side.  I watched and took pictures as Mark nailed some nice fish “between the falls”.  But, for the life of me I cannot figure out how fish got into that pool.  It’s well documented that waterfalls are natural barriers that prevent fish from moving up and down river.  And somehow they figure out how to do it. But, it was after 2:30PM and the sun was already behind the canyon walls.  I stared at that huge waterfall trying to figure out how to get around it for the next days’ adventure.  We decided we’d scale it from the west side because there was a huge bolder scree on the east side that looked impenetrable – big mistake.
  • Well, Marty joined Mark and I on the next day. The plan was to hike all the way to the falls and scale it, and start fishing from above.  It took an hour to scale that mountain and it was quite physical and relatively dangerous in spots.  After fishing, we took the trail on the way back to camp.  The trail goes way away from the river and up and over the mountain, but it was easier than the way we climbed in.  But, in between, my God the fishing was good.  Mark and I approached a run that was shaded by trees on both sides.  Like normal I said, “Do you want the head or the tail?”  He took the head.  Within seconds he was battling a big fish.  That big fish is the first picture in this article.  Well, I moved into the river below him where I could cast straight up stream into the run.  I caught a couple quickly.  Mark moved on up river on the assumption that big fish put the pool down.  I told you I’m not a counter but, this run was so prolific I counted…because I caught a fish on almost every cast.  At 14 landed and 2 LDR’d I laughed, left and caught up with Mark.

Fly Fishing the Upper Kern River is not for the faint of heart. There was no river trail in most of the areas we fished.

Sidebar from Mark Huckaby 

“On the way down the mountain I knew nymphing was going to be our best option not only because the time of the season.  But also because the introduction of the perdigon to the fly fishing industry has everyone confident in fishing the winter months (at least that is the case in Montana). Because my dad refuses to nymph and always starts with a dry fly.  When we got to camp he started fishing dry and alas, fish were rising. The next few days we were lucky enough to experience some of the best dry fly fishing I’ve ever experienced in November. The type of fishing where your hands start hurting because you’re catching so many fish. If you’re like me and like to switch it up. I recommend tossing a streamer in the big pools we found. A green, brown, or yellow wooly bugger seemed to do the trick and it was awesome to get chased by the native Kern River rainbows. It seemed like every time you casted into those pools a bunch of little fish would swim right up to check it out. The waterfall created many big deep pools for me to attack; perfect for streamers. To get the big fish, cast up into the white water, let your bugger sink very close to the bottom and strip back quickly.”

Here’s Mark changing out streamers beneath a small waterfall

Summary

Would I do this again?  Was it worth that awful hike out?  absolutely yes.  I’d do almost anything for that type of success in fly fishing for wild natives. But, next time I’ll break up that hike out into two days with an overnight at Jordon hot springs.  And even then that hike from Jordon Hot Springs to the trailhead is pretty gruesome.  Also 3 nights with only 2 fishing days for that amount of hike is too short.  It should be at least a 4 nighter.  Adding that night hiking out makes it a 5 nighter.

Here’s Mark battling just above “Marty’s Hole”. i swear i watched Marty yank 10+ fish out of that hole.

Special thanks to “Steve Ojai”, aka Steve Schalla, aka owner of www.flyfishingthesierra.com for the help on how to pull this backpacking trip off.  Steve was so kind to provide much of the guidance we needed.  Steve has fished this part of the river many times.  We used Steve’s map of the area religiously on this trip.  After the trip I talked to Steve in email.  He speculated the spawning behaviors and colors may have been confused trout as a result of the sudden drop in river temperature.

Palapas Ventana – Fly Fishing from Pangas near La Paz

October 4-9, 2021

Hey that’s me with a huge jack crevalle! Mike in the background cerebrating.

Who knew you could have so much fun with a 10 wt TFO fly rod?! That is the line I used when I did the “Old-guy Instagram” thing from the Palapas Ventana resort in Ventana, Baja, Mexico.

On October 4-9, 2021 the SDFF club assaulted the Palapas Ventana Resort near La Paz with more salt water flies, flouro, and fly rods than God.  This is an annual trip that the club has been doing for a few years lead by fearless leader, John Ashley.  For years these guys have been telling me, “If there is anyone who would enjoy this trip, it’s you, Huckaby.”  They were right.  I had a ton of success; some real bucket listers.  But, I paid my dues in mistakes for sure.  I learned a lot on this trip.  I can’t wait to get back there next October with the club.  I’m actually trying to figure out how to get there in the late Spring it was so fun.

Steven with a big ass rooster

The Fishing

I’m an old trout guy with very little ocean experience (fly or conventional).  This was my first time doing the fly fishing thing from a Panga.  In the myriad of guidance and preparation communications before we left my takeaways was: “It’s two people in a panga; one in back and one in front.  What a learning experience it was for me!  And man did I make mistakes for the first couple days before I got it dialed in.

Fearless Leader John Ashely with a nice dorado

What the captain (by all means not a guide) does is make bait with impressive throws of a bait net; sometimes in total darkness.  I was wearing polarized lenses and many times I could not see the bait balls the captain was throwing that net at in broad daylight….without wearing glasses….so impressive.  So, typically you start early as the sun comes up.  Then, with the live bait in the bait tank you zoom out to where the game fish are (dorado, roosters, jack trevalles, and even trevally….along with 25+ other species).  Cerralvo Island is a fairly short run across the sea of cortez and that is where most of the boats go.  The captain starts winging the live bait into the water with a cut out Clorox bottle.  The gamefish come up to the surface and go crazy in a fish feed.  You throw your fly into the chaos hoping to fool one of them.  When you catch them, you have the option to let them go, bring them back to the restaurant to compliment the night’s gourmet meal, give it to the captain to enjoy with his family, or have the Palapas Ventana resort vacuum seal, freeze and pack your fish to take home.

So many species to catch with the fly rod. That’s Jim Castelluzzo, the SDFF club president with a pompano

Let me try to define a panga.  A panga is a skiff; a modest-sized, open, outboard-powered, fishing boat common throughout much of the developed world.  The panga is not one of those super nice boats they use in the Bahamas where the fly fisher in front and in back have plenty of room on a casting platform to ensure a long cast.   The bow (front) of the panga has plenty of room for a fly caster and relatively nothing up there to grab a fly line.  But, it’s not a casting platform; it’s the bow of the boat.  The stern (back) is a challenge….at least it was for me.  If you cast from the deck in the back, you must heave a heavy weighted saltwater fly over the boat’s sides or the engine or the captain.  I’m a pretty good cast and I even hit the captain once.  Guess what?  “Oww!” is the same word in Spanish as it is in English.  Ultimately, I ended up just climbing on top of the rails in the back of the boat to get some height and balanced myself there; sometimes actually standing in the bait tank with the live sardinas.  That allowed me to double haul from a height advantage….or seeming advantage…more on that later.  And when the seas got rough, I had to lean against the engine itself.  So, when the captain turned the boat my ass turned with it.  It’s a miracle I didn’t fall into the water.  But, I am pretty agile for an old guy.   Being perched high meant I could double haul a cast 60-80 feet….which I learned after a couple days of struggling is not really an advantage.  Also, every panga seems to be different.  Some are newer and slightly modern.  Some have years of stories behind them with some impressive “Magiver-ing” of a bait tank.

Notice mike battling behind me. Double Hookups were common on this trip

As mentioned, I was told before the trip is “The captain throws live bait in the water and that makes the fish come up and go crazy.  Then it’s a simple 20 foot cast into the madness.”  That is kind of true.  Just like in trout fishing where there are great guides, good guides, and average guides.  The same thing goes for the captains here: some are awesome, some are not.  None speak fluent English.  Each captain and boat is different and fishes differently in terms of where…and sometimes even how.  Mike Hillygus (Montana Lodge owner where we do the annual SDFF trip, and friend of the SDFF club) and I fished 4 days with 4 separate captains and boats.  I love that Tim from the Palapas Ventana resort each night at the restaurant does a blind draw on which captain you get each day.  One day Mike and I stayed within a mile of the resort near the shore all day.  one day we did 10-1 more moving around than fishing; moving from fishing buoy to buoy.  There are a number of fishing buoys that have been strategically placed throughout the area that hold fish.  two days we ran over to Acervo Island and pretty much fished in the same location all day.  Mike and I traded getting the bow each day.  Mike out-fished me every day.  And it wasn’t until well through the 3rd day that I figured out why.

You don’t have to fly fish; a few of the group fished conventionally and did well…including a couple marlin.  This is Mike Rundlett with this big rooster.  but, look closely at the captain’s hat – making a bold prediction of the braves making the world series in early october is uncanny…

The School of Hard Knocks

I really don’t know why it took me two days to figure this thing out.  It may be so obvious to you Saltwater guys and gals with this type of experience. But, it was not to me.  I wasn’t without success.  In fact, I had a lot of success.  my mission was to catch a big rooster on a fly.  I ended up catching a lot of big roosters on the fly.  One of the roosters I landed was too big for me to hold to take a trophy shot with it.  I had the captain hold it for me.  But, now that I know (and now you know), I will be so much more successful on next year’s trip.  So, hopefully my malfunctions will serve as guidance for the trout anglers that want to do this type of fly fishing:

  1. The Double hauling 60-80 feet I was doing over and over is just a wasted workout and burn of calories. When I finally did look over at what mike was doing; he was not doing what I was doing. And having a lot more success. I was basically “hero casting” blind and he was targeting and being efficient about it.  I got the guidance from John and Kai before we left, “a simple 20 foot cast is all you need.”  For some reason I did not think that through.  While I was literally huffing and puffing double hauling casts over and over 60+ feet into the abyss, Mike was waiting for the right moment to cast a 30 footer right into the fish he was targeting.  Duh…  I was dragging the fly through the bait and feeding predators too late.  This was a sobering blow for me when we got back to the resort and in the bar I heard all the success my buddies were having…who simply could not cast (or chose not to cast) over 30 feet.
  2. The fly really does matter – How many times in trout fishing do we say something like, “the fly really doesn’t matter. Your placement and the drift matter a lot more.”  Well, in this type of fly fishing the fly really does matter.   Even the color matters.  The size really matters too.  But, what matters the most is that the fly rides correctly in the water imitating a baitfish as best as possible.  If you half-ass drunken fly tying in your man cave and your fly spins you don’t get takes.  My first two days I was fishing big heavy clousers with big beaded eyes.  Not only are they are they a tough cast but, the jigging thing those eyes produced were not producing as many strikes as mike.  Mike was fishing smaller deceivers (and similars) unweighted flies and killing.  He was in the right part of the water column; I was not.
  3. Knots Matter – This is the most painful lesson for me. I have been trout fishing so long.  I tie 5 different knots 95% of the time and 95% of the time in 3x and 5x. I can tie them all blind folded.  I haven’t failed a knot in years.  Well, I had no idea how differently 5x knots up than it does with 30lb flouro.  I had no idea that you have to wear gloves and yank those knots as tightly as your strength can handle… no idea.  I had no idea that you have to inspect your saltwater knots closely because the heavy flouro doesn’t just slip into place and knot-up like the light stuff does.  I learned that the hard way.  I lost a big dorado on a rapala knot that simply failed because it was not pulled tight enough.  I didn’t even look at the knot after tying it.  but, you can sure as hell tell a knot has failed when looking at the flouro after losing the fish.  and miraculously I also lost a big rooster on a perfection loop knot I tied for the flouro leader.    That is a first.  Some huge rooster swam away with my entire leader hanging out of his face… simply because I didn’t pull the knot tight enough.  Uggghhh…  30+ years of fly fishing and I am failing knots. I suck.  Don’t worry about me; a number of margaritas later that night at the bar fixed everything.
  4. Needlefish – I knew about these slimy creatures going in. if you see a needlefish following your fly you simply stop stripping and they will stop the chase.  But, if you are hero casting beyond what you can see you inevitably catch them.  And you can’t really do a damn thing about it.  and the poor captain has to figure out how to release them without getting bit by razor sharp fangs.  I’m a conservation guy and feel slightly guilty about when mike and I giggled watching one of our guides twisting the neck of the needle fish killing them so he could safely remove the fly.

Tom and Doug Rundlett with another fly fishing double. notice the PInchi Patos in the background

  1. Pelicans – “pinchi patos” I laughed out loud when our captain yelled that as I caught my first pelican. I speak decent Spanish and that loosely translates to “f-ing duck”.  Pelicano is a beautiful word in Spanish.  The captains don’t use that word.  they call them “pinchi patos”.  Btw, there is competition and hilarious chatter on the radio between the captains.  At one point, laughing, I said in Spanish, smiling, to our captain, “you do realize I understand what you guys are saying, right?.” He laughed …because there was a comment about one of my buddies in a different boat not having enough manhood to fight the fish he hooked.  I’d write what he said in Spanish here, but common decorum precludes me from doing it here (god, I hope someone gets that animal house reference.)  But, my god the pelicans.  On the day that our captain stayed on shore within a mile of the resort the pelicans followed us the entire time.  It was fairly frustrating.  Those birds have become accustomed to the captains throwing bait in the water and intercepting that bait.  which means they have unnaturally flourished in population because of it.  at points I had to pinpoint cast a 2 foot window through the gauntlet (50 or more) of pelicans with no way to strip the fly back without the pelicans taking it.  if you see a pelican take your fly you learn quickly to stop stripping.  They spit your fly out if you wait; which is excruciating if the fish are going nuts.  But, if you strip too quickly after that you risk them grabbing it again.  and then there is the good chance of simply leg hooking them as you strip your fly back; many times with a fish chasing.  On that day I caught ~15 pelicans.  Let’s just say the captains don’t really dig pulling a barbed fly out of a pelican’s mouth or leg.  Pinchi patos.

The Palapas Ventana Resort

I am no stranger to fly fishing lodges; I have been lucky.  Let me just start by saying the Palapas Ventana resort is a fraction of the cost of the high-end lodges in Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  Remember that I was joined by a Montana Lodge owner, Mike Hillygus from the Stillwater River Outpost Lodge and the Clark Fork Outpost Lodge.  Mike was surprised at what a deal it was. It’s Mexico.

For the SDFF club trip we had two people in each Palapa; Mike was my roommate.  These are not really palapas at the resort; they are so much better. A traditional palapa is an open sided cheap building with the thatched roof.  These palapas are stand alone buildings with a large bedroom and separate large bathroom…. With air conditioning; key for this part of the world.

Right?!

“They have a bar.”  That is the line I usually start with when describing this place.  I love bars and I’m not shy about it.  they also have a complimentary restaurant that goes with the bar.  But, this isnt’ just any Mexican restaurant.  Each night we were served a gourmet quality meal.  One night we had a Japanese themed sushi and sashimi set of dishes that riveled anything I have had in the states…. Or in the Japan for that matter.  You don’t go back skinnier on this trip; the food is that good.

Within steps of the bar is an Endless Pool where you can stare at the ocean.  Imagine fishing for 8 hours and battling big fish on your 10 weight to come back, grab a beer, walk into the pool and just stare at the ocean while saying things like, “this is the good life”.

I love this picture that Mike Rundett took.  That’s Tom Rundlett on my left and Stan on my right….. after a long day of battling big fish.”

They focus on service – Tim and his partner have trained his seemingly enormous staff well.  From the groundskeepers to the servers to the bartenders to the financial manager.  They are friendly and attentive.  On the first night he introduces his generals to the entire group.  It’s a classy move.  When you leave you end up hugging these people they are so awesome.

I should mention that Palapas Ventana is not soley a fly fishing lodge.  In fact, Ventana is more famous for it’s wind surfing and scuba diving.  Both those are options at the resort.  Also the resort provides snorkling equipment for free while you are there.  It’s a tropical fish and coral paradise in front of the lodge.  It just so happens that if you are tropical fish you have to always be on the lookout for that patrolling roosterfish.  Yea, it’s conceivable to DIY the roosters right from the shore like you see on those fly fishing shows.

Every night Tim from Palapas Ventana arranged some type of fun event for us. This was from “hot dog train” night.  Just imagine this train blowing through the tiny town of Ventana with everyone aboard holding a beer hooting and hollering.

Getting there: I believe the cross border exchange (CBX) is the best kept travel secret in the united states.  It consistently shocks me that even San Diegans still don’t know about it.  in their description it is “A faster, more comfortable, one-of-a-kind way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, exclusively for passengers of the Tijuana International Airport.”  Basically, you drive to the border in otay mesa, park in a huge parking lot. show a passport and plane tickets in a completely uncrowded modern building.  then walk across the border on a 200 meter air conditioned covered bridge that drops you right into the Tijuana Airport.  It’s $35 and worth every penny.  They even have a bag drop.  You don’t even need to check in with the airline at the airport. This allows you to fly from TIJ on a number of Mexican airlines for a fraction of the cost of flying from San Diego.  My round trip flight to La Paz was around $100…not kidding.  In La Paz the drivers from the resort are waiting for you with a sign to make the hour drive to the resort.  Simple and painless.

It wasn’t like it was not fun watching Mike Hillygus catching all those fish…

Summary

I know my way around a trout stream…that is for sure.  You learn a bit when you do it for 35 years.  What the many experts in the SDFF club have taught me…and continue to teach me, is the fly fishing saltwater game.  Let me tell you it’s compelling. I watch all the fly fishing shows on TV and it is frequently mentioned that catching a large roosterfish on the fly is in the top ten of fly-fishing bucket listers.  I caught a bunch of big Roosters and from what I wrote above you can tell I barely knew what the hell I was doing.  In the bar after that first day of fishing I told my fly fishing compadres, “I had no idea how fast those dorado swim.”  When you hook up with a Dorado you watch the entire thing… they are so colorful and beautiful.  It’s almost surreal how quickly it happens when they take your fly.

Complimenting this awesome fly fishing is simply an awesome resort at Palapas Ventana.  It’s run so well with awesome food and service.  They make you feel like family when you are there.  Did I tell you they have a bar?  I am definitely going back to Palapas Ventana.

I think this is Aaron. I do know that is a big rooster with a fly hanging out of it’s face

Fly fishing the mangroves of Punta Abreojos, Baja

June 5-12, 2021

One of the many large corvinas i caught

I’m sun-burned.  My lips are so chapped they are bleeding.  I have been stung/bitten a dozen from god knows what; swollen and itchy.  I have cuts, bumps and bruises.  And it is all from an epic 8 day fly fishing adventure 600 miles south of san diego in Punta Abreojos, Baja.  It was the most expensive free vacation I have ever taken (because I bought a kayak for it). It was totally worth it. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

This trip is an annual San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) trip led by Kai Schumann and John Ashley. For a long time these guys and a few others in the club would say things like, “You, of all people, would love this trip.” They were right.

The Group

On a trip like this you want to go with fun people.  And this trip did not disappoint.  I already told you about our fearless leaders, John Ashely and Kai Schumann.  Also on the trip was SDFF club president Jim Castelluzzo.  And Tom Rundlett who I have fished with a number of times in Montana.  Both Jim and Tom are cagey veteran fly fishers and fun to be around.  Also, on the trip were 3 I had not met before…and now they are friends.  Tom and Marta Phillips, a retired married couple.  Yes, there was a female on the trip and she was, without a doubt, a trooper.  She fished and hung with the guys and still managed to get q-time with her artwork.  There is no way my wife Kelly could hang on this trip.  And joining them was their lifetime long good friend, Larry.  Now Larry and I are cut from the same mold.  Let’s just say we enjoyed a few cocktails together.

The SDFF group from Left to Right: John, Larry, Marta, Tom, Tom, Kai, Jim, me

Before I get started on how epic the fly fishing was, let me set expectations.  This trip is not for everyone.  And here is why in no particular order:

  • It’s primitive camping
    • since I’m a backpacker this part was pretty easy. I spend a tons of nights in the wilderness primitive camping.  But, all that primitive camping is on a river with a water source.  This was different.  because the campground was closed (COVID) there was no access to water.  You had to bring your own water.  I totally depend on my sun showers for backpacking trips so that was not a problem at all.  I “showered” every day.  There was no bathroom….well, until Tom and Marta negotiated a deal to use a restroom in the campground ¼ mile away that didn’t have running water…. You poured a bucket of sea water in it to flush it…. still, quite the luxury when you are primitive camping.
    • You sleep in a tent or truck or camper. Again, I spend so many nights in a backpacking sleeping bag on the ground in a backpacking tent this was not an issue for me.  in fact, because of the warm weather sleeping in the shell/topper in the back of my truck with a pad with the ocean breeze was quite the luxury compared to the sleeping on the ground of backpacking.
    • You do a lot of prep. You bring a lot of “stuff”.  You can’t forget anything….well, this is a trip you can because with the group someone always has your back…and backups.
    • Ice is a premium. There is a little town 15 minutes away where you can resupply…and we did.  But, you really need a 7 day cooler like a yeti.

The cherished Grouper. these monsters hit like a freight train and pull hard.

  • It requires a kayak
    • and not just any kayak. You are most efficient with a kayak that goes backwards.  Many of the predators you are targeting hide in the roots of the mangroves.  They’ll shoot out to grab your perfectly placed fly.  But, then they run back in and snap you off if you are not quick enough to pull them out of there.  That means a hard strip set while pedaling backwards.  It’s an art form that needs practice.  I’m not very good at it….yet.
    • I did a ton of research and had all the fly fishing kayak experts in the club to lean on. Ultimately the Hobie kayak I wanted…and put a deposit on… just wasn’t available in time.   Hobie had a myriad of production problems with it.  It was a new model of a hobie inflatable.  So, I ended up with a “hard hull”.  It’s a hobie mirage sport.  It’s a “little one”.  but, I’m a little guy.  I love it.  I’m a 35+ year float tuber so the luxury of how fast these things go with so little effort is really hard to describe.  Plus, you are on top of the water; not in it.  no waders needed.  I have used it in Agua Hedionda lagoon a number of times now, in addition to using it on this trip.  But, ultimately I will purchase an inflatable that is big / long enough for the open ocean so I can wander out through the surf to the kelp beds in Carlsbad one day.

John in his inflatable Hobie Kayak with another large Corvina

  • It’s Mexico
    • It’s Mexico, sh@#$t happens; calamities happen. And we were not short of calamities.  See my top 5 calamities list below.  In one of the planning meetings before the trip John said, “I usually bring $1,000 dollars of pesos just in case.”  Sheepishly, with bribing in the back of my head I asked him, “Just in case of what?”.  His answer was trite and to the point: “Just in case your car breaks down and the mechanic doesn’t take a credit card.”    That makes sense.  Well, I left with a wad of pesos and came back home with a wad of pesos.  and that is just fine.  I’ll use them on other Mexico trips.  Like the SDFF club trip coming up to Palapas Ventana in October.

Kai with a Corbina (take notice to that b not v). here, the corbinas take clousers on blind casts

So those are the reasons for why you might not consider a fly fishing trip like this.  Here are the reasons for why you want you do want to do this trip:

  • The fishing is ridiculous awesome
    • Fly fishing for 30+ species. Many times I’d catch a fish only to turn to John and say, “What the hell is this one?”
    • Dry fly fishing! On top of the water!  Well, technically they are not dries, but you throw tarpon, permit and roosterfish flies that swim on top of the water column as you strip them back and the groupers and corvina come out of the mangroves and attack with vicious strikes on top…and you watch the entire thing go down almost in surreal awe.
    • I’m a trout guy. So, this whole mangroves fly fishing experience was new.  I learned so much from these experts.  John personally took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
  • Your two friends leading the trip (Kai and John) make the trip easy
    • They both bring very expensive campers and you get to benefit from them.
    • They have years of experience doing this trip and many like it. so, you get to be a follower…mitigating a ton of the risk, hassles, and uncertainties.

this selfie with me and john gives you an idea of how tight the back channels of the mangroves get…. not the type of place you want to get disoriented and lost

  • There is no sacrifice on food and drink in this group
    • It’s primitive camping yes. But, unlike backpacking you have coolers and fresh food…and beer…and cocktails.  Although 95% of this is catch and release, these fish are not trout.  So some of them actually taste good.  Our dinners were epic.  We had steak night.  We had fish tacos night.  And get this.  kai has a green mountain pellet grill (like a Traeger) that extends out of his camper.  I bought the biggest brisket that Costco had.  We smoked it for 14 hours and it was awesome.  For gods sakes kai even made home made pizza for lunch!  This is one of those trips you do not come back lighter on.  I lose 2-7 pounds on every backpacking trip I take.  I think I put on 10 on during this trip.

kai working his green mountain pellet grill…that slides out of his camper on a shelf…not kidding.

The Journey

On John and Kai’s recommendation I handled my Mexican Tourist permit, Mexican fishing license Mexican car insurance through discoverbaja.com.  it was super easy and all done electronically and through email in advance.  Of interest my Mexican car insurance was pretty darn expensive because of my truck.  For 2 reasons: 1. It’s fairly new and popular.  because of the pandemic (a number of reasons) there is a shortage of cars.  So, the insurance was calculated on a value that was a few thousand dollars more than I paid for it.  At the time my 2020 tundra was only 6 months old. its value was more than I paid for it.  there have only been a few times and a few cars that actually appreciated in value after purchase.  2. The tundra with a shell/topper is the most stolen car in Mexico.  It’s pretty obvious why….you can stuff a lot of humans in the back of that huge truck.

I don’t know what the hell this fish is.

For this trip to Baja…because you are going so far south (between Guerrero Negro and La Paz) I learned there is a strategy to where you cross the Border. We crossed into Mexico at the Tecate Crossing.  The Tecate Crossing is a tiny border crossing compared to the other border crossings in California.  But it has weird hours and it does not have Sentri (to get quickly back into the US).  It’s a beautiful drive that gets very close to the world famous barrett lake.  Now for reasons I still don’t quite understand, even though you get your tourist visa well in advance, you have to get it stamped at the border.  So, for this trip we drove across and were put in secondary for inspection (God only knows why).  After checking our vehicles for bad stuff, we parked on the Mexico side, then found the office where we got our tourist visas stamped.  I am still not even sure why we had to get tourist visas because I have flown into Mexico a gazillion times and never had to do it.  But, when the leaders of the group say you need to do it, you don’t question them.  But, I have to tell you I am curious.

with 30+ species you are going nail some big halibut

La Poma – From the beginning the plan was to break up the 600 mile trip into two days both on the way there and on the way back.  I just assumed it was because 600 miles is too much for one day for the group.  But, really it’s because the campground at La Poma on the Sea of Cortez and it’s restaurant are so awesome.  The folks that run this place are friends of Kai’s.  Such a luxury to have a nice dinner and breakfast when camping on the beach.  The wade fishing there was ok.  Nothing exciting in terms of size.  But a bunch of small spotties on a fly rod from shore is still fun.

Punta Abreojos – For the most part the roads all the way there are outstanding.  Much much better than I remember from the last time I did it many years ago.  Being that said there is a stretch from the sea of cortez side where you cross over to the pacific side where the highway is skinny and elevated.  That stretch is also well travelled by trucks (see calamities below).  So it might be a bit nerve racking to many Americans who are spoiled by huge lanes on the freeways.  The last few miles to where we camped outside Punta Abreojos are dirt roads… but, 4 wheel drive is not required.  I didn’t even put my truck in 4 wheel drive.  Of interest, where to put the trucks and campers on the banks of the lagoon takes some logistics because of the tides.  You have to pick high spots.  I would have screwed that up for sure and woken up to my truck in 2 feet of water had Kai and John not provided the parking guidance.

When we returned home, we crossed back into the US at the Mexicali crossing.  I have Sentri (Global Entry) so that process took 30 seconds.  But, I was shocked when I crossed because the Mexicali crossing is so far east. I had many more miles to go to get home.

the view from where we camped with the lagoon at hide tide

…and the same view at low tide

The Fishing

It’s all about the tides.  In this giant lagoon there are huge tidal swings.  There is one significant deep water channel feeding this enormous lagoon from the ocean.  On a high tide, the moon pulls an enormous amount of water into the lagoon and holds it there through the slack tide.  That is when the predators come in; that is when they are on the move.  I did the best fly fishing on the turn; the slack tide.  Because there are so many back channels and mangrove lined banks and because of the cohesiveness of water it is normal to have 10 to 20 foot tidal swings.  And when that slack tide turns and the moon starts pulling the water out, it goes out in a hurry producing miles of suddenly empty land (under water just hours before) you can walk on.  Why is that important?  Well, although not unsafe, if you are having too much fun fishing in your kayak on the high and it turns to the low and the water goes back out you will have to put the wheels on your kakak and carry it over the land you kayaked over earlier.  If you fish with john, that is just part of the deal.  I like that.

Jim with a nice Corbina he nailed right off the shore.  The devilishly handsome author in the background stripping clousers next to his kayak

The Corvina – Not the “ghost of the coast” corbina that patrols the socal surf.  The Corvina is a ferocious predator that is a hoot of fun to fool and battle.  I am infamous for saying, “Nothing fights like a trout.  I have fly fished all over the world and nothing fights like a trout.”  That usually gets quite the raised eyebrow from saltwater fly fishers.  Let’s face it, most saltwater fish are big and just pull hard.   There are exceptions, of course.  But, nothing fights like a wild native trout (aka the Kern River Rainbow).  When I got home from this trip I told all my fly fishing trout buddies, “When it comes to battling fish on a fly rod, I have found a worthy competitor of the trout in saltwater: The Corvina.”  The Corvina hits hard like a trout.  It head shakes like a trout.  It does long runs like a trout.  The only difference is that the Corbina does not go erratically ballistic like a wild native trout doing those crazy ass herculean jumps like a trout.  Another difference: you can release a big trout in the water by removing the hook quickly with your hands.  You only make that mistake on a Corvina once.  I gave the lagoon some of my blood releasing my first big corbina. The Corvina has fangs.

You only make the mistake of sticking your fingers in a Corvina’s mouth once

The low and then slack tide also produces the most ridiculously fun wade fishing.  On the 2nd day, John lead me on a mile hike over land that was covered in water just an hour earlier to a deep water channel that compressed all the fish during the low tide.  We had to cross a main channel for a couple hundred feet in waste deep water.  As we crossed, he said, “I really don’t want to swim this on the way back so we need to watch the tide.”  We absolutely killed catching Corbina after Corbina.  It was so fun.  Big Fish too.  We even doubled up a few times.  at the crossing the tide was a little higher… like chest high.  But, still manageable.  And yea, the water is warm.  So, there is the perfect set up for the story I tell in the calamities section below.

The Wildlife

We were there to fly fish.  With 30+ species to catch and release it was a dream.  But, also partying in that giant lagoon were pacific bottle nosed dolphins.  And, as you’d imagine this place is a bird watchers dream.  From egrets to ospreys to some tropicals I couldn’t identify.  Also, this place also supports a huge population of well-fed coyotes; even though it’s so close to the beach.  I woke up one morning and stared out the back of my truck at the bay to watch a coyote running it at low tide at full speed.  Pretty awesome.

Kai got this shot of a huge osprey waiting out the tide.

The Calamities

Here are my top 5 calamities of the trip in no particular order.  Take notice that I own 3 of 5 calamities:

  • My Trxtyl Fly rod holder – Well, because of the Kayak I bought Yakama racks so I could put it on top of my truck. I did tell you this was the most expensive free vacation ever.  Well, I love this company Tryxtl from Helena, Montana for many reasons.  So, I asked to join their pro staff team and bought their fly rod holder.  I’m sure it was my fault in the way I mounted the fly rod holder on the Yakima Racks.  But, it didn’t survive the trip in.  It loosened in the journey on the Mexican roads, snapped off the racks, and disintegrated as it hit the highway.  A bummer for sure.  But, I didn’t have any rods in the holders so not a crisis by any stretch.  I’ll replace the Trxtyl rod holder with a new one.
  • Kai’s mirror – I mentioned the skinny, elevated stretches of highway. John told a story of losing his mirror to an oncoming truck on a prior trip.  Well, on the way home I was two cars back from Kai’s camper in the caravan and went through a wash of broken glass.  I was pretty sure what happened right away.  It was Kai’s rear view mirror.  The bummer is that Kai had his window open when the rear view mirror of his camper hit the rear view mirror of an oncoming truck and exploded.  So he was bloody with small cuts when we all pulled over to inspect the damage.  The window in Tom Phillip’s Sprinter van also broke as a result of the disintegrated rear view mirror parts.  Not a crisis.  That is what insurance is for.
  • Tom’s tire – around the end of the 2nd day Tom Rundlett, who’s camper was parked next to my truck. In between was my giant “easy up” that served our eating, relaxing and partying area.  Well, Tom says, “It looks like my tire is low.”.  I didn’t think anything of it because at altitude my tires do weird things.  But, we were at sea level.  By the 3rd day it was a problem.  It was a slow leak that wouldn’t hold air.  John instructed Tom to go to the little town of Punta Abreaojos and within an hour Tom’s tire was quickly fixed for a ridiculously low amount of pesos.
  • My dead battery – When it was time to leave everyone started their engines and drove away… except for me. My new truck was dead.  I’m still not sure how it happened.  I could have left one of the internal lights on and not noticed.  Or it could have been 5 days of charging all my devices in the back of the truck at night.  I started to pull out the jumper cables a little panicked when john doubled back, then ran over with a compact car jumping device.  He jumped my truck with that device and everything was fine.  I now own that gizmo and it lives in my truck.  I wish I knew what happened.  It kind of haunts me.  my new tundra has so many buttons and gizmos I’ll never learn them all.  in that regard I miss my 14 year old Tundra that I gave to my son in Bozeman, Montana.  If you don’t put your seat belt on in that truck it doesn’t care.  And it has a cassette deck.  I miss that simple truck.
  • My getting caught by the tide – This I my best story of the trip. Above I described how much fun John and I had wading the low tide through the slack tide on day 2.  Well, I decided to do it on day 3 alone.  I walked the mile across bay that was filled in high tide and got to the channel crossing.  It was just about the same height as the day before; waste high.  I started fishing and was killing in the exact same spot just like the day before.  And I was laughing and commenting to myself and having a hoot of a time.  I did notice the tide turn go the other way pretty quickly.  I did see the tide coming in.  I don’t know why I didn’t put 2 and 2 together more quickly.  I guess I lost track of time having so much fun.  I totally underestimated how quickly that tide comes in.   Well, by the time I left I was saying to myself, “I hope I didn’t screw this up.” And walking as fast as I could towards that channel crossing.  When I got there I said out loud, “Holy Sh@#$t…”  I blew it. I could tell right away I was going to have to swim it.  It wasn’t like I was in danger.  I wasn’t going to get swept out to sea.  The tide was coming in.  I’m in good shape for an old guy.  the issue was I had my fly rod.  That meant swimming one handed while holding on to the rod with the other.  I was wearing a backpack with my gear in it.  but it was a fancy Columbia dry pack.  When I buttoned it up it actually served as buoyancy.  I only had to swim a hundred yards or so.  And it was more like a one-handed dog paddle.  When I staggered back to camp I was dripping wet head to toe.  John immediately said, “I thought I was going to have to get you in my Kayak.”  And I told them the story laughing.

Again, this trip isn’t for everyone and you really do need a kayak that goes in reverse.  But, if love an adventure and catching multiple saltwater species on a fly rod.  And you love camping with fun people and good food and beer and cocktails, this trip is for you too.  I can’t wait to do this annual trek again next June.

You gotta’ yank the groupers out of the mangroves quickly or they break you off in the roots

Forks of the Kern – June 18-22, 2021

“Wait what?!  You got to fish the Forks?!  But, it’s closed…”

One of the many big Kern River Rainbows i nailed

The San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) got to fish the Upper Kern by the way of the Forks of the Kern Trail in June of 2021.  Technically the only people legally allowed to fish that stretch of the Upper Kern for over 2 years until the trail re-opens in the Spring of 2022.  But my God we earned it.  We worked our asses off fixing up the Forks trail.

A group of 6 of us worked with 2 members of the Western Divide Ranger District to do trail repair on the first 2 miles of the trail: from the trailhead to the confluence of the Little Kern River and the Main, North Fork of the Kern River 1000 feet and 2 miles below.

A great example of the devastation…with the green coming in the following spring

It was physical work in hot conditions with hand tools over a long weekend.  The trail had not been touched in 17 years and the fire most certainly didn’t help it.  I have been using that trail well beyond that 17 years and I can tell you I have never seen it in better shape as a result of the work.  You can practically roll a baby stroller up and down it now.  Unfortunately, no one will not be able to use it until Spring of 2022 when Western Divide reopens the area.

In addition to the trail repair, hand sawing felled trees off the trail, and trash removal, my 5 years of frustration to provide the western divide ranger district the financial resources to replace the “welcome to the golden trout wilderness” sign on the forks of the Kern trail is over.  The sign didn’t succumb to last year’s largest fire in California History.  It succumbed to vandalism around 5 years ago.  Hands down that sign was the most photographed on the entire Forks Trail.  Well, the SDFF club funded the new sign.  I personally was honored to carry it a mile down the trail where we installed it.

The SDFF and Western Divide Forest District Group with the newly installed GTW sign. from Left to Right: me, Daniel, Brooke, Evan, Kevin, Steve, Marty, Warren

A huge thanks to Evan Topal, a fairly new hire of the Wester Divide Ranger district.  Evan handled all the bureaucracy and red tape behind the scenes to make this first of its kind project happen.  Evan succeeded where I had failed navigating for years.  Evan also figured out how to pave through the red tape and legal indemnification to provide hands on the ground for the trail repair.  I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a “doer” in a so poorly under-funded and under-resourced group protecting our forests.  We are in talks about the San Diego Fly Fishing Club “adopting” the trail and what that might mean in terms of financial and hands on resources.  Execution of that would please me intensely.

I personally picked up and carried out over 30 pounds of cans and bottles accumulated over 20 years that were exposed when the trail and surrounding areas burnt.  And I felt like I was working half as hard as my buddies who were using picks and shovels and hand saws.  It was the logical job for me.  the lord didn’t give me much, but he did give me the “goat gene”.  I climbed up and down about 100 feet max off trail from above and below the trail to retrieve cans, bottles and a variety of other junk (ie: a 20 year old white gas latern, mangled jet-boils, etc.) that survived incineration in the fire.

Btw, I am working with Evan Topal to do another foray into the Forks Trail to fix up the next 2 miles of trail in the fall.  Being that said the 25% snowpack year in the Southern sierras is a much bigger concern.  The upper kern is only flowing less than 130 CFS as of writing this.  that is the lowest I can remember for this time of year; lower than I can remember in the 4 drought years.  And it is just July.  We could see disastrous low flow conditions in sept and oct.  I may have to self-inflict “hoot owl” restrictions like they do in montana when rivers get too low and too warm.  At a certain point it is just too dangerous to catch and release the fish in low, warm conditions.  You end up killing them.  And no fly fisher wants that.  Only time will tell.  But, if you are interested in helping; either with hands on the ground or financially then please do send me an email.  Let me tell you that the fly fishing makes the tax of the work completely worth it.

The Fire Aftermath

Honestly I have zero expertise in the science of Forest Fires: the recovery, patterns, etc.  But, I have been reading up on it and it’s fascinating stuff.  This area badly needed a burn.  So, let me tell you right off that the entire area is already showing recovery… green where it looked like the moon.  Trees recovering and growing back.  So much plant growth so that I’m confident when we all get back in there next year we’ll have to look hard for the signs of the fire on the ground.

And yes, the biggest fear from most fly fishers was that the fire would poison the river.  Let me tell you it did not.  it fished better than I can remember it in years.  It’s the simple fact (and irony) that this drought year did not produce rain or runoff conditions that pushed ash and mud into the river.  It’s still as crystal clear and pristine as it ever was.  And because of the new growth from the ashes we will not have mud slides.  Of course the fish not seeing an artificial fly for over a year also helped.

What shocked me first and foremost was seeming contradiction of the areas that barely burnt, the areas that did not burn and the areas that were scorched like the moon.  For instance, a huge area right at the confluence didn’t see fire at all.  Even though it was surrounded by burn in all directions including across the river.  There must have been a sudden wind shift (or fire fighting) that prevented it.  Yet in other places on the Forks trail it still looked “Nuked”; like the moon.

I have good news for you “Huck-site” fans.  The Huck Site Survived.  It burnt all right.  But all the tall pines trees on the plateau survived and were green on top when I got there.  Most of the wooden “benches” around the campfire ring burnt to ashes.  But all the trees down at the river’s edge did not see fire at all.  Even the tree swing survived.  Marty and I both quickly caught and released a couple fish right at the Huck Site after surveying it.

That’s Marty roll casting the big pool in front of the Huck Site. notice the rope swing in tact

The Huck-Cache, however, did not fare as well.  It’s gone.  Just a few hundred yards up river and about 200 feet above the trail, the cache, and the entire area around it incinerated including the giant pine tree it was hidden behind.   Before seeing it, I assumed it burnt and that I would be responsible for hauling out a ton of trash because of it.  there was no trash to haul out.  Everything incinerated short of the saw blades and a backpacking grill.  My buddy Jeff Kimura from the SDFF club hauled in a super nice little camp table just a couple weeks before the fire for a club trip to the forks.  It was aluminum.  It completely incinerated.  Two tents, 5 pairs of wading boots and river shoes and a variety of other stuff donated by the many visitors to the Huck Site: all incinerated.  Not a tragedy; not even sad.  Just interesting.  That cache can be replenished over more time.  It’s just stuff.

Is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that KR rainbow’s face? why yes, it is…

The Fishing

Nuts.  Ridiculous.  Stupid Good. I had a day where I caught 40+ Kern River Rainbows.  4 of them were over 20”.  20 of them were over 14”.  And 95% of the time I was fishing dries: huge size 4 huck hoppers.  I could kick myself for even dropping a nymph off my size 4 huck hoppers.  But, i did want to test my new Huck Perdigons.  I did it for around 20 minutes mid-day on the full day I fished when it slowed.  And I ended up getting takes on every drift.  When they started taking the huck hoppers on top again I just caught off the dropper.

The Kern River Rainbow. Look at that fan of a tail

And it wasn’t just me.  Marty Jansen caught 40+ on that day too.

But, my favorite fishing story from the project / trip has to be from Brooke Sargent.  Brooke is a 25 year old fly fisher, who on this project, was stuck with a bunch of old guys.  Not only is she a hoot of fun to be around, she guided one of the Forest Rangers to landing a 16” KR rainbow… a forest ranger who had never touched a fly rod before.

is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that Fish’s face?

The Mistake

It seemed like such a great idea at the time.  A little background is that earlier in the spring I was fishing the 5 mile section of river above the Johnsondale Bridge.  I came across a family coming down the river trail with backpacks.  It was a dad and two kids, 10 and 8.  I was shocked to find out they had hiked all the way from the Forks.  “My God.” I said to those two kids.  “You are incredible.  That has to be 14-15 miles.  I didn’t even know there was a trail that goes there.”  The dad told me, “There really isn’t a trail.  You have to bushwhack the last 2 miles into the canyon.  We lost that trail numerous times.  And we did take a full week to get there and back.”

Well, armed with that information and remembering that Evan Topal from Wester Divide said, “Your group’s special permits expire at 3pm on Sunday.  That is when we’ll lock the gate on the road preventing access.  But, if you camp on the other side of the river, then you can hike out whenever and wherever you want as long as you stay out of the closed area on the north side of the river.

So the plan for Marty and me was to stash our trucks at the Johnsondale Bridge on the way in.  Then get a ride in from the other SDFF club members.  That would allow us to stay another two nights with a full day of fly fishing in between.  Then we’d hike our way out of the Kern River canyon for 2 miles to find the Rincon Trail which is a straight shot on top of the canyon for 9 miles to a junction trail back into the canyon catching the Johnsondale Bridge trail for the last 4 miles to our trucks.

Here’s Marty climbing out of the Kern Canyon as a process of trying to find the rincon trail

It was awesome.  But, I will not do it again.  10+ hours; 15 miles.  The middle 9 miles of the hike on the Rincon trail was awful.  The first 2 mile hike out of the canyon was quite the adventure.  We lost the trail numerous times.  We were smart about it.  We spread out until we either figured a way forward around the obstacles or wandered until we found the trail.  We did a fair amount of research in advance, so we knew “the trail” followed the creek the entire way.  So we were never really worried about getting lost; just worried about getting stuck.  It’s just that the creek was a pretty rugged canyon.  It’s a barely used non-maintained section of a trail that probably has not seen any work on it for 30 years.  It was a beautiful section, well forested and tons of signs of bear.  So much so I could smell them.  You know that stench of a bear when they are around?  We didn’t see any, but I’m pretty sure they saw us.  But it took us over 2 hours to get out of that canyon and find the rincon trail above.  Not an issue.  We had all day to hike the 9 miles back to the river.  The big mistake was that neither Marty or I paid any attention to how straight the rincon trail is on the trail maps other than finding it interesting.  We also didn’t pay too much attention that you are allowed to drive motorcycles on that trail.  Well, that trail goes straight through the forest for 9 miles because a motorcycle can go straight.  Unfortunately for us humans it was a ton of up the mountain then back down the other side on badly rutted out motorcycle trail.  it was brutal and it was hot.  At one point I said to Marty “if we don’t get to Durwood creek soon I’m going to be in trouble in terms of water.”  He said something like, “and if it doesn’t have water we’ll both be in trouble.”  Well Durwood creek did have water and did support a healthy amount of trout.  My guess is they were Little Kern Goldens, but I am still not sure because we didn’t fish it.

The only highlight of the next 4 miles of the rincon trail was me running into and startling a multi-point buck (deer).  It was a hot death march for the most part.  I was so pleased when we finally got to the turn off from the Rincon Trail to hike back down into the canyon for the last 4 miles to our trucks.  Our original plan was to fish and camp a night there before hiking out.  But we were so beaten up and exhausted when we did finally get down to the river again, we just decided to get it over with.  Even though I have hiked the 4 mile JDB trail a gazillion times it was just a death march.  I actually fell too.  That can happen when you are tired.  That could have been a disaster.  Thank God I landed on a flat piece of granite like a cat.

The Huck Site in tact. Green trees at the river. the pine needles fell from the charred, but alive pine trees on the burnt ground after the fire went out.

Of interest…

Right before Marty and I staggered into the huck site we found the remnants of a wild turkey.  I had never seen a turkey in the forks area but, it most certainly looked like a mountain lion had a party.

Summary

Epic trip.  One of the most special I have had at the Forks…and I have had a lot of them.  We were so fortunate to fish the Upper Kern while it was closed… even if it was just for a few hours.  We did pay the price, though, in terms of physical labor.  Would I do it again?  absolutely.  the hard work is a simple price to pay to fish that special place.  But, there is no way I’m hiking out the 15 miles by way of the Rincon Trail again just to get in a single full day of fishing.  If there is a next time where we work on the next 2 miles of the trail, I will leave the civil way like normal humans.

For the literally hundreds who have emailed me about the status of the Forks after the complex fire of 2020 I can tell you that this is going to be a special place to fish come spring of 2022.  Let’s go!

Believe it or not this is a different fish caught close to the other monster. i put my iphone on timer on the bank to take the picture

 

Upper Kern River: Backpacking up river from the Johnsondale Bridge

Dates: 4-16-2021 to 4-18-2021

River Flow:

  • Friday: 380 CFS
  • Saturday: 370 CFS
  • Sunday: 360 CFS

Solunar:

  • Friday: 13%, poor
  • Saturday: 13%, poor

Hatches: SalmonFly and a variety of caddis, mayflies and midges

I am obsessed with the Upper Kern River.  I love it.  I call it my “home waters”.  If you read on this site, you know that.  I literally check the flow of the Upper Kern River above Fairview Dam (the very first dam the water sees) every day of the year.  The flow rate is a great indicator of how well it fishes.  Above Fairview Dam, The Upper Kern River fishes really well below 250 CFS, Good to 400, and then above 500 CFS it gets dicey.  And it gets dangerous.  When the river is above 350 CFS it is not crossable safely, let alone without swimming.

Well, as you’d imagine with Spring runoff coming, I have been watching the Upper kern river flow like a hawk.  I fished it right as the pandemic got bad last year at the end of April.  There is no Covid in the wilderness of the Sierras.  I read the article I wrote a year ago here and got excited about doing it again.  In the beginning of the week the river started rising significantly surely signifying the runoff had started and wouldn’t back down until June. I resigned myself to the fact that I just would miss the spring window to get in there and have to wait for the runoff to end to get in there in the summer.

Check out the red racing strip on that KR Rainbow…with my salmonfly imitation hanging out of his face

This, coupled with the the fact that Forks of the Kern Trail (and most of the area that the Western Divide Forest District Manages) will be closed until Spring of 2022 made me really bummed.  All that forest is closed as a result of last year fires.

But….  Tuesday the river started falling and continued to fall for 3 days.  On Thursday morning, April 15th the river was below 400cfs.  that is pretty much ideal for end of April.  So, I made the executive call to play hooky from work on Friday and do a 3-nighter with the backpack.  I plowed through LA, drove to the Johnsondale Bridge (JDB) on Thursday night and crashed in my truck.  I hiked in Friday morning.  It was bitter cold.  My plan was to fish hard for a couple days then hike out Sunday morning.

It was so last minute.  I’m at a stage in my life and career where I can do the last-minute thing easily.  But, not everyone has that luxury and although I asked a few of my fly fishing buddies there was no one who could pull it off so last minute so I did it alone.  It’s not the first time I have backpacked alone.  I now have many nights alone in the wilderness under by belt.  Safety wise, it’s not ideal, but I do love an occasional few nights in the wilderness to clear my head.  Yes, I carry a Garmin InReach Satellite Communicator and I pay for a plan that if I get hurt, the cavalry will come get me with a press of a button.  But, I have never used the device other than txting my buddies how awesome the fishing is… oh, and to tell my wife Kelly that I’m safe and having fun.

I was torn on my plan on where to camp / how far to hike. Last year i camped with the boys (Jason and Joey) close to what is affectionately called “teacups”.  It’s an impressive water slide / falls.  That is about 2.5 miles from the bridge.  I’m a planner so not having a specific plan on where I was going to camp is not like me.  Also, I was not that familiar with the primitive sites farther up than 2.5 miles.  I know the 8 miles of river up stream from the confluence of the Little Kern River and the North Fork of the Kern like the back of my hand.  That is where the Forks trail goes.  That confluence of the 2 rivers is ~14 miles upstream from the JDB.  But, I did not know the JDB stretch after 3 miles that well.   I remembered a decent primitive site around 4 miles that I was going to target.  I was going to make my decision based on seeing rises in the river (I did not) and how strong I was and if I could find that perfect site to guarantee seclusion.  I didn’t know it at the time but I could have guaranteed seclusion at the 3 mile mark.

Most day hikers target the teacups at 2.5 miles if not sooner.  Most non fishing hikers hike through to the rincon trail at the 4 mile mark.

Well, when I hit the sign for the Rincon Trail I was feeling really strong.  But, that is where the river trail ends.  In the back of my mind I remembered a primitive site close to the river under a tree from where I had fished last year.  When I got to it, I was not that impressed.  It was exposed in bare sand and close the trail.  Honestly, I should have stopped there and camped.  I’d guess it was about at the 4.25 mile mark.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that is the last primitive site on the river.  I also didn’t know exactly how long you could go. But, I knew there was a finite end soon.

So I pressed on. and it was nuts. I bushwhacked and rock-climbed along the river with 45 lbs on my back another full mile after the trail ended.  To river I had not seen before.

I kept going until I could go no more…solid granite walls going 200 feet high and 10 foot deep water in front of me with no way to cross the river.  There was no primitive site and I was exhausted.  My devices said I had travelled over 5 miles from my truck parked on the JDB bridge. I couldn’t go back for many reasons: it was shear hell with that backpack on just to get upstream where I was.  But, mostly because at one point I had to slide down 10 feet of polished granite saying, “I’ll worry about getting back up that thing with a backpack on in a couple days”.   Then I said to myself, “There cannot be many 59 year old’s who could do this…let alone want to.”

The American Salmonfly – with that orange head and body they are unmistakable

So I had to make a primitive site just a couple hundred feet short of where I could go no farther.  Which will be underwater in a month or so.  While I was clearing brush and willows in the river sand close to the water line where there was just enough room to put my tent up, a salmon fly crawled on my arm….what?!   then I started looking at the willows…there were salmon flies everywhere…then up in the air!   I panicked thinking, “Oh my god do I have any salmonfly patterns with me.”  I had tied a bunch about 10 years ago but I didn’t know if I had them with me.  I was possessed thinking about it while I set up my tent resigned to the fact I wasn’t going to look until I got my tent set up.  Or else I’d get too excited, start fishing, fish until dark and have to deal with setting up camp in the dark.  When I got to looking….Yes!   I had 3 salmonfly patterns.

The Salmonfly is a huge Stonefly. It lives underwater during its early life stages and is extremely sensitive to pollution. If the water has any assemblance of pollution or chemicals, the salmonfly larvae will die.  So, the sight of many salmonfly adults means the Upper Kern River and the ecosystem it supports are healthy and clean.

Once one of these monster salmonflies crawed on my arm i started seeing them everywhere.

After getting the mandatory camp stuff set up, I rigged up with a Salmonfly imitation and started fishing.  Within 5 minutes I had a 14” kern river rainbow rise up and smack it within 100 feet of camp.  I got it to hand quickly, and with a smile, realized it could be a special two days.  It was.

So, after making camp I fished my way back downriver…  I couldn’t go any farther up river.  So, I had waders and I got around the big granite slab I slid down by going in the water.  I looked on both sides not wanting to worry about it for 3 days.  About 200 feet in front of it was enough dirt to scramble above it.  with some bushwhacking about 100 yards there was a way down on the other side.  I’m not saying it was easy.  But, it was a relief knowing it could be done without getting wet.

An Interesting surprise: a brown trout in the upper section of the Kern. I just didn’t have the heart to kill him, but, i know plenty of people who would have.  He fell for a size 12 black huck hopper.

It was 2 days of dry fly fishing.  After the first day my 3 salmonfly imitations were totally chewed up, missing wings and barely floating.  They were still catching fish.  But, at that point I increased my odds and trailed them with size 12 Huck Hoppers in a double dry format. I consistently induced rises even though I only saw a couple natural rises.  For the entire 2 days I fished, there never was a need to nymph.  I pretty much got a take in every run, riffle, tail-out, pocket water and pool I through at. I was supposed to test my new Huck Perdigons and never got to it.  Why would you nymph when you can consistently fish dries?  BTW, I did meet a fly fisherman about 2 miles from where I camped that was nymphing under the bobber and he told me he had a 40 fish day; not a surprise.

This kern river rainbow ignored the chewed up salmonfly imitation with half a wing and grabbed the huck hopper

Of Interest, I even caught a couple brown trout.  They are not native and rare in that river.  I didn’t have the heart to kill them so I let them go.  But, they won’t be rare for long.  Browns always take over a river.  It’s just a matter of time.  If that river is to remain genetically pure they should be removed.

Interestingly enough, no permitting is required in this stretch of river other than a fire permit….and yea I did a camp fire.  And I did it safely.  I put some serious work into building a fire ring that would be safe.  I have never known that area to not be able to do a fire but, I bet there are times.   I was ethically ok with building that fire ring because it was so close to the river it will be completely washed away without a trace in a matter of weeks when the runoff starts.  And because….Awful, bitter cold nights.  The forecast called for 75 degree highs and 45 degree lows with 5% chance of rain….That would have been nice.  That is not what happened. On Friday night it was definitely in the 30s. This was suppsed to be my first and only backpacking trip without a calamity.  On Saturday afternoon it rained…I have a 3 ounce Columbia backpacking rain shell and at the last minute left it home saying, “5%.  There is no way.”  3 ounces… Ugghh… I was shivering wet.  And the temperature was much colder at sun down than the day prior. Thank god for that fire.  In the morning my tent, waders, boots all frozen….

That’s a decent sized Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 black huck hopper stuck in his face

I did lose the fish of a lifetime.  We always remember the ones we lose; not the ones we land… The story goes like this: For variety I casted into super deep slow moving water….i have had some epic battles with huge KR rainbows rising from the depths at the forks to grab a Huck Hopper.  Well, like in the past, up from the depths came a 2 footer.  He whacked it and I set hard.  I pulled his head out of the water with my set.  I got a good look at him and he was pissed off. The battle was on.  He raced to the depths a few times and head shook…but I had a barb on my huck hopper (yes we can do the age old argument on which is better for the fish; barbed or barbless) and I was on 3x so I was not afraid to muscle him back up to the surface each time trying to quickly land him and let him go.  I was 15 feet above the water line on a huge granite rock. As soon as I started worrying about how I was going to scramble down to land him safely by looking away at my path down to the water he shook off in the depths.  Maybe he hit a snag near the bottom.  I don’t know.  I never will.  My “lost fishes of a lifetime list” goes long now.  Sigh… 😊

The Upper Kern is a beautiful place. It was in that tail-out down stream where i lost the monster

Like every time I fish the upper kern my land to take ratio was really low.  I was way under 50% of getting the fish I hooked to my hand to let them go.  I have said this a gazillion times, but there is nothing that fights like a Kern River Rainbow.  They are just so hard to land.  They go ballistic. They just don’t give up.

When hiking in, I did meet a totally studly dad and kids, 8 and 10 years old on their way back from a week of backpacking.  Super nice people and I could not get over what great attitudes these kids had.  The 8 year old girl explained the trails they took in vivid detail.  She had long blond hair matted from a week on the trail.  I asked them where the heck they went and the dad said, “the confluence by the forks trail.”  “Wait, what?”  I had no idea you could even hike to the forks up from the JDB…The dad did say the trail disappeared and they basically bushwhacked to the river.

I have started using the Gaia app and software in tandem with my Garmin InReach.  so far i’m pretty impressed. this is my route hiking in.  notice that it took me 2 hours and 41 minutes to go just 4.94 miles.

After getting home, I looked at the maps and most of them don’t show a trail to the confluence.  Only one did.  So, there is not much of a trail there.  But, for a 14 mile hike I’d be curious to see the forks from the other side of the river this summer.  Although technically that is probably illegal.  The rincon trail which starts at the 4 mile mark of the jdb trail goes up the mountain and then northeast way far from the kern…. Which supports their story of no trail and bushwhacking.  Anyways they said the fire damage there was impressive.  They were on the opposite side of the river from the fire where the forks trail comes down at the confluence.  The south side.

My tradition of hiking in a steak for the first night. When fires are prohibited i sous vide them, then sear them in butter on my jetboil.

No one was within 2 miles of where I camped.  There were two other sets of backpackers camping close to the bridge.  I saw one young couple fly fishing way down river on Saturday.  On the hike out I saw a handful of people within 2 miles of the bridge.

The river is now rising.  The experts are saying we’ll only get to 1000 CFS this year.  In the huge years it gets close to 20,000 CFS.  Even in this 60% snowpack year, we are most likely not looking at doing this again until the july to mid November timeframe.  I’ll be dreaming of it every day until then.

 

 

West Fork San Luis Rey River – Wild Native Trout of San Diego

Barker Valley Spur Trail – April 10-11, 2021

Is there a place in San Diego County:

  • That has a healthy population of native wild rainbow trout?
  • That has nice hatches of mayflies and midges
  • That has a series of spectacularly beautiful waterfalls including one over 100 feet?
  • Is within 30 miles from my home in Carlsbad, but takes a 68 mile drive to get to the trailhead?
  • That requires a truck with 4WD and high clearance to travel the last 8 miles on non-maintained dirt road just to get to the trailhead?
  • That requires a 3.7 mile hike into a canyon before it becomes crazy-ass climbing dangerous to get to the trout?
  • That includes poison oak, snakes, ticks and leeches in the adventure?
  • Is only for the fit and fearless of heights willing to climb with hands and feet where the penalty for failure is sure death?

Yep.  The West Fork of the San Luis Rey River drains the eastern side of Palomar Mountain into Lake Henshaw.  You get to it from the Barker Valley Spur Trail.  From the hike into Barker Valley you can see the eastern side of the Palomar Observatory looking west.  Looking South you can see Lake Henshaw.  From where I live in Carlsbad, it’s only 30 miles away by “the way the crow flies”.

A typical 8″ rainbow of the west fork of the San Luis Rey. Notice the Huck Midge Perdigon hanging off his nose.

Inspired by last October’s SDFF presentation by Russ Barabe of California Fish and Wildlife on the wild trout of Southern California, SDFF club members John and Delia Cooley led me into one of the craziest most dangerously adventurous and fun fly fishing trips I have even been on.  During Russ’ presentation in the q&a section, I asked some specific questions about the wild native trout of san diego.  I was really intrigued.  The native trout of san diego are legendary.  I convinced myself I needed to check it off the bucket list.  After Russ’ presentation John reached out to me and said he’d been there…around 30 years ago.  And would love to go again.  And that he remembered it “very physically challenging.”  I also learned from John and Russ that we’d have to wait until spring when the water was flowing well.  “It’s too skinny in Fall and Winter and too hot and dry in Summer”.

The fearless threesome

So, we planned the trip on the Barker Valley Spur trail for the wild trout of San Diego for the springtime.  I had backpacked and fished with John and Delia before.  They joined me and a big group for the SDFF club trip to the forks last summer.  I got to guide Delia on that trip for the better part of one of the days.  The 3 of us had a blast.  That club trip to the Forks was less than 3 weeks before the castle fire hit and destroyed the place.  We will not be able to get into the Forks until Spring of 2022.  The western divide forest district has closed the entire mountain because of the aftermath of the fire.

For this trip, we were going to don the backpacks and do a one-nighter in the Palomar Mountain Wilderness.  John said 2 nights would be too much.  I didn’t think much of that statement at the time, but now I understand.  There is no way you would hike into where the fish are in the canyon two days in a row.  It’s too physical.  And there is no way you could do the entire thing in a single day.  It is too physical.

I still can’t believe this waterfall exists in San Diego County…. and that we made it down from up top….

John and I planned a 730AM meet up at the intersection of highway 79 and the Palomar Divide Truck Trail.  I got there a bit early to find a flock of wild turkeys.  it was 38 degrees.  I didn’t have anything but a fleece in my pack.  Hmmm…  Well, there is a sign right at the intersection we met at that said high clearance 4WD required…which I poo-poo’d at the time.  I have done a ton of 4WD in the quest for trout and rarely would I say it was actually required.  This dirt road requires 4WD.  It’s rocky, steep and not maintained.

Well, after the slow 8 miles up the dirt road, we started the hike in with packs on our backs.  Since it was only a one-nighter my pack was light (under 35 lbs; light for me, I have a lot of toys).  It was obvious the first part of this trail used to be a dirt road.  It was now single track and completely overcome by mother nature.  After a couple miles the trail turns into true single track as it descends into the barker valley.  Around that point John said, “Tim do you want to know what your mission is?”  and I quickly retorted, “To put Delia on fish.”  “Yep.” John said.

Around the 3 mile mark the trail hits the river.  When I first saw it, I thought to myself there is no way that little frog water creek supports trout.  In Montana they would not call this a river or even a stream.  They would call it a creek.  By the way that is where the trail gets dicey and is barely distinguishable.  So, as we bush-wacked “down river’ I kept saying to myself 2 things, “This can’t be right.” and “there is no way I could do this alone”.  Well, I had all my devices and I knew it was only ¾ of a mile to where we’d camp.  John said he remember camping in a meadow. and sure enough we ran right into it.  We picked the best primitive site in the area (there were only 2 choices) and set up our tents quickly.  It was well shaded by trees and close enough to the creek to make water easily.  It was mid-day now and I had no idea that the 3.7 mile hike in with 35 pounds on my back would pale in comparision to the physical effort I was yet to experience that day.

With day packs, we loaded up some food and the fishing stuff and off we went.  Within 100 yards we were climbing.  There was a weir, but it was so wild, over-grown and steep I barely noticed it before pointing it out to John and Delia.  I remember saying to myself, “I read about the weir and the trout were below it”.  I also remember the guidance from Russ and reading that the trout were below the waterfalls.  Well, we were climbing in a canyon steep granite now and everything was a waterfall.  But, it was skinny and crystal clear water.  There were no trout that I could see.  So, we kept going.  And it was slow going because we were basically climbing with all fours.  As we progressed we hit pool after pool of crystal clear water and I didn’t see any trout.  “hmmm” I said to myself.

In a place so remote you’d expect a lot of well camouflaged creatures like this one

Well, we hit a cliff and I thought that was it.  I could not see any way to descend farther.  I stared over the cliff and looked and the walls on both sides and thought, “that’s it.  there are no trout.  This is over.”  As Delia and I peered over the edge, my eye caught john wandering over to the eastern side of the cliff.  To my shock he said, “there’s the way right there.”  I peered over to what he was pointing at and under my breath said, “no f-ing way.”   But, as we scaled a small patch of granite, I could see that it wasn’t a game trail.  I also noticed freshly cut branches.  So, humans had done this recently.  It’s just likely those humans were probably 1/3rd of my age and not 15 pounds overweight.  Well, we followed what was seemingly the way for a few hundred yards past the huge cliff.  But now we were 300-400 feet above the water.  And the only way down was straight down.  But again, there were signs it had been done before.  This is where john got a bit skeptical.  He’s a big guy (tall and slender).  I’m a tiny mountain goat like guy.  So, I said, “let me see how far I can get safely.”  And I did.  Some of the first 100 feet involved climbing while holding on to granite edges and some was dirt you could get a foot hold in.  I knew this was definitely the way down and not an animal trail because a deer would never go straight down like this (not having hands to grab, a deer has to take an angle).  I shouted to John and Delia that we could do it and we did.  Although I have to admit I was dreading scaling back up that thing at the end of the day.  And I also have to admit I was a bit tenuous about a couple other climbing stretches of granite we faced on the way back.  But, we were long past committed.

Once we got down there was a giant water fall roaring that we could hear.  But, we couldn’t really see it.  so, we bushwhacked and climbed our way up stream a few hundred feet.  Honestly, I stood there shocked.  It was just beautiful.  There was a huge pool at the bottom of a 100+ foot waterfall.  I just shook my head and thought how few people would believe this waterfall actually existed in San Diego.  It was like we were in Kauai.  The pool at the bottom of the falls had to be 20 yards long and 30 yards wide.  Huge.  And my guess is that it was 20 feet at its deepest.  All fly fishermen have done well under a waterfall, so I was excited.  I said to myself, “It was an effort, but, we found it.”  But, there was no way to cast to the zone without getting in the water.  It was way too far for a roll cast.  Especially with the water coming down the falls creating a wind coming straight at us.  We unpacked the rods and rigged up.  Delia and I removed our shoes.  I was ready first so I ouch-ouch-ouched by slowly navigating over slippery sharp rocks to a bed of gravel in about 2.5 feet of water.  There was a rock that barely crested the surface so I managed to climb up it not worrying about how the hell I’d get back down without slipping and breaking my neck.  Well, I can cast.  And with my latest inventions in perdigons I was really confident in those perdigon flies under a size 12 black huck hopper.   You can read all about the value of the Perdigon style of fly tying in my article, here.

John takes credit for this picture. i still can’t believe we worked our way below this to the trout

Waiting for Delia I worked the hell out of that pool.  I roll casted into the zone on all sides of where the waterfall crashed into the pool and drifted perfectly in all directions.  And nothing.  Not a single take.  I have to admit I was a little discouraged.  All that way, through all that pain and risk to get skunked.  Delia wandered out so I hopped down and put her on the rock.  John had tied on a large hopper pattern on her rod so I thought, “what the hell. It will be easy to see.”  Well, I hung with her for 10 minutes or so.  she was roll casting and drifting just fine.  But, not getting anything to rise.  During that 10 minutes, as I re-evaluated my life, I remembered something I read.  “The trout are not in the pool at the falls.  They are in the pools below the falls.”  I told Delia I was going to check farther down stream and I’d be back.  John had climbed his way into casting from the side.  Smartly, he didn’t take off his shoes.

After wiping small leeches off my feet and ankles (that looked like tiny slugs) I put my socks and boots back on and bushwhacked my way down stream.  After about 150 feet I saw it from distance: rises.  In a pool about 200 feet away.  Lots of rises.  There were mayflies in the air too.  But I was at the head (on top) of an awesome pool with a 10 foot waterfall feeding it.  I passed it up and moved down to the pool with the rises.  As I got closer to the pool I could actually see the rainbows in crystal clear water.  There were a lot of them from 4” to 12”.  I needed to get down river from them so I could cast upstream and doing it without spooking them.  Thank God they weren’t spooky at all.  They just continued doing their thing, feeding.  I shortened my dropper because the pool was only 3 feet deep.  I pulled out line, I roll casted to the middle of the pool.  I could see my huck green caddis perdigon sink quickly on slight angle with the current.  3 fish moved in, but the biggest got their first opened his mouth and I set.  I was on.  I screamed, “Woo!”  He jumped (like wild trout do) twice before I got him to hand to quickly take a picture and release him.

“No, Delia, I have no idea how we are going to do this.”

I buttoned up my rod and went to get John and Delia.  Quickly, I rock hopped back to them.  I shouted, “I found them!”  John said, “I heard you scream.  I thought you had either caught a fish or fallen down.”   “Delia, come with me.” I said.  “John, you take the upper pool.  I’m pretty sure there are fish in there too.”

So Delia and I moved into position.  I dropped that big hopper she had on with one of my huck green caddis perdigons.  Sure enough she locked into a trout within 60 seconds.  I was hooting and hollering because I have more fun watching people like Delia catch fish than catching fish myself.  She railed 4 fish before I went to check on John.  He was doing well in his pool too.  And he was catching them on dries!  After we had put the two pools down we started exploring downstream.  One of us caught fish in every pool we fished.  I even spotted a 6” trout in current in a riffle and nailed him without even casting.  I just high-sticked him.

John caught this one on the dry

Ultimately, we got to a drop in the canyon so high and steep there was no way down, let alone down safely.  John climbed up on a rock and looked down into the abyss and I couldn’t even look at him.  It scared the hell out of me.  And if you are a male you know that feeling of your you know whats stuck up in your throat…  John explored every which way to get down because at the bottom was an epic pool.  But, there was no way.  There was no way down and no way back up.  So, we fished our way back.

At one of the middle pools, John was fishing and we could clearly see him getting refusals on a traditional nymph pattern.  I think it was a flash back size 16 hare’s ear.  I dropped my huck midge perdigon next to his in a high stick way and caught a trout.  I laughed as he said, “You have to be kidding me.”

That’s John positioned perfectly to get the good drift from the falls

But, John got the last laugh.  When we got back to the two original pools below the big falls John and Delia took the lower pool and I took john’s original pool where Delia and I fished.  I was having trouble setting and sticking the little trout that were attacking my size 12 black huck hopper.  After 15 minutes or so I had put the pool down.  So, I buttoned up to rest the pool.  John walked up and I told him I hammered the pool pretty hard so I was not getting takes anymore.  He asked if he could fish it and I, of course said yes, but I was not confident in it because I really hammered that pool with like 40 drifts.  He took a position up closer to the falls and with his right handed cast he was getting a much better drift through the zone under a tree where I saw the fish first rising.  He was fishing a size 14 royal wulf.  if that is not awesome enough, within a few casts a big fish (~ 12”) rose and “Whack!”.  John set hard downstream.  It was a beautiful set across his body and the battle was on.  the fish jumped a few times before John got him to hand and let him go.  I looked at him and said, “That is a fish to end this on.”  he agreed.

The devilishly handsome author with another lousy drift and a missed set in “John’s Pool”

Now, it was reality time.  I was already tired and sore.  the 3 of us now needed to ascend the climb out of that canyon to the free climb across the granite to the hiking and rock climbing our way back to camp.  I told myself to focus because a mistake would be disastrous for all of us.  It was a bit stressful at points.  But, we made it back to camp where I collapsed into appetizers and jack daniels I shared with john and delia.

In hindsight I know understand how those trout have survived, arguably thriving, over the years through scorching hot summers with low water conditions.  That canyon is so steep and narrow it just doesn’t get a lot of sun.  In the summer, those trout must hunker down in the deep pools waiting for the cool temps of fall and winter, then the surge in water in the spring to spawn and do it all over again.

It got cold and I swear I was asleep by 815pm.  which means wide awake at 4am the next morning.  After waiting for the sun to light up the place, I took 45 minute hike (with coffee) along the creek looking for animals before John and Delia rose.  We ate breakfast leisurely around 8am.  We packed up and hiked out agreeing to never do that again.  and totally pleased we did do it.  Bucket-Lister.

Huck Flies Tied Perdigon Style – Ridiculously Good Success

A 2 Week Perdigon Test through the Eastern Sierras in CA, Montana and Utah.

look closely for the huck green caddis perdigon hanging out the side of the mouth of this pure strained bonneville cutthroat

During the winter of 2021 I talked to long time friend and Guide Mike Hillygus of the Stillwater River and Clark Fork River Outpost lodges in Montana.  Mike mentioned he had bought a ton of perdigon flies for the upcoming season.  I asked him, “Isn’t that the fly that all the world champion fly fishers use for euro-nymping?”.  I said it with disdain because there is no way in hell I’m ever going to euro-nymph the rivers of montana.  More on that later.

His answer completely changed the way I approach fly fishing: “Yea, but at the end of last season we started hanging them below indicators and in dry/dropper set ups.  And we killed.”  That got my attention so I went on a 3-week research and interview process to find out everything I could about the Perdigon; its history and why it is used.  After my research, I speculated that if I tied the 3 nymphs I sell of the site (Huck Green Caddis, Huck Midge, Huck-bow Warrior) perdigon style that they would do better in fast, deep water conditions.  So I went on a 4 week tying binge.  Then I sent out the prototypes of them to expert level fisherman to test them in real conditions.  At the same time I went on my own 2 week testing adventure through the eastern Sierras in CA, Montana and Utah.  The results were ridiculous.  I had a number of 40+ days in that 2 weeks fishing them solely in a dry dropper set up.  Realize this is fishing in March in brutally cold conditions and I was still killing.  In reality perdigon styled flies provide all the effectiveness of raking the river by Euro Nymphing, but, unlike in euro-nymphing, you still get to cast…and cast beyond the ~20 foot limitations of euro nymphing.

the clark fork river has lots of these

This email from my buddy Ronnie in Colorado summed it up well:

“Howdy Tim!  Great day on the Arkansas yesterday!  Big aggressive browns love the Perdigon’s!  I was using a golden stone at first and decided to switch to the Huck green caddis perdigon to try it out.  Plenty of big fish on that one..I was trailing a red midge as an attractor but only caught on the lead fly; the perdigon you tied for me.”

-Ronnie Swafford, CO

The West Slope Cutthroat fooled by a Huck-bow Warrior Perdigon (Go Padres!)

Background

Let me be totally honest. I am not a fan of fly fishing competitions.   Fly fishing is not like golf where you have a tightly coupled objective to get the ball in the hole with as few shots as possible.  I respect that people love fly fishing competitions.  And I have met plenty of competition fly fishers both here in the states and internationally.  and that is ok.  It’s just not me.  Not because of the competition, but, because “most fish caught” forces you into tight lined nymphing.  I love to cast.  I love to cover the water and I love to move.  If you take casting away it’s just not fly fishing to me.  Fly fishing includes quite a bit of scientific knowledge for success, some athletic skill to cast, set and fight, and lets face it: a little bit of luck.  When I heard that until recently the only flies used in fly fishing competitions were skwirmy worms and mop flies by euro nymphing or tenkara I sighed.  Lobbing a 22 feet leader on a ten foot fixed “rod” over and over to the same spot is wildly effective.  You rake the river.  It’s just not me.  I liken it to an electric mountain bike.  Sure, you can get to the top of the mountain quicker with a motor….by why would you?   But, there is something to be said about the Spanish team winning 3 straight world fly fishing championships on what that call a “Perdigon” fly.  And then the French came in and won two in a row with their version of the perdigon fly.  Strictly translated Perdigon means pebble in Spanish.  Loosely translated it means “sinks like a rock.”.

If you look closely you can see the huck-bow warrior right in the top center of the nose on this brown-zilla

The Science behind the Perdigon

Perdigons are super heavy and sleek in profile so they get down quickly in fast moving current.  What they gain in an aerodynamic quick ride to the bottom, they give up in realism.  Perdigons don’t look like anything in nature.  They are nymphs without the buggy look and feel to them.  Any resistance that might keep the fly from getting down quickly is covered in epoxy.

The Huck Green Caddis Perdigon

Like the international fly-fishing competitors, I tie them on competition style wide gap barbless jig hooks with a slotted tungsten bead.  The benefits, and consequently my (and your) success is directly related to:

  1. Rides Hook Up

The slot in the tungsten bead is to allow the bead to slip around the bend in the jig hook.  Then I stuff the slot end with lead, not only making it heavier, but it forces the bead into a keel position making the perdigon ride hook up and level.  Perdigons ride hook up and level and and can bounce along the bottom without snagging it. Riding hook up means you are not scraping and dulling your hook point.

notice the angle of the jig hook and the slotted tungsten bead

  1. A Better Hook Set

Because the Perdigon rides hook up you get a better set in the fish’s mouth. Typically this means getting the fly set in the top center of the mouth (frequently called “the nose”) or in corner of the mouth. These spots in the mouth hold hooks much better.  Normally I range around a 50-50 hook to land ratio.  With Perdigons I was getting closer to landing 19 or 20 hook sets.  Honestly I fight fish much differently barbless.  I really play them, having to exhaust them to get them to hand.  That is bad for the fish.  With Perdigons I had much more confidence in fighting them to my hand as quickly as possible so I could let them go as quickly as possible. With Perdigons I felt like I had much better control when turning the fish’s head and direction head while fighting.

to make the perdigons sink even more rapidly i stuff lead up into the gap in the slot

  1. Better Feel of the Flies

When bumping along the bottom I felt like I could discern the difference between a strike and bumping the bottom.  You know that old rule, “set on everything.”?  Well, I didn’t feel like I had to. It gave me a better feel of if/when the flies were hitting the bottom, which in turn gave me feedback on where in the water column I was.

  1. Slotted Beads

As mentioned, when a slotted tungsten bead is used on a jig hook, the center of gravity changes. This helps to angle the hook in a position where the Perdigon rides hook up.

  1. Fighting Fish

When you hook a fish with a jig hook and slotted tungsten bead, the fly line,  leader and tippet rides almost parallel to where the bend of the hook is.  This reduces the leverage that the fish has providing a much more solid hook set in the fish’s face.  With Perdigons, you will find the fly pops out a lot less.

  1. Movement

The term “jigging” comes from conventional fishing and it wildly effective.  With the slotted tungsten bead as “the keel”, the fly imparts a particular movement in the water that is unique to traditional fly fishing.  Additionally, the angled eye of the jig hook gives the fly a very undulating movement when stripped back. It that “up-and-down” movement which can give the look of an injured or confused baitfish or bug.

I just love the way the suns shines through this big brown’s tail.

Results

Montana

I hit Missoula first where I was met by my buddy Mike Hillygus.  We drove 60 miles north to his lodge on the lower clark fork near St. Regis, MT.  We fished for 3 days in bitter cold and did pretty darn well.  I couldn’t get a fish to rise for the life of me, but man those perdigons did well for both Mike and Me.

I moved south towards my son in Bozeman and fished Silver Bow Creek near Butte.  I absolutely killed on the huck midges tied perdigon style.  I had a 40+ fish day and caught a 20” brown just 10 minutes into fishing.

The next day my son Mark and his buddy Burnsie rowed me down the lower Madison.  It was bitter cold; windy and snowing.  A day you’d expect to get skunked.  But, we were still catching fish on the Perdigons.

That is a Huck Midge Perdigon stuck perfectly on the nose of this rainbow

Eastern Sierras of California

I was home for 32 hours before I loaded up Huck Truck II and headed north to the eastern sierras to join up on an annual fishing trip centered out of Bishop, CA with 30 guys at a cheap ass motel.  I drove straight to the wild trout section of the lower owens river and had a nice brown to hand on the 2nd cast…on a huck-bow warrior tied perdigon style.  Hmmm..  So, I did well and consequently had a decision to make for the next 2 full days of fishing.  I had intel from a buddy of mine in the DFG that the Owens River Gorge was fishing well and that it had some big fish in it.  So, I talked a couple buddies into joining me for a very physical day. If you have not fished the gorge it is not for the faint of heart.  You have to hike into a canyon and there is no river trail.  It’s a brutally rugged canyon.  Coupled with that I had not fished there in years and I mistook my intended trail (middle gorge) for central gorge.  The central gorge “trail” is used by the rock climbers to get down to the sheer granite walls quickly.  Meaning straight down.  As we hiked/climbed the trail down I couldn’t imagine hiking/climbing it back up at the end of the day.  As it was we chose not to.  We fished all the way to the middle gorge trail and hiked that out.  Then hiked the miles on the road back to our cars.  We caught fish but, it wasn’t crazy.  I caught plenty of fish on the perdigons to make it fun.  I did a water temp check and it was 41 degrees.  That is a bit chilly for the fish to be active.  It’s a beautiful place and even though we were exhausted burning a gazillion calories it was a beautiful great day in the canyon.

what type of idiot climbs up and down this boulder cliff to go fly fishing?

I speculated that the water in the lower section of the gorge would be warmer the next day because the weather was due to be warmer and it would see a lot more sun before hitting the power station above pleasant valley reservoir.  So, that was my plan.  I was going to park at the power plant and fish my way up river.  That is something I had not done in over a decade.  At the start I had 5 of my buddies with me.  I caught a nice brown on my first cast with a huck green caddis perdigon hung under a small huck hopper.  Hmmm…   Within 30 minutes all my buddies bailed for the wild section of the owens.  Without waders it is impossible to fish that section.  It’s also super rugged.  And none of them wore their waders.  I was wearing my simms G3 guide wading pants and loving it.  The other reason they bailed: You cannot fish that section from the bank.  It is totally overgrown by willows on both sides.  Like willows that are so thick you cannot see through them.  Since it is a small river (which would be called a creek in Montana) that meant it was a technical river to fish requiring tight loops and long casts directly up stream.  It also meant you had to fish in the river; there is no bank with the willows walling up on both sides.

another good looking brown with a huck perdigon stuck in the top of it’s mouth which makes the fight and landing so much easier.

Well, I was killing.  Honestly, I had not had a day on any stretch of the owens like that in years.  I was landing fish in every section I threw at.  Big fish too. I rarely count but, it’s was so nuts I started counting.  When I hit 20 by 11am I stopped counting.  Here’s where it started getting a bit dicey.  Down in that canyon it was hot.  I had a liter of water and it was quickly disappearing.  I was also battling a bout of diverticulitis.  If you don’t know that old guy disease, it’s painful.  It’s the only thing that has ever hospitalized me.  Well, I feel like the pain involved in bending over and releasing what was now around 40 fish by 1pm was sucking the life out of me.  I was tired.  It was only 1pm.  That is not like me.  So, with my water running low I said to myself, “I’ll just actively start looking for a way to get out of this river, walk back to my truck, take a break and end it in the wild trout section with my buddies.”  Another mile travelled upriver. it was after 2pm and I was a mess.  I did not see a single place where I could get out of the river to hike back.  And I was still killing.  In fact, the fish were getting bigger.  But, I was abnormally weak.  I took a fall in the river simply because I didn’t have the strength to step up on a large rock.  That is when the reality hit me.  I had pushed the safety thing too far.  I have some history in endurance sports having run multiple marathons and I could tell I was “bonking” (in scientific terms that is called hypoglycemia).  I had my Garmin satellite communication device with me so it’s not like I was going to die of exposure.  And I was not in a panic.  But, I was a mess and needed to figure out how to end it.  Not kidding I saw a foot wide gap in the willows.  I knew it would be a struggle with a fly rod, but, I had no other options available to me.  Well, I wiggled my way out of 30 feet thick of willows….to find another 30 feet of head high heavy brush.  That was a bush whack in itself.  When I finally got to the clear, the reality hit me.  I totally forgot that not only is there no river trail, the only way back was climbing miles of scree; 5’ by 5’ granite boulders.  Well, let’s just say that hike….errr climb back took hours.  I staggered back to my truck, drank 40 ounces of Gatorade zero quickly and sat lifeless for 45 minutes composing myself.  By the time I got back to my motel it was 530pm and I was still a mess.  That’s when the shivers hit me.  I could not get warm.  This is another symptom of bonking and why you always see runners wearing space blankets after a race.  I had to get in the bed to get warm.  2 hours later I finally warmed up.  But, I couldn’t eat.  I missed out on the ending party with the guys and didn’t get out of bed until 14 hours had passed.  Another safety lesson learned.  I did fish the Huck Green Caddis Nymph Perdigon under a size 12 huck hopper all day and killed all day.  I bet I landed close to 60 trout; all browns.  And my hook to land ratio was over 95%.

Beaver, Utah

From Bishop I did the 7 hour drive to Beaver Utah to meet up with Ed and Jim from the SDFF club.  I had never fished the Beaver Utah area and was inspired by a club presentation given by Cody Prentice of lost river angler.  From where I live in Carlsbad, CA it takes just as long to drive to Beaver, UT than it does to drive to Mammoth (eastern sierras).  I have been looking for an alternative to mammoth that is drivable and fishable in the same day for a long time because the eastern sierras (mammoth) gets so much pressure.  I had two and a half days to fish in the beaver area.

As difficult as it is to not focus on how good looking the author is… try to focus on that red slash of the bonneville cutthroat and the huck green caddis perdigon hanging out of it’s face

I got to Beaver mid day where Ed and Jim were waiting for me.  Ed led us down to a stretch of the Beaver below the dam.  When I first looked at the “river” I had to admit I was not encouraged.  It was skinny and froggy.  But, as soon as I started hiking everything changed.  Their seemed to be fish in every place that trout should hold.  I was killing again.  This time I was fishing the midge perdigon I tied.  I actually had a double in this session that was pretty epic.  I had a huge brown hit my huck hopper hard and didn’t realize at first I had a small rainbow on my midge perdigon at the same time.  We only fished a couple three hours, before the day light ended but, I was shocked at how prolific that river was.  Hmmm.

Go Padres

The next day we had a full day.  First Ed led us to a stretch of the Sevier River he had fished many times prior.  He caught bunch of trout right below where we parked as I was still gearing up.  I knew this was going to be special.  And it was.  I killed.  I was fishing the Huck-bow Warrior Perdigon this time (below a huck hopper).  I got very few to rise, but I bet I landed 40 in that section of river.  We fished about 3-4 hours to a bridge where it became private.  We reconned to eat a little.  I was shocked to hear Ed say we were going to a different place because I did so well I was ready to do that stretch all over again.  Of interest was the high water line.  We seemed to catch the Sevier in March perfectly before the Spring Runnoff.  The river was easily crossable in multiple spots.  But, that high water line was at least 20 feet higher than the level we were fishing.  It must really get blown out raging in spring.  I’m curious as to just when you can fish that river effectively.  My guess is mid march to mid may.  Then august to November.  Which would be a really similar pattern to the Kern or the Kings.

Wild fish do crazy acrobatics when hooked.  but, the barbless competition style jig hook just stays in.

So we moved to a tributary creek that Ed new of.  It was tiny.  But, it had holdable water.  And sure enough we all started catching fish immediately.  The first fish I caught I looked at and said, “It’s a cutty!”.  Then I realized it was not just any cutty.  It was a Bonneville Cutthroat.   Soon a local pulled his pickup off the road and was watching us.  I waved and eventually went up and talked to him.  He was an old timer that was very pleased we were catching fish.  He did confirm that the fish we were catching were 98% pure strained Bonneville Cutthroats.  And then he told me that the local DFG guy stocked tiger trout into that creek.  I didn’t believe him.  “Why in the world would someone spoil and creek with pure strained, indigenous, wild fish?”  Well, I caught 15 or 20 bonnevilles in the short time we had on the creek before the day ended.  This time I used the huck-bow warrior perdigons.

The perspective is tough here but, that is a big fish going longer than 1/4 of my 9 foot rod

My last day was another full day of fishing.  Ed led us to another stretch of the Sevier that Cody from Lost River Angler pointed to on a map for us.  I was excited about it.  Here is an edited (siri generated spelling errors fixed) version of the email update to Cody that I dictated the next morning driving home.  It sums it up quite nicely:

“Well like I told my 25-year-old in Bozeman last night I didn’t think the fishing could get better but it did   I had to land over 50 fish yesterday maybe close to 60 and some real large quality ones too.  I even caught a 14” tiger trout. 

We fished upriver on the Sevier where are you showed us on the map.  We only finished like 11 AM to 1:30 PM and I swear I was getting a take on every cast I only casted at water where you couldn’t see the bottom basically 2 1/2 feet or deeper and there seem to be a fish in every one of those pockets.  I pulled 10 fish out of one of those pools.  In a handful of those pools I had multiple fish that I landed.  some quality fish too.  I caught a brown over 20 inches.  I’m not a counter but this new perdigon style of nymphs that I’m tying on the traditional flies that I’ve always tied and sold off timhuckaby.com are just killing and because of the competition style wide gap hook. Even barbless my land to hook ratio is almost 100%. In that session I also caught three on top on a size 12 huck  hopper.  I was fishing dry dropper.  My dropper was about 3 feet from the dry.   I know I landed close to 40 in that session on the Sevier.

Then we moved over to the creek tributary from the day before. we parked in the same place that we did the day before but me and Jim walked down and put in where we finished the prior day and fished up river in water we had not seen yet.  

I shortened up the dropper I’m pretty much fished the exact same way.  and the fish were in the exact same places even though it’s much smaller water. I was hooking more fish on top in that session; landing them on my dry fly, a huck hopper tan size 12.  My Perdigons were killing on the same Huck green Caddis Perdigon that imitates a green rock worm. Size 16   oh yeah i finished 3X entire time.”

That’s a tiger trout with a Huck Midge Perdigon hanging off his nose

Summary

Well there it is.  3 states, 11 fishing days, 13 stretches of river / creeks, and over 350 trout caught and released thanks to the Perdigon style of fly tying.  And with this article let me announce that you can buy those Perdigon flies off this site here.

Yea, the Bonneville Cutties fall for Huck Hoppers too