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Forks of the Kern-alone: 170 CFS, 10 miles upriver from the Trail head

Relevant Stats:

July 31st to Aug 2nd, 2020

CFS: 175 down to 165

Water temp: 57 – 72

Air temp: low 50s to mid 80s

Fishing Stats:

  • Two days of fishing with 80+ takes on top
  • 40+ landed to 19”
  • 1 fish of a lifetime lost
  • Size 4 Huck Hoppers 98% of the time (battleships)

This is a 18″-19″ Kern-zilla.  Understand this footage is the end of a 10 minute battle with multiple jumps where he dragged me 200 yards down the river.  And he’s still hot.  you can’t see me release him, but you can see how how he is when he swims away at the end.  Let’s give GoPro some credit here.  It’s an amazing device.  i have a cheap tripod that i pinned in the sand to keep the river from sweeping it away.

Well, I just couldn’t resist.  Even though I was at the Forks just 2 weekends before with the San Diego Fly Fishers Club, the fishing was so good at that time and I kept getting reports of it continuing to be good I went back into the Forks.  This time I had the “advantage” of going alone.  I put “advantage” in quotes because any seasoned backpacker will tell you that you push the boundaries of safety when going into the sierras alone.  Especially on a river like the Kern.  Backpacking alone is not really recommended for anyone.  But, I have to tell you that I do it once or twice a year and I sure do enjoy the clarity of mind and the unplugging when I do….and the ability to hike as far and fish as hard as I want / can handle.    When I’m with a group we always aim for the huck site at 4.36 miles.  It is just too much of a hike over the mountain to 6 miles where the next set of primitive sites are for most.  Also, I just love bringing beginners into the Forks and it’s the simple fact that beginners always underestimate how physical the hike is with weight on your back.

even 12″ Kern River Rainbows figure out how to eat a size 4 huck hopper

Well, my plan, which I was pleased to execute, was:

  • to make the big drive to the trailhead on Thursday night, then sleep in the back of my truck.
  • to hike in early Friday morning before it got hot and camp at “Sand Camp” at 6.5 miles.
  • to fish from Sand Camp to the burnt down house which is frequently called the beginning of Kern Flats at 7.5 miles.
  • the next day, Saturday, to hike all the way to the beginning of the meadow at around 8.5 miles from the TH to fish all the way to the bridge at the 10 mile mark from the TH

Just another KR Rainbow with a huck hopper stuck in his face

There are not many things good about the virus, but the lack of traffic and how easy it is to blow through Los Angeles right now is one of them.  I have been to the sierras 7 times in the last 7 months.  And every time I go to the western side of the sierras I blow through LA with cruise control set at 80MPH without even coming close to tapping the breaks.  It’s awesome.  People actually blow by me at 90+ MPH so I don’t even sit in the fast lane.  Without a stop I can make it to the Forks trailhead in 5 hours.  So, I got to the trailhead in 5:15 hours on Thursday night, climbed into the back of my truck and slept so I could hit the trailhead as early as possible.

Sand Camp – i didn’t use the rainfly on my Big Agnes tent because i anticipated it being too warm at night.  It was not.  It got under 50 and the moon was so bright it woke me up.

Day 1, Friday, July 31

The thing about the forks trail in July and August are the long stretches of trail in the first 2 miles on the 1100 feet down that are exposed to the sun.  they can be brutal.  Especially on the way up.  So, I was hiking by 7:15AM.  That is a new record for me.  I made it down well within 45 minutes.  The little kern river was so low at the crossing I was hiking again well within an hour.  Although I have been really working hard on getting in and keeping in shape, I was a bit worried about running out of gas solely because I am getting old (58) and I have not done that big hike over the mountain with 45 pounds on my back in a long time.  I was pleased my body gave me a lot that day.  I breezed to San Camp without any fatigue and was ready to battle the current immediately after setting up a tent to secure a site at the sand camp.

I would love to talk to a biologist who knows the Kern River Rainbow one day.  It just seems like their tails are much larger than other trout species.  It probably has to do with the Kern being a wild river that goes from 20,000 CFS down to 75 CFS in some years.

Of interest on the way, I ran into a big group in the Huck Site.  I noticed stoves and tables and a ton of stuff.  I said hi on the way by quickly and made a positive comment about the huck site never looking better.  I found out later that a couple of the guys staying in the huck site I know from email from this web site but were fishing at the time.  They had a pack train with mules carry in all their stuff.  It was their intention to go all the way to kern flats.  But, there is a huge deadfall, at least 4 feet in diameter blocking the trail in a really steep section on the mountain between the huck site and Kern Flats.  The mule train couldn’t get around it and one of the mules actually fell.  So, they turned back settling on the huck site.  That has a be a first for the Huck site.  A mule train delivering supplies just 4.36 miles.  The strange thing is that this is the 2nd season in a row for this particular deadfall.  It’s an absolute bitch to get under; especially with a pack on.  The forest service just has not had the resources to clear it.  it’s so huge it would take more than a simple chainsaw.  So, it’s existence is pretty common knowledge.  Even without a backpack on it’s tough to squeeze under it…and I’m pretty tiny.  There is literally no safe way over or around it even if you were strong enough to climb over it.  All the pack outfitters scout the trails from every which way so I can’t imagine any pack outfitter not knowing about that deadfall.  Plus, from the Lloyds trailhead it’s a straight shot most used by pack outfitters anyways.  So this must have been a not so experienced Kernville or Bakersfield based outfitter.  The moral of the story is to use a legit pack outfitter like Golden Trout Wilderness Pack Station at the Lloyd meadow trailhead.  I know the owner Steve Day, from email and he comes well recommended by many.  https://goldentroutpacktrains.com/ steve.gtwp@gmail.com 559-359-3676

you have to realize that this is a big fish.  that is a size 4 huck hopper in it’s face.

Well, I put on a huge size 4 grey huck hopper right at Sand Camp.  I casted the easy flat stuff in the run without a take for 10 casts or so then moved 50 feet up to the head and did the big cast with the really tough “across the river” drift.  You can only hope for about a full second of drift here because the current pulls so strong and you have to cast across the current doing the big ol mend thing, twice, quickly.  Boom!  A 14” kern river rainbow hit me so violently he practically set himself.  It was easy to pull him down through the current (on a 3X leader; highly recommended for the upper kern) and into the flat water where I GoPro’d him then released him quickly…. still pissed off to the point where he splashed his tail and my face as he shot back into the depths.

the first fish i caught right at sand camp.  check out that huck hopper, size 4 hanging out of it’s face.

Wiping off my face, pleased, I moved up river, hopping the boulders to the next run.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you I got takes about every 100 feet for the next 6 hours of fishing all the way to the burnt down house.  My catch ratio was about 50%.  That sounds low for someone of experience.  But, like I tell everyone, when you fish wild natives on barbless hooks, landing them is as hard as fooling them into the take.  They just go ballistic head shaking and jumping and never give up…all the way to your feet.  There is nothing that fights like a 12” to 16” Kern River Rainbow.  At least that I have found….and I have fished all over the world.  If you have ever been lucky enough, like me, to catch a wild steelhead chromer when it’s hot right out of the ocean.  Well, that is the closest thing I have encountered to fighting a Kern River Rainbow.   And yea, I have caught plenty of bass of all types, and the tuna and predators in the ocean and even an 8 foot tarpon.  Nothing fights like a Kern River Rainbow.

The key to takes, which I have elaborated many times here, that is only available in low flow, is fishing the “other side” (the opposite side of the river from the Forks Trail) of the river.  Short of how slippery it is, crossing the river in this low flow is quite simple.  From the other side of the river you can put your fly in places where the trout rarely see an artificial.  It’s just a huge advantage.  At the Upper Kern the other side of the river is also the left handed side of the river (meaning casting up stream, your arm is over the river making that big cast much easier).  And I’m left handed.  Just remember I said “key to takes” not “key to catching”.

even 12″ Kern River Rainbows figure out how to eat a size 4 huck hopper

My first time using a Wading Staff on the Upper Kern

I’m that guy who said, “I will never use trekking poles.  That is for old people.”  Then I met Kyle Focht from this site.  Kyle is around half my age and an excellent fly fisherman.  We have now camped and fished the forks together a few times and will for many years.  Kyle, again, half my age, is the one that taught me the advantage of using trekking poles when hiking with a backpack.  I vividly remember him lecturing me, “It’s that surge of power you get from them.”  Now I can’t live without them.  Well, guess who is the guy that said, “I will never use a wading staff.  That is for old people.”  Yep.  Me.  Historically if I faced a tough river cross, I’d simply grab a tree branch to help me across.  That is before one of my dear friends, much my senior in the San Diego fly fishing club told me that a wading staff is for much more than just crossing the river safely.  He told me the wading staff allows you to move upriver in the water against the current swiftly so that you don’t waste time gingerly and carefully getting to fishing the next run.  So, I added the weight by bringing a cheap wading staff on this trip.  And now I’m hooked.  Having that wading staff so handy at my side allowed me to cover miles of water and not wasting any time in transit.  It also allowed me to plow through current that I normally would have skipped by getting out of the river, hiking up the bank and then back down a few hundred feet ahead.  On the trip two weeks prior to this trip I fell down 3 separate times in the river.  On this trip I did not fall once (just another thing to overcome the safety issue of being alone).  I will never fish the Upper Kern without a wading staff again….and saving my money for a nice lightweight one.  a wading staff truly is a god send for that river soley because it is a slippery one.

I should also note that unlike usual I carried in real wading boots: My Korkers Devils Canyons.  Which are hands down the best wading boots I have ever owned.  I’m on my second pair.  I get more than 5 years out of them.  And I will be hard pressed not to carry in my Korkers again.  My lightweight softscience backpacking wading boots just pale in comparison to my Korkers. Their grip is good.  But, they just are not stable nor have much support.  I end up beating the hell out of my feet and ankles in my SoftScience.   In my Korkers I am comfortable and stable. But, my Korkers are heavy and take forever to dry so I end up having to hike them out heavier.  I have finally decided It’s still worth it.  being that said the beauty of korkers is that you can change the soles.  So, technically, I could hike in with them on with the rubber soles then switch out for the felt soles when fishing.  That would save weight in having just wading boots and sandals.  I did try that once with the wrong two pairs of socks and suffered the blisters because of it.  I should try it again because on this trip I hiked for miles with the cheap simms neoprene wading socks, wet, and did just fine.

I caught so many quality fish like this it was silly

Day one highlight

There is a stretch that is about 1/3rd of a mile short of the burnt down house that historically has been so good to me I fantasize about it during the winter months.  You can only fish this stretch in low flow across the river.  This stretch cannot be fished from the normal side of the river.  It’s completely protected by dense trees.  In 100 feet of river it has everything: a deep run, pocket water, riffles, a head, a tail and a deep cut bank under branches.  Well, I railed 10-15 out of this stretch, including a few monsters of 15-18”.  It was a silly every cast thing.  If I wasn’t running out of time I would have stayed longer in there… which is totally not like me.  But I had a goal to fish out the remaining ½ mile or so, cross back over in the really flat stuff in front of the burnt down house so I could hike all the way back and make it to camp around 6pm.

When I did get on the trail for that mile hike back I was pretty happy.  As I got close to sand camp I could see another tent there.  Sand Camp is huge.  It was a good 200 feet upriver from mine.  No big deal.  I’m a genuinely nice guy.  But, it did seem strange.  As I got closer I could see another single backpacker in the site.  I navigated down the mountain from the trail, b-lined for him and said, “Hey, do you mind if I share Sand Camp with you?” smiling.  He immediately started apologizing, saying he just ran out of steam and had to stop.  I, of course, said “Absolutely not a problem.”  I learned later that my newfound friend John Vernon? was a cancer survivor, just weeks from chemo.  Also he was a bit north of me in age, over 60 with 2 adult kids like me. What an absolute stud and great guy.  His positive outlook on life, as a result of what he’d been through, was infectious for me.  And hanging with him during the evenings was a true pleasure.

the farther you hike up river the more geo-thermal stuff you run into

I flash fried my “sous vide” ‘d steak while sipping on good rum.  Soon after he ate, john wandered over.  He was casting dries while I watched and within minutes landed a nice one.  I could tell from his first cast he was a stick.  It was not a surprise when he let the trout go he looked at me and with a smile said, “This is what it’s all about.”

We both railed a couple more on dries right in front of the site.  By dark I was exhausted and hit the tent.  I woke up about 1230am it was so bright it was like a spotlight was shining on me.  It was the full moon.  Without putting the rainfly on the tent (because I anticipated it being really warm at night; it was not) that moon light up the entire area until it disappeared over the mountain around 4am.

Day 2, Saturday, August 1st

The mission was clear.  I was going to fish water I had not even seen for about 15 years and was pretty excited about it.  I was going to get out early and hike all the way to the beginning of the meadow which is frequently called Kern Flats and start fishing there.  But, for the first time ever I hiked a couple eggs in so I was hell bent on a huge breakfast first.  That way I could simply pack a little food I dehydrated, jerky and fruit and some nuts and be just fine on energy for an all-day fly fishing adventure.

hands down my best backpacking breakfast ever.  those are chunks of steak left over from the night before.

I was on the trail early by 9:99AM.  I waved bye to John up river at his camp and off I went.  Honestly, I didn’t know how far or how long it was going to take me to get to the meadow.  I was just hell bent to do it and had the entire day to fish from there to the bridge alone.  I didn’t even know how far it was from the meadow to the bridge.  Well, as is typical of walking the Forks trail, I kept saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’m passing up all this awesome water I have not fished in years.”  On the trek I did see a couple sets of backpackers camping, but they didn’t look like fly fishermen.  When I got to the meadow my jaw dropped.  I was shocked at how huge it is.  I didn’t remember it that way.  God only knows why I didn’t notice that on the map or on my gps.  It was at least a mile long and beyond my site.  There is a primitive camp right at the beginning of the meadow with a beat up old coral used by the packing mules and horses.  In my notes that Kyle gave me he said just up from the camp a few hundred feet, I’d see a huge rock in the middle of the river and to fish that first.  Sure enough there it was.  I fooled two quickly and moved up the river and found trout holding water every 100 feet.  I was getting takes every hundred feet.  It was nuts.  Realize that I was fishing a battleship sized huck hopper (size 4) and getting strikes constantly no matter how big or small the trout was.  I fished for over 7 hours and the action never stopped.  I also did not see a sole for the entire day of fishing. For most of the day I fished the opposite side of the river.  There were a few times I had to get out of the river to move upstream because of deep water and I kept saying to myself, “I bet a human has not stood here for years.”  Because I was not seeing a sole either it got eerie at points.  At around 7 hours into fishing and landing over 40 trout I was getting tired.  I was in an awesome run with a head and tail and was just railing ‘em.  I was purposely making it hard on myself by casting 60 feet and seeing if I could make the set from that far.  But, after fishing it, I looked ahead I could see a canyon coming that was not navigable on the opposite side of the river.  And where I was standing was too deep to cross.  I’d have to double back a few hundred yards and cross to the trail side of the river.  Once I did, I faced a decision.  I was tired and it was getting late in the day.  I had a big 4 mile hike back to sand camp in wet wading boots and I was already exhausted.  I said to myself, “Well, it will only take a few minutes to hike the trail up to the canyon to see the water.  One last cast.”  So typical of an obsessed fly fisherman.  Well, I walked a few hundred yards on the trail and there it was….the bridge.  I laughed.  I had made it.  So I fished around the bridge.  I think I caught a little one.  I hiked all the way back to sand camp with a spring in my step, meeting up with John and comparing notes on both of our awesome fishing days.

The bridge over the Kern River at mile 10 from the trail-head.  One day someone has to explain why it’s there because it goes nowhere and ends.

Day 2 highlights

#1: Towards the up-stream end of the meadow there is an island with a small back channel.  It riffles, then tails out to a 3 foot pool that thins to the river.  It was easy to speculate how the river carved it in high water.  That swift moving 2-3 foot pool was perfect holding water for Trout.  I was standing in a place that I presumed had not been fished in years.  Because of the thin water I suspected a grouping of small fish in the swift moving pool just waiting there for the back channel to send them food.  I caught one quickly on the first cast.  For some reason, probably because it was just a unique, great looking piece of water, instead of moving on thinking I had put down the pool by catching that first fish, I kept casting it.  It was almost like raking every inch of drift with my huck hopper (similar to the way an expert euro nympher does it).  It was such a beautiful place and such unique water. Then it happened.  It was unique for me and special.  I did something I never do. Typically, I fish really fast:  5 drifts and I’m moving to another area. Especially after catching a fish, which, at the Kern, typically shuts down the run.  Even though the huge huck hopper went over its head at least 10 times prior, Kern-zilla rose, turned sideways and grabbed my fly.  Surprised, I set hard downriver and the battle was on.  That big trout immediately decided to flee downriver and I chased it as quickly as I could move in pursuit.  It seemed like an eternity but I had him at my feet so I could GoPro him quickly before releasing.  I laughed out loud.  I’m not a measurer anymore but I’d guess with confidence between 18” and 19”.  And it was a thick shouldered football of a fish.  “I could end the day here.” I said to myself and I had only been fishing for less than a couple hours and already landed a lot of KR rainbows.

another huge fish that engulfed a size 4 huck hopper

#2: But, why is it that we remember the fish we lose more than the ones we land?  Well, I have another big one lost that will haunt me for decades.  It was just minutes after landing that huge one I detailed just above.  The incident happend way up at the end of the meadow.  From the opposite side of the river, I looked at a deep cut bank that went under a tree.   Branches at the end of the pool were in the water.  It was on the trail side of the river so I said to myself, “Not only is there a fish in there, but I bet an artificial hasn’t drifted through there in 4 years. (the last drought)”.  And even if 4 years ago, most fly fishers wouldn’t take the risk of that cast because of the overhanging tree and the branches in the water.  Me?  I was practically drooling.  I don’t mind taking that risk of losing flies and having to re-tie for a special run like that.  There were a few caddis rising so I tied a size 18 caddis emerger to the back of my size 4 huck hopper.   Now I had 2 floating flies to hang.  I concentrated hard to make sure to get a good cast and drift on the first try because I guessed I wouldn’t get a second chance.  I was right.  The biggest trout I have ever seen on the Upper Kern shot up, rolled like a steelhead does, grabbed the emerger and shot back in the pool.  I set hard pulling his head out of the water.  That really pissed him off.  He shook his head hard, shot back in the deep cut and “Snap!”.  I stood there in shocked silence.  It was my fault, of course.  To my credit I really didn’t have a choice because he wanted to go back under the branches where I would have lost him for sure.  I had to try to muscle him. The 5x tippet behind my huck hopper was probably weak or wind knotted from the prior 500 casts.  I’m still haunted by that fish.  And I will be for a long time.  I plan on going into the forks and trying to get him again before the season ends because we just won’t have a low water year like this one for a while.  For the rest of the day I fished 3x flouro tippet and it didn’t seem to matter.

#3: The mouse.  This isn’t really a highlight as much as it is interesting.  I have always wanted to throw mouse patterns at night on the Upper Kern.  Last season, of the readers on this site reported to me he absolutely killed on small mouse patterns at night.  I never get around to doing the nighttime mouse thing because size 18 anything always works as the sun goes down on the Upper Kern.  On this trip I remembered to look through my literally thousands of flies and found a pretty huge mouse pattern I had used on the Au Sable in Michigan a few years back.  Well, after John and I pounded the deep pool at sand camp as the sun went down I smiled and told him, “I’m going to throw a mouse.”  I’m a pretty good cast.  But, when you cast in the dark you get humbled.  So, I struggled a bit with the double haul worrying about the pine trees behind me.  But, I did get the big mouse out there around 20 times with nothing.  I just figured that pattern was too big.  But, then it happened.  In the process of stripping back line quickly from 60 feet down river I got hit hard.  I had him on for a few seconds.  Enough to tell john, “I’m on.”  But I lost him pretty quickly.  Battling a KR Rainbow against the current, completely downstream, barbless, is always a recipe for disaster.  But, I was pleased to lose that fish.  I think I’ll start researching smaller patterns based on foam and invent myself a “huck mouse”.   I’ll need beta testers.  Email me if you are interested in testing an unproven fly for me.

The Meadow at Kern Flats – this is the view looking at the river 1/2 mile away in a downriver direction walking back to sand camp.  the meadow is at least a mile long.

Summary

Many of my guide buddies and expert level fly fishers in Montana, even my son in Bozeman, say, “I can’t believe trout rise to that huge ugly huck hopper thing.”  Large Mouths love a big ass Huck Hopper.  But, in my experience, the Upper Kern is the only place where the trout consistently rise to a size 4 Huck Hopper. No matter what the size of the trout.  I most certainly get takes on them in other rivers around the world because I don’t fish the bobber anymore.  That size 4 huck hopper is my indicator when I nymph.  On this adventure at the Forks, I fished the size 4 huck hopper exclusively the entire time.  Huge battleships.  There were times when I “double dried”, typically with a size 12 huck hopper behind the huge one, but a few times when I saw caddis I put a caddis emerger on back.  And both those combos were deadly.  I was doing so well I was confident I was going to get a double hookup.  I did not.  My son Mark is the only person I know that has ever landed two fish at a time on the Upper Kern.   I tied and hiked in 8 size 4 Huck Hoppers and after 2 days of fishing they were all chewed up so badly none would float right anymore….and they still got struck.

Here are the undersides of the size 4 huck hoppers i used on the trip. check out how trout bitten they are.  it’s the bites on the heads that are shocking.  it takes a big kern river rainbow to completely swallow a 2″ size 4 huck hopper.

I measured the temperature of the river at 57 degrees in the morning…which is good for trout….not perfect at 54, but good.  By eod it was 72.  Not good for trout at all.  It’s melted snow draining the largest mountain in N. America so after 30 miles in the sun, with the big rocks also heating up the water in that hot sun the river just gets warm by end of day.  And I still consistently got rises in that warm water.  The good thing for me / you is that there is plenty of cooler water in the runs and deep pools where the cooler water is at the bottom.

So I killed on this trip.  I saw rises all day long for two straight days.  80+ takes, 40+ landed.  Many were huge.  Remember my mention of the full moon?  I should mention that the two days I fished were both excellent solunar days.  Which I’m skeptical of because I have disproven it so many times.  But, if you are curious you can read about the Solunar theory of fishing and hunting on my site here.

Forks of the Kern – San Diego Fly Fishers Club

July 15-19, 2020

I serve the board of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club.  For years, I have taken club members into the Forks.  If you read on this site you know how much I love the Forks.  I promised to do an “official” club trip with a larger group and I’m sure glad I did.  The “cat herding” of organizing and planning was well worth it.  We had so much fun.  9 tents in the huck site – a new record.  We set a lot of new “first times” and new records at “The Forks”.  I’ll elaborate some of them below.  What a great and diverse group!  From total beginner fly fishers to advanced experts.  I spent a lot of time guiding some of the beginners and absolutely had a blast doing it.

The weather was fantastic; never too hot.  We always seemed to have a breeze.  There were no mosquitos, but that is pretty common at the forks.  There is just not a lot of standing water near that raging river like there is on the eastern side of the sierras.  My guess is that is got to 80 degrees riverside.  But, the nights were cool; all the way in your 18 degree sleeping bag cool.  My guess was it got under 50 at night.  That is a big swing in temperature which is common at the Forks.

Steve Vissers in battle. Steve and I fished this run just 1/4 mile up river from the huck site for an hour and absolutely wrecked. lots of big fish.

We ate (and drank) well too.  I did not lose weight on this trip.  And I was doing 30K+ steps per day which included hiking, bushwhacking and fighting current.  I did the sous vide thing on a huge steak and lamb chops because there is a forest wide ban on campfires so I couldn’t grill them.  I hiked in a little butter and flashed them in my titanium frying pan under my jet boil.  It worked perfectly.  In terms of adult beverages here is what I noticed flowing: scotch, JD, bourbon, wines, beer….and port wine… now, that is a first.  And clearly not a sacrifice.  Since this is only a 4.36 mile hike to the huck site it offers the opportunity to carry a lot more weight going in and hike out that canyon much lighter.

Check out that giant steak i did by sous vide at home then flashed at huck camp

Everyone caught fish – The fishing was great.  Not a surprise because at those low flows the fishing is always great.  The 4 straight drought years a few years back provided some of the best fishing on the upper kern ever.  Some of the advanced fly fishers did really well.  Lots of big Kern River Rainbows well.  “Top 5 fly fishing trips ever” well.  At 240 CFS the river was crossable in many places safely including right at the huck site.  Like I have said on this site many times if you can fish the other side of the river you will put your flies in places where the fish just rarely see artificials.

Is that a Huck hopper stuck in that big fish’s face? why yes it is…

I’m a big believer in that 3 fly set up I detail in the Forks guidance document with the 3 titanium bead beldar stone pulling down a size 16 green caddis cripple.  I call it the Upper Kern river special.  It’s wildly effective.  I only fished that rig for 15 minutes, catching 2 kern river rainbows quickly.  I didn’t need to nymph.  I fished 98% of the time with dries.  Mostly Huck Hoppers.  Most of the time I fished a double dry with a battleship size 4 huck hopper above, trailed 18” behind by a size 12 huck hopper.  Color did not seem to matter.  I fished tan, brown, grey, black and green and they all got struck.  But, I wish I had those huck hoppers size 4 in yellow with me.  I did not.  there were yellow naturals on the banks and trails… all huge like 2s, 4s, 6s.… with a yellow body and black streaks and yellow wings.  A lot of them.  My guess is that the yellow huck hopper would have done well.  The reason I stopped nymphing when it was so effective?  A large kern river rainbow struck that big huck hopper with the beldar stone and the green caddis cripple below.  I set hard.  There were a lot of jumps and a battle.  I tried to release the tired fish quickly.  It was easy to remove the big huck hopper from it’s face.  But the 3+ feet of flouro and two nymphs were wrapped around the trout; not good.  I snipped the tippet in multiple places quickly so I could release that fish unharmed.  When it swam away I said to myself, “why redo that nymph rig all up again with its 5 separate knots when they are just going to rise for a battleship sized huck hopper.”  I never nymphed again on the trip.  There was no need to.  I saw consistent rises to huck hoppers all trip long even when the river warmed.

I have started tying a lot more size 12 black huck hoppers. they imitate so many naturals including queen flying ants

The flow was at 240CFS, which is drought-like flow.  And really bizarre for July to be so low on an average snowpack year.  It has to do with the amount, frequency and temperature that the snow falls and freezes.  I measured the river temp at the huck site in the morning at 58 degrees.  That is in the range that trout dig.  It is melted snow from Mt. Whitney, afterall.  But, after 35 miles in direct sunlight and air temps over 80, the river rose to 72 degrees by eod.  Typically, trout hate that warm water.  But, we all were getting rises in that water temp and catching fish.  Which means they were hunkered down at the bottom in the cooler channels and pockets and shot to the top to feed.  Don’t get me wrong.  There definitely was a lull in action from 11:30AM to 3:30PM.  But, I cannot explain why the fishing picked up in the later afternoon with those warm water temps.

Bruce Bechard fishing the tail-out at the huck site

As mentioned, we had a number of new firsts on this trip:

  • The way it shook out ½ of the group hiked in on Wednesday morning with me scouting and securing a site. and the other ½ hiked in Thursday. My plan from the beginning was to hike in a day early, securing a spot big enough for the group.  Then hike all the way back out and lead the group in the next day.  But, a bunch of these folks wanted to just hike in with me a day early.  Hiking back out provided an opportunity.  My buddy jeff kimura joined me in hiking back out with an empty backpack.  I filled mine with a 20 can box of coors and a few more random beers and some fresh food and jeff put a huge watermelon in his pack.  Both firsts.  I have to be the first 58 year old to hike a case of beer 4.36 miles up from the confluence on the forks trail.  And there is no way a full watermelon has made it that far up river.

Eric Miller, Angelina and Jeff Kimura eating watermelon at the Huck Site

  • I just realized this was the first 4-nighter I have ever done in the forks. Between the demand of work and family I just have never had the time to do anything longer than 3 nights.  It’s been mostly 2 nighters.  And honestly by the 5th day I was having so much fun, I wanted to stay a few more days.  A lot had to do with the fun group and a lot had to do with the awesome fishing and a lot had to do with not facing the reality of 5 days of going dark from work.  I do have to figure out how to do a 7-day trip to the forks.  I just have not been as far up that river as I would love to.
  • The rope swing at the huck site – I get emails all the time about how fun it is for kids. But, I had no idea how many “adults” could enjoy that thing.  With that late afternoon rise in water temp, a few found a 20 foot swing and 10 foot plunge into the deep pool in front of the huck site a welcome relief and a lot of fun.  Me?  I hiked in a pair of swimming goggles and swam / floated the run in the huck site chasing / spotting fish.  I knew that pool was deep.  I didn’t realize how deep.  It was eerie how deep that pool is.  The bottom was just beyond site even with goggles.  Even in that low flow it was deeper than 20 feet.  And the water was cold below 5 feet deep.

Angelina with Eric looking on at a graceful entrance to the big pool at the Huck Site.

Eric Miller executing on his now infamous 1/2 back flip of the rope swing

Bruce Bechard, grandfather, pretending like he is 14.

The cache is now overwhelmed with great “stuff”.  I’m going to have to start thinking about a more permanent container to survive the winter.  We have 3 saws of all sizes with extra blades, nippers for cutting back those pesky willows.  Cooking stuff.  A tent. Wading shoes. Etc.  But, thanks to Jeff Kimura the cache now has a quality camp table.  Too big for a backpack he hiked it all the way down the mountain holding it.  No more leaning over awkwardly, with back pain, to cook at the huck site.  If you want to use the cache and/or contribute to it download the “Guidance and Directions to the Forks of the Kern” doc.  Yes, I do realize it will be vandalized again by broadcasting it’s existence this.  Like it has been vandalized a few times going back in history.  It is still worth it to me to share.  If vandalized, I’ll just move it farther up the mountain and simply build it up again.

Animals and Calamities

If you have read on this site before I always say, “There are always calamities in backpacking.  You just hope they are little ones and you can overcome them.”  Short of the cuts, bruises and lots of muscle soreness our calamity ratio was pretty low.  I counted 3 broken rods, but we had plenty of spares.  I’m pretty confident everyone fell. It’s just part of the “tax” when fishing that river at such low flows.  I fell at least 3 times.  All 3 were “refreshing” without pain.  in that low flow the silt accumulates on the polished granite and it can be like stepping on ice.

The animals seen down at the forks included coyotes, deer, water snakes, rattle snakes, California king snakes and the normal smaller mammals.  No bears.  At that temp they are way up in altitude.  I’m sure mountain lions saw us, but we didn’t see them.  We had middle of the night visitors even though we hung our food.  They can’t help sorting through the trash bags.  I should have hung them.  But, something happened in the middle of the night that will be a mystery forever.  We put all the cold storage food and the booze and beer in mesh bags in the river.  They are secured to the bank.  On the first morning one of the mesh bags was pulled out of the river and the bottom was surgically opened as if with sharp teeth or claws.  Only the fats were consumed, like butter, which is typical of a predator…typical of a bear.  But, I find it hard to believe that a bear wandered into camp in the middle of the night with 9 tents scattered around and no one noticing.  A racoon?  It would have to be a strong smart one… or one willing to get in the water.  I have never seen a racoon at the forks.  A river otter?  So rare.  Maybe.  I have no idea if they eat anything but fish.

I did have a terrifying moment.  If you fish places like this, you are going to have incidents like this.  Because of the low flow I was getting into a position on an awesome run that is absolutely impossible to fish except in low flow.  I slowly worked myself into position.  I looked toward the bank and was staring face level at a rattlesnake coiled, eye to eye at 3 feet away… definitely within its striking distance.  Its rattle was not going off, but it was tucked back into a crevice in the rocks so it might have been if free.  In fact, it probably would have been.  Well, I jumped away from it, straight into the river and said, “that’s it. not fishing here.”

this beautiful stretch is where i came face to face with the rattlesnake

My favorite moments of the trip:

….were not from my own fishing….although I did catch a bunch of quality Kern River rainbows and one Little Kern Gold-bow.  They were all from fishing with beginners:

  • Delia Cooley – this gal loves to fly fish! It didn’t take me 30 seconds to figure out her husband John was a stick.  He has a beautiful cast.  So, it was super fun to take the “husband guiding the wife” thing off his hands for a few stretches.  It was clear Delia had been taught how to overhand cast.  But, still a beginner. It was her willingness and eagerness to take instruction that was so fun for me.  It got us quickly to roll casting…. A must on the upper kern for success.  Then we moved to multi-current drifts with both upstream and downstream mends, where fish are located, inside and outside seams, downstream setting skills…shoot, we even made it to a really advanced skill: letting a drift swing to the bank and tighten to tension 40+ feet downstream.  Then doing a tension / inertia cast 40+ feet straight back upstream.  Getting 30 foot drift coming straight at you with line control.  Then as the fly gets within 10 feet, roll casting it on a 45 degree down to the run in front of her to drift it out 30 feet and do it again.

I just love this picture John took of me and Delia

  • Jay Gross – I think this might have been one of Jay’s first fly fishing trips. A true beginner.  I had 2 favorite moments with Jay.  first was that witching hour at the end of the day where you can barely see and typically you can throw a size 18 anything.  Well, I complicated things for him by adding a size 20 midge emerger 18 inches down from his top fly.  The take was like a rocket.  I screamed, “Go!”  and he set hard.  He got into a short battle with a 12”- 14” kern river rainbow.  ….Size 20 barbless hook.  Well it shook him after about 10 seconds of battle, but he fooled him and fought him so I call that a catch.  I was most certainly excited screaming, “Wooo!”  Earlier in the day a similar thing went down.  This time in broad daylight in a clear river I watched it like was in slow motion.  A similar size fish shot up from below, grabbed his huck hopper and took it down.  It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet in front of us.  I screamed “Go!”.   that fish took the hopper to the bottom in clear view before head shaking it out of its mouth.  Jay didn’t “go”.  I said, “Why didn’t you set?”  he said, “I didn’t see it.”  I laughed and he laughed saying, “I don’t see very well.”
  • Jeff kimura – Jeff was a beginner last year. He is no longer a beginner. It is of pure coincidence that we met in person.  Because he lives right down the street from me.  Now he has the fly-fishing bug so badly I feel like I have to apologize to his wife, Diane.  Because I know from experience that his “bug” won’t be cured and is just going to cost more and more money.  Jeff caught a big one.  It was every bit of 15” and bordering on 16”.  And it was a football.  And it’s tail was a fan.  That in itself is special for a Kern River Rainbow.  But, the best thing is that he caught it in kern flats.  I don’t think I have ever caught a big fish in Kern flats.  It’s popular, easy to cast, and sees a lot of pressure.  It went down like this: We were leap frogging each other as we plowed up stream to Kern Flats.  I was upriver from Jeff when I heard the shout.  I looked down river and his rod was bent sideways.  The fish was downstream from Jeff and running downstream hot.  I thought he was doomed.  It’s so hard to get a big wild native fish back up river.  You have to chase them. We never got to any detailed fish fighting skills.  Of course, I was so excited for Jeff I threw my rod on the bank and was running to him yelling “Go with him Jeff!  Run downstream with him!”  After I caught up to Jeff he had a lot of line out and the line was still in his hand.  It could have been in the backing.  I was screaming, “rod tip high!”  “Get him on the reel!”.  After I said, “Jeff, get him on the reel.” For the 2nd time Jeff said, “I can’t.  my drag was set too light.  He came close to spooling me when he ran and bird-nested my reel.”  I laughed.  Jeff fought that fish like a pro holding the fly line.  I know an old guide trick about landing fish.  We didn’t have a net.  I ran downstream from the fish, working my way back splashing and scared the fish back up stream to jeff.  When jeff got him close and tired I said, ok swing him in and beach him.  I think I shocked Jeff when I said that, but the fish was still hot and not only did I want a good look at that fish I knew jeff would too.  I knew we could do it without hurting the fish. Jeff swung him perfectly on momentum not pulling too hard into polished granite in about 2 inches of water.  I pulled that huge hopper out of its face, placed the fish in Jeff’s hands and he released him after making sure he got enough breaths to take off.

Forks of the Kern – Springtime Hopper Fishing – Couples Trip

June 4-7, 2020 (Spring Guidance for the Forks)

Hear me huffin’ and puffin’?  i’m going as fast as i can towards the Huck site to see if it’s open

I have been backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail for over a decade….closer to 15 years…could be 20.  Yet in all that time I had never been able to go in June.  The only time I ever got to go to the Forks in the Spring was in a bad drought year…at the end of April…and it was one of, if not the most epic fly fishing experiences I had ever had at the Forks.  I mean the chance to throw flies at big wild native kern river rainbows that had not seen food, let alone artificials in over 4 months?!   There are a variety reasons I never was able to go in Spring:

  • Big Winters; lots of snow blocking the roads in
  • The River is normally too blown out big and dangerous to fish in June
  • Waiting for the road to open. Western Divide has to clear many roads, not just NF-2282 to the forks, of the trees, rocks and debris that fall on the road during the winter.  Western Divide Ranger District is just plain underfunded and it’s a true shame.  NF-2282 is a rarely travelled 23 mile long dead end into the wilderness at altitude.  Not only do people do stupid things in winter, but the pine beetle problem is so bad that trees die and fall on the road blocking it.  Even on this trip a tree fell across the road while we were in the forks and we had to run over the decomposing top of it to get out.
  • Work: June is conference season and I’m a conference speaker.

Look at that sky above the Upper Kern River. It’s like Montana

But this June is different.  We had an average snowpack year, but the Kern is acting like it’s in a drought year.  850 CFS in the beginning of June is so rare.  At the time of this writing, just 3 days later, the flow is at 520 CFS and well below the pace of the last big drought year of 2018.  So, when I got a note from my friend at Western Divide that they opened the road I executed quickly.  It did not matter that there is a forest wide restriction on camp fires.  We could live without a camp fire on this trip. The chance to get in there so early in the year was a treat.

My love of the Forks is well known.  And in our neighborhood in Carlsbad they have been hearing it for years.  My wife kelly won’t go unless a girlfriend goes with her.  I totally get that because I like to fish 24/7 and she does not.  Backpacking can be rugged and physical.  I have told many in the ‘hood: “if you give it a chance I know you will love it.  It’s only 4.36 miles”.  But, I have to admit it’s only for a small portion of people.  Backpackng can be brutal…especially in the mountains.  You have to be fit.  So, two other couples, dear friends, joined us on this one.  That is a first for me.  I never dreamed I’d get to share that experience in a couples scenario….especially us upper middle aged couples who have been married for decades.  Typically, when I go to the forks I fish all daylight hours alone covering many miles of river with 1000s of casts.  With 3 couples, 5 of which are beginner fly fishers it would be totally different and I looked forward to that.

The Group Left to Right: Kelly, Chris, Conni, Meredith, Lance, Me

The Group

Meredith is a “seasoned veteran” of the forks joining my wife kelly and me twice.  There is a saying we made up last summer on the JMT: “Mere would go.”  And that is because she is tough and loves the wilderness.  Last summer in a totally stomach flu like sick state, the poor thing climbed half dome and hiked 15 miles with us into the Yosemite valley and didn’t complain a bit.  It’s her husband Lance that has been a challenge for us to convince to go.  “why would you guys spend all that money on backpacking gear when we can just fly to Fiji?”  it’s a legitimate argument.  But, now he’s a fan and I’m sure he’ll go again.  Kelly and Mere coined the backpacking saying, “More booze; less food.”  I like that.  Conni and Chris Nardo joined us.  They did the Sierra Club Wilderness Basic backpacking Course until covid-19 ruined it.  One of those trips was to the desert where they had to carry like 3 gallons of water.  Talk about miserable.  Conni wasn’t too hot on backpacking after that, but she is a trooper and was game for this trip.  Now I know she’s excited for the next one.  and her husband Chris?  Who hikes 10 high end beers into the forks to share because of his own love of beer?  Talk about a value add!  Talk about going in heavy and lighter on the way back up the hill!

Lance with a nice Kern River Rainbow

The Fishing

Usually I rate the fishing experience for a trip in a simple poor to awesome range.  With average, good, excellent, in between.  On this trip I didn’t fish that much; maybe 25% as much as I normally do.  And that was fine.  In fact it worked out great!  Normally I leave in the morning with a rod and spend the entire day in the water fly fishing while I work miles and miles of river.  I did do a ton of simple little 10 minute sessions right at camp while everyone did other things like relaxing and did pretty well.  I swear there are hundreds of fish in that head, the pool and the tail-out at the huck site.  One day…in august when the water temps are bearable, I’m going to bring a snorkeling mask to verify it.

So, how do you rate the fishing on a trip where:

  • you only catch around 10 trout a day….you don’t catch your normal 40 fish a day…but, only because you’re guiding more than fishing
  • You lose more fish to LDRs and missed sets than you land
  • You don’t successfully land a big one
  • The water is just big enough to be a challenge to casting
  • All 5 beginners get takes on top; the majority of them even land a few
  • My buddy Lance, not without experience, but certainly not in highly skilled and knowledgeable range, casts into whitewater and has his Huck Hopper assaulted by a large trout that set on it self. He landed it.  I’d say very close to 20”.  Size 12 huck hopper in the whitewater….who knew?

When you sum all that up I’d call that good fishing.

Conni battling a Kern River Rainbow

I can tell you this: I fished dries the entire time I was there.  I mostly fished Huck Hoppers.  I couldn’t tell which did better: the little size 12 ones or the gargantuan size 4s.  And I consistently got rises except for in the mornings when it was super cold water.   Frequently I fished a double huck hopper, big one in front and little one in back and the takes seemed to be 50-50 on each.  Also, except for a short stretch on the first day, I had all the beginners fish huck hoppers.  Dries are just easer to cast and more fun to fish.

This trip was fun because I got to guide beginners.  I love guiding beginners.  I promised all of them: “You will get a take; You will fool a fish.  Battling them all the way to landing them is a totally different story.”  And that was certainly true on this trip.

Yea, that is a big ass huck hopper hanging out if his face…

The Food

Normally I wouldn’t write about food on a backpacking trip short of the picture of the big steak on the first night….which we didn’t get to enjoy because of the state wide restrictions on camp fires in the forest.  But, I invested in a dehydrator.  I will never eat expensive crappy freeze-dried backpacking food again.  Even my wife Kelly said a lot of the food I dehydrated was pretty good.  And she is very discriminating.  It wasn’t perfect.  I absolutely ruined chopped chicken breasts that I dehydrated for an asian noodle dish, making them so tough they were inedible.  Mere also bought a dehydrator and made a vegetarian meal that was pretty darn good.  I’m tempted to blog what I’m learning about dehydrating…but, there is already so much good guidance on the interweb on how to dehydrate food for backpacking I just don’t see me lending much more expertise than is already out there.  Good food just makes the effort and suffering of backpacking so much more palatable (pun intended).

That’s Conni’s hand after cleaning it up… ouch

The Calamities

How many times have I written on this site, “There is always a calamity while backpacking.  You have to adapt and overcome.”  Well, this trip was not short of calamity.  Lets’ start with my f-ups.  Firstly, we left Thursday morning and I took a number of conference calls for work.  Our plan was to meet in Kernville, gas up and eat something before driving the last hour up the mountain to the trailhead.  I plugged the forks trailhead into my GPS and didn’t even think of how it routed me.  Since I was concentrating and talking on my phone I didn’t notice it routed me the Porterville way from the east completely missing Kernville before it was too late.  I had to detour south across the mountains on roads I had never been on and my wife was not pleased.  I was out of service, and I had 4 people waiting in Kernville on me and I f’d up.  We drove in 3 cars to be respectful and cautious to the social distancing rule.  That cost everyone 45 minutes and it was completely my fault.  Those minutes late translated into degrees on a hot day.  Totally my fault.

Once at the trailhead, because it was hot, the plan was for us to hike as a group to the bottom and do the little kern crossing together.  Then I’d take off with pace and race to the huck site to see if it was open.  The Huck site is really the last site before the brutal stretch up and over the mountain, which adds 2 gory miles.  And I didn’t want to put the group through that or put them through doubling back.  Conni had an InReach mini and I had my InReach 66i so we could communicate by texting (inReach to Inreach txting is free).  Well, the Huck site was open.  I dropped my pack, quickly put my cold food and booze into a mesh bag with a rock at the bottom and secured it to a tree.  Then I filled up my katadyn with cold river water and took off going to other way trying to track the group down hoping to help…. Even if it was simply by encouragement.   Well, one of Conni update txts to me was “On our way, a little slow, sorry.”  I didn’t think anything of it at the time.  But, it seemed like I hiked a full mile backwards before I ran into Kelly, Mere and Lance.  I offered to take Kelly’s bag.  The 3 of them said, “No. go help Conni; she took a fall.”   It was about 10 minutes later when I ran into a dehydrated Chris and Conni.  Neither complaining but I could tell they were ready for the hike to be done.  I took Conni’s pack from her and put it on…shocked I said, “this weighs more than mine! This has to be over 50 pounds!”  Conni is about 5’2” and a biscuit over 100 lbs.  She took a fall and her hand was cut up and bleeding pretty good.  Nardo was carrying ~10 lbs of beer so I could only imagine how he was doing.  Conni took the water I refilled at the site and we hiked the rest of the way together.  I tried to talk upbeat the entire time so they wouldn’t focus on the misery.  We made it.

Lance and Kelly

At the site we all were setting up camp when Lance said to me, “hey, where do I put my cold food and booze in the river?”  I told him about my mesh bag and pointed at it.  he walked down to the river and said he couldn’t find it.  I thought to myself, “dumb ass how can you miss it?”  well he did eventually find it.  but, it was empty and barely visible because of that.  In my haste I didn’t realize I put the food into a little eddy in the water so that the current wouldn’t hold it downstream.  Normally not an issue, but I seemingly didn’t singe down the string on the top sealing the bag.  Even though I had a rock in there to ballast it, it didn’t sink.  It must have floated backwards in the eddy and all my food and liter of high end rum simply worked it’s way out of the mesh bag and floated away.  I’ve documented some classic f-ups backpacking but that one is at the top of the list.  The food bag was super buoyant, so it hung up just 100 feet down river.   Thank god.  But, my booze probably floated all the way to the Fairview dam to a lucky bait fisherman.

When I got to Conni there was a lot of blood on her hand.  I couldn’t tell because of the amount of scratches if it was a stitches thing.  Once she cleaned up at the site, it was obvious it was not – just a lot of cuts from sliding down the mountain on rock.  This is why I carry a garmin inReach.  Had she broken a leg, cracked her head open, we would have needed help.

I love this picture of Nardo that Conni took.  That is the big pool in front of the Huck Site.  He’s either looking for rises or contemplating life.

Weather

Another first: rain.  In the ~20 years of going to the Forks I had never experienced rain.  Not even a drizzle.  It’s an arid place; in the southern sierras; and it’s only 4000/5000 feet.  So, it doesn’t get those afternoon summer thunderstorms so typical in high elevations of the Sierras.  I told our entire group, who had been staring at the weather forecasts and the 30% chance of rain, “There is no way in hell it’s going to rain there.”.  It did. Not for a huge amount of time.  But long enough and heavy enough for us to put on jackets and hide under the trees for an hour.

On this trip we saw hot sun with clear skies, overcast, patchy clouds, wind, rain, and bitter cold.  That must be a spring thing for the area.

typical of our day hikes: hanging out, relaxing, eating lunch while i pound the water with dries.

The Cache

Since this was the first time in for the year I was really curious to see how the cache survived the winter in it’s new location.  For years I have built an accumulation of “stuff” that stays down at the Huck Site.  It has a tent, a tarp, extra fuel, tools, dishes and silverware, two sets of wading boots and water shoes, etc.  Anyone that downloads the Huck Guidance to the Forks from the site and pays the $5 which I donate to Cal Trout is more than welcome to use the cache.  Many of you have added to the cache over the years.  The cache has also been pillaged a few times; which is why I moved it last November.

Here’s the gang right before rattlesnake creek ready to charge over the mountain and look for soft water

3-Nighter

After the hike in on Thursday afternoon we all set up camp.  I can’t sit still so I rigged up and immediately caught 2-3 fish right in front of the site.  We did the happy hour ritual, ate and went down early.  Honestly when that sun goes down it gets cold and it’s illegal to have a fire.  Hitting the tent is really the only alternative.

On Day 2, Friday I got up early, way before everyone else…like at 530am…  so I snuck a 30 minute fly fishing session at a run that always produces down stream.  I must have got 25 takes.  I landed a few including some nice ones.

A well populated Huck Camp

During the huge breakfast we all made I suggested we day hike up stream.  That meant packing food, rods, etc.  It wasn’t but ¼ mile that I passed a great view spot above the river and a rapid.  I heard the rattle faintly, but the river was so loud I kept walking.  It was that big red diamond back rattlesnake me and so many people had seen in the very same place before.  Chris was behind me and missed it too!  It was Connie that heard it, calling it out.  Nardo and I walked right by it and didn’t notice even though it was rattling.  It survived another winter and it is huge now (which means it’s much safer than a young snake).  Since everyone else was backed up on the trail behind it I tried to shoe it away with my rod towards the river so they could pass.  That didn’t work.  it turned at me, crossed the trail in front of me in front and chris in back.  It took a defensive position in the rocks, ready to strike, with it’s tail going off.  There was no choice for Chris and the others.  You cannot walk within striking distance in front of a pissed of rattlesnake.  So, I routed them up the mountain and around.  Honestly it was a treacherous giant granite face of rock.  Welcome to the wilderness I thought to myself. I sure was proud those guys just scaled right up the side of the granite and over.

Just another nice rainbow with a Huck Hopper hanging out of his face

We continued the trek towards the entrance of rattlesnake creek; one of the more beautiful views in the area and an awesome place to fish… but, literally impossible until under 300 CFS.  I pointed out to Chris, “There is great fishing from here for a full ½ mile up the river.  This is where I cross when the river is low enough to cross safely.”  He looked at the rapids and said, “You have to be kidding.”  “Yea”, I said, “It’s not close to being crossable right now.”  I think that is one of the most alluring things about the Upper Kern.  It is such a different river depending on flow.  The Kern drains Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet.  There are not many rivers in the world left that go from 200 CFS to 20,000 CFS and back.  The few have mostly been ruined by dams.

I knew that once over the mountain there is a great stretch of water with one run being one of the most outstanding runs within the first 6 miles above the confluence.  When we arrived, Lance holed up there.  I told the rest of the gang to spread out every 50 feet up river and start fishing, knowing I’d get to them soon.  The trick with that run is you have to cast straight up stream at it with the fly coming back at you quickly.  Lance started getting strikes like crazy.  His line control was good, definitely experienced with a fast drift.  So I left him there and attended to setting up the others.  I think everyone got takes in that stretch.  I believe lance landed a few small ones too.  We ate lunch and hung out before the 3 mile hike back to the Huck Site.  To enjoy cocktails and appetizers (while Lance and I snuck in some 10 minute sessions right at the site) before dinner.

That’s Kelly in front. But, check out 4 of them lined up in a productive run above huck camp

On Day 3, Saturday I got up early again.  Once the sun comes and the birds start going off around 530am I just can’t sleep any longer.  Plus, when you are asleep by 9pm there is only so much I can sleep.  So, I snuck an early morning 30 minute fly fishing session again.  This time I didn’t do as well.  Just a couple or 3 takes.  From the rain the day before I did notice the river was up a few inches.  It was also much colder.  I should have measured the river temp; I had a river thermometer with me. My guess was that the river temp was a lot colder and that put the fish down.  Of course, when you are fishing dries at 6am can you really expect success?  Well…on the Upper Kern sometimes you can.  It was the simple fact, though, that on this day the rises got better and better as the day went on; as the river warmed up.

This day’s plan was to hike downriver; exploring the myriad of fishing opportunities we simply hiked by on the way in.  Also, as I told the group, there were numerous places down river where we’d fish from rocks above heads, big pools and tail-outs; places where you did not need to step into the water.   Over the years I have caught some huge rainbows in those big pools.

i don’t know what the hell this means. Yoga or something like that.

It was on one of these giant pieces of granite that Lance hooked 2 big Kern River rainbows.  Here’s how it went down.  I was rigging Mere’s rod, back turned, when Lance shouted he was on.  This big fish jumped 3 feet high out of the rapids and raced downstream.  You can imagine what I said to myself.  Something like, “there is no way he is going to be able to wrestle that monster back up stream without it popping off or breaking off.”  Then I remembered the 3x.  “Ok, Lance, see if you can wrestle him tight to the bank.”  Which is a steep granite face that slightly eddies.  And he did.  It was a pretty skilled maneuver.  He pulled the fish back enough to where the raging rapids started again.  I told him, “see if you can keep his head out of the water as you stay tight on him”.  I rarely use a net anymore.  Only when guiding.  So, damnit I should have brought a backpacking net on this trip.  I scrambled like a goat down the rock face, grabbed the leader and pulled the fish to my feet.  And damnit the thing popped off right there.  I told Lance in my, and most fly fishermen’s book that is a catch.  We don’t want to touch them anyways.   But, I was a little bummed I lost that fish trying to land him so that Lance didn’t get a picture.  Lance was a good sport about it.  So, I went back to Mere’s rig, back turned again.  Lance casted back into the raging current without even drying the fly off and son of a bitch he hooked up on another huge rainbow.  This time he tightened hard and kept him up stream.  I can’t remember what I was screaming at him I was so excited.  I told him to pull him to the bank, which is calm water.  And this time after grabbing the leader I did land him.  Lance nailed him right in that really tough cartilage part of the jaw so it was not about to pop off.  I put the fish in his hands and we got the trophy pic and the video.  I was so stoked!  I’m not so sure Lance realizes how special that was.  Not only did he catch a fish that only lives in a tiny part of the world, but he caught a big version of it.  at the time I thought is was north of twenty.   In staring at the video I’d say 18”-19” male Kern River Rainbow.  Huge fanned tail.

Me, Nardo and Lance: Suffering in the rain….while drinking bourbon

We worked our way almost all the way to the confluence of the Little Kern.  There is a great long run there where everyone could set up 50 apart.  We got random takes and caught random rainbows here and there.  We hung out and ate lunch.  It was a great day and the hike back the couple miles seemed pretty easy for everyone.  I ran into the young fly fishermen I gave huck hoppers to on the previous day and we chatted a bit while the rest of the group continued on the camp.  Once I got going again I knew the big 360 degree eddy was coming up.  9 times out of 10 from above you can see a group of fish in their feeding….some of them huge.  I couldn’t resist.  I stopped and made the miraculous, 40 feet cast, under the tree to the 2 square foot patch of soft water at the head.  Shocked, I think I even said out loud to myself, “perfect.”  I got the 1 second drift I needed and got struck.  I tightened as best I could (5x).  But the slack in the line pulling back at me with the 9 foot leader meant I didn’t get tight in time.  I missed him.  Darn.  Another LDR.  I laughed.  But, there is no fooling that fish 2 times a day.  So, I didn’t get struck again after 10 casts so I wandered back to camp to join happy hour.

I did stop at the “big Eddy” where it takes a god-like cast hoping for a 2 second drift, and did manage to hook a monster… but, LDR’d him.  Darn.  I laughed.

Here’s the gang before we headed out from Huck Camp

Day 4, Sunday – We decided the day before that we’d break up the hike out into 2 sections.  Firstly, we’d hike the 2.35 miles back to the Little Kern River, then cross it.  We broke camp before 9am and it was a not so hot day with a cool breeze so it was an easy and quick hike.  But, instead of marching right up that 1100 feet in two miles I led the group 1/3 mile downriver to the confluence of the main fork of the Kern River and the Little Kern River for a little sightseeing and rest before tackling the mountain.  It’s a beautiful place, on a plateau at where a primitive campsite (and the actual launch where the rafters and kayakers take off) overlooks the confluence.  It’s somewhat tricky to figure out how to find to because you have to backtrack.  It’s a plan that worked perfectly.  We ate a bit and honestly I was dying to fish because there are two really good runs right there.  But, we weren’t going to spend a lot of time there so I didn’t break out a rod.  Not a problem.

Clearly Conni knows her way around a camera. This is just another great shot she took as we approached rattlesnake canyon / creek

The plan was that I’d charge up the mountain as fast as I could, empty my pack and double back down the mountain to meet up with anyone … to take the load off anyone who was struggling.  I have done that many many times before and I really don’t mind.  I actually like it because it ends up being such a great workout.  Well, I started the ascent with Lance and Chris behind me.  I focused on going slow because that first part is so steep and can ruin you if you take off too fast.  But, I could already feel the pain / lack of power in my legs.  My cardio was great.  I had worked hard getting into shape.  But, I just didn’t have the leg power and there was pain from simply being so physical for 3 straight days.  My legs needed a recovery day.  “Hmmm, I said to myself.  Maybe I am getting old.  This could be miserable.”  Both Lance and Chris were in good shape so they were right on my tail.  There were times I thought about insisting they pass me.  In my history at the Forks there is only one time where it took me longer than an hour to hike out.  When I was young it took me under 40 minutes to hike out.  But, one time in my early 50s I was overweight and out of shape and I paid for it.  So, I was watching my Garmin Forerunner closely.  I knew I was cutting it close.  The halfway point is now vandalized “Welcome to the Golden Trout Wilderness” sign.  When I passed it I was over 30 mins so I knew I was slow.  With a quarter mile left I told Lance, “We have to see if we can make it under an hour so I’m going to pick it up.”  We did.  We made it in under an hour….barely.  At the truck I quickly unloaded.  I didn’t even take on water.  I couldn’t have spent more than 5-10 minutes when I took off with an empty pack back down the mountain.  And to my shock within 200 yards there were the 3 gals.  Wow.  So strong.  That is definitely the fastest that Kelly has made it up that mountain.

We hit the Kern River Brewery on the way home; the first weekend they had been open since the pandemic started.  I earned that cheeseburger.

I pounded the water at the Huck Site pretty hard. And was rewarded numerous times.

Summary

I fished the entire trip on dries.  And for the most part I put the entire group totally on huck hoppers.  I cannot remember a trip to the Forks where I didn’t nymph.  That beldar Stone fly nymph I tie in for the “Upper Kern River Special” is so wildly effective there (although difficult to cast) because not only is it a good match for the naturals making the big rainbows love it, but, with the 3 titanium beads in it, it gets down to the zone quickly and stays there.  But, I never even threw one on this trip.  Even in that fast water where it would have made sense.  Even for the beginners.  When you love fly fishing and are getting takes on top there really is no reason to nymph.  You will not catch as many fish as nymphing, but, the takes are so much more fun.  And in spring at the Forks, Dries are seemingly the plan and the fun of it.

Conni took this picture of huck-truck on the way to the Forks Turnoff.  i take the beauty of the drive in for granted.  The faces granite are pretty awesome.  I’m always so excited to get to fishing that i race to the trailhead.

 

 

Backpacking to the Upper Little Kern River – Success!

5-22-20

i know i shouldn’t gopro a struggling fish with a Huck Hopper hanging out of the side of his face.  But it was only 20 seconds and i never pulled him out of the water releasing him.  you have to admit the footage is pretty cool.

Yes, I did go back to the little kern by way of the Clicks Creek Trailhead.  Just two weeks later after my failed attempt alone.  The road opened so this time I didn’t have to hike 8 miles, alone, on a crappy arduous complicated set of trails and roads, while it howled, raining and snowing, providing me a max of 10 feet of visibility with trails that simply disappeared causing tons of episodes of the losing the trail and getting lost just in the process of simply attempting to get to the trailhead I needed to start from.

And yes, it’s as awesome as I had heard.  I cannot wait to get back there.  Thanks to the handfull that helped me research.  But, especially to Steve Schalla aka Steven Ojai.  This place is truly a legit alternative to the Forks of the Kern when spring turns the main fork of the Kern into a raging dangerous unfishable river.  There’s just one significant negative about the Clicks Trail.  And it’s only a negative for us over 50s …closer to 60s…who’s broken down bodies are getting weaker.  More on that below.

I did a 3-nighter with a couple buddies:

Martin Loef relaxing at camp

  • Martin Loef who I have known for around 40 years; a true wilderness guy; a backpacking product rep who loves life (and the wilderness) more than anyone I know. I know Martin because he’s actually the best friend of my cousin.  Martin is a bit older than me…and I’m old… but, man, he is always so fit and I swear he puts 70 Lbs on his back he brings so much fresh food.  I’m quickly turning Martin into a fly fisherman.  His positive attitude is so infectious that I love guiding him more than I love fly fishing myself.  When I sent an email out to my fly fishing friends who backpack just 2 days before I was to leave (I made the last minute call when I got word the road opened).  Martin was the only on that replied, simply, “in!”.  Of course, he paid for that decision dearly after returning to his wife Viv laying the hammer on him for disappearing over memorial day weekend.

Luke Budwig – rejoicing over steak

  • Luke Budwig, a 24-year-old fly fishing fanatic I have known since he was tiny. Kelly and I are actually friends with his parents; great people.  Luke did the smart thing after graduating from college.  He flew to New Zealand with a buddy and fly fished for 3 months travelling through both islands.  Well, Luke had been texting me about joining me on my fly fishing adventures and he hit me right after I heard the road was open.  I told him he was more than welcome, and encouraged to join us.

The fishing was spotty.  I’d say average overall.  I believe it was it was because it’s so early in the season.  The river was so cold in the mornings that it stung on my bare legs.  Overnight temps below 32 degrees (frozen everything).

There was a fishing “issue”… something we have all experienced.  After hiking in and setting up camp, I didn’t get to fishing until around 630pm.  I wandered down river a few hundred yards to a big pool where Luke had caught a couple trout an hour earlier. Boom: First cast fish.  “Hmmmm”, I said to myself.  I ended up landed 10 fish in 20 minutes (for once I counted because when I realized it was ridiculous good, I resigned myself to stop at 10 to go back to camp to work on processing firewood for the camp fire).  It was ridiculous fishing with takes on top (trout 4” to 13”) on every cast.  I hooked and landed a 4” trout on a size 4 huck hopper!  I still don’t know how he even got it in it’s mouth.  Drag-less drifts (and it was a tough drift with multiple current lines and an eddy) didn’t seem to matter. I really feared it was going to be like catching a nice trout on your first cast and then getting skunked for the rest of the day.

one of the 4 nice runs on the Little Kern River within yards of where we camped.  That’s Luke.  He caught some nice Goldens here over the 3 days

And yes, I was fishing my “JD B3 LS”.  Translation: a special rod custom built for me by Jack Duncan, my dear friend from the San Diego Fly Fishers club.  Jack is a wildly talented rod builder and teacher.  A wily veteran of fly fishing.  And a generally great guy.  I believe I have told the story before but when the Winston BIII LS blanks went on sale, Jack said, “Tim, buy them.”  I did.  The LS is medium action.  For a “stick” that rod is a dream to cast.  In fact I told luke on this trip, “wait until you try this rod…”.  Luke is a stick.  3 months of fishing in New Zealand will do that.

This could be this my favorite picture of the trip. it’s actually a frame of video I pulled off my GoPro.  You can’t see the Huck Hopper hanging out of his face so it looks like he’s rising.

Slow in the mornings getting better as the day went on is how the following couple days went.  Again, it wasn’t great.  I’m sure it is great at certain times of the year there.  It was Okay in the late afternoons and evenings.  I just happened to catch a hatch that first night accidently; lucky.

Little Kern River Goldens

I thought these were “Gold-bows”. As it turns out these are a pure strained Little Kern Goldens

One of the interesting scientific/biology things for me and Luke was the identification of the trout.  After Luke caught the first few fish on that first night he said, “rainbows”.  I said to myself, “huh.  I didn’t think they had rainbows way up here.”  It was my understanding there is a huge waterfall that serves as a barrier protecting the little kern goldens from the kern river rainbows.  It was my understanding that juvenile little kern goldens exist below the waterfall all the way into the north fork of the kern river near the confluence.  But, not above the falls.  But, so much stocking has been done over the years in the sierras it made sense that other trout species would do well if planted there.  A single brown trout would have a field day feeding on 4” goldens….

I find it so amusing that a 6″ golden would rise and take a size 4 Huck hopper.  This is not the exception.  Which is why on the Kern and the Little Kern a huge Huck Hopper is my indicator.

So, when I caught those 10 trout that first night I would examine them as closely as I could in the ~10-20 seconds I had to unhook them and get them back into the river safely.  First thing of interest was that every trout I caught had par marks.  Par marks are the large distinguishable dots that line the trout from head to tail as a juvenile.  And as they come to adulthood the par marks fade away.  At least I thought that.  And it was because I thought that, that I assumed the 12” and 13” trout I caught were big juveniles less than 2 years old.  With so little food opportunity at that high elevation that made no sense to have a fish that big have par marks in that river.  Every fish we caught for the rest of the trip had par marks.  Hmmmm.   The other interesting thing I noticed was the distinguishable gold bellies on these trout which are typical of a California golden.  Some more pronounced than others.  The bodies of these trout were generally colorful like you’d expect from trout at altitude.  But, not colorful like the California golden trout.  I immediately assumed “gold-bows”; hybrids of cross breeding.  So, when I went back to camp I told luke, “rainbows and gold-bows”.  I was wrong.  California goldens are so distinguishable.  They are so colorful even out of spawning times they just look strange….and beautiful.  The little kern golden trout is its own sub species that only lives in basically a 20 mile stretch of river with a few ~2 mile tributaries that feed it.  that tiny little area is the only place in the world that has them.  That is special.  But, now researching them on the “interweb” I can see they look nothing like the California golden trout.  And they keep their par marks through adulthood.   So the entire time there we thought we caught zero little kern goldens when in reality we caught a ton of them.

The Little Kern River Golden Trout

In fact, we caught Little kern river goldens to 15”.  Well, Luke hooked that big one.  and he earned it.  I saw the big fish from way high above on a rock on mountaineer creek when with him.  Luke got a couple refusals, so I moved on.  As it turns out Luke worked that fish for 30 minutes.  Isn’t that awesomely typical of a 24-year-old fly fisher?  I would have given that thing 5 drifts and moved on.  Luke hooked him and set hard.  That really pissed off that Little Kern Golden trout.  The big trout jumped over a low hanging branch from a tree and broke off right back into the creek.  That has happened to me before in the main fork of the kern.  I think I chronicled that story on this site.  I had a huge kern river rainbow jump after setting hard, at least 10 feet into the air over a tree branch hanging over the river….and broke off.  I could only laugh.  There is a reason those trout got so big.  And the huge difference between catching wild natives and stockies.

Sandals and Jeans – Luke and the evening hatch just feet from the campsite.

Day one ended at the campfire eating the giant steaks we hiked in while sipping adult beverages.  Great day; the anticipation and angst of a huge fishing day the next day was looming on me.

“Sacrificing” on the first night: steak

Day 2

As mentioned, it was cold; Really cold the next morning.  I didn’t feel like doing my dishes in the dark the night before so I left them riverside soaking.  They were frozen solid in the morning.  So, there was no rush to get fishing quickly.  It was going to be a big day of exploration upriver.  We chose to fish upriver on the little kern.  There is no trail and it’s totally rugged bushwhacking.  And sure enough that session to early afternoon was really spotty…..almost dead.  Very few takes.  I was fishing dries only.  I think I caught one trout.  Also, the river was really skinny wild and overgrown; unfishable in many large stretches.  What I found really surprising is that in this area the Little Kern River is significantly smaller than Alpine Creek.  The clicks creek trail intersects with the confluence of the Little Kern River and Alpine Creek.  that is where we camped.  Although we didn’t know it at the time, we camped on Alpine creek about 100 feet upriver from the confluence.  It’s so overgrown wild there it took some hours to figure out there was even a confluence even though we were on top of it.

This picture is at sunrise from where we camped. Notice you cannot even see the confluence of the Little Kern and Alpine Creek.  If fact from this view you cannot see water at all it’s so overgrown with willows.

I learned later that the official trail crosses Alpine creek right where we camped, but you’d need to use GPS navigation to figure that out.  And there is another warning: Beyond where the clicks creek trail hits the little kern river there are a couple official trails.  One that generally follows the little kern and one that generally follows Alpine creek.  But, they are barely distinguishable and would require GPS navigation.  There is no trail for most of it.

So, after that morning session of a few hours we hiked back to camp and rested / ate.  Then we fished the little kern river downstream for a few miles (we never made it to the bridge stopping just after the confluence of clicks creek and the little kern river) and did better.  It wasn’t great fishing, but got better and better as the river temp warmed.

I have this “thing” about needing to catch a fish within 100 feet of where I camp while backpacking.  And I did work hard for it.  a nice 10” trout on a small huck hopper.  Mission accomplished.

Another truly great thing about this part of the Sierras: camp fires.  I can’t tell you how proud Martin was of his “ichiban” and his titanium chop stix… Btw, as of June 1, 2020 camp fires are now prohibited which is common in hiigh fire danger periods of the summer.

Day 3

So, at the campfire the night of day two I suggested we try exploring the other way: fishing our way upstream on Alpine creek.  Martin and Luke agreed…. excitedly.  To me, this was the most special day we had.  It was a shockingly beautiful bushwhack and the fishing was much better.  The water was much better and bigger with outstanding runs, pools and pocket water.  We saw many more bugs too.  Mayflies and midges.  At points there were random drakes hatching…like size 14s.  we saw some rises too.  I don’t believe we saw a single natural rise the day before although we did induce a few.

About a ½ mile upstream on Alpine creek there is a confluence.  Facing up river Mountaineer creek is on the left.  The water is bigger in Alpine creek so Luke and I crossed the creek (Martin still fishing behind us) went above the confluence and our jaws dropped.  We were staring at a quarter mile stretch of polished granite with two significant waterfalls plunging into pools.

Here’s me in front of the two waterfalls on Alpine Creek. Seemingly a fish block. but, we did catch goldens up stream.

At the confluence itself was the most amazing rock formation.  I think I hooked a fish in the bottom pool then luke and I scaled the granite, fishing our way up.  It was so beautiful Martin just stayed there relaxing, eating, and enjoying this amazing find in the middle of nowhere while Luke and i fished up stream.  I still have not found any documentation of the names of these falls or even pictures of them.  Although, If you look on google earth (satellite view) you can totally see them.

Unbelievable Waterfall and Rock structure beauty in the middle of nowhere on Alpine Creek

Above the falls the creek got really skinny and was overgrown in most places.  About a mile up Luke and I ran into a primitive camp site and we both said, “no way.  This is the middle of the wilderness.”  But, when I looked at the topo on my garmin inReach 66i, I could see an official trail nearby.  God only knows where it came from.  We didn’t do too well in that stretch so we doubled back and then fished up Mountaineer creek, which was skinny but had large pools where you could see the trout.  It was about ½ mile up stream on Mountaineer where luke broke off his “golden monster” in a tree.

Martin took this Pano picture of the waterfalls and rock formation on his iphone.

When it was slow in the morning I even switched to nymphing.  There were some deep runs in Alpine creek.  But, it was slow: like a take per 30 mins type of thing.  really great water, too.  As expected, It didn’t get better until way later in the day (after the water warmed up).

I have a saying about bushwhacking to fly fish in the sierras: “You will give the mountain your blood.”  i was actually in shorts when i fell.  the actual picture of my leg was a little too nasty.  this pic was taken after cleaning the wound up.

It was a really great day way north of 25,000 steps of wading and bushwhacking.  I was exhausted by the time we hit the evening hatch near the site.  A campfire, my newly found love of dehydrating my own real meals for backpacking, a little JD and I was in the tent early…which is typical of me.  As I lay there I have to admit I was dreading the next morning….breaking camp and that awful hike out.  I just didn’t realize how awful it would be.

Day 4: The Hike out

There are 4 nice runs within 200 yards of where we camped. This is Luke on one of them. he’s pointing at a huge fish. carp? sucker?

We started the hike out at 8:45AM.  The weather was sunny and cool.  I said to myself, “it’s only 5 miles.” In training for this I was averaging 5 mile run/hikes in the local hills of Calavera…300 feet above sea level.  The only real negative on the clicks trail has everything to do with getting to the trail and the trail itself.  The destination at the Little Kern River is pretty awesome.  The clicks trail from Clicks trailhead 2 is kinda’ poorly made.  It’s straight up and down for stretches that should be switch backs.  So, the hike out…gaining 2000 feet while already at altitude was an absolute bitch.  No real switch backs.  Just brutally steep trail.  It’s almost like it follows a significant amount of animal trails (deer don’t need switch-backs).  I kinda’ noticed it on the way in, going downhill.  But, didn’t realize the magnitude of the grade.  Honestly people complain constantly to me about the 1100 foot climb in 2 miles out of the canyon on the forks of the kern trail.  The forks is a cake-walk compared to the clicks trail.

Oh yea, forgot to mention 500 year old giant sequoias

Also, the set of dirt roads off highway 180 (mainly north road) is confusing.  And not well signed.  Martin and I took a wrong turn and were lost for about 15 mins before I figured it out.  Btw, there was a lot of snow on the dirt roads.

I told you Martin just loves life no matter what life deals him.  So, on the hike out he’s actually happy, talking the whole time and loving it while I’m totally sucking.  He had to mention the cold beer waiting for him in my 7 day cooler I the back of my truck 5 times.  In the steep stretches I could only move at a snails pace.  That is not like me at all.  I’m a fast hiker.  But, I was giving it all my little old engine had.  Martin got ahead of me and that was fine…. At least at the time I felt it was fine.  Luke, in his 24 year old zest for fly fishing decided he needed to fish a meadow on the Clicks creek at the bottom of the mountain and that he’d catch up with us or see us at the car.  That worried me a little I have to admit.  I don’t typically worry when I backpack alone.  I worry when i’m with others.   We found out later he did well there.  Of course.

Why are there always calamities in backpacking?  Martin got ahead of me and then doubled back to check if he was going the right way.  Yes, Martin was having so much fun while I was miserable that he purposely lost a bunch of altitude to double back.  I looked at the topo on my garmin.  I had the trek in overlaid on the map.  We were so close.  So I told him so: “we are within ½ mile of the truck”.   So, Martin bolted ahead.  And I pushed on.  The next thing I know I ran into a “welcome to the Golden Trout Wilderness” sign facing the other way.  I said to myself.  We did not pass that on the way in.  They must have put that in while we were camping.  They did not.  I missed the cutoff to the clicks 2 trailhead.  It wasn’t until I hiked about ¼ mile farther that I realized it.  because the trail was on top of Clicks Creek.  I could actually see a bunch of goldens in the water and I knew we did not pass this stretch on the way in.  Then the fear hit me.  If I missed the cutoff so did Martin.  And he could have been ½ mile ahead of me.

Luke, Martin and Tim: a handsome young fly fisherman and two old guys

The worry-based adrenaline hit me.  I dropped by pack and started jogging to try to catch him.  After a half mile of running I did not catch him.  Then the worry really hit me.  “did he actually see the cutoff trail and I did not?  the penalty for his failure could be significant….like 4-5 miles significant”.  And Martin is the type of guy that would have enjoyed that.  Me?  Not so much.  I was worried I’d be looking all night for him.  So, I doubled back.  I went so far jogging, seemingly, that I had the fear I missed my pack.  But, I eventually found it easily.  I hiked backwards to find the cutoff staring at my gps the entire time.  And missed the trail cuttoff again!  As I stared at my GPS and could see I was on top of it, 200 yards max either way.  That is when I heard Luke coming up the trail.  “Thank God.” I said out loud.  Even he was exhausted.  I explained the situation to him.  We head back up the hill.  This time I saw the trail intersection.  You know the trails are bad when it takes 3 attempts to go back the way you came even with GPS navigation.  So, I did my best to clear logs and line that trail intersection so others wouldn’t get screwed.  Then Luke and I, confidently now, marched up the last 2/3rds of a mile trek out to where my truck was at the Clicks 2 parking lot.  I was worrying that entire time that Martin would not be there.  And if he was not there, my plan was to drive to the clicks 1 trailhead…which god only knows how far that would be or how I would get there…3-4 miles to find him.  As I crested the mountain and saw my truck, there he was.  Thank god.  And with a smile on his face he was bitching about not remembering where my keys were so he could enjoy a delicious beer.

So, did he actual notice and take the trail cutoff / intersection to clicks 2 that I missed twice?  No.  In his ignorant bliss he hiked most of the trail from clicks 2 to clicks 1 that lines the clicks creek.  Ultimately, he ran into a couple fly fishermen who parked at clicks 1 and said, “hey, where the hell am i?”   they advised him back the trail to another trail that was a shortcut through the forest to the main dirt road.  From there martin ran a couple miles on the dirt road, making the left turn on a different road to the clicks 2 trailhead, pack on, to where my truck was.  And still beat us.  I think he did a 4 mile detour.  As it was I did a 2.8 mile addition to that trail.

This is Luke above Alpine Creek – what an awesome stretch of fishable water

Summary

Beautiful place.  Complicated 4 wheel drive roads to the trailhead.  Brutal hike out.  it’s a long steep hike for only being 5 miles.  Losing 2000 feet of elevation.  Plus it takes gps navigation and maps; there are no real trail markers.  The state of California is just so under budgeted for the forest.  It’s a shame.  My club and I are trying to help fix that.

The fly fishing was average to good.  Not epic.  The water temps were still so cold.  Morning water temps below 40.  That means you don’t see rises until the water sees sun all day.  It’s an awesome place.  I can’t wait to get back.

So, I caught fish every day to 13”.  But it sure was slow for the better portion of the morning and early afternoon until the water warmed up.  That has everything to do with fishing the sierras in May.  But, clicks is a definitely alternative to the forks when the kern is raging in spring.

And Yea, I’m banged up pretty good too.  Lots of cuts and scrapes.  I gave the river and the mountain some blood on this trip.  Bushwhacking….  We saw plenty of evidence of bears, but not the bears themselves.  Deer, coyote, birds, small game…

And yea, I fished clicks creek.  Just farther down river.  But what I did discover is that the meadow stretches between clicks 1 and 2 is awesome.  Luke actually fished it after we hiked out.  And did well.  Being lost I got to see it.  I could see tons of goldens in that creek without willows…. Unobstructed casting.  I need to get back there and fish that stretch.

And there is the guidance:  In retrospect when I do it again I will park and take off from clicks 1 trailhead.  There really is no reason to hike from clicks creek 2 trailhead.  The next time I do this I’ll start from Clicks 1 and fish my way through the first 1.25 miles until the trail loses the creek and heads down the mountain.  All the guidance says clicks 2 eliminates 2 miles.  It’s closer to 1.25 miles along a fairly flat, beautiful stretch of meadow and calm mountain stream.  It’s a lot flatter than the steep trail down from clicks 2.  Hindsight.

And btw, now that i have stared at the maps and where we hike to….we were not even close to the headwaters of the Little Kern River.  that little river goes for miles.  so much to explore.  the sierras are so vast.  and so filled with trout.

 

Backpacking to the Upper Little Kern River – Failed

May 14, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happened:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upper Kern River – Johnsondale Bridge Trail

April 3-5, 2020

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Joey And Jason- lifelong buddies and fly fishermen:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Icicles do not make for a pleasurable “sun shower”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Hey, Jason took a picture of me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Calamities:

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

Jason in release

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Jason in battle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

March in Montana

Montana, March 7-9, 2020

 

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

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

Mark Huckaby with a big rainbow in spawning colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Mark Huckaby in Battle on the Armstrong Spring Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

 

 

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

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

If you want to:

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

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