April 10-12, 2015
Well, I checked off another “bucket-lister” – I back-packed the forks of the kern trailhead into the Sierras wilderness for 3 days and two nights – alone. The Forks trail opened up the day before so I was the first one on the trail for the season. And the only one there. I didn’t see a single sole the entire time. The reasons I’d do something crazy like that risking a bit of safety are numerous:
1. A shot at throwing the first artificial flies of the season at the legendary Kern River Rainbows in low water Spring conditions.
2. I started the back packing thing late in life and am trying to learn as much as possible and be able to deal with the adversity that the wilderness throws at you. And I did see my share of adversity on this trip.
3. There’s nothing like being in the wilderness alone to bring clarity of thought (unless you are scared about all the bears in the vicinity like on this trip).
I blocked my calendar for a long weekend at the end of a business trip weeks ago; naively. I knew that in the 4th straight year of the worst California drought in recorded would mean a very productive and fishable river in April. In normal years that river in April would be huge and nasty and barely fishable at 2500 CFS (cubic feet per second). There is only one positive thing I know of in the drought: great fly fishing. With 1/10th of normal flow there is just no place where the fish can hide from a good cast.
Check out the Kern River Water flow historical graph below:
And now let me tell you that the Kern was under 200 cfs (cubic feet per second). In normal years in April through June, you would even consider wading into the river 5 feet because it would be a raging 2000 cfs and really dangerous. I found a river easily crossable in numerous places in April; shocking. And very fishable albeit cold and early in the season.
I lucked out. They opened the road to the trail head the day before. I had no idea they even closed that road or the trailhead in winter, but it makes total sense. Even getting stuck on the road in the winter would be an issue because it’s 30 miles from any civilization. I called the ranger station the week prior because my permit was not approved yet and that is when I found out how close I was cutting it. I called them again the day before I was to start my trek and they told me the good news.
Driving the road to the trail, though, I saw snow. A lot of snow. Hmmm…. When I got to the trailhead I parked on the dirt alone. I have never seen that trailhead empty before. hmmm….
My footprints were the first on the trail for months after it closed for winter. It was eerie hiking in with 45lbs on my back and my right hand constantly checking for my bear spray. And stepping over or around all the rocks and trees that had fallen on the trail over the winter. The first encounter was a big bobcat. I spooked it and it ran away quickly. I didn’t realize they run like tigers / cheetahs with a double foot gallop. My next encounters were with snakes warming up on the trail. After the first hour of the hike down into the canyon I took off my boots and gingerly crossed the little Kern River and picked up the trail on the other side. And that is where I ran into the first real concern: bears. There was bear scat right on the trail. These are just black bears and normally not a threat…except in Spring when they come out of hibernation hungry, horny or with young bears…or all three. As I hiked the 4.2 miles on the trail to my favorite primitive campsite I kept running into more and more bear scat. And one huge fresh one just 100 feet from my favorite site. Hmmm…
The first issue. Since my pack was already at 45 lbs I didn’t bring hiking boots. I hiked in with my wading boots…which are a full 1.5 sizes too big by design to fit the neoprene sock in waders. And now my feet are blistered and in pain. So, I have to suck it up.
Once I got to my destination I scanned the river for rises; none. No bugs in the air either.
I quickly unpacked my backpack. 2nd issue: my water bottle was carabineered to the outside of my backpack. It unscrewed itself on the physical hike/climb in and I lost it. uggg… I had a coffee cup and my jetboil, but now I was stuck sterilizing water in a 12 ounce coffee cup. Either that or drink water right out of the river and risk giardia.
I set up camp quickly. I set up my tent close to the primitive fire ring figuring alone I’d want everything close. It’s not normally where I put my tent. I hung my food and knew I had to make firewood before I fished because I’d hope to fish a hatch until dark. The process involves dragging downed tree branches 100s of yards to the site, leaning them on a rock, and trying to break them up by two handed throwing the largest rock I could handle. It’s backbreaking work…especially for an overweight little old guy….
I strung up my Winston boron II 6 wt with a huck hopper and rainbow warrior dropper I tied and on the 3rd cast, just 50 feet from my tent I was into a battle with a 16” Kern River rainbow. “Yes!” I shouted to no one after I hooked, fought, released him. After a couple hours I had landed 5 big fish all within 200 feet of the campsite. And most of the hookups were on dries. I was really pleased.
It was getting cold; no chance of hatch so I headed to make a fire. And thank god I had a fire permit. Because it was cold; really cold. I underestimated how cold it would be. The closest weather report I could get was from Johnsondale about 40 road miles away. And it was easily 10 degrees colder in the mid 30s.
After eating and sipping a little JD I sat next to the fire and I txt’d many of my fishing buddies about my success with my delorme inreach satellite tracker; An amazing safety device. I also txt’d Kelly telling her I was safe and having fun. And all the people I txt’d could see exactly where I was and where I had been at: https://share.delorme.com/TimHuckaby
It was a long first night. I could hear every little noise from the wilderness over the sound of the rapids from the river. So, I was a bit freaked. I’m pretty sure I had an animal visitor in my campsite. Additionally, the wind would hit my tent and make a noise like an animal (or worse a wierdo) tapping on my tent. It was so cold it was the first time I mummified myself in my sleeping bag. When the sun came up and my watch alarm went off at 6:30 I said to myself, “my god it is so cold I can’t get out of my sleeping bag.” For those who know me as a really early riser that is a shock. But, I did. And I could see my breath so heavy it went out at least 3 feet in front of me. there was no frost so I know it wasn’t 32…but, it was darn close. And since I was backpacking light I just didn’t have the clothes to support the cold. The first thing I saw was a giant pee stain in the dirt right by where I cooked my food the night prior. I got visited by a bear.
I made firewood to warm up. I made coffee to warm up. When I ran out of chores and eating I wadered up and fished downriver. I was a bit freaked by the bear and for no logical reason felt it would be safer to fish back the way I came in, instead of deeper into the sierras. And I did well. It’s wasn’t crazy every cast takes, but the fishing was consistent all day. And I caught a lot of big fish… maybe around 15. And that is the weird thing. I was only catching big fish.
The highlight of the day is one I will remember forever. Those who fly fish know that getting a fish to rise to your fly is the ultimate. Even better than that is getting a big fish to rise. Even better than that is getting a big fish to rise to a fly you personally tied. But, there is one thing even better….
There are spots on the kern where you just can’t wade. The river has cut into the granite in bends and formed deep pools under cliffs. Typically a tail-out ends in a deep pool. And that was very much the case as I climbed down the granite face to about 10 feet above the water. I casted up stream and drifted the tail-out – nothing. I pulled it up right in front of me because below me was 30 foot deep of crystal clear slow moving water. That water never works so I didn’t even drift it. I casted upstream 40 feet or so again. Nothing. “One more cast.” I said to myself fully expecting to move to better water. I casted, drifted, nothing. But, for some reason I just let my huck hopper ride in the slow water contemplating moving. That is when it happened: 10 feet downstream and below me I watched as if it were in slow motion… a monster rose from the deep like a torpedo and crashed on my huck hopper. I set and the battle was on. He had plenty of deep water to run on me and he jumped a couple times. Huge fish. Now, I had to figure out how to land and release him. that was a bit tricky and dangerous. Totally worth it.
My second night went a bit better, but it was even more bitter cold than the first night. When I got up in the morning my breath was “smoking” 3 feet in front of me.
I packed up camp and got on the trail. I decided I’d break the trip back up into two segments in fish a couple hours in between. I decided to fish the little Kern river because I never have caught a fish there. And I still haven’t. There was plenty of water and I fished up about a mile, but for some reason I didn’t see any fish. It was really rugged too. I lost my bear spray in the process. Now I had to hike all the way out of the canyon without bear spray. Uggg.
The hike out… gaining all the 1800 feet back up hill… was brutal. I’m in cardio shape, but still 15 lbs heavy…and another year on this broken down old body didn’t help…. But still totally worth it. When I got to the trailhead I was still the only sole there. I sun showered with soap and shampoo; I grabbed a beer from my cooler and headed home with a smile on my face. Can’t wait to get back in June.
I don’t know if I’ll ever push the safety thing to those limits again….probably not. But, I’m sure glad I did it and lived to tell you parts of the story.
If any of you want the intricate details and directions on how to pull this backpacking trip off I’d be more than happy to provide them. Just email me.