For a long father’s day weekend I planned a back packing trip to the Forks of the Kern months in advance. I invited a number of “value-adds” to the trip, but because of that particular weekend it ended up with just me, Kelly (my lovely bride of 26+ years who is happier in a Nordstrom’s than she is in the wilderness) and her / our friend Meredith. Mer loves to backpack and is turning into quite the wilderness gal. But, it was just me and two hot mom-babes which is just another reason for stressing while back-packing.
I had to drive to the trailhead from the North, actually from Fresno where I was on a business trip. I pulled Huck-truck into the lower Peppermint campground about 10 miles short of the trailhead at 12am the night before and crashed in the back of the truck. The girls came from the south and met me the next morning, albeit a bit later than we wanted to start because of the heat.
So, I headed into the wilderness with two moms. Mer had a bear spray and I had one. And I had my Delorme InReach Satellite tracker. I was still a bit worried though because the hike in to the very same place with Kelly last year ended up with my buddy mark mcgeary carrying her pack…and his. She was a lot smarter about what she put in her pack this time. And she was a lot stronger. But, I was still a bit worried because “wierdos” do live in the sierras in the bush. As a fly fisherman I don’t worry about large animals like bears and moose and wolves; I worry about tiny things like ticks and the protozoans they carry and others like giardia. And I worry about wierdos; the kind that are vagrants living in the bush and the other kind that are illegal drug farmers. And I have run into plenty of both.
Once we got to the little Kern crossing (which I didn’t even bother taking my boots off for it was so low), I overcame my fears and hiked ahead to see if we could get our favorite primitive site on the river. Because going farther on the trail beyond that site is at least another hour of hiking over the mountain and I know there would be no way we’d be able to do that on that hot day. And alas, when I got there, it had tents on it. Darn. My first mistake was thinking the girls might want to share that site. (A day later I met the 4 guys in that site who were fly fisherman. But, not the types the girls would want to share a site with). So, I left my backpack in that site amidst the other guys stuff and I quickly hiked my way back on the trail hoping to quickly intersect the girls. I did not. They had slowed down because of the heat. It was every bit of a couple miles where I met up with them. I told them the options we had (share the site, go farther, or find a spot close and call it a day). And it was obvious it was getting hot and time to find a site near there and call it a day. So, we did. So then I had to hike that 2 miles back again to get my pack. Once I did I put my pack on and hiked the 2 miles back again to the girls. Six extra miles, but, I wasn’t fading by any stretch. It was a record fitbit day for sure. Between the hike and gathering fire wood and fishing my fitbit said it took 37,530 steps and covered 16.5 miles before I crashed for the night.
Signs of the prolonged drought were everywhere: dead and dying trees, brown grass and a really low river. In fact, the upper Kern river was flowing under 200 CFS when it should have been at 2,500. The Kern is not going to be fishable in the fall I fear. And there could be a massive fish kill because of the warm water. Or, all the big fish could move up river to the forks where the kern is colder… that would be good….
We set up camp and I handled the important stuff with the gals: collecting and making firewood and setting up a proper and safe fire ring.
The water was already mid-day warm and this was June. I’m so glad I didn’t bring waders; three was no need for them. I’m glad my son Mark talked me out of carrying them in. It would have just been dead weight. By the time we set up camp, made firewood and I built a fire ring the day was mostly gone. By the time I got into the river to fish it was late afternoon. I had a little pressure on me because the girls were counting on eating trout that night. Well, I missed about 10 fish in a row and started to get frustrated before I realized I was setting “up river” instead of downriver like you are supposed to (a trout faces up river and waits for food to go by so you want to pull the hook downriver so it catches their mouth properly). There is so much in fly fishing for me to get better at. And this is one of the areas I need to get better at: the set. I set too early, I set too late, I set to hard. And it this case I was setting the wrong direction. I was on the “right handed side” of the river and setting downriver with my left hand is not natural. I had to concentrate to do it. And once I started doing it I started hooking and landing fish. Before I knew it I had 3 quality fish that I kept and harvested for dinner that night. And that night was the last time I ate trout on the trip and could be the last time I do it ever. Even though I cooked it in fresh lemon juice, olive oil, white wine and spices it still tasted like trout. I’m not weird about harvesting the fish; I’m weird about how badly they taste. They eat bugs and they taste like bugs. But, the girls like it more than backpacking food so I gladly caught and cooked those two fish each night.
This is a California Mountain King Snake. I had to lie to Mer and tell her it slithered off when really it went under a rock just ten feet from her tent. We saw lots of water snakes on the trip including one that just wouldn’t give up trying to steal our fish. I whacked it on the head and it still came back. The stringer I made prevented it from stealing them.
I’m a fly fisherman who backpacks to the fishing. I’m not a backpacker. The difference in this backpacking trip was that we broke camp and moved every day. So we backpacked 4 straight days. It cut into prime morning fishing time, but I didn’t mind at all. We were having fun and it honed my set up / break camp backpacking skills. We hiked all the way up river past mosquito creek close to the Kern flats! And getting over that mountain was a bitch because the pine beetle has done its thing and numerous trees have collapsed on the trail. Getting around one of the collapsed trees involved a 50 foot straight up climb the side of the mountain with the packs on. I’m a “goat” but it was tricky and very physical for the girls…and dangerous.
The fishing was good; not great. I’d say I’d averaged 20 fish days each of the days. If I fished the entire morning and nights I probably could have turned it into 40 fish days. But, I have seen it and fished it a lot better… where every cast is a potential strike. There was not a lot of action on top, but enough to elicit some vicious strikes from smaller rainbows. But, all the decent size fish I caught were on the dropper or on a streamer.
The two best fly fishing takeaway stories from the trip:
1. I caught a big fish on the last cast on the last night. And then I followed it up with a first cast fish the morning. Both were right in front of the camp site.
2. I taught both the gals how to reach cast and we even did a little roll casting. And both of them did great (realize how impossible it is to teach your wife anything). Well, on the last night they had seen refusals and strikes all trip long, but still had not landed a fish. I told them before the trip they’d catch fish, but they wouldn’t land them. They soon figured out what that meant. Anyways on the last night just as the sun was going down the caddis hatch went off. I noticed and looked at a river in front of the site alive with rises. I said, “Ladies, if you are ever going to catch a fish it’s going to be now.” They both motivated and grabbed their rods. Mer was downstream. I went with her first and since she was casting great I simply pointed out the rises and told her where to cast. First cast….Strike! She missed it… but, was now excited. I said, “Keep fishing and let me take care of Kelly.”
So, I put Kelly in another spot 100 feet upstream which had a lot more rises, but an impossible reach cast because of the trees. She’d have to roll cast it. As we practiced the role cast she mangled her rod in a tree and lost the flies, so I gave her my rod. She was getting struck every time and missing the sets. I was frustrated and yelling “Set!” And she was frustrated at me for being so into it and yelling. After about ten straight misses I pondered what to do and she let her line swing…. “I got a fish!” She screamed. I said to myself, “No way. On the swing.” I had not caught a fish on the swing all trip long. Kelly actually caught a fish! I shouted “Woo!”. Well she battled it to her feet where the barbless hook fell out. I call that a catch…. On the swing… and Meredith got struck on top numerous times on a caddis imitation.
Both of the girls want to go back. That is awesome. Kelly was even talking to Mer about buying her own backpack. They are both pretty stoked on the trip as am I because even though it was a different trip, it was a ton of fun in the Sierras. Kelly was so much stronger this time. Of course she was smarter about what she put in her pack this time…but not totally smart….:) Both girls agreed for the next time: “Less food; more booze.” And who can argue with that?
I know the girls are very proud and rightfully they should be because they really enjoyed themselves and they did help a lot. Can’t wait to do it again… Next time with twice as much fly fishing.