Category Archives: Backpacking

Forks of the Kern – June 18-22, 2021

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

One of the many big Kern River Rainbows i nailed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fire Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fishing

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

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

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

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

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

The Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of interest…

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

Summary

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

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

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

 

Upper Kern River: Backpacking up river from the Johnsondale Bridge

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

River Flow:

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

Solunar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Barker Valley Spur Trail – April 10-11, 2021

Is there a place in San Diego County:

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

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

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

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

The fearless threesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John caught this one on the dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cottonwood Lakes – Land of the Giant Goldens

July 5-8, 2020

Yea, i stuck that gopro underwater thinking i could just flip that section around, but i like that upside down view of that golden so much i just kept it.  

Of all the fly fishing backpacking trips I do on an annual basis the hike in to camp at Cottonwood Lake 3 is the one that is historically the most difficult for me.  It’s only 6 miles.  It’s rated as “moderate”. There is only about 1,000 feet of elevation gain and its mostly wide easy trail that gently gains elevation.  I have done my share of 15+ mile hikes at altitude.  This one seemingly gives me trouble because it starts at 10,000 feet and that the 5th mile is a brutal switch backing set of stone steps that seems to go forever.  That 5th mile has got in my head.

My lovely bride Kelly (below) of 31+ years and her best buddy Mere (above), both with their first goldens. both on dries from Cottonwood Creek

The fishing at Cottonwood Lakes is so spectacular at certain times of the year.  And it is such a beautiful place, the pain of the hike in is totally worth it.  The Cottonwood Lakes are the land of the giant Goldens.  You thought a California Golden didn’t get bigger than 10”, right?  They don’t.  What happened here is the state of CA dumped rainbows into the Cottonwood Lakes years ago for fishing recreation purposes.  The California Goldens and the Rainbows crossbred and produced giant Goldens.  Wild, just not pure strained.  As far as i know, there are no longer any rainbows in the Cottonwood Lakes; they have all been hybridized.

I have backpacked to Cottonwood Lakes 4 times.  Every time led by my buddy Warren Lew; a seasoned veteran of the wilderness and of fly fishing.  Warren gets the permits and targets right around the fishing season opener of July 1st.  Yes, this is one of those places in the Sierras that is not open to fishing until July 1.  I have no idea why.  I was surprised that I have never written about Cottonwood Lakes on this site.  I had to search my own site to prove it.  Because it is such a special place.  A few years back I did write a magazine article on Cottonwood Lakes for California Fly Fisher Magazine.

The sun falling at Cottonwood Lake 3

On this trip Warren and I were joined by 4 females, so we were a bit out-numbered in terms of “getting a word in edge-wise”: My wife Kelly and her friend Meredith (both of who’s backpacking and fly fishing adventures with me have been chronicled on this site).  We were also joined by Warren’s girlfriend/Fiancé Lori and Lori’s step-sister Debbie.

As recommended above 10,000 feet, we acclimated at the trailhead backpacking camp the day before.  Mere, Kelly and I got up there a few hours before Warren, Lori and Debbie so we fished Cottonwood creek which is close to the trailhead.  Both Mere and Kelly caught their first pure strained California goldens in the couple hours of fishing we did.  I caught a whole bunch of little goldens.  I was trying really hard to take it easy fully knowing the hike ahead of me in the morning.  But it’s hard to go easy when the dry fly fishing is so fun.

you really don’t need to backpack this place to catch goldens.  fishing cottonwood creek which follows large stretches of the 6 miles of trail is not only beautiful, but very productive if you can be stealth with accurate casts.

You are allowed to have a campfire in the iron pits at the sites in the backpacking campground so we grilled, ate, had a campfire and hit the sack early.  Warren and Lori cooked a huge awesome breakfast that following morning so we were well fed and carb’d up for the hike in.  Our target was a large primitive site we stumbled into last year on Cottonwood #3.  We staggered the hike into two groups.  Me, kelly, Mere and Debbie were in the first group that took off.  Warren and Lori wanted to do a little cleanup and take it slowly so they went after us.  Well, we were at a great pace. My pack was a bit heavier than I wanted it to be on this trip, but it’s difficult to be light when carrying for two people involved.  The 3 gals were chatting away so I put a 100 yards of distance in front of them in the chance of seeing some animals.  But even at 100 yards I could still hear those three.  I was stressing a bit on finding warren’s spot from last year…. Or finding any site that could handle 4 tents.  But, generally feeling good after 4 miles.  The hike in is beautiful.  It includes meadows and multiple views and a few crossings of Cottonwood Creek.  Then we hit that set of switchbacks in the 5th mile with all the altitude gain.  I was pressing as hard as I could.  And I could feel…well hear the gals right on my tail.  By the time I reached the top….which seemingly lasted forever…I didn’t feel that badly.  But, I was surprised that there was no snow on the summit like there was at the very same time in previous years.

I just love this video….because i love teasing my dear friend Warren so much…

The four of us hiked the plateau with Cottonwood 1 and 2 in view to a spot where Warren reminded me prior that I needed to go off trail and bushwhack directly to the targeted primitive site on Cottonwood 3.  I totally missed it…. But lucked out find finding it with the little backtracking.  I was relieved.  I didn’t want to let my buddy Warren down and there are so few places on Cottonwood 3 you can put 4 tents.

Warren’s much better half, Lori – you know your special when your first fish caught fly fishing is a golden.

I set up the tent quickly.  I had Kelly to help.  I started to feel like hell because of the altitude and the hike.  I should have rested, but I couldn’t help it.  I knew the giant Goldens were waiting for me.  I immediately rigged up and started fishing right in front of the camp.  I got a bit worried about Warren and Lori because they hadn’t showed up at camp a couple hours after we arrived.  But, sure enough they wandered in eventually.  Warren asked me to fish to the north end of the lake but I felt so poorly (exhausted) I declined.  So not like me.  Also not like me is to go easy on the whiskey that first night; which I did.  But, I was just exhausted and felt a little bit of the hell of altitude sickness.

the author missing another set.  notice that ledge around 20 feet from the shore.  that is where the goldens hang, but they do wander into very shallow water in clear site.

Well, the next day was a great one, but I still had an altitude headache that I just could not shake.  No matter, I fished all day anyways and had the time of my life.  Debbie and I got a head start on the group.  We hiked to the North end of the lake, wadered up, and fished the inlet at Cottonwood #3.  We did well.  There were fish rising everywhere.  Kelly and Mere soon appeared as was the plan.  Warren and Lori decided to stay near camp and fish there.  So, up the mountain I went with Debbie, Mere and Kelly.  I didn’t feel so red hot and gaining a bunch more altitude to get to lakes 4 and 5 didn’t help.  But, I knew there were big Goldens up there.  We fished lake 4 and did well.  I remember catching a few nice Goldens at the inlet.  Then we went on a hunting hike through 4 and lake 5.  Kelly and Mere got a little bored with fly fishing and decided the glacier sitting 500 feet above lake 4 would be a perfect source of ice for the bourbon and the old-fashioned mixings they hiked in.  I laughed watching them climb up the shattered granite to that glacier.  I may have a dedication to fly fishing, but those two have an unparalleled dedication to a well-made old fashioned….even above 10,000 feet.

normally i would heavily criticize relaxing on the shoreline while sipping Old Fashioned’s when the fishing is so good.  But, if you are willing to hike in the bitters, bourbon, high end bar cherries and orange slices, then climb a scree of granite 500 feet to a glacier ~ 13,000 feet to harvest the ice to cool your cocktail.  then i guess you have earned it.

I continued to fish successfully as Mere and Kelly hiked back to the camp with their water bottles stuffed with glacial hard packed ice.  Warren soon joined me at lake 4.  We communicated through our Garmin InReaches which made it super convenient to find each other.  And safe.  we fished the upper lakes quite successfully.

fishing the inlets, outlets and the streams between the cottonwood lakes can be very effective

Kelly and Mere were casting pretty efficiently now so short of me releasing the goldens they caught they were pretty self-sufficient.  Debbie was a fishing machine.  Like me, she just doesn’t stop until she has to.  It was Debbie and I on the water each morning first.  In fact, I made it a habit to catch a golden right after the sun rose each morning while taking the first sips of coffee before the morning chores.

“Women with Fly Rods” – Deb, Mere and Kelly at the view overlooking Cottonwood Lake 3

It was just a great couple days of dry fly fishing.  Always with a Huck Hopper, but sometimes trailed by an emerger of what was hatching.  From the minute I started fishing when I got there, nailing my first big golden on a size 12 Huck Hopper within the first few casts to my last cast before leaving.  That is pretty much how it went.  I fished dries the entire time there.  Yea, you can argue an emerger is not a dry, but I was fishing them like dries in the film.  I never had a need to nymph.  I got consistent takes on top the entire time we were there.  We didn’t need to travel far for the fishing to be great.  I stayed right in front of the camp and it fished great until dark. It seemed like our time was so short there.  So many big goldens; so little time.  I Can’t wait until I get back there this coming July.

Debbie took this picture of me early in the morning staggering down to fish with me.  notice the dimples in the calm surface of the lake.  it’s pretty fun to cast and the rises.

Upper Kings River – Yucca Point Trail

Nov 5-7, 2020

One of the very few trout i C&R’d on this trip.  Huck Hopper, Black, Size 12

Quick Stats:

  • 4 or 5 12” to 14” rainbows landed over 2 ~4 hour fly fishing sessions spread over 2 days. Translation: Slowwwwww….
  • 1 20+ rainbow lost downstream on a head shake nymphing barbless
  • Awful, wet cold, miserable weather….which resulted in 13 hours in the backpacking tent.
  • CFS: who knows? My guess is the flow was 250 CFS at the confluence of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings.  The gauge above boyden cave, up river from the confluence by ~10 miles showed 65 CFS….which just does not make sense.

Brand new sign – it’s a shame this place is not solely catch and release.  It should be

How it Went Down

The plan was a 3-nighter down into one of, if not the most rugged and physical places I have done the backpacking / fly fishing thing at: The Upper South and Middle Forks of the Kings River.  That was the plan.  It did not quite work out that way.

My buddy, and backpacking mentor, Warren Lew and I had been planning this trip for weeks.  We were up against the end of the fishing season (11/15) in most of the sierras.  With huge parts of the Sierras burning and most of the forest closed, this was most likely our last chance to fish for a few months.  What we were worried most about was the smoke.  We tracked it daily.  The small patch of the Sierras was the only legitimate place to backpack to fly fishing in the sierra nevadas mountain range that was within a decent one-day drive of us.  But, the Upper Kings River sits in between the two largest fires in California history.  And they still were not contained.  So we were at the mercy (and crapshoot) of how the wind blew…..and unfortunately the wind did blow…hard.

 

The picture on the left is the view down from the trailhead.  Notice how deep it is and how high Spanish Peak towers above.  on the right is simply the same shot zoomed in on the confluence of the Middle (top) and South (below) forks of the Upper Kings River

Although I still have not figured out a legitimate way to gage the flow in either of the South or Middle forks the Upper Kings I knew from my trip in 3 weeks before, alone, that the river was way down in great shape and crossable in multiple places.  That is the key to any big river in the Sierras.  It’s pretty much the most important factor of the Upper Kern River so, although I don’t have hardly any Kings River experience, I just had to assume flow was just as important in the Upper Kings.  I also assumed that we’d see as good, if not better fly fishing than 3 weeks before when I hike in there alone and was getting takes on huck hoppers on almost every cast.

Here’s Warren with a really nice rainbow he stuck stripping a wolly bugger

It was the first week in November after all.  and that stretch from mid-October to mid-November is typically just nutty good throughout the sierras.  My theory, unproven, is that the trout just know winter is coming and feed like crazy because they know it’s going to be slim ‘pickins until Spring.  That theory could be totally wrong, of course.  But that is how I convince myself each year to bear the bone chilling conditions.  There is winter spawning in the Sierras too which can also positively affect fishing.

Check out the shoulders on this rainbow that warren stuck with a black wolly bugger

I have written the contrasts of the Upper Kings and the Upper Kern before and there is another striking contrast I experienced.  This area of the kings canyon is arguably the deepest canyon in N. America.  The confluence of the South Fork and Middle forks of the Kings River is only at 2,260 feet of altitude, while towering above the confluence is Spanish Peak, which is 10,051 feet tall.  Why is that important?: Light.  With the shortened days of winter, I bet that middle fork was only seeing 4 hours of direct sun per day.  I was in the tent for 13 hours not so much that it was raining.  I have done a ton of fly fishing in rain and snow and everything in between for years.  I was in that tent for 13 hours because it was dark and raining for 13 hours.

Foul Weather

Yes, the weather did chase us out.  We hiked in Thursday morning and had plenty of time to fish.  ~4 hours.  And it was slowwwww….  I couldn’t figure out why…  it should have been epic.  We fished downriver on the middle fork to the confluence and all the way down to the epic water.  We ran into two other sets of advanced fly fishermen and 2 of them got skunked.  Not a single take.  I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the time.  I caught one fish nymphing.  I didn’t think I’d have to nymph.  But, I could not get a fish to rise for the life of me.  I planned on dry flying the entire time. No hatches or bugs anywhere.   Hmmm….

Warren Caught me in this perfect run saying to myself, “I cannot drift this any better. If i was a trout i would eat that.”

The next day, Friday we headed up river on the s fork.   It started getting windy.  Then it hit me.  The barometer must have been falling like a rock, with bad weather coming, killing the fishing.  There is some support to that theory.  So, I busted out the $2 and got a weather report off my garmin inreach satellite tracker….not good….heavy rain and snow coming.  It was about 2pm and I had caught a couple fish on size 12 huck hoppers.  at one point I said, “if I’m gonna’ get skunked I’m gonna’ do it with a dry fly.  Upon staring at the weather report, Warren said, “Should we hike out now?”  I said something like, “No way, we just got here.”  On Friday around 4pm it started raining.  By 5pm we were in our tents because it was raining hard.  And it was cold.  13 hours later … yes, 13 hours in the tents, wet and cold.  It was a miserable wet cold night.  there was a break in the rain on Saturday morning.  so, we hiked out a day early.  It was 11am when we got to the truck.  It started again.  by the time I was driving out at that higher altitude it was snowing; snowing on top of a foot that had already stuck.

Don’t get me wrong it was a total blast of a trip.  It was Fly Fishing; not working.  and I just love doing the backpacking / fishing thing with Warren.  We are total opposites (he’s felix and I’m Oscar if you are old enough to know that analogy), but we are dear friends and have so much fishing fun together.

If you want to fish the awesome heads and tails in the pools you have to hop, wade, jump your way up conditions like this

Setting Expectations

Although I love this place one of the big reasons is because the lord gave me the “goat gene”; I’m unusually agile. I basically scaled half dome last summer without needing the guide wires and was confused at what the big deal is.  Also because I’m willing to suffer to fish in the back country of the sierras. The Upper Kings River accessed by the Yucca Point trail is so rugged and physical it will scare away 90% of fly fishers….especially those, like me, who are not the fearless totally fit and agile 25 year old I once was.  My buddy warren….he’s crazy like me.  We have backpacked to a lot of fishing.  We love places like this.  But, here’s what is working against you if you want to go there:

  • the trail is poorly maintained…Well, it’s not maintained at all. I guess I’m spoiled by the forks of the Kern trail.  Or it’s my own ignorance to the trails on the western side of the Sierras because I was pretty critical of the Clicks Creek Trail  The Yucca Point Trail a constant brush and snag against bushes, tree limbs and branches.  And there are 3 spots where you have to get around deadfall across the trail.  It’s not so bad (especially for a bushwhacker like me) going downhill.  But, it’s definitely annoying, impeding your progress, and slows you down going uphill.  If you did this trail in shorts and short sleeves you would be scratched up and bloodied as a result of it.

Here I am crossing the river in the quest to find a place to pitch our tents. There are not many within a mile of the end of the trail.

  • It’s a big drive….even if you live in the San Joachin Valley. I live in Carlsbad, CA.  It’s 350 miles and I have to plow through LA to get to it.  There is no local hotel close to overnight before hiking in.  and because of the pandemic, most if not all the campgrounds close are closed.  Even if not closed, the campgrounds close are wildly popular because they are in the national park.
  • It costs money: you have to pay to get through the national park to get to the trailhead…I carry a yearly national park pass…mainly because my son lives within 30 miles of the northern entrance to Yellowstone and also because I love fishing in Yosemite. But, in my experience most fly fishermen don’t want to pay to play.
  • It’s rugged and physical. Once you get to the river the trail ends.  There is no river trail.  It’s bushwhacking, boulder hopping, rock climbing and brutally slippery wading.  I can’t imagine not using a wading staff to fish that river.  I need a couple weeks just to lick my wounds from it.  Shoot you can follow a well-defined and maintained trail along the Upper Kern for 30 miles.  I’m a board member of the san diego fly fishers club and only a tiny percentage of that club is willing to do the forks of the kern trail…and The Forks pales in comparison to the Yucca Trail and Upper Kings River.  Most of that group who do the forks never do it again because of the hike out where you have to gain back 1,100 feet in 2 miles….which pales in comparison to the Yucca Point Trail which in my estimation is ~1,000 feet in 1.5 miles.  I know tons of guides from CA to WY to MT to ID and beyond.  And have done a bit of guiding myself, of course.  I don’t know many guides who would even do the Yucca Point Trail.

Here is a great view right above the Confluence where the Yucca Trail ends to show you just how rugged it is

  • You have to be safe because I have not encountered many rivers more dangerous than the Upper Kings. There is a reason not a lot of people have died on the Upper Kings River: you cannot drive to it.  You can drive to miles and miles of the “Killer Kern” and get within 100 feet of it.  One of the readers of this blog, Lansing McLoskey, emailed me and gave me some great guidance.  And the most important guidance he gave me was about not attempting to fish the river during runoff when “the river is a raging torrent of death”.
  • Poison oak – everything I have read about this place has complaining about the abundance of it. I still have not seen any.  And I am a pro at identifying it.  I have to look for poison oak practically every day because I trail run, hike, and mountain bike in Calavera behind our home and Calavera really does have an ton of poison oak.  I have brushed it so many times getting it I feel like I have built an immunity.  But if so many people have complained about it, it must be there; probably downstream where I still have not go to.
  • There are bears.  Seemingly lots of them.  They are just black bears, of course, so not that scary to me.  But, i know that many are terrified by them.  On my last trip in i saw a juvenile.  On this trip there was scat everywhere.  And very close to where we camped.  As i was leaving (Warren got a head start on me) I smelled one.  if you have been in the backcountry much you know that foul smell.

It is slightly discouraging / creepy when you stagger out in the morning a few hundred feet from where you are camp to do your business when you run into a fresh pile of bear business.

 

The Confluence of the South & Middle Forks of the Upper Kings River

Yucca Point Trail – Sequoia National Forest

October 15-17, 2020

I have been on a quest since the SQF complex fire burnt the Forks of the Kern trail and burnt ~30 miles up the upper Kern river.  My quest is to find an alternative to the Forks of the Kern Trail and the Upper Kern River.  I have found an alternative, but, not a match by any stretch: The Upper South and Middle forks of the Kings River.

Forks of the Kern Status

Firstly, a little report on the Forks.  I cannot tell you how many emails and txts and calls I have answered since August from people wanting updates and to get into the forks before the season closes on November 15th.  Literally hundreds.  Well, I just doubt it’s going to happen.  No way.  Even if the SQF fire was contained consider:

  • The trail is burnt so following it would be impossible. That means trampling a new trail.  Never good
  • Many of those dead trees down there from the pine beetle have fallen while burning on the trail. The western divide ranger district goes in there in the beginning of the season each year and does it’s best to clear the trail.  They have a herculean challenge ahead of them.
  • The Western Divide Ranger district is way short of resources. It’s a shame, but a simple matter of fact that they are understaffed and underfunded.
  • Since the fire is not contained and there are more stupid people on earth than smart ones, the liability of people hiking into the hot zone of the fire would be too much to indemnify.

one of many nice rainbows fooled by the size 12 black huck hopper

Forks Alternative

So, since august I have been searching, researching and talking to the experts about an alternative to the Forks.  I got a lot of help.  Thank you for all the help:

  • Steve Schalla aka “Steven Ojai” of https://www.flyfishingthesierra.com/
  • Mike Hillygus of http://stillwaterriveroutpost.com/
  • Dani Dayton, Visitor Information Services, Forest Service, Sequoia National Forest, Kern River Ranger District
  • Sydney Peters, Administrative Support Assistant, Forest Service, Sequoia National Forest, Western Divide Ranger District
  • Indirectly, Mike Mercer of The Fly Shop. Big surprise: the Missing Link does well here.

I had never fished the Upper reaches of the South or Middle Forks of the Kings River.  I had heard from a small amount of fly fishers that have fished it that it was good and brutally rugged.  So, with expert’s help I planned for about 3 weeks to explore this place I had never been to before. A place that had some folklore about how rugged it is.  I stared at satellite images of the rivers for hours.

this picture just doesn’t do justice to how rugged the middle fork is

Fishing Report

Nuts…  let me start with the good news: spectacular fishing. Surprisingly big fish too.  Mountain rivers and streams and creeks don’t typically hold big fish.  The Upper Kings River does.

On day 2 I ran into two great guys who camped cross river from me, fairly close to me, that I didn’t even notice (because it’s so rugged) until nighttime when I saw lights.  Armen, great guy, is a fly fisherman and his younger buddy, whose name is escaping me right now was spin fishing.…and they were killing.  They showed me pictures of some quality fish.  You know it’s good when beginners and the not so experienced are doing well…and catching big fish. I gave them some Mercer’s missing links.  I love helping beginners.  I love talking about fly fishing to people who get as excited about it as me.  I love helping with guidance and giving away the flies I tie.  It brings me so much joy.  Like the many fly fishers I meet from this site and on the river, I asked them to join me on the forks next season.

The 3 dozen Mercer’s Missing Links i tied

I fished a couple hours on Thursday night after hiking in, all day Friday, and a couple hours on Saturday before hiking out.  85% of the time I fished dries only.  The only time I did the dry dropper thing was mid day when it always slows.  I fished size 12 Huck Hoppers and wrecked.  Note: on the hike in I saw a black grass hopper about a size 6.  I had never seen a grasshopper that dark black before.  So, the first huck hopper I tied on was black size 12 and it did well.  After ~4 hours of fishing it on the middle fork, it was completely chewed up from trout teeth, would no longer float upright, and still caught fish.

just another quality rainbow from the South Fork of the Kings River

After 5pm I fished size 16 and 18 Mercer’s Missing Links.  Recently, I had the pleasure of email meeting the fly fishing famous Mike Mercer of “The Fly Shop”.  He is that guy that invented the fly; the fly you would want if you only could have one (the Adams or the Missing Link).  Nicest guy in the world.  So, I actually tied 3 dozen of them in green, traditional rusty brown and black for this trip and my annual October Mammoth trip I have coming up.  They did well, but I have a feeling size 18 anything would have worked at night during the witching hour from 5pm to dark.

The hatches were prolific, but, the one natural that was out of the ordinary was an abundance of a ~ size 14 white mayfly.  It kinda’ looked like a Cahill that you would fish in the spring in the eastern US.  So interesting.  I’d love to know exactly what it was.  I have no idea.  I have never seen a pale mayfly like that in the sierras.  Please email me if you know.  Guesses are welcome because I sure as hell don’t know what it was.

Mid-day on Friday when it got hot and the water warmed, the bite on top slowed a bit.  Which, of course, is no surprise.  So I nymphed a little with a dry dropper rig with a huck hopper on top….and every nymph I tied on seemed to work.  naturals like my green caddis cripple and attractors like my rainbow warrior cripple both worked great.  But, the dropper thing didn’t last long because I started catching fish on the huck hopper again.  And with a dropper during a fight, it typically wraps around the fish and double hooks the fish or gets caught in the gills.  I always want to catch and release with the least impact and stress on the fish.  I’m the guy that tries to shake fish off at my feet. So I just cut off the dropper part and fished size 12 huck hoppers successfully until the witching hour.  Then I switched to size 16 and 18 Missing Links.

That GoPro 8 my brother gave me is simply an amazing camera.

Over the course of a full day of fishing and ~3 more hours of fishing on the night and morning on both sides of that day, I landed 3 fish over 18” and lost 3 fish over 18”.  I caught plenty of fish in the 10-14” range.  I saw plenty of trout fry on the banks; a great sign of a healthy river.  Every fish I caught was a rainbow.  But, it appeared to be many different types of rainbows; there were chromers and really dark spawning looking like rainbows.  I understand they have a lot of species of trout in the kings that have turned wild and reproduce with much success.  In contrast to the Upper Kern, none of the many fish I caught jumped.  The wild native Kern River Rainbows are just jumpers and go ballistic….and make them so hard to land.   On the Kings I never had a fish run me down river or go nuts like they do on the Kern.  Don’t get me wrong the fights were great: lightning runs you’d expect from wild fish.  Shoot, I even broke a fish off….and then switched to 3x so it wouldn’t happen again.  My hook to land ratio was a lot greater than I typically get on the Upper Kern.  I chalk that up to the difference between wild fish and wild natives.  There are very few places in the world that only hold wild natives.  The upper kern is one of those places.

I spent most of the day on Friday fishing my way up the Middle Fork of the Kings River.  It had the least info on it.  It was the hardest to access.  And I was told was the most rugged.  So, I couldn’t resist; that is the adventure gene in me that sometimes borders on unsafe.  I think I fished a couple miles up stream and I caught fish the entire way, but it was so rugged it could have only been a mile.  There is no river trail, nor is there much river bank.  It’s mostly wading upriver through giant slippery boulder fields.  I caught a good amount of big fish in the Middle Fork when all the intel I got from others said I would only catch small fish.  It was such crystal clear water on the middle fork that many times I could see the fish so I got to hunt them.  I got to see some refusals too.

Saturday morning, I fished the South Fork from the trailhead for a couple hours and did well.  I ran into an experienced fly fisherman that told me he had been coming there for years.  He told me downstream there were many lunkers and that he caught a 21” the day prior.  When I go back I’d like to take a shot at those lunkers downstream on the South Fork.

 another quality rainbow from the South Fork of the Upper Kings River

Favorite Moment: Like many, I always seem to remember the fish I lost more than the ones I land.  But, there was one special experience I will remember from the Kings.  After the bear sighting I climbed / waded my way up to a plunge pool into crystal clear deep turquoise water.  I didn’t notice all the lunkers in ten feet of water on the opposite side yet because there was a large fish working on top right at the head in some current.  I slowly moved, out of the water on the rocky bank to 30-40 feet.  I could see the fish was feeding on a ~10 second cadence, but I could not tell what the fish was rising on.  He was tailing too, like a bonefish so my guess he was catching the emergers before they hatched and flew away.  I carefully stepped in the water to a casting position.  I said to myself, “he’s going to strike on the first cast and I will only get one shot at him.”  I had that black size 12 huck hopper on and for a second considered switching to a size 16 missing link.  For a second.  I waited the cadence, then casted and the huck hopper.  It landed perfectly upstream in the current.  When the huck hopper over his head he whacked it violently and I set hard.  It was a great battle in that large pool.  After a few minutes I put my GoPro on its tripod in the water and pulled the fish to it to witness the fight.  Out of the water it was a really darkly colored beautiful trout north of 18”.  He was still pissed off when I released him.

The Adventure

My god what a rugged place.  I’m not a lifelong backpacker.  Backpacking is a means to an end for me.  I am a fly fisherman.  I have learned quite a bit about backpacking over the last decade.  But, over half my backpacking has been in the Forks.  I have backpacked parts of the JMT and cottonwood lakes above 12k feet and other places in the Sierras.  But, I have never backpacked a place that is so rugged there are no trails.  Once the trail down into the canyon ends there is no trail.  It’s too rocky for trails.  My buddy Warren who has taught me so much about backpacking backed out of the trip last minute because of the smoke forecast.  So, I hiked in alone.  Thank God, I found a place for my tent downstream quickly.  Over the entire 3 day adventure I only saw 4 primitive sites and I covered many miles.  And two of the sites required river crossings.

The view down to the confluence from the Yucca Point Trailhead

I was looking for an alternative to the forks of the kern and technically it is… but the trail is not maintained…. It’s more like a bush whack / fishermen’s trail.  The bushes and branches grab you constantly.  There are a number of deadfall detours that take you off trail too.  And once you get down in the canyon there is no trail. It’s too rocky.   You are truly in the barely explored wilderness.  I also talk about the “tax” of the forks.  It’s that 1100 foot decent over 2 miles into kern canyon.  Well, the “tax” here is much more significant.

The Kings River is not for the faint of heart.  I had my lightweight Orvis wading boots.  It was hot enough not to need waders.  I’d guess it was about 300 cfs in both the South and Middle Forks.

I did two nights and had my share of calamity with a couple falls.  No biggie; just pain.  I’m banged up, strained, cut, and bruised.  The smoke moved in on Friday night.  On sat morning before the sun came up I could smell it.  when the sun came up it was there.  I txt’d from my garmin satellite tracker to my buddy Warren for a smoke report.  He told me it was going to get bad.  So, I caught and released a handful more trout that morning on the South Fork where I had not fished yet. Then hiked out mid day on Saturday before the smoke got bad.

spot fishing / hunting for big trout in clear water in the middle fork of the upper kings river

Surprises / Fun Facts / Stories:

  • The Kings Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America. That is quite a fun fact if you have been to the Grand Canyon.  It has steep canyon walls and where I put my tent was at the base of the southwestern side.  Why is that interesting?  Well, I was shocked by the fact that It was pitch black by 6:30 PM and not light until after 7AM.  There is only so much you can do in the tent for 12 hours in the dark.  Thank god for the podcasts I download to my phone before leaving and my solar charger….which, btw, I had to do a river crossing over the S. Fork to get it in the sun.

    my stuff set up at the primitive camp site i was lucky to stumble into

  • The other issue I was surprised by was the river flow. I used this graph to gage what I’d be in for: https://www.dreamflows.com/graphs/day.660.php which read 70 CFS before I left. 70 CFS is nothing…a creek.  As mentioned already I didn’t find 70 CFS; more like 4 times that.  The other shock was that the high-water mark was 30 feet above the waterline.  That is more crazy than the “Killer Kern”.  Like I said earlier I’d guess it was about 300 cfs in both the South and Middle Forks.  That means after the confluence my guess would be about 600 CFS.  I only saw one place after the confluence where a cross was possible even though I did not attempt it.  but I can only imagine that river in the springtime at over 20,000 CFS.  They call it the “Killer Kern” and that is because people can drive to the Kern; there is access.  There have been 294 deaths at the Kerrn river from 1968 to May 2018….because you can drive to good portion of it.  If there was a way to drive to the Upper Kings it would kill a lot of people.
  • You have to plow through the national park to get there. That means paying a fee.  I needed a re-up on my yearly national park pass, so not a problem.  It’s just so like me to plan so carefully for so long and not even notice that the drive takes you through Sequoia National Park and out the other side.
  • I ran into 3 hunters and actually saw them before they saw me. And for Gods sakes I was the one standing in the river!  Nice guys.  But, I’m not a deer and really didn’t want to get mistaken for one.  I never did hear a gun shot, but I was only there a couple hours on that last day. So I don’t know if the deer and the bears won this day.
  • Helicopter story – on the night after hiking in I was fishing the witching hour and doing well. Then from nowhere, a coast guard helicopter blew in…one of the big ones with a bunch of people on board hanging out the open doors of the side doors… it was only 100 feet over my head.  Blew my hat off…  It circled around me up and down the river.  Talk about knocking down the hatch.  At first I was like, “holy shit, they are here to get me because there is a fire close”.  But, I waved to the guys hanging out the side, and they waved back.  They didn’t use their loud speaker like I have seen in search and rescue.  They circled me about 10 times even landing downriver at one point.  So, I figured they were just doing search and rescue drills.  Pretty impressive.  But, kinda’ ruined the hatch I was working.  It would have been nice if they used their loudspeaker to tell me not to worry.
  • On Friday when I fished the middle fork I saw a small bear crossing the river about 200 yards ahead of me. And then I hooked up.  By the time I was in a place to look up again at the bear it was gone.  Little bears are sometimes accompanied by pissed off big female bears.  So, because I was alone I was a little wigged out.  Yes, of course I forgot my bear spray back at camp.  Yes, of course I fished it straight through.
  • This was the first backpacking trip i have done without having to use a jetboil, let alone a camp fire.  There is currently a forest wide ban on anything ignited because of the fires.  I survived.  i had jack daniels.
  • Falls / Injuries – I came back home bruised, strained, battered from this trip. God didn’t give me much, but he did give me the agile gene and I’m athletic for a little guy.  One of my best buddies calls me “goat-boy” because of it.  it’s a nice attribute to have if you are a wading fly fisherman.  But….
    1. On the way down the trail I felt that tinge I have felt so many times before over the last decade. I have been an endurance runner since my 20s.  but, a decade ago I started suffering a chronic injury when running.  It starts with a tinge in the back of my calve.  It’s a tear in the sheath that holds the muscle.  If I keep running the hernia gets worse and worse.  So I have learned to stop and give it a few days to heal.  Well, I felt the tinge early in the hike down.  By the end of the trek I was limping.  Uggh….
    2. Well, it got so dark so quickly on that first night I had trouble hanging my food. i couldn’t find a branch low enough if you can imagine that.  Because it was dark after one of my throws (rock attached to cord) I stepped back into nothing and fell down a hill in the dark.  It was dirt and bushes there…thank god.  And I did manage to turn mid fall and land on my stomach instead of my back (bad).  But, I bent my pinky backward when I landed and feared it was broken.  It was not.   But, it was very strained and sore.
    3. I started using a wading staff this year to quickly navigate up stream in the Kern and I brought it on this trip. But, even with that I took a fall end of day on the middle fork when I was already tired from the crazy ass adventure of wading and climbing.  This fall was from a bit of distance though.  I stepped down on a dry rock in the river and my wading boot just never caught anything; it slipped immediately and quickly.  I fell with some velocity and hit my right knee and stomach on rocks at the same time.  At 58 falls are just not the same as when you are young.  I haven’t had that much pain in a long time.  I literally sat in the river for 10 minutes collecting myself in pain and hoping to back down the swelling in my knee.  The pain in my stomach was like nothing I had ever experienced.  At one point I thought I was going to chunder.  While sitting in the river collecting myself I couldn’t help but think if I hit my head my corpse wouldn’t be found for a week.  “That’s it.” I “called it” at that point and slowly limped back to camp using my wading staff arguing with myself if I had pushed the safety thing a bit too far by being alone.
  • On Saturday morning early I crossed the river by my camp and walked down river on the island to the actual confluence of the middle and south forks. I think I hooked a couple and/or caught a couple fish on the middle fork there and in the actual confluence.  Great water for a streamer which I will do next time.  But, out of the wilderness from downriver on the middle fork comes a young guy; very fit… “excuse me is that the yucca point trail?”.   I laughed, pointed and said, “yea, it’s right there.”   He seemed relieved and smiled.  I knew no one had hiked in between when I fished up river and then, so I asked, “I fished 2 miles upriver yesterday and didn’t run into you guys.  So, where in the hell did you come from?”  “I think we made it about 7 miles upriver.”  Aghast I said, “my god.  You must have made 50 river crossings in the process.”   He said smiling, “you could not imagine what we have seen and been through.”  I said, “oh yea I can, I almost killed myself just fishing it a couple miles.”  They were ultra light backpackers.  No tents, no rods, basically dry clothes, wet clothes, a lightweight bag and food.   One of them, my age, but as fit as a 20-year-old, had a waterproof pack.  He literally floated on his back through the confluence to get to the other side to hike out.

You know when you get splashed in the face when you are trying to release a hot trout? Well, this is what happens a split second before that.

Summary

The Kings River is not for the faint of heart.  The “tax” here is more significant than the Forks of the Kern.  But, the fishing makes it worth it for crazy old guys like me.  I cannot wait to get back in there.  Next time not alone, though.  The Forks of the Kern is tame compared to this place.

Interestingly enough the Yucca Point trail is not at altitude.  It’s ~3,100 feet at the trailhead.  So, it probably gets very little snow, if any.  there is actually poison oak there.  There is no shortness of breath like hiking at altitude.  But, it does get hot; very hot.

The Official Forest Service site says it’s 3.6 miles long with a 1,360ft descent and ascent.  That translates to a 1.8 mile hike with 680 feet of descent.  My GPS, which has 2” resolution, said the hike down was 1.29 miles.  Although I haven’t looked at the actuals yet from my garmin inreach satellite tracker, I bet that descent was close to 1000 feet.  Google Earth says the altitude is 2,058 feet at the confluence which supports my theory that the decent is ~1000 feet.  It’s funny how many of the official sites are so wrong.  The content for them was built years ago before technology.

Since I cannot get into the upper Kern for the close of the season, I am hoping to get back in to the Upper Kings before the season closes November 15.  11/15 is the end of the fishing season in most of the sierras and typically an epic fishing time of year….and bitter awful cold.  Since the Forks of the Kern will most likely not be opened again until next Spring, the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River by way of the Yucca Point Trail is the only legit alternative I know of for the fly fisherman who is willing to pay it’s “tax”.  The tax is significant.

you can’t miss this sign on hwy 180

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.