Category Archives: Forks of the Kern Trailhead

2-nighter on the JDB trail: May 1-3, 2022

Although i still haven’t mastered my fancy GoPro, this release gives you an idea of how dirty the water was

Forks of the Kern Update: It’s Open!

I cannot tell you how many emails I have answered asking about when the Forks will open again.  As of Today, 5/13/22. IT’S OPEN!

Just got word from a buddy who said, “Western Divide, he said Lloyd Meadows and the Forks will be open as of today.  He said they’re “in the process” of clearing it all out, and “there may be escorts”, but it will be open for sure for my trip on Sunday.  I even got my Wilderness permit approved.” 

Beware: There are a couple of barriers to your fishing fun when the Forks finally does open after its 2 year hiatus.  Firstly, in high flow of the main river, the little kern river crossing (which is part of the Forks trail) can be treacherous.  Secondly, the Upper Kern is just difficult to fish in flows over 500CFS.  It has everything to do with the willows, trees and other bushes that line the river.  It’s just hard to find spots in the river to wade in safely when “it’s up.”.  

2-nighter on the JDB trail: May 1-3, 2022

Flow:

  • Sunday: 545 CFS
  • Monday: 560 CFS
  • Tuesday: 585 CFS

Solunar

  • Sunday: 92%
  • Monday: 77%
  • Tuesday: 52%
That is a Huck Midge Perdigon, Size 14 hanging out of this KRR’s face. In conditions like this you have to go big and get down quickly.

Conditions:

A muddy, rising, raging torrent of death topped off with 30 MPH gusts of wind.  I was a week too late; the runoff has started.  I caught it perfectly in 2020 and 2021.  The Upper Kern will be pretty much unfishable to anyone but experts as it rises to over 1000 CFS through mid June. 

Notice that brown raging torent of death beyond my tent in the background. normally this is one of the best plunge pools and runs on this stretch of the river. it’s a great campsite because of the location and view of the river.

Report:

On a full day of fishing on Monday, I got ~10 to hand losing about twice that many.  So, considering the bad conditions and still getting around 30 takes one might think I’d be stoked.  But, I expected to get 40 to hand and lose another 40 like the prior 2 years.  Still totally fun.  How can getting takes on a size 4 huck hopper in April not be fun? 

Casting for Recovery:

I drove straight from guiding the Casting for Recovery Event near Yosemite to the Johnsondale Bridge.  I cannot tell you what a pleasure and honor it was to help in that event.  14 ladies who stared down death in the gun barrel of cancer to get out in the outdoors for 3 days of learning about fly fishing.  I was teamed up with an extraordinary woman.  I’ll call her “B” because her story of breast cancer survival is personal.  It was personal for me because my wife is a breast cancer survivor.  “B” is a  young beautiful lady originally from Toronto and now living in Temecula with her husband from Northern Ireland.   I have been to Northern Ireland a few times; I have a first cousin there.  So we had a lot to talk about.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to fish a river teaming with trout.  We were put on a pond that had not been stocked.  To make it even more challenging trees lined this pond so a traditional overhand cast was impossible.  Not to worry it wasn’t about catching.  It never is about catching…is it?  The night before the event, I tied a bunch of Squirmy Worms in the hotel room I had in Reedley, CA.  The squirmy and the mop fly are now illegal in competition fly fishing events….for a reason….and I tie them with glow in the dark materials… it’s totally cheating…I don’t even sell them on this site anymore for that reason.  I only use them when teaching beginners.  So, yea, perfect for an event with beginners like casting for recovery.   So, I started by teaching a roll cast.  But, we talked through what an overhand cast would be…the 10-2 thing..  teaching the casts in that reverse order was a first for me.  but, in the long term probably a good strategy I may use again.  if you can roll cast you can fly fish anywhere.  Especially on the Upper Kern where it’s tough to find room for an overhand cast.  “B” picked it up pretty quickly.  She clearly has an athletic set of genes in her.  Well, sure enough…within 15 minutes a huge largemouth took that squirmy super close to the shore in 1.5 feet of water .  Unfortunately her teacher (me) didn’t focus on how to set to deeply because I never dreamed we’d get a take.  It was an enormous bass and I was clearly more excited about it than “B”. 😊  we only got a fish for 2-3 hours.  I could have done that all day with her and had the time of my life.  So fun.

“B” is headed to Scotland this summer…and yes, she’ll fly fish with her husband.  I’d really love to get those two on the annual couples trip to the forks this fall.  And I told her as much.  The casting for recovery event was just a great time.  All the guides and support staff are simply awesome people….as you’d imagine.  I can’t wait to be honored to do it again.

Yep, that’s a mountain lion and pretty fresh. I stepped over it entering the river at the end of the JDB trail intersection with the canyon trail to the Rincon Trail. the print was right at the river’s edge and he’s up on his toes taking a drink.

Upper Kern Backpacking and Fishing Details:

I had a long 3 hour drive south and east into the sierras from the Casting for Recovery event to the Johnsondale bridge.  While driving I checked the flow and my heart just sunk.  The river was rising.  I knew exactly what that meant: I was too late. 

I got to the parking lot at the JDB around 3:45PM and took off with 42 pounds on my back from the at 4pm.  I knew I had a couple hour hike and that I should get to camp well before the sun went down at 6:30.  I did not see a single sole from the minute I got on the trail until I hiked out and reached the parking lot on Tuesday at 10:15 AM.  Nice.  But, it was hard not to stare at that rising river as I hiked in.  It had a brown tint to it too.  It was already blown out.

If you are a backpacker, you know the hassle and stress of getting your campsite set up while racing the sun.  So, I didn’t get a cast in that first day.  I didn’t have time to string a rod.  And that was fine.  I knew I’d have a full day tomorrow.  I just love the occasional backpacking alone thing.  It so good for clearing the mind and letting go of the stress of every day life.

Anyone who has caught a Native Wild Kern River Rainbow can relate to this. although the picture isn’t in focus notice the two splash circles. This fish did a double 360 spin in the air while i laughed in amusement. I probably didn’t land him.

Also, as I my habit I was asleep pretty early.  Between the long day, the hike, jack daniels, a fire and bbqing a steak I hiked in I was pretty toast.  I retreated to my tent to listen to fly fishing podcasts and was soon asleep.  And that means I was up and out of the tent at 5:45am.  Guess what I did first.  I stared at the river.  in that low light of the morning when the sun is rising i said to myself, “It’s big; but, It doesn’t look that bad.”  So I strung a rod.  Although I hadn’t seen any I had heard the salmonfly hatch was still on.  I had tied a dozen for the trip so I quickly tied one on and got in position for a 6am cast.  It made a simple 40 foot cast straight up river on the seam. The light was so poor it was hard to see that huge salmonfly coming back at me.  But sure enough I saw what looked like a take and I set hard.  I was on.  I laughed as I released it because I have not caught many fish that early in the day.  Then I made the mistake of saying to myself, “this is going to be a good day.”  because it was exactly then when it hit me: The first cast fish jinx… I cannot tell you how many times that has happened to me. 

Well, I know that upper couple miles of the JDB stretch like the back of my hand so I fished all day where I knew fish held. But, when I wasn’t getting consistent rises I faced the reality of nymphing by way of the Huck Hopper/Dropper. The prior two years of me fishing the JDB stretch in April before the Forks opened I absolutely killed on dries.  Not this year.  I was just a week too late.  The river huge, dirty and blow out.  The flow was tough to get the flies down in the deeper water.  And I knew I had to get them down because the water clarity was only about a foot.  That was why I wasn’t getting rises.  The fish just couldn’t see through the dirty water.  But there are two plunge pools up river from the trail end where I did pretty well on Huck Midge Perdigons in less than 3 feet of water.  Then that wind came in.  I guessed 30mph gusts because I was actually blown off a rock I was standing on in the river.  At points it was really hard to get a drift but I kept fighting through it.  What else was I going to do?  I’m not much of a sit and wait guy.

Normally i miss the nature shots like this one. Springtime can be pretty spectacular in the Kern River Canyon

Out of the ten or so to hand only one was a larger Kern River Rainbow (KRR).  All the others were in the less than 10” class.  Most of which I guessed to be 2 year fish.  But, the reality of the conditions and the river still rising made me decide I’d hike out early the next morning instead of battling all day again.

So, I hiked out early in the morning after breaking camp and was on the road in Huck-Truck by 1030AM back home.  My next adventure will be at the forks.  Most likely end of June / early July.  Hope to see you there.

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

 

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