Category Archives: Forks of the Kern Trailhead

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

Relevant Stats:

July 31st to Aug 2nd, 2020

CFS: 175 down to 165

Water temp: 57 – 72

Air temp: low 50s to mid 80s

Fishing Stats:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1, Friday, July 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first time using a Wading Staff on the Upper Kern

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

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

I caught so many quality fish like this it was silly

Day one highlight

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2, Saturday, August 1st

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

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

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

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

Day 2 highlights

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

another huge fish that engulfed a size 4 huck hopper

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

Forks of the Kern – San Diego Fly Fishers Club

July 15-19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Bechard fishing the tail-out at the huck site

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Bechard, grandfather, pretending like he is 14.

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

Animals and Calamities

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

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

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

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

My favorite moments of the trip:

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

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

I just love this picture John took of me and Delia

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

Forks of the Kern – Springtime Hopper Fishing – Couples Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Group

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

Lance with a nice Kern River Rainbow

The Fishing

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

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

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

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

Conni battling a Kern River Rainbow

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

The Calamities

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

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

Lance and Kelly

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

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

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

Weather

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

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

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

The Cache

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

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

3-Nighter

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

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

A well populated Huck Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

 

 

Fall Fly Fishing on the Forks of the Kern – November 7-10, 2019

Pushing the Boundaries of Safety a little too far….

Check out the racing stripe on this bad boy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lied.  In my October (2019) post I wrote, “So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020” fully thinking at the time that I would not be able to get back to the upper Kern before the season ended on 11/15, let alone be crazy enough to do it (because of the cold nights).  Well, work has been so stressful I needed a weekend in the mountains just to clear my head and organize my thoughts.  Plus, one of the great things about doing this blog over the years is that so many of you are really good about keeping me updated with fishing reports and other intel by email.  One reader I can definitely call an “internet friend” is Peter Persidok.  Peter is clearly a good fly fisherman.  It was Peter who wrote me an email and inspired me to go for a simple 2 nighter over the weekend.  He went into the Forks last weekend and did well above rattlesnake creek.  He also inspired me to hike past the Huck Site, and camp up river, over the mountain.  I rarely get to do that stopping at Huck camp because of the group I am with.  But, on this trip I went alone.  I have plenty of strength and stamina for an “old guy”.  On this trip I camped at “sand camp” which is about 7-8 miles from the trailhead and a mile short of kern flats.  But, it was quite the adventure just getting there.

I know there is tons of guidance telling you not to back pack alone, but I’m a lot safer than I was when I was young.  Plus I carry a Garmin InReach 66i satellite tracker / safety device.  That means not only can loved ones (or the curious) track where I am on an internet site, but I can use the device to txt through the satellite network.  In the case of a true emergency there is an SOS button and it would call the cavalry to come save me.  I also carry bear spray.  And for the first time ever, on this trip, I had to not only unleash the bear spray (which I have done a few times), but also take the safety off and point it at an animal.  That is a first for me.  more on that later.

 

Hiking alone in the dark

If it was not so hard to plow through LA to get to the Forks, I bet I would go a lot more often.  For about $75 of gas, plus backpacking food and fuel I can’t think of more entertainment bang for your buck in the wilderness for the fly fisher.  Clearly, it’s not for everyone, but it is for me.  Well, I had an important meeting at work Friday late morning that precluded me from going the night before.  I got on the road at 11am thinking I’d be safe.  I was not.  LA’s traffic just nailed me.  yea, I use a garmin GPS with traffic data and waze on my phone at the same time, but this was just one of those Fridays.  I lost a full hour in traffic.  Normally that would not be an issue.   But, this is the time of year where the sun goes down at 5pm.  As I kept losing more and more time I kept telling myself how badly it would suck to have to sleep in my truck at the trailhead.  It was only a 2 nighter.  Let’s just say once I got on mountain road 50 I started pushing it…. clearly speeding.  After almost plowing 3 deer in the road I slowed down.  I didn’t get to the trailhead until 4:45 pm.   I have never backpacked in the dark, let alone done it alone. That is when I told myself, “the moon is almost full and it’s a totally clear night.  That will help light the trail.  I will target the “confluence site” which is at the bottom of the hill, only 2 miles total.  And I won’t have to cross the little kern in the dark.  That will give me a 2 mile jump on the long morning hike ahead of me.”  The other complication was temperature.  My decade old tundra (Huck-Truck) may have a cassette deck, but it does tell me the outside temp… which had fallen into the 40s before the sun went down.  So the clothes I laid out to hike in with were totally inappropriate.  I had to go into my already packed up backpack to get long hiking pants, a fleece and a down jacket.  That cost a little more time.

Well, I took off right around 5pm.  It was already twilight, but I was confident in my plan.  Unfortunately, at many points that canyon and the trees shaded the moonlight so I wasn’t half of the way down before I needed my headlamp.  “Not a problem.” I kept saying to myself.  “I know the trail so well I could do it blindfold.”

I’m not afraid of bears and mountain lions and wolves as much as I am afraid of tiny insects like ticks and mosquitos that give you uncurable diseases.  They key is not to startle an animal like that which means “hiking loud” and always having bear spray at the ready.  Being that said, while hiking alone in the dark, I couldn’t help but focus on Peter’s email about him running into the two mountain lions on the trail right at the bottom by the Little Kern crossing.  I have seen them.  I have heard of plenty of sightings of them over the years.  They are two adult females and I’m sure they do well on deer (I have seen my share of carcasses there) and many other smaller animals down at the Forks.

The first complication: as I got to the bottom I could see two separate camp fires.  And one was in the confluence site.  That was a bummer.  That meant I was looking at a Little Kern River Crossing in the dark and having to find a primitive site to camp in on the main fork of the Kern River.  With the Main fork of the Kern at 285 CFS the Little Kern crossing was well below knee deep.  So, it was not a safety thing at all.  It was just so frickin’ cold.  And a bit creepy.  I’d post a picture here, but none of them came out it was so dark; totally shaded from the moonlight by trees.  Upon getting my shoes back on I reflected on what to do next.  I could either b-line for the river and stumble into the first available primitive site.   But, that would be off trail in the dark.  There are a few primitive sites right there above the confluence.  Or I could stay on the trail and grab the first available site close to the trail.  There were very few cars at the trailhead; not a surprise for November, but that would mean plenty of sites open.  So, I stayed on the trail.  I saw the other group with the campfire right away.  What I didn’t realize is that in the darkness you cannot see the primitive sites that are not close to the trailhead.  At least not with the weak headlamp I was using.  I know I passed a couple without noticing them.  But, I kept pushing on the trail.  It was only around 6pm.  If you know that trail well, you know the primitive sites stop for the next mile as the trail narrows in a canyon.  There is a fantastic site I have never stayed in around 3 total miles from the trailhead.  I have never stayed in it mostly because it’s always full.  The trail looks down on it and it’s on a bend on a plateau above the river.  There is a great run around the bend in front of it I have fished many times.   For the next 30 minutes I basically was praying that site would be open and then, in my head speculating at the few sites, leading all the way to the huck site that I would target if wasn’t open.  I needed to find camp because it was dark and I was alone.  I was pushing the safety thing.  Thank God the site was open.  I got a fire going quickly.  I got my tent up quickly.  It was really cold now.  I couldn’t tell how cold but I could tell it was close to freezing.  I had hiked in 3 frozen lamb chops.  Another complication I am not used to: they were still frozen.  So, I did a little makeshift thawing fire side.  After bbq’ing on the backpacking grill I hiked in, eating and a little jack daniels even the fire couldn’t keep my warm.  I was in my tent and asleep before 9pm with the plan of breaking down camp and backpacking as early as possible with another 4 miles or so to the “sand camp” in the morning.

one of my favorite traditions at the forks: hiking down a hunk of meat to be grilled on the first night by campfire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gear Review

What I learned from the last couple October visits to the Kern is that I do not have a pad and bag that “works” in cold weather.  It’s fine in the summer.  But, in early Spring and the fall my stuff just doesn’t work.  It’s not designed for cold weather.  I literally wore every piece of clothes I had and still shivered my way through the night on those October trips. At times it was awful. So, this time I borrowed my buddy Martin’s Big Agnes Helium 15 degree down bag and his Big Agnes Q-Core SLX and Pumphouse Ultra. Now I cannot live without them.  I will be purchasing them immediately; I don’t care what it costs.  Firstly, the bag is so much warmer than my 20 degree backpacking bag.  I actually slept in my hiking boxers with bare feet.  Secondly the pad is so much thicker than my thermarest so you are much higher off the ground.  And it packs down just as small and light.  On my thermarest the cold floor of the tent goes right through it.  if you slide off the thermarest you feel the bitter cold right through the bag immediately.  Lastly, the stuff sack for the bag doubles as an inflator.  It’s genius.  No more blowing up pads at altitude and getting dizzy for me.  I have become a huge Big Agnes fan in the process of learning backpacking.

Check out how you simply open the Big Agnes pump house ultra stuff sack, fold to seal and roll it down to fill the pad.  It’s genius.  i pilfered this image off the Big Agnes site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s up with the Coyote?

Well I woke up around 5AM and immediately felt the shock of how cold it was.  I dreaded getting out of the bag to pack up.  So, I tossed and turned until I forced myself out of the tent at 6am.  I never do a morning fire.  This time I had to.  The first thing I noticed was my backpacking plate, knife and fork: frozen solid.  I didn’t want to wash dishes in the cold at night so I just filled the plate with river water and let the dishes soak until I could deal with them in the morning.  Now I had to figure out what “dealing with it” meant.

look carefully at my buckknife, frozen solid in the mix. it took me a while to break that thing free

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 8:00 I had eaten and was fully packed up and back on the trail.  There is a primitive site I stayed in once with Kelly and Mere that is directly across from one of the best fishing runs in the stretch from the confluence to rattlesnake creek.  It was right before that site that I saw something in the trail.  As I got closer I could tell it was a coyote.  In Carlsbad, CA we are backed up to a wildlife preserve that sports a few healthy populations of coyote packs.  There are no outside kitties in our neighborhood and frequently dogs get taken.  I run into them at dawn and dusk constantly and upon seeing me they flee in fear.

Now I was within 50 feet of the coyote and it had not budged; sitting in the trail staring me down and not moving.  I did the hooting and hollering and waving my backpacking poles thing to scare if off the trail as I moved closer.  It didn’t move.  At 30 feet I stopped.  I had to.  It was right in the trail facing me staring me down.  and there was no legit detour around it.  It wasn’t like I was scared.  His tail was between his legs which means subservient; not aggressive.  if he charged me, I could have beaten the thing with my trekking poles.  I just couldn’t figure what the coyote was doing.  It occurred to me it might be part of a pack, distracting me, but, I looked around and didn’t see any others.  So, I grabbed my bear spray and continued to shout at it.  It just stared at me in steely silence.  Well, I had lost my patience with it.  I wasn’t about to let this thing get between me and fly fishing so I pulled the safety latch on the bear spray.  While pointing it right at his face I veered off the trail about 15 feet and walked right by it.  It simply turned and watched me.  then continued to stare at me as I hiked away (trust me.  I looked back at it a number of times).  Weird.

I took this picture from ~15 feet away as this coyote stared me down. notice the angle of the camera. i’m actually looking down at it I’m so close.  Also notice the tail between the legs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hiked over the mountain and made it to “sand camp” around 9:30AM.  I know from the October trip that the river fishes really poorly in the cold of the morning, so that gave me the time, to set up camp: make firewood; fill my sun shower and 3-liter Katadyn, etc.

 

The best nymphing on the Upper Kern Ever

 

Another big Kern River Rainbow let go at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 10:45AM I set up my 6 weight to my “go to” upper kern river rig: a 3x leader to a size 4 huck hopper on top.  Not because I thought a huge Huck Hopper would work, but because I knew it could float the weight I was going to tie under it.  I just rarely fish a bobber anymore.  Nor do I use a net.  That’s just me.  You never know when troutzilla might take a size 4 fly so why use a bobber if you are ok with the tangling or loss risk of 3 flies?   4 feet of 4x below the huck hopper I tied on a Beldar’s Stone.  It has 3 tungsten beads so it gets down quickly.  I have found this bug to simply just work on the Upper Kern, in all seasons without fail.  When I tie this bug I don’t do anything different except for I tie it with tungsten cones.  Frankly it works so well I should just sell them on the site (even though I didn’t invent the fly) as part of a “Upper Kern River Special”.  In fact, that is not a bad idea. And now I have the off season to do that.  A foot to 1.5 feet of 5x below the Beldars stone I tie on a “huck bow warrior” which is a derivation of a rainbow warrior fly I have developed and evolved from countless hours of fishing on the upper kern.  I tie it in both a flash back and crippled way.  It doesn’t really imitate anything in nature.  But, for some reason (well, it’s quite the attractor fly) it just kills.  Actually, it kills everywhere, but it just seems like the go-to fly on the Kern.

check out the Huck-Bow-Warrior hanging out of this big boy’s face.  You can tell from the red head.  it’s just a killer fly for all seasons on the Upper Kern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I make my first cast right in front of camp.  It was not a special cast; I didn’t cast it far, just to the seam in the river right in front of me.  Sure enough that Huck Hopper goes down and I set hard.  Within minutes, after a number of jumps, I landed a 14” Kern River Rainbow, unhooked and let him go without even taking him out of the water.  I laugh to myself…and then the sobering thought hits me, “a first cast fish. I just jinxed myself and am now going to be skunked for the rest of the day.”  So, I moved 100 feet up river to another run and hooked two more; fighting one to my feet (no net: perfect) where he popped off and landing the other.  “hmm…” I say to myself, “This could be one of those days.”

That is a big Beldar Stone hanging out of this guy’s face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the next 4 hours (11am to 3pm) I only fished a mile. I typically move pretty quickly and cover a lot of ground.  I have been called an impatient fly fisherman.  If I don’t get a take in good holding water on a good drift, I move on.  Only making it one mile is a testament to how good the fishing was. I hooked big wild kern river rainbow trout (14” to 19”) all day.  In every run, pool and pocket.  It was one of those, “my arm hurts from battling fish.” days. My landing ratio was about right for someone nymph fishing without a net barbless: about 50%.  I battled so many fish I worked on setting them free at my feet without touching them by holding the line tight 3 feet above the fish with my hand.  It works about 1 third of the time.  The weird thing is that for over a decade I have always experienced that catching a fish in the upper kern puts the entire pool down.  man, did I prove that theory wrong.  I caught multiple fish in runs multiple times.  It was almost like a spawn was going down.  and from some of the colors on the males I was catching it could have been true.  I’d love to talk to a biologist to verify if the upper kern produces a winter spawn like there is in the Upper Owens River.  Anyways I guess I landed 25-30 fish; all big and got takes and/or hooked and lost about that many.  That type of fishing is just bananas.  I don’t know any other way to describe it.  To top it off I fished the exact same rig 98% of the time on this trip.  There was no reason to mix it up short of the few late night casts I made with dries.  I did change out 3-4 huck bow warriors because the trout chomped them to the point they were so beaten up they unraveled.  And by the time I was done my beldar stone looked like it had been through the wars.  The big Huck Hopper floated all day long without me needing to dress it in any way.

Sometimes, if i can’t unhook them easily in the water i take them out and before letting them go i snap a quick picture..  i’m holding this big one as far out from me as possible and he still doesn’t fit in the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was about 3 hours into this crazy action fishing session when I got this weird unsatisfied feeling.  My first thought was, “I’m doing so well this is getting boring.  I am switching to dries to make it harder on me.”  And then I realized what my feeling was about: It was not that I was bored or it was too easy.  It was that I wished I was guiding a beginner instead of actually fishing myself.  When I teach someone on the Upper Kern River I always include a statement like, “We’ll most likely hook some today.  Landing them is a totally different.  It’s not likely.  I hope we do.”  It’s very rare when the fishing is so good and when it is there is nothing more fun than the joy of teaching someone how to do it; beginner or not.  Since the Upper Kern is so wild there is just so much preventing a beginner from doing well that is not how active the fish are.  it’s the overhanging trees, the current and getting in a position just to be able to cast to holding water, let alone get a drift.  This was one of those days where the beginner’s odds would have significantly been better.  That would have been fun for me.  As it was I experienced it all alone without a sole in sight.  Which was also super fun.

BTW, I wet waded instead of carting my backpacking waders down.  And that was a mistake.  At points my feet and legs were numb.  At points the fishing was so good I’d catch and release in the water, then wade out of the river to warm up in the sun just long enough to wander back in and catch another in the same spot.  After hooking 4 or 5 in the same place I was so numb I had to hike away just to get feeling back in my legs.

i am not a good photographer by any stretch, but every once in a while i get lucky.  in this pic you can see me staying tight by my shadow and the fish is still in view in the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guidance: Fish the other side of the river

Let me give you some guidance related to success in the Upper Kern: Fish the other side of the River.  I have always done well on the other (South-Eastern) side of the river.  The reasons are numerous.  But, the main reason is that the other side provides casts to places that just don’t see artificial flies all season long.  I love the other side because it’s the “Left handed side”.  I’m left handed.  On the other side I’m casting up stream with my left arm over the river.  On the “normal” side of the river I’m handicapped from making big casts because I’m doing it over my shoulder or forced to role cast. The problem, of course, is that they don’t call it the “Killer Kern” for nothin’.  It’s a wild and dangerous river.  This November the river was 285 CFS as measured at the Fairview dam.  That type of low flow means there are a few thigh high crossings that are really mellow at the Forks.  There is some irony that for this entire 2019 season the upper kern was only crossable safely in the last 3 weeks of the season.  That is what happens in a big snow pack year.

It pleases me when i stick them right on the nose exactly where you should on a good set

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Two

Since I only fished up stream a mile I crossed back over the river at kern flats and walked the mile back to the sand site and was back at camp by 4pm.  I checked the sun shower and it was way too cold to use; bummer.  There was not going to be any cleaning up on this trip.

So, I re-rigged to dries.  I got a rise from a small trout right in front of camp on a size 18 (anything).  And that was the only rise I had on the trip.  During the awesome day before I did not get a single rise on the huck hopper.  I saw very few naturals which explains why.  It’s just too late in the season for that.

I had in my head something else that Peter told me.  that he did really well on mouse patterns the weekend before right as it got dark.  I have never even seen a mouse at the forks.  But, I had to try.  So, until it got too dark to see, I tried a number of casts with a mouse pattern and failed.  Peter said he was using small mice patterns.  I only had one big one and that probably led to my failure.  It was still fun, though.

Now it was dark and cold.  I had to get the fire started quickly.  I burnt a lot of wood that night sitting in my backpacking chair enjoying the fire.  After jack daniels and eating some backpacking food I said to myself, “I wonder if I should drain the sun shower and the 3 liter katadyn.”  I should have.  Lesson learned…

Sunday – the hike out

The next morning my sun shower and both Katadyns were frozen solid as a rock.  My wading boots and wading socks were also frozen solid as were a number of other things.  So, I did another morning fire and dealt with that as best I could.  I was looking at the 6 miles hiking back to the little kern crossing and then the 2 miles up the hill.  I wasn’t dreading it.  I was kind of looking forward to it as part of the adventure. I’m glad at my age I can still hike up that mountain in less than an hour, frequently passing folks younger than me.

In the October trip, we hiked out early to get home early and just got hammered by LA traffic.  This time I was purposely going to hike out later, and target getting home by 8pm (reasonable enough to pack and make my 6am flight for work the next morning).

Well that left me an hour to fish before heading up the mountain.  I put down my pack and rigged up (the exact same way) at the site at the confluence (which was now empty).

The view of the Little Kern entering the “big” Kern from the confluence site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I told myself not to get my hopes up because this stretch had now been hammered for months.  However, within 30 minutes I caught 5 more big trout.  Ridiculous.  One of them went over 20”.  I tried to follow it down river as best I could.  It was quite the battle as he did numerous jumps and runs.  I told myself I would mind losing him by breaking him off because the river bank downstream from me didn’t exist.  I would have had to go waste deep in the clothes I was hiking out in to chase him down stream.  So I laid the wood on him.  I pulled him back to my feet, reached for my camera and he popped off there at my feet.  I laughed.  I didn’t get the picture, but, I did not have to touch him.  He’ll be 22” next season.

So, now it’s over until next season.  At least for me.  but, if there is anyone fly fishing up there in the next 3 days before the end of the season they are going to do well.

 

Forks of the Kern: Fall Fly Fishing on the Upper Kern River

October 17-20, 2019

Is that a huck hopper hanging out of that big kern river rainbow’s face? yes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was only the 2nd time I have done a trip to the Forks in the fall…after over a decade of trips into the canyon. This annual trip is with what I call the “gear group” because many of the guys that join this trip are actual reps in the outdoors industry. All great guys; this year 5 of us. I learn so much from them in terms of outdoors gear and food and clothes. I gladly do a little fly fishing guiding (and provide the flies)…which is so fun for me.

The first and most striking contrast to the spring and summer down at the Forks is the colors. It has been consistently shocking how many trees are not pines in the canyon; trees that turn colors in the fall. And leaves that fall in the river providing more interesting challenges (and annoyances) to the fly fishing. The Fall also produces cold nights and cold morning temperatures. Backpacking gear is expensive and I slowly upgrade through time, but man is it cold in October. I need better cold weather clothes and gear. The day time temps are fantastic, in the high 70s. but, the nights get into the 30s.

The most surprising thing about the Upper Kern in the Fall is the Beautiful Colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other striking contrast from Spring/Summer is the fly fishing. Since I have only been twice to the Forks in the fall, I’m really learning a lot about the difference in the fly fishing that Spring, Summer and Fall produce at the Forks. In the Fall the river is cold. I measured the water temp in the morning on this trip: 44 degrees. By eod it only got to 48. The ideal water temp for trout fishing is 54. That meant really slow mornings. I knew that going in. I have had plenty of buddies and “electronic buddies” from this site giving me fishing reports on the Upper Kern. So, there was absolutely no rush to get to fishing after staggering out of the tent in the high 30s in the morning. On the 3 days I fished I rarely got any action (or saw any rises) before 11am. Plus, let’s face it, wet wading in 44 degree water is…well…not fun. I not only experienced that sharp burning sensation of bitter cold, but also having my feet and ankles go numb. And here is a first for me. just washing my face with river water in the morning gave me an “ice cream headache”.

One of the guys that joined me on the trip was a longtime friend, Martin Löef. Martin reps Katadyn….who’s products have made my life so much easier at the Forks. On this trip I had a one liter and a 3 liter Katadyn Befree. They are a godsend. I can’t imagine backpacking without them. I have not used my steri-pen in a couple years because of the Katadyns.

My buddy Martin took this picture of me worshipping the giant NY i hiked down for us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a time where we thought this trip was just going to be me and Martin. I told him from the start I’d guide him and enjoy doing it.   After setting up camp at the huck site, upon arrival, Martin and I did a little bit of fishing right in front of camp. The rest of the group wasn’t due to arrive until that night. I could see right away that Martin had casted a rod before….so that was encouraging. He also expressed the desire to only throw dries flies. Guiding someone with that attitude is a pure pleasure. So, the next day, the first full day, Martin and I headed over the mountain (rattlesnake creek) and didn’t start fly fishing until the other side. There is a run over on the other side that has always produced excellent dry fly fishing for me, so I was still curious to see if it produced under these fall conditions with zero bugs in the air. It requires some agility to get in place and Martin, a bit older than me, is quite the fit, agile outdoorsman. Sure enough the minute we walked up to it, we saw an aggressive rise of a small fish which is typical of the Kern River Rainbow. After I explained where I wanted him to stand (on a rock in the river) and cast from, I contemplated a number of things that were a bit of a concern:

  • That run requires at least a 30 foot cast to be effective. 40 and 50 foot casts with long drifts are more effective.
  • You have to cast straight up stream with the fly coming straight back at you. That is a not only a line management nightmare for beginners but, typically a late setting frustration too.
  • putting a huck hopper on him. there we no rises or even bugs in the air. That rise we saw was on something emerging…most likely a midge. Huck Hoppers in the forks of the Kern tend to induce rises.

No need to teach Martin the Overhand Cast: check out that loop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, purely to check out his overhand (because a small fly is easier to cast than a big ‘ol huck hopper) cast I decided I’d leave the size 16 parachute adams on that I tied on the night before when he was fishing from camp. I’m so glad I did. It couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 casts before he got a rise to that fly. He was slow to set, as I imagined and there was line g. I screamed “Go!” (I have this weird new habit of yelling “Go!” Instead of “Set!”).   Well, I laughed and congratulated him on fooling the fish. I counted 6 more strikes on his casts without success in setting before I decided to intervene and do a little drift and line management lesson. Once we got that worked out he landed his first Kern River rainbow. Which he fought with the line in his teeth instead of his non casting hand. We worked that out next. But, he kept missing the sets. I could clearly see the trout taking the fly down but he was so slow to set. It’s then he got honest with me. “I can’t see that far.”

“casting beyond your site.” We have all done it. Either because of glare or simply because of that big 60+ foot cast is beyond our site. Setting on the splash (or in this case your buddy screaming, “Go!”. It’s not very effective. Until it is. The truth is that martin admitted he needs glasses or contacts or something to see far. I laughed and told him I’d continue to scream “Go!”. Which I did a few casts later. And this time he hooked a big fish and tightened up on him. He was pulling hard enough to pull the fish’s head out of the water and sure enough snapped that fish off on 5x. it was pretty cool though. Martin missed a lot of sets, but fooling trout is still enjoyable even if you miss them. So, I was having a blast, hooting and hollering. I think martin got 12-15 fish to rise, hooked 3 and landed two when all was said and done. we had a great day together and hiked more than 4 miles up stream from the huck site.

Here’s Martin with one of the Kern River Rainbows he landed on the day we fished together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some other things I noticed that is so different from fishing the spring or summer that will be of help to those sneaking in to the forks this year before it closes or simply any time in the fall:

  • I caught 4x as many fish on dries then I did nymphing. That exact thing happened the last time I fished the forks in October. It was the strangest thing not having success on the nymph and still getting a significant number of takes on top on the huck hopper. I may not have been getting it down far enough in the faster runs. In fact, that probably was the case. My “normal” spring / summer rig is a size 4 huck hopper (that is huge), followed 4 feet down by a large rubber legs which is super heavy, followed another 18” down by a huck rainbow warrior or huck green caddis nymph.   That rig is wildly effective there in spring or summer. I was floating a smaller huck hopper I was prototyping (see below) that couldn’t support the weight of my “go to” rig. So I went without the heavy rubber legs. The only thing is…. I put the other beginners on the bobber; which could support the normal rig and they were not getting a lot of takes.
  • In my trip this summer (august) I noticed an abundance of grass hoppers that were light grey in color and from size 8 to 12.  There are a myriad of different species of grass hoppers down in the canyon and one day I’ll be able to identify all of them. I’m not a total believer in color because I have read a lot of the science and trout see colors differently in different light conditions and distances. What does matter a lot more is size and shape. But, I did tie a number of prototype grey size 8 huck hoppers and, as I suspected because they matched the naturals in size and color they really worked.I caught at least one trout every day right in front of the huck camp. And half of them were quality fish. I believe it’s not so much about that being a great pool, run and tail-out as much as it is the times of day I fished. The point: in the fall, fish until the sun goes down. That last 2 hours as the day closes is the most effective time. And that is most likely because that is the part of the day where the water is warmest.

    Another big Kern River Rainbow with a grey Huck Hopper stuck in his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river was just a little too high and cold at 330 CFS for crossing safely. There were definitely places in the river, maybe a handful, over the 6 mile stretch I fished, where you could cross at knee level. But, 1, the river was so cold to wet wade and 2. once across there is no river trail and not being able (or willing) to trek in the river meant it was long stretches of bushwhacking before finding a cross back to the other side.

  • Note: the “Forks of the Kern” trail sign which indicates where to turn on the dirt road that takes you to the trailhead is not only still broken, but, in even worse shape: both poles broken and propped against a tree. It’s really easy to miss now. the directions are painstakingly detailed in the guidance doc, but, the right turn for the trailhead is exactly 36.8 miles from the junction of Mountain Road 50 (MR-50) and Mountain Road 99 (MR-99) near the tiny town of Johnsondale.

 

This years fall “Gear Guys gang” at the Huck Site: me, Garrett, Greg, Geoff & Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Unfortunately, the cache near the huck site has been compromised and pillaged. It’s not the first time. It’s a bit discouraging. But, it’s not like I’m devastated. I have accumulated a cache of extra supplies, tools, fishing equipment and even a spare tent over the years. Those that download the guidance document are encouraged to email me if they want to use it and I email very specific directions to finding it. Many readers of this site have added to the cache every year which is really great. For instance, the tools that others have left behind to help cut back the willows and branches making it easier on beginners have been a god-send. They are now gone. As is most of the cache.

 

I have received some criticism, even within my own awesome fly-fishing club about publishing how special the forks of the kern is on this site; how special it is to catch and release a wild trout that can only be found in a 20 mile stretch of river in the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Using this site to enlighten and encourage fly fishers to visit the Upper Kern by way of the Forks trailhead has been a mixed blessing in terms of getting the word out on how special the forks is. I believe in conservation by awareness. I believe to stop the slow death of the great sport I love; to have the sport of fly fishing thrive to where it once was, us advanced fly fishers should give away their secret spots even to the point of giving up their favorite holes to beginners; especially young fly fishers. Some of my peers do not share that view.

There is more positive on this than negative. For instance, one of the downloaders of the guidance doc and users of the cache emailed me a few weeks back that he “put some work into the fireplace”. When I got to the site on this trip I was pleasantly surprised. The stonework at the huck site is in great shape right now. best ever. He must have put 2-4 hours into making that fireplace better.

But, the cache has been pillaged and needs to be built up again. What was different about the vandalism this time is that the gear in the cache that was too big to carry away (like the spare tent) and steal was actually hid a few yards away. As if these vandals were going to use it as their own for them and them alone on their next time in. I was lucky to find it.

 

So Fear not. As soon as I can get in next spring I will start building the cache back up and so will the many forks of the kern lovers and readers of this site. But, I have been forced to move the cache. It’s still not completely safe to vandalism again: it’s farther away yet still not a brutally physical hike/climb to find. I’m hoping it will not be as easily found randomly as where it was located for so many years prior so close to the huck site.

 

So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020 (assuming a normal winter which this year was not) I’ll be writing about other my other fly fishing and outdoors adventures. And hosting a few guest posts.

Martin rolling out another well loaded overhand cast

 

 

Forks of the Kern Trail – Upper Kern River – October 8th, 2018

The Kern River Rainbow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am really getting to love these October trips to the Forks.  I think I’ll do it for the rest of my life.  The fishing is always good.  Not great…good.  And if you catch it right in October, not only can you catch some amazing night time hatches, but, with the nights getting colder those big rainbows know they have to feed before “going down” for the winter so they tend to wander out of deep water where you can get a shot at them on top.  The days are always warm; not wet wading warm, but all day in the sun sunburn warm.  The nights and mornings are cold, though…very cold.  And the best part for me…mostly because I’m left handed, is that the flows are so low in October there are many places you can cross the river.  So, not only do I get to fish the “left handed side”, but I’m throwing flies to water that has seen very few artificials over the season.

When hiking in it’s easy to forget you are in Mountain Lion Territory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The absolute best part of this October, 2018 trip to the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trailhead was the group.  We planned this trip a year in advance because one of the guys joining me was Rudi Van der Welt; an old friend that actually took me to the Forks for the first time many years ago and taught me the backpacking thing and many skills to survive in the wilderness.  The reason for a year in advance?  Well, Rudi now lives in Sydney, Australia.   He flew all the way to LAX (18 hours) to backpack into the wilderness.

Joined by Rudi was the guy that actually taught me how to fly fish over 20 years ago, Tim “Big Daddy” Hoffmann.  Big Daddy (nick-named by me because he has 5 boys, all huge and all geniuses and athletes) and I have been friends for 50 years.  That is not a typo.  Yep, we went to school together starting in 1st grade…where even then he was a full head taller than me.  Both Big Daddy and Rudi are outstanding fly fishermen, experts, guide-level fly fishermen.

Left to Right: me, Jeff Kimura, Rudi Van der Welt, Tim Hoffmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, it makes sense that rounding out the 4 of us was a new friend from the neighborhood, Jeff Kimura.  Jeff is…well now was a completely green fly fisherman.  He really lucked out having the 3 of us teaching him.  But, we really lucked out because of all the high quality fresh food he hiked into the canyon.   Jeff is super fit, recently qualifying for the Boston Marathon and frankly if you are not hiking in 2-3 pounds of booze you might as well hike in fresh food.

The first rub was that Rudi showed up wearing a boot: “I recently tore my Achilles tendon.  I’ll be fine.”  In Sydney, he went to the local fly shop with his boot and had them install a sole with spikes in it so he could wade in it safely.  Classic.  The very first time I went backpacking…to the forks…with Rudi….he almost killed me.  I swear we would have hiked in 10+ miles if I had not thrown in the towel at 6.  He’s a total stud and even though he had to walk funny with one leg pointed side-ways he still hiked all the way in, fished all day for 3 days and hiked all the way out – total stud.

Who is crazy enough not only to hike the Forks of the Kern Trail in a boot cast, but to have wading spikes installed into the sole? Rudi is…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was a quick 2-nighter, Monday to Wednesday so I didn’t expect to see many people and that was certainly the case.  We did see people hiking out on our way in.  And it just so happened that one of the groups told us there did stay in the “huckaby site” and left us a bunch of firewood…. Nice.  However everyone we talked to hiking out said they didn’t do too well fishing.  Hmmmm…..

Upon getting to the site we unpacked and set up quickly so we could fish the balance of the day.    I hooked up quickly and the rest of the day went pretty well in terms of rainbows hooked and landed.  “Fishing seems pretty good to me.”, I said to myself.

In terms of flies, well, I just have so much confidence in a handful of flies that I have developed slowly over the years fishing the upper kern.  They just work no matter what the conditions.  I tie most of the nymphs crippled because over the years I have found that wing shucks and fluorescent wings just seem to work better there.  The

is still my “go-to” nymph for the Kern.  In that crystal clear water the fluorescent and U/V materials I use just do such a good job attracting.  It imitates a number of water born insects that are native to the Kern: The spotted sedge, the green rockworm, Chironomids, etc.  Hung 3 feet below a Huck Hopper is a deadly combination.  Rounding out the group of go-to flies for the Kern are the Midge Cripple and the Huck-bow Warrior.  I also have been experimenting with my crippled version of Cal Bird’s famous Bird’s Nest fly.  But, I have not perfected it yet in terms of size and proportions so I’m not going to sell it on the site yet.   On this trip all the flies I just mentioned above caught fish.

Another big Kern River Rainbow with a size 4 Huck-Hopper hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I worked variations of another new fly all year and it’s close to being ready to sell on my site.  it’s a stonefly nymph imitation.  And it’s black.  There are no black stoneflies that hatch on the kern (browns and goldens only).  But, big black stonefly nymph imitations have always worked there.  It really seems like there are always stonefly shucks on the rocks in the river….almost like they hatch all season long from April to October.  I know that can’t be true.  The skwallas and goldens hatch during the spring.  The little brown stoneflies hatch in the summer.  It’s kind of a pain in the ass to tie, but, this fly kills.  It imitates a number of the nymph forms of the naturals in the river like skwallas, stoneflies, salmonflies, and damselflies.  I tie it huge…like in 6-8 and 10 so it’s easily seen and the perfect first fly of the dropper from the huck hopper.  So what is the problem?  it’s too heavy.  Have you ever heard of a nymph being too heavy?  Well, in this latest set of variations I tied them with 2 tungsten coneheads.  My intention was to get that 3 feet of tippet under the huck hopper down as quickly as possible.  The result was it dragging a size 4 (which is huge and very buoyant) huck hopper down with it.  So, I did very well with it, but the constant mend of the huck hopper to get it floating is not practical for the average angler.   I’ll swap out that middle tungsten cone with a smaller bead and it should be good to go.

A Kern river rainbow with a new fly i have been working on in his face; a huge and heavy stonefly nymph imitation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, I plan to get those flies on the site by next spring.  I’ll battle test them winter fishing in a variety of places that are not the Upper Kern by way of the Forks because it will be closed.  But the section above the Johnsondale bridge stays open all winter long (although it does not winter fish that well) so I’m sure I’ll get some time in there along with many other rivers and creeks in the eastern sierras.

BTW, based on a great suggestion from a reader, I have added a bunch of Kern River fishing guidance to the “Guidance and Directions to the Forks of the Kern” document you can download off my site.  I charge $5 for it, but I donate 100% of that to CalTrout at the end of the year.

The cache I have hidden near the “huckaby site” has grown pretty large and quite impressive.   Along with my friends so many readers like you have added quality items to the cache. The saw and nippers are still the most valuable tools.  But, there is a growing group of kitchen items, extra fuel, a tent, wading sandals and wading boots.  On this trip I buttoned the cache down for the winter and this year it should do just fine because there is no longer any food in the cache.  Even with a smell-proof bear bag, the bears still got to it last Spring.  I don’t expect any issues when I retrieve the cache next Spring.  If you are reading this and want to use the cache just send me an email.  I’ll take care of you.  you can

Whether hiking in or hiking out this is one of the best views of the Upper Kern from the Forks of the Kern Trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My most remembered moment was a fish lost.  Why do I always remember the fish lost and not the ones landed?  On this trip I caught enough 16 to 18”s to call it good fishing.  It was late into Tuesday the only real full day of fishing and I hadn’t hooked, let alone landed, any of those monster 20”+ Kern River Rainbows that are so famous up there.  So way up stream I fished on the “left handed side” of the river (often called “river left” by spey casters) where it is not possible to wade.  So, I was up about 20 feet in the air on a little cliff like shelf.  I casted into a riffle  that really didn’t look fishy after hitting some pocket water unsuccessfully below it.   Sure enough a monster shot out from nowhere.  I set hard.  It jumped and I could see it was over 20.  But, it shot down river quickly and I should have stopped it by horsing it at the risk of losing it there.   I didn’t.  And that was my fatal mistake.  It went around a large boulder on the opposite site of the river and downstream.  I failed to flip the line over the boulder as it swam like a torpedo downstream and the line tightened.  I couldn’t get in the water and navigate across (too dangerous and I didn’t feel like doing a brad pitt and jumping into 45 degree water) so I lost the fish there…telling myself over and over how badly I screwed that up.

On the 3rd day we broke camp with the intention of getting a head start on our assault of Lake Crowley in float tubes so short of 10 or 20 casts there was not a lot of fly fishing the Kern on the last day.  All in all it was a great trip.  And like every trip to the Upper Kern just too short.  I’m now in fantasizing mode where I will watch the upper kern flows every day for 5 months wishing I could be at the forks all the way until next April.  That is a long 5 months.  Don’t feel sorry for me, though.  I’ll be chasing the not so rare Andes trout at 14K feet in Ecuador in a couple weeks.

Forks of the Kern Trail: June 28 – July 2, 2018

There is something about my first trip into the Forks each year.  The “lead up” generates tons of excitement and anticipation.  Mostly because I knew the flies we’d be throwing would be the first that the bad ass kern river rainbows had seen in 9 months.   I am not kidding when I tell you I was watching the CFS on the Upper Kern almost every couple of hours in the couple weeks prior to the hike in.

A big Kern River Rainbow scampering away angry after release

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joining me on this trip in were two fly fishing buddies I had met in very similar ways…through the tech industry.  Josh Evans is a local Carlsbad guy and I have fished with him in Montana and Wyoming.  He’s a great fly fisherman and like me, has to be dragged off the river at night.  Honestly, he’s the only fisherman I have every encountered where I said with a cocktail in my hand, “I can’t believe he’s still out there fishing.”

Josh, Ronnie and me hiking way up river over Rattlesnake Creek for a full 6 miles of fishing adventure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met Ronnie Swafford at a .NET presentation I did at a user group in western N. Carolina over a decade ago.  I told the audience I took that gig because Microsoft paid for my t&e and I always wanted to fly fish the area.  We immediately became friends and he is really good about keeping in touch.  We fished in Colorado last year on the headwaters of the Colorado River near Grandby.  I had an open offer to him: “figure out how to get to LAX and I’ll handle everything from there.”  And I was really excited he took me up on it.

Ronnie battling a large Kern River Rainbow trying to get him back up stream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backpacking in with 45+ pounds on our backs we hit the trail early, but not early enough to avoid the hot sun on Friday morning.  Typically, I like to lead most of the time because of my familiarity of the trail, my mountain goat like genes, and my awareness of the things in the trail that could potentially cause calamity.  I was just telling the guys about the many animals we could encounter on the trail.   But, sometimes I go too fast and I also like to stop and take pictures.  So, it was Josh that was in the lead, suddenly stopping saying, “Rattlesnake!  Right on the trail!”  Thank god he noticed it before stepping on it.  he backed up and I approached with the camera.  The Western Diamondback rattlesnake was a female, about 2.5 feet long near a water source (where he probably hunted mice) just warming up in the sun.  he was practically paralyzed; couldn’t even summon his rattle yet.  But, I still couldn’t get a good picture before he slowly crept off the trail under a rock.  It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes earlier when I said to the guys, “I know there are rattlesnakes here, but I have never seen one.”

I wish i would have caught this diamond back staring at us, but i just wasn’t quick enough with the camera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well that set the tone for the most animal encounters ever in my many trips to the upper Kern.  Well, Josh came face to a California King snake and 3 all of us saw Gartersnakes in the river at many points.

Results: Cutting the fishing into 3 hour sessions over the 3 days we fished we saw slow times right when we were supposed to (when the water warmed up) from about 12-3pm.  But outside of that range we experienced good, great and excellent fishing conditions.  The morning session on Sunday was one I will always remember.  It started with a first cast hook up of a 14” I managed to land under a tree and never stopped.  I hooked a fish in every hole, run, pocket water, heads, pools, tail-outs…everywhere I fished for about 4 hours.  I have always written in this blog that Kern River Rainbows are really hard to land and that was definitely the case.  but, I don’t want to touch them anyways.  I want them to come off right at my feet to be caught another day and that was definitely the case in this session.  I did hook some big fish (over 18”) and never managed to land any of them.  And that is fine….except for the monster I farmed on a huck hopper by setting the wrong way (up river).  Totally my fault and it’s going to haunt me until the next time I hike in there.

 

A big Kern River rainbow with a caddis nymph imitation stuck in his face that i tie and sell which kills in clear water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We burnt a lot of calories on this trip fly fishing.  From the Huckaby primitive campsite we fished 6+ river miles in both directions each day we were there.  Each day culminated at the site, eating appetizers and sipping whiskey waiting for the crazy evening hatch to start.  in all 3 nights we saw significant size 18 dry fly fishing before it got dark.  One of the sessions was an hour and a half long!  And this is right in front of the site.  at one point I heard Josh say, “this is too easy. I’m getting struck on every cast no matter how bad my drift is.”  exhausted, we ended each day around the campfire eating dinner in the dark.

Me, Josh and Ronnie on the hike in to the canyon on the Forks of the Kern Trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Highlights:

I know Josh and Ronnie have their own highlights on the trip, but I have a few I’ll remember forever:

  1. I have come to love guiding kids. I love teaching kids how to fly fish more than fishing myself.  Well, on the trail we ran into a threesome of a dad, son (Jake) and uncle.  They had kmart level spinning rods with giant shiny lures.  They told me they managed to catch one trout, but that Jake, 15, was dying to catch a fish and even got up at 5am to try…and failed.  which made sense considering the gear they had.  I asked where they were camping and knew exactly the spot.  So, I said, “I tell ya’ what Jake, I’m going to try to circle back at the end of the day and we’ll try to catch a fish together.”  At the end of the day Ronnie reminded me about the “promise”.  I was exhausted, but the 2 mile hike to them was the right thing to do.  I encountered them about a mile away.  There were in a great spot, a huge plunge into a deep pool with a 360 degree eddie on the side that always held fish, but really tough to drift.  So, I started with, “Ok, I’ll rig you up with “fly and a bubble” Jake, give me one of your bobbers.  “we don’t have any bobbers.”   Hmmm I said.  And I knew I was going to have to “McGiver” him.  I tied a small piece of wood on the 4 lb line he had on his cheap spinning rod and hung one of the flashy caddis nymph imitations I tie that was doing well about 4 feet under the piece of wood.  While rigging him up I explained the insect cycle and caddiss flies and as much as I could cram in about the science of the river.  I told jake his cast was going to be a lot tougher because of the 4 foot dropper, but if he could get in in the middle of the eddie he’d have a good chance at hooking a fish.  Well, after hiting the overhanging tree and me re-rigging him a few times, and then flat out missing the eddied a few times he managed to hit a cast perfectly.  It sank into the swirl, his wood indicator went down hard and he tightened up as a screamed, “Set!”   Jakes cheap ass rod was bent in half when a huge…I mean 2+ foot fish appeared.  I never got to the “ok, here’s how you fight a fish if you hook one” part and he farmed it….practiically pulling the fish all the way out of the water.  I was screaming “woo!” and jumping up and down and high fiving him telling him how awesome that was.  Jake was slightly disappointed, but excited.  he was telling his dad and uncle all about  it.  well, it was past 6pm and I had to get back to camp so I gave them a bunch of flies I tied that were working and off I went.  I’ll never know how they did after I left … I bet they did well.

check out that fan of a tail. it’s no wonder the kern river rainbow fights so hard 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Josh had to hike out Sunday afternoon in the hot sun. Ronnie and I were sipping whiskey around 7pm watching the river and waiting for the hatch to start.  I looked up across the river and screamed, “Holy F##$ck there’s a bear!”  I ran back a hundred feet to the site to get my camera.  For 45 minutes, sipping whiskey, we watched a juvenile black bear eating some type of berries off the bushes as he slowly meandered up stream.  It was never an issue of an encounter because the river was between us and him.  I have been waiting for over a decade at that site, staring at the mountain side across the river predicting it would happen one day and it finally did.  Awesome.

A black bear munching on berries as we watch from the Huckaby site across the river