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

Yucca Point Trail – Sequoia National Forest

October 15-17, 2020

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

Forks of the Kern Status

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

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

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

Forks Alternative

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

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

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

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

Fishing Report

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

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

The 3 dozen Mercer’s Missing Links i tied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adventure

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

The view down to the confluence from the Yucca Point Trailhead

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

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

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

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

Surprises / Fun Facts / Stories:

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

you can’t miss this sign on hwy 180

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

Relevant Stats:

July 31st to Aug 2nd, 2020

CFS: 175 down to 165

Water temp: 57 – 72

Air temp: low 50s to mid 80s

Fishing Stats:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1, Friday, July 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first time using a Wading Staff on the Upper Kern

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

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

I caught so many quality fish like this it was silly

Day one highlight

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2, Saturday, August 1st

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

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

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

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

Day 2 highlights

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

another huge fish that engulfed a size 4 huck hopper

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

And Backpacking Gear Review

October 20-23, 2017

Check out the fall colors on the Upper Kern

Check out the fall colors on the Upper Kern

I have backpacked the Forks of the Kern Trail to the awesome fly fishing of the upper Kern River over a dozen times since my very first backpacking trip 7 years ago in August of 2011.  I have been in the Spring a few times and in the Summer many times.  But, I had never been able to go in the Fall; until now.  The shocking thing for me and the group of 9 guys that joined me (ages 12 to mid-sixties) was the colors.  I was shocked to see all the yellow and orange in the trees…and not just aspens.  I had never seen anything in the trees but green in the many years of visiting the Forks.  So beautiful.

DSCF0258

The Upper Kern River crew:

  • Sean McElroy and my son Mark
  • Aaaron Eagleton and his dad (who’s story I featured in California Fly Fisher Magazine)
  • Steve Franco (Aaron’s uncle)
  • Me
  • Martin Loef and Steve Ray (backpacking and wilderness gurus)
  • Larry French (my cousin and life long friend of Martin)
  • Not Pictured: The world famous Warren Lew who took the picture

 The most fun for me was that my son Mark was part of the group.  I have not got to fish with him in a while.  He’s a stick, toning his skills a couple years in Bozeman.  He’s 22 now and I just don’t get as much father-son q-time as I’d like.  At 22 I didn’t hang with my dad too much either.  I regret that now.

As for the fishing this was one of those trips where the fishing matched Solunar theory perfectly.  The first day the fly fishing was good; the 2nd day was average; the 3rd day was not so good.

solunar-kern

These screenshots are from the app, “Fishing & Hunting Solunar Time Pro”.  I have mentioned this app in this blog before.  It’s a godsend.  The regular version is free.  The Pro version is worth every penny of its $2.99 cost.  I use it religiously….although solunar theory is not bullet proof, it does help.  It certainly helped on this trip matching up perfectly to the quality of fishing.  Get it in your apple or google app store.

Backpacking Gear Review

Before I get into the fishing report let me provide some guidance (from an old guy fly fisherman’s perspective) in terms of a backpacking gear review for my fellow fly fishers.  7 years ago when I started backpacking as a means to get to fly fishing I acquired gear in the exact same way many of us fly fisherman buy fly fishing gear when we start fly fishing.  When I started fly fishing 25 years ago I bought the cheapest stuff.  I bought a $60 Cabela’s rod with a $30 Cabela’s reel.  My waders were the cheapest neoprene Cabela’s waders.  As the years progressed, technology helped the fly fishing industry just like it has helped every industry. I started replacing my cheap fly fishing stuff with the latest and greatest stuff.  The best $100 I ever spent was on the Simms Waders that have the zipper.  If you are male over 40 you know what I mean…  Well, when I started backpacking I bought the cheapest stuff too.  And that means the heaviest stuff and the stuff most apt to break down quickly.  The difference, though, between backpacking and fly fishing is that the technology curve is on hockey stick growth in backpacking.  There is just only so much technology, especially electronic technology that you can throw at fly fishing gear.  But, in backpacking….the sky is the limit.  And I am a technology guy.  So I purchased 4 new backpacking gear items for this trip.  And now that it’s over I could kick myself for not doing it years ago.  Because this stuff was worth every penny.

Check out the colors on this monster Kern River Rainbow I fooled

Check out the colors on this monster Kern River Rainbow I fooled

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a summary of the 4 items I purchased and used for the first time on this trip:

Osprey Aether AG 70 Backpack – The 7 years of hard use on my Gregory back pack and its eventual failure was the impetus of all these purchases.  I’d say I got my money out of that Gregory.  I bought it on SierraTradingPost.com for under $100.  The arm straps finally ripped to the point of giving out.  After doing the research I was pleased to see how technical the backpacks had become and how light they are.  From experience I knew I needed a 60-70 liter pack to handle the 1 to 5 night backpacking treks I typically do.  There was one pack and one company that really stands out at the leader in my research.  I convinced myself I deserved the top of the line so that is what I got: The Osprey Aether AG 70.  You can’t argue with “Winner of Outside Magazine’s Gear of the Year Award for 2017” … So light (5lbs 6oz); so comfortable.  I didn’t get the pain in my shoulders after an hour hiking like I always did with my old pack.  This pack balanced perfectly and has this special technology that keeps the pack away from your back so it ventilates.  It has tons of features and gets ridiculously good reviews on the internet.  But, for me, (and for you fly fishers) the best feature of this pack is the top lid that converts to a daypack.  Yes, you snap off the top of the pack and it’s a smaller backpack big enough for all your fishing stuff, food, water, a jacket and more.  I didn’t have to bring a separate lightweight fly fishing hip pack because of this feature.  The retail for this pack is $310 and it’s worth every penny.  I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this pack.

Big Agnes Flycreek HV 2 platinum Tent –  Ok, I don’t deserve this tent like I deserve the Osprey Aether AG 70 BackPack.  This tent is pretty much way too nice for me.  I’m officially backpacking spoiled now.  This tent is expensive at a retail price of $549.95.  And there is a reason for that.  Like my dad always said, “in life you typically get what you pay for.”  It’s huge for a backpacking tent: it’s a 2 man tent with a really high ceiling.  It’s super easy to set up.  But it’s number one feature and why I’m so pleased with it: The trail weight for this tent is 1lb 10oz.  I’m not kidding.  When I handed that tent to others…and I did it numerous times, it induces shock on how light it is.  And usually a shake of the head.  My cheapo tiny single tent I have used for 7 years weighs 4 times as much as this tent at 1/3rd of the size.  I cannot tell you how pleased I am to save almost 5 pounds with this tent.

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Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System –  This little device is the best kept secret in the backpacking industry.  Buy the .5 liter version of this now at a retail price of $40 and you will thank me.  I have watched countless backpackers struggle with large bulky water filtration pumps over the years.  That is why I have been a Steripen fan for years.  I have owned two of them.  Their customer service is awesome and their device is awesome.  They even replaced the bulb in one of my older Steripens so I could get more years out of it.  I have used my steripens all over the world and will continue to.  But, for the Kern…and frankly many of the rivers in the US, the Katadyn Befree removes just as much bad stuff native to US waters like giardia.  But it also filters out everything but the water.  All the little pieces of plant material, dirt, etc. the SteriPen uses ultra-violent light to kill the bad stuff.  It’s a wand you wave in the water for 2 long minutes.  The Katadyn BeFree filters the water.  You just scoop up the river and start drinking.  No waving wands, no pumping, no hassle.  With the steripen I always carried around 1.5 liters of river that eventually got warm.  With the Katadyn BeFree you just scoop up cold water and start drinking.  That means you can literally throw away the water you don’t want.  It’s cleans really easy too. The Steripen weighs 5 ozs.  The Katadyn Befree packs down to tiny and it only weighs 2 oz.  There is a reason it won BackPacker Magazine’s 2017 Editor’s Choice Award.

Big Agnes Helinox Ridgeline FL135 Trekking Poles – The lord didn’t give me much, but, he did give me the “goat gene”.  I’m agile.  I always have been. It’s just in my genetics.  I always assumed trekking poles were for the non-agile that needed stability.  I met a young backpacker in a prior trip to the Kern, Kyle Focht, that set me straight on how trekking poles are more than that.  More than agility and stability, trekking poles also help you to power up hill.  I tried my wife’s trekking poles on a trip in august and was shocked how much they helped.  I knew then I had to get my own.  These FL 135s are my very first trekking poles, so they are good ones, but not the top of the line.  They are made from aluminum, yet less than a pound in weight.  Btw, they also serve very well as a wading staff.

When all was said and done with my new purchases, I had saved close to 10 pounds in load weight.  Like I said before.  I wish I had done this years ago.

The devishly handsome author using his trekking poles as a wading staff crossing the Little Kern River.

The devilishly handsome author using his trekking poles as a wading staff crossing the Little Kern River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fishing Report

Friday, October 20 – We got an early start on the hike in.  We made it to camp late morning and set up tents, made wood, etc.  In the haste to set up all the beginners with dry dropper rigs and at the same time do a satellite text message to tell my wife had made it, I forgot to zip the pocket with my phone in my shirt.  When I bent over the river to put the food and booze in to keep it cold my phone popped out and sank 18” to the riverbed.  I cussed a storm because that would be the 6th or 7th iphone I have lost to a river or lake.  I was in no haste to pull it back out so I secured the food first and then fished it from the bottom.  It has happened to me so many times before; even twice in the Kern; that I knew it was toast.  At least at the time I thought it was…

We got camp set up and were fishing by lunch time.  I did well.  I swear I would have caught 20+ fish in 6 hours that day if I wasn’t guiding and tying lost flies back on the rigs of the 4 beginners we had on the trip.  In reality though, my most fun of the trip was guiding and doing exactly that.  I’d rather pull flies out of trees and guide a beginner to a fish than catch a fish myself any time.  In any event I caught a dozen quality fish in the 2-3 hours I fished.  I did get a few takes on my size 4 huck hopper.  But, I failed to hook any of them.  Most of my takes were on a large black stonefly nymph imitation.  That is a staple fly of the upper kern.

Check out the size 10 stonefly hanging out of this unlucky rainbow’s face

Check out the size 10 stonefly hanging out of this unlucky rainbow’s face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, October 21st – what I remember most from this day was me hooking another fish and hearing mark from a distance say, “Damnit”.  That’s not like him to be frustrated.  He was mostly hanging with his buddy Sean, guiding him because he was a beginner, for the first day and a half.  btw, Sean caught two fish on this trip.  that is pretty good for a beginner.  Anyways I’m guessing the guiding had to weigh on the frustration a little.  So, that was my opening to help him out…and spend some q-time with him.  We spent the next couple hours together and I didn’t fish at all.  I simply did the “guide thing” and made a number of suggestions and changes to his flies and approach.  Thank God for me those suggestions worked for Mark.  Mark started catching fish and was the big winner that day.  He caught 3 quality fish with me while I was with him.  And for the rest of the trip he did well.  I learned at the end of the day when we all got back together at camp that some of the other guys did not do well.  I had that dwindling solunar performance in the back of my mind and feared what the next day would bring…or wouldn’t bring.

Sunday, October 22nd – We hiked for an hour up river, over the mountain, before we started fishing.  It’s something I have always wanted to do, but never had people with me that were willing to do it…and to go with it the brutal 5 mile hike back to camp after a long day of fishing.  Frankly it’s hard for me to do this because you pass miles and miles of awesome water in the process.  They say….well, I say, “the farther up river you go the better the fishing gets.”  And it makes sense since the fish up river just don’t see the artificial flies like the ones near the confluence.  Unfortunately my fear of the solunar prediction was realized; it was slow…  I think I fished and hour without a take.  And I was getting good drifts.  That is pretty rare for me on the Upper Kern no matter what the conditions.  I wanted to say I couldn’t understand what changed in terms of hatches, but I did have that solunar theory thing in the back of my mind.  I usually can figure out what the fish are eating if you give me a couple hours, but there were few bugs in the air and nothing rising and nothing being spooked and nothing worked for me.  I went hours without a single take.

I caught up to mark and that is when I saw it and laughed; an impressed laugh.  He was standing on a huge rock, close to 10 feet above the water level.  He was in front of a long deep bend in the river.  He had a gap in the trees behind him big enough for a back cast.  So, he was making 50 foot single hauls to the opposite side of the river with a dry/dropper rig.  I wish I was close enough to video it.  It was impressive.  Plus I could see him long distance mending so I can’t imagine the drift was easy.  He sure has become a great cast.  I was still 100 yards away when he hooked up on a big fish.  He battled it for longer than what I would deem normal and brought it to hand and showed me from distance after I screamed, “Woo!” from 100 yards away.  It looked huge.  I guessed over 20”. When I got to him he said, “17”.

 

Mark Huckaby doing the 50 foot single haul to the opposite side of the river with his buddy Sean fishing the head

Mark Huckaby doing the 50 foot single haul to the opposite side of the river with his buddy Sean fishing the head

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I still hadn’t landed a fish that day, though.  And slowly I found out no one but Mark had either.  So, slowly but surely everyone started their long treks back to camp except for me.  I found myself at Kern Flats (which I believe is over 6 miles from our camp) in front of the famous bend which is always good for at least one fish…and nothing.  It was getting late in the day and I knew I had at least a 1.5 hour hike back to the site, skunked.  That is when I said myself, “if I am going to get skunked I’m going down with size 18 dries.”  As I walked back I found Mark and Sean in “their hole” and told them to check in with me on their walk back so I wouldn’t worry. Half of the way back to camp was one of my favorite runs I walked by earlier in the day without fishing it.  It took me a while to get there.  Mark and Sean caught me as I tied on some 5x to the end of my leader, then a light colored size 18 mayfly imitation that was similar to a random handful of naturals I had seen during the day.  They moved on, hiking back to camp.  I moved into position to cast, which meant rock hopping my way closer to the middle of the river so I could get a cast.  I stared out in front of me at the run hoping to see rises where I had seen them so many times in years past….nothing.  From my rock I had to make a simple 30 foot cast straight up stream.  First cast…whack!  6” incher.  Nice.  I fished for 10 minutes and got struck on almost every cast.  I had landed 4 to 12” before mangling my leader because of my quickly tied poor knot when I tied on the tippet.  So, I cut it off and said to myself, “if I can catch my fifth on what is essentially a 6 foot 0x leader, I’ll call it a total success and head back to camp. I had to nip the leader at an angle just to thread the size 18 hook.  Success; 10” er.  I would have loved to stay and whack 20 trout after that full day of being skunked, but walking back that far to camp alone in the dark in that part of the sierras is not smart.  So, I took off happy.  And then it occurred to me.  We had not caught a single fish in front of camp yet.  And we had all fished it hard for 3 days. That that is one of the most prolific spots on the river.  I said to myself, when I get back to camp I’ll throw 5 casts to see if I can break the skunk there.  It was a long 45 minute brisk hike back up and over the mountain.  As I approached the camp all the guys already had whiskeys and were trading the day’s stories.  I looked at Mark with a smile and held 5 fingers up.  He said, “We heard you shout.  We knew you are on.”  I explained to the guys what happened and said, I have to try it here.  So I wandered 50 feet down to the river.  First cast, whack!  I shouted “Woo!” and some of the guys ran over.   After landing the fish I handed the rod to my cousin Larry French and said, “take over”  I headed for a backpacking chair with whiskey and he got a strike too with Warren guiding him.

Mark Huckaby with one of his big Kern River Rainbows

Mark Huckaby with one of his big Kern River Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

Through a matter of circumstances, I hiked out alone.  I like to do that at the Forks.  I like to push myself.  I made it from camp to the crossing of the little Kern in good time.  My goal was to hike the 2 miles and 1100 feet up and out of the canyon in under an hour.  With my new trekking poles I was pretty confident.  1:04 – that is pretty good for an old guy.

It was a great trip and fun was had by all.  The real bummer for me is November 15 and the winter looms.  That ends the fishing season for most of California until Spring.  It’s back into the man cave to tie hundreds of flies for the hundreds lost this season for me.

There were quality fish hooked, landed and there were frustrations with trees and slow times.  I honestly believe we learn from our entire experience on the river: from the most advance fly fishers like me to total beginners we are always getting better whether we are catching fish or not.

I believe a totally fun trip was had by all.  I’d love to make that an annual trip with that group.

The view of the flat water on approach to “Huckaby Camp”

The view of the flat water on approach to “Huckaby Camp”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My iPhone: You are not going to believe this.  On that first day we put my iphone in a plastic bag with the silicon desiccant packs from backpacking food and let it sit in the sun for 3 days.  It worked.  I didn’t even try to turn it on during the trip.  When I got to my truck after the hike out I plugged it in and it came right up.  When I finally got to signal an hour later in Kernville all the txts and emails flooded in.