i know i shouldn’t gopro a struggling fish with a Huck Hopper hanging out of the side of his face. But it was only 20 seconds and i never pulled him out of the water releasing him. you have to admit the footage is pretty cool.
Yes, I did go back to the little kern by way of the Clicks Creek Trailhead. Just two weeks later after my failed attempt alone. The road opened so this time I didn’t have to hike 8 miles, alone, on a crappy arduous complicated set of trails and roads, while it howled, raining and snowing, providing me a max of 10 feet of visibility with trails that simply disappeared causing tons of episodes of the losing the trail and getting lost just in the process of simply attempting to get to the trailhead I needed to start from.
And yes, it’s as awesome as I had heard. I cannot wait to get back there. Thanks to the handfull that helped me research. But, especially to Steve Schalla aka Steven Ojai. This place is truly a legit alternative to the Forks of the Kern when spring turns the main fork of the Kern into a raging dangerous unfishable river. There’s just one significant negative about the Clicks Trail. And it’s only a negative for us over 50s …closer to 60s…who’s broken down bodies are getting weaker. More on that below.
I did a 3-nighter with a couple buddies:
- Martin Loef who I have known for around 40 years; a true wilderness guy; a backpacking product rep who loves life (and the wilderness) more than anyone I know. I know Martin because he’s actually the best friend of my cousin. Martin is a bit older than me…and I’m old… but, man, he is always so fit and I swear he puts 70 Lbs on his back he brings so much fresh food. I’m quickly turning Martin into a fly fisherman. His positive attitude is so infectious that I love guiding him more than I love fly fishing myself. When I sent an email out to my fly fishing friends who backpack just 2 days before I was to leave (I made the last minute call when I got word the road opened). Martin was the only on that replied, simply, “in!”. Of course, he paid for that decision dearly after returning to his wife Viv laying the hammer on him for disappearing over memorial day weekend.
- Luke Budwig, a 24-year-old fly fishing fanatic I have known since he was tiny. Kelly and I are actually friends with his parents; great people. Luke did the smart thing after graduating from college. He flew to New Zealand with a buddy and fly fished for 3 months travelling through both islands. Well, Luke had been texting me about joining me on my fly fishing adventures and he hit me right after I heard the road was open. I told him he was more than welcome, and encouraged to join us.
The fishing was spotty. I’d say average overall. I believe it was it was because it’s so early in the season. The river was so cold in the mornings that it stung on my bare legs. Overnight temps below 32 degrees (frozen everything).
There was a fishing “issue”… something we have all experienced. After hiking in and setting up camp, I didn’t get to fishing until around 630pm. I wandered down river a few hundred yards to a big pool where Luke had caught a couple trout an hour earlier. Boom: First cast fish. “Hmmmm”, I said to myself. I ended up landed 10 fish in 20 minutes (for once I counted because when I realized it was ridiculous good, I resigned myself to stop at 10 to go back to camp to work on processing firewood for the camp fire). It was ridiculous fishing with takes on top (trout 4” to 13”) on every cast. I hooked and landed a 4” trout on a size 4 huck hopper! I still don’t know how he even got it in it’s mouth. Drag-less drifts (and it was a tough drift with multiple current lines and an eddy) didn’t seem to matter. I really feared it was going to be like catching a nice trout on your first cast and then getting skunked for the rest of the day.
And yes, I was fishing my “JD B3 LS”. Translation: a special rod custom built for me by Jack Duncan, my dear friend from the San Diego Fly Fishers club. Jack is a wildly talented rod builder and teacher. A wily veteran of fly fishing. And a generally great guy. I believe I have told the story before but when the Winston BIII LS blanks went on sale, Jack said, “Tim, buy them.” I did. The LS is medium action. For a “stick” that rod is a dream to cast. In fact I told luke on this trip, “wait until you try this rod…”. Luke is a stick. 3 months of fishing in New Zealand will do that.
Slow in the mornings getting better as the day went on is how the following couple days went. Again, it wasn’t great. I’m sure it is great at certain times of the year there. It was Okay in the late afternoons and evenings. I just happened to catch a hatch that first night accidently; lucky.
Little Kern River Goldens
One of the interesting scientific/biology things for me and Luke was the identification of the trout. After Luke caught the first few fish on that first night he said, “rainbows”. I said to myself, “huh. I didn’t think they had rainbows way up here.” It was my understanding there is a huge waterfall that serves as a barrier protecting the little kern goldens from the kern river rainbows. It was my understanding that juvenile little kern goldens exist below the waterfall all the way into the north fork of the kern river near the confluence. But, not above the falls. But, so much stocking has been done over the years in the sierras it made sense that other trout species would do well if planted there. A single brown trout would have a field day feeding on 4” goldens….
So, when I caught those 10 trout that first night I would examine them as closely as I could in the ~10-20 seconds I had to unhook them and get them back into the river safely. First thing of interest was that every trout I caught had par marks. Par marks are the large distinguishable dots that line the trout from head to tail as a juvenile. And as they come to adulthood the par marks fade away. At least I thought that. And it was because I thought that, that I assumed the 12” and 13” trout I caught were big juveniles less than 2 years old. With so little food opportunity at that high elevation that made no sense to have a fish that big have par marks in that river. Every fish we caught for the rest of the trip had par marks. Hmmmm. The other interesting thing I noticed was the distinguishable gold bellies on these trout which are typical of a California golden. Some more pronounced than others. The bodies of these trout were generally colorful like you’d expect from trout at altitude. But, not colorful like the California golden trout. I immediately assumed “gold-bows”; hybrids of cross breeding. So, when I went back to camp I told luke, “rainbows and gold-bows”. I was wrong. California goldens are so distinguishable. They are so colorful even out of spawning times they just look strange….and beautiful. The little kern golden trout is its own sub species that only lives in basically a 20 mile stretch of river with a few ~2 mile tributaries that feed it. that tiny little area is the only place in the world that has them. That is special. But, now researching them on the “interweb” I can see they look nothing like the California golden trout. And they keep their par marks through adulthood. So the entire time there we thought we caught zero little kern goldens when in reality we caught a ton of them.
In fact, we caught Little kern river goldens to 15”. Well, Luke hooked that big one. and he earned it. I saw the big fish from way high above on a rock on mountaineer creek when with him. Luke got a couple refusals, so I moved on. As it turns out Luke worked that fish for 30 minutes. Isn’t that awesomely typical of a 24-year-old fly fisher? I would have given that thing 5 drifts and moved on. Luke hooked him and set hard. That really pissed off that Little Kern Golden trout. The big trout jumped over a low hanging branch from a tree and broke off right back into the creek. That has happened to me before in the main fork of the kern. I think I chronicled that story on this site. I had a huge kern river rainbow jump after setting hard, at least 10 feet into the air over a tree branch hanging over the river….and broke off. I could only laugh. There is a reason those trout got so big. And the huge difference between catching wild natives and stockies.
Day one ended at the campfire eating the giant steaks we hiked in while sipping adult beverages. Great day; the anticipation and angst of a huge fishing day the next day was looming on me.
As mentioned, it was cold; Really cold the next morning. I didn’t feel like doing my dishes in the dark the night before so I left them riverside soaking. They were frozen solid in the morning. So, there was no rush to get fishing quickly. It was going to be a big day of exploration upriver. We chose to fish upriver on the little kern. There is no trail and it’s totally rugged bushwhacking. And sure enough that session to early afternoon was really spotty…..almost dead. Very few takes. I was fishing dries only. I think I caught one trout. Also, the river was really skinny wild and overgrown; unfishable in many large stretches. What I found really surprising is that in this area the Little Kern River is significantly smaller than Alpine Creek. The clicks creek trail intersects with the confluence of the Little Kern River and Alpine Creek. that is where we camped. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we camped on Alpine creek about 100 feet upriver from the confluence. It’s so overgrown wild there it took some hours to figure out there was even a confluence even though we were on top of it.
I learned later that the official trail crosses Alpine creek right where we camped, but you’d need to use GPS navigation to figure that out. And there is another warning: Beyond where the clicks creek trail hits the little kern river there are a couple official trails. One that generally follows the little kern and one that generally follows Alpine creek. But, they are barely distinguishable and would require GPS navigation. There is no trail for most of it.
So, after that morning session of a few hours we hiked back to camp and rested / ate. Then we fished the little kern river downstream for a few miles (we never made it to the bridge stopping just after the confluence of clicks creek and the little kern river) and did better. It wasn’t great fishing, but got better and better as the river temp warmed.
I have this “thing” about needing to catch a fish within 100 feet of where I camp while backpacking. And I did work hard for it. a nice 10” trout on a small huck hopper. Mission accomplished.
So, at the campfire the night of day two I suggested we try exploring the other way: fishing our way upstream on Alpine creek. Martin and Luke agreed…. excitedly. To me, this was the most special day we had. It was a shockingly beautiful bushwhack and the fishing was much better. The water was much better and bigger with outstanding runs, pools and pocket water. We saw many more bugs too. Mayflies and midges. At points there were random drakes hatching…like size 14s. we saw some rises too. I don’t believe we saw a single natural rise the day before although we did induce a few.
About a ½ mile upstream on Alpine creek there is a confluence. Facing up river Mountaineer creek is on the left. The water is bigger in Alpine creek so Luke and I crossed the creek (Martin still fishing behind us) went above the confluence and our jaws dropped. We were staring at a quarter mile stretch of polished granite with two significant waterfalls plunging into pools.
At the confluence itself was the most amazing rock formation. I think I hooked a fish in the bottom pool then luke and I scaled the granite, fishing our way up. It was so beautiful Martin just stayed there relaxing, eating, and enjoying this amazing find in the middle of nowhere while Luke and i fished up stream. I still have not found any documentation of the names of these falls or even pictures of them. Although, If you look on google earth (satellite view) you can totally see them.
Unbelievable Waterfall and Rock structure beauty in the middle of nowhere on Alpine Creek
Above the falls the creek got really skinny and was overgrown in most places. About a mile up Luke and I ran into a primitive camp site and we both said, “no way. This is the middle of the wilderness.” But, when I looked at the topo on my garmin inReach 66i, I could see an official trail nearby. God only knows where it came from. We didn’t do too well in that stretch so we doubled back and then fished up Mountaineer creek, which was skinny but had large pools where you could see the trout. It was about ½ mile up stream on Mountaineer where luke broke off his “golden monster” in a tree.
When it was slow in the morning I even switched to nymphing. There were some deep runs in Alpine creek. But, it was slow: like a take per 30 mins type of thing. really great water, too. As expected, It didn’t get better until way later in the day (after the water warmed up).
It was a really great day way north of 25,000 steps of wading and bushwhacking. I was exhausted by the time we hit the evening hatch near the site. A campfire, my newly found love of dehydrating my own real meals for backpacking, a little JD and I was in the tent early…which is typical of me. As I lay there I have to admit I was dreading the next morning….breaking camp and that awful hike out. I just didn’t realize how awful it would be.
Day 4: The Hike out
We started the hike out at 8:45AM. The weather was sunny and cool. I said to myself, “it’s only 5 miles.” In training for this I was averaging 5 mile run/hikes in the local hills of Calavera…300 feet above sea level. The only real negative on the clicks trail has everything to do with getting to the trail and the trail itself. The destination at the Little Kern River is pretty awesome. The clicks trail from Clicks trailhead 2 is kinda’ poorly made. It’s straight up and down for stretches that should be switch backs. So, the hike out…gaining 2000 feet while already at altitude was an absolute bitch. No real switch backs. Just brutally steep trail. It’s almost like it follows a significant amount of animal trails (deer don’t need switch-backs). I kinda’ noticed it on the way in, going downhill. But, didn’t realize the magnitude of the grade. Honestly people complain constantly to me about the 1100 foot climb in 2 miles out of the canyon on the forks of the kern trail. The forks is a cake-walk compared to the clicks trail.
Also, the set of dirt roads off highway 180 (mainly north road) is confusing. And not well signed. Martin and I took a wrong turn and were lost for about 15 mins before I figured it out. Btw, there was a lot of snow on the dirt roads.
I told you Martin just loves life no matter what life deals him. So, on the hike out he’s actually happy, talking the whole time and loving it while I’m totally sucking. He had to mention the cold beer waiting for him in my 7 day cooler I the back of my truck 5 times. In the steep stretches I could only move at a snails pace. That is not like me at all. I’m a fast hiker. But, I was giving it all my little old engine had. Martin got ahead of me and that was fine…. At least at the time I felt it was fine. Luke, in his 24 year old zest for fly fishing decided he needed to fish a meadow on the Clicks creek at the bottom of the mountain and that he’d catch up with us or see us at the car. That worried me a little I have to admit. I don’t typically worry when I backpack alone. I worry when i’m with others. We found out later he did well there. Of course.
Why are there always calamities in backpacking? Martin got ahead of me and then doubled back to check if he was going the right way. Yes, Martin was having so much fun while I was miserable that he purposely lost a bunch of altitude to double back. I looked at the topo on my garmin. I had the trek in overlaid on the map. We were so close. So I told him so: “we are within ½ mile of the truck”. So, Martin bolted ahead. And I pushed on. The next thing I know I ran into a “welcome to the Golden Trout Wilderness” sign facing the other way. I said to myself. We did not pass that on the way in. They must have put that in while we were camping. They did not. I missed the cutoff to the clicks 2 trailhead. It wasn’t until I hiked about ¼ mile farther that I realized it. because the trail was on top of Clicks Creek. I could actually see a bunch of goldens in the water and I knew we did not pass this stretch on the way in. Then the fear hit me. If I missed the cutoff so did Martin. And he could have been ½ mile ahead of me.
The worry-based adrenaline hit me. I dropped by pack and started jogging to try to catch him. After a half mile of running I did not catch him. Then the worry really hit me. “did he actually see the cutoff trail and I did not? the penalty for his failure could be significant….like 4-5 miles significant”. And Martin is the type of guy that would have enjoyed that. Me? Not so much. I was worried I’d be looking all night for him. So, I doubled back. I went so far jogging, seemingly, that I had the fear I missed my pack. But, I eventually found it easily. I hiked backwards to find the cutoff staring at my gps the entire time. And missed the trail cuttoff again! As I stared at my GPS and could see I was on top of it, 200 yards max either way. That is when I heard Luke coming up the trail. “Thank God.” I said out loud. Even he was exhausted. I explained the situation to him. We head back up the hill. This time I saw the trail intersection. You know the trails are bad when it takes 3 attempts to go back the way you came even with GPS navigation. So, I did my best to clear logs and line that trail intersection so others wouldn’t get screwed. Then Luke and I, confidently now, marched up the last 2/3rds of a mile trek out to where my truck was at the Clicks 2 parking lot. I was worrying that entire time that Martin would not be there. And if he was not there, my plan was to drive to the clicks 1 trailhead…which god only knows how far that would be or how I would get there…3-4 miles to find him. As I crested the mountain and saw my truck, there he was. Thank god. And with a smile on his face he was bitching about not remembering where my keys were so he could enjoy a delicious beer.
So, did he actual notice and take the trail cutoff / intersection to clicks 2 that I missed twice? No. In his ignorant bliss he hiked most of the trail from clicks 2 to clicks 1 that lines the clicks creek. Ultimately, he ran into a couple fly fishermen who parked at clicks 1 and said, “hey, where the hell am i?” they advised him back the trail to another trail that was a shortcut through the forest to the main dirt road. From there martin ran a couple miles on the dirt road, making the left turn on a different road to the clicks 2 trailhead, pack on, to where my truck was. And still beat us. I think he did a 4 mile detour. As it was I did a 2.8 mile addition to that trail.
Beautiful place. Complicated 4 wheel drive roads to the trailhead. Brutal hike out. it’s a long steep hike for only being 5 miles. Losing 2000 feet of elevation. Plus it takes gps navigation and maps; there are no real trail markers. The state of California is just so under budgeted for the forest. It’s a shame. My club and I are trying to help fix that.
The fly fishing was average to good. Not epic. The water temps were still so cold. Morning water temps below 40. That means you don’t see rises until the water sees sun all day. It’s an awesome place. I can’t wait to get back.
So, I caught fish every day to 13”. But it sure was slow for the better portion of the morning and early afternoon until the water warmed up. That has everything to do with fishing the sierras in May. But, clicks is a definitely alternative to the forks when the kern is raging in spring.
And Yea, I’m banged up pretty good too. Lots of cuts and scrapes. I gave the river and the mountain some blood on this trip. Bushwhacking…. We saw plenty of evidence of bears, but not the bears themselves. Deer, coyote, birds, small game…
And yea, I fished clicks creek. Just farther down river. But what I did discover is that the meadow stretches between clicks 1 and 2 is awesome. Luke actually fished it after we hiked out. And did well. Being lost I got to see it. I could see tons of goldens in that creek without willows…. Unobstructed casting. I need to get back there and fish that stretch.
And there is the guidance: In retrospect when I do it again I will park and take off from clicks 1 trailhead. There really is no reason to hike from clicks creek 2 trailhead. The next time I do this I’ll start from Clicks 1 and fish my way through the first 1.25 miles until the trail loses the creek and heads down the mountain. All the guidance says clicks 2 eliminates 2 miles. It’s closer to 1.25 miles along a fairly flat, beautiful stretch of meadow and calm mountain stream. It’s a lot flatter than the steep trail down from clicks 2. Hindsight.
And btw, now that i have stared at the maps and where we hike to….we were not even close to the headwaters of the Little Kern River. that little river goes for miles. so much to explore. the sierras are so vast. and so filled with trout.