Category Archives: Fall Fly Fishing

Upper Kern River End of Season 2021 Fly Fishing Report

BlackRock Trail Head -> Jordan Hot Springs -> Painters Camp

11/12/21 to 11/15/21

Mark Huckaby with just another huge Kern River Rainbow. Notice the fall colors in the background

Intro Summary

My 26 year old son Mark (the fly fishing guide from Bozeman, MT) and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in 2 days.  It was ridiculously good fishing for the wild and native Kern River Rainbow.  I mostly fished dry/dropper with a Huck Hopper on top and Huck perdigons dropped below.  The backpacking hike in and out was not easy; in fact, it was a real challenge.

The Hike

I was “jonesing” to get a backpacking fly fishing trip in before the fishing season closed on 11/15.  With most of the forests that encompass the Upper Kern River closed, it was a real challenge to figure out how to get to the Upper Kern River.  I did hike all the way back from the forks to the Johnsondale bridge in the summer with my buddy Marty Jansen…and that was awful.  The Rincon trail is a motorcycle trail which makes it awful.  Well, sure enough Marty talked me into hiking to the Upper Kern River with 45 pounds on my back…. From the east side… the 395 side.  This time from the Blackrock Trailhead.  We were joined by fellow SDFF member and buddy Bruce Bechard and my 26 year old son, Mark, who is a fly fishing guide at my two favorite lodges in Montana: The Clark Fork Outpost and the Stillwater River Outpost.

From Left to Right: Mark Huckaby, Bruce Bechard and Marty Jansen….all smiling still because it’s the beginning of the hike down.

For over 20 years I have had a dream to access the Upper Kern River from the Eastern Side of the Sierras.  The problem is that access is just brutal.  For the first decade I hike it, I always thought backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail was difficult.  I know now it is not.  The Blackrock Trail is difficult. I never knew how spoiled I was by the Forks of the Kern Trail until I tried accessing the Kern River miles above the Forks.  From the Forks trail I had never made it all the way up river to painters camp.  it’s a challenge just to make it to the first up river bridge crossing from the Forks, which I have fished to many times.

Well, the Blackrock Trail goes to Painters Camp on the Upper Kern River.  It’s only 8.8 miles… which doesn’t sound that bad at all.  But, it starts at 9,000 feet of elevation and you lose 3,800 feet doing it.  We did the entire 8.8 miles with 3800 feet in one hike.  Never again.  Not that the hike in was easy.  It’s steep and I had 45 pounds on my back.  but, it was sheer agony on the hike out: 6.5 hours of misery.  The altitude and steepness was one thing.  But, doing it in November meant many parts of the trail were iced over or snow covered.  Bruce went down 3 times…and it was so slippery he had trouble getting back up.

From the Blackrock Trailhead you hike to Casa Vieja Meadow.  From there you hike steeply downhill to  Jordan hot springs in a canyon that follows 9 mile creek.  And from Jordan Hot Springs it’s a brutal downhill single track, through canyons and miles of fire damage that make it look like the moon down to the river.  In hindsight we should have broken the trip out into 2 days.

Was that hike worth it?…

The fishing

I’m not a counter, but my son Mark is.  That is what guides do for their clients.  That is how I know Mark and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in two days. The fishing…my god… It was stupid good fishing.  Most of the time, I fished a large Huck Hopper on top and trailed them with Huck Perdigons.  And yes, I did catch most of the fish on the Huck Perdigons.   I’d guess 75% of the fish i caught were on the Huck Midge Perdigon, size 16.  But, it was November and I did catch a number of fish on size 4 Huck Hoppers.  Where else in the western hemisphere can you consistently catch fish in mid-November on huge hoppers?  During the witching hour as the sun went down i fished size 18 BWOs right in front of camp.  And did well.  At that time of year, other than the midge, the Blue Winged Olive Mayfly would be the only hatch on the Upper Kern.  There were plenty of double hook-ups on this trip and Bruce even caught 2 at once!

And yes, we did pack waders and wading boots into our backpacks…worth every ounce at this time of year.  Understand 150 means fish landed.  The Kern River Rainbow is wild and native.  I have written this many times: The Kern River Rainbow fights like hell and they just don’t give up.  I cannot tell you how many fish I hooked, but failed to land….which is normal for that river.

Does this stretch look like dry fly paradise or what?! just upstream from camp i caught a 19″ KRR just about 200 feet upstream from Mark

The reason?  Well, I have my speculations that I will share with you:

  1. These fish have not seen an artificial fly in a year and a half and most won’t for over 2 years. The fire closures just have made it really hard for “normal humans” to get into the upper kern to fish.
  2. I have now fly fished 4 end of season (11/15) closings on the Upper Kern River. And I have killed every time.  I believe the trout just know that winter is coming and the food supply is about to grind to a halt so they go nuts feeding in anticipation of a long miserable winter.
  3. The River is always low in November. It’s crossable and there just are not many places the fish can hide from a good cast with a good drift.
  4. I think it’s also interesting to note that this part of the river is in a steep canyon which makes the days at this time of year super short. We didn’t see the sun until after 8am and lost it around 2:30 pm.  Fishing NOT in direct sunlight could help.
  5. A winter spawn? There are rainbows that spawn in the winter…like the Steelhead.  But, Kern River Rainbows are Spring Spawners.  Some of the fish we were catching looked like spawning males because of the colors.  They were dark and colorful not like the chromers we catch in the summer and fall.  Lately I challenge myself to see how quickly I can hook a trout, get it to hand and release it.  I wish I would have taken more pictures.  I also noticed what I thought were spawning behaviors.  I caught one decent sized fish and a huge fish followed it in.  that is normal, of course.  But, what wasn’t normal was this 2 footer was nuzzling next to my hooked fish side to side like a male trout lines up next to a female on a redd. I watched this behavior 3 times before I released my fish.

Notice a few things in the video above.  Firstly, the colors of the rainbow i have hooked.  then look closely at the huge 2 foot+ rainbow following it.  normally i wouldn’t have played that fish so long in front of me.  But, i was fascinated by the behavior as if they were in spawning mode.

My favorite stories from the trip:

  • On the first day Mark and I fished up river from where we camped. Bruce and Marty fished downriver to Marty’s favorite runs at Kern Flats.  Well, within a couple miles of fishing Mark and I wandered into the series of Waterfalls we had heard about.  We had already done really well.  Hiking above the first waterfall was pretty easy on the eastern side.  I watched and took pictures as Mark nailed some nice fish “between the falls”.  But, for the life of me I cannot figure out how fish got into that pool.  It’s well documented that waterfalls are natural barriers that prevent fish from moving up and down river.  And somehow they figure out how to do it. But, it was after 2:30PM and the sun was already behind the canyon walls.  I stared at that huge waterfall trying to figure out how to get around it for the next days’ adventure.  We decided we’d scale it from the west side because there was a huge bolder scree on the east side that looked impenetrable – big mistake.
  • Well, Marty joined Mark and I on the next day. The plan was to hike all the way to the falls and scale it, and start fishing from above.  It took an hour to scale that mountain and it was quite physical and relatively dangerous in spots.  After fishing, we took the trail on the way back to camp.  The trail goes way away from the river and up and over the mountain, but it was easier than the way we climbed in.  But, in between, my God the fishing was good.  Mark and I approached a run that was shaded by trees on both sides.  Like normal I said, “Do you want the head or the tail?”  He took the head.  Within seconds he was battling a big fish.  That big fish is the first picture in this article.  Well, I moved into the river below him where I could cast straight up stream into the run.  I caught a couple quickly.  Mark moved on up river on the assumption that big fish put the pool down.  I told you I’m not a counter but, this run was so prolific I counted…because I caught a fish on almost every cast.  At 14 landed and 2 LDR’d I laughed, left and caught up with Mark.

Fly Fishing the Upper Kern River is not for the faint of heart. There was no river trail in most of the areas we fished.

Sidebar from Mark Huckaby 

“On the way down the mountain I knew nymphing was going to be our best option not only because the time of the season.  But also because the introduction of the perdigon to the fly fishing industry has everyone confident in fishing the winter months (at least that is the case in Montana). Because my dad refuses to nymph and always starts with a dry fly.  When we got to camp he started fishing dry and alas, fish were rising. The next few days we were lucky enough to experience some of the best dry fly fishing I’ve ever experienced in November. The type of fishing where your hands start hurting because you’re catching so many fish. If you’re like me and like to switch it up. I recommend tossing a streamer in the big pools we found. A green, brown, or yellow wooly bugger seemed to do the trick and it was awesome to get chased by the native Kern River rainbows. It seemed like every time you casted into those pools a bunch of little fish would swim right up to check it out. The waterfall created many big deep pools for me to attack; perfect for streamers. To get the big fish, cast up into the white water, let your bugger sink very close to the bottom and strip back quickly.”

Here’s Mark changing out streamers beneath a small waterfall

Summary

Would I do this again?  Was it worth that awful hike out?  absolutely yes.  I’d do almost anything for that type of success in fly fishing for wild natives. But, next time I’ll break up that hike out into two days with an overnight at Jordon hot springs.  And even then that hike from Jordon Hot Springs to the trailhead is pretty gruesome.  Also 3 nights with only 2 fishing days for that amount of hike is too short.  It should be at least a 4 nighter.  Adding that night hiking out makes it a 5 nighter.

Here’s Mark battling just above “Marty’s Hole”. i swear i watched Marty yank 10+ fish out of that hole.

Special thanks to “Steve Ojai”, aka Steve Schalla, aka owner of www.flyfishingthesierra.com for the help on how to pull this backpacking trip off.  Steve was so kind to provide much of the guidance we needed.  Steve has fished this part of the river many times.  We used Steve’s map of the area religiously on this trip.  After the trip I talked to Steve in email.  He speculated the spawning behaviors and colors may have been confused trout as a result of the sudden drop in river temperature.

Upper Kings River – Yucca Point Trail

Nov 5-7, 2020

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

Quick Stats:

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

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

How it Went Down

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foul Weather

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

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

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

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

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

Setting Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Yucca Point Trail – Sequoia National Forest

October 15-17, 2020

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

Forks of the Kern Status

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

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

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

Forks Alternative

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

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

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

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

Fishing Report

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

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

The 3 dozen Mercer’s Missing Links i tied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adventure

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

The view down to the confluence from the Yucca Point Trailhead

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

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

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

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

Surprises / Fun Facts / Stories:

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

you can’t miss this sign on hwy 180