Category Archives: Fly Fishing San Diego

West Fork San Luis Rey River – Wild Native Trout of San Diego

Barker Valley Spur Trail – April 10-11, 2021

Is there a place in San Diego County:

  • That has a healthy population of native wild rainbow trout?
  • That has nice hatches of mayflies and midges
  • That has a series of spectacularly beautiful waterfalls including one over 100 feet?
  • Is within 30 miles from my home in Carlsbad, but takes a 68 mile drive to get to the trailhead?
  • That requires a truck with 4WD and high clearance to travel the last 8 miles on non-maintained dirt road just to get to the trailhead?
  • That requires a 3.7 mile hike into a canyon before it becomes crazy-ass climbing dangerous to get to the trout?
  • That includes poison oak, snakes, ticks and leeches in the adventure?
  • Is only for the fit and fearless of heights willing to climb with hands and feet where the penalty for failure is sure death?

Yep.  The West Fork of the San Luis Rey River drains the eastern side of Palomar Mountain into Lake Henshaw.  You get to it from the Barker Valley Spur Trail.  From the hike into Barker Valley you can see the eastern side of the Palomar Observatory looking west.  Looking South you can see Lake Henshaw.  From where I live in Carlsbad, it’s only 30 miles away by “the way the crow flies”.

A typical 8″ rainbow of the west fork of the San Luis Rey. Notice the Huck Midge Perdigon hanging off his nose.

Inspired by last October’s SDFF presentation by Russ Barabe of California Fish and Wildlife on the wild trout of Southern California, SDFF club members John and Delia Cooley led me into one of the craziest most dangerously adventurous and fun fly fishing trips I have even been on.  During Russ’ presentation in the q&a section, I asked some specific questions about the wild native trout of san diego.  I was really intrigued.  The native trout of san diego are legendary.  I convinced myself I needed to check it off the bucket list.  After Russ’ presentation John reached out to me and said he’d been there…around 30 years ago.  And would love to go again.  And that he remembered it “very physically challenging.”  I also learned from John and Russ that we’d have to wait until spring when the water was flowing well.  “It’s too skinny in Fall and Winter and too hot and dry in Summer”.

The fearless threesome

So, we planned the trip on the Barker Valley Spur trail for the wild trout of San Diego for the springtime.  I had backpacked and fished with John and Delia before.  They joined me and a big group for the SDFF club trip to the forks last summer.  I got to guide Delia on that trip for the better part of one of the days.  The 3 of us had a blast.  That club trip to the Forks was less than 3 weeks before the castle fire hit and destroyed the place.  We will not be able to get into the Forks until Spring of 2022.  The western divide forest district has closed the entire mountain because of the aftermath of the fire.

For this trip, we were going to don the backpacks and do a one-nighter in the Palomar Mountain Wilderness.  John said 2 nights would be too much.  I didn’t think much of that statement at the time, but now I understand.  There is no way you would hike into where the fish are in the canyon two days in a row.  It’s too physical.  And there is no way you could do the entire thing in a single day.  It is too physical.

I still can’t believe this waterfall exists in San Diego County…. and that we made it down from up top….

John and I planned a 730AM meet up at the intersection of highway 79 and the Palomar Divide Truck Trail.  I got there a bit early to find a flock of wild turkeys.  it was 38 degrees.  I didn’t have anything but a fleece in my pack.  Hmmm…  Well, there is a sign right at the intersection we met at that said high clearance 4WD required…which I poo-poo’d at the time.  I have done a ton of 4WD in the quest for trout and rarely would I say it was actually required.  This dirt road requires 4WD.  It’s rocky, steep and not maintained.

Well, after the slow 8 miles up the dirt road, we started the hike in with packs on our backs.  Since it was only a one-nighter my pack was light (under 35 lbs; light for me, I have a lot of toys).  It was obvious the first part of this trail used to be a dirt road.  It was now single track and completely overcome by mother nature.  After a couple miles the trail turns into true single track as it descends into the barker valley.  Around that point John said, “Tim do you want to know what your mission is?”  and I quickly retorted, “To put Delia on fish.”  “Yep.” John said.

Around the 3 mile mark the trail hits the river.  When I first saw it, I thought to myself there is no way that little frog water creek supports trout.  In Montana they would not call this a river or even a stream.  They would call it a creek.  By the way that is where the trail gets dicey and is barely distinguishable.  So, as we bush-wacked “down river’ I kept saying to myself 2 things, “This can’t be right.” and “there is no way I could do this alone”.  Well, I had all my devices and I knew it was only ¾ of a mile to where we’d camp.  John said he remember camping in a meadow. and sure enough we ran right into it.  We picked the best primitive site in the area (there were only 2 choices) and set up our tents quickly.  It was well shaded by trees and close enough to the creek to make water easily.  It was mid-day now and I had no idea that the 3.7 mile hike in with 35 pounds on my back would pale in comparision to the physical effort I was yet to experience that day.

With day packs, we loaded up some food and the fishing stuff and off we went.  Within 100 yards we were climbing.  There was a weir, but it was so wild, over-grown and steep I barely noticed it before pointing it out to John and Delia.  I remember saying to myself, “I read about the weir and the trout were below it”.  I also remember the guidance from Russ and reading that the trout were below the waterfalls.  Well, we were climbing in a canyon steep granite now and everything was a waterfall.  But, it was skinny and crystal clear water.  There were no trout that I could see.  So, we kept going.  And it was slow going because we were basically climbing with all fours.  As we progressed we hit pool after pool of crystal clear water and I didn’t see any trout.  “hmmm” I said to myself.

In a place so remote you’d expect a lot of well camouflaged creatures like this one

Well, we hit a cliff and I thought that was it.  I could not see any way to descend farther.  I stared over the cliff and looked and the walls on both sides and thought, “that’s it.  there are no trout.  This is over.”  As Delia and I peered over the edge, my eye caught john wandering over to the eastern side of the cliff.  To my shock he said, “there’s the way right there.”  I peered over to what he was pointing at and under my breath said, “no f-ing way.”   But, as we scaled a small patch of granite, I could see that it wasn’t a game trail.  I also noticed freshly cut branches.  So, humans had done this recently.  It’s just likely those humans were probably 1/3rd of my age and not 15 pounds overweight.  Well, we followed what was seemingly the way for a few hundred yards past the huge cliff.  But now we were 300-400 feet above the water.  And the only way down was straight down.  But again, there were signs it had been done before.  This is where john got a bit skeptical.  He’s a big guy (tall and slender).  I’m a tiny mountain goat like guy.  So, I said, “let me see how far I can get safely.”  And I did.  Some of the first 100 feet involved climbing while holding on to granite edges and some was dirt you could get a foot hold in.  I knew this was definitely the way down and not an animal trail because a deer would never go straight down like this (not having hands to grab, a deer has to take an angle).  I shouted to John and Delia that we could do it and we did.  Although I have to admit I was dreading scaling back up that thing at the end of the day.  And I also have to admit I was a bit tenuous about a couple other climbing stretches of granite we faced on the way back.  But, we were long past committed.

Once we got down there was a giant water fall roaring that we could hear.  But, we couldn’t really see it.  so, we bushwhacked and climbed our way up stream a few hundred feet.  Honestly, I stood there shocked.  It was just beautiful.  There was a huge pool at the bottom of a 100+ foot waterfall.  I just shook my head and thought how few people would believe this waterfall actually existed in San Diego.  It was like we were in Kauai.  The pool at the bottom of the falls had to be 20 yards long and 30 yards wide.  Huge.  And my guess is that it was 20 feet at its deepest.  All fly fishermen have done well under a waterfall, so I was excited.  I said to myself, “It was an effort, but, we found it.”  But, there was no way to cast to the zone without getting in the water.  It was way too far for a roll cast.  Especially with the water coming down the falls creating a wind coming straight at us.  We unpacked the rods and rigged up.  Delia and I removed our shoes.  I was ready first so I ouch-ouch-ouched by slowly navigating over slippery sharp rocks to a bed of gravel in about 2.5 feet of water.  There was a rock that barely crested the surface so I managed to climb up it not worrying about how the hell I’d get back down without slipping and breaking my neck.  Well, I can cast.  And with my latest inventions in perdigons I was really confident in those perdigon flies under a size 12 black huck hopper.   You can read all about the value of the Perdigon style of fly tying in my article, here.

John takes credit for this picture. i still can’t believe we worked our way below this to the trout

Waiting for Delia I worked the hell out of that pool.  I roll casted into the zone on all sides of where the waterfall crashed into the pool and drifted perfectly in all directions.  And nothing.  Not a single take.  I have to admit I was a little discouraged.  All that way, through all that pain and risk to get skunked.  Delia wandered out so I hopped down and put her on the rock.  John had tied on a large hopper pattern on her rod so I thought, “what the hell. It will be easy to see.”  Well, I hung with her for 10 minutes or so.  she was roll casting and drifting just fine.  But, not getting anything to rise.  During that 10 minutes, as I re-evaluated my life, I remembered something I read.  “The trout are not in the pool at the falls.  They are in the pools below the falls.”  I told Delia I was going to check farther down stream and I’d be back.  John had climbed his way into casting from the side.  Smartly, he didn’t take off his shoes.

After wiping small leeches off my feet and ankles (that looked like tiny slugs) I put my socks and boots back on and bushwhacked my way down stream.  After about 150 feet I saw it from distance: rises.  In a pool about 200 feet away.  Lots of rises.  There were mayflies in the air too.  But I was at the head (on top) of an awesome pool with a 10 foot waterfall feeding it.  I passed it up and moved down to the pool with the rises.  As I got closer to the pool I could actually see the rainbows in crystal clear water.  There were a lot of them from 4” to 12”.  I needed to get down river from them so I could cast upstream and doing it without spooking them.  Thank God they weren’t spooky at all.  They just continued doing their thing, feeding.  I shortened my dropper because the pool was only 3 feet deep.  I pulled out line, I roll casted to the middle of the pool.  I could see my huck green caddis perdigon sink quickly on slight angle with the current.  3 fish moved in, but the biggest got their first opened his mouth and I set.  I was on.  I screamed, “Woo!”  He jumped (like wild trout do) twice before I got him to hand to quickly take a picture and release him.

“No, Delia, I have no idea how we are going to do this.”

I buttoned up my rod and went to get John and Delia.  Quickly, I rock hopped back to them.  I shouted, “I found them!”  John said, “I heard you scream.  I thought you had either caught a fish or fallen down.”   “Delia, come with me.” I said.  “John, you take the upper pool.  I’m pretty sure there are fish in there too.”

So Delia and I moved into position.  I dropped that big hopper she had on with one of my huck green caddis perdigons.  Sure enough she locked into a trout within 60 seconds.  I was hooting and hollering because I have more fun watching people like Delia catch fish than catching fish myself.  She railed 4 fish before I went to check on John.  He was doing well in his pool too.  And he was catching them on dries!  After we had put the two pools down we started exploring downstream.  One of us caught fish in every pool we fished.  I even spotted a 6” trout in current in a riffle and nailed him without even casting.  I just high-sticked him.

John caught this one on the dry

Ultimately, we got to a drop in the canyon so high and steep there was no way down, let alone down safely.  John climbed up on a rock and looked down into the abyss and I couldn’t even look at him.  It scared the hell out of me.  And if you are a male you know that feeling of your you know whats stuck up in your throat…  John explored every which way to get down because at the bottom was an epic pool.  But, there was no way.  There was no way down and no way back up.  So, we fished our way back.

At one of the middle pools, John was fishing and we could clearly see him getting refusals on a traditional nymph pattern.  I think it was a flash back size 16 hare’s ear.  I dropped my huck midge perdigon next to his in a high stick way and caught a trout.  I laughed as he said, “You have to be kidding me.”

That’s John positioned perfectly to get the good drift from the falls

But, John got the last laugh.  When we got back to the two original pools below the big falls John and Delia took the lower pool and I took john’s original pool where Delia and I fished.  I was having trouble setting and sticking the little trout that were attacking my size 12 black huck hopper.  After 15 minutes or so I had put the pool down.  So, I buttoned up to rest the pool.  John walked up and I told him I hammered the pool pretty hard so I was not getting takes anymore.  He asked if he could fish it and I, of course said yes, but I was not confident in it because I really hammered that pool with like 40 drifts.  He took a position up closer to the falls and with his right handed cast he was getting a much better drift through the zone under a tree where I saw the fish first rising.  He was fishing a size 14 royal wulf.  if that is not awesome enough, within a few casts a big fish (~ 12”) rose and “Whack!”.  John set hard downstream.  It was a beautiful set across his body and the battle was on.  the fish jumped a few times before John got him to hand and let him go.  I looked at him and said, “That is a fish to end this on.”  he agreed.

The devilishly handsome author with another lousy drift and a missed set in “John’s Pool”

Now, it was reality time.  I was already tired and sore.  the 3 of us now needed to ascend the climb out of that canyon to the free climb across the granite to the hiking and rock climbing our way back to camp.  I told myself to focus because a mistake would be disastrous for all of us.  It was a bit stressful at points.  But, we made it back to camp where I collapsed into appetizers and jack daniels I shared with john and delia.

In hindsight I know understand how those trout have survived, arguably thriving, over the years through scorching hot summers with low water conditions.  That canyon is so steep and narrow it just doesn’t get a lot of sun.  In the summer, those trout must hunker down in the deep pools waiting for the cool temps of fall and winter, then the surge in water in the spring to spawn and do it all over again.

It got cold and I swear I was asleep by 815pm.  which means wide awake at 4am the next morning.  After waiting for the sun to light up the place, I took 45 minute hike (with coffee) along the creek looking for animals before John and Delia rose.  We ate breakfast leisurely around 8am.  We packed up and hiked out agreeing to never do that again.  and totally pleased we did do it.  Bucket-Lister.