Category Archives: Huck Bow Warrior

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

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

Pushing the Boundaries of Safety a little too far….

Check out the racing stripe on this bad boy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

Hiking alone in the dark

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gear Review

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s up with the Coyote?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The best nymphing on the Upper Kern Ever

 

Another big Kern River Rainbow let go at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guidance: Fish the other side of the river

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Two

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

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

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

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

Sunday – the hike out

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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