Category Archives: Johnsondale Bridge

Upper Kern River: Backpacking up river from the Johnsondale Bridge

Dates: 4-16-2021 to 4-18-2021

River Flow:

  • Friday: 380 CFS
  • Saturday: 370 CFS
  • Sunday: 360 CFS

Solunar:

  • Friday: 13%, poor
  • Saturday: 13%, poor

Hatches: SalmonFly and a variety of caddis, mayflies and midges

I am obsessed with the Upper Kern River.  I love it.  I call it my “home waters”.  If you read on this site, you know that.  I literally check the flow of the Upper Kern River above Fairview Dam (the very first dam the water sees) every day of the year.  The flow rate is a great indicator of how well it fishes.  Above Fairview Dam, The Upper Kern River fishes really well below 250 CFS, Good to 400, and then above 500 CFS it gets dicey.  And it gets dangerous.  When the river is above 350 CFS it is not crossable safely, let alone without swimming.

Well, as you’d imagine with Spring runoff coming, I have been watching the Upper kern river flow like a hawk.  I fished it right as the pandemic got bad last year at the end of April.  There is no Covid in the wilderness of the Sierras.  I read the article I wrote a year ago here and got excited about doing it again.  In the beginning of the week the river started rising significantly surely signifying the runoff had started and wouldn’t back down until June. I resigned myself to the fact that I just would miss the spring window to get in there and have to wait for the runoff to end to get in there in the summer.

Check out the red racing strip on that KR Rainbow…with my salmonfly imitation hanging out of his face

This, coupled with the the fact that Forks of the Kern Trail (and most of the area that the Western Divide Forest District Manages) will be closed until Spring of 2022 made me really bummed.  All that forest is closed as a result of last year fires.

But….  Tuesday the river started falling and continued to fall for 3 days.  On Thursday morning, April 15th the river was below 400cfs.  that is pretty much ideal for end of April.  So, I made the executive call to play hooky from work on Friday and do a 3-nighter with the backpack.  I plowed through LA, drove to the Johnsondale Bridge (JDB) on Thursday night and crashed in my truck.  I hiked in Friday morning.  It was bitter cold.  My plan was to fish hard for a couple days then hike out Sunday morning.

It was so last minute.  I’m at a stage in my life and career where I can do the last-minute thing easily.  But, not everyone has that luxury and although I asked a few of my fly fishing buddies there was no one who could pull it off so last minute so I did it alone.  It’s not the first time I have backpacked alone.  I now have many nights alone in the wilderness under by belt.  Safety wise, it’s not ideal, but I do love an occasional few nights in the wilderness to clear my head.  Yes, I carry a Garmin InReach Satellite Communicator and I pay for a plan that if I get hurt, the cavalry will come get me with a press of a button.  But, I have never used the device other than txting my buddies how awesome the fishing is… oh, and to tell my wife Kelly that I’m safe and having fun.

I was torn on my plan on where to camp / how far to hike. Last year i camped with the boys (Jason and Joey) close to what is affectionately called “teacups”.  It’s an impressive water slide / falls.  That is about 2.5 miles from the bridge.  I’m a planner so not having a specific plan on where I was going to camp is not like me.  Also, I was not that familiar with the primitive sites farther up than 2.5 miles.  I know the 8 miles of river up stream from the confluence of the Little Kern River and the North Fork of the Kern like the back of my hand.  That is where the Forks trail goes.  That confluence of the 2 rivers is ~14 miles upstream from the JDB.  But, I did not know the JDB stretch after 3 miles that well.   I remembered a decent primitive site around 4 miles that I was going to target.  I was going to make my decision based on seeing rises in the river (I did not) and how strong I was and if I could find that perfect site to guarantee seclusion.  I didn’t know it at the time but I could have guaranteed seclusion at the 3 mile mark.

Most day hikers target the teacups at 2.5 miles if not sooner.  Most non fishing hikers hike through to the rincon trail at the 4 mile mark.

Well, when I hit the sign for the Rincon Trail I was feeling really strong.  But, that is where the river trail ends.  In the back of my mind I remembered a primitive site close to the river under a tree from where I had fished last year.  When I got to it, I was not that impressed.  It was exposed in bare sand and close the trail.  Honestly, I should have stopped there and camped.  I’d guess it was about at the 4.25 mile mark.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that is the last primitive site on the river.  I also didn’t know exactly how long you could go. But, I knew there was a finite end soon.

So I pressed on. and it was nuts. I bushwhacked and rock-climbed along the river with 45 lbs on my back another full mile after the trail ended.  To river I had not seen before.

I kept going until I could go no more…solid granite walls going 200 feet high and 10 foot deep water in front of me with no way to cross the river.  There was no primitive site and I was exhausted.  My devices said I had travelled over 5 miles from my truck parked on the JDB bridge. I couldn’t go back for many reasons: it was shear hell with that backpack on just to get upstream where I was.  But, mostly because at one point I had to slide down 10 feet of polished granite saying, “I’ll worry about getting back up that thing with a backpack on in a couple days”.   Then I said to myself, “There cannot be many 59 year old’s who could do this…let alone want to.”

The American Salmonfly – with that orange head and body they are unmistakable

So I had to make a primitive site just a couple hundred feet short of where I could go no farther.  Which will be underwater in a month or so.  While I was clearing brush and willows in the river sand close to the water line where there was just enough room to put my tent up, a salmon fly crawled on my arm….what?!   then I started looking at the willows…there were salmon flies everywhere…then up in the air!   I panicked thinking, “Oh my god do I have any salmonfly patterns with me.”  I had tied a bunch about 10 years ago but I didn’t know if I had them with me.  I was possessed thinking about it while I set up my tent resigned to the fact I wasn’t going to look until I got my tent set up.  Or else I’d get too excited, start fishing, fish until dark and have to deal with setting up camp in the dark.  When I got to looking….Yes!   I had 3 salmonfly patterns.

The Salmonfly is a huge Stonefly. It lives underwater during its early life stages and is extremely sensitive to pollution. If the water has any assemblance of pollution or chemicals, the salmonfly larvae will die.  So, the sight of many salmonfly adults means the Upper Kern River and the ecosystem it supports are healthy and clean.

Once one of these monster salmonflies crawed on my arm i started seeing them everywhere.

After getting the mandatory camp stuff set up, I rigged up with a Salmonfly imitation and started fishing.  Within 5 minutes I had a 14” kern river rainbow rise up and smack it within 100 feet of camp.  I got it to hand quickly, and with a smile, realized it could be a special two days.  It was.

So, after making camp I fished my way back downriver…  I couldn’t go any farther up river.  So, I had waders and I got around the big granite slab I slid down by going in the water.  I looked on both sides not wanting to worry about it for 3 days.  About 200 feet in front of it was enough dirt to scramble above it.  with some bushwhacking about 100 yards there was a way down on the other side.  I’m not saying it was easy.  But, it was a relief knowing it could be done without getting wet.

An Interesting surprise: a brown trout in the upper section of the Kern. I just didn’t have the heart to kill him, but, i know plenty of people who would have.  He fell for a size 12 black huck hopper.

It was 2 days of dry fly fishing.  After the first day my 3 salmonfly imitations were totally chewed up, missing wings and barely floating.  They were still catching fish.  But, at that point I increased my odds and trailed them with size 12 Huck Hoppers in a double dry format. I consistently induced rises even though I only saw a couple natural rises.  For the entire 2 days I fished, there never was a need to nymph.  I pretty much got a take in every run, riffle, tail-out, pocket water and pool I through at. I was supposed to test my new Huck Perdigons and never got to it.  Why would you nymph when you can consistently fish dries?  BTW, I did meet a fly fisherman about 2 miles from where I camped that was nymphing under the bobber and he told me he had a 40 fish day; not a surprise.

This kern river rainbow ignored the chewed up salmonfly imitation with half a wing and grabbed the huck hopper

Of Interest, I even caught a couple brown trout.  They are not native and rare in that river.  I didn’t have the heart to kill them so I let them go.  But, they won’t be rare for long.  Browns always take over a river.  It’s just a matter of time.  If that river is to remain genetically pure they should be removed.

Interestingly enough, no permitting is required in this stretch of river other than a fire permit….and yea I did a camp fire.  And I did it safely.  I put some serious work into building a fire ring that would be safe.  I have never known that area to not be able to do a fire but, I bet there are times.   I was ethically ok with building that fire ring because it was so close to the river it will be completely washed away without a trace in a matter of weeks when the runoff starts.  And because….Awful, bitter cold nights.  The forecast called for 75 degree highs and 45 degree lows with 5% chance of rain….That would have been nice.  That is not what happened. On Friday night it was definitely in the 30s. This was suppsed to be my first and only backpacking trip without a calamity.  On Saturday afternoon it rained…I have a 3 ounce Columbia backpacking rain shell and at the last minute left it home saying, “5%.  There is no way.”  3 ounces… Ugghh… I was shivering wet.  And the temperature was much colder at sun down than the day prior. Thank god for that fire.  In the morning my tent, waders, boots all frozen….

That’s a decent sized Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 black huck hopper stuck in his face

I did lose the fish of a lifetime.  We always remember the ones we lose; not the ones we land… The story goes like this: For variety I casted into super deep slow moving water….i have had some epic battles with huge KR rainbows rising from the depths at the forks to grab a Huck Hopper.  Well, like in the past, up from the depths came a 2 footer.  He whacked it and I set hard.  I pulled his head out of the water with my set.  I got a good look at him and he was pissed off. The battle was on.  He raced to the depths a few times and head shook…but I had a barb on my huck hopper (yes we can do the age old argument on which is better for the fish; barbed or barbless) and I was on 3x so I was not afraid to muscle him back up to the surface each time trying to quickly land him and let him go.  I was 15 feet above the water line on a huge granite rock. As soon as I started worrying about how I was going to scramble down to land him safely by looking away at my path down to the water he shook off in the depths.  Maybe he hit a snag near the bottom.  I don’t know.  I never will.  My “lost fishes of a lifetime list” goes long now.  Sigh… 😊

The Upper Kern is a beautiful place. It was in that tail-out down stream where i lost the monster

Like every time I fish the upper kern my land to take ratio was really low.  I was way under 50% of getting the fish I hooked to my hand to let them go.  I have said this a gazillion times, but there is nothing that fights like a Kern River Rainbow.  They are just so hard to land.  They go ballistic. They just don’t give up.

When hiking in, I did meet a totally studly dad and kids, 8 and 10 years old on their way back from a week of backpacking.  Super nice people and I could not get over what great attitudes these kids had.  The 8 year old girl explained the trails they took in vivid detail.  She had long blond hair matted from a week on the trail.  I asked them where the heck they went and the dad said, “the confluence by the forks trail.”  “Wait, what?”  I had no idea you could even hike to the forks up from the JDB…The dad did say the trail disappeared and they basically bushwhacked to the river.

I have started using the Gaia app and software in tandem with my Garmin InReach.  so far i’m pretty impressed. this is my route hiking in.  notice that it took me 2 hours and 41 minutes to go just 4.94 miles.

After getting home, I looked at the maps and most of them don’t show a trail to the confluence.  Only one did.  So, there is not much of a trail there.  But, for a 14 mile hike I’d be curious to see the forks from the other side of the river this summer.  Although technically that is probably illegal.  The rincon trail which starts at the 4 mile mark of the jdb trail goes up the mountain and then northeast way far from the kern…. Which supports their story of no trail and bushwhacking.  Anyways they said the fire damage there was impressive.  They were on the opposite side of the river from the fire where the forks trail comes down at the confluence.  The south side.

My tradition of hiking in a steak for the first night. When fires are prohibited i sous vide them, then sear them in butter on my jetboil.

No one was within 2 miles of where I camped.  There were two other sets of backpackers camping close to the bridge.  I saw one young couple fly fishing way down river on Saturday.  On the hike out I saw a handful of people within 2 miles of the bridge.

The river is now rising.  The experts are saying we’ll only get to 1000 CFS this year.  In the huge years it gets close to 20,000 CFS.  Even in this 60% snowpack year, we are most likely not looking at doing this again until the july to mid November timeframe.  I’ll be dreaming of it every day until then.

 

 

Upper Kern River – Johnsondale Bridge Trail

April 3-5, 2020

A big Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 grey Huck Hopper Hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, the COVID-19 work at home thing is killing me.  let’s just say in addition to the stir crazy I was stepping all over my wife’s (of 31 years) toes.   I travel a lot in my job and have for over 20 years.  So, because i have been home full time for weeks, my lovely bride of 31 years is ready to kill me.  My wife is not used to me in her castle.

As for the stir crazy…. well, it boiled over last week for me.  Being home 24/7 for a guy that constantly travels in his job and loves talking in person to engineers… I couldn’t take it anymore.

So, I backpacked the johnsondale bridge (JBD) trail and camped for 2 nights on the upper kern.  I called the Western Divide Ranger district before going and short of verifying my 2020 CA fire permit and the social distancing advice I got, they were totally supportive.  The JDB trailhead is about 20 miles downriver of the forks trail crossing of the little Kern River above the confluence of the Little Kern River and the main fork of the Kern.   The JDB trail has a lot easier to access on right on mountain road 99 just 15 miles north of kernville.  I really wasn’t worried about social distancing on that trail.  And I was right.  I hardly saw any humans for 3 straight days.

The contrast in the JDB trail and the Forks trail is significant: The JDB trail is pretty flat with very little elevation gain or loss.  but, unlike the Forks trail which is mostly dirt, the JDB trail is a lot rockier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best thing about this trip, though, was meeting up with a couple young fly fisherman who found me through this site.   These two, Jason Headley and Joey Castellanos are over 20 years younger than I am.  And because of meeting them I am no longer convinced the generation below me is doomed and going to destroy the world because of their lack of interest and experience and knowledge of the wilderness.   Because of these two, I have hope for humanity after I’m long gone.   I’m used to teaching kids about the wilderness.  These guys taught me things!   Do you know how to identify a Jeffries Pine and that it smells like vanilla?  I do now thanks to them… and now I am motivated and have already started learning about the native pine trees of the sierra Nevada mountain range of California.  These guys joy of wilderness, and their joy of the fly-fishing experience and their positive attitudes was intoxicating.  It made me rethink the way I have taken some of the fly-fishing experience for granted.

One of the great things about the Upper Kern River is that the crystal clear water sometimes allows you to spot fish.

We txt’d on my way up so I knew they had a couple hours of start on me.  For some reason, I was skeptical I’d actually run into them while hiking.  The trail is rugged, wild and gets away from the river in spots.  But without seeing a single soul I ran into them in a primitive site right off the trail just 2.5 miles upriver.

Another Big Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 Huck Hopper hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I initiated the discussion about the virus immediately.  I’m a traveler and have been in airplanes just ~4 weeks ago.  So, with social distancing in mind we agreed to camp next to each other, but, 150 feet apart.  Clearly you cannot get close fly fishing together.  On the trail we kept the proper distance and even at the campfire we were separated appropriately.  We did the cleanse hands thing with any food we shared.

Interestingly enough, I had only backpacked and camped on the JDB trail once before.  A few years back.  It was the first time I ever backpacked alone.  And this was the exact same primitive spot.  I knew the run in front of it was a great spot to fish.  But, I didn’t want to get any expectations up with Jason and Joey because I wasn’t so sure the river would fish well so early in the season.  So, we started to set up camp, geared up and commenced to fish right in front of the site.  I hooked up on a dry fly on my 2nd cast….hmmm…  we continued to hammer the stretch of river right in front of the site and we all did well.  Hmmmm….

Joey And Jason- lifelong buddies and fly fishermen:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We leap frogged each other for the rest of the day.  I tend to move quickly….to my discredit… I’ll do about a max of 20 drifts and move.  So I got way ahead of Jason and Joey at times.  Not a problem.  I just didn’t want to worry them.  We did well that first day.  By the end of the day I reflected that I fished dry flies all day long.  There never was a reason to switch to nymphing.  There were bugs and rises all day long.  Caddis first, then a pretty epic mayfly hatch.  Midges were around all day.  There were scattered huge (like size 14) mayflies that appeared to be drakes.  Those Kern River rainbows really keyed on them.  I did not have anything to match that big bug and it really didn’t matter.  My hook to land ratio at the end of the day was pretty bad.   In the Upper Kern I am happy with a 50/50.  That was not the case this day.  I hooked a lot of fish.  I only landed very few.  Tiny barbless dries and those native and wild Kern River rainbows are just a bad combo for landing even for the experienced.  No big deal with me.  I want them to shake off at my feet and not have to touch them anyways.

Icicles do not make for a pleasurable “sun shower”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, we got back to camp by nightfall, and it got cold quickly.  The campfire helped. We feasted on fresh food.  I hiked in a pork steak and they had a deer tenderloin.  After eating plus of few sips of JD, I was exhausted so I hit the sleeping bag early like usual.  I woke up a number of times during the night like usual.  My broken down old body just doesn’t relieve me of pain when I sleep on the ground.  So, I knew it got cold.  I just didn’t realize how cold. In the morning there were icicles on my sun shower.

This huge frog was sitting in pocket water. it’s hard to imagine it surviving the winter in that cold water while at the same time surviving brown trout attacks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2, Saturday.  This was going to be a big day.  A full day of fishing.  I suggested to the guys that we hike to where we stopped fishing the day before and start fishing up stream from there.  They loved that idea.

By the end of the day we made it so far…so many miles upriver….to places I have never been before.  In staring at what my Garmin InReach 66i tracked me doing it looks like we made is almost 6 miles upriver from the JDB.  Amazingly beautiful stretches of river.  What is tantalizing is that the trail goes 11 miles.

Who knew?!  the Huck Hopper still got a ton of takes even though in April we are months away from the grasshoppers appearing

We all caught fish all day long and I mostly fished dries.  It was a great day.  Very physical.  25,000+ steps; many of which were climbing or fighting current.  We ate and the guys hiked out at sundown.  I was on my own now.  After warming up to the fire I put it out, then hit the sack early.  It didn’t seem as cold.  At 2am I figured out why.  It started raining.  There’s nothing worse than camping in the rain.  By the time I got out of the sack in the morning it was still drizzling.  This put the kabosh on another day of fishing.  I just wasn’t up for 40 degrees and raining knowing that would have squashed the hatches.  Still happy, I packed up camp first thing in the morning and hiked out in the light rain.  Then drove home, plowing through LA with zero traffic because of covid-19 and everyone working at home.

Hey, Jason took a picture of me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have written many times before that there are always calamities in backpacking.  And that backpacking is about managing calamities.  Well, I had my share this time.

Calamities:

  1. When I put my 6 weight Winston b2X together the lower section folded in half, broken. It wasn’t from the backpack in.  that is for sure.  My guess is TSA broke another one of my rods.  It’s not the first time it has happened.  They see the graphite in the metal detector and take the rod out of it’s sheath and case.  And they never put them back correctly.  I was in montana fishing just 3 weeks prior and that is undoubtedly what happened.  Unfortunately, Winston, although they make awesome rods, is not one of those fly fishing companies with awesome customer service nor warranties.  It costs $150 to fix that rod.  New ones list at $900 so it’s a tough choice to get it fixed.  It’s not the first time I have broken that rod.
  2. My garmin inReach 66i failed again… I didn’t send messages. It has not worked right ever since I purchased it 6 months ago.  It’s a drag because my delorme inReach worked for about 10 years flawlessly.  It still does.  I have been through 3 bouts of technical support with garmin.  It sure looks like the device itself is the issue.  I sure hope I can talk their tech support into replacing the device; even if I do have to pay a fee.  Because many times already I have stress out my wife, kids and friends telling them they can communicate with me while in the wilderness and I’m dead silent in return because the device has never worked well.
  3. My truck was broken into while I was in the wilderness. Right in the Johnsondale Bridge parking lot.   That is a real bummer.  The stretch of river from Kernville to a few miles out of town is well known for car break ins.  Like many small mountain towns, Kernville has its drug related issues too.  The bad guys pulled the back window on the shell of my truck, locked, hard enough to where it bent and popped open.  I have had bears do that twice to me (hilarious stories in themselves), but never by humans.  Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the back of the truck.  They stole my arctic 7 day cooler. It’s a yeti knockoff; but still expensive.  The cooler had 2 Coors lights in it.  They also stole an empty fly rod tube.  There was no damage to my truck.  So, the loss was minimal.  It just kinda’ sucks….honestly makes me feel badly for people who feel the desperate need to do things like that.

Jason in release

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When all was said and done, I did not see another fly fisherman other than Jason and Joey the entire time Friday to Sunday.   I did run into a couple really cranky old guy spin fisherman on a day hike.  It was 30 minutes later when I found out why.  As I waded up stream I ran into a huge kern river rainbow resting on the bank in 3 inches of water.  He had a huge mepps lure with the treble hook hanging out of the side of his face.  I sure wish he would have let me pull that out of his face.  Even with those barbs, that hook will disintegrate after a few days and work it’s way free.

Jason in battle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t excellent or great fishing, but it was good.  I fished dry 90 percent of the time and hooked a lot of fish.  When I did switch to nymphing, twice, I immediately stopped because the rises started again.  I tried a streamer once for 10 minutes in a deep pool and failed.  I switched back to dries and had success in the very same pool.  There were really good mayfly hatches in the afternoons; midges all day.   Even 7am rises.  Really fun.  I will now plan at least one trip up the JDB trail each spring before runoff forever.  The key is hiking in as far as possible up stream.  The River has already started its runoff period so my next chance in there will be on the forks trail mid-summer when it gets back under 500 CFS.

Here is the current river conditions as of this writing (April, 2020):

https://www.dreamflows.com/graphs/yir.681.php

Notice how the river is way way under the beginning of runoff even in the drought years.   Since we had a normal snowpack year that tells me we are going to get a herculean jump in river flow in May which will provide very dangerous conditions.  They call it the Killer Kern for a reason.  I always wonder if the river can get to 20,000 CFS putting the bridge in Kernville in jeopardy.  I’ll be watching that river like a hawk…and dreaming of getting back in there in the summer.