Category Archives: Mike Hillygus

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

March in Montana

Montana, March 7-9, 2020

 

I used an excuse to pick up some fly-fishing equipment I had ordered to go visit my son Mark in Montana. When I saw the long weekend airplane flight of $250 I grabbed it.   The plan was to fly into Bozeman. Fish DIY with my son and his buddies, then make the drive to the Clark Fork River Outpost to fish with my buddy Mike Hillygus. Then fly home from Missoula.

March 6th To get the cheap airfare I had to fly out of Ontario International airport. It’s an awesome little airport, but 90 minutes from where I live in Carlsbad. Well, I got to Denver just fine, but my incoming plan was delayed 6 hours out of Newark. So, I had to spend the day in the Denver Airport and missed the opportunity to fish the Gallatin with my son. He worked that night, but I did get to take his roommates out for dinner at Montana Ale Works (my favorite restaurant in Bozeman).

Mark Huckaby with a big rainbow in spawning colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 7th With Mark on 3 hours of sleep because of work, we were joined by Mark’s Roommates: Burnsie, Bovoso, Jacob & Carter. And we were joined by legendary Cuban Fishing Guide, William, who is credited as one of the 2 guys that invented the Avalon Permit fly. We headed East on the 90 toward Livingston. then we followed the Yellowstone River South, upriver, towards the park and into the Paradise Valley. We had rod reservations at the Spring Creek at Armstong’s ranch (directly upstream from Dupuy’s). I love fishing the spring creeks of the Yellowstone River and if you catch the timing right, it can be epic. The boys got a 30-minute jump on me because I had a couple conference calls. By the time I caught up with them I expected them to be doing well and they were not. I fished dries mostly all day with a little nymphing and streamers mixed in. I didn’t catch a lot of fish and certainly nothing worthy of a trophy shot, but I did get to fish with Mark alone for a stretch and he nailed a beautiful male rainbow staging himself for the spawn. It was a fun day, of course. The sun was out and weather was in the 50s so totally comfortable. But the wind just killed us. We had sushi together that night and, exhausted, turned in as early as possible.

Mark Huckaby in Battle on the Armstrong Spring Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 8th In order to get a full day’s float in Mark and I had to leave his house at 6:30AM. As nice as the day was the day before it was not this day. After my alarm went off I peaked outside to find it snowing with 4” already on the ground. Well, I scraped all the snow off Mark’s little Honda Civic and he slept while I drove. When I got on the 90 heading west towards Missoula it was a bit hairy. To be safe I was going 45 in an 80. It didn’t get safe from weather until I crossed over the Continental Divide. On the other side of the continental divide it was sunny, dry, but really cold.   Mike Hillygus of the Clark Fork Outpost (CFO) met us at the Missoula airport where we stashed my son Mark’s car. We hopped in Mike’s Suburban towing his drift boat and off we went headed north-West, following the north flowing Clark Fork River to the town of Saint Regis and then another ~5 miles into the wilderness to the lodge. It’s about an 1:15 drive to Mike’s Lodge. We launched the drift boat right from the Lodge and did my favorite float of the area. I have done that float so many times now I feel like I could guide it. I pretty much knew from memory all the “fishy” spots, the big foam patches in the eddies, etc. What I cannot do is row the rapid that is in that float. That rapid is a pros only deal. We caught fish nymphing and on dries. It wasn’t crazy good, but it really shouldn’t be in March. It was, however, snowing; bitter cold at points. The biggest excitement of the day wasn’t the big west slope cuttroat I nailed on a dry feeding in the foam. It was cruising by a large herd of rocky mountain sheep that just stared us down. Mike said we were super lucky to see them. This the same float we ran into a bear cub in a tree a few years back. It’s in the middle of the wilderness. No cell phone signal. Super fun day spent with my son and my good friend Mike at the oars. We hit the closest restaurant, Quinn’s at the hot spring resort and had a great time.

Herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

 

 

March 9thWell, between several conference calls I had to do and Mark simply catching up on sleep we got a late start. And that was a good thing. With overnight temps in the teens there was no reason to rush out to a cold river. In Fact, when the sun came up there was fog on the river because the river temp was much higher than the air temp. We put in up stream and did another fun float I love to the town of Saint Regis. It is there that the Saint Regis river enters the Clark Fork. That confluence of the Rivers has always produced in all times of year, so we had that to look forward to in ending it. For the first time ever…and I have fished this river a lot over the last many years… it was slow. We couldn’t get anything to move in all the spots that usually produce. We tried several tactics from dries to nymphing to streamers. Nothing was rising and we were not fooling any trout; not even nymphing. Then to top it off the sun disappeared, it snowed lightly, and the wind was howling. It’s undoubtedly that drop in the barometer that caused the fishing to slow down. They have a saying in Montana: “It’s Montana”. That means you never know what you are going to get from the weather. The forecast said sunny in the high 50s. I have to admit it did cross my mind that even at the confluence we were not going to do well and it simply would be my first poor fishing day ever on the Clark Fork river. Oh was I wrong. Right before the confluence we pulled over to the side and Mike rigged Mark and I up both with fresh nymphing set ups. As we pulled up to the confluence, I got a tug, then lost the fish to a head shake. 10 seconds later I hooked up with a big fish that we landed, pictured and released. Mike pulled across the confluence so we could fish the run (the mix of the two rivers) from the inside. That is when it started to get nuts. For the first hour at the confluence, we basically did laps in that run with Mike back-rowing so we could fish it over and over. Mark caught so many big fish (West Slope Cutthroats, Cut-bows, and Rainbows) that he lost count quickly. From the back of the boat I was railing fish too; big fish. Then, for the 2nd hour we basically anchored, caught a group of big fish, moved the boat 20 feet downriver and did it again. All in all, I bet Mark landed ~15-20 fish over 16” in ~2 hours. It was absolutely nuts. I learned later from Mike is that all those big trout were simply staging. They were waiting for the Saint Regis to get big enough so that they could swim up and spawn. Which totally explains the spawning colors of many of the males we caught and released. Epic Day.

After hitting Quinns again (which honestly if Mike is not cooking; he is formally trained, is the only decent restaurant for miles) we tried to hit the sack early but, between cocktails and packing and the excitement of the day….well, lets just say the alarm at 345am was brutal. And now I’m on the trip home already in the reality of work and wishing I was in Montana with my youngest, Mark Huckaby, who has turned out to be an outstanding fly fisherman. Epic trip.

If you want to:

  • fish the middle of the Montana wilderness guided by the best
  • catch and release a bunch of wild trout from the comfort of a drift boat
  • Stay at lodge that is a fraction of the price of the “normal” high end lodges of Missoula and Bozeman

Then contact my buddy Mike Hillygus at: http://stillwaterriveroutpost.com/ or 406.721.2703.

 

Bialka River, Poland – May 31st, 2016

I sure am glad that one of InterKnowlogy’s most brilliant engineers, Szymon Kobalczyk insisted we fly fish in his beautiful country of Poland, because it was a total blast; so much more fun than I thought it would be.

Tim & Szymon on the Bialka River, Poland

The Białka River is in the Tatras mountains and runs through southern Poland. It is a tributary of the Dunajec River, which is a European famous fly fishing river. The Białka is only about 25 miles long. The source of the river is in the High Tatras.  It is fed by the Jezioro Czorsztynski Reservior (I have no idea how to say that in English).  I have seen a lot of rivers in Europe.  I have fished a few.  And we American fly fisherman typically have a stereotype of Europe and how they have dammed, fished out and poached their lakes and rivers.  And that is certainly true in many parts of Europe, but not on the Bialka.  What I found on the Bialka River was an extremely healthy mountain river supplied by snow-melt; an abundance of runs, riffles and pocket water and everything that makes a great fly fishing river, including a huge population of brown trout.  The Bialke even has closed spawning sections and fly fishing only sections.

Looking upstream of the protected spawning area of the Bialka

Looking upstream of the protected spawning area of the Bialka

Technically it was a little 3 day long weekend vacation for Kelly and I at the end of a business trip to Europe.  Kelly has never been to Krakow and it’s one of my favorite cities in Europe.  It’s an awesome city; Great food and great people.  And if you are into history, well, it’s where the Schindler Factory is, which is now a WWII museum.  It’s also where Szymon lives with his family.

Catch and Release Sign on the Bialka River in Poland

Catch and Release Sign on the Bialka River in Poland

Szymon told me he had arranged a guide.  I traded emails with the outfitter (guide cc’d) scraping for info, but couldn’t get the guide to reply.  I wasn’t worried.  I just wanted to set expectations that I wanted the guide to spend all his time with Szymon because it was Szymon’s first time fly fishing.  All I really need these days it to be lead to the river.  If I’m told what to throw and I don’t have to figure that out, all the better.

Szymon and Shemek pointing out where we are on the map

Szymon and Shemek pointing out where we are on the map

Well, it was a long drive to the Tatras mountains of Poland that border Slovakia.  And when we pulled up on the guides house I was really excited.  The guides name was Przemysław Półtorak (nickname pronounced “Shemek”) and his outfitter is Sebastian Kalkowski from www.guidedfishing.pl.  I knew Sebastian spoke beautiful English from the many email responses I got from him from all my questions.  But, thank God I had Szymon with me because it was immediately obvious “Shemek” spoke very little English.  Of course it’s fly fishing so really how much talking do you really need to do?  Shemek is a 24 year old fly fishing nut.  I love that.  in broken English he told me he had been fly fishing the river since he was 8.

That's me trying my best to Czech nymph from my knees with an 8'6" 3 wt.

That’s me trying my best to Czech nymph from my knees with an 8’6″ 3 wt.

In Shemek’s back yard with wadered up and rigged up.  Shemek offered me a 12’ Czech nymping rod and my heart sunk a bit.  There is nothing wrong with Czech nymphing, which I call “raking the river”.  It just doesn’t suit my constant need to move and to cast.  In Czech nymphing you fling a heavily weighted nymph 45 degrees up stream about 10-15 feet in front of you and “high stick” it, bouncing the nymph along the bottom.  And to do it right you do it 2” at a time covering every inch of the river.  My personality can’t deal with that.  I love the big cast and I love the hike I get out of wading the river for miles.  Well, I politely told “Shemek” no thanks to the rod.  I had a my 8’6” TFO BVK 3 weight with me and since I was comfortable landing 20”+ montana brownies on that rod, I was sure it was enough for this river.  But, Shemek rigged my 3 wt for check nymping…sigh… I politely said thanks and we headed out to the river…well, what I thought was the river.  A raging 20 foot wide creek that looked more like an overflow channel was accessible from the back gate of Shemek’s yard.  At first I thought there is no way we can fish this thing.  it’s overgrown and absolutely raging.  Then as we walked downriver we reached a pool that was one of Shemek’s favorites.  Actually the water was perfect for Czech nymphing.  At the time I thought we were on the Bialke River.  But, we weren’t. we are on a diverted irrigation canal.  Well, I hooked a handful of small trout on the swing, but weren’t able to pull them back up river.  That was a good sign though.  because we moved to another part of the canal and quickly I had landed my first small Polish brown trout.  And I was still nymphing, Czech style, on an 8’6” 3 wt.  it was testing my nymphing skills, or more correctly stated, my lack of nymphing skills. I had moved about 100 feet away from Szymon and Shemek and it wasn’t long before Szymon ran to me holding a nice 14” brown trout in his hands.  That pleased me intensely.  I have fished with so many beginners that get skunked their first time out.  So, obviously “Shemek” was a good guide and knew where the fish were.  But, we were still fishing in the canal.  And then I saw it…through the trees.. the Bialka.  “So we were fishing an overflow canal.”, I said to myself.  And what I saw in the distance was a beautiful river.  I was really excited now.  It was also just after seeing the river for the first time that I saw it… a rise.

Another beautiful brown from the Bialka

Another beautiful brown from the Bialka

I pointed out the rise to “Shemek”.  He nodded in pride.  And that was my “in” to be polite about changing myself out to a dry fly.  I really wanted to test my buddy Mike Hillygus’s theory that a bullet head skwalla will work anywhere; any time.  Cutting to the chase, it wasn’t long before I texted Mike right from the Bialka River: “Guess what fly works in Poland? J” Of course I was 10 hours ahead of him so that txt woke him up at 3am.

That's me battling a nice brown i fooled on top with a bullet head skwalla on my TFO BVK 3 wt.

That’s me battling a nice brown i fooled on top with a bullet head skwalla on my TFO BVK 3 wt.

So, I ended up catching a bunch of fish.  And Szymon, a first timer caught fish too.  I dropped the Bullet head skwalla with a rainbow warrior I tied because the water clarity was pretty good.  And that fly killed.  Especially on the swing.  But, it was the fish I caught on dries that were so fun.  At one point I was hooting and hollering, “This is so fun!”  Shemek was proud.

Szymon battling a nice brown

Szymon battling a nice brown

The Bialka is a river that can be fished effectively by any above average fly fisherman.  The hard part is finding the access points.  If you are interested on how to pull this off, email me.

I would love to go back there and spend a couple full days fishing the main river up stream, skipping the flood channels and canals completely.  And some day, probably next spring, I will.

The Bialka River, so fun....

The Bialka River, so fun….

if interested contact details:

Przemysław Półtorak

+48512619452

Email: gorskierzeki@gmail.com

www.gorskierzeki.pl

I have now decided I’m moving to Missoula.  And someone needs to tell Kelly because I’m afraid to.  🙂  What an awesome 3 days I had on the Clark Fork River.

The West Slope Cutthroat

The West Slope Cutthroat

The Clark Fork Outpost

Honestly the reason my 3 days were so awesome was because of Mike Hillygus.  I met Mike for the first time on this trip.  I had an incredible 3 days of fishing with Mike.  The funny thing was that the weather was just miserable.  Cold, Windy, Raining and Snowing.  Why is the fly fishing always so good when it’s snowing sideways?  We did get sun at points.  It is Montana, of course.  And in Montana the weather changes by the minute.

TimHuck

I stayed with Mike and his two dogs, Bell and Cru, at Mike’s lodge, the “Clark Fork Outpost”.  Mike’s lodge is right on the Clark Fork River.  It’s about 80 miles downriver (Northwest) from Missoula.  More specifically it’s in the stretch of the Clark Fork River that does not parallel I90.  The closest town is St. Regis, MT.

The Clark Fork Outpost

The Clark Fork Outpost

I flew in to Missoula late on Saturday night.  I offered to rent a car and drive it out to the Clark Fork Lodge, but Mike wouldn’t have anything to do with that: “You’ll just hit a deer and ruin the trip.”  That is how Montana people view Southern Californians, as cullers of big game with rental vehicles.  🙂

Well, Mike and I hit it off right away.  Because he’s a genuinely great guy and like me, loves to tell stories.  And before I knew it, I had refilled my glass with Buffalo Trace and it was after 12AM.  And we had a big day in the morning.

I heard the dogs around 6am… and I was a bit crusty.  It was my first real day of fishing on the west side of the Rockies.  I have fished the “Bozeman side” of the rockies in Montana many times.  But, for some reason I never had the opportunity to fish the “Missoula Side” of Montana.  I can check that off my list now.  Now the real issue is that I cannot wait to get back in September.

St. Regis, MT

St. Regis, MT

The Food

So after a couple cups of coffee, I’m thinking of eating a power bar that I brought.  But, Mike had different intentions: a smoked salmon basil scramble with a thick cut ham steak.  Oh man….  A lot of guys maintain they are good cooks…and are not.  Really the only thing I am good at is grilling.  But, a buddy of mine told me Mike was a good cook and Mike said the food was going to be good.  I had no idea.  I didn’t come back from the trip skinnier like Kelly wanted me to.  That night was a salmon dinner.  I’m not a big salmon fan, but there was something he did to it that made it awesome.  I wish I knew.  The other breakfast featured a ham frittata and another gourmet scramble.  The 2nd dinner was a rib eye… but, not just any rib eye it was custom rolled from the outside “marbley” part.  Unbelievable.  I learned on the trip that Mike went to Culinary school and served as a chef before guiding and ultimately becoming an Outfitter.  I have been to a number of lodges that claim to have gourmet level food.  They do not as compared to Mike.  He’s in a class by himself.

Rolled Ribeye

Rolled Ribeye

The Dogs

Now, I’m not a dog guy…. Anyone who knows me knows that.  I loved our dog Dontee.  Not as much as Kelly, but she trained her so well you couldn’t help but like it.  And she was smart.  Dontee was Kelly’s dog.  Mike’s dogs are English Labs.  They are bird dogs.  But so calm and so loving.  I just couldn’t resist petting them.  And they are fishing dogs.  They road in the drift boat with us.  And not even a peep from them.  But, Belle sure does love sniffing and sometimes licking the trout when you catch them.

Huck with Belle and Cru

Huck with Belle and Cru

The Fishing

On Sunday the first day, we dropped into the river in Mike’s drift boat around 10:30AM….and didn’t come off the river until 7:30PM.  I landed 7 0r 8 and hooked and missed about double that.   But, it was the dry fly action that was so fun.  When we saw rises Mike had me throwing a Skwalla imitation called a Bullethead Skwalla – Tan Wing, Size  12 from Montana Fly Company.  A Skwalla is a big ass bug in the wild and throwing that big a dry made it easy to see in the water.  And I was throwing my new TFO BVK 3 wt again.  I’m in love with that rod.  I caught my first west slope cutthroat on this day.  What a treat that was.

Cutt-Bow

Cutt-Bow

The 2nd day we got out a little earlier and floated a little shorter stretch of the river.  The weather was just horrible.  I was so cold at points my hands were numb.  I had snow blowing in my face.  And the fishing was awesome.   I landed somewhere between a dozen and twenty and missed about 15.  I caught some quality fish.

Mike letting Belle have a sniff

Mike letting Belle have a sniff

My Favorite Moment #1

My favorite moment #1 was on this 2nd day.  Mike and I were hunting rises.  And doing really well.  It was crazy fun.  Is there anything more fun in fly fishing than casting at a rising fish with a dry?  Well, yea, it’s doing that at the West Slope Cutthroat.  I’m used to those vicious attacks by the browns and rainbows of the west where they scare the crap out of you as you set as quickly as you can.  But, there is something about the West Slope Cutthroat that makes it so slow.  It went down like this: Mike, “Did you see that?” as a fish rose 40 feet ahead and 45 degrees up downriver from me.  Tim, “On it.”  So, I casted…and it landed it well enough, just a few feet from the fish in slow glassy water.  The Skwalla pattern drifted right over him as the boat caught up.  Now we were staring directly to the port side of the boat just 15 feet out.  And like it was in slow motion up from the depths comes a big ass west slope cutty; just taking his time as he gulped my fly.  It was like it was in slow motion.  I set and boom!  The fight was on.  I was screaming, “Did you see that?!  That was awesome!  Woo!”

Another Big Cutt-Bow

Another Big Cutt-Bow

The last day I fished half day guided by one of Mike’s Guides named Sam.  I think Sam is a new guide for Mike.  I didn’t get details or even his last name, but I can’t wait to fish with him again.  We only floated 3-4 hours.  The weather was miserable.  At times it was even colder than the prior day.   I landed 5 or 6, but, they were mostly big fish, and only missed 2 or 3.

My Favorite Moment #2

Big Clark Fork Rainbow

Big Clark Fork Rainbow

Sam pulled us into an Eddy where I was drifting the eddy and into the current.  Nothing.  Then straight up river on the seam.  He guided me to drift every which way in that hole.  It was really deep there so I didn’t have a lot of confidence.  I casted and drifted about 20 times in there. Then Sam said, “Pull it in for a minute, Tim I want to lengthen your dropper by a foot.”  And I have to tell ya’ I was skeptical.  For a second I thought he was doing that just to impress Mike.  I had zero confidence but, after he lengthened the tippet to my girddlebug dropper Sam said something like, “Throw it in the same place.”  So I did.  And son of a bitch my indicator fly went down I set on a brick.  I battled that fish until my arm hurt.  “I want to lengthen your dropper by a foot.”  I’m still laughing about that.  Wanna’ know the difference between a great guide and a good one?  it’s knowing the river and its flows so well you lengthen the tippet to the dropper 12”.

Another big Clark Fork Rainbow

Another big Clark Fork Rainbow

I know this is now going to sound like a commercial but, I can’t help it because I was just so pleased by my visit to “CFO”.  So here is my guidance: if you want to fish the Clark Fork out of Missoula there is no need to stay at one of those high priced expensive lodges.  Contact Mike Hillygus at his web site.  Mike’s Clark Fork Outpost lodge sleeps 6 in beds (3 bedrooms; 5 total beds).  But, he can accommodate 14 more at his neighbor’s place.

Belle Ready for Fishing

Belle Ready for Fishing

Oh yea, Mike also owns the Stillwater River Outpost…  I cannot wait to visit that one in May.  On that trip my son Mark is joining me and I cannot wait!