Dates: 4-16-2021 to 4-18-2021
- Friday: 380 CFS
- Saturday: 370 CFS
- Sunday: 360 CFS
- 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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….
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… 😊
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.
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.
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.