Category Archives: San Diego Fly Fishers

Fly fishing the mangroves of Punta Abreojos, Baja

June 5-12, 2021

One of the many large corvinas i caught

I’m sun-burned.  My lips are so chapped they are bleeding.  I have been stung/bitten a dozen from god knows what; swollen and itchy.  I have cuts, bumps and bruises.  And it is all from an epic 8 day fly fishing adventure 600 miles south of san diego in Punta Abreojos, Baja.  It was the most expensive free vacation I have ever taken (because I bought a kayak for it). It was totally worth it. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

This trip is an annual San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) trip led by Kai Schumann and John Ashley. For a long time these guys and a few others in the club would say things like, “You, of all people, would love this trip.” They were right.

The Group

On a trip like this you want to go with fun people.  And this trip did not disappoint.  I already told you about our fearless leaders, John Ashely and Kai Schumann.  Also on the trip was SDFF club president Jim Castelluzzo.  And Tom Rundlett who I have fished with a number of times in Montana.  Both Jim and Tom are cagey veteran fly fishers and fun to be around.  Also, on the trip were 3 I had not met before…and now they are friends.  Tom and Marta Phillips, a retired married couple.  Yes, there was a female on the trip and she was, without a doubt, a trooper.  She fished and hung with the guys and still managed to get q-time with her artwork.  There is no way my wife Kelly could hang on this trip.  And joining them was their lifetime long good friend, Larry.  Now Larry and I are cut from the same mold.  Let’s just say we enjoyed a few cocktails together.

The SDFF group from Left to Right: John, Larry, Marta, Tom, Tom, Kai, Jim, me

Before I get started on how epic the fly fishing was, let me set expectations.  This trip is not for everyone.  And here is why in no particular order:

  • It’s primitive camping
    • since I’m a backpacker this part was pretty easy. I spend a tons of nights in the wilderness primitive camping.  But, all that primitive camping is on a river with a water source.  This was different.  because the campground was closed (COVID) there was no access to water.  You had to bring your own water.  I totally depend on my sun showers for backpacking trips so that was not a problem at all.  I “showered” every day.  There was no bathroom….well, until Tom and Marta negotiated a deal to use a restroom in the campground ¼ mile away that didn’t have running water…. You poured a bucket of sea water in it to flush it…. still, quite the luxury when you are primitive camping.
    • You sleep in a tent or truck or camper. Again, I spend so many nights in a backpacking sleeping bag on the ground in a backpacking tent this was not an issue for me.  in fact, because of the warm weather sleeping in the shell/topper in the back of my truck with a pad with the ocean breeze was quite the luxury compared to the sleeping on the ground of backpacking.
    • You do a lot of prep. You bring a lot of “stuff”.  You can’t forget anything….well, this is a trip you can because with the group someone always has your back…and backups.
    • Ice is a premium. There is a little town 15 minutes away where you can resupply…and we did.  But, you really need a 7 day cooler like a yeti.

The cherished Grouper. these monsters hit like a freight train and pull hard.

  • It requires a kayak
    • and not just any kayak. You are most efficient with a kayak that goes backwards.  Many of the predators you are targeting hide in the roots of the mangroves.  They’ll shoot out to grab your perfectly placed fly.  But, then they run back in and snap you off if you are not quick enough to pull them out of there.  That means a hard strip set while pedaling backwards.  It’s an art form that needs practice.  I’m not very good at it….yet.
    • I did a ton of research and had all the fly fishing kayak experts in the club to lean on. Ultimately the Hobie kayak I wanted…and put a deposit on… just wasn’t available in time.   Hobie had a myriad of production problems with it.  It was a new model of a hobie inflatable.  So, I ended up with a “hard hull”.  It’s a hobie mirage sport.  It’s a “little one”.  but, I’m a little guy.  I love it.  I’m a 35+ year float tuber so the luxury of how fast these things go with so little effort is really hard to describe.  Plus, you are on top of the water; not in it.  no waders needed.  I have used it in Agua Hedionda lagoon a number of times now, in addition to using it on this trip.  But, ultimately I will purchase an inflatable that is big / long enough for the open ocean so I can wander out through the surf to the kelp beds in Carlsbad one day.

John in his inflatable Hobie Kayak with another large Corvina

  • It’s Mexico
    • It’s Mexico, sh@#$t happens; calamities happen. And we were not short of calamities.  See my top 5 calamities list below.  In one of the planning meetings before the trip John said, “I usually bring $1,000 dollars of pesos just in case.”  Sheepishly, with bribing in the back of my head I asked him, “Just in case of what?”.  His answer was trite and to the point: “Just in case your car breaks down and the mechanic doesn’t take a credit card.”    That makes sense.  Well, I left with a wad of pesos and came back home with a wad of pesos.  and that is just fine.  I’ll use them on other Mexico trips.  Like the SDFF club trip coming up to Palapas Ventana in October.

Kai with a Corbina (take notice to that b not v). here, the corbinas take clousers on blind casts

So those are the reasons for why you might not consider a fly fishing trip like this.  Here are the reasons for why you want you do want to do this trip:

  • The fishing is ridiculous awesome
    • Fly fishing for 30+ species. Many times I’d catch a fish only to turn to John and say, “What the hell is this one?”
    • Dry fly fishing! On top of the water!  Well, technically they are not dries, but you throw tarpon, permit and roosterfish flies that swim on top of the water column as you strip them back and the groupers and corvina come out of the mangroves and attack with vicious strikes on top…and you watch the entire thing go down almost in surreal awe.
    • I’m a trout guy. So, this whole mangroves fly fishing experience was new.  I learned so much from these experts.  John personally took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
  • Your two friends leading the trip (Kai and John) make the trip easy
    • They both bring very expensive campers and you get to benefit from them.
    • They have years of experience doing this trip and many like it. so, you get to be a follower…mitigating a ton of the risk, hassles, and uncertainties.

this selfie with me and john gives you an idea of how tight the back channels of the mangroves get…. not the type of place you want to get disoriented and lost

  • There is no sacrifice on food and drink in this group
    • It’s primitive camping yes. But, unlike backpacking you have coolers and fresh food…and beer…and cocktails.  Although 95% of this is catch and release, these fish are not trout.  So some of them actually taste good.  Our dinners were epic.  We had steak night.  We had fish tacos night.  And get this.  kai has a green mountain pellet grill (like a Traeger) that extends out of his camper.  I bought the biggest brisket that Costco had.  We smoked it for 14 hours and it was awesome.  For gods sakes kai even made home made pizza for lunch!  This is one of those trips you do not come back lighter on.  I lose 2-7 pounds on every backpacking trip I take.  I think I put on 10 on during this trip.

kai working his green mountain pellet grill…that slides out of his camper on a shelf…not kidding.

The Journey

On John and Kai’s recommendation I handled my Mexican Tourist permit, Mexican fishing license Mexican car insurance through discoverbaja.com.  it was super easy and all done electronically and through email in advance.  Of interest my Mexican car insurance was pretty darn expensive because of my truck.  For 2 reasons: 1. It’s fairly new and popular.  because of the pandemic (a number of reasons) there is a shortage of cars.  So, the insurance was calculated on a value that was a few thousand dollars more than I paid for it.  At the time my 2020 tundra was only 6 months old. its value was more than I paid for it.  there have only been a few times and a few cars that actually appreciated in value after purchase.  2. The tundra with a shell/topper is the most stolen car in Mexico.  It’s pretty obvious why….you can stuff a lot of humans in the back of that huge truck.

I don’t know what the hell this fish is.

For this trip to Baja…because you are going so far south (between Guerrero Negro and La Paz) I learned there is a strategy to where you cross the Border. We crossed into Mexico at the Tecate Crossing.  The Tecate Crossing is a tiny border crossing compared to the other border crossings in California.  But it has weird hours and it does not have Sentri (to get quickly back into the US).  It’s a beautiful drive that gets very close to the world famous barrett lake.  Now for reasons I still don’t quite understand, even though you get your tourist visa well in advance, you have to get it stamped at the border.  So, for this trip we drove across and were put in secondary for inspection (God only knows why).  After checking our vehicles for bad stuff, we parked on the Mexico side, then found the office where we got our tourist visas stamped.  I am still not even sure why we had to get tourist visas because I have flown into Mexico a gazillion times and never had to do it.  But, when the leaders of the group say you need to do it, you don’t question them.  But, I have to tell you I am curious.

with 30+ species you are going nail some big halibut

La Poma – From the beginning the plan was to break up the 600 mile trip into two days both on the way there and on the way back.  I just assumed it was because 600 miles is too much for one day for the group.  But, really it’s because the campground at La Poma on the Sea of Cortez and it’s restaurant are so awesome.  The folks that run this place are friends of Kai’s.  Such a luxury to have a nice dinner and breakfast when camping on the beach.  The wade fishing there was ok.  Nothing exciting in terms of size.  But a bunch of small spotties on a fly rod from shore is still fun.

Punta Abreojos – For the most part the roads all the way there are outstanding.  Much much better than I remember from the last time I did it many years ago.  Being that said there is a stretch from the sea of cortez side where you cross over to the pacific side where the highway is skinny and elevated.  That stretch is also well travelled by trucks (see calamities below).  So it might be a bit nerve racking to many Americans who are spoiled by huge lanes on the freeways.  The last few miles to where we camped outside Punta Abreojos are dirt roads… but, 4 wheel drive is not required.  I didn’t even put my truck in 4 wheel drive.  Of interest, where to put the trucks and campers on the banks of the lagoon takes some logistics because of the tides.  You have to pick high spots.  I would have screwed that up for sure and woken up to my truck in 2 feet of water had Kai and John not provided the parking guidance.

When we returned home, we crossed back into the US at the Mexicali crossing.  I have Sentri (Global Entry) so that process took 30 seconds.  But, I was shocked when I crossed because the Mexicali crossing is so far east. I had many more miles to go to get home.

the view from where we camped with the lagoon at hide tide

…and the same view at low tide

The Fishing

It’s all about the tides.  In this giant lagoon there are huge tidal swings.  There is one significant deep water channel feeding this enormous lagoon from the ocean.  On a high tide, the moon pulls an enormous amount of water into the lagoon and holds it there through the slack tide.  That is when the predators come in; that is when they are on the move.  I did the best fly fishing on the turn; the slack tide.  Because there are so many back channels and mangrove lined banks and because of the cohesiveness of water it is normal to have 10 to 20 foot tidal swings.  And when that slack tide turns and the moon starts pulling the water out, it goes out in a hurry producing miles of suddenly empty land (under water just hours before) you can walk on.  Why is that important?  Well, although not unsafe, if you are having too much fun fishing in your kayak on the high and it turns to the low and the water goes back out you will have to put the wheels on your kakak and carry it over the land you kayaked over earlier.  If you fish with john, that is just part of the deal.  I like that.

Jim with a nice Corbina he nailed right off the shore.  The devilishly handsome author in the background stripping clousers next to his kayak

The Corvina – Not the “ghost of the coast” corbina that patrols the socal surf.  The Corvina is a ferocious predator that is a hoot of fun to fool and battle.  I am infamous for saying, “Nothing fights like a trout.  I have fly fished all over the world and nothing fights like a trout.”  That usually gets quite the raised eyebrow from saltwater fly fishers.  Let’s face it, most saltwater fish are big and just pull hard.   There are exceptions, of course.  But, nothing fights like a wild native trout (aka the Kern River Rainbow).  When I got home from this trip I told all my fly fishing trout buddies, “When it comes to battling fish on a fly rod, I have found a worthy competitor of the trout in saltwater: The Corvina.”  The Corvina hits hard like a trout.  It head shakes like a trout.  It does long runs like a trout.  The only difference is that the Corbina does not go erratically ballistic like a wild native trout doing those crazy ass herculean jumps like a trout.  Another difference: you can release a big trout in the water by removing the hook quickly with your hands.  You only make that mistake on a Corvina once.  I gave the lagoon some of my blood releasing my first big corbina. The Corvina has fangs.

You only make the mistake of sticking your fingers in a Corvina’s mouth once

The low and then slack tide also produces the most ridiculously fun wade fishing.  On the 2nd day, John lead me on a mile hike over land that was covered in water just an hour earlier to a deep water channel that compressed all the fish during the low tide.  We had to cross a main channel for a couple hundred feet in waste deep water.  As we crossed, he said, “I really don’t want to swim this on the way back so we need to watch the tide.”  We absolutely killed catching Corbina after Corbina.  It was so fun.  Big Fish too.  We even doubled up a few times.  at the crossing the tide was a little higher… like chest high.  But, still manageable.  And yea, the water is warm.  So, there is the perfect set up for the story I tell in the calamities section below.

The Wildlife

We were there to fly fish.  With 30+ species to catch and release it was a dream.  But, also partying in that giant lagoon were pacific bottle nosed dolphins.  And, as you’d imagine this place is a bird watchers dream.  From egrets to ospreys to some tropicals I couldn’t identify.  Also, this place also supports a huge population of well-fed coyotes; even though it’s so close to the beach.  I woke up one morning and stared out the back of my truck at the bay to watch a coyote running it at low tide at full speed.  Pretty awesome.

Kai got this shot of a huge osprey waiting out the tide.

The Calamities

Here are my top 5 calamities of the trip in no particular order.  Take notice that I own 3 of 5 calamities:

  • My Trxtyl Fly rod holder – Well, because of the Kayak I bought Yakama racks so I could put it on top of my truck. I did tell you this was the most expensive free vacation ever.  Well, I love this company Tryxtl from Helena, Montana for many reasons.  So, I asked to join their pro staff team and bought their fly rod holder.  I’m sure it was my fault in the way I mounted the fly rod holder on the Yakima Racks.  But, it didn’t survive the trip in.  It loosened in the journey on the Mexican roads, snapped off the racks, and disintegrated as it hit the highway.  A bummer for sure.  But, I didn’t have any rods in the holders so not a crisis by any stretch.  I’ll replace the Trxtyl rod holder with a new one.
  • Kai’s mirror – I mentioned the skinny, elevated stretches of highway. John told a story of losing his mirror to an oncoming truck on a prior trip.  Well, on the way home I was two cars back from Kai’s camper in the caravan and went through a wash of broken glass.  I was pretty sure what happened right away.  It was Kai’s rear view mirror.  The bummer is that Kai had his window open when the rear view mirror of his camper hit the rear view mirror of an oncoming truck and exploded.  So he was bloody with small cuts when we all pulled over to inspect the damage.  The window in Tom Phillip’s Sprinter van also broke as a result of the disintegrated rear view mirror parts.  Not a crisis.  That is what insurance is for.
  • Tom’s tire – around the end of the 2nd day Tom Rundlett, who’s camper was parked next to my truck. In between was my giant “easy up” that served our eating, relaxing and partying area.  Well, Tom says, “It looks like my tire is low.”.  I didn’t think anything of it because at altitude my tires do weird things.  But, we were at sea level.  By the 3rd day it was a problem.  It was a slow leak that wouldn’t hold air.  John instructed Tom to go to the little town of Punta Abreaojos and within an hour Tom’s tire was quickly fixed for a ridiculously low amount of pesos.
  • My dead battery – When it was time to leave everyone started their engines and drove away… except for me. My new truck was dead.  I’m still not sure how it happened.  I could have left one of the internal lights on and not noticed.  Or it could have been 5 days of charging all my devices in the back of the truck at night.  I started to pull out the jumper cables a little panicked when john doubled back, then ran over with a compact car jumping device.  He jumped my truck with that device and everything was fine.  I now own that gizmo and it lives in my truck.  I wish I knew what happened.  It kind of haunts me.  my new tundra has so many buttons and gizmos I’ll never learn them all.  in that regard I miss my 14 year old Tundra that I gave to my son in Bozeman, Montana.  If you don’t put your seat belt on in that truck it doesn’t care.  And it has a cassette deck.  I miss that simple truck.
  • My getting caught by the tide – This I my best story of the trip. Above I described how much fun John and I had wading the low tide through the slack tide on day 2.  Well, I decided to do it on day 3 alone.  I walked the mile across bay that was filled in high tide and got to the channel crossing.  It was just about the same height as the day before; waste high.  I started fishing and was killing in the exact same spot just like the day before.  And I was laughing and commenting to myself and having a hoot of a time.  I did notice the tide turn go the other way pretty quickly.  I did see the tide coming in.  I don’t know why I didn’t put 2 and 2 together more quickly.  I guess I lost track of time having so much fun.  I totally underestimated how quickly that tide comes in.   Well, by the time I left I was saying to myself, “I hope I didn’t screw this up.” And walking as fast as I could towards that channel crossing.  When I got there I said out loud, “Holy Sh@#$t…”  I blew it. I could tell right away I was going to have to swim it.  It wasn’t like I was in danger.  I wasn’t going to get swept out to sea.  The tide was coming in.  I’m in good shape for an old guy.  the issue was I had my fly rod.  That meant swimming one handed while holding on to the rod with the other.  I was wearing a backpack with my gear in it.  but it was a fancy Columbia dry pack.  When I buttoned it up it actually served as buoyancy.  I only had to swim a hundred yards or so.  And it was more like a one-handed dog paddle.  When I staggered back to camp I was dripping wet head to toe.  John immediately said, “I thought I was going to have to get you in my Kayak.”  And I told them the story laughing.

Again, this trip isn’t for everyone and you really do need a kayak that goes in reverse.  But, if love an adventure and catching multiple saltwater species on a fly rod.  And you love camping with fun people and good food and beer and cocktails, this trip is for you too.  I can’t wait to do this annual trek again next June.

You gotta’ yank the groupers out of the mangroves quickly or they break you off in the roots

Forks of the Kern – June 18-22, 2021

“Wait what?!  You got to fish the Forks?!  But, it’s closed…”

One of the many big Kern River Rainbows i nailed

The San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) got to fish the Upper Kern by the way of the Forks of the Kern Trail in June of 2021.  Technically the only people legally allowed to fish that stretch of the Upper Kern for over 2 years until the trail re-opens in the Spring of 2022.  But my God we earned it.  We worked our asses off fixing up the Forks trail.

A group of 6 of us worked with 2 members of the Western Divide Ranger District to do trail repair on the first 2 miles of the trail: from the trailhead to the confluence of the Little Kern River and the Main, North Fork of the Kern River 1000 feet and 2 miles below.

A great example of the devastation…with the green coming in the following spring

It was physical work in hot conditions with hand tools over a long weekend.  The trail had not been touched in 17 years and the fire most certainly didn’t help it.  I have been using that trail well beyond that 17 years and I can tell you I have never seen it in better shape as a result of the work.  You can practically roll a baby stroller up and down it now.  Unfortunately, no one will not be able to use it until Spring of 2022 when Western Divide reopens the area.

In addition to the trail repair, hand sawing felled trees off the trail, and trash removal, my 5 years of frustration to provide the western divide ranger district the financial resources to replace the “welcome to the golden trout wilderness” sign on the forks of the Kern trail is over.  The sign didn’t succumb to last year’s largest fire in California History.  It succumbed to vandalism around 5 years ago.  Hands down that sign was the most photographed on the entire Forks Trail.  Well, the SDFF club funded the new sign.  I personally was honored to carry it a mile down the trail where we installed it.

The SDFF and Western Divide Forest District Group with the newly installed GTW sign. from Left to Right: me, Daniel, Brooke, Evan, Kevin, Steve, Marty, Warren

A huge thanks to Evan Topal, a fairly new hire of the Wester Divide Ranger district.  Evan handled all the bureaucracy and red tape behind the scenes to make this first of its kind project happen.  Evan succeeded where I had failed navigating for years.  Evan also figured out how to pave through the red tape and legal indemnification to provide hands on the ground for the trail repair.  I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a “doer” in a so poorly under-funded and under-resourced group protecting our forests.  We are in talks about the San Diego Fly Fishing Club “adopting” the trail and what that might mean in terms of financial and hands on resources.  Execution of that would please me intensely.

I personally picked up and carried out over 30 pounds of cans and bottles accumulated over 20 years that were exposed when the trail and surrounding areas burnt.  And I felt like I was working half as hard as my buddies who were using picks and shovels and hand saws.  It was the logical job for me.  the lord didn’t give me much, but he did give me the “goat gene”.  I climbed up and down about 100 feet max off trail from above and below the trail to retrieve cans, bottles and a variety of other junk (ie: a 20 year old white gas latern, mangled jet-boils, etc.) that survived incineration in the fire.

Btw, I am working with Evan Topal to do another foray into the Forks Trail to fix up the next 2 miles of trail in the fall.  Being that said the 25% snowpack year in the Southern sierras is a much bigger concern.  The upper kern is only flowing less than 130 CFS as of writing this.  that is the lowest I can remember for this time of year; lower than I can remember in the 4 drought years.  And it is just July.  We could see disastrous low flow conditions in sept and oct.  I may have to self-inflict “hoot owl” restrictions like they do in montana when rivers get too low and too warm.  At a certain point it is just too dangerous to catch and release the fish in low, warm conditions.  You end up killing them.  And no fly fisher wants that.  Only time will tell.  But, if you are interested in helping; either with hands on the ground or financially then please do send me an email.  Let me tell you that the fly fishing makes the tax of the work completely worth it.

The Fire Aftermath

Honestly I have zero expertise in the science of Forest Fires: the recovery, patterns, etc.  But, I have been reading up on it and it’s fascinating stuff.  This area badly needed a burn.  So, let me tell you right off that the entire area is already showing recovery… green where it looked like the moon.  Trees recovering and growing back.  So much plant growth so that I’m confident when we all get back in there next year we’ll have to look hard for the signs of the fire on the ground.

And yes, the biggest fear from most fly fishers was that the fire would poison the river.  Let me tell you it did not.  it fished better than I can remember it in years.  It’s the simple fact (and irony) that this drought year did not produce rain or runoff conditions that pushed ash and mud into the river.  It’s still as crystal clear and pristine as it ever was.  And because of the new growth from the ashes we will not have mud slides.  Of course the fish not seeing an artificial fly for over a year also helped.

What shocked me first and foremost was seeming contradiction of the areas that barely burnt, the areas that did not burn and the areas that were scorched like the moon.  For instance, a huge area right at the confluence didn’t see fire at all.  Even though it was surrounded by burn in all directions including across the river.  There must have been a sudden wind shift (or fire fighting) that prevented it.  Yet in other places on the Forks trail it still looked “Nuked”; like the moon.

I have good news for you “Huck-site” fans.  The Huck Site Survived.  It burnt all right.  But all the tall pines trees on the plateau survived and were green on top when I got there.  Most of the wooden “benches” around the campfire ring burnt to ashes.  But all the trees down at the river’s edge did not see fire at all.  Even the tree swing survived.  Marty and I both quickly caught and released a couple fish right at the Huck Site after surveying it.

That’s Marty roll casting the big pool in front of the Huck Site. notice the rope swing in tact

The Huck-Cache, however, did not fare as well.  It’s gone.  Just a few hundred yards up river and about 200 feet above the trail, the cache, and the entire area around it incinerated including the giant pine tree it was hidden behind.   Before seeing it, I assumed it burnt and that I would be responsible for hauling out a ton of trash because of it.  there was no trash to haul out.  Everything incinerated short of the saw blades and a backpacking grill.  My buddy Jeff Kimura from the SDFF club hauled in a super nice little camp table just a couple weeks before the fire for a club trip to the forks.  It was aluminum.  It completely incinerated.  Two tents, 5 pairs of wading boots and river shoes and a variety of other stuff donated by the many visitors to the Huck Site: all incinerated.  Not a tragedy; not even sad.  Just interesting.  That cache can be replenished over more time.  It’s just stuff.

Is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that KR rainbow’s face? why yes, it is…

The Fishing

Nuts.  Ridiculous.  Stupid Good. I had a day where I caught 40+ Kern River Rainbows.  4 of them were over 20”.  20 of them were over 14”.  And 95% of the time I was fishing dries: huge size 4 huck hoppers.  I could kick myself for even dropping a nymph off my size 4 huck hoppers.  But, i did want to test my new Huck Perdigons.  I did it for around 20 minutes mid-day on the full day I fished when it slowed.  And I ended up getting takes on every drift.  When they started taking the huck hoppers on top again I just caught off the dropper.

The Kern River Rainbow. Look at that fan of a tail

And it wasn’t just me.  Marty Jansen caught 40+ on that day too.

But, my favorite fishing story from the project / trip has to be from Brooke Sargent.  Brooke is a 25 year old fly fisher, who on this project, was stuck with a bunch of old guys.  Not only is she a hoot of fun to be around, she guided one of the Forest Rangers to landing a 16” KR rainbow… a forest ranger who had never touched a fly rod before.

is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that Fish’s face?

The Mistake

It seemed like such a great idea at the time.  A little background is that earlier in the spring I was fishing the 5 mile section of river above the Johnsondale Bridge.  I came across a family coming down the river trail with backpacks.  It was a dad and two kids, 10 and 8.  I was shocked to find out they had hiked all the way from the Forks.  “My God.” I said to those two kids.  “You are incredible.  That has to be 14-15 miles.  I didn’t even know there was a trail that goes there.”  The dad told me, “There really isn’t a trail.  You have to bushwhack the last 2 miles into the canyon.  We lost that trail numerous times.  And we did take a full week to get there and back.”

Well, armed with that information and remembering that Evan Topal from Wester Divide said, “Your group’s special permits expire at 3pm on Sunday.  That is when we’ll lock the gate on the road preventing access.  But, if you camp on the other side of the river, then you can hike out whenever and wherever you want as long as you stay out of the closed area on the north side of the river.

So the plan for Marty and me was to stash our trucks at the Johnsondale Bridge on the way in.  Then get a ride in from the other SDFF club members.  That would allow us to stay another two nights with a full day of fly fishing in between.  Then we’d hike our way out of the Kern River canyon for 2 miles to find the Rincon Trail which is a straight shot on top of the canyon for 9 miles to a junction trail back into the canyon catching the Johnsondale Bridge trail for the last 4 miles to our trucks.

Here’s Marty climbing out of the Kern Canyon as a process of trying to find the rincon trail

It was awesome.  But, I will not do it again.  10+ hours; 15 miles.  The middle 9 miles of the hike on the Rincon trail was awful.  The first 2 mile hike out of the canyon was quite the adventure.  We lost the trail numerous times.  We were smart about it.  We spread out until we either figured a way forward around the obstacles or wandered until we found the trail.  We did a fair amount of research in advance, so we knew “the trail” followed the creek the entire way.  So we were never really worried about getting lost; just worried about getting stuck.  It’s just that the creek was a pretty rugged canyon.  It’s a barely used non-maintained section of a trail that probably has not seen any work on it for 30 years.  It was a beautiful section, well forested and tons of signs of bear.  So much so I could smell them.  You know that stench of a bear when they are around?  We didn’t see any, but I’m pretty sure they saw us.  But it took us over 2 hours to get out of that canyon and find the rincon trail above.  Not an issue.  We had all day to hike the 9 miles back to the river.  The big mistake was that neither Marty or I paid any attention to how straight the rincon trail is on the trail maps other than finding it interesting.  We also didn’t pay too much attention that you are allowed to drive motorcycles on that trail.  Well, that trail goes straight through the forest for 9 miles because a motorcycle can go straight.  Unfortunately for us humans it was a ton of up the mountain then back down the other side on badly rutted out motorcycle trail.  it was brutal and it was hot.  At one point I said to Marty “if we don’t get to Durwood creek soon I’m going to be in trouble in terms of water.”  He said something like, “and if it doesn’t have water we’ll both be in trouble.”  Well Durwood creek did have water and did support a healthy amount of trout.  My guess is they were Little Kern Goldens, but I am still not sure because we didn’t fish it.

The only highlight of the next 4 miles of the rincon trail was me running into and startling a multi-point buck (deer).  It was a hot death march for the most part.  I was so pleased when we finally got to the turn off from the Rincon Trail to hike back down into the canyon for the last 4 miles to our trucks.  Our original plan was to fish and camp a night there before hiking out.  But we were so beaten up and exhausted when we did finally get down to the river again, we just decided to get it over with.  Even though I have hiked the 4 mile JDB trail a gazillion times it was just a death march.  I actually fell too.  That can happen when you are tired.  That could have been a disaster.  Thank God I landed on a flat piece of granite like a cat.

The Huck Site in tact. Green trees at the river. the pine needles fell from the charred, but alive pine trees on the burnt ground after the fire went out.

Of interest…

Right before Marty and I staggered into the huck site we found the remnants of a wild turkey.  I had never seen a turkey in the forks area but, it most certainly looked like a mountain lion had a party.

Summary

Epic trip.  One of the most special I have had at the Forks…and I have had a lot of them.  We were so fortunate to fish the Upper Kern while it was closed… even if it was just for a few hours.  We did pay the price, though, in terms of physical labor.  Would I do it again?  absolutely.  the hard work is a simple price to pay to fish that special place.  But, there is no way I’m hiking out the 15 miles by way of the Rincon Trail again just to get in a single full day of fishing.  If there is a next time where we work on the next 2 miles of the trail, I will leave the civil way like normal humans.

For the literally hundreds who have emailed me about the status of the Forks after the complex fire of 2020 I can tell you that this is going to be a special place to fish come spring of 2022.  Let’s go!

Believe it or not this is a different fish caught close to the other monster. i put my iphone on timer on the bank to take the picture

 

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

Barker Valley Spur Trail – April 10-11, 2021

Is there a place in San Diego County:

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

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

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

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

The fearless threesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John caught this one on the dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fly Fishing Carlsbad – Agua Hedionda Lagoon

The Pacific Halibut – evolved both its eyes on one side so it can lay flat on the bottom, disguised, so it can attack prey that swim above it.

I have written about fly fishing in places all over the world so it’s long past time I write about the fly fishing in my own backyard: Carlsbad, CA

Southern California, including Carlsbad, has a long history of saltwater fly fishing.  In the Surf, legendary Fly Fishermen like Al Quatrrocchi, Nick Curcione, Kirk Deeter, Dr. Milton Love, Jim Solomon, Glenn Ueda, Bernard YinLee Baermann, Jeff Solis, and others have written, presented, and taught us how to fish the Socal Surf…especially for the elusive corbina.  In terms of Off-shore John Loo for off shore fly fishing and Conway Bowman always come to mind when fly fishing for Mako’s off the san diego coast.

This article is about fishing Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon from a float tube (or fishing kayak).  It’s funny that I have lived in Carlsbad for 22 years; within a mile of Aqua Hedionda lagoon and I had never fished it until just recently.  Mainly because I’m a trout guy and just don’t have a lot of expertise in the salt water.  Trust me. As I write this I have only fished Hedionda 5 times so I am no expert.  But, because I have had success, I want to share it in case you are interested in C&R fly fishing it.

Firstly, let me elaborate my 2 main inspirations and motivations:

  1. If you are a Socal then you have driven by this lagoon many times and stared at it. It’s just south of the Tamarack exit on the 5 in Carlsbad.  It’s the lagoon with the water skiers on the east side of the 5.  You may have stared at that water and said to yourself, “I wonder if that fishes?”  You may have seen kayak fishermen in there and said, like I did for years, “How in the world did they get in there and I wonder if they are catching fish?”
  2. Recently, Mel Ochs and Kai Schumann did a SDFF club presentation on how to fish the bays of San Diego in a float tube or kayak. It was outstanding.  I learned so much from that presentation.  Let me be honest: I serve as the programs chair for the San Diego Fly Fishers club.  It is my job to ink the speakers for the club presentations and I have signed up some famous ones, both worldwide and from the list above.  So when I roped them into doing this presentation I was a bit selfish in my needs.

The Spotted Bay Bass – affectionately known as “Spotty”

< Side Note: let me put in a plug for joining the San Diego Fly Fishers Club.  It’s only $40 / year and along with all the other benefits, there are 2 presentations by zoom per month during the pandemic; in person once we are finally past it.  If you want to go fly fish the bays with the group of folks from the club, at a minimum, they go every Wednesday and would love to have you and show you the ropes of fly fishing the bays.  >

About Hedionda: The Science and History

Three major highways cross Hedionda: Highway 101 (aka PCH) along the coastline, the train tracks and Interstate 5. These 3 bridges divide the Hedionda into 3 sections:

  • outer bay – just east of the coast highway; closest to the ocean. This section holds the oyster, abalone and white sea bass farms along with carlsbad’s hydro electric power plant and the largest desalination plant in N America.
  • middle bay – separated by the train bridge and highway 5. This section holds the YMCA aquatic park
  • inner bay – east of interstate 5. This section holds California Watersports and numerous homes and condos with docks on the North side and the infamous Carlsbad Strawberry fields on it’s south site.

Hedionda extends 1.7 miles inland and is up to a half mile at its widest point.  All three sections are 8-10 feet deep at their deepest part of the high tide….except for the channel that flows the tide to and from the ocean.  That channel runs the entire length from the ocean to the head of the bay where Hedionda creek feeds it.  The channel is over 30 feet in depth in and around the 3 bridges.  This depth information is important in relation to the fishing.  There is more on tides below in the fishing section of this article.

Hedionda is fed by Agua Hedionda creek to the southeast and Lake Calavera Creek to the Northeast.  Numerous spring creeks feed those two creeks.  But, in reality Carlsbad is a a natural desert so a majority of the water feeding Hedionda is simply lawn sprinkler runoff from well into Oceanside and Vista.  There is a significant amount of fresh water that enters the lagoon at the head of the bay making that “back-bay” brackish for those that want to chase mullet with a fly rod.  When it does rain that creek is a raging dangerous river.

The most amusing part of Agua Hedionda is the name itself: It means “Stinky Water” in Spanish.  The reason is most likely because before a small boat harbor was constructed in middle bay somewhere between 1940 and the 50s, the lagoon was not dredged; it was truly a lagoon. Between the decay of vegetation, the mud and the methane escaping it probably was pretty stinky before dredging provided a constant flush of tidal flow.

From the InterWeb: “The main difference between Bay and Lagoon is that the Bay is a body of water connected to an ocean or lake, formed by an indentation of the shoreline and Lagoon is a shallow body of water separated from larger body of water by a barrier.”

By way of this definition then Agua Hedionda is a bay; not a lagoon.  In fact, it has significant tidal flow just like san diego or mission bay.  There is plenty of great information from the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation here.

The history of Hedionda is pretty sketchy but, in the early half of the 20th century Carlsbad was a mostly an agricultural area….boasting the only place you could get the rare and hard to get exotic fruit: the avocado.  At that time the bay was not used for anything short of the quickest transportation from the farms to the beach: by row boat.  There is some interesting information about the area’s history that the Carlsbad Historical Society turned me onto here.  But, not much on Hedionda itself.

most people who love eating halibut, and have never seen one, probably picture it this way: upside down

How to fish it

The Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation says there are 70 species of fish that populate it.  Being that said only a small portion of those fish are predators: the type of fish you would be catching with a fly rod.  And in my limited experience the spotted bay bass dominates that group.  But, I’m a pretty friendly fly fisherman so I did talk to a number of gear guys both on the shore and in kayaks.  And they all gladly provided a tremendous amount of knowledge to me.  In fact, more than once I’d catch a fish, hold it up to a shore fisherman and say, “what the hell is this?”

There are pelagic fish that wonder into Hedionda with the tide.  Of those the most common are white sea bass, rays and halibut.  But sharks and even corbina are caught there too…along with all the usual suspects you see in the surf.  It’s worth nothing that any ocean fishing in a float tube is not for the faint of heart for many reasons.  And being that said I did fish Hedionda in a tube in January of 2021 the day after the beach in front of it was closed down because of a 15 foot great white patrolling the surf.

The author, devilishly handsome, paddling out just after sunrise

Harvesting – I have caught a couple legal halibut and let them go.  It’s partly because of ~30 years of catch and release fly fishing and partly fear of eating from a bay fed by fertilizers and the cancer causing weed killer, round-up.  If I ever do catch a legal white sea bass I’ll have a tough decision to make.  The white sea bass farm is in outer bay and there are escapees.

It’s all about the tides – just like any surf or bay fishing in the san diego area your best success is going to be during an incoming and/or slack tide.  In fact, the only time you will be able to fish close to the train bridge or Highway 5 bridge is during a slack tide.  Not that it was unsafe, but the very first time I fished Hedionda, this trout fisherman was inches from getting pulled from middle bay under the 5 and out into inner bay.  I wasn’t paying attention staring at my fish finder as the tide grabbed me.  The current during that incoming tide was so strong it was like any large river I have fished before.  It took everything I had to paddle my fins away from getting sucked in.  I was huffing and puffing more than I have even done on lake Crowley in the wind.  Again, I was never in danger.  But, if pulled through to the other side I would have had to wait hours for the slack tide to even consider swimming back through again.  and it’s not like I could have gotten out of the water on the other side and carried my tube back.

Along with the tide, there are a number of things that negatively or positively affect your fishing success.  Here are a few:

  • fish finder – My aha moment was from the gang of bay fly fishers from the San Diego Fly Fishers Club. They all use portable fish finders.  There are some super inexpensive ones from the company “Lucky”. You can find them on amazon.com from $40 and up.  After a ton of research, I ended up with the Garmin STRIKER™ Cast GPS.  Its list price is $179.  It’s an amazing little device that deserves its own gear review on this site.  you tether and drag it behind your float tube.  I chose 15 feet (of old floating fly line instead of the cord they included).  since you paddle backwards in a float tube it looks for fish right in the zone you are stripping through (as opposed to directly underneath you like all other fish finders).  I’ll typically cast ~40 feet, let it sink, and strip back.  The device uses your smart phone with the garmin striker app as its UI.  It clearly shows depth and structure and the fish in the water column they are swimming in.  it even counts the number of fish in the schools.  I found myself not blind casting until I saw fish on the finder.  but, in one of my fly fishing sessions, after running out of my allotted spousal time, I quickly paddled right across the bay where the fish finder showed a ghost town.  For the purpose of straightening out my line and tightly winding it back up I hooked up and landed a nice halibut.  It made me late.  Oh well’ she’ll live.  After 31 years of marriage, she knows the “one last cast” thing.  So, there is the lesson learned. you will not be able to see the halibut on the fish finder because they sit flat and still on the bottom, typically waiting for prey to swim by.

    notice my garmin striker cast fish finder in the background

  • time of year – I have only fished in winter and done pretty darn well. But, in talking to the experienced gear guys they have all said it gets pretty nuts in spring and summer so I am looking forward to that.  They also told me the big halibut come in Hedionda to spawn in spring.  Every year I read about 40+ pound halibut being taken in Hedionda by the gear guys.  That sure would be fun on a 6 weight.
  • the moon phases and solunar theory – it’s the hunters and saltwater fisherman that believe in solunar theory. Read about my research and findings on Solunar theory here.   Again I have limited experience fly fishing Hedionda but I did fish on a really good solunar day and “killed”.  Plus I saw a ton of fish on my fish finder.  I also fished on a really bad solunar day and didn’t do so well…and saw very little fish on my fish finder.  Draw conclusions as you may.
  • red tide – whether you believe in climate change or not, the red tides are getting worse and worse each year here in San Diego. I had a bad outing and didn’t see a thing on my fish finder only to find out later there was a little red tide going on.  FYI, there was a huge fish kill in Hedionda last year (summer of 2020) because of a red tide.  Many of the gear guys I talked to were really worried that it ruined the fishing in Hedionda. It has not.

A gear guy on the shore told me this was a white sea bass. But, another fly fisherman in the club told me this is a Corvina (not corbina)

Gear

I use a fast action 6 WT with a sinking line.  In my first outing I used a Rio outbound short line and didn’t do so well.  That outbound line is an intermediate sink line.  Although it was before my Garmin Fish finder I just felt like I wasn’t getting it down to where the fish were.  It’s like my line wasn’t cutting through the current.  So, the next time out I switched to the exact rig I use in Lake Crowley: a heavy sink fully integrated 450 GR integrated heavy sink line. That is a line that really gets down quickly.

For a leader I just use 4-5 feet of straight 12lb flouro.  Flies: I tie my version of a clouser.  I use synthetics, including EP fibers instead of buck tail.  I always tie white on the bottom to imitate the naturals. And I tie in a red patch of flashabou to imitate an injured gill plate.  I tie the top  in chartreuse, blue and grey in sizes 2 and 4.  And they all worked.  I fish two flies: a size 2 in front trailed by 18 inches of more flouro and a size 4.   i really think color does not matter.  but, just like in trout fishing the trailing fly gets most of the hookups.

Here’s an example of a couple beat up size 4 clousers i tied.  beat up from getting chewed by spotties and halibut.  the clouser rides hook up so white is on the bottom.  look closely at the red patch that imitates an injured gill plate.

Epilogue:

This may go without saying, but there is nothing peaceful and serene about fly fishing Hedionda.  This not like fly fishing the Gallatin canyon in montana.  The freeway noise is constant.  And depending on which way the wind is blowing the freeway noise can be downright loud.  In fact i had a trucker honk at me while i battled a halibut right off the 5.  I raised my fist to him in glory.

I know what you are saying, “Where do I park?  Where do I Launch? Where did you catch all your fish in Hedionda?  I did write that part and created detailed maps.  And then I removed it from this article.  Why?  Well, in respect to the handful of gear guys that helped me.  But, honestly, although it’s rare, I recently got a hate mail from a selfish fly fisher that wants his fly fishing location to be his and his alone.  So, consequently, doesn’t want me publishing this type of info on the public interweb.  I am a strong believer in conservation by awareness.  Granted, for every one “hate mail” I get a hundred emails thanking me for info.  Fly fisherman are typically such unselfish, trustable and “giving back” type of people.  But, there are exceptions; people are people.

I’d be happy to share that map, parking and fishing location info with you.  Send me an email from here.  And donate $5 to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation here while you are at it.