Category Archives: San Diego Fly Fishers

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.