Category Archives: Spring Fly Fishing

Upper Kern River: Backpacking up river from the Johnsondale Bridge

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

River Flow:

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

Solunar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

Huck Flies Tied Perdigon Style – Ridiculously Good Success

A 2 Week Perdigon Test through the Eastern Sierras in CA, Montana and Utah.

look closely for the huck green caddis perdigon hanging out the side of the mouth of this pure strained bonneville cutthroat

During the winter of 2021 I talked to long time friend and Guide Mike Hillygus of the Stillwater River and Clark Fork River Outpost lodges in Montana.  Mike mentioned he had bought a ton of perdigon flies for the upcoming season.  I asked him, “Isn’t that the fly that all the world champion fly fishers use for euro-nymping?”.  I said it with disdain because there is no way in hell I’m ever going to euro-nymph the rivers of montana.  More on that later.

His answer completely changed the way I approach fly fishing: “Yea, but at the end of last season we started hanging them below indicators and in dry/dropper set ups.  And we killed.”  That got my attention so I went on a 3-week research and interview process to find out everything I could about the Perdigon; its history and why it is used.  After my research, I speculated that if I tied the 3 nymphs I sell of the site (Huck Green Caddis, Huck Midge, Huck-bow Warrior) perdigon style that they would do better in fast, deep water conditions.  So I went on a 4 week tying binge.  Then I sent out the prototypes of them to expert level fisherman to test them in real conditions.  At the same time I went on my own 2 week testing adventure through the eastern Sierras in CA, Montana and Utah.  The results were ridiculous.  I had a number of 40+ days in that 2 weeks fishing them solely in a dry dropper set up.  Realize this is fishing in March in brutally cold conditions and I was still killing.  In reality perdigon styled flies provide all the effectiveness of raking the river by Euro Nymphing, but, unlike in euro-nymphing, you still get to cast…and cast beyond the ~20 foot limitations of euro nymphing.

the clark fork river has lots of these

This email from my buddy Ronnie in Colorado summed it up well:

“Howdy Tim!  Great day on the Arkansas yesterday!  Big aggressive browns love the Perdigon’s!  I was using a golden stone at first and decided to switch to the Huck green caddis perdigon to try it out.  Plenty of big fish on that one..I was trailing a red midge as an attractor but only caught on the lead fly; the perdigon you tied for me.”

-Ronnie Swafford, CO

 

Ba

The West Slope Cutthroat fooled by a Huck-bow Warrior Perdigon (Go Padres!)

Background

Let me be totally honest. I am not a fan of fly fishing competitions.   Fly fishing is not like golf where you have a tightly coupled objective to get the ball in the hole with as few shots as possible.  I respect that people love fly fishing competitions.  And I have met plenty of competition fly fishers both here in the states and internationally.  and that is ok.  It’s just not me.  Not because of the competition, but, because “most fish caught” forces you into tight lined nymphing.  I love to cast.  I love to cover the water and I love to move.  If you take casting away it’s just not fly fishing to me.  Fly fishing includes quite a bit of scientific knowledge for success, some athletic skill to cast, set and fight, and lets face it: a little bit of luck.  When I heard that until recently the only flies used in fly fishing competitions were skwirmy worms and mop flies by euro nymphing or tenkara I sighed.  Lobbing a 22 feet leader on a ten foot fixed “rod” over and over to the same spot is wildly effective.  You rake the river.  It’s just not me.  I liken it to an electric mountain bike.  Sure, you can get to the top of the mountain quicker with a motor….by why would you?   But, there is something to be said about the Spanish team winning 3 straight world fly fishing championships on what that call a “Perdigon” fly.  And then the French came in and won two in a row with their version of the perdigon fly.  Strictly translated Perdigon means pebble in Spanish.  Loosely translated it means “sinks like a rock.”.

If you look closely you can see the huck-bow warrior right in the top center of the nose on this brown-zilla

The Science behind the Perdigon

Perdigons are super heavy and sleek in profile so they get down quickly in fast moving current.  What they gain in an aerodynamic quick ride to the bottom, they give up in realism.  Perdigons don’t look like anything in nature.  They are nymphs without the buggy look and feel to them.  Any resistance that might keep the fly from getting down quickly is covered in epoxy.

The Huck Green Caddis Perdigon

Like the international fly-fishing competitors, I tie them on competition style wide gap barbless jig hooks with a slotted tungsten bead.  The benefits, and consequently my (and your) success is directly related to:

  1. Rides Hook Up

The slot in the tungsten bead is to allow the bead to slip around the bend in the jig hook.  Then I stuff the slot end with lead, not only making it heavier, but it forces the bead into a keel position making the perdigon ride hook up and level.  Perdigons ride hook up and level and and can bounce along the bottom without snagging it. Riding hook up means you are not scraping and dulling your hook point.

notice the angle of the jig hook and the slotted tungsten bead

  1. A Better Hook Set

Because the Perdigon rides hook up you get a better set in the fish’s mouth. Typically this means getting the fly set in the top center of the mouth (frequently called “the nose”) or in corner of the mouth. These spots in the mouth hold hooks much better.  Normally I range around a 50-50 hook to land ratio.  With Perdigons I was getting closer to landing 19 or 20 hook sets.  Honestly I fight fish much differently barbless.  I really play them, having to exhaust them to get them to hand.  That is bad for the fish.  With Perdigons I had much more confidence in fighting them to my hand as quickly as possible so I could let them go as quickly as possible. With Perdigons I felt like I had much better control when turning the fish’s head and direction head while fighting.

to make the perdigons sink even more rapidly i stuff lead up into the gap in the slot

  1. Better Feel of the Flies

When bumping along the bottom I felt like I could discern the difference between a strike and bumping the bottom.  You know that old rule, “set on everything.”?  Well, I didn’t feel like I had to. It gave me a better feel of if/when the flies were hitting the bottom, which in turn gave me feedback on where in the water column I was.

  1. Slotted Beads

As mentioned, when a slotted tungsten bead is used on a jig hook, the center of gravity changes. This helps to angle the hook in a position where the Perdigon rides hook up.

  1. Fighting Fish

When you hook a fish with a jig hook and slotted tungsten bead, the fly line,  leader and tippet rides almost parallel to where the bend of the hook is.  This reduces the leverage that the fish has providing a much more solid hook set in the fish’s face.  With Perdigons, you will find the fly pops out a lot less.

  1. Movement

The term “jigging” comes from conventional fishing and it wildly effective.  With the slotted tungsten bead as “the keel”, the fly imparts a particular movement in the water that is unique to traditional fly fishing.  Additionally, the angled eye of the jig hook gives the fly a very undulating movement when stripped back. It that “up-and-down” movement which can give the look of an injured or confused baitfish or bug.

I just love the way the suns shines through this big brown’s tail.

Results

Montana

I hit Missoula first where I was met by my buddy Mike Hillygus.  We drove 60 miles north to his lodge on the lower clark fork near St. Regis, MT.  We fished for 3 days in bitter cold and did pretty darn well.  I couldn’t get a fish to rise for the life of me, but man those perdigons did well for both Mike and Me.

I moved south towards my son in Bozeman and fished Silver Bow Creek near Butte.  I absolutely killed on the huck midges tied perdigon style.  I had a 40+ fish day and caught a 20” brown just 10 minutes into fishing.

The next day my son Mark and his buddy Burnsie rowed me down the lower Madison.  It was bitter cold; windy and snowing.  A day you’d expect to get skunked.  But, we were still catching fish on the Perdigons.

That is a Huck Midge Perdigon stuck perfectly on the nose of this rainbow

Eastern Sierras of California

I was home for 32 hours before I loaded up Huck Truck II and headed north to the eastern sierras to join up on an annual fishing trip centered out of Bishop, CA with 30 guys at a cheap ass motel.  I drove straight to the wild trout section of the lower owens river and had a nice brown to hand on the 2nd cast…on a huck-bow warrior tied perdigon style.  Hmmm..  So, I did well and consequently had a decision to make for the next 2 full days of fishing.  I had intel from a buddy of mine in the DFG that the Owens River Gorge was fishing well and that it had some big fish in it.  So, I talked a couple buddies into joining me for a very physical day. If you have not fished the gorge it is not for the faint of heart.  You have to hike into a canyon and there is no river trail.  It’s a brutally rugged canyon.  Coupled with that I had not fished there in years and I mistook my intended trail (middle gorge) for central gorge.  The central gorge “trail” is used by the rock climbers to get down to the sheer granite walls quickly.  Meaning straight down.  As we hiked/climbed the trail down I couldn’t imagine hiking/climbing it back up at the end of the day.  As it was we chose not to.  We fished all the way to the middle gorge trail and hiked that out.  Then hiked the miles on the road back to our cars.  We caught fish but, it wasn’t crazy.  I caught plenty of fish on the perdigons to make it fun.  I did a water temp check and it was 41 degrees.  That is a bit chilly for the fish to be active.  It’s a beautiful place and even though we were exhausted burning a gazillion calories it was a beautiful great day in the canyon.

what type of idiot climbs up and down this boulder cliff to go fly fishing?

I speculated that the water in the lower section of the gorge would be warmer the next day because the weather was due to be warmer and it would see a lot more sun before hitting the power station above pleasant valley reservoir.  So, that was my plan.  I was going to park at the power plant and fish my way up river.  That is something I had not done in over a decade.  At the start I had 5 of my buddies with me.  I caught a nice brown on my first cast with a huck green caddis perdigon hung under a small huck hopper.  Hmmm…   Within 30 minutes all my buddies bailed for the wild section of the owens.  Without waders it is impossible to fish that section.  It’s also super rugged.  And none of them wore their waders.  I was wearing my simms G3 guide wading pants and loving it.  The other reason they bailed: You cannot fish that section from the bank.  It is totally overgrown by willows on both sides.  Like willows that are so thick you cannot see through them.  Since it is a small river (which would be called a creek in Montana) that meant it was a technical river to fish requiring tight loops and long casts directly up stream.  It also meant you had to fish in the river; there is no bank with the willows walling up on both sides.

another good looking brown with a huck perdigon stuck in the top of it’s mouth which makes the fight and landing so much easier.

Well, I was killing.  Honestly, I had not had a day on any stretch of the owens like that in years.  I was landing fish in every section I threw at.  Big fish too. I rarely count but, it’s was so nuts I started counting.  When I hit 20 by 11am I stopped counting.  Here’s where it started getting a bit dicey.  Down in that canyon it was hot.  I had a liter of water and it was quickly disappearing.  I was also battling a bout of diverticulitis.  If you don’t know that old guy disease, it’s painful.  It’s the only thing that has ever hospitalized me.  Well, I feel like the pain involved in bending over and releasing what was now around 40 fish by 1pm was sucking the life out of me.  I was tired.  It was only 1pm.  That is not like me.  So, with my water running low I said to myself, “I’ll just actively start looking for a way to get out of this river, walk back to my truck, take a break and end it in the wild trout section with my buddies.”  Another mile travelled upriver. it was after 2pm and I was a mess.  I did not see a single place where I could get out of the river to hike back.  And I was still killing.  In fact, the fish were getting bigger.  But, I was abnormally weak.  I took a fall in the river simply because I didn’t have the strength to step up on a large rock.  That is when the reality hit me.  I had pushed the safety thing too far.  I have some history in endurance sports having run multiple marathons and I could tell I was “bonking” (in scientific terms that is called hypoglycemia).  I had my Garmin satellite communication device with me so it’s not like I was going to die of exposure.  And I was not in a panic.  But, I was a mess and needed to figure out how to end it.  Not kidding I saw a foot wide gap in the willows.  I knew it would be a struggle with a fly rod, but, I had no other options available to me.  Well, I wiggled my way out of 30 feet thick of willows….to find another 30 feet of head high heavy brush.  That was a bush whack in itself.  When I finally got to the clear, the reality hit me.  I totally forgot that not only is there no river trail, the only way back was climbing miles of scree; 5’ by 5’ granite boulders.  Well, let’s just say that hike….errr climb back took hours.  I staggered back to my truck, drank 40 ounces of Gatorade zero quickly and sat lifeless for 45 minutes composing myself.  By the time I got back to my motel it was 530pm and I was still a mess.  That’s when the shivers hit me.  I could not get warm.  This is another symptom of bonking and why you always see runners wearing space blankets after a race.  I had to get in the bed to get warm.  2 hours later I finally warmed up.  But, I couldn’t eat.  I missed out on the ending party with the guys and didn’t get out of bed until 14 hours had passed.  Another safety lesson learned.  I did fish the Huck Green Caddis Nymph Perdigon under a size 12 huck hopper all day and killed all day.  I bet I landed close to 60 trout; all browns.  And my hook to land ratio was over 95%.

Beaver, Utah

From Bishop I did the 7 hour drive to Beaver Utah to meet up with Ed and Jim from the SDFF club.  I had never fished the Beaver Utah area and was inspired by a club presentation given by Cody Prentice of lost river angler.  From where I live in Carlsbad, CA it takes just as long to drive to Beaver, UT than it does to drive to Mammoth (eastern sierras).  I have been looking for an alternative to mammoth that is drivable and fishable in the same day for a long time because the eastern sierras (mammoth) gets so much pressure.  I had two and a half days to fish in the beaver area.

As difficult as it is to not focus on how good looking the author is… try to focus on that red slash of the bonneville cutthroat and the huck green caddis perdigon hanging out of it’s face

I got to Beaver mid day where Ed and Jim were waiting for me.  Ed led us down to a stretch of the Beaver below the dam.  When I first looked at the “river” I had to admit I was not encouraged.  It was skinny and froggy.  But, as soon as I started hiking everything changed.  Their seemed to be fish in every place that trout should hold.  I was killing again.  This time I was fishing the midge perdigon I tied.  I actually had a double in this session that was pretty epic.  I had a huge brown hit my huck hopper hard and didn’t realize at first I had a small rainbow on my midge perdigon at the same time.  We only fished a couple three hours, before the day light ended but, I was shocked at how prolific that river was.  Hmmm.

Go Padres

The next day we had a full day.  First Ed led us to a stretch of the Sevier River he had fished many times prior.  He caught bunch of trout right below where we parked as I was still gearing up.  I knew this was going to be special.  And it was.  I killed.  I was fishing the Huck-bow Warrior Perdigon this time (below a huck hopper).  I got very few to rise, but I bet I landed 40 in that section of river.  We fished about 3-4 hours to a bridge where it became private.  We reconned to eat a little.  I was shocked to hear Ed say we were going to a different place because I did so well I was ready to do that stretch all over again.  Of interest was the high water line.  We seemed to catch the Sevier in March perfectly before the Spring Runnoff.  The river was easily crossable in multiple spots.  But, that high water line was at least 20 feet higher than the level we were fishing.  It must really get blown out raging in spring.  I’m curious as to just when you can fish that river effectively.  My guess is mid march to mid may.  Then august to November.  Which would be a really similar pattern to the Kern or the Kings.

Wild fish do crazy acrobatics when hooked.  but, the barbless competition style jig hook just stays in.

So we moved to a tributary creek that Ed new of.  It was tiny.  But, it had holdable water.  And sure enough we all started catching fish immediately.  The first fish I caught I looked at and said, “It’s a cutty!”.  Then I realized it was not just any cutty.  It was a Bonneville Cutthroat.   Soon a local pulled his pickup off the road and was watching us.  I waved and eventually went up and talked to him.  He was an old timer that was very pleased we were catching fish.  He did confirm that the fish we were catching were 98% pure strained Bonneville Cutthroats.  And then he told me that the local DFG guy stocked tiger trout into that creek.  I didn’t believe him.  “Why in the world would someone spoil and creek with pure strained, indigenous, wild fish?”  Well, I caught 15 or 20 bonnevilles in the short time we had on the creek before the day ended.  This time I used the huck-bow warrior perdigons.

The perspective is tough here but, that is a big fish going longer than 1/4 of my 9 foot rod

My last day was another full day of fishing.  Ed led us to another stretch of the Sevier that Cody from Lost River Angler pointed to on a map for us.  I was excited about it.  Here is an edited (siri generated spelling errors fixed) version of the email update to Cody that I dictated the next morning driving home.  It sums it up quite nicely:

“Well like I told my 25-year-old in Bozeman last night I didn’t think the fishing could get better but it did   I had to land over 50 fish yesterday maybe close to 60 and some real large quality ones too.  I even caught a 14” tiger trout. 

We fished upriver on the Sevier where are you showed us on the map.  We only finished like 11 AM to 1:30 PM and I swear I was getting a take on every cast I only casted at water where you couldn’t see the bottom basically 2 1/2 feet or deeper and there seem to be a fish in every one of those pockets.  I pulled 10 fish out of one of those pools.  In a handful of those pools I had multiple fish that I landed.  some quality fish too.  I caught a brown over 20 inches.  I’m not a counter but this new perdigon style of nymphs that I’m tying on the traditional flies that I’ve always tied and sold off timhuckaby.com are just killing and because of the competition style wide gap hook. Even barbless my land to hook ratio is almost 100%. In that session I also caught three on top on a size 12 huck  hopper.  I was fishing dry dropper.  My dropper was about 3 feet from the dry.   I know I landed close to 40 in that session on the Sevier.

Then we moved over to the creek tributary from the day before. we parked in the same place that we did the day before but me and Jim walked down and put in where we finished the prior day and fished up river in water we had not seen yet.  

I shortened up the dropper I’m pretty much fished the exact same way.  and the fish were in the exact same places even though it’s much smaller water. I was hooking more fish on top in that session; landing them on my dry fly, a huck hopper tan size 12.  My Perdigons were killing on the same Huck green Caddis Perdigon that imitates a green rock worm. Size 16   oh yeah i finished 3X entire time.”

That’s a tiger trout with a Huck Midge Perdigon hanging off his nose

Summary

Well there it is.  3 states, 11 fishing days, 13 stretches of river / creeks, and over 350 trout caught and released thanks to the Perdigon style of fly tying.  And with this article let me announce that you can buy those Perdigon flies off this site here.

Yea, the Bonneville Cutties fall for Huck Hoppers too

Forks of the Kern – Springtime Hopper Fishing – Couples Trip

June 4-7, 2020 (Spring Guidance for the Forks)

Hear me huffin’ and puffin’?  i’m going as fast as i can towards the Huck site to see if it’s open

I have been backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail for over a decade….closer to 15 years…could be 20.  Yet in all that time I had never been able to go in June.  The only time I ever got to go to the Forks in the Spring was in a bad drought year…at the end of April…and it was one of, if not the most epic fly fishing experiences I had ever had at the Forks.  I mean the chance to throw flies at big wild native kern river rainbows that had not seen food, let alone artificials in over 4 months?!   There are a variety reasons I never was able to go in Spring:

  • Big Winters; lots of snow blocking the roads in
  • The River is normally too blown out big and dangerous to fish in June
  • Waiting for the road to open. Western Divide has to clear many roads, not just NF-2282 to the forks, of the trees, rocks and debris that fall on the road during the winter.  Western Divide Ranger District is just plain underfunded and it’s a true shame.  NF-2282 is a rarely travelled 23 mile long dead end into the wilderness at altitude.  Not only do people do stupid things in winter, but the pine beetle problem is so bad that trees die and fall on the road blocking it.  Even on this trip a tree fell across the road while we were in the forks and we had to run over the decomposing top of it to get out.
  • Work: June is conference season and I’m a conference speaker.

Look at that sky above the Upper Kern River. It’s like Montana

But this June is different.  We had an average snowpack year, but the Kern is acting like it’s in a drought year.  850 CFS in the beginning of June is so rare.  At the time of this writing, just 3 days later, the flow is at 520 CFS and well below the pace of the last big drought year of 2018.  So, when I got a note from my friend at Western Divide that they opened the road I executed quickly.  It did not matter that there is a forest wide restriction on camp fires.  We could live without a camp fire on this trip. The chance to get in there so early in the year was a treat.

My love of the Forks is well known.  And in our neighborhood in Carlsbad they have been hearing it for years.  My wife kelly won’t go unless a girlfriend goes with her.  I totally get that because I like to fish 24/7 and she does not.  Backpacking can be rugged and physical.  I have told many in the ‘hood: “if you give it a chance I know you will love it.  It’s only 4.36 miles”.  But, I have to admit it’s only for a small portion of people.  Backpackng can be brutal…especially in the mountains.  You have to be fit.  So, two other couples, dear friends, joined us on this one.  That is a first for me.  I never dreamed I’d get to share that experience in a couples scenario….especially us upper middle aged couples who have been married for decades.  Typically, when I go to the forks I fish all daylight hours alone covering many miles of river with 1000s of casts.  With 3 couples, 5 of which are beginner fly fishers it would be totally different and I looked forward to that.

The Group Left to Right: Kelly, Chris, Conni, Meredith, Lance, Me

The Group

Meredith is a “seasoned veteran” of the forks joining my wife kelly and me twice.  There is a saying we made up last summer on the JMT: “Mere would go.”  And that is because she is tough and loves the wilderness.  Last summer in a totally stomach flu like sick state, the poor thing climbed half dome and hiked 15 miles with us into the Yosemite valley and didn’t complain a bit.  It’s her husband Lance that has been a challenge for us to convince to go.  “why would you guys spend all that money on backpacking gear when we can just fly to Fiji?”  it’s a legitimate argument.  But, now he’s a fan and I’m sure he’ll go again.  Kelly and Mere coined the backpacking saying, “More booze; less food.”  I like that.  Conni and Chris Nardo joined us.  They did the Sierra Club Wilderness Basic backpacking Course until covid-19 ruined it.  One of those trips was to the desert where they had to carry like 3 gallons of water.  Talk about miserable.  Conni wasn’t too hot on backpacking after that, but she is a trooper and was game for this trip.  Now I know she’s excited for the next one.  and her husband Chris?  Who hikes 10 high end beers into the forks to share because of his own love of beer?  Talk about a value add!  Talk about going in heavy and lighter on the way back up the hill!

Lance with a nice Kern River Rainbow

The Fishing

Usually I rate the fishing experience for a trip in a simple poor to awesome range.  With average, good, excellent, in between.  On this trip I didn’t fish that much; maybe 25% as much as I normally do.  And that was fine.  In fact it worked out great!  Normally I leave in the morning with a rod and spend the entire day in the water fly fishing while I work miles and miles of river.  I did do a ton of simple little 10 minute sessions right at camp while everyone did other things like relaxing and did pretty well.  I swear there are hundreds of fish in that head, the pool and the tail-out at the huck site.  One day…in august when the water temps are bearable, I’m going to bring a snorkeling mask to verify it.

So, how do you rate the fishing on a trip where:

  • you only catch around 10 trout a day….you don’t catch your normal 40 fish a day…but, only because you’re guiding more than fishing
  • You lose more fish to LDRs and missed sets than you land
  • You don’t successfully land a big one
  • The water is just big enough to be a challenge to casting
  • All 5 beginners get takes on top; the majority of them even land a few
  • My buddy Lance, not without experience, but certainly not in highly skilled and knowledgeable range, casts into whitewater and has his Huck Hopper assaulted by a large trout that set on it self. He landed it.  I’d say very close to 20”.  Size 12 huck hopper in the whitewater….who knew?

When you sum all that up I’d call that good fishing.

Conni battling a Kern River Rainbow

I can tell you this: I fished dries the entire time I was there.  I mostly fished Huck Hoppers.  I couldn’t tell which did better: the little size 12 ones or the gargantuan size 4s.  And I consistently got rises except for in the mornings when it was super cold water.   Frequently I fished a double huck hopper, big one in front and little one in back and the takes seemed to be 50-50 on each.  Also, except for a short stretch on the first day, I had all the beginners fish huck hoppers.  Dries are just easer to cast and more fun to fish.

This trip was fun because I got to guide beginners.  I love guiding beginners.  I promised all of them: “You will get a take; You will fool a fish.  Battling them all the way to landing them is a totally different story.”  And that was certainly true on this trip.

Yea, that is a big ass huck hopper hanging out if his face…

The Food

Normally I wouldn’t write about food on a backpacking trip short of the picture of the big steak on the first night….which we didn’t get to enjoy because of the state wide restrictions on camp fires in the forest.  But, I invested in a dehydrator.  I will never eat expensive crappy freeze-dried backpacking food again.  Even my wife Kelly said a lot of the food I dehydrated was pretty good.  And she is very discriminating.  It wasn’t perfect.  I absolutely ruined chopped chicken breasts that I dehydrated for an asian noodle dish, making them so tough they were inedible.  Mere also bought a dehydrator and made a vegetarian meal that was pretty darn good.  I’m tempted to blog what I’m learning about dehydrating…but, there is already so much good guidance on the interweb on how to dehydrate food for backpacking I just don’t see me lending much more expertise than is already out there.  Good food just makes the effort and suffering of backpacking so much more palatable (pun intended).

That’s Conni’s hand after cleaning it up… ouch

The Calamities

How many times have I written on this site, “There is always a calamity while backpacking.  You have to adapt and overcome.”  Well, this trip was not short of calamity.  Lets’ start with my f-ups.  Firstly, we left Thursday morning and I took a number of conference calls for work.  Our plan was to meet in Kernville, gas up and eat something before driving the last hour up the mountain to the trailhead.  I plugged the forks trailhead into my GPS and didn’t even think of how it routed me.  Since I was concentrating and talking on my phone I didn’t notice it routed me the Porterville way from the east completely missing Kernville before it was too late.  I had to detour south across the mountains on roads I had never been on and my wife was not pleased.  I was out of service, and I had 4 people waiting in Kernville on me and I f’d up.  We drove in 3 cars to be respectful and cautious to the social distancing rule.  That cost everyone 45 minutes and it was completely my fault.  Those minutes late translated into degrees on a hot day.  Totally my fault.

Once at the trailhead, because it was hot, the plan was for us to hike as a group to the bottom and do the little kern crossing together.  Then I’d take off with pace and race to the huck site to see if it was open.  The Huck site is really the last site before the brutal stretch up and over the mountain, which adds 2 gory miles.  And I didn’t want to put the group through that or put them through doubling back.  Conni had an InReach mini and I had my InReach 66i so we could communicate by texting (inReach to Inreach txting is free).  Well, the Huck site was open.  I dropped my pack, quickly put my cold food and booze into a mesh bag with a rock at the bottom and secured it to a tree.  Then I filled up my katadyn with cold river water and took off going to other way trying to track the group down hoping to help…. Even if it was simply by encouragement.   Well, one of Conni update txts to me was “On our way, a little slow, sorry.”  I didn’t think anything of it at the time.  But, it seemed like I hiked a full mile backwards before I ran into Kelly, Mere and Lance.  I offered to take Kelly’s bag.  The 3 of them said, “No. go help Conni; she took a fall.”   It was about 10 minutes later when I ran into a dehydrated Chris and Conni.  Neither complaining but I could tell they were ready for the hike to be done.  I took Conni’s pack from her and put it on…shocked I said, “this weighs more than mine! This has to be over 50 pounds!”  Conni is about 5’2” and a biscuit over 100 lbs.  She took a fall and her hand was cut up and bleeding pretty good.  Nardo was carrying ~10 lbs of beer so I could only imagine how he was doing.  Conni took the water I refilled at the site and we hiked the rest of the way together.  I tried to talk upbeat the entire time so they wouldn’t focus on the misery.  We made it.

Lance and Kelly

At the site we all were setting up camp when Lance said to me, “hey, where do I put my cold food and booze in the river?”  I told him about my mesh bag and pointed at it.  he walked down to the river and said he couldn’t find it.  I thought to myself, “dumb ass how can you miss it?”  well he did eventually find it.  but, it was empty and barely visible because of that.  In my haste I didn’t realize I put the food into a little eddy in the water so that the current wouldn’t hold it downstream.  Normally not an issue, but I seemingly didn’t singe down the string on the top sealing the bag.  Even though I had a rock in there to ballast it, it didn’t sink.  It must have floated backwards in the eddy and all my food and liter of high end rum simply worked it’s way out of the mesh bag and floated away.  I’ve documented some classic f-ups backpacking but that one is at the top of the list.  The food bag was super buoyant, so it hung up just 100 feet down river.   Thank god.  But, my booze probably floated all the way to the Fairview dam to a lucky bait fisherman.

When I got to Conni there was a lot of blood on her hand.  I couldn’t tell because of the amount of scratches if it was a stitches thing.  Once she cleaned up at the site, it was obvious it was not – just a lot of cuts from sliding down the mountain on rock.  This is why I carry a garmin inReach.  Had she broken a leg, cracked her head open, we would have needed help.

I love this picture of Nardo that Conni took.  That is the big pool in front of the Huck Site.  He’s either looking for rises or contemplating life.

Weather

Another first: rain.  In the ~20 years of going to the Forks I had never experienced rain.  Not even a drizzle.  It’s an arid place; in the southern sierras; and it’s only 4000/5000 feet.  So, it doesn’t get those afternoon summer thunderstorms so typical in high elevations of the Sierras.  I told our entire group, who had been staring at the weather forecasts and the 30% chance of rain, “There is no way in hell it’s going to rain there.”.  It did. Not for a huge amount of time.  But long enough and heavy enough for us to put on jackets and hide under the trees for an hour.

On this trip we saw hot sun with clear skies, overcast, patchy clouds, wind, rain, and bitter cold.  That must be a spring thing for the area.

typical of our day hikes: hanging out, relaxing, eating lunch while i pound the water with dries.

The Cache

Since this was the first time in for the year I was really curious to see how the cache survived the winter in it’s new location.  For years I have built an accumulation of “stuff” that stays down at the Huck Site.  It has a tent, a tarp, extra fuel, tools, dishes and silverware, two sets of wading boots and water shoes, etc.  Anyone that downloads the Huck Guidance to the Forks from the site and pays the $5 which I donate to Cal Trout is more than welcome to use the cache.  Many of you have added to the cache over the years.  The cache has also been pillaged a few times; which is why I moved it last November.

Here’s the gang right before rattlesnake creek ready to charge over the mountain and look for soft water

3-Nighter

After the hike in on Thursday afternoon we all set up camp.  I can’t sit still so I rigged up and immediately caught 2-3 fish right in front of the site.  We did the happy hour ritual, ate and went down early.  Honestly when that sun goes down it gets cold and it’s illegal to have a fire.  Hitting the tent is really the only alternative.

On Day 2, Friday I got up early, way before everyone else…like at 530am…  so I snuck a 30 minute fly fishing session at a run that always produces down stream.  I must have got 25 takes.  I landed a few including some nice ones.

A well populated Huck Camp

During the huge breakfast we all made I suggested we day hike up stream.  That meant packing food, rods, etc.  It wasn’t but ¼ mile that I passed a great view spot above the river and a rapid.  I heard the rattle faintly, but the river was so loud I kept walking.  It was that big red diamond back rattlesnake me and so many people had seen in the very same place before.  Chris was behind me and missed it too!  It was Connie that heard it, calling it out.  Nardo and I walked right by it and didn’t notice even though it was rattling.  It survived another winter and it is huge now (which means it’s much safer than a young snake).  Since everyone else was backed up on the trail behind it I tried to shoe it away with my rod towards the river so they could pass.  That didn’t work.  it turned at me, crossed the trail in front of me in front and chris in back.  It took a defensive position in the rocks, ready to strike, with it’s tail going off.  There was no choice for Chris and the others.  You cannot walk within striking distance in front of a pissed of rattlesnake.  So, I routed them up the mountain and around.  Honestly it was a treacherous giant granite face of rock.  Welcome to the wilderness I thought to myself. I sure was proud those guys just scaled right up the side of the granite and over.

Just another nice rainbow with a Huck Hopper hanging out of his face

We continued the trek towards the entrance of rattlesnake creek; one of the more beautiful views in the area and an awesome place to fish… but, literally impossible until under 300 CFS.  I pointed out to Chris, “There is great fishing from here for a full ½ mile up the river.  This is where I cross when the river is low enough to cross safely.”  He looked at the rapids and said, “You have to be kidding.”  “Yea”, I said, “It’s not close to being crossable right now.”  I think that is one of the most alluring things about the Upper Kern.  It is such a different river depending on flow.  The Kern drains Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet.  There are not many rivers in the world left that go from 200 CFS to 20,000 CFS and back.  The few have mostly been ruined by dams.

I knew that once over the mountain there is a great stretch of water with one run being one of the most outstanding runs within the first 6 miles above the confluence.  When we arrived, Lance holed up there.  I told the rest of the gang to spread out every 50 feet up river and start fishing, knowing I’d get to them soon.  The trick with that run is you have to cast straight up stream at it with the fly coming back at you quickly.  Lance started getting strikes like crazy.  His line control was good, definitely experienced with a fast drift.  So I left him there and attended to setting up the others.  I think everyone got takes in that stretch.  I believe lance landed a few small ones too.  We ate lunch and hung out before the 3 mile hike back to the Huck Site.  To enjoy cocktails and appetizers (while Lance and I snuck in some 10 minute sessions right at the site) before dinner.

That’s Kelly in front. But, check out 4 of them lined up in a productive run above huck camp

On Day 3, Saturday I got up early again.  Once the sun comes and the birds start going off around 530am I just can’t sleep any longer.  Plus, when you are asleep by 9pm there is only so much I can sleep.  So, I snuck an early morning 30 minute fly fishing session again.  This time I didn’t do as well.  Just a couple or 3 takes.  From the rain the day before I did notice the river was up a few inches.  It was also much colder.  I should have measured the river temp; I had a river thermometer with me. My guess was that the river temp was a lot colder and that put the fish down.  Of course, when you are fishing dries at 6am can you really expect success?  Well…on the Upper Kern sometimes you can.  It was the simple fact, though, that on this day the rises got better and better as the day went on; as the river warmed up.

This day’s plan was to hike downriver; exploring the myriad of fishing opportunities we simply hiked by on the way in.  Also, as I told the group, there were numerous places down river where we’d fish from rocks above heads, big pools and tail-outs; places where you did not need to step into the water.   Over the years I have caught some huge rainbows in those big pools.

i don’t know what the hell this means. Yoga or something like that.

It was on one of these giant pieces of granite that Lance hooked 2 big Kern River rainbows.  Here’s how it went down.  I was rigging Mere’s rod, back turned, when Lance shouted he was on.  This big fish jumped 3 feet high out of the rapids and raced downstream.  You can imagine what I said to myself.  Something like, “there is no way he is going to be able to wrestle that monster back up stream without it popping off or breaking off.”  Then I remembered the 3x.  “Ok, Lance, see if you can wrestle him tight to the bank.”  Which is a steep granite face that slightly eddies.  And he did.  It was a pretty skilled maneuver.  He pulled the fish back enough to where the raging rapids started again.  I told him, “see if you can keep his head out of the water as you stay tight on him”.  I rarely use a net anymore.  Only when guiding.  So, damnit I should have brought a backpacking net on this trip.  I scrambled like a goat down the rock face, grabbed the leader and pulled the fish to my feet.  And damnit the thing popped off right there.  I told Lance in my, and most fly fishermen’s book that is a catch.  We don’t want to touch them anyways.   But, I was a little bummed I lost that fish trying to land him so that Lance didn’t get a picture.  Lance was a good sport about it.  So, I went back to Mere’s rig, back turned again.  Lance casted back into the raging current without even drying the fly off and son of a bitch he hooked up on another huge rainbow.  This time he tightened hard and kept him up stream.  I can’t remember what I was screaming at him I was so excited.  I told him to pull him to the bank, which is calm water.  And this time after grabbing the leader I did land him.  Lance nailed him right in that really tough cartilage part of the jaw so it was not about to pop off.  I put the fish in his hands and we got the trophy pic and the video.  I was so stoked!  I’m not so sure Lance realizes how special that was.  Not only did he catch a fish that only lives in a tiny part of the world, but he caught a big version of it.  at the time I thought is was north of twenty.   In staring at the video I’d say 18”-19” male Kern River Rainbow.  Huge fanned tail.

Me, Nardo and Lance: Suffering in the rain….while drinking bourbon

We worked our way almost all the way to the confluence of the Little Kern.  There is a great long run there where everyone could set up 50 apart.  We got random takes and caught random rainbows here and there.  We hung out and ate lunch.  It was a great day and the hike back the couple miles seemed pretty easy for everyone.  I ran into the young fly fishermen I gave huck hoppers to on the previous day and we chatted a bit while the rest of the group continued on the camp.  Once I got going again I knew the big 360 degree eddy was coming up.  9 times out of 10 from above you can see a group of fish in their feeding….some of them huge.  I couldn’t resist.  I stopped and made the miraculous, 40 feet cast, under the tree to the 2 square foot patch of soft water at the head.  Shocked, I think I even said out loud to myself, “perfect.”  I got the 1 second drift I needed and got struck.  I tightened as best I could (5x).  But the slack in the line pulling back at me with the 9 foot leader meant I didn’t get tight in time.  I missed him.  Darn.  Another LDR.  I laughed.  But, there is no fooling that fish 2 times a day.  So, I didn’t get struck again after 10 casts so I wandered back to camp to join happy hour.

I did stop at the “big Eddy” where it takes a god-like cast hoping for a 2 second drift, and did manage to hook a monster… but, LDR’d him.  Darn.  I laughed.

Here’s the gang before we headed out from Huck Camp

Day 4, Sunday – We decided the day before that we’d break up the hike out into 2 sections.  Firstly, we’d hike the 2.35 miles back to the Little Kern River, then cross it.  We broke camp before 9am and it was a not so hot day with a cool breeze so it was an easy and quick hike.  But, instead of marching right up that 1100 feet in two miles I led the group 1/3 mile downriver to the confluence of the main fork of the Kern River and the Little Kern River for a little sightseeing and rest before tackling the mountain.  It’s a beautiful place, on a plateau at where a primitive campsite (and the actual launch where the rafters and kayakers take off) overlooks the confluence.  It’s somewhat tricky to figure out how to find to because you have to backtrack.  It’s a plan that worked perfectly.  We ate a bit and honestly I was dying to fish because there are two really good runs right there.  But, we weren’t going to spend a lot of time there so I didn’t break out a rod.  Not a problem.

Clearly Conni knows her way around a camera. This is just another great shot she took as we approached rattlesnake canyon / creek

The plan was that I’d charge up the mountain as fast as I could, empty my pack and double back down the mountain to meet up with anyone … to take the load off anyone who was struggling.  I have done that many many times before and I really don’t mind.  I actually like it because it ends up being such a great workout.  Well, I started the ascent with Lance and Chris behind me.  I focused on going slow because that first part is so steep and can ruin you if you take off too fast.  But, I could already feel the pain / lack of power in my legs.  My cardio was great.  I had worked hard getting into shape.  But, I just didn’t have the leg power and there was pain from simply being so physical for 3 straight days.  My legs needed a recovery day.  “Hmmm, I said to myself.  Maybe I am getting old.  This could be miserable.”  Both Lance and Chris were in good shape so they were right on my tail.  There were times I thought about insisting they pass me.  In my history at the Forks there is only one time where it took me longer than an hour to hike out.  When I was young it took me under 40 minutes to hike out.  But, one time in my early 50s I was overweight and out of shape and I paid for it.  So, I was watching my Garmin Forerunner closely.  I knew I was cutting it close.  The halfway point is now vandalized “Welcome to the Golden Trout Wilderness” sign.  When I passed it I was over 30 mins so I knew I was slow.  With a quarter mile left I told Lance, “We have to see if we can make it under an hour so I’m going to pick it up.”  We did.  We made it in under an hour….barely.  At the truck I quickly unloaded.  I didn’t even take on water.  I couldn’t have spent more than 5-10 minutes when I took off with an empty pack back down the mountain.  And to my shock within 200 yards there were the 3 gals.  Wow.  So strong.  That is definitely the fastest that Kelly has made it up that mountain.

We hit the Kern River Brewery on the way home; the first weekend they had been open since the pandemic started.  I earned that cheeseburger.

I pounded the water at the Huck Site pretty hard. And was rewarded numerous times.

Summary

I fished the entire trip on dries.  And for the most part I put the entire group totally on huck hoppers.  I cannot remember a trip to the Forks where I didn’t nymph.  That beldar Stone fly nymph I tie in for the “Upper Kern River Special” is so wildly effective there (although difficult to cast) because not only is it a good match for the naturals making the big rainbows love it, but, with the 3 titanium beads in it, it gets down to the zone quickly and stays there.  But, I never even threw one on this trip.  Even in that fast water where it would have made sense.  Even for the beginners.  When you love fly fishing and are getting takes on top there really is no reason to nymph.  You will not catch as many fish as nymphing, but, the takes are so much more fun.  And in spring at the Forks, Dries are seemingly the plan and the fun of it.

Conni took this picture of huck-truck on the way to the Forks Turnoff.  i take the beauty of the drive in for granted.  The faces granite are pretty awesome.  I’m always so excited to get to fishing that i race to the trailhead.