Category Archives: Trip Reports

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

Fly Fishing the Bahamas

Feb 27 – March 6, 2021

Huck’s Big Bone

Summary:

What a trip!  Just like every Huckaby vacation we had adventures every day.  We hit the islands of: New Providence, Andros, many of the Exumas, Rose, Treasure and more.  We snorkeled in and around Pablo Escobar’s cocaine carrying plane that crashed.  We fished guided two days on Andros.  Ridiculous fishing.  I am not a counter but on the first day I caught well into the teens on bonefish.  Plus other species like many horse eye jacks.  I caught a really nice bonefish…a bucket lister …then was outdone by my son, Mark, who caught a bonefish of a lifetime.  25 year old’s should not be able to catch a bonefish like that.

Details:

I have dragged my Dear friend Tom O’Connell all over the US fly fishing with me for over a decade.  He’s come to love fly fishing like I do…just not as obsessively.  I have bush-whacked him through some crazy ass stuff to get to the river.  He’s the only buddy I have ever put through getting snowed in from fly fishing in August….in Wyoming.   And the craziest thing is that from playing college football his body is a disaster.  He’s always in pain.  And he always man’s-up.

Me and my buddy Tom O’Connell

So, when Tommy told me he moved to Florida and wanted to visit the Bahamas to bonefish I told him I was all in.  Let’s face it, the bonefishing thing in the Bahamas is on every fly fisherman’s bucket list.  And then he said, “Feel free to invite Kelly, her friends, your kids and their friends.  We have room.”  So, with around 4 months of planning we executed.  And we needed every bit of that planning and more:

  • COVID-19 tests on both sides of the trip for 7 people
  • qualifying and paying for Bahamian travel Visas.
  • all the calamity that comes with 4 groups of people flying from 4 different places.
  • COVID outbreaks on some of the 10,000+ islands of the Bahamas.
  • a gas shortage in the Bahamas preventing direct routes to the lavish resort Tommy inked for us.
  • And what frustrates me the most: a group of 4 mid 20s that do not read email

Just like on TV… the bonefish run like hell and make your reel sing

My fly fishing investment was not too significant.  COVID cancelled my “once in a lifetime” fly fishing trip to Cuba last year and the Bahamas requires most of the same gear.  It is definitely the same flies which I spent 6 months tying.  I had all the expensive flouro leaders and tippet.  My son Mark only has trout gear.  So I brought rods and gear for him too.  Here is the arsenal of rod / reel combos I brought to the Bahamas:

Rod Reel Line Size
8 wt Sage Fli TFO BVK SD III SA Bonefish Taper/Flt 100ft WF8F 9’0″ 4 piece
8 wt Sage Launch Orvis Hydros Large Arbor IV rio outbound short tropical WF8I/S6 9’0″ 4 piece
8 wt Orvis Helios II Orvis Hydros Large Arbor IV Rio tropical outbound short 10′ four piece
10 wt TFO TiCr2 300-400gr Lefty Kreh Tibor Everglades Rio tropical outbound short 9’0″ 4 piece
12 wt TFO BVK Teton LA12 Rio T-17 30ft Shooting Head 510gr sinking 9’0″ 4 piece
  TFO BVK SD III+ Rio tropical outbound short

Tommy arranged 2 days of guided bonefishing for the 4 of us guys with the world famous Captain Marvin Miller.  It should be noted that my son Mark, now 25 and living in Bozeman for 6-7 years is quite the stick.  He can double haul.  But, Mark really only had trout experience.  The same went for his best buddy Conner Burns (Burnsie) who was mark’s roommate his freshman year at Montana State and lived with him on and off ever since.  Burnsie is no stranger to vacationing with the Huckabys.  Especially when fly fishing is involved.  Burnsie is also a stick.  And he is really good on the oars.  He works at Ro Drift Boats in Bozeman.  He credits me for teaching him how to fly fish when he was 18, but I think that is only partially true.

My son Mark shot this video of Pablo Escobar’s crashed cocaine smuggling plane.

 

Bonefishing is an 8WT thing.  So, I brought 3 8 wts thinking Mark and I would each have a 8wt and we’d have a “just in case” backup.  But, Burnsie also brought a couple 8wt Scott rods.  Tommy owns an 8 wt Orvis Helios 3.  So, we were covered.  My two “goto” rods would be:

  • a 10 foot Orvis Helios II with a rio outbound short tropical floating line on it. That set up is pretty much the top of the line gear designed exactly for bone fishing.  It came home broken.  This is why backup rods are so important.
  • A Sage Fli with a traditional scientific anglers bonefish line

I feel so lucky i spotted this pampano cruising and nailed him.  there is an argument that we should have eaten him raw right on the boat… but, i have been catch and releasing so long i just didn’t.

All the other rods, reels and lines were for “just in case”:

  • Before the trip I read that we were going to hit the pompano season right as it started. The pompano is a delicacy, and I was dreaming of nailing them in front of our lavish place on the beach.  The 8wt sage launch had an intermediate sink rio tropical outbound short line on it to fish subsurface which is what is called for when fishing the pompano.
  • That 10 WT TFO lefty kreh is my absolute favorite saltwater rod. It’s the one I railed all those bluefin trevally on in Kauai.  I have also had good success on roosters with it in Mexico.  I brought it just in case we saw some permit or tarpon.
  • And that TFO BVK 12WT was a virgin. I bought it for the cancelled Cuba trip and had never casted it.  I brought it to the Bahamas with a 700 gr heavy sink line just in case we wanted to target a larger tarpon or shark or…..

My Buddy Tom O’Connell with one of the many bonefish he landed

Getting to the Bahamas

Until the last minute, the plan was that Tommy, me, Kelly, Mark and Burnsie were going to take a boat across from Miami.  It was going to a be a 4-5 hour trip.  That was the plan.  The gas shortage and rough seas precluded a direct route which turned the trip into a 12 hour ordeal that introduced too much risk.  So, we inked flights to Nassau from Miami.  Camille and her roommate Natasha, who live in St. Petersburg, FL had always planned to fly straight to Nassau.  Tom inked us a nice beach house at the Palm Cay Resort.  We also chartered a boat and hired a captain from the Palm Cay Resort for the entire week we were there.  And man did we luck out with our captain, Ryan D… He literally and figuratively took care of us for a week.  We surely would have died without him.  With him we had so much fun. He is a friend now.  I’m confident he is the only honorary Huckaby with dread locks.  We even took Ryan and his girlfriend Vashti out to dinner to celebrate with us.  Hopefully, they will take us up on our offer to stay with us at the “Huckaby Hotel” in Carlsbad.

The Huckaby crew, Tommy, Burnsie, Natasha, Captain Ryan and his girlfriend Vashti. It was the first time in a over a year i had eat inside a restaurant.

Calamities:

I always write on this site about dealing with the inevitable calamities of backpacking.  Well, it’s not just backpacking trips that produce calamity.  This trip was riddled with calamity:

  • Camille dropped her iphone into 20 feet of water at the dock. Ryan, put a mask on, swam down and got it.  It still worked.
  • I slipped on the stairs in our lavish beach house at Palm Cay Resort and tumbled on my ass down to the bottom. I was cleaning the sand off the stairs with wet paper towels and had just told the girls to be careful because they were slippery.  What a dumb-ass.  Thank God I wasn’t hurt.  I have learned how to fall.  I fall a lot.  But, mostly in the wilderness.
  • I left my GoPro on Andros Island on Denzell’s guide boat. Through cousins and moms and friends and planes Ryan got it back into my hands 2 days later.    I owe him forever.
  • My iPhone died. Not the battery; the phone.  I plugged it in to charge and the screen went black.  There was a shock at the outlet so I think it fried.  I had to live a week without a phone when I intended to keep up with work during the trip.  Maybe that was God.
  • My Orvis Helios 2 came back broken. Thank god for Orvis’s awesome warranty.
  • I got bit by an iguana. Those damn things have fangs like a cat.

That’s my son Mark with a 8 pound Bonefish

The Fishing

Tom and I were having real trouble finding guides until I stumbled into Stephen Vletas from Tight Loop Travel on the inter-web.  Until Stephen, all we could find were guides that required you to stay in a lodge.  Stephen was super responsive by email.  I highly recommend having him take care of you if you want to pull something like this off.  Stephen booked us with the world-famous Captain Marvin Miller and his crew of guides on Andros Island.  Two days of guided bone fishing on Andros Island!  It did not disappoint.

I talked to Mark on the way there to Andros and he said he was a little nervous.  That does make sense. Confidence on a trout stream is vastly different than hunting the skittish bonefish in crystal clear water.  So, I put Mark and Burnsie with Marvin for both days by design.  That little plan worked perfectly.  Those boys had an absolute hoot of a time with Marvin.  They both caught bonefish; a lot of them.  What 25 year old hunts, spots, casts perfectly, and strip sets on a 10 pound bonefish?!  At points they were having so much fun they even targeted the big barracudas.  I guess catching 10 pound bonefish was not enough; 25 year olds need to catch and release 20 pound barracudas.

Shine releasing one of the many horse eyed jacks we accidently caught while hunting bonefish.

Tom and I fished with “Shine” on the first day and Denzel on the 2nd day.  What I was a bit nervous about was Tom.  He’s still a beginner in terms of casting.  And everything I have seen on TV, youtube and read about in magazines always talked about the requirement for precision double hauls past 40 feet.  Plus, the trek to Andros Island each day from New Providence Island took a couple hours.  we missed the incoming tides on both days.  We did so well I can’t imagine how crazy it would have been if we caught the incoming tide.  While we fished Ryan cruised the gals around the many beaches and reefs to snorkel, hang out, and cocktail.

I have written many times about the little things that separate average guides from great guides.  Well, Shine (that is a nickname, btw, all the natives seem to have nicknames) is a great guide.  He quickly saw that Tom was limited to a 20-30 foot cast.  So, instead of putting tom into 3 foot deep clear water requiring a 50 foot accurate cast he moved the boat into deeper murky water where he felt the bonefish would be holding during the slack tide.  What I witnessed next was absolutely brilliant.  A true sign of a great guide. Tom blind casted 20 feet at 3 o’clock and Shine said, “That’s fine.  Let go of the line.  Let it sink.  Wait….wait…” and as Shine said that he poled the boat backwards sideways another 20-30 feet or so turning Tom’s 20 foot cast into a 50 foot cast.  Tom had no idea, but I noticed it.  I had no idea before I came to the Bahamas, that bonefishing requires a long smooth and slow strip.  Pretty much the opposite of the lighting fast stripping you need to do in Kauai.  So, then Shine said, “Start stripping…smoother…strip… strip… strip….”  And sure enough Tom got hit, strip set and was on.  I was laughing and hooting and hollering because honestly, at this point, although I had not even fished yet I wanted tom to experience success desperately.  And sure enough Tom got that bonefish on the reel and landed him.  I turned to Shine and said, “I saw what you did.  That was brilliant.”   He just smiled.

Captain Marvin Miller: “Now this is why you come to Andros….for the big bonefish….”

 

Now it was my turn.  Within minutes I had landed my first Bahamian bonefish.  And that is how the day went.  Tom and I alternated catching fish after fish for 3-4 hours.  We smattered in a few horse eye jacks in the process.  I caught one big one that Shine poo-poo’d.  In the Bahamas, Bonefish are special; jacks are not.

I did have a “holy shit did you see that!” moment.  I set hard on a bonefish and as they do it took a long run.  I reeled it back in and a huge barracuda shot out of nowhere and ate it from the broadside.  The tail of the bonefish floated downwards and the head came off my fly.

It’s amazing how much better the guides are at spotting the bonefish than my untrained eyes were.  Shine would frequently shout out something like, “2pm 35 feet.”  I’d stare at that location and see nothing.  But, sure enough if I made the cast, the bonefish was there.  I did spot one nice bonefish in a couple feet of water 40 feet at 12 o’clock and casted at it before Shine called it out.  I was pretty proud of that.  Unfortunately, it popped off after I was pulling it back from it’s first run.  The set to land ratio is pretty good in this type of fishing.  You use barbed hooks with a wide hook gap.  if you stick them in their rubbery jaw with a hard strip set on 10 foot, 12 pound flouro leaders. they don’t tend to shake out.  It’s because of that you do not fight them on the line after you get them on the reel.  After they run they tend to turn and run back at you.  The terror of losing tension on the line is almost unbearable for a trout fisherman.  But, Shine said. “just keep reeling.” and I did.  And he was right.  Time and time again he was right.

When the boys got tired of catching bonefish…as shocking as it seems…they started targeting big baracudas.  This is Burnsie with a nasty bonefish eating monster.

I did land a bonefish that Shine felt worthy of a trophy shot.  I knew it was a nice fish because it did 3 runs on me.  I laughed the entire time shouting, “This is so fun!”.  The first run went into my backing.  I have not been into the backing in years.

The 2nd day was slower, but that is only because I caught a nice bonefish on my first cast.  Everyone knows that catching a fish on your first cast of the day is a complete jinx.  Our guide for the 2nd day, Denzell, cruised us into really amazing and beautiful places as we hunted.  We also fished the murky deep water and did well.  For the last hour we hunted big fish and rarely casted.   It reminded me of the countless hours I have spent on the Carlsbad beaches looking for Corbina.

After the second day of fishing was complete, we caught up with Mark and Burnsie on Marvin’s boat.  I knew something was up because they were both smiling ear to ear.  And so was Marvin.  Mark had more of a smirk on his face.  But, was quiet.  I said, “So, how did you do?”.  Mark handed me his phone and showed me this picture:

25 year olds just shouldn’t be able to do this…

I said something like, “You out-fished me again.” with a smile on my face.  Then the two boys excitedly told me and tom stories of their day.  of how they hunted, stalked and set on monsters like that 8-10 pound bonefish.  Marvin was clearly pleased.  I was truly pleased.  I’m sure he sees lots of fly fishermen, but rarely gets two gung-ho 25 year old’s from Bozeman, MT.

Captain Ryan Delva said, “i know where a great reef is. let me take you there”.  i pulled this frame from my GoPro Footage”

The following two days we managed to sneak in a little unguided fly fishing wading from shore and a little trolling in between sightseeing and snorkeling.  Of interest I caught a flounder near the pablo escobar drug smuggling island of the Exumas that the movie “Blow” is based on.  And on rose island I caught what I first thought was a pompano.  But, upon further study of the picture it was actually a juvenile permit.  I saw him cruising very clearly in crystal clear 2 feet deep water.  As he passed in front of me I shot a cast just 20 feet, landing perfectly 10 feet ahead of him.  A long slow strip and whack!  He fought me pretty good before I released him.

It’s funny that this trout guy really has the bug for saltwater fly fishing now.  I have lived by the pacific ocean for 40 years and never really got excited about salter water fly fishing until just recently.  Oh yea, I’m going to get back to Andros Island to fish with Marvin if it kills me.

Captain Ryan took us to one of the islands in the Exumas that hosts a large wild population of iguanas.

Cottonwood Lakes – Land of the Giant Goldens

July 5-8, 2020

Yea, i stuck that gopro underwater thinking i could just flip that section around, but i like that upside down view of that golden so much i just kept it.  

Of all the fly fishing backpacking trips I do on an annual basis the hike in to camp at Cottonwood Lake 3 is the one that is historically the most difficult for me.  It’s only 6 miles.  It’s rated as “moderate”. There is only about 1,000 feet of elevation gain and its mostly wide easy trail that gently gains elevation.  I have done my share of 15+ mile hikes at altitude.  This one seemingly gives me trouble because it starts at 10,000 feet and that the 5th mile is a brutal switch backing set of stone steps that seems to go forever.  That 5th mile has got in my head.

My lovely bride Kelly (below) of 31+ years and her best buddy Mere (above), both with their first goldens. both on dries from Cottonwood Creek

The fishing at Cottonwood Lakes is so spectacular at certain times of the year.  And it is such a beautiful place, the pain of the hike in is totally worth it.  The Cottonwood Lakes are the land of the giant Goldens.  You thought a California Golden didn’t get bigger than 10”, right?  They don’t.  What happened here is the state of CA dumped rainbows into the Cottonwood Lakes years ago for fishing recreation purposes.  The California Goldens and the Rainbows crossbred and produced giant Goldens.  Wild, just not pure strained.  As far as i know, there are no longer any rainbows in the Cottonwood Lakes; they have all been hybridized.

I have backpacked to Cottonwood Lakes 4 times.  Every time led by my buddy Warren Lew; a seasoned veteran of the wilderness and of fly fishing.  Warren gets the permits and targets right around the fishing season opener of July 1st.  Yes, this is one of those places in the Sierras that is not open to fishing until July 1.  I have no idea why.  I was surprised that I have never written about Cottonwood Lakes on this site.  I had to search my own site to prove it.  Because it is such a special place.  A few years back I did write a magazine article on Cottonwood Lakes for California Fly Fisher Magazine.

The sun falling at Cottonwood Lake 3

On this trip Warren and I were joined by 4 females, so we were a bit out-numbered in terms of “getting a word in edge-wise”: My wife Kelly and her friend Meredith (both of who’s backpacking and fly fishing adventures with me have been chronicled on this site).  We were also joined by Warren’s girlfriend/Fiancé Lori and Lori’s step-sister Debbie.

As recommended above 10,000 feet, we acclimated at the trailhead backpacking camp the day before.  Mere, Kelly and I got up there a few hours before Warren, Lori and Debbie so we fished Cottonwood creek which is close to the trailhead.  Both Mere and Kelly caught their first pure strained California goldens in the couple hours of fishing we did.  I caught a whole bunch of little goldens.  I was trying really hard to take it easy fully knowing the hike ahead of me in the morning.  But it’s hard to go easy when the dry fly fishing is so fun.

you really don’t need to backpack this place to catch goldens.  fishing cottonwood creek which follows large stretches of the 6 miles of trail is not only beautiful, but very productive if you can be stealth with accurate casts.

You are allowed to have a campfire in the iron pits at the sites in the backpacking campground so we grilled, ate, had a campfire and hit the sack early.  Warren and Lori cooked a huge awesome breakfast that following morning so we were well fed and carb’d up for the hike in.  Our target was a large primitive site we stumbled into last year on Cottonwood #3.  We staggered the hike into two groups.  Me, kelly, Mere and Debbie were in the first group that took off.  Warren and Lori wanted to do a little cleanup and take it slowly so they went after us.  Well, we were at a great pace. My pack was a bit heavier than I wanted it to be on this trip, but it’s difficult to be light when carrying for two people involved.  The 3 gals were chatting away so I put a 100 yards of distance in front of them in the chance of seeing some animals.  But even at 100 yards I could still hear those three.  I was stressing a bit on finding warren’s spot from last year…. Or finding any site that could handle 4 tents.  But, generally feeling good after 4 miles.  The hike in is beautiful.  It includes meadows and multiple views and a few crossings of Cottonwood Creek.  Then we hit that set of switchbacks in the 5th mile with all the altitude gain.  I was pressing as hard as I could.  And I could feel…well hear the gals right on my tail.  By the time I reached the top….which seemingly lasted forever…I didn’t feel that badly.  But, I was surprised that there was no snow on the summit like there was at the very same time in previous years.

I just love this video….because i love teasing my dear friend Warren so much…

The four of us hiked the plateau with Cottonwood 1 and 2 in view to a spot where Warren reminded me prior that I needed to go off trail and bushwhack directly to the targeted primitive site on Cottonwood 3.  I totally missed it…. But lucked out find finding it with the little backtracking.  I was relieved.  I didn’t want to let my buddy Warren down and there are so few places on Cottonwood 3 you can put 4 tents.

Warren’s much better half, Lori – you know your special when your first fish caught fly fishing is a golden.

I set up the tent quickly.  I had Kelly to help.  I started to feel like hell because of the altitude and the hike.  I should have rested, but I couldn’t help it.  I knew the giant Goldens were waiting for me.  I immediately rigged up and started fishing right in front of the camp.  I got a bit worried about Warren and Lori because they hadn’t showed up at camp a couple hours after we arrived.  But, sure enough they wandered in eventually.  Warren asked me to fish to the north end of the lake but I felt so poorly (exhausted) I declined.  So not like me.  Also not like me is to go easy on the whiskey that first night; which I did.  But, I was just exhausted and felt a little bit of the hell of altitude sickness.

the author missing another set.  notice that ledge around 20 feet from the shore.  that is where the goldens hang, but they do wander into very shallow water in clear site.

Well, the next day was a great one, but I still had an altitude headache that I just could not shake.  No matter, I fished all day anyways and had the time of my life.  Debbie and I got a head start on the group.  We hiked to the North end of the lake, wadered up, and fished the inlet at Cottonwood #3.  We did well.  There were fish rising everywhere.  Kelly and Mere soon appeared as was the plan.  Warren and Lori decided to stay near camp and fish there.  So, up the mountain I went with Debbie, Mere and Kelly.  I didn’t feel so red hot and gaining a bunch more altitude to get to lakes 4 and 5 didn’t help.  But, I knew there were big Goldens up there.  We fished lake 4 and did well.  I remember catching a few nice Goldens at the inlet.  Then we went on a hunting hike through 4 and lake 5.  Kelly and Mere got a little bored with fly fishing and decided the glacier sitting 500 feet above lake 4 would be a perfect source of ice for the bourbon and the old-fashioned mixings they hiked in.  I laughed watching them climb up the shattered granite to that glacier.  I may have a dedication to fly fishing, but those two have an unparalleled dedication to a well-made old fashioned….even above 10,000 feet.

normally i would heavily criticize relaxing on the shoreline while sipping Old Fashioned’s when the fishing is so good.  But, if you are willing to hike in the bitters, bourbon, high end bar cherries and orange slices, then climb a scree of granite 500 feet to a glacier ~ 13,000 feet to harvest the ice to cool your cocktail.  then i guess you have earned it.

I continued to fish successfully as Mere and Kelly hiked back to the camp with their water bottles stuffed with glacial hard packed ice.  Warren soon joined me at lake 4.  We communicated through our Garmin InReaches which made it super convenient to find each other.  And safe.  we fished the upper lakes quite successfully.

fishing the inlets, outlets and the streams between the cottonwood lakes can be very effective

Kelly and Mere were casting pretty efficiently now so short of me releasing the goldens they caught they were pretty self-sufficient.  Debbie was a fishing machine.  Like me, she just doesn’t stop until she has to.  It was Debbie and I on the water each morning first.  In fact, I made it a habit to catch a golden right after the sun rose each morning while taking the first sips of coffee before the morning chores.

“Women with Fly Rods” – Deb, Mere and Kelly at the view overlooking Cottonwood Lake 3

It was just a great couple days of dry fly fishing.  Always with a Huck Hopper, but sometimes trailed by an emerger of what was hatching.  From the minute I started fishing when I got there, nailing my first big golden on a size 12 Huck Hopper within the first few casts to my last cast before leaving.  That is pretty much how it went.  I fished dries the entire time there.  Yea, you can argue an emerger is not a dry, but I was fishing them like dries in the film.  I never had a need to nymph.  I got consistent takes on top the entire time we were there.  We didn’t need to travel far for the fishing to be great.  I stayed right in front of the camp and it fished great until dark. It seemed like our time was so short there.  So many big goldens; so little time.  I Can’t wait until I get back there this coming July.

Debbie took this picture of me early in the morning staggering down to fish with me.  notice the dimples in the calm surface of the lake.  it’s pretty fun to cast and the rises.

Upper Kings River – Yucca Point Trail

Nov 5-7, 2020

One of the very few trout i C&R’d on this trip.  Huck Hopper, Black, Size 12

Quick Stats:

  • 4 or 5 12” to 14” rainbows landed over 2 ~4 hour fly fishing sessions spread over 2 days. Translation: Slowwwwww….
  • 1 20+ rainbow lost downstream on a head shake nymphing barbless
  • Awful, wet cold, miserable weather….which resulted in 13 hours in the backpacking tent.
  • CFS: who knows? My guess is the flow was 250 CFS at the confluence of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings.  The gauge above boyden cave, up river from the confluence by ~10 miles showed 65 CFS….which just does not make sense.

Brand new sign – it’s a shame this place is not solely catch and release.  It should be

How it Went Down

The plan was a 3-nighter down into one of, if not the most rugged and physical places I have done the backpacking / fly fishing thing at: The Upper South and Middle Forks of the Kings River.  That was the plan.  It did not quite work out that way.

My buddy, and backpacking mentor, Warren Lew and I had been planning this trip for weeks.  We were up against the end of the fishing season (11/15) in most of the sierras.  With huge parts of the Sierras burning and most of the forest closed, this was most likely our last chance to fish for a few months.  What we were worried most about was the smoke.  We tracked it daily.  The small patch of the Sierras was the only legitimate place to backpack to fly fishing in the sierra nevadas mountain range that was within a decent one-day drive of us.  But, the Upper Kings River sits in between the two largest fires in California history.  And they still were not contained.  So we were at the mercy (and crapshoot) of how the wind blew…..and unfortunately the wind did blow…hard.

 

The picture on the left is the view down from the trailhead.  Notice how deep it is and how high Spanish Peak towers above.  on the right is simply the same shot zoomed in on the confluence of the Middle (top) and South (below) forks of the Upper Kings River

Although I still have not figured out a legitimate way to gage the flow in either of the South or Middle forks the Upper Kings I knew from my trip in 3 weeks before, alone, that the river was way down in great shape and crossable in multiple places.  That is the key to any big river in the Sierras.  It’s pretty much the most important factor of the Upper Kern River so, although I don’t have hardly any Kings River experience, I just had to assume flow was just as important in the Upper Kings.  I also assumed that we’d see as good, if not better fly fishing than 3 weeks before when I hike in there alone and was getting takes on huck hoppers on almost every cast.

Here’s Warren with a really nice rainbow he stuck stripping a wolly bugger

It was the first week in November after all.  and that stretch from mid-October to mid-November is typically just nutty good throughout the sierras.  My theory, unproven, is that the trout just know winter is coming and feed like crazy because they know it’s going to be slim ‘pickins until Spring.  That theory could be totally wrong, of course.  But that is how I convince myself each year to bear the bone chilling conditions.  There is winter spawning in the Sierras too which can also positively affect fishing.

Check out the shoulders on this rainbow that warren stuck with a black wolly bugger

I have written the contrasts of the Upper Kings and the Upper Kern before and there is another striking contrast I experienced.  This area of the kings canyon is arguably the deepest canyon in N. America.  The confluence of the South Fork and Middle forks of the Kings River is only at 2,260 feet of altitude, while towering above the confluence is Spanish Peak, which is 10,051 feet tall.  Why is that important?: Light.  With the shortened days of winter, I bet that middle fork was only seeing 4 hours of direct sun per day.  I was in the tent for 13 hours not so much that it was raining.  I have done a ton of fly fishing in rain and snow and everything in between for years.  I was in that tent for 13 hours because it was dark and raining for 13 hours.

Foul Weather

Yes, the weather did chase us out.  We hiked in Thursday morning and had plenty of time to fish.  ~4 hours.  And it was slowwwww….  I couldn’t figure out why…  it should have been epic.  We fished downriver on the middle fork to the confluence and all the way down to the epic water.  We ran into two other sets of advanced fly fishermen and 2 of them got skunked.  Not a single take.  I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the time.  I caught one fish nymphing.  I didn’t think I’d have to nymph.  But, I could not get a fish to rise for the life of me.  I planned on dry flying the entire time. No hatches or bugs anywhere.   Hmmm….

Warren Caught me in this perfect run saying to myself, “I cannot drift this any better. If i was a trout i would eat that.”

The next day, Friday we headed up river on the s fork.   It started getting windy.  Then it hit me.  The barometer must have been falling like a rock, with bad weather coming, killing the fishing.  There is some support to that theory.  So, I busted out the $2 and got a weather report off my garmin inreach satellite tracker….not good….heavy rain and snow coming.  It was about 2pm and I had caught a couple fish on size 12 huck hoppers.  at one point I said, “if I’m gonna’ get skunked I’m gonna’ do it with a dry fly.  Upon staring at the weather report, Warren said, “Should we hike out now?”  I said something like, “No way, we just got here.”  On Friday around 4pm it started raining.  By 5pm we were in our tents because it was raining hard.  And it was cold.  13 hours later … yes, 13 hours in the tents, wet and cold.  It was a miserable wet cold night.  there was a break in the rain on Saturday morning.  so, we hiked out a day early.  It was 11am when we got to the truck.  It started again.  by the time I was driving out at that higher altitude it was snowing; snowing on top of a foot that had already stuck.

Don’t get me wrong it was a total blast of a trip.  It was Fly Fishing; not working.  and I just love doing the backpacking / fishing thing with Warren.  We are total opposites (he’s felix and I’m Oscar if you are old enough to know that analogy), but we are dear friends and have so much fishing fun together.

If you want to fish the awesome heads and tails in the pools you have to hop, wade, jump your way up conditions like this

Setting Expectations

Although I love this place one of the big reasons is because the lord gave me the “goat gene”; I’m unusually agile. I basically scaled half dome last summer without needing the guide wires and was confused at what the big deal is.  Also because I’m willing to suffer to fish in the back country of the sierras. The Upper Kings River accessed by the Yucca Point trail is so rugged and physical it will scare away 90% of fly fishers….especially those, like me, who are not the fearless totally fit and agile 25 year old I once was.  My buddy warren….he’s crazy like me.  We have backpacked to a lot of fishing.  We love places like this.  But, here’s what is working against you if you want to go there:

  • the trail is poorly maintained…Well, it’s not maintained at all. I guess I’m spoiled by the forks of the Kern trail.  Or it’s my own ignorance to the trails on the western side of the Sierras because I was pretty critical of the Clicks Creek Trail  The Yucca Point Trail a constant brush and snag against bushes, tree limbs and branches.  And there are 3 spots where you have to get around deadfall across the trail.  It’s not so bad (especially for a bushwhacker like me) going downhill.  But, it’s definitely annoying, impeding your progress, and slows you down going uphill.  If you did this trail in shorts and short sleeves you would be scratched up and bloodied as a result of it.

Here I am crossing the river in the quest to find a place to pitch our tents. There are not many within a mile of the end of the trail.

  • It’s a big drive….even if you live in the San Joachin Valley. I live in Carlsbad, CA.  It’s 350 miles and I have to plow through LA to get to it.  There is no local hotel close to overnight before hiking in.  and because of the pandemic, most if not all the campgrounds close are closed.  Even if not closed, the campgrounds close are wildly popular because they are in the national park.
  • It costs money: you have to pay to get through the national park to get to the trailhead…I carry a yearly national park pass…mainly because my son lives within 30 miles of the northern entrance to Yellowstone and also because I love fishing in Yosemite. But, in my experience most fly fishermen don’t want to pay to play.
  • It’s rugged and physical. Once you get to the river the trail ends.  There is no river trail.  It’s bushwhacking, boulder hopping, rock climbing and brutally slippery wading.  I can’t imagine not using a wading staff to fish that river.  I need a couple weeks just to lick my wounds from it.  Shoot you can follow a well-defined and maintained trail along the Upper Kern for 30 miles.  I’m a board member of the san diego fly fishers club and only a tiny percentage of that club is willing to do the forks of the kern trail…and The Forks pales in comparison to the Yucca Trail and Upper Kings River.  Most of that group who do the forks never do it again because of the hike out where you have to gain back 1,100 feet in 2 miles….which pales in comparison to the Yucca Point Trail which in my estimation is ~1,000 feet in 1.5 miles.  I know tons of guides from CA to WY to MT to ID and beyond.  And have done a bit of guiding myself, of course.  I don’t know many guides who would even do the Yucca Point Trail.

Here is a great view right above the Confluence where the Yucca Trail ends to show you just how rugged it is

  • You have to be safe because I have not encountered many rivers more dangerous than the Upper Kings. There is a reason not a lot of people have died on the Upper Kings River: you cannot drive to it.  You can drive to miles and miles of the “Killer Kern” and get within 100 feet of it.  One of the readers of this blog, Lansing McLoskey, emailed me and gave me some great guidance.  And the most important guidance he gave me was about not attempting to fish the river during runoff when “the river is a raging torrent of death”.
  • Poison oak – everything I have read about this place has complaining about the abundance of it. I still have not seen any.  And I am a pro at identifying it.  I have to look for poison oak practically every day because I trail run, hike, and mountain bike in Calavera behind our home and Calavera really does have an ton of poison oak.  I have brushed it so many times getting it I feel like I have built an immunity.  But if so many people have complained about it, it must be there; probably downstream where I still have not go to.
  • There are bears.  Seemingly lots of them.  They are just black bears, of course, so not that scary to me.  But, i know that many are terrified by them.  On my last trip in i saw a juvenile.  On this trip there was scat everywhere.  And very close to where we camped.  As i was leaving (Warren got a head start on me) I smelled one.  if you have been in the backcountry much you know that foul smell.

It is slightly discouraging / creepy when you stagger out in the morning a few hundred feet from where you are camp to do your business when you run into a fresh pile of bear business.

 

The Confluence of the South & Middle Forks of the Upper Kings River

Yucca Point Trail – Sequoia National Forest

October 15-17, 2020

I have been on a quest since the SQF complex fire burnt the Forks of the Kern trail and burnt ~30 miles up the upper Kern river.  My quest is to find an alternative to the Forks of the Kern Trail and the Upper Kern River.  I have found an alternative, but, not a match by any stretch: The Upper South and Middle forks of the Kings River.

Forks of the Kern Status

Firstly, a little report on the Forks.  I cannot tell you how many emails and txts and calls I have answered since August from people wanting updates and to get into the forks before the season closes on November 15th.  Literally hundreds.  Well, I just doubt it’s going to happen.  No way.  Even if the SQF fire was contained consider:

  • The trail is burnt so following it would be impossible. That means trampling a new trail.  Never good
  • Many of those dead trees down there from the pine beetle have fallen while burning on the trail. The western divide ranger district goes in there in the beginning of the season each year and does it’s best to clear the trail.  They have a herculean challenge ahead of them.
  • The Western Divide Ranger district is way short of resources. It’s a shame, but a simple matter of fact that they are understaffed and underfunded.
  • Since the fire is not contained and there are more stupid people on earth than smart ones, the liability of people hiking into the hot zone of the fire would be too much to indemnify.

one of many nice rainbows fooled by the size 12 black huck hopper

Forks Alternative

So, since august I have been searching, researching and talking to the experts about an alternative to the Forks.  I got a lot of help.  Thank you for all the help:

  • Steve Schalla aka “Steven Ojai” of https://www.flyfishingthesierra.com/
  • Mike Hillygus of http://stillwaterriveroutpost.com/
  • Dani Dayton, Visitor Information Services, Forest Service, Sequoia National Forest, Kern River Ranger District
  • Sydney Peters, Administrative Support Assistant, Forest Service, Sequoia National Forest, Western Divide Ranger District
  • Indirectly, Mike Mercer of The Fly Shop. Big surprise: the Missing Link does well here.

I had never fished the Upper reaches of the South or Middle Forks of the Kings River.  I had heard from a small amount of fly fishers that have fished it that it was good and brutally rugged.  So, with expert’s help I planned for about 3 weeks to explore this place I had never been to before. A place that had some folklore about how rugged it is.  I stared at satellite images of the rivers for hours.

this picture just doesn’t do justice to how rugged the middle fork is

Fishing Report

Nuts…  let me start with the good news: spectacular fishing. Surprisingly big fish too.  Mountain rivers and streams and creeks don’t typically hold big fish.  The Upper Kings River does.

On day 2 I ran into two great guys who camped cross river from me, fairly close to me, that I didn’t even notice (because it’s so rugged) until nighttime when I saw lights.  Armen, great guy, is a fly fisherman and his younger buddy, whose name is escaping me right now was spin fishing.…and they were killing.  They showed me pictures of some quality fish.  You know it’s good when beginners and the not so experienced are doing well…and catching big fish. I gave them some Mercer’s missing links.  I love helping beginners.  I love talking about fly fishing to people who get as excited about it as me.  I love helping with guidance and giving away the flies I tie.  It brings me so much joy.  Like the many fly fishers I meet from this site and on the river, I asked them to join me on the forks next season.

The 3 dozen Mercer’s Missing Links i tied

I fished a couple hours on Thursday night after hiking in, all day Friday, and a couple hours on Saturday before hiking out.  85% of the time I fished dries only.  The only time I did the dry dropper thing was mid day when it always slows.  I fished size 12 Huck Hoppers and wrecked.  Note: on the hike in I saw a black grass hopper about a size 6.  I had never seen a grasshopper that dark black before.  So, the first huck hopper I tied on was black size 12 and it did well.  After ~4 hours of fishing it on the middle fork, it was completely chewed up from trout teeth, would no longer float upright, and still caught fish.

just another quality rainbow from the South Fork of the Kings River

After 5pm I fished size 16 and 18 Mercer’s Missing Links.  Recently, I had the pleasure of email meeting the fly fishing famous Mike Mercer of “The Fly Shop”.  He is that guy that invented the fly; the fly you would want if you only could have one (the Adams or the Missing Link).  Nicest guy in the world.  So, I actually tied 3 dozen of them in green, traditional rusty brown and black for this trip and my annual October Mammoth trip I have coming up.  They did well, but I have a feeling size 18 anything would have worked at night during the witching hour from 5pm to dark.

The hatches were prolific, but, the one natural that was out of the ordinary was an abundance of a ~ size 14 white mayfly.  It kinda’ looked like a Cahill that you would fish in the spring in the eastern US.  So interesting.  I’d love to know exactly what it was.  I have no idea.  I have never seen a pale mayfly like that in the sierras.  Please email me if you know.  Guesses are welcome because I sure as hell don’t know what it was.

Mid-day on Friday when it got hot and the water warmed, the bite on top slowed a bit.  Which, of course, is no surprise.  So I nymphed a little with a dry dropper rig with a huck hopper on top….and every nymph I tied on seemed to work.  naturals like my green caddis cripple and attractors like my rainbow warrior cripple both worked great.  But, the dropper thing didn’t last long because I started catching fish on the huck hopper again.  And with a dropper during a fight, it typically wraps around the fish and double hooks the fish or gets caught in the gills.  I always want to catch and release with the least impact and stress on the fish.  I’m the guy that tries to shake fish off at my feet. So I just cut off the dropper part and fished size 12 huck hoppers successfully until the witching hour.  Then I switched to size 16 and 18 Missing Links.

That GoPro 8 my brother gave me is simply an amazing camera.

Over the course of a full day of fishing and ~3 more hours of fishing on the night and morning on both sides of that day, I landed 3 fish over 18” and lost 3 fish over 18”.  I caught plenty of fish in the 10-14” range.  I saw plenty of trout fry on the banks; a great sign of a healthy river.  Every fish I caught was a rainbow.  But, it appeared to be many different types of rainbows; there were chromers and really dark spawning looking like rainbows.  I understand they have a lot of species of trout in the kings that have turned wild and reproduce with much success.  In contrast to the Upper Kern, none of the many fish I caught jumped.  The wild native Kern River Rainbows are just jumpers and go ballistic….and make them so hard to land.   On the Kings I never had a fish run me down river or go nuts like they do on the Kern.  Don’t get me wrong the fights were great: lightning runs you’d expect from wild fish.  Shoot, I even broke a fish off….and then switched to 3x so it wouldn’t happen again.  My hook to land ratio was a lot greater than I typically get on the Upper Kern.  I chalk that up to the difference between wild fish and wild natives.  There are very few places in the world that only hold wild natives.  The upper kern is one of those places.

I spent most of the day on Friday fishing my way up the Middle Fork of the Kings River.  It had the least info on it.  It was the hardest to access.  And I was told was the most rugged.  So, I couldn’t resist; that is the adventure gene in me that sometimes borders on unsafe.  I think I fished a couple miles up stream and I caught fish the entire way, but it was so rugged it could have only been a mile.  There is no river trail, nor is there much river bank.  It’s mostly wading upriver through giant slippery boulder fields.  I caught a good amount of big fish in the Middle Fork when all the intel I got from others said I would only catch small fish.  It was such crystal clear water on the middle fork that many times I could see the fish so I got to hunt them.  I got to see some refusals too.

Saturday morning, I fished the South Fork from the trailhead for a couple hours and did well.  I ran into an experienced fly fisherman that told me he had been coming there for years.  He told me downstream there were many lunkers and that he caught a 21” the day prior.  When I go back I’d like to take a shot at those lunkers downstream on the South Fork.

 another quality rainbow from the South Fork of the Upper Kings River

Favorite Moment: Like many, I always seem to remember the fish I lost more than the ones I land.  But, there was one special experience I will remember from the Kings.  After the bear sighting I climbed / waded my way up to a plunge pool into crystal clear deep turquoise water.  I didn’t notice all the lunkers in ten feet of water on the opposite side yet because there was a large fish working on top right at the head in some current.  I slowly moved, out of the water on the rocky bank to 30-40 feet.  I could see the fish was feeding on a ~10 second cadence, but I could not tell what the fish was rising on.  He was tailing too, like a bonefish so my guess he was catching the emergers before they hatched and flew away.  I carefully stepped in the water to a casting position.  I said to myself, “he’s going to strike on the first cast and I will only get one shot at him.”  I had that black size 12 huck hopper on and for a second considered switching to a size 16 missing link.  For a second.  I waited the cadence, then casted and the huck hopper.  It landed perfectly upstream in the current.  When the huck hopper over his head he whacked it violently and I set hard.  It was a great battle in that large pool.  After a few minutes I put my GoPro on its tripod in the water and pulled the fish to it to witness the fight.  Out of the water it was a really darkly colored beautiful trout north of 18”.  He was still pissed off when I released him.

The Adventure

My god what a rugged place.  I’m not a lifelong backpacker.  Backpacking is a means to an end for me.  I am a fly fisherman.  I have learned quite a bit about backpacking over the last decade.  But, over half my backpacking has been in the Forks.  I have backpacked parts of the JMT and cottonwood lakes above 12k feet and other places in the Sierras.  But, I have never backpacked a place that is so rugged there are no trails.  Once the trail down into the canyon ends there is no trail.  It’s too rocky for trails.  My buddy Warren who has taught me so much about backpacking backed out of the trip last minute because of the smoke forecast.  So, I hiked in alone.  Thank God, I found a place for my tent downstream quickly.  Over the entire 3 day adventure I only saw 4 primitive sites and I covered many miles.  And two of the sites required river crossings.

The view down to the confluence from the Yucca Point Trailhead

I was looking for an alternative to the forks of the kern and technically it is… but the trail is not maintained…. It’s more like a bush whack / fishermen’s trail.  The bushes and branches grab you constantly.  There are a number of deadfall detours that take you off trail too.  And once you get down in the canyon there is no trail. It’s too rocky.   You are truly in the barely explored wilderness.  I also talk about the “tax” of the forks.  It’s that 1100 foot decent over 2 miles into kern canyon.  Well, the “tax” here is much more significant.

The Kings River is not for the faint of heart.  I had my lightweight Orvis wading boots.  It was hot enough not to need waders.  I’d guess it was about 300 cfs in both the South and Middle Forks.

I did two nights and had my share of calamity with a couple falls.  No biggie; just pain.  I’m banged up, strained, cut, and bruised.  The smoke moved in on Friday night.  On sat morning before the sun came up I could smell it.  when the sun came up it was there.  I txt’d from my garmin satellite tracker to my buddy Warren for a smoke report.  He told me it was going to get bad.  So, I caught and released a handful more trout that morning on the South Fork where I had not fished yet. Then hiked out mid day on Saturday before the smoke got bad.

spot fishing / hunting for big trout in clear water in the middle fork of the upper kings river

Surprises / Fun Facts / Stories:

  • The Kings Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America. That is quite a fun fact if you have been to the Grand Canyon.  It has steep canyon walls and where I put my tent was at the base of the southwestern side.  Why is that interesting?  Well, I was shocked by the fact that It was pitch black by 6:30 PM and not light until after 7AM.  There is only so much you can do in the tent for 12 hours in the dark.  Thank god for the podcasts I download to my phone before leaving and my solar charger….which, btw, I had to do a river crossing over the S. Fork to get it in the sun.

    my stuff set up at the primitive camp site i was lucky to stumble into

  • The other issue I was surprised by was the river flow. I used this graph to gage what I’d be in for: https://www.dreamflows.com/graphs/day.660.php which read 70 CFS before I left. 70 CFS is nothing…a creek.  As mentioned already I didn’t find 70 CFS; more like 4 times that.  The other shock was that the high-water mark was 30 feet above the waterline.  That is more crazy than the “Killer Kern”.  Like I said earlier I’d guess it was about 300 cfs in both the South and Middle Forks.  That means after the confluence my guess would be about 600 CFS.  I only saw one place after the confluence where a cross was possible even though I did not attempt it.  but I can only imagine that river in the springtime at over 20,000 CFS.  They call it the “Killer Kern” and that is because people can drive to the Kern; there is access.  There have been 294 deaths at the Kerrn river from 1968 to May 2018….because you can drive to good portion of it.  If there was a way to drive to the Upper Kings it would kill a lot of people.
  • You have to plow through the national park to get there. That means paying a fee.  I needed a re-up on my yearly national park pass, so not a problem.  It’s just so like me to plan so carefully for so long and not even notice that the drive takes you through Sequoia National Park and out the other side.
  • I ran into 3 hunters and actually saw them before they saw me. And for Gods sakes I was the one standing in the river!  Nice guys.  But, I’m not a deer and really didn’t want to get mistaken for one.  I never did hear a gun shot, but I was only there a couple hours on that last day. So I don’t know if the deer and the bears won this day.
  • Helicopter story – on the night after hiking in I was fishing the witching hour and doing well. Then from nowhere, a coast guard helicopter blew in…one of the big ones with a bunch of people on board hanging out the open doors of the side doors… it was only 100 feet over my head.  Blew my hat off…  It circled around me up and down the river.  Talk about knocking down the hatch.  At first I was like, “holy shit, they are here to get me because there is a fire close”.  But, I waved to the guys hanging out the side, and they waved back.  They didn’t use their loud speaker like I have seen in search and rescue.  They circled me about 10 times even landing downriver at one point.  So, I figured they were just doing search and rescue drills.  Pretty impressive.  But, kinda’ ruined the hatch I was working.  It would have been nice if they used their loudspeaker to tell me not to worry.
  • On Friday when I fished the middle fork I saw a small bear crossing the river about 200 yards ahead of me. And then I hooked up.  By the time I was in a place to look up again at the bear it was gone.  Little bears are sometimes accompanied by pissed off big female bears.  So, because I was alone I was a little wigged out.  Yes, of course I forgot my bear spray back at camp.  Yes, of course I fished it straight through.
  • This was the first backpacking trip i have done without having to use a jetboil, let alone a camp fire.  There is currently a forest wide ban on anything ignited because of the fires.  I survived.  i had jack daniels.
  • Falls / Injuries – I came back home bruised, strained, battered from this trip. God didn’t give me much, but he did give me the agile gene and I’m athletic for a little guy.  One of my best buddies calls me “goat-boy” because of it.  it’s a nice attribute to have if you are a wading fly fisherman.  But….
    1. On the way down the trail I felt that tinge I have felt so many times before over the last decade. I have been an endurance runner since my 20s.  but, a decade ago I started suffering a chronic injury when running.  It starts with a tinge in the back of my calve.  It’s a tear in the sheath that holds the muscle.  If I keep running the hernia gets worse and worse.  So I have learned to stop and give it a few days to heal.  Well, I felt the tinge early in the hike down.  By the end of the trek I was limping.  Uggh….
    2. Well, it got so dark so quickly on that first night I had trouble hanging my food. i couldn’t find a branch low enough if you can imagine that.  Because it was dark after one of my throws (rock attached to cord) I stepped back into nothing and fell down a hill in the dark.  It was dirt and bushes there…thank god.  And I did manage to turn mid fall and land on my stomach instead of my back (bad).  But, I bent my pinky backward when I landed and feared it was broken.  It was not.   But, it was very strained and sore.
    3. I started using a wading staff this year to quickly navigate up stream in the Kern and I brought it on this trip. But, even with that I took a fall end of day on the middle fork when I was already tired from the crazy ass adventure of wading and climbing.  This fall was from a bit of distance though.  I stepped down on a dry rock in the river and my wading boot just never caught anything; it slipped immediately and quickly.  I fell with some velocity and hit my right knee and stomach on rocks at the same time.  At 58 falls are just not the same as when you are young.  I haven’t had that much pain in a long time.  I literally sat in the river for 10 minutes collecting myself in pain and hoping to back down the swelling in my knee.  The pain in my stomach was like nothing I had ever experienced.  At one point I thought I was going to chunder.  While sitting in the river collecting myself I couldn’t help but think if I hit my head my corpse wouldn’t be found for a week.  “That’s it.” I “called it” at that point and slowly limped back to camp using my wading staff arguing with myself if I had pushed the safety thing a bit too far by being alone.
  • On Saturday morning early I crossed the river by my camp and walked down river on the island to the actual confluence of the middle and south forks. I think I hooked a couple and/or caught a couple fish on the middle fork there and in the actual confluence.  Great water for a streamer which I will do next time.  But, out of the wilderness from downriver on the middle fork comes a young guy; very fit… “excuse me is that the yucca point trail?”.   I laughed, pointed and said, “yea, it’s right there.”   He seemed relieved and smiled.  I knew no one had hiked in between when I fished up river and then, so I asked, “I fished 2 miles upriver yesterday and didn’t run into you guys.  So, where in the hell did you come from?”  “I think we made it about 7 miles upriver.”  Aghast I said, “my god.  You must have made 50 river crossings in the process.”   He said smiling, “you could not imagine what we have seen and been through.”  I said, “oh yea I can, I almost killed myself just fishing it a couple miles.”  They were ultra light backpackers.  No tents, no rods, basically dry clothes, wet clothes, a lightweight bag and food.   One of them, my age, but as fit as a 20-year-old, had a waterproof pack.  He literally floated on his back through the confluence to get to the other side to hike out.

You know when you get splashed in the face when you are trying to release a hot trout? Well, this is what happens a split second before that.

Summary

The Kings River is not for the faint of heart.  The “tax” here is more significant than the Forks of the Kern.  But, the fishing makes it worth it for crazy old guys like me.  I cannot wait to get back in there.  Next time not alone, though.  The Forks of the Kern is tame compared to this place.

Interestingly enough the Yucca Point trail is not at altitude.  It’s ~3,100 feet at the trailhead.  So, it probably gets very little snow, if any.  there is actually poison oak there.  There is no shortness of breath like hiking at altitude.  But, it does get hot; very hot.

The Official Forest Service site says it’s 3.6 miles long with a 1,360ft descent and ascent.  That translates to a 1.8 mile hike with 680 feet of descent.  My GPS, which has 2” resolution, said the hike down was 1.29 miles.  Although I haven’t looked at the actuals yet from my garmin inreach satellite tracker, I bet that descent was close to 1000 feet.  Google Earth says the altitude is 2,058 feet at the confluence which supports my theory that the decent is ~1000 feet.  It’s funny how many of the official sites are so wrong.  The content for them was built years ago before technology.

Since I cannot get into the upper Kern for the close of the season, I am hoping to get back in to the Upper Kings before the season closes November 15.  11/15 is the end of the fishing season in most of the sierras and typically an epic fishing time of year….and bitter awful cold.  Since the Forks of the Kern will most likely not be opened again until next Spring, the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River by way of the Yucca Point Trail is the only legit alternative I know of for the fly fisherman who is willing to pay it’s “tax”.  The tax is significant.

you can’t miss this sign on hwy 180