And Backpacking Gear Review
October 20-23, 2017
I have backpacked the Forks of the Kern Trail to the awesome fly fishing of the upper Kern River over a dozen times since my very first backpacking trip 7 years ago in August of 2011. I have been in the Spring a few times and in the Summer many times. But, I had never been able to go in the Fall; until now. The shocking thing for me and the group of 9 guys that joined me (ages 12 to mid-sixties) was the colors. I was shocked to see all the yellow and orange in the trees…and not just aspens. I had never seen anything in the trees but green in the many years of visiting the Forks. So beautiful.
The Upper Kern River crew:
- Sean McElroy and my son Mark
- Aaaron Eagleton and his dad (who’s story I featured in California Fly Fisher Magazine)
- Steve Franco (Aaron’s uncle)
- Martin Loef and Steve Ray (backpacking and wilderness gurus)
- Larry French (my cousin and life long friend of Martin)
- Not Pictured: The world famous Warren Lew who took the picture
The most fun for me was that my son Mark was part of the group. I have not got to fish with him in a while. He’s a stick, toning his skills a couple years in Bozeman. He’s 22 now and I just don’t get as much father-son q-time as I’d like. At 22 I didn’t hang with my dad too much either. I regret that now.
As for the fishing this was one of those trips where the fishing matched Solunar theory perfectly. The first day the fly fishing was good; the 2nd day was average; the 3rd day was not so good.
These screenshots are from the app, “Fishing & Hunting Solunar Time Pro”. I have mentioned this app in this blog before. It’s a godsend. The regular version is free. The Pro version is worth every penny of its $2.99 cost. I use it religiously….although solunar theory is not bullet proof, it does help. It certainly helped on this trip matching up perfectly to the quality of fishing. Get it in your apple or google app store.
Backpacking Gear Review
Before I get into the fishing report let me provide some guidance (from an old guy fly fisherman’s perspective) in terms of a backpacking gear review for my fellow fly fishers. 7 years ago when I started backpacking as a means to get to fly fishing I acquired gear in the exact same way many of us fly fisherman buy fly fishing gear when we start fly fishing. When I started fly fishing 25 years ago I bought the cheapest stuff. I bought a $60 Cabela’s rod with a $30 Cabela’s reel. My waders were the cheapest neoprene Cabela’s waders. As the years progressed, technology helped the fly fishing industry just like it has helped every industry. I started replacing my cheap fly fishing stuff with the latest and greatest stuff. The best $100 I ever spent was on the Simms Waders that have the zipper. If you are male over 40 you know what I mean… Well, when I started backpacking I bought the cheapest stuff too. And that means the heaviest stuff and the stuff most apt to break down quickly. The difference, though, between backpacking and fly fishing is that the technology curve is on hockey stick growth in backpacking. There is just only so much technology, especially electronic technology that you can throw at fly fishing gear. But, in backpacking….the sky is the limit. And I am a technology guy. So I purchased 4 new backpacking gear items for this trip. And now that it’s over I could kick myself for not doing it years ago. Because this stuff was worth every penny.
Here is a summary of the 4 items I purchased and used for the first time on this trip:
Osprey Aether AG 70 Backpack – The 7 years of hard use on my Gregory back pack and its eventual failure was the impetus of all these purchases. I’d say I got my money out of that Gregory. I bought it on SierraTradingPost.com for under $100. The arm straps finally ripped to the point of giving out. After doing the research I was pleased to see how technical the backpacks had become and how light they are. From experience I knew I needed a 60-70 liter pack to handle the 1 to 5 night backpacking treks I typically do. There was one pack and one company that really stands out at the leader in my research. I convinced myself I deserved the top of the line so that is what I got: The Osprey Aether AG 70. You can’t argue with “Winner of Outside Magazine’s Gear of the Year Award for 2017” … So light (5lbs 6oz); so comfortable. I didn’t get the pain in my shoulders after an hour hiking like I always did with my old pack. This pack balanced perfectly and has this special technology that keeps the pack away from your back so it ventilates. It has tons of features and gets ridiculously good reviews on the internet. But, for me, (and for you fly fishers) the best feature of this pack is the top lid that converts to a daypack. Yes, you snap off the top of the pack and it’s a smaller backpack big enough for all your fishing stuff, food, water, a jacket and more. I didn’t have to bring a separate lightweight fly fishing hip pack because of this feature. The retail for this pack is $310 and it’s worth every penny. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this pack.
Big Agnes Flycreek HV 2 platinum Tent – Ok, I don’t deserve this tent like I deserve the Osprey Aether AG 70 BackPack. This tent is pretty much way too nice for me. I’m officially backpacking spoiled now. This tent is expensive at a retail price of $549.95. And there is a reason for that. Like my dad always said, “in life you typically get what you pay for.” It’s huge for a backpacking tent: it’s a 2 man tent with a really high ceiling. It’s super easy to set up. But it’s number one feature and why I’m so pleased with it: The trail weight for this tent is 1lb 10oz. I’m not kidding. When I handed that tent to others…and I did it numerous times, it induces shock on how light it is. And usually a shake of the head. My cheapo tiny single tent I have used for 7 years weighs 4 times as much as this tent at 1/3rd of the size. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to save almost 5 pounds with this tent.
Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System – This little device is the best kept secret in the backpacking industry. Buy the .5 liter version of this now at a retail price of $40 and you will thank me. I have watched countless backpackers struggle with large bulky water filtration pumps over the years. That is why I have been a Steripen fan for years. I have owned two of them. Their customer service is awesome and their device is awesome. They even replaced the bulb in one of my older Steripens so I could get more years out of it. I have used my steripens all over the world and will continue to. But, for the Kern…and frankly many of the rivers in the US, the Katadyn Befree removes just as much bad stuff native to US waters like giardia. But it also filters out everything but the water. All the little pieces of plant material, dirt, etc. the SteriPen uses ultra-violent light to kill the bad stuff. It’s a wand you wave in the water for 2 long minutes. The Katadyn BeFree filters the water. You just scoop up the river and start drinking. No waving wands, no pumping, no hassle. With the steripen I always carried around 1.5 liters of river that eventually got warm. With the Katadyn BeFree you just scoop up cold water and start drinking. That means you can literally throw away the water you don’t want. It’s cleans really easy too. The Steripen weighs 5 ozs. The Katadyn Befree packs down to tiny and it only weighs 2 oz. There is a reason it won BackPacker Magazine’s 2017 Editor’s Choice Award.
Big Agnes Helinox Ridgeline FL135 Trekking Poles – The lord didn’t give me much, but, he did give me the “goat gene”. I’m agile. I always have been. It’s just in my genetics. I always assumed trekking poles were for the non-agile that needed stability. I met a young backpacker in a prior trip to the Kern, Kyle Focht, that set me straight on how trekking poles are more than that. More than agility and stability, trekking poles also help you to power up hill. I tried my wife’s trekking poles on a trip in august and was shocked how much they helped. I knew then I had to get my own. These FL 135s are my very first trekking poles, so they are good ones, but not the top of the line. They are made from aluminum, yet less than a pound in weight. Btw, they also serve very well as a wading staff.
When all was said and done with my new purchases, I had saved close to 10 pounds in load weight. Like I said before. I wish I had done this years ago.
Friday, October 20 – We got an early start on the hike in. We made it to camp late morning and set up tents, made wood, etc. In the haste to set up all the beginners with dry dropper rigs and at the same time do a satellite text message to tell my wife had made it, I forgot to zip the pocket with my phone in my shirt. When I bent over the river to put the food and booze in to keep it cold my phone popped out and sank 18” to the riverbed. I cussed a storm because that would be the 6th or 7th iphone I have lost to a river or lake. I was in no haste to pull it back out so I secured the food first and then fished it from the bottom. It has happened to me so many times before; even twice in the Kern; that I knew it was toast. At least at the time I thought it was…
We got camp set up and were fishing by lunch time. I did well. I swear I would have caught 20+ fish in 6 hours that day if I wasn’t guiding and tying lost flies back on the rigs of the 4 beginners we had on the trip. In reality though, my most fun of the trip was guiding and doing exactly that. I’d rather pull flies out of trees and guide a beginner to a fish than catch a fish myself any time. In any event I caught a dozen quality fish in the 2-3 hours I fished. I did get a few takes on my size 4 huck hopper. But, I failed to hook any of them. Most of my takes were on a large black stonefly nymph imitation. That is a staple fly of the upper kern.
Saturday, October 21st – what I remember most from this day was me hooking another fish and hearing mark from a distance say, “Damnit”. That’s not like him to be frustrated. He was mostly hanging with his buddy Sean, guiding him because he was a beginner, for the first day and a half. btw, Sean caught two fish on this trip. that is pretty good for a beginner. Anyways I’m guessing the guiding had to weigh on the frustration a little. So, that was my opening to help him out…and spend some q-time with him. We spent the next couple hours together and I didn’t fish at all. I simply did the “guide thing” and made a number of suggestions and changes to his flies and approach. Thank God for me those suggestions worked for Mark. Mark started catching fish and was the big winner that day. He caught 3 quality fish with me while I was with him. And for the rest of the trip he did well. I learned at the end of the day when we all got back together at camp that some of the other guys did not do well. I had that dwindling solunar performance in the back of my mind and feared what the next day would bring…or wouldn’t bring.
Sunday, October 22nd – We hiked for an hour up river, over the mountain, before we started fishing. It’s something I have always wanted to do, but never had people with me that were willing to do it…and to go with it the brutal 5 mile hike back to camp after a long day of fishing. Frankly it’s hard for me to do this because you pass miles and miles of awesome water in the process. They say….well, I say, “the farther up river you go the better the fishing gets.” And it makes sense since the fish up river just don’t see the artificial flies like the ones near the confluence. Unfortunately my fear of the solunar prediction was realized; it was slow… I think I fished and hour without a take. And I was getting good drifts. That is pretty rare for me on the Upper Kern no matter what the conditions. I wanted to say I couldn’t understand what changed in terms of hatches, but I did have that solunar theory thing in the back of my mind. I usually can figure out what the fish are eating if you give me a couple hours, but there were few bugs in the air and nothing rising and nothing being spooked and nothing worked for me. I went hours without a single take.
I caught up to mark and that is when I saw it and laughed; an impressed laugh. He was standing on a huge rock, close to 10 feet above the water level. He was in front of a long deep bend in the river. He had a gap in the trees behind him big enough for a back cast. So, he was making 50 foot single hauls to the opposite side of the river with a dry/dropper rig. I wish I was close enough to video it. It was impressive. Plus I could see him long distance mending so I can’t imagine the drift was easy. He sure has become a great cast. I was still 100 yards away when he hooked up on a big fish. He battled it for longer than what I would deem normal and brought it to hand and showed me from distance after I screamed, “Woo!” from 100 yards away. It looked huge. I guessed over 20”. When I got to him he said, “17”.
I still hadn’t landed a fish that day, though. And slowly I found out no one but Mark had either. So, slowly but surely everyone started their long treks back to camp except for me. I found myself at Kern Flats (which I believe is over 6 miles from our camp) in front of the famous bend which is always good for at least one fish…and nothing. It was getting late in the day and I knew I had at least a 1.5 hour hike back to the site, skunked. That is when I said myself, “if I am going to get skunked I’m going down with size 18 dries.” As I walked back I found Mark and Sean in “their hole” and told them to check in with me on their walk back so I wouldn’t worry. Half of the way back to camp was one of my favorite runs I walked by earlier in the day without fishing it. It took me a while to get there. Mark and Sean caught me as I tied on some 5x to the end of my leader, then a light colored size 18 mayfly imitation that was similar to a random handful of naturals I had seen during the day. They moved on, hiking back to camp. I moved into position to cast, which meant rock hopping my way closer to the middle of the river so I could get a cast. I stared out in front of me at the run hoping to see rises where I had seen them so many times in years past….nothing. From my rock I had to make a simple 30 foot cast straight up stream. First cast…whack! 6” incher. Nice. I fished for 10 minutes and got struck on almost every cast. I had landed 4 to 12” before mangling my leader because of my quickly tied poor knot when I tied on the tippet. So, I cut it off and said to myself, “if I can catch my fifth on what is essentially a 6 foot 0x leader, I’ll call it a total success and head back to camp. I had to nip the leader at an angle just to thread the size 18 hook. Success; 10” er. I would have loved to stay and whack 20 trout after that full day of being skunked, but walking back that far to camp alone in the dark in that part of the sierras is not smart. So, I took off happy. And then it occurred to me. We had not caught a single fish in front of camp yet. And we had all fished it hard for 3 days. That that is one of the most prolific spots on the river. I said to myself, when I get back to camp I’ll throw 5 casts to see if I can break the skunk there. It was a long 45 minute brisk hike back up and over the mountain. As I approached the camp all the guys already had whiskeys and were trading the day’s stories. I looked at Mark with a smile and held 5 fingers up. He said, “We heard you shout. We knew you are on.” I explained to the guys what happened and said, I have to try it here. So I wandered 50 feet down to the river. First cast, whack! I shouted “Woo!” and some of the guys ran over. After landing the fish I handed the rod to my cousin Larry French and said, “take over” I headed for a backpacking chair with whiskey and he got a strike too with Warren guiding him.
Through a matter of circumstances, I hiked out alone. I like to do that at the Forks. I like to push myself. I made it from camp to the crossing of the little Kern in good time. My goal was to hike the 2 miles and 1100 feet up and out of the canyon in under an hour. With my new trekking poles I was pretty confident. 1:04 – that is pretty good for an old guy.
It was a great trip and fun was had by all. The real bummer for me is November 15 and the winter looms. That ends the fishing season for most of California until Spring. It’s back into the man cave to tie hundreds of flies for the hundreds lost this season for me.
There were quality fish hooked, landed and there were frustrations with trees and slow times. I honestly believe we learn from our entire experience on the river: from the most advance fly fishers like me to total beginners we are always getting better whether we are catching fish or not.
I believe a totally fun trip was had by all. I’d love to make that an annual trip with that group.
My iPhone: You are not going to believe this. On that first day we put my iphone in a plastic bag with the silicon desiccant packs from backpacking food and let it sit in the sun for 3 days. It worked. I didn’t even try to turn it on during the trip. When I got to my truck after the hike out I plugged it in and it came right up. When I finally got to signal an hour later in Kernville all the txts and emails flooded in.