Pushing the Boundaries of Safety a little too far….
I lied. In my October (2019) post I wrote, “So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020” fully thinking at the time that I would not be able to get back to the upper Kern before the season ended on 11/15, let alone be crazy enough to do it (because of the cold nights). Well, work has been so stressful I needed a weekend in the mountains just to clear my head and organize my thoughts. Plus, one of the great things about doing this blog over the years is that so many of you are really good about keeping me updated with fishing reports and other intel by email. One reader I can definitely call an “internet friend” is Peter Persidok. Peter is clearly a good fly fisherman. It was Peter who wrote me an email and inspired me to go for a simple 2 nighter over the weekend. He went into the Forks last weekend and did well above rattlesnake creek. He also inspired me to hike past the Huck Site, and camp up river, over the mountain. I rarely get to do that stopping at Huck camp because of the group I am with. But, on this trip I went alone. I have plenty of strength and stamina for an “old guy”. On this trip I camped at “sand camp” which is about 7-8 miles from the trailhead and a mile short of kern flats. But, it was quite the adventure just getting there.
I know there is tons of guidance telling you not to back pack alone, but I’m a lot safer than I was when I was young. Plus I carry a Garmin InReach 66i satellite tracker / safety device. That means not only can loved ones (or the curious) track where I am on an internet site, but I can use the device to txt through the satellite network. In the case of a true emergency there is an SOS button and it would call the cavalry to come save me. I also carry bear spray. And for the first time ever, on this trip, I had to not only unleash the bear spray (which I have done a few times), but also take the safety off and point it at an animal. That is a first for me. more on that later.
Hiking alone in the dark
If it was not so hard to plow through LA to get to the Forks, I bet I would go a lot more often. For about $75 of gas, plus backpacking food and fuel I can’t think of more entertainment bang for your buck in the wilderness for the fly fisher. Clearly, it’s not for everyone, but it is for me. Well, I had an important meeting at work Friday late morning that precluded me from going the night before. I got on the road at 11am thinking I’d be safe. I was not. LA’s traffic just nailed me. yea, I use a garmin GPS with traffic data and waze on my phone at the same time, but this was just one of those Fridays. I lost a full hour in traffic. Normally that would not be an issue. But, this is the time of year where the sun goes down at 5pm. As I kept losing more and more time I kept telling myself how badly it would suck to have to sleep in my truck at the trailhead. It was only a 2 nighter. Let’s just say once I got on mountain road 50 I started pushing it…. clearly speeding. After almost plowing 3 deer in the road I slowed down. I didn’t get to the trailhead until 4:45 pm. I have never backpacked in the dark, let alone done it alone. That is when I told myself, “the moon is almost full and it’s a totally clear night. That will help light the trail. I will target the “confluence site” which is at the bottom of the hill, only 2 miles total. And I won’t have to cross the little kern in the dark. That will give me a 2 mile jump on the long morning hike ahead of me.” The other complication was temperature. My decade old tundra (Huck-Truck) may have a cassette deck, but it does tell me the outside temp… which had fallen into the 40s before the sun went down. So the clothes I laid out to hike in with were totally inappropriate. I had to go into my already packed up backpack to get long hiking pants, a fleece and a down jacket. That cost a little more time.
Well, I took off right around 5pm. It was already twilight, but I was confident in my plan. Unfortunately, at many points that canyon and the trees shaded the moonlight so I wasn’t half of the way down before I needed my headlamp. “Not a problem.” I kept saying to myself. “I know the trail so well I could do it blindfold.”
I’m not afraid of bears and mountain lions and wolves as much as I am afraid of tiny insects like ticks and mosquitos that give you uncurable diseases. They key is not to startle an animal like that which means “hiking loud” and always having bear spray at the ready. Being that said, while hiking alone in the dark, I couldn’t help but focus on Peter’s email about him running into the two mountain lions on the trail right at the bottom by the Little Kern crossing. I have seen them. I have heard of plenty of sightings of them over the years. They are two adult females and I’m sure they do well on deer (I have seen my share of carcasses there) and many other smaller animals down at the Forks.
The first complication: as I got to the bottom I could see two separate camp fires. And one was in the confluence site. That was a bummer. That meant I was looking at a Little Kern River Crossing in the dark and having to find a primitive site to camp in on the main fork of the Kern River. With the Main fork of the Kern at 285 CFS the Little Kern crossing was well below knee deep. So, it was not a safety thing at all. It was just so frickin’ cold. And a bit creepy. I’d post a picture here, but none of them came out it was so dark; totally shaded from the moonlight by trees. Upon getting my shoes back on I reflected on what to do next. I could either b-line for the river and stumble into the first available primitive site. But, that would be off trail in the dark. There are a few primitive sites right there above the confluence. Or I could stay on the trail and grab the first available site close to the trail. There were very few cars at the trailhead; not a surprise for November, but that would mean plenty of sites open. So, I stayed on the trail. I saw the other group with the campfire right away. What I didn’t realize is that in the darkness you cannot see the primitive sites that are not close to the trailhead. At least not with the weak headlamp I was using. I know I passed a couple without noticing them. But, I kept pushing on the trail. It was only around 6pm. If you know that trail well, you know the primitive sites stop for the next mile as the trail narrows in a canyon. There is a fantastic site I have never stayed in around 3 total miles from the trailhead. I have never stayed in it mostly because it’s always full. The trail looks down on it and it’s on a bend on a plateau above the river. There is a great run around the bend in front of it I have fished many times. For the next 30 minutes I basically was praying that site would be open and then, in my head speculating at the few sites, leading all the way to the huck site that I would target if wasn’t open. I needed to find camp because it was dark and I was alone. I was pushing the safety thing. Thank God the site was open. I got a fire going quickly. I got my tent up quickly. It was really cold now. I couldn’t tell how cold but I could tell it was close to freezing. I had hiked in 3 frozen lamb chops. Another complication I am not used to: they were still frozen. So, I did a little makeshift thawing fire side. After bbq’ing on the backpacking grill I hiked in, eating and a little jack daniels even the fire couldn’t keep my warm. I was in my tent and asleep before 9pm with the plan of breaking down camp and backpacking as early as possible with another 4 miles or so to the “sand camp” in the morning.
What I learned from the last couple October visits to the Kern is that I do not have a pad and bag that “works” in cold weather. It’s fine in the summer. But, in early Spring and the fall my stuff just doesn’t work. It’s not designed for cold weather. I literally wore every piece of clothes I had and still shivered my way through the night on those October trips. At times it was awful. So, this time I borrowed my buddy Martin’s Big Agnes Helium 15 degree down bag and his Big Agnes Q-Core SLX and Pumphouse Ultra. Now I cannot live without them. I will be purchasing them immediately; I don’t care what it costs. Firstly, the bag is so much warmer than my 20 degree backpacking bag. I actually slept in my hiking boxers with bare feet. Secondly the pad is so much thicker than my thermarest so you are much higher off the ground. And it packs down just as small and light. On my thermarest the cold floor of the tent goes right through it. if you slide off the thermarest you feel the bitter cold right through the bag immediately. Lastly, the stuff sack for the bag doubles as an inflator. It’s genius. No more blowing up pads at altitude and getting dizzy for me. I have become a huge Big Agnes fan in the process of learning backpacking.
What’s up with the Coyote?
Well I woke up around 5AM and immediately felt the shock of how cold it was. I dreaded getting out of the bag to pack up. So, I tossed and turned until I forced myself out of the tent at 6am. I never do a morning fire. This time I had to. The first thing I noticed was my backpacking plate, knife and fork: frozen solid. I didn’t want to wash dishes in the cold at night so I just filled the plate with river water and let the dishes soak until I could deal with them in the morning. Now I had to figure out what “dealing with it” meant.
By 8:00 I had eaten and was fully packed up and back on the trail. There is a primitive site I stayed in once with Kelly and Mere that is directly across from one of the best fishing runs in the stretch from the confluence to rattlesnake creek. It was right before that site that I saw something in the trail. As I got closer I could tell it was a coyote. In Carlsbad, CA we are backed up to a wildlife preserve that sports a few healthy populations of coyote packs. There are no outside kitties in our neighborhood and frequently dogs get taken. I run into them at dawn and dusk constantly and upon seeing me they flee in fear.
Now I was within 50 feet of the coyote and it had not budged; sitting in the trail staring me down and not moving. I did the hooting and hollering and waving my backpacking poles thing to scare if off the trail as I moved closer. It didn’t move. At 30 feet I stopped. I had to. It was right in the trail facing me staring me down. and there was no legit detour around it. It wasn’t like I was scared. His tail was between his legs which means subservient; not aggressive. if he charged me, I could have beaten the thing with my trekking poles. I just couldn’t figure what the coyote was doing. It occurred to me it might be part of a pack, distracting me, but, I looked around and didn’t see any others. So, I grabbed my bear spray and continued to shout at it. It just stared at me in steely silence. Well, I had lost my patience with it. I wasn’t about to let this thing get between me and fly fishing so I pulled the safety latch on the bear spray. While pointing it right at his face I veered off the trail about 15 feet and walked right by it. It simply turned and watched me. then continued to stare at me as I hiked away (trust me. I looked back at it a number of times). Weird.
I hiked over the mountain and made it to “sand camp” around 9:30AM. I know from the October trip that the river fishes really poorly in the cold of the morning, so that gave me the time, to set up camp: make firewood; fill my sun shower and 3-liter Katadyn, etc.
The best nymphing on the Upper Kern Ever
By 10:45AM I set up my 6 weight to my “go to” upper kern river rig: a 3x leader to a size 4 huck hopper on top. Not because I thought a huge Huck Hopper would work, but because I knew it could float the weight I was going to tie under it. I just rarely fish a bobber anymore. Nor do I use a net. That’s just me. You never know when troutzilla might take a size 4 fly so why use a bobber if you are ok with the tangling or loss risk of 3 flies? 4 feet of 4x below the huck hopper I tied on a Beldar’s Stone. It has 2 beads so it gets down quickly. I have found this bug to simply just work on the Upper Kern, in all seasons without fail. When I tie this bug I don’t do anything different except for I tie it with tungsten cones. Frankly it works so well I should just sell them on the site (even though I didn’t invent the fly) as part of a “Upper Kern River Special”. In fact, that is not a bad idea. And now I have the off season to do that. A foot to 1.5 feet of 5x below the Beldars stone I tie on a “huck bow warrior” which is a derivation of a rainbow warrior fly I have developed and evolved from countless hours of fishing on the upper kern. I tie it in both a flash back and crippled way. It doesn’t really imitate anything in nature. But, for some reason (well, it’s quite the attractor fly) it just kills. Actually, it kills everywhere, but it just seems like the go-to fly on the Kern.
So I make my first cast right in front of camp. It was not a special cast; I didn’t cast it far, just to the seam in the river right in front of me. Sure enough that Huck Hopper goes down and I set hard. Within minutes, after a number of jumps, I landed a 14” Kern River Rainbow, unhooked and let him go without even taking him out of the water. I laugh to myself…and then the sobering thought hits me, “a first cast fish. I just jinxed myself and am now going to be skunked for the rest of the day.” So, I moved 100 feet up river to another run and hooked two more; fighting one to my feet (no net: perfect) where he popped off and landing the other. “hmm…” I say to myself, “This could be one of those days.”
In the next 4 hours (11am to 3pm) I only fished a mile. I typically move pretty quickly and cover a lot of ground. I have been called an impatient fly fisherman. If I don’t get a take in good holding water on a good drift, I move on. Only making it one mile is a testament to how good the fishing was. I hooked big wild kern river rainbow trout (14” to 19”) all day. In every run, pool and pocket. It was one of those, “my arm hurts from battling fish.” days. My landing ratio was about right for someone nymph fishing without a net barbless: about 50%. I battled so many fish I worked on setting them free at my feet without touching them by holding the line tight 3 feet above the fish with my hand. It works about 1 third of the time. The weird thing is that for over a decade I have always experienced that catching a fish in the upper kern puts the entire pool down. man, did I prove that theory wrong. I caught multiple fish in runs multiple times. It was almost like a spawn was going down. and from some of the colors on the males I was catching it could have been true. I’d love to talk to a biologist to verify if the upper kern produces a winter spawn like there is in the Upper Owens River. Anyways I guess I landed 25-30 fish; all big and got takes and/or hooked and lost about that many. That type of fishing is just bananas. I don’t know any other way to describe it. To top it off I fished the exact same rig 98% of the time on this trip. There was no reason to mix it up short of the few late night casts I made with dries. I did change out 3-4 huck bow warriors because the trout chomped them to the point they were so beaten up they unraveled. And by the time I was done my beldar stone looked like it had been through the wars. The big Huck Hopper floated all day long without me needing to dress it in any way.
It was about 3 hours into this crazy action fishing session when I got this weird unsatisfied feeling. My first thought was, “I’m doing so well this is getting boring. I am switching to dries to make it harder on me.” And then I realized what my feeling was about: It was not that I was bored or it was too easy. It was that I wished I was guiding a beginner instead of actually fishing myself. When I teach someone on the Upper Kern River I always include a statement like, “We’ll most likely hook some today. Landing them is a totally different. It’s not likely. I hope we do.” It’s very rare when the fishing is so good and when it is there is nothing more fun than the joy of teaching someone how to do it; beginner or not. Since the Upper Kern is so wild there is just so much preventing a beginner from doing well that is not how active the fish are. it’s the overhanging trees, the current and getting in a position just to be able to cast to holding water, let alone get a drift. This was one of those days where the beginner’s odds would have significantly been better. That would have been fun for me. As it was I experienced it all alone without a sole in sight. Which was also super fun.
BTW, I wet waded instead of carting my backpacking waders down. And that was a mistake. At points my feet and legs were numb. At points the fishing was so good I’d catch and release in the water, then wade out of the river to warm up in the sun just long enough to wander back in and catch another in the same spot. After hooking 4 or 5 in the same place I was so numb I had to hike away just to get feeling back in my legs.
Guidance: Fish the other side of the river
Let me give you some guidance related to success in the Upper Kern: Fish the other side of the River. I have always done well on the other (South-Eastern) side of the river. The reasons are numerous. But, the main reason is that the other side provides casts to places that just don’t see artificial flies all season long. I love the other side because it’s the “Left handed side”. I’m left handed. On the other side I’m casting up stream with my left arm over the river. On the “normal” side of the river I’m handicapped from making big casts because I’m doing it over my shoulder or forced to role cast. The problem, of course, is that they don’t call it the “Killer Kern” for nothin’. It’s a wild and dangerous river. This November the river was 285 CFS as measured at the Fairview dam. That type of low flow means there are a few thigh high crossings that are really mellow at the Forks. There is some irony that for this entire 2019 season the upper kern was only crossable safely in the last 3 weeks of the season. That is what happens in a big snow pack year.
Since I only fished up stream a mile I crossed back over the river at kern flats and walked the mile back to the sand site and was back at camp by 4pm. I checked the sun shower and it was way too cold to use; bummer. There was not going to be any cleaning up on this trip.
So, I re-rigged to dries. I got a rise from a small trout right in front of camp on a size 18 (anything). And that was the only rise I had on the trip. During the awesome day before I did not get a single rise on the huck hopper. I saw very few naturals which explains why. It’s just too late in the season for that.
I had in my head something else that Peter told me. that he did really well on mouse patterns the weekend before right as it got dark. I have never even seen a mouse at the forks. But, I had to try. So, until it got too dark to see, I tried a number of casts with a mouse pattern and failed. Peter said he was using small mice patterns. I only had one big one and that probably led to my failure. It was still fun, though.
Now it was dark and cold. I had to get the fire started quickly. I burnt a lot of wood that night sitting in my backpacking chair enjoying the fire. After jack daniels and eating some backpacking food I said to myself, “I wonder if I should drain the sun shower and the 3 liter katadyn.” I should have. Lesson learned…
Sunday – the hike out
The next morning my sun shower and both Katadyns were frozen solid as a rock. My wading boots and wading socks were also frozen solid as were a number of other things. So, I did another morning fire and dealt with that as best I could. I was looking at the 6 miles hiking back to the little kern crossing and then the 2 miles up the hill. I wasn’t dreading it. I was kind of looking forward to it as part of the adventure. I’m glad at my age I can still hike up that mountain in less than an hour, frequently passing folks younger than me.
In the October trip, we hiked out early to get home early and just got hammered by LA traffic. This time I was purposely going to hike out later, and target getting home by 8pm (reasonable enough to pack and make my 6am flight for work the next morning).
Well that left me an hour to fish before heading up the mountain. I put down my pack and rigged up (the exact same way) at the site at the confluence (which was now empty).
I told myself not to get my hopes up because this stretch had now been hammered for months. However, within 30 minutes I caught 5 more big trout. Ridiculous. One of them went over 20”. I tried to follow it down river as best I could. It was quite the battle as he did numerous jumps and runs. I told myself I would mind losing him by breaking him off because the river bank downstream from me didn’t exist. I would have had to go waste deep in the clothes I was hiking out in to chase him down stream. So I laid the wood on him. I pulled him back to my feet, reached for my camera and he popped off there at my feet. I laughed. I didn’t get the picture, but, I did not have to touch him. He’ll be 22” next season.
So, now it’s over until next season. At least for me. but, if there is anyone fly fishing up there in the next 3 days before the end of the season they are going to do well.