October 17-20, 2019
This was only the 2nd time I have done a trip to the Forks in the fall…after over a decade of trips into the canyon. This annual trip is with what I call the “gear group” because many of the guys that join this trip are actual reps in the outdoors industry. All great guys; this year 5 of us. I learn so much from them in terms of outdoors gear and food and clothes. I gladly do a little fly fishing guiding (and provide the flies)…which is so fun for me.
The first and most striking contrast to the spring and summer down at the Forks is the colors. It has been consistently shocking how many trees are not pines in the canyon; trees that turn colors in the fall. And leaves that fall in the river providing more interesting challenges (and annoyances) to the fly fishing. The Fall also produces cold nights and cold morning temperatures. Backpacking gear is expensive and I slowly upgrade through time, but man is it cold in October. I need better cold weather clothes and gear. The day time temps are fantastic, in the high 70s. but, the nights get into the 30s.
The other striking contrast from Spring/Summer is the fly fishing. Since I have only been twice to the Forks in the fall, I’m really learning a lot about the difference in the fly fishing that Spring, Summer and Fall produce at the Forks. In the Fall the river is cold. I measured the water temp in the morning on this trip: 44 degrees. By eod it only got to 48. The ideal water temp for trout fishing is 54. That meant really slow mornings. I knew that going in. I have had plenty of buddies and “electronic buddies” from this site giving me fishing reports on the Upper Kern. So, there was absolutely no rush to get to fishing after staggering out of the tent in the high 30s in the morning. On the 3 days I fished I rarely got any action (or saw any rises) before 11am. Plus, let’s face it, wet wading in 44 degree water is…well…not fun. I not only experienced that sharp burning sensation of bitter cold, but also having my feet and ankles go numb. And here is a first for me. just washing my face with river water in the morning gave me an “ice cream headache”.
One of the guys that joined me on the trip was a longtime friend, Martin Löef. Martin reps Katadyn….who’s products have made my life so much easier at the Forks. On this trip I had a one liter and a 3 liter Katadyn Befree. They are a godsend. I can’t imagine backpacking without them. I have not used my steri-pen in a couple years because of the Katadyns.
There was a time where we thought this trip was just going to be me and Martin. I told him from the start I’d guide him and enjoy doing it. After setting up camp at the huck site, upon arrival, Martin and I did a little bit of fishing right in front of camp. The rest of the group wasn’t due to arrive until that night. I could see right away that Martin had casted a rod before….so that was encouraging. He also expressed the desire to only throw dries flies. Guiding someone with that attitude is a pure pleasure. So, the next day, the first full day, Martin and I headed over the mountain (rattlesnake creek) and didn’t start fly fishing until the other side. There is a run over on the other side that has always produced excellent dry fly fishing for me, so I was still curious to see if it produced under these fall conditions with zero bugs in the air. It requires some agility to get in place and Martin, a bit older than me, is quite the fit, agile outdoorsman. Sure enough the minute we walked up to it, we saw an aggressive rise of a small fish which is typical of the Kern River Rainbow. After I explained where I wanted him to stand (on a rock in the river) and cast from, I contemplated a number of things that were a bit of a concern:
- That run requires at least a 30 foot cast to be effective. 40 and 50 foot casts with long drifts are more effective.
- You have to cast straight up stream with the fly coming straight back at you. That is a not only a line management nightmare for beginners but, typically a late setting frustration too.
- putting a huck hopper on him. there we no rises or even bugs in the air. That rise we saw was on something emerging…most likely a midge. Huck Hoppers in the forks of the Kern tend to induce rises.
So, purely to check out his overhand (because a small fly is easier to cast than a big ‘ol huck hopper) cast I decided I’d leave the size 16 parachute adams on that I tied on the night before when he was fishing from camp. I’m so glad I did. It couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 casts before he got a rise to that fly. He was slow to set, as I imagined and there was line g. I screamed “Go!” (I have this weird new habit of yelling “Go!” Instead of “Set!”). Well, I laughed and congratulated him on fooling the fish. I counted 6 more strikes on his casts without success in setting before I decided to intervene and do a little drift and line management lesson. Once we got that worked out he landed his first Kern River rainbow. Which he fought with the line in his teeth instead of his non casting hand. We worked that out next. But, he kept missing the sets. I could clearly see the trout taking the fly down but he was so slow to set. It’s then he got honest with me. “I can’t see that far.”
“casting beyond your site.” We have all done it. Either because of glare or simply because of that big 60+ foot cast is beyond our site. Setting on the splash (or in this case your buddy screaming, “Go!”. It’s not very effective. Until it is. The truth is that martin admitted he needs glasses or contacts or something to see far. I laughed and told him I’d continue to scream “Go!”. Which I did a few casts later. And this time he hooked a big fish and tightened up on him. He was pulling hard enough to pull the fish’s head out of the water and sure enough snapped that fish off on 5x. it was pretty cool though. Martin missed a lot of sets, but fooling trout is still enjoyable even if you miss them. So, I was having a blast, hooting and hollering. I think martin got 12-15 fish to rise, hooked 3 and landed two when all was said and done. we had a great day together and hiked more than 4 miles up stream from the huck site.
Some other things I noticed that is so different from fishing the spring or summer that will be of help to those sneaking in to the forks this year before it closes or simply any time in the fall:
- I caught 4x as many fish on dries then I did nymphing. That exact thing happened the last time I fished the forks in October. It was the strangest thing not having success on the nymph and still getting a significant number of takes on top on the huck hopper. I may not have been getting it down far enough in the faster runs. In fact, that probably was the case. My “normal” spring / summer rig is a size 4 huck hopper (that is huge), followed 4 feet down by a large rubber legs which is super heavy, followed another 18” down by a huck rainbow warrior or huck green caddis nymph. That rig is wildly effective there in spring or summer. I was floating a smaller huck hopper I was prototyping (see below) that couldn’t support the weight of my “go to” rig. So I went without the heavy rubber legs. The only thing is…. I put the other beginners on the bobber; which could support the normal rig and they were not getting a lot of takes.
- In my trip this summer (august) I noticed an abundance of grass hoppers that were light grey in color and from size 8 to 12. There are a myriad of different species of grass hoppers down in the canyon and one day I’ll be able to identify all of them. I’m not a total believer in color because I have read a lot of the science and trout see colors differently in different light conditions and distances. What does matter a lot more is size and shape. But, I did tie a number of prototype grey size 8 huck hoppers and, as I suspected because they matched the naturals in size and color they really worked.I caught at least one trout every day right in front of the huck camp. And half of them were quality fish. I believe it’s not so much about that being a great pool, run and tail-out as much as it is the times of day I fished. The point: in the fall, fish until the sun goes down. That last 2 hours as the day closes is the most effective time. And that is most likely because that is the part of the day where the water is warmest.
The river was just a little too high and cold at 330 CFS for crossing safely. There were definitely places in the river, maybe a handful, over the 6 mile stretch I fished, where you could cross at knee level. But, 1, the river was so cold to wet wade and 2. once across there is no river trail and not being able (or willing) to trek in the river meant it was long stretches of bushwhacking before finding a cross back to the other side.
- Note: the “Forks of the Kern” trail sign which indicates where to turn on the dirt road that takes you to the trailhead is not only still broken, but, in even worse shape: both poles broken and propped against a tree. It’s really easy to miss now. the directions are painstakingly detailed in the guidance doc, but, the right turn for the trailhead is exactly 36.8 miles from the junction of Mountain Road 50 (MR-50) and Mountain Road 99 (MR-99) near the tiny town of Johnsondale.
Unfortunately, the cache near the huck site has been compromised and pillaged. It’s not the first time. It’s a bit discouraging. But, it’s not like I’m devastated. I have accumulated a cache of extra supplies, tools, fishing equipment and even a spare tent over the years. Those that download the guidance document are encouraged to email me if they want to use it and I email very specific directions to finding it. Many readers of this site have added to the cache every year which is really great. For instance, the tools that others have left behind to help cut back the willows and branches making it easier on beginners have been a god-send. They are now gone. As is most of the cache.
I have received some criticism, even within my own awesome fly-fishing club about publishing how special the forks of the kern is on this site; how special it is to catch and release a wild trout that can only be found in a 20 mile stretch of river in the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Using this site to enlighten and encourage fly fishers to visit the Upper Kern by way of the Forks trailhead has been a mixed blessing in terms of getting the word out on how special the forks is. I believe in conservation by awareness. I believe to stop the slow death of the great sport I love; to have the sport of fly fishing thrive to where it once was, us advanced fly fishers should give away their secret spots even to the point of giving up their favorite holes to beginners; especially young fly fishers. Some of my peers do not share that view.
There is more positive on this than negative. For instance, one of the downloaders of the guidance doc and users of the cache emailed me a few weeks back that he “put some work into the fireplace”. When I got to the site on this trip I was pleasantly surprised. The stonework at the huck site is in great shape right now. best ever. He must have put 2-4 hours into making that fireplace better.
But, the cache has been pillaged and needs to be built up again. What was different about the vandalism this time is that the gear in the cache that was too big to carry away (like the spare tent) and steal was actually hid a few yards away. As if these vandals were going to use it as their own for them and them alone on their next time in. I was lucky to find it.
So Fear not. As soon as I can get in next spring I will start building the cache back up and so will the many forks of the kern lovers and readers of this site. But, I have been forced to move the cache. It’s still not completely safe to vandalism again: it’s farther away yet still not a brutally physical hike/climb to find. I’m hoping it will not be as easily found randomly as where it was located for so many years prior so close to the huck site.
So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020 (assuming a normal winter which this year was not) I’ll be writing about other my other fly fishing and outdoors adventures. And hosting a few guest posts.