June 4-7, 2020 (Spring Guidance for the Forks)
Hear me huffin’ and puffin’? i’m going as fast as i can towards the Huck site to see if it’s open
I have been backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail for over a decade….closer to 15 years…could be 20. Yet in all that time I had never been able to go in June. The only time I ever got to go to the Forks in the Spring was in a bad drought year…at the end of April…and it was one of, if not the most epic fly fishing experiences I had ever had at the Forks. I mean the chance to throw flies at big wild native kern river rainbows that had not seen food, let alone artificials in over 4 months?! There are a variety reasons I never was able to go in Spring:
- Big Winters; lots of snow blocking the roads in
- The River is normally too blown out big and dangerous to fish in June
- Waiting for the road to open. Western Divide has to clear many roads, not just NF-2282 to the forks, of the trees, rocks and debris that fall on the road during the winter. Western Divide Ranger District is just plain underfunded and it’s a true shame. NF-2282 is a rarely travelled 23 mile long dead end into the wilderness at altitude. Not only do people do stupid things in winter, but the pine beetle problem is so bad that trees die and fall on the road blocking it. Even on this trip a tree fell across the road while we were in the forks and we had to run over the decomposing top of it to get out.
- Work: June is conference season and I’m a conference speaker.
But this June is different. We had an average snowpack year, but the Kern is acting like it’s in a drought year. 850 CFS in the beginning of June is so rare. At the time of this writing, just 3 days later, the flow is at 520 CFS and well below the pace of the last big drought year of 2018. So, when I got a note from my friend at Western Divide that they opened the road I executed quickly. It did not matter that there is a forest wide restriction on camp fires. We could live without a camp fire on this trip. The chance to get in there so early in the year was a treat.
My love of the Forks is well known. And in our neighborhood in Carlsbad they have been hearing it for years. My wife kelly won’t go unless a girlfriend goes with her. I totally get that because I like to fish 24/7 and she does not. Backpacking can be rugged and physical. I have told many in the ‘hood: “if you give it a chance I know you will love it. It’s only 4.36 miles”. But, I have to admit it’s only for a small portion of people. Backpackng can be brutal…especially in the mountains. You have to be fit. So, two other couples, dear friends, joined us on this one. That is a first for me. I never dreamed I’d get to share that experience in a couples scenario….especially us upper middle aged couples who have been married for decades. Typically, when I go to the forks I fish all daylight hours alone covering many miles of river with 1000s of casts. With 3 couples, 5 of which are beginner fly fishers it would be totally different and I looked forward to that.
Meredith is a “seasoned veteran” of the forks joining my wife kelly and me twice. There is a saying we made up last summer on the JMT: “Mere would go.” And that is because she is tough and loves the wilderness. Last summer in a totally stomach flu like sick state, the poor thing climbed half dome and hiked 15 miles with us into the Yosemite valley and didn’t complain a bit. It’s her husband Lance that has been a challenge for us to convince to go. “why would you guys spend all that money on backpacking gear when we can just fly to Fiji?” it’s a legitimate argument. But, now he’s a fan and I’m sure he’ll go again. Kelly and Mere coined the backpacking saying, “More booze; less food.” I like that. Conni and Chris Nardo joined us. They did the Sierra Club Wilderness Basic backpacking Course until covid-19 ruined it. One of those trips was to the desert where they had to carry like 3 gallons of water. Talk about miserable. Conni wasn’t too hot on backpacking after that, but she is a trooper and was game for this trip. Now I know she’s excited for the next one. and her husband Chris? Who hikes 10 high end beers into the forks to share because of his own love of beer? Talk about a value add! Talk about going in heavy and lighter on the way back up the hill!
Usually I rate the fishing experience for a trip in a simple poor to awesome range. With average, good, excellent, in between. On this trip I didn’t fish that much; maybe 25% as much as I normally do. And that was fine. In fact it worked out great! Normally I leave in the morning with a rod and spend the entire day in the water fly fishing while I work miles and miles of river. I did do a ton of simple little 10 minute sessions right at camp while everyone did other things like relaxing and did pretty well. I swear there are hundreds of fish in that head, the pool and the tail-out at the huck site. One day…in august when the water temps are bearable, I’m going to bring a snorkeling mask to verify it.
So, how do you rate the fishing on a trip where:
- you only catch around 10 trout a day….you don’t catch your normal 40 fish a day…but, only because you’re guiding more than fishing
- You lose more fish to LDRs and missed sets than you land
- You don’t successfully land a big one
- The water is just big enough to be a challenge to casting
- All 5 beginners get takes on top; the majority of them even land a few
- My buddy Lance, not without experience, but certainly not in highly skilled and knowledgeable range, casts into whitewater and has his Huck Hopper assaulted by a large trout that set on it self. He landed it. I’d say very close to 20”. Size 12 huck hopper in the whitewater….who knew?
When you sum all that up I’d call that good fishing.
I can tell you this: I fished dries the entire time I was there. I mostly fished Huck Hoppers. I couldn’t tell which did better: the little size 12 ones or the gargantuan size 4s. And I consistently got rises except for in the mornings when it was super cold water. Frequently I fished a double huck hopper, big one in front and little one in back and the takes seemed to be 50-50 on each. Also, except for a short stretch on the first day, I had all the beginners fish huck hoppers. Dries are just easer to cast and more fun to fish.
This trip was fun because I got to guide beginners. I love guiding beginners. I promised all of them: “You will get a take; You will fool a fish. Battling them all the way to landing them is a totally different story.” And that was certainly true on this trip.
Normally I wouldn’t write about food on a backpacking trip short of the picture of the big steak on the first night….which we didn’t get to enjoy because of the state wide restrictions on camp fires in the forest. But, I invested in a dehydrator. I will never eat expensive crappy freeze-dried backpacking food again. Even my wife Kelly said a lot of the food I dehydrated was pretty good. And she is very discriminating. It wasn’t perfect. I absolutely ruined chopped chicken breasts that I dehydrated for an asian noodle dish, making them so tough they were inedible. Mere also bought a dehydrator and made a vegetarian meal that was pretty darn good. I’m tempted to blog what I’m learning about dehydrating…but, there is already so much good guidance on the interweb on how to dehydrate food for backpacking I just don’t see me lending much more expertise than is already out there. Good food just makes the effort and suffering of backpacking so much more palatable (pun intended).
How many times have I written on this site, “There is always a calamity while backpacking. You have to adapt and overcome.” Well, this trip was not short of calamity. Lets’ start with my f-ups. Firstly, we left Thursday morning and I took a number of conference calls for work. Our plan was to meet in Kernville, gas up and eat something before driving the last hour up the mountain to the trailhead. I plugged the forks trailhead into my GPS and didn’t even think of how it routed me. Since I was concentrating and talking on my phone I didn’t notice it routed me the Porterville way from the east completely missing Kernville before it was too late. I had to detour south across the mountains on roads I had never been on and my wife was not pleased. I was out of service, and I had 4 people waiting in Kernville on me and I f’d up. We drove in 3 cars to be respectful and cautious to the social distancing rule. That cost everyone 45 minutes and it was completely my fault. Those minutes late translated into degrees on a hot day. Totally my fault.
Once at the trailhead, because it was hot, the plan was for us to hike as a group to the bottom and do the little kern crossing together. Then I’d take off with pace and race to the huck site to see if it was open. The Huck site is really the last site before the brutal stretch up and over the mountain, which adds 2 gory miles. And I didn’t want to put the group through that or put them through doubling back. Conni had an InReach mini and I had my InReach 66i so we could communicate by texting (inReach to Inreach txting is free). Well, the Huck site was open. I dropped my pack, quickly put my cold food and booze into a mesh bag with a rock at the bottom and secured it to a tree. Then I filled up my katadyn with cold river water and took off going to other way trying to track the group down hoping to help…. Even if it was simply by encouragement. Well, one of Conni update txts to me was “On our way, a little slow, sorry.” I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But, it seemed like I hiked a full mile backwards before I ran into Kelly, Mere and Lance. I offered to take Kelly’s bag. The 3 of them said, “No. go help Conni; she took a fall.” It was about 10 minutes later when I ran into a dehydrated Chris and Conni. Neither complaining but I could tell they were ready for the hike to be done. I took Conni’s pack from her and put it on…shocked I said, “this weighs more than mine! This has to be over 50 pounds!” Conni is about 5’2” and a biscuit over 100 lbs. She took a fall and her hand was cut up and bleeding pretty good. Nardo was carrying ~10 lbs of beer so I could only imagine how he was doing. Conni took the water I refilled at the site and we hiked the rest of the way together. I tried to talk upbeat the entire time so they wouldn’t focus on the misery. We made it.
At the site we all were setting up camp when Lance said to me, “hey, where do I put my cold food and booze in the river?” I told him about my mesh bag and pointed at it. he walked down to the river and said he couldn’t find it. I thought to myself, “dumb ass how can you miss it?” well he did eventually find it. but, it was empty and barely visible because of that. In my haste I didn’t realize I put the food into a little eddy in the water so that the current wouldn’t hold it downstream. Normally not an issue, but I seemingly didn’t singe down the string on the top sealing the bag. Even though I had a rock in there to ballast it, it didn’t sink. It must have floated backwards in the eddy and all my food and liter of high end rum simply worked it’s way out of the mesh bag and floated away. I’ve documented some classic f-ups backpacking but that one is at the top of the list. The food bag was super buoyant, so it hung up just 100 feet down river. Thank god. But, my booze probably floated all the way to the Fairview dam to a lucky bait fisherman.
When I got to Conni there was a lot of blood on her hand. I couldn’t tell because of the amount of scratches if it was a stitches thing. Once she cleaned up at the site, it was obvious it was not – just a lot of cuts from sliding down the mountain on rock. This is why I carry a garmin inReach. Had she broken a leg, cracked her head open, we would have needed help.
Another first: rain. In the ~20 years of going to the Forks I had never experienced rain. Not even a drizzle. It’s an arid place; in the southern sierras; and it’s only 4000/5000 feet. So, it doesn’t get those afternoon summer thunderstorms so typical in high elevations of the Sierras. I told our entire group, who had been staring at the weather forecasts and the 30% chance of rain, “There is no way in hell it’s going to rain there.”. It did. Not for a huge amount of time. But long enough and heavy enough for us to put on jackets and hide under the trees for an hour.
On this trip we saw hot sun with clear skies, overcast, patchy clouds, wind, rain, and bitter cold. That must be a spring thing for the area.
Since this was the first time in for the year I was really curious to see how the cache survived the winter in it’s new location. For years I have built an accumulation of “stuff” that stays down at the Huck Site. It has a tent, a tarp, extra fuel, tools, dishes and silverware, two sets of wading boots and water shoes, etc. Anyone that downloads the Huck Guidance to the Forks from the site and pays the $5 which I donate to Cal Trout is more than welcome to use the cache. Many of you have added to the cache over the years. The cache has also been pillaged a few times; which is why I moved it last November.
After the hike in on Thursday afternoon we all set up camp. I can’t sit still so I rigged up and immediately caught 2-3 fish right in front of the site. We did the happy hour ritual, ate and went down early. Honestly when that sun goes down it gets cold and it’s illegal to have a fire. Hitting the tent is really the only alternative.
On Day 2, Friday I got up early, way before everyone else…like at 530am… so I snuck a 30 minute fly fishing session at a run that always produces down stream. I must have got 25 takes. I landed a few including some nice ones.
A well populated Huck Camp
During the huge breakfast we all made I suggested we day hike up stream. That meant packing food, rods, etc. It wasn’t but ¼ mile that I passed a great view spot above the river and a rapid. I heard the rattle faintly, but the river was so loud I kept walking. It was that big red diamond back rattlesnake me and so many people had seen in the very same place before. Chris was behind me and missed it too! It was Connie that heard it, calling it out. Nardo and I walked right by it and didn’t notice even though it was rattling. It survived another winter and it is huge now (which means it’s much safer than a young snake). Since everyone else was backed up on the trail behind it I tried to shoe it away with my rod towards the river so they could pass. That didn’t work. it turned at me, crossed the trail in front of me in front and chris in back. It took a defensive position in the rocks, ready to strike, with it’s tail going off. There was no choice for Chris and the others. You cannot walk within striking distance in front of a pissed of rattlesnake. So, I routed them up the mountain and around. Honestly it was a treacherous giant granite face of rock. Welcome to the wilderness I thought to myself. I sure was proud those guys just scaled right up the side of the granite and over.
We continued the trek towards the entrance of rattlesnake creek; one of the more beautiful views in the area and an awesome place to fish… but, literally impossible until under 300 CFS. I pointed out to Chris, “There is great fishing from here for a full ½ mile up the river. This is where I cross when the river is low enough to cross safely.” He looked at the rapids and said, “You have to be kidding.” “Yea”, I said, “It’s not close to being crossable right now.” I think that is one of the most alluring things about the Upper Kern. It is such a different river depending on flow. The Kern drains Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet. There are not many rivers in the world left that go from 200 CFS to 20,000 CFS and back. The few have mostly been ruined by dams.
I knew that once over the mountain there is a great stretch of water with one run being one of the most outstanding runs within the first 6 miles above the confluence. When we arrived, Lance holed up there. I told the rest of the gang to spread out every 50 feet up river and start fishing, knowing I’d get to them soon. The trick with that run is you have to cast straight up stream at it with the fly coming back at you quickly. Lance started getting strikes like crazy. His line control was good, definitely experienced with a fast drift. So I left him there and attended to setting up the others. I think everyone got takes in that stretch. I believe lance landed a few small ones too. We ate lunch and hung out before the 3 mile hike back to the Huck Site. To enjoy cocktails and appetizers (while Lance and I snuck in some 10 minute sessions right at the site) before dinner.
On Day 3, Saturday I got up early again. Once the sun comes and the birds start going off around 530am I just can’t sleep any longer. Plus, when you are asleep by 9pm there is only so much I can sleep. So, I snuck an early morning 30 minute fly fishing session again. This time I didn’t do as well. Just a couple or 3 takes. From the rain the day before I did notice the river was up a few inches. It was also much colder. I should have measured the river temp; I had a river thermometer with me. My guess was that the river temp was a lot colder and that put the fish down. Of course, when you are fishing dries at 6am can you really expect success? Well…on the Upper Kern sometimes you can. It was the simple fact, though, that on this day the rises got better and better as the day went on; as the river warmed up.
This day’s plan was to hike downriver; exploring the myriad of fishing opportunities we simply hiked by on the way in. Also, as I told the group, there were numerous places down river where we’d fish from rocks above heads, big pools and tail-outs; places where you did not need to step into the water. Over the years I have caught some huge rainbows in those big pools.
It was on one of these giant pieces of granite that Lance hooked 2 big Kern River rainbows. Here’s how it went down. I was rigging Mere’s rod, back turned, when Lance shouted he was on. This big fish jumped 3 feet high out of the rapids and raced downstream. You can imagine what I said to myself. Something like, “there is no way he is going to be able to wrestle that monster back up stream without it popping off or breaking off.” Then I remembered the 3x. “Ok, Lance, see if you can wrestle him tight to the bank.” Which is a steep granite face that slightly eddies. And he did. It was a pretty skilled maneuver. He pulled the fish back enough to where the raging rapids started again. I told him, “see if you can keep his head out of the water as you stay tight on him”. I rarely use a net anymore. Only when guiding. So, damnit I should have brought a backpacking net on this trip. I scrambled like a goat down the rock face, grabbed the leader and pulled the fish to my feet. And damnit the thing popped off right there. I told Lance in my, and most fly fishermen’s book that is a catch. We don’t want to touch them anyways. But, I was a little bummed I lost that fish trying to land him so that Lance didn’t get a picture. Lance was a good sport about it. So, I went back to Mere’s rig, back turned again. Lance casted back into the raging current without even drying the fly off and son of a bitch he hooked up on another huge rainbow. This time he tightened hard and kept him up stream. I can’t remember what I was screaming at him I was so excited. I told him to pull him to the bank, which is calm water. And this time after grabbing the leader I did land him. Lance nailed him right in that really tough cartilage part of the jaw so it was not about to pop off. I put the fish in his hands and we got the trophy pic and the video. I was so stoked! I’m not so sure Lance realizes how special that was. Not only did he catch a fish that only lives in a tiny part of the world, but he caught a big version of it. at the time I thought is was north of twenty. In staring at the video I’d say 18”-19” male Kern River Rainbow. Huge fanned tail.
We worked our way almost all the way to the confluence of the Little Kern. There is a great long run there where everyone could set up 50 apart. We got random takes and caught random rainbows here and there. We hung out and ate lunch. It was a great day and the hike back the couple miles seemed pretty easy for everyone. I ran into the young fly fishermen I gave huck hoppers to on the previous day and we chatted a bit while the rest of the group continued on the camp. Once I got going again I knew the big 360 degree eddy was coming up. 9 times out of 10 from above you can see a group of fish in their feeding….some of them huge. I couldn’t resist. I stopped and made the miraculous, 40 feet cast, under the tree to the 2 square foot patch of soft water at the head. Shocked, I think I even said out loud to myself, “perfect.” I got the 1 second drift I needed and got struck. I tightened as best I could (5x). But the slack in the line pulling back at me with the 9 foot leader meant I didn’t get tight in time. I missed him. Darn. Another LDR. I laughed. But, there is no fooling that fish 2 times a day. So, I didn’t get struck again after 10 casts so I wandered back to camp to join happy hour.
I did stop at the “big Eddy” where it takes a god-like cast hoping for a 2 second drift, and did manage to hook a monster… but, LDR’d him. Darn. I laughed.
Day 4, Sunday – We decided the day before that we’d break up the hike out into 2 sections. Firstly, we’d hike the 2.35 miles back to the Little Kern River, then cross it. We broke camp before 9am and it was a not so hot day with a cool breeze so it was an easy and quick hike. But, instead of marching right up that 1100 feet in two miles I led the group 1/3 mile downriver to the confluence of the main fork of the Kern River and the Little Kern River for a little sightseeing and rest before tackling the mountain. It’s a beautiful place, on a plateau at where a primitive campsite (and the actual launch where the rafters and kayakers take off) overlooks the confluence. It’s somewhat tricky to figure out how to find to because you have to backtrack. It’s a plan that worked perfectly. We ate a bit and honestly I was dying to fish because there are two really good runs right there. But, we weren’t going to spend a lot of time there so I didn’t break out a rod. Not a problem.
The plan was that I’d charge up the mountain as fast as I could, empty my pack and double back down the mountain to meet up with anyone … to take the load off anyone who was struggling. I have done that many many times before and I really don’t mind. I actually like it because it ends up being such a great workout. Well, I started the ascent with Lance and Chris behind me. I focused on going slow because that first part is so steep and can ruin you if you take off too fast. But, I could already feel the pain / lack of power in my legs. My cardio was great. I had worked hard getting into shape. But, I just didn’t have the leg power and there was pain from simply being so physical for 3 straight days. My legs needed a recovery day. “Hmmm, I said to myself. Maybe I am getting old. This could be miserable.” Both Lance and Chris were in good shape so they were right on my tail. There were times I thought about insisting they pass me. In my history at the Forks there is only one time where it took me longer than an hour to hike out. When I was young it took me under 40 minutes to hike out. But, one time in my early 50s I was overweight and out of shape and I paid for it. So, I was watching my Garmin Forerunner closely. I knew I was cutting it close. The halfway point is now vandalized “Welcome to the Golden Trout Wilderness” sign. When I passed it I was over 30 mins so I knew I was slow. With a quarter mile left I told Lance, “We have to see if we can make it under an hour so I’m going to pick it up.” We did. We made it in under an hour….barely. At the truck I quickly unloaded. I didn’t even take on water. I couldn’t have spent more than 5-10 minutes when I took off with an empty pack back down the mountain. And to my shock within 200 yards there were the 3 gals. Wow. So strong. That is definitely the fastest that Kelly has made it up that mountain.
We hit the Kern River Brewery on the way home; the first weekend they had been open since the pandemic started. I earned that cheeseburger.
I fished the entire trip on dries. And for the most part I put the entire group totally on huck hoppers. I cannot remember a trip to the Forks where I didn’t nymph. That beldar Stone fly nymph I tie in for the “Upper Kern River Special” is so wildly effective there (although difficult to cast) because not only is it a good match for the naturals making the big rainbows love it, but, with the 3 titanium beads in it, it gets down to the zone quickly and stays there. But, I never even threw one on this trip. Even in that fast water where it would have made sense. Even for the beginners. When you love fly fishing and are getting takes on top there really is no reason to nymph. You will not catch as many fish as nymphing, but, the takes are so much more fun. And in spring at the Forks, Dries are seemingly the plan and the fun of it.