There is something about my first trip into the Forks each year. The “lead up” generates tons of excitement and anticipation. Mostly because I knew the flies we’d be throwing would be the first that the bad ass kern river rainbows had seen in 9 months. I am not kidding when I tell you I was watching the CFS on the Upper Kern almost every couple of hours in the couple weeks prior to the hike in.
Joining me on this trip in were two fly fishing buddies I had met in very similar ways…through the tech industry. Josh Evans is a local Carlsbad guy and I have fished with him in Montana and Wyoming. He’s a great fly fisherman and like me, has to be dragged off the river at night. Honestly, he’s the only fisherman I have every encountered where I said with a cocktail in my hand, “I can’t believe he’s still out there fishing.”
I met Ronnie Swafford at a .NET presentation I did at a user group in western N. Carolina over a decade ago. I told the audience I took that gig because Microsoft paid for my t&e and I always wanted to fly fish the area. We immediately became friends and he is really good about keeping in touch. We fished in Colorado last year on the headwaters of the Colorado River near Grandby. I had an open offer to him: “figure out how to get to LAX and I’ll handle everything from there.” And I was really excited he took me up on it.
Backpacking in with 45+ pounds on our backs we hit the trail early, but not early enough to avoid the hot sun on Friday morning. Typically, I like to lead most of the time because of my familiarity of the trail, my mountain goat like genes, and my awareness of the things in the trail that could potentially cause calamity. I was just telling the guys about the many animals we could encounter on the trail. But, sometimes I go too fast and I also like to stop and take pictures. So, it was Josh that was in the lead, suddenly stopping saying, “Rattlesnake! Right on the trail!” Thank god he noticed it before stepping on it. he backed up and I approached with the camera. The Western Diamondback rattlesnake was a female, about 2.5 feet long near a water source (where he probably hunted mice) just warming up in the sun. he was practically paralyzed; couldn’t even summon his rattle yet. But, I still couldn’t get a good picture before he slowly crept off the trail under a rock. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes earlier when I said to the guys, “I know there are rattlesnakes here, but I have never seen one.”
Well that set the tone for the most animal encounters ever in my many trips to the upper Kern. Well, Josh came face to a California King snake and 3 all of us saw Gartersnakes in the river at many points.
Results: Cutting the fishing into 3 hour sessions over the 3 days we fished we saw slow times right when we were supposed to (when the water warmed up) from about 12-3pm. But outside of that range we experienced good, great and excellent fishing conditions. The morning session on Sunday was one I will always remember. It started with a first cast hook up of a 14” I managed to land under a tree and never stopped. I hooked a fish in every hole, run, pocket water, heads, pools, tail-outs…everywhere I fished for about 4 hours. I have always written in this blog that Kern River Rainbows are really hard to land and that was definitely the case. but, I don’t want to touch them anyways. I want them to come off right at my feet to be caught another day and that was definitely the case in this session. I did hook some big fish (over 18”) and never managed to land any of them. And that is fine….except for the monster I farmed on a huck hopper by setting the wrong way (up river). Totally my fault and it’s going to haunt me until the next time I hike in there.
We burnt a lot of calories on this trip fly fishing. From the Huckaby primitive campsite we fished 6+ river miles in both directions each day we were there. Each day culminated at the site, eating appetizers and sipping whiskey waiting for the crazy evening hatch to start. in all 3 nights we saw significant size 18 dry fly fishing before it got dark. One of the sessions was an hour and a half long! And this is right in front of the site. at one point I heard Josh say, “this is too easy. I’m getting struck on every cast no matter how bad my drift is.” exhausted, we ended each day around the campfire eating dinner in the dark.
I know Josh and Ronnie have their own highlights on the trip, but I have a few I’ll remember forever:
- I have come to love guiding kids. I love teaching kids how to fly fish more than fishing myself. Well, on the trail we ran into a threesome of a dad, son (Jake) and uncle. They had kmart level spinning rods with giant shiny lures. They told me they managed to catch one trout, but that Jake, 15, was dying to catch a fish and even got up at 5am to try…and failed. which made sense considering the gear they had. I asked where they were camping and knew exactly the spot. So, I said, “I tell ya’ what Jake, I’m going to try to circle back at the end of the day and we’ll try to catch a fish together.” At the end of the day Ronnie reminded me about the “promise”. I was exhausted, but the 2 mile hike to them was the right thing to do. I encountered them about a mile away. There were in a great spot, a huge plunge into a deep pool with a 360 degree eddie on the side that always held fish, but really tough to drift. So, I started with, “Ok, I’ll rig you up with “fly and a bubble” Jake, give me one of your bobbers. “we don’t have any bobbers.” Hmmm I said. And I knew I was going to have to “McGiver” him. I tied a small piece of wood on the 4 lb line he had on his cheap spinning rod and hung one of the flashy caddis nymph imitations I tie that was doing well about 4 feet under the piece of wood. While rigging him up I explained the insect cycle and caddiss flies and as much as I could cram in about the science of the river. I told jake his cast was going to be a lot tougher because of the 4 foot dropper, but if he could get in in the middle of the eddie he’d have a good chance at hooking a fish. Well, after hiting the overhanging tree and me re-rigging him a few times, and then flat out missing the eddied a few times he managed to hit a cast perfectly. It sank into the swirl, his wood indicator went down hard and he tightened up as a screamed, “Set!” Jakes cheap ass rod was bent in half when a huge…I mean 2+ foot fish appeared. I never got to the “ok, here’s how you fight a fish if you hook one” part and he farmed it….practiically pulling the fish all the way out of the water. I was screaming “woo!” and jumping up and down and high fiving him telling him how awesome that was. Jake was slightly disappointed, but excited. he was telling his dad and uncle all about it. well, it was past 6pm and I had to get back to camp so I gave them a bunch of flies I tied that were working and off I went. I’ll never know how they did after I left … I bet they did well.
- Josh had to hike out Sunday afternoon in the hot sun. Ronnie and I were sipping whiskey around 7pm watching the river and waiting for the hatch to start. I looked up across the river and screamed, “Holy F##$ck there’s a bear!” I ran back a hundred feet to the site to get my camera. For 45 minutes, sipping whiskey, we watched a juvenile black bear eating some type of berries off the bushes as he slowly meandered up stream. It was never an issue of an encounter because the river was between us and him. I have been waiting for over a decade at that site, staring at the mountain side across the river predicting it would happen one day and it finally did. Awesome.