I am really getting to love these October trips to the Forks. I think I’ll do it for the rest of my life. The fishing is always good. Not great…good. And if you catch it right in October, not only can you catch some amazing night time hatches, but, with the nights getting colder those big rainbows know they have to feed before “going down” for the winter so they tend to wander out of deep water where you can get a shot at them on top. The days are always warm; not wet wading warm, but all day in the sun sunburn warm. The nights and mornings are cold, though…very cold. And the best part for me…mostly because I’m left handed, is that the flows are so low in October there are many places you can cross the river. So, not only do I get to fish the “left handed side”, but I’m throwing flies to water that has seen very few artificials over the season.
The absolute best part of this October, 2018 trip to the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trailhead was the group. We planned this trip a year in advance because one of the guys joining me was Rudi Van der Welt; an old friend that actually took me to the Forks for the first time many years ago and taught me the backpacking thing and many skills to survive in the wilderness. The reason for a year in advance? Well, Rudi now lives in Sydney, Australia. He flew all the way to LAX (18 hours) to backpack into the wilderness.
Joined by Rudi was the guy that actually taught me how to fly fish over 20 years ago, Tim “Big Daddy” Hoffmann. Big Daddy (nick-named by me because he has 5 boys, all huge and all geniuses and athletes) and I have been friends for 50 years. That is not a typo. Yep, we went to school together starting in 1st grade…where even then he was a full head taller than me. Both Big Daddy and Rudi are outstanding fly fishermen, experts, guide-level fly fishermen.
So, it makes sense that rounding out the 4 of us was a new friend from the neighborhood, Jeff Kimura. Jeff is…well now was a completely green fly fisherman. He really lucked out having the 3 of us teaching him. But, we really lucked out because of all the high quality fresh food he hiked into the canyon. Jeff is super fit, recently qualifying for the Boston Marathon and frankly if you are not hiking in 2-3 pounds of booze you might as well hike in fresh food.
The first rub was that Rudi showed up wearing a boot: “I recently tore my Achilles tendon. I’ll be fine.” In Sydney, he went to the local fly shop with his boot and had them install a sole with spikes in it so he could wade in it safely. Classic. The very first time I went backpacking…to the forks…with Rudi….he almost killed me. I swear we would have hiked in 10+ miles if I had not thrown in the towel at 6. He’s a total stud and even though he had to walk funny with one leg pointed side-ways he still hiked all the way in, fished all day for 3 days and hiked all the way out – total stud.
This was a quick 2-nighter, Monday to Wednesday so I didn’t expect to see many people and that was certainly the case. We did see people hiking out on our way in. And it just so happened that one of the groups told us there did stay in the “huckaby site” and left us a bunch of firewood…. Nice. However everyone we talked to hiking out said they didn’t do too well fishing. Hmmmm…..
Upon getting to the site we unpacked and set up quickly so we could fish the balance of the day. I hooked up quickly and the rest of the day went pretty well in terms of rainbows hooked and landed. “Fishing seems pretty good to me.”, I said to myself.
In terms of flies, well, I just have so much confidence in a handful of flies that I have developed slowly over the years fishing the upper kern. They just work no matter what the conditions. I tie most of the nymphs crippled because over the years I have found that wing shucks and fluorescent wings just seem to work better there. The
is still my “go-to” nymph for the Kern. In that crystal clear water the fluorescent and U/V materials I use just do such a good job attracting. It imitates a number of water born insects that are native to the Kern: The spotted sedge, the green rockworm, Chironomids, etc. Hung 3 feet below a Huck Hopper is a deadly combination. Rounding out the group of go-to flies for the Kern are the Midge Cripple and the Huck-bow Warrior. I also have been experimenting with my crippled version of Cal Bird’s famous Bird’s Nest fly. But, I have not perfected it yet in terms of size and proportions so I’m not going to sell it on the site yet. On this trip all the flies I just mentioned above caught fish.
I worked variations of another new fly all year and it’s close to being ready to sell on my site. it’s a stonefly nymph imitation. And it’s black. There are no black stoneflies that hatch on the kern (browns and goldens only). But, big black stonefly nymph imitations have always worked there. It really seems like there are always stonefly shucks on the rocks in the river….almost like they hatch all season long from April to October. I know that can’t be true. The skwallas and goldens hatch during the spring. The little brown stoneflies hatch in the summer. It’s kind of a pain in the ass to tie, but, this fly kills. It imitates a number of the nymph forms of the naturals in the river like skwallas, stoneflies, salmonflies, and damselflies. I tie it huge…like in 6-8 and 10 so it’s easily seen and the perfect first fly of the dropper from the huck hopper. So what is the problem? it’s too heavy. Have you ever heard of a nymph being too heavy? Well, in this latest set of variations I tied them with 2 tungsten coneheads. My intention was to get that 3 feet of tippet under the huck hopper down as quickly as possible. The result was it dragging a size 4 (which is huge and very buoyant) huck hopper down with it. So, I did very well with it, but the constant mend of the huck hopper to get it floating is not practical for the average angler. I’ll swap out that middle tungsten cone with a smaller bead and it should be good to go.
So, I plan to get those flies on the site by next spring. I’ll battle test them winter fishing in a variety of places that are not the Upper Kern by way of the Forks because it will be closed. But the section above the Johnsondale bridge stays open all winter long (although it does not winter fish that well) so I’m sure I’ll get some time in there along with many other rivers and creeks in the eastern sierras.
BTW, based on a great suggestion from a reader, I have added a bunch of Kern River fishing guidance to the “Guidance and Directions to the Forks of the Kern” document you can download off my site. I charge $5 for it, but I donate 100% of that to CalTrout at the end of the year.
The cache I have hidden near the “huckaby site” has grown pretty large and quite impressive. Along with my friends so many readers like you have added quality items to the cache. The saw and nippers are still the most valuable tools. But, there is a growing group of kitchen items, extra fuel, a tent, wading sandals and wading boots. On this trip I buttoned the cache down for the winter and this year it should do just fine because there is no longer any food in the cache. Even with a smell-proof bear bag, the bears still got to it last Spring. I don’t expect any issues when I retrieve the cache next Spring. If you are reading this and want to use the cache just send me an email. I’ll take care of you. you can
My most remembered moment was a fish lost. Why do I always remember the fish lost and not the ones landed? On this trip I caught enough 16 to 18”s to call it good fishing. It was late into Tuesday the only real full day of fishing and I hadn’t hooked, let alone landed, any of those monster 20”+ Kern River Rainbows that are so famous up there. So way up stream I fished on the “left handed side” of the river (often called “river left” by spey casters) where it is not possible to wade. So, I was up about 20 feet in the air on a little cliff like shelf. I casted into a riffle that really didn’t look fishy after hitting some pocket water unsuccessfully below it. Sure enough a monster shot out from nowhere. I set hard. It jumped and I could see it was over 20. But, it shot down river quickly and I should have stopped it by horsing it at the risk of losing it there. I didn’t. And that was my fatal mistake. It went around a large boulder on the opposite site of the river and downstream. I failed to flip the line over the boulder as it swam like a torpedo downstream and the line tightened. I couldn’t get in the water and navigate across (too dangerous and I didn’t feel like doing a brad pitt and jumping into 45 degree water) so I lost the fish there…telling myself over and over how badly I screwed that up.
On the 3rd day we broke camp with the intention of getting a head start on our assault of Lake Crowley in float tubes so short of 10 or 20 casts there was not a lot of fly fishing the Kern on the last day. All in all it was a great trip. And like every trip to the Upper Kern just too short. I’m now in fantasizing mode where I will watch the upper kern flows every day for 5 months wishing I could be at the forks all the way until next April. That is a long 5 months. Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I’ll be chasing the not so rare Andes trout at 14K feet in Ecuador in a couple weeks.