In my years of hiking into the canyon to fly fish the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trail I don’t believe I have ever gone in August. It’s always hot; brutally hot in Kernville in August. Trout don’t like hot. In the drought years the river was just too warm. But, in all honesty in the one of, if not the biggest snowpack years in recorded history, I had been waiting since April, watching the flows almost every day, for that river to back down enough to be fishable. I literally waited 4 and a half months. I can’t believe I have gone in there in April in the drought years and had to wait all the way until mid-August in a big year. It’s going to be a short fishing season on the Upper Kern in 2019. But, August means big hoppers. And there were tons of naturals. I noticed that the majority of them were grey. I have never tied Huck Hoppers in grey. As a result of this trip I now do. BTW, there we also a significant population of yellow grasshopper naturals: Both in wing and body color.
Joining me on this 3-nighter were two of my sister’s kids: my niece Abby, 17 and my nephew Tommy, 15. Tommy went in a couple summers ago with me. This was Abby’s first backpacking experience. Both are beginners as fly fishers.
The river was between 750-650 CFS. That means the Little Kern River Crossing was easy for me; about at my thigh. But, I’m a “goat” and have 30+ years of wading experience.
The key to this hike in and out was going early because of the heat. We left their house in Pasadena at 4am. That got us to the trailhead in time before it got super-hot. Note: the sign at the dirt road turn to the Forks trailhead was broken in both poles and propped against a tree. Very easy to miss.
When we got to the trailhead there were two young fly fishermen hiking out. Since they had fly rods I approached them and asked how the fishing was. After just chatting for a couple minutes one of them said, “Wait, you are Tim Huckaby!” I laughed. His name is Casey and he thanked me for giving him guidance in email. I do that so much I didn’t even remember. Great kid. Passionate about fly fishing. He was in the middle of the California Heritage trout challenge. We need more fly fishing kids in the world.
So we said our goodbyes to the kids and the 3 of us took off before 9am. By the time we got through the Little Kern Crossing I could tell the both of them were losing steam. This is the xbox generation and let’s just say there wasn’t a lot of training by them before the trip. I said to them, “We only have 2.2 miles to the Huckaby site. But, there is a chance that there will be people in the Huckaby site. There are plenty of other good sites before it. But, we may have to double back; to get to the ones after it, it’s another couple miles and over the mountain. And I don’t think we’re up for that today.” I could tell there was relief by looking at their faces. Well, the last good site before mine is the one with the long cement picnic bench and the remnants of a cabin that burn down many years ago. When we got to it I could tell they were exhausted and hot. I told them, “I have camped in this site before. It’s a good one. Why don’t you guys stay here and I’ll hike to the Huckaby site to see if it’s open. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” Again, I could tell by their faces they were relieved. So, I picked up the pace and hiked towards the site I have been working on for years. And sure enough a large family was in the site I developed. Disappointing, but not the end of the world. We only saw 2 groups the entire 4 days in there and one of them was a big family in the Huckaby site. We had not seen a sole until I ran into this nice family. They were super nice people. mom, dad, grandma and 3 teenage kids. They were going to be in the site 2 of the 3 nights we were going to be there. Not a problem. I love that people use that site. Many take my guidance and improve it. Many have added to my “not so secret cache.” We talked about fly fishing and I offered a ton of guidance. Eventually the dad said, “Wait, you are the guy with the blog! I love that blog.” I smiled and said, “Yea, I’m Tim Huckaby.” He said, “Tim Huckaby, Yes! I need to buy your flies while you are down here.” I said, “You will not buy my flies. But, I will give some to you.” Which I did, of course….twice…the 2nd time with him wandering into our site at night begging me for more of my green crippled caddis nymph and convinced it was the only fly in the world that was working.
So I doubled back to Tommy and Abby and we set up camp in the “picnic table site”. Little did we know what we’d be barraged with over the next 3 days: 5 separate visits by rattlesnakes. At least 3 of them unique snakes. Two of them I had to shoe out of the site with a tree branch. The irony was that on the hike in I said, “I once saw a rattlesnake here. I know they are in here, but I have only seen one over the years.” My guess is because of the big winter we were one of the first to camp in that site this season and the snakes simply moved in when it got hot in June. After seeing humans I doubt they’ll hang around long.
There is always a calamity backpacking. Little mistakes become calamities backpacking because you cannot easily fix them being so remote and such. And this trip had two of them. The rattlesnakes was the first one.
After setting up camp I started stringing the rods. The first two were rods I use as loaners. It’s not smart to let teenagers pack and fish with expensive fly rods. But, when I opened the reel case for one of them I said to myself, “oh no…” It was a reel with a sinking line on it. In a case that said “floating”. I lent it out and it came back in reverse and I didn’t check before leaving. Normally that wouldn’t have been a crisis. But, I didn’t have any streamers with me! Honestly it turned out great because we had 2 rods with floating lines, and sure one was a $900 rod being used by a teenager, but it survived. And I guided 95% of the time which is the right thing for Uncle Tim to do in the first place.
We hiked upriver and both kids caught fish. Abby was the first on the board. What is it with females? They take instruction so well. By the time we left Abby was not only proficient with a fly rod, but figuring things out about how to move into position to get a good drift that I didn’t even tell her about. Both kids landed 3-5 Kern River Rainbows each of the 3 days we fished. There were a lot of missed sets and long releases as you’d imagine with beginners. Abby caught the most (most likely because I spent the most time with her).
Tommy caught the biggest fish: a 17” football. I still can’t believe he landed it because it shot downstream after he hooked it. I rock hopped over to him. he was standing 10 feet above the water on a rock so I couldn’t instruct him to chase it. There was nowhere to go (safely). I was thinking the entire time, “…barbless hooks…” But, he stuck him good. I told him, “Tommy, see if you can swing him into the soft water against the rock. Only there will you have a chance to pull him back.” And sure enough he did. Awesome fish.
Every day we saw good fishing until about 11am. And then it just shut down for them until around 4pm. I have seen lulls in the upper kern before, but not that long. It’s august after all. Well, because of the lull these two tuckered out (or just got bored) each day by about 5pm. That is when I snuck in an hour or so to fish by myself while they rested in camp. And I just killed. All dry flying. I can’t tell you which huck hoppers worked the best because they all worked in all colors in all sizes. There is always a late afternoon wind there before the sun goes down so I imagine that has a lot to do with it.
Every night we’d have appetizers, then S’mores in that order before dinner. We’d cash in early too exhausted from a long day of hiking and fishing. These teenagers slept so long I ended up doing a ton of work on the “picnic table site.” I cleared the entire beach. At one point I had climbed one of the trees and was sawing off the branches that impeded casting. But, I failed to catch a trout right in front of the site. It was not for lack of trying. The water was just too high and ferocious there.
On the first morning I woke up with the sun and after a coffee I decided to see if my secret cache was in tact. I needed the tools to clear the picnic table site. When I got to the Huckaby site that entire family was sleeping. And the cache made it another year! In fact it was in great shape.
On the 2nd day we hiked up stream to fish all day….Beyond Rattlesnake (the mountain crossing upstream from the Huckaby site). We were easily 3 miles up river when two kayaks floated by. I could not believe it. I was so shocked I didn’t have a chance to say hi. I said to Abby and Tommy, “I have no idea how they got in here. They must have been dropped off by a helicopter.” I later learned that you can float the entire section of the Kern from the Eastern side by Mount Whitney to the Johnsondale Bridge with a brutal 2 day hike carrying a kayak. Hiking back, as we looked at raging rapids and waterfalls one after another we kept say, “I can’t believe they Kayaked this.”
Over the mountain there are numerous fallen trees blocking the trail. It’s pretty obvious that not a single pack of horses or mules had been on the trail yet this season. I guess there were just not enough resources in the budget of the forest service to clear the trees. I wish I could figure out how to help.