Kern-Desolation Wilderness-East Carson-Upper Owens

Honestly the best part about the way my roles in the company have evolved is being able to sneak hours here and there on a river while on a business trip. Many times I get to fly fish with the actual client or potential client.

Well, I met my buddy Jim after a keynote I did earlier in the year and we immediately became friends. He’s a CFO at a large org – perfect customer for the kind of software work we do. As a part of visiting his company up north and meeting his team we made the plans to Back-pack into the Desolation Wilderness (just west of tahoe).

Great long weekend. I fished the way up. worked, back-packed, and fished my way home.

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 – Kern River

If I am driving all the way up to the Sacramento area for a 3pm meeting how could I resist not leaving at 0-dark-30 and hit the Kern River for an hour or two? It’s a hundred year drought and that is one of the wildest and most dangerous rivers we have in California. Although not really on the way, the Kern River above the Johnsondale Bridge is easy to get to. I didn’t have time to scour for fishing reports, but I have been fly fishing long enough to be pretty sure that it would be good….and I was right.


My first surprise was that no other fishermen were there… there were some kids drinking beer below the bridge, but only a couple cars in the parking lot. hmmmm…. But, yea the river is low….significantly low… almost low enough to cross and if you know this stretch of river you know how crazy that statement is.

Well, there is only one positive of a 100 year drought in California…the fly fishing is really good. Because of my 3pm meeting, and having to be right on time because of a number of people in the room I just couldn’t risk being late. I would have to shower up and put on “adult clothes” too. So, I only fished for an hour and a half… and just killed. I caught and released a number of fish and lost a bunch too. I was never short of action, and much of it was on the rise. And the low river made it easy to hike up river. The farther I went, the better the fishing got. I made it back to a great riffle stretch I know that is fishable in normal conditions. It’s about a mile up river. And I kept telling myself, “I have to leave; I have to leave.” But, the fishing was so good.

So, like decades of fly fisherman before me who have said this and lied… I said to myself, “ok, one more cast and I’m leaving.” I casted and had a great long drift…. It just felt like it was a drift that would produce…. But it didn’t. On the swing I got ready to pull in line and continue the lie and Whack! A big fish rose and grabbed my “huck-hopper” on the swing. But it was downstream so I couldn’t tell how big or what it was. Then it jumped! “Woo!” I screamed to no one. my guess around 14”. I turned him and he jumped again. “Woo!” Now I realized I had to chase him or get him up stream if I was going to land him. Well, he decided he’d make it easier on me and do a 100 foot run up stream… I didn’t screw it up and kept tension on him. As he passed me I tightened to turned him and “Woo!” he jumped again. At this point I was worried I was tiring him and stressing him so I decided to pressure and land him so he’d survive. Great fish. Male, kern river rainbow.


Then I scampered….practically running back down the trail to my truck. I made it. but, I stretched the speed limit laws beyond capacity. Great meeting. Totally made the day a perfect one.

Saturday, June 28th, 2014 – Desolation Wilderness; Ralston Trail

Ok, a day of “work” on Friday and it’s time for the wilderness. I have a weakness…sort of.. I’m a planner and a “lister”. So, when Jim and I iterated over the trail head we’d enter the Desolation Wilderness I was kind of gnawing at my arm. And the crazy thing is that we didn’t even decide until the morning of. We went to the ranger station on the way there, north on highway 50, and didn’t decide until we talked to them. The Ralston Trail…. Jim and Robert said they’d done the trail before…years earlier. I could see from the Thomas Harris map it was going to be a bitch. …and it was. not, the number one most physically exhausting treks I have ever done… but, top ten for sure. 3000 vertical feet to 9000 feet…in 2.5 miles! And that is just the start of the trek. The view on top made it worth it, though.


Because of the physical effort it affected the mental attitude of the group and we decided to not go the 6 miles to aloha lakes, but to hike down to “Lake of the Woods”. We had intel that there were awesome sites there. And I could swear I read a fishing report that it was good.

Lake of the Woods is a managed area by the state. So the primitive campsites on the east side of the lake are heavily regulated. And after that trek none of us felt like sharing with other humans…..who inhabited all the designated sights. So we kept going. I had my 2nd wind by now. but, my partners were “done” and ready to call it a day and set up camp. We finally found a non managed area on the west side. After setting up camp I immediately told my buddies I was going to scout the lake with a fly rod in this beautiful place. and I did….. crystal clear beautiful lake with 30 feet visibility… but I could not see a fish..and no bugs were hatching either. Hmmm… I kept bush whacking, climbing and looking for fish. Nothing. I blind fished a while, which in this part of the world is just a practice in casting.


And my buddied then joined me. I told them I have not seen fish and they looked at me peculiar… like they didn’t trust my fly fishing skills.

We regrouped at the camp and a ranger joined us to check passes. I asked him sheepishly, “Are there any fish in this lake?”. Without hesitation he said, “no. none. Never has been.” Ok, we picked the only lake in the desolation wilderness that doesn’t have fish. It’s ok, I say to myself. We have the morning.

And that is where the crazy ass adventure starts. My buddies have hiked and backpacked the desolation wilderness for 20 years off and on. this is my first time in this wilderness. and because of the huge physical effort they are saying, “we can’t go back the way we came; it’s too hard.” So they ask the ranger if we just hike south towards the horsetail waterfall, off trail. And I am thinking to myself that this idea was the dumbest idea I have ever heard. And to my shock the ranger actually encouraged it saying, “yea, there is no trail. People have done it. it’s very steep.” And my buddies say, “we are doing it.” and I’m thinking we are dead.

Sunday, June 29th, 2014 – Day two of the Desolation Wilderness

It was a rough night. the sun went down at 9pm and since you can’t have a campfire we were in bed just thereafter. I hiked in JD to share with jim but even that didn’t help. I just can’t sleep backpacking even though I have decent gear. I toss and turn all night and even though I was sweating hot when I got into bed I’m bitter cold at 3am and unable to sleep because I’m cold. Well 5am rolled around when I finally did get to REM sleep and sure enough jim and Robert were up. no worries. I got up too. we had a “plan”. There were a few lakes in our path before we headed down the crazy ass 1000 feet of waterfall so we would carry the rods and we’d fish them on the way.

Sure enough. At pitt lake I didn’t see fish, but there was a river system feeding it (the one feeding the waterfall) . and I have never been that good at stillwater fishing. I killed on that river system. Brookies….big brookies.. all on top…on the “huck-hopper”. Totally fun. I was at a pace for a 40 fish day but I only got to fish an hour or so because I knew that crazy-ass climb down was ahead of us.


Again I said to myself, just one more…. And I hiked up river to a small lake…. I scouted a fish rising… and for god sakes I had a backcast. There was a 30 foot clearing in the trees where I could do a reach cast of 60 feet and the fish would never see me. I said to myself….just as so many before me have said, “don’t’ blow it.” I load the rod… the cast rolls in and sets on the water. And I say to myself, “not perfect, but good enough.” Whack! Big brookie rises to the huck-hopper. Big battle. No jumps because brookies don’t typically do that. but I bring the beautiful fish to net and let him go. Then I have to get back to find my buddies. I’m worried they are sitting around waiting for me. Even though jim caught a fish and Robert fished a bit before his dog freaked out without him. oh yea, I forgot to tell you there is a dog on our trip. and we have a 1000 feet of waterfall to decend.

So, I apologize and tell my buddies how good the fishing is. They are great guys and I think they actually are happy I had so much fun in the hour or so I fished. But, now it’s time. And to my shock, even after specific directions from the ranger; These two are uncertain which side of the river we need to hike down. guess what? We picked the wrong side. beautiful. awesome. But we come to a 750 foot cliff and it’s clear to me we have gone the wrong way. so, their plan has backfired. Now we have to hike back up hill all the way to where we started. And this is really where the adventure starts.


The river is braided up top. And I’d call it crossable, but we have 35 lbs on our backs. And we do not want to get wet and hike with wet boots down steep granite walls. Well, there is a reason my after college roommate Wax called me, “goat boy”. The lord didn’t’ give me a lot, but I am agile. I rock hop and scamper over fallen trees to cross the multiple braided river. The penalty for failure is significant. Swept down a river and over the falls. So, jim and Robert are having trouble crossing…and theres the dog…. At one point out plan is that I am to grab the dog by his pack to grab him out of the river as he gets swept by. Jim scoots over a fallen log instead of “wallenda-ing” it… he’s a stud… ~65 years old and insane that he is leading this thing. I am just dying what a stud he is for his age, and wanting to be just like him… in a decade.

Finally we get across…and now it’s go-time. And it is worse than I could have imagined. Straight down in many spots…down a granite face of boulders…. We had to go slow. But, I end up going 100 feet and waiting. Over and over. And in my impatience I make a few near-death mistakes. And that is when I made the “selfish” decision to concentrate and get down on my own terms. So I did. right or wrong I did it.


I went into ultra concentration and just made it down. crazy ass dangerous, difficult. I’m at the bottom of the water fall where the trailhead starts. And I’m safe. But, the guilt sets in because my buddies are not. I make water and hydrate. I eat. The irony is that because the bottom of the waterfall is reachable by trail there are lots of folks there. sun bathing. And I’m worrying about my buddies.

An hour passes and I’m really worried. I am now hydrated, rested and fueled. And resigned to hiking back up the crazy ass mountain to look for my hurt or dead buddies. But, two back packers, A husband-wife team about my age appears from the mountain. I walked up to them and said, “Hey, did you happen to see a couple backpackers my age with a dog?” Thank god she said, “yea, they are up there. Going slow. The dog is hurt do they can’t go fast.” And a huge sigh of relief commenced. So I waited. And when they finally appeared it was a huge sigh of relief for me.

They are bloody. And they are tired. And I can see they are emotionally “done”. After trading stories and making water for Jim, I say, “listen, I have been here and hour. I’m ready. I’m dehydrated and fed. Let me take off now to the trail head. I’ll hike up hwy 50 and get the car.” Seeing that look of joy on their faces was confirmation enough. Because what was in front of us was 3 miles back to the trailhead and then 1.5 to 2 miles up highway 50, exposed to the sun to the Ralston trailhead we took off on . But, as I took off I said to myself, “Oh my god that is going to physically suck hiking hwy 50. Thank god I ran into a great guy and his dog on the trail that helped us navigate the way home. Almost immediately when I told him my story he said, “Let me drive you to your truck.” And he did. The wrong way. What a good Samaritan. Talk about karma. Well I drove the truck back from the Ralston Trailhead to the Horse Hair falls trailhead and staged it with the sun shower and cold beer. Robert appeared first…laughing and saying jim was in bad shape…. And then came jim with a smile on his face…bloodied and exhausted…what a stud.

We spent 30 mins cleaning up, re-hydrating, eating and telling stories. And then it was time to part. We shook hands and joked we should do it again next weekend.




Sunday, June 29th, 2014 – The East Carson River

It was only around 3pm. the east carson river was 30 mins away. And I had plenty of daylight to fish. The only problem was my exhausted 52 year old body and a 100 year drought. I snuck in a call and a txt to Kelly to tell her I was safe and off I went.

When I got to the markleeville bridge I was the only one there… hmmm… shouldn’t it be crowded on a Sunday? but within minutes a guide and two beginners showed up. so, I felt a bit better I was taking my time recovering and that guide didn’t want any part of me and hurried his way down river where I was going to fish. I just got that impression he didn’t want me around. willy ray told me he did well up river so I decided to fish away from the guide. When I got to the water I was surprised how warm it was. and the Sun was out in force. Always a bad combo for fishing.


First I saw a bald eagle patrolling the river…never good for fishing, either. Then I ran into a family of river otters…always bad for fishing…. Then I almost stepped on a 2 foot river snake… still no fish or sight of fish in a very low crystal clear river. And now I’m questioning my motives….. but I’m so far in the wilderness I really have no choice but to fish. So I keep on.


The river is beautiful, but the fishing is not. I fish all the fishy runs but not a thing.


My plan was to sleep overnight there in the back of my truck, but with the fishing so slow and me 10 hours from home, I talked myself into calling it a day, walking the road back and getting a two hour jump on the drive by going to the upper owens river just south of mammoth lakes where I knew there was a campground that always had spots. I arrived at 830 pm and ate the snack like back packing food I had. In a sleeping bag in the back of my truck at 9pm. it was hot so I opened the windows in the truck. By 2am I was cold and shut the window.

Monday, June 30th, 2014 – The Upper Owens River above Benton Crossing.

Up at 6am. not a bad night of sleep; good enough. I made myself coffee on my backpacking stove. I wandered over to the river and saw lots of big fish feeding on top! Too bad it’s illegal to fish this stretch at this time of year (the spawn). I Forced myself to eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich quickly so I could drive to my favorite spot (dead cow) before the crowds and while the fish were feeding early on this sunny day.

I was on the river by 730am. I fished all the way to 230pm. it wasn’t crazy good, but it wasn’t slow either. I fished a huck-hopper-dropper and got action all day. mostly small Rainbows. But, I did catch a few small browns. Nothing really to get all excited about, but, I did catch a spawned out 14” male Cutthroat. That was kinda cool.


I could have fished all day; I answered emails occasionally. The weird thing was that I was all alone. I have never fished that river alone. I guess everyone fished Crowley that day….the reports said it was on fire.


I had that long, 6+ hour drive home (depending on the traffic) so I called it a great long weekend adventure and took off south. I never even put the radio or music on, on the way home. I had so much to reflect on during that totally fun trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *