Kern River – C&R Section above the Johnsondale Bridge

August 30-31, 2014

Our first trip as “Empty Nesters” was a wedding near the Sacramento Area. We hit our good friends the Scripps up in Mammoth on the way up to break up the trip and have some fun. We did two great sierras hikes, but I only got to fly fish for 10 total minutes (one little brookie and one miss).

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Kelly had never been to Yosemite so it was a no brainer to drive through on the way to Sacramento. But, we really didn’t have time to stop and fish; just to take a few pictures. But, I was not stressing hard about it because I knew that after the wedding I was going to put Kelly on a plane home from Sacramento. She had a concert that night with her girlfriends.  And I was going to “sacrifice” and drive the car home.

My plan was a “bucket-lister”: To back-pack into the Sierras alone. Just a single night, but for someone like me that has really just started back-packing a few years ago, it was a big deal going alone. I have learned so much about back-packing and really wanted to prove that I could do it alone. Issue number one was that I was going to hike into a place I had never been before. A place I knew existed, but had no details nor had I met anyone that had ever done it. So, I parked at the Johnsondale bridge and hiked the trail up river into the unknown.

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Issue Number 2: We were out very late the night before with great friends in Sacramento. Couple that with Kelly’s 5:50AM flight, and then the 4.5 hour drive to the trailhead hungover on 3 hours sleep meant I was not in good condition for a hike in 90 degree weather with 45 pounds on my back. At the one mile mark was the last humans I saw. At the two mile mark (I was wearing a GPS), I started to run out of steam. So, I found a primitive camping spot ~2.5 miles in. I didn’t know it as the time, but I was camping very close to a somewhat famous waterfall. But, in a hundred year drought it was merely a trickle.

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I set up camp quickly because even though I was exhausted, I was not there to relax; I was there to fish. I set up my tent in the soft sand, hung my food, and arranged camp. Then I stared at the river: no rises. I rigged up my rod with a huck-hopper and dropped a rainbow warrior I tied. Within 4 casts I had a small Kern River Rainbow on. And that is pretty much the way it went until for some reason the fishing just shut down 4 hours later at 5PM.

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The Kern is so low it is just so easy to fish right now if you can read the water and cast. It’s a wild river strewn with multiple boulders so some of the drifts are tough. But, since it’s wade-able it’s not impossible like normally. The Kern is crossable in many places… which is silly ridiculous. And it is fishing so well… 50 takes a day type of deal both on top on the huck-hopper and below on nymphs. And those wild fish fight so frickin’ hard…. Totally fun. With barbless hooks it’s just natural to lose a number of them in the battles because they shake so hard and jump so much. And with so many takes you can’t help but want the little ones to come off naturally so you don’t have to touch them.

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The Huck Hopper – A combo of a Colorado hopper pattern and a traditional Hopper pattern I love to tie that just kills. In fact, I haven’t fished an indicator in years. I use the Huck Hopper as an indicator no matter what time of year. It always seems to draw strikes.

I probably fished up river 2 miles that first half day. I did have one calamity that could have been really bad. I most certainly have had my share of dangerous incidents fly fishing; but I have become much safer through the years. Here’s what happened: I came to a point in the river where is was deep and un-crossable with a granite wall on my side of the river. So there was no way to wade forward. The safe thing to do would have been to back track, hop out of the river go up and around. Unfortunately, I decided I was a 52 year old in a 25 year old body (which is way way far from the truth because I’m just not as strong as I used to be and 20 lbs heavier). I looked at the granite wall and decided I could scale it. I found a place to reach up and put my fly rod so I could gingerly pull it up from on top. I looked at the path I would take: standing on a boulder just above water level on my left I would have to take two quick steps up, right then left and grab an outcropping so I could hoist myself the rest of the way out. Unfortunately on that first lunge up with my right foot I just didn’t get enough power; either because I’m old or I was just too exhausted. It was a huge step and I really had to press. My left made it to the next step, but it went in weird and I didn’t want to get stuck hanging upside down. by my left leg. I quickly bailed it and like a cat flipped and belly flopped into the deep water. My hat and glasses came off and although wet wading I was wearing a pack that got soaked. My first thought was “Oh my god, that could have been really bad.” Then, I thought “hey, that swim was kind of refreshing.” Soaking wet I waded down river like I should have in the first place; up and around and down again into the water where I railed more big trout.

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When I got back to camp around 6PM I was hungry and exhausted and in pain. It was so hot I was dry so I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I was “done”. I fished a little in front of camp but, it had shut down. I still can’t figure out why because that was the time of day it should have been good; not during the middle of the day.

I ate a little, gathered wood; cut my hands numerous times breaking it up, set up a camp fire (in this part of the wilderness you are allowed to have a camp fire with a permit) and drank all the JD I had hiked in. I believe around 830PM my little $30 Timex ironman watch I had for 10 years made some weird sounds and died. I thought to myself, “how appropriate” and through it in the fire because replacing the battery on a watch like that is more expensive than a new one. The only problem, I speculated, is that I gave Kelly a specific timeframe the next day that I would call to tell her telling her  I was safe.  And without being able to tell the time and with the fishing so good I could easily screw that up.  I was in my slepping bag asleep shortly thereafter. And I slept well.

I did not wake up with the sun which is rare for me; Which means I probably slept 9 hours until 6am and obviously needed it. I quickly broke down camp and packed my back-pack. My plan was to leave my back pack there at camp ready to go when I came back after fishing. I hiked ~2 miles up river where I ended it the day before because I wanted to see all the new water for the first time.

And the fishing was awesome. I could have fished all day. It was constant action with me taking as many as 3 fish from a single pool. I ran into some back-packers around 6 miles in and I saw one of them was wearing a watch. “11:30” he said. “ugghh! I gotta go.” So I did. Practically running with my rod down the trail. I quickly broke down the rod when I got to camp and loaded up my 45 pounds on my back and out I went.

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It was a hot day and even though I was drinking water like crazy I wasn’t peeing and knew I was dehydrating. It was very physical. About a mile from the bridge I started running into families. When I got back to the bridge and my car it was total chaos. People everywhere below the bridge enjoying the river and a totally full parking lot. this was completely opposite of the morning before. It was the Sunday of labor day and people trekked all the way up into the sierras to enjoy it. It was strange only because I barely saw a soul just 2.5 miles up river.

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If you were a fly fisherman ever to do a back-packing / fly fishing first time trip this would be the one. it will not be this good for another 100 years. And you would get it in before the winter weather starts. Compared to the forks trail this is an easy one that just follows the river. And this would be the year to do it. I have to figure out how to get back in there in October.  Come with me.

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