Palapas Ventana – Fly Fishing from Pangas near La Paz

October 4-9, 2021

Hey that’s me with a huge jack crevalle! Mike in the background cerebrating.

Who knew you could have so much fun with a 10 wt TFO fly rod?! That is the line I used when I did the “Old-guy Instagram” thing from the Palapas Ventana resort in Ventana, Baja, Mexico.

On October 4-9, 2021 the SDFF club assaulted the Palapas Ventana Resort near La Paz with more salt water flies, flouro, and fly rods than God.  This is an annual trip that the club has been doing for a few years lead by fearless leader, John Ashley.  For years these guys have been telling me, “If there is anyone who would enjoy this trip, it’s you, Huckaby.”  They were right.  I had a ton of success; some real bucket listers.  But, I paid my dues in mistakes for sure.  I learned a lot on this trip.  I can’t wait to get back there next October with the club.  I’m actually trying to figure out how to get there in the late Spring it was so fun.

Steven with a big ass rooster

The Fishing

I’m an old trout guy with very little ocean experience (fly or conventional).  This was my first time doing the fly fishing thing from a Panga.  In the myriad of guidance and preparation communications before we left my takeaways was: “It’s two people in a panga; one in back and one in front.  What a learning experience it was for me!  And man did I make mistakes for the first couple days before I got it dialed in.

Fearless Leader John Ashely with a nice dorado

What the captain (by all means not a guide) does is make bait with impressive throws of a bait net; sometimes in total darkness.  I was wearing polarized lenses and many times I could not see the bait balls the captain was throwing that net at in broad daylight….without wearing glasses….so impressive.  So, typically you start early as the sun comes up.  Then, with the live bait in the bait tank you zoom out to where the game fish are (dorado, roosters, jack trevalles, and even trevally….along with 25+ other species).  Cerralvo Island is a fairly short run across the sea of cortez and that is where most of the boats go.  The captain starts winging the live bait into the water with a cut out Clorox bottle.  The gamefish come up to the surface and go crazy in a fish feed.  You throw your fly into the chaos hoping to fool one of them.  When you catch them, you have the option to let them go, bring them back to the restaurant to compliment the night’s gourmet meal, give it to the captain to enjoy with his family, or have the Palapas Ventana resort vacuum seal, freeze and pack your fish to take home.

So many species to catch with the fly rod. That’s Jim Castelluzzo, the SDFF club president with a pompano

Let me try to define a panga.  A panga is a skiff; a modest-sized, open, outboard-powered, fishing boat common throughout much of the developed world.  The panga is not one of those super nice boats they use in the Bahamas where the fly fisher in front and in back have plenty of room on a casting platform to ensure a long cast.   The bow (front) of the panga has plenty of room for a fly caster and relatively nothing up there to grab a fly line.  But, it’s not a casting platform; it’s the bow of the boat.  The stern (back) is a challenge….at least it was for me.  If you cast from the deck in the back, you must heave a heavy weighted saltwater fly over the boat’s sides or the engine or the captain.  I’m a pretty good cast and I even hit the captain once.  Guess what?  “Oww!” is the same word in Spanish as it is in English.  Ultimately, I ended up just climbing on top of the rails in the back of the boat to get some height and balanced myself there; sometimes actually standing in the bait tank with the live sardinas.  That allowed me to double haul from a height advantage….or seeming advantage…more on that later.  And when the seas got rough, I had to lean against the engine itself.  So, when the captain turned the boat my ass turned with it.  It’s a miracle I didn’t fall into the water.  But, I am pretty agile for an old guy.   Being perched high meant I could double haul a cast 60-80 feet….which I learned after a couple days of struggling is not really an advantage.  Also, every panga seems to be different.  Some are newer and slightly modern.  Some have years of stories behind them with some impressive “Magiver-ing” of a bait tank.

Notice mike battling behind me. Double Hookups were common on this trip

As mentioned, I was told before the trip is “The captain throws live bait in the water and that makes the fish come up and go crazy.  Then it’s a simple 20 foot cast into the madness.”  That is kind of true.  Just like in trout fishing where there are great guides, good guides, and average guides.  The same thing goes for the captains here: some are awesome, some are not.  None speak fluent English.  Each captain and boat is different and fishes differently in terms of where…and sometimes even how.  Mike Hillygus (Montana Lodge owner where we do the annual SDFF trip, and friend of the SDFF club) and I fished 4 days with 4 separate captains and boats.  I love that Tim from the Palapas Ventana resort each night at the restaurant does a blind draw on which captain you get each day.  One day Mike and I stayed within a mile of the resort near the shore all day.  one day we did 10-1 more moving around than fishing; moving from fishing buoy to buoy.  There are a number of fishing buoys that have been strategically placed throughout the area that hold fish.  two days we ran over to Acervo Island and pretty much fished in the same location all day.  Mike and I traded getting the bow each day.  Mike out-fished me every day.  And it wasn’t until well through the 3rd day that I figured out why.

You don’t have to fly fish; a few of the group fished conventionally and did well…including a couple marlin.  This is Mike Rundlett with this big rooster.  but, look closely at the captain’s hat – making a bold prediction of the braves making the world series in early october is uncanny…

The School of Hard Knocks

I really don’t know why it took me two days to figure this thing out.  It may be so obvious to you Saltwater guys and gals with this type of experience. But, it was not to me.  I wasn’t without success.  In fact, I had a lot of success.  my mission was to catch a big rooster on a fly.  I ended up catching a lot of big roosters on the fly.  One of the roosters I landed was too big for me to hold to take a trophy shot with it.  I had the captain hold it for me.  But, now that I know (and now you know), I will be so much more successful on next year’s trip.  So, hopefully my malfunctions will serve as guidance for the trout anglers that want to do this type of fly fishing:

  1. The Double hauling 60-80 feet I was doing over and over is just a wasted workout and burn of calories. When I finally did look over at what mike was doing; he was not doing what I was doing. And having a lot more success. I was basically “hero casting” blind and he was targeting and being efficient about it.  I got the guidance from John and Kai before we left, “a simple 20 foot cast is all you need.”  For some reason I did not think that through.  While I was literally huffing and puffing double hauling casts over and over 60+ feet into the abyss, Mike was waiting for the right moment to cast a 30 footer right into the fish he was targeting.  Duh…  I was dragging the fly through the bait and feeding predators too late.  This was a sobering blow for me when we got back to the resort and in the bar I heard all the success my buddies were having…who simply could not cast (or chose not to cast) over 30 feet.
  2. The fly really does matter – How many times in trout fishing do we say something like, “the fly really doesn’t matter. Your placement and the drift matter a lot more.”  Well, in this type of fly fishing the fly really does matter.   Even the color matters.  The size really matters too.  But, what matters the most is that the fly rides correctly in the water imitating a baitfish as best as possible.  If you half-ass drunken fly tying in your man cave and your fly spins you don’t get takes.  My first two days I was fishing big heavy clousers with big beaded eyes.  Not only are they are they a tough cast but, the jigging thing those eyes produced were not producing as many strikes as mike.  Mike was fishing smaller deceivers (and similars) unweighted flies and killing.  He was in the right part of the water column; I was not.
  3. Knots Matter – This is the most painful lesson for me. I have been trout fishing so long.  I tie 5 different knots 95% of the time and 95% of the time in 3x and 5x. I can tie them all blind folded.  I haven’t failed a knot in years.  Well, I had no idea how differently 5x knots up than it does with 30lb flouro.  I had no idea that you have to wear gloves and yank those knots as tightly as your strength can handle… no idea.  I had no idea that you have to inspect your saltwater knots closely because the heavy flouro doesn’t just slip into place and knot-up like the light stuff does.  I learned that the hard way.  I lost a big dorado on a rapala knot that simply failed because it was not pulled tight enough.  I didn’t even look at the knot after tying it.  but, you can sure as hell tell a knot has failed when looking at the flouro after losing the fish.  and miraculously I also lost a big rooster on a perfection loop knot I tied for the flouro leader.    That is a first.  Some huge rooster swam away with my entire leader hanging out of his face… simply because I didn’t pull the knot tight enough.  Uggghhh…  30+ years of fly fishing and I am failing knots. I suck.  Don’t worry about me; a number of margaritas later that night at the bar fixed everything.
  4. Needlefish – I knew about these slimy creatures going in. if you see a needlefish following your fly you simply stop stripping and they will stop the chase.  But, if you are hero casting beyond what you can see you inevitably catch them.  And you can’t really do a damn thing about it.  and the poor captain has to figure out how to release them without getting bit by razor sharp fangs.  I’m a conservation guy and feel slightly guilty about when mike and I giggled watching one of our guides twisting the neck of the needle fish killing them so he could safely remove the fly.

Tom and Doug Rundlett with another fly fishing double. notice the PInchi Patos in the background

  1. Pelicans – “pinchi patos” I laughed out loud when our captain yelled that as I caught my first pelican. I speak decent Spanish and that loosely translates to “f-ing duck”.  Pelicano is a beautiful word in Spanish.  The captains don’t use that word.  they call them “pinchi patos”.  Btw, there is competition and hilarious chatter on the radio between the captains.  At one point, laughing, I said in Spanish, smiling, to our captain, “you do realize I understand what you guys are saying, right?.” He laughed …because there was a comment about one of my buddies in a different boat not having enough manhood to fight the fish he hooked.  I’d write what he said in Spanish here, but common decorum precludes me from doing it here (god, I hope someone gets that animal house reference.)  But, my god the pelicans.  On the day that our captain stayed on shore within a mile of the resort the pelicans followed us the entire time.  It was fairly frustrating.  Those birds have become accustomed to the captains throwing bait in the water and intercepting that bait.  which means they have unnaturally flourished in population because of it.  at points I had to pinpoint cast a 2 foot window through the gauntlet (50 or more) of pelicans with no way to strip the fly back without the pelicans taking it.  if you see a pelican take your fly you learn quickly to stop stripping.  They spit your fly out if you wait; which is excruciating if the fish are going nuts.  But, if you strip too quickly after that you risk them grabbing it again.  and then there is the good chance of simply leg hooking them as you strip your fly back; many times with a fish chasing.  On that day I caught ~15 pelicans.  Let’s just say the captains don’t really dig pulling a barbed fly out of a pelican’s mouth or leg.  Pinchi patos.

The Palapas Ventana Resort

I am no stranger to fly fishing lodges; I have been lucky.  Let me just start by saying the Palapas Ventana resort is a fraction of the cost of the high-end lodges in Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  Remember that I was joined by a Montana Lodge owner, Mike Hillygus from the Stillwater River Outpost Lodge and the Clark Fork Outpost Lodge.  Mike was surprised at what a deal it was. It’s Mexico.

For the SDFF club trip we had two people in each Palapa; Mike was my roommate.  These are not really palapas at the resort; they are so much better. A traditional palapa is an open sided cheap building with the thatched roof.  These palapas are stand alone buildings with a large bedroom and separate large bathroom…. With air conditioning; key for this part of the world.

Right?!

“They have a bar.”  That is the line I usually start with when describing this place.  I love bars and I’m not shy about it.  they also have a complimentary restaurant that goes with the bar.  But, this isnt’ just any Mexican restaurant.  Each night we were served a gourmet quality meal.  One night we had a Japanese themed sushi and sashimi set of dishes that riveled anything I have had in the states…. Or in the Japan for that matter.  You don’t go back skinnier on this trip; the food is that good.

Within steps of the bar is an Endless Pool where you can stare at the ocean.  Imagine fishing for 8 hours and battling big fish on your 10 weight to come back, grab a beer, walk into the pool and just stare at the ocean while saying things like, “this is the good life”.

I love this picture that Mike Rundett took.  That’s Tom Rundlett on my left and Stan on my right….. after a long day of battling big fish.”

They focus on service – Tim and his partner have trained his seemingly enormous staff well.  From the groundskeepers to the servers to the bartenders to the financial manager.  They are friendly and attentive.  On the first night he introduces his generals to the entire group.  It’s a classy move.  When you leave you end up hugging these people they are so awesome.

I should mention that Palapas Ventana is not soley a fly fishing lodge.  In fact, Ventana is more famous for it’s wind surfing and scuba diving.  Both those are options at the resort.  Also the resort provides snorkling equipment for free while you are there.  It’s a tropical fish and coral paradise in front of the lodge.  It just so happens that if you are tropical fish you have to always be on the lookout for that patrolling roosterfish.  Yea, it’s conceivable to DIY the roosters right from the shore like you see on those fly fishing shows.

Every night Tim from Palapas Ventana arranged some type of fun event for us. This was from “hot dog train” night.  Just imagine this train blowing through the tiny town of Ventana with everyone aboard holding a beer hooting and hollering.

Getting there: I believe the cross border exchange (CBX) is the best kept travel secret in the united states.  It consistently shocks me that even San Diegans still don’t know about it.  in their description it is “A faster, more comfortable, one-of-a-kind way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, exclusively for passengers of the Tijuana International Airport.”  Basically, you drive to the border in otay mesa, park in a huge parking lot. show a passport and plane tickets in a completely uncrowded modern building.  then walk across the border on a 200 meter air conditioned covered bridge that drops you right into the Tijuana Airport.  It’s $35 and worth every penny.  They even have a bag drop.  You don’t even need to check in with the airline at the airport. This allows you to fly from TIJ on a number of Mexican airlines for a fraction of the cost of flying from San Diego.  My round trip flight to La Paz was around $100…not kidding.  In La Paz the drivers from the resort are waiting for you with a sign to make the hour drive to the resort.  Simple and painless.

It wasn’t like it was not fun watching Mike Hillygus catching all those fish…

Summary

I know my way around a trout stream…that is for sure.  You learn a bit when you do it for 35 years.  What the many experts in the SDFF club have taught me…and continue to teach me, is the fly fishing saltwater game.  Let me tell you it’s compelling. I watch all the fly fishing shows on TV and it is frequently mentioned that catching a large roosterfish on the fly is in the top ten of fly-fishing bucket listers.  I caught a bunch of big Roosters and from what I wrote above you can tell I barely knew what the hell I was doing.  In the bar after that first day of fishing I told my fly fishing compadres, “I had no idea how fast those dorado swim.”  When you hook up with a Dorado you watch the entire thing… they are so colorful and beautiful.  It’s almost surreal how quickly it happens when they take your fly.

Complimenting this awesome fly fishing is simply an awesome resort at Palapas Ventana.  It’s run so well with awesome food and service.  They make you feel like family when you are there.  Did I tell you they have a bar?  I am definitely going back to Palapas Ventana.

I think this is Aaron. I do know that is a big rooster with a fly hanging out of it’s face

Fly fishing the mangroves of Punta Abreojos, Baja

June 5-12, 2021

One of the many large corvinas i caught

I’m sun-burned.  My lips are so chapped they are bleeding.  I have been stung/bitten a dozen from god knows what; swollen and itchy.  I have cuts, bumps and bruises.  And it is all from an epic 8 day fly fishing adventure 600 miles south of san diego in Punta Abreojos, Baja.  It was the most expensive free vacation I have ever taken (because I bought a kayak for it). It was totally worth it. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

This trip is an annual San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) trip led by Kai Schumann and John Ashley. For a long time these guys and a few others in the club would say things like, “You, of all people, would love this trip.” They were right.

The Group

On a trip like this you want to go with fun people.  And this trip did not disappoint.  I already told you about our fearless leaders, John Ashely and Kai Schumann.  Also on the trip was SDFF club president Jim Castelluzzo.  And Tom Rundlett who I have fished with a number of times in Montana.  Both Jim and Tom are cagey veteran fly fishers and fun to be around.  Also, on the trip were 3 I had not met before…and now they are friends.  Tom and Marta Phillips, a retired married couple.  Yes, there was a female on the trip and she was, without a doubt, a trooper.  She fished and hung with the guys and still managed to get q-time with her artwork.  There is no way my wife Kelly could hang on this trip.  And joining them was their lifetime long good friend, Larry.  Now Larry and I are cut from the same mold.  Let’s just say we enjoyed a few cocktails together.

The SDFF group from Left to Right: John, Larry, Marta, Tom, Tom, Kai, Jim, me

Before I get started on how epic the fly fishing was, let me set expectations.  This trip is not for everyone.  And here is why in no particular order:

  • It’s primitive camping
    • since I’m a backpacker this part was pretty easy. I spend a tons of nights in the wilderness primitive camping.  But, all that primitive camping is on a river with a water source.  This was different.  because the campground was closed (COVID) there was no access to water.  You had to bring your own water.  I totally depend on my sun showers for backpacking trips so that was not a problem at all.  I “showered” every day.  There was no bathroom….well, until Tom and Marta negotiated a deal to use a restroom in the campground ¼ mile away that didn’t have running water…. You poured a bucket of sea water in it to flush it…. still, quite the luxury when you are primitive camping.
    • You sleep in a tent or truck or camper. Again, I spend so many nights in a backpacking sleeping bag on the ground in a backpacking tent this was not an issue for me.  in fact, because of the warm weather sleeping in the shell/topper in the back of my truck with a pad with the ocean breeze was quite the luxury compared to the sleeping on the ground of backpacking.
    • You do a lot of prep. You bring a lot of “stuff”.  You can’t forget anything….well, this is a trip you can because with the group someone always has your back…and backups.
    • Ice is a premium. There is a little town 15 minutes away where you can resupply…and we did.  But, you really need a 7 day cooler like a yeti.

The cherished Grouper. these monsters hit like a freight train and pull hard.

  • It requires a kayak
    • and not just any kayak. You are most efficient with a kayak that goes backwards.  Many of the predators you are targeting hide in the roots of the mangroves.  They’ll shoot out to grab your perfectly placed fly.  But, then they run back in and snap you off if you are not quick enough to pull them out of there.  That means a hard strip set while pedaling backwards.  It’s an art form that needs practice.  I’m not very good at it….yet.
    • I did a ton of research and had all the fly fishing kayak experts in the club to lean on. Ultimately the Hobie kayak I wanted…and put a deposit on… just wasn’t available in time.   Hobie had a myriad of production problems with it.  It was a new model of a hobie inflatable.  So, I ended up with a “hard hull”.  It’s a hobie mirage sport.  It’s a “little one”.  but, I’m a little guy.  I love it.  I’m a 35+ year float tuber so the luxury of how fast these things go with so little effort is really hard to describe.  Plus, you are on top of the water; not in it.  no waders needed.  I have used it in Agua Hedionda lagoon a number of times now, in addition to using it on this trip.  But, ultimately I will purchase an inflatable that is big / long enough for the open ocean so I can wander out through the surf to the kelp beds in Carlsbad one day.

John in his inflatable Hobie Kayak with another large Corvina

  • It’s Mexico
    • It’s Mexico, sh@#$t happens; calamities happen. And we were not short of calamities.  See my top 5 calamities list below.  In one of the planning meetings before the trip John said, “I usually bring $1,000 dollars of pesos just in case.”  Sheepishly, with bribing in the back of my head I asked him, “Just in case of what?”.  His answer was trite and to the point: “Just in case your car breaks down and the mechanic doesn’t take a credit card.”    That makes sense.  Well, I left with a wad of pesos and came back home with a wad of pesos.  and that is just fine.  I’ll use them on other Mexico trips.  Like the SDFF club trip coming up to Palapas Ventana in October.

Kai with a Corbina (take notice to that b not v). here, the corbinas take clousers on blind casts

So those are the reasons for why you might not consider a fly fishing trip like this.  Here are the reasons for why you want you do want to do this trip:

  • The fishing is ridiculous awesome
    • Fly fishing for 30+ species. Many times I’d catch a fish only to turn to John and say, “What the hell is this one?”
    • Dry fly fishing! On top of the water!  Well, technically they are not dries, but you throw tarpon, permit and roosterfish flies that swim on top of the water column as you strip them back and the groupers and corvina come out of the mangroves and attack with vicious strikes on top…and you watch the entire thing go down almost in surreal awe.
    • I’m a trout guy. So, this whole mangroves fly fishing experience was new.  I learned so much from these experts.  John personally took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
  • Your two friends leading the trip (Kai and John) make the trip easy
    • They both bring very expensive campers and you get to benefit from them.
    • They have years of experience doing this trip and many like it. so, you get to be a follower…mitigating a ton of the risk, hassles, and uncertainties.

this selfie with me and john gives you an idea of how tight the back channels of the mangroves get…. not the type of place you want to get disoriented and lost

  • There is no sacrifice on food and drink in this group
    • It’s primitive camping yes. But, unlike backpacking you have coolers and fresh food…and beer…and cocktails.  Although 95% of this is catch and release, these fish are not trout.  So some of them actually taste good.  Our dinners were epic.  We had steak night.  We had fish tacos night.  And get this.  kai has a green mountain pellet grill (like a Traeger) that extends out of his camper.  I bought the biggest brisket that Costco had.  We smoked it for 14 hours and it was awesome.  For gods sakes kai even made home made pizza for lunch!  This is one of those trips you do not come back lighter on.  I lose 2-7 pounds on every backpacking trip I take.  I think I put on 10 on during this trip.

kai working his green mountain pellet grill…that slides out of his camper on a shelf…not kidding.

The Journey

On John and Kai’s recommendation I handled my Mexican Tourist permit, Mexican fishing license Mexican car insurance through discoverbaja.com.  it was super easy and all done electronically and through email in advance.  Of interest my Mexican car insurance was pretty darn expensive because of my truck.  For 2 reasons: 1. It’s fairly new and popular.  because of the pandemic (a number of reasons) there is a shortage of cars.  So, the insurance was calculated on a value that was a few thousand dollars more than I paid for it.  At the time my 2020 tundra was only 6 months old. its value was more than I paid for it.  there have only been a few times and a few cars that actually appreciated in value after purchase.  2. The tundra with a shell/topper is the most stolen car in Mexico.  It’s pretty obvious why….you can stuff a lot of humans in the back of that huge truck.

I don’t know what the hell this fish is.

For this trip to Baja…because you are going so far south (between Guerrero Negro and La Paz) I learned there is a strategy to where you cross the Border. We crossed into Mexico at the Tecate Crossing.  The Tecate Crossing is a tiny border crossing compared to the other border crossings in California.  But it has weird hours and it does not have Sentri (to get quickly back into the US).  It’s a beautiful drive that gets very close to the world famous barrett lake.  Now for reasons I still don’t quite understand, even though you get your tourist visa well in advance, you have to get it stamped at the border.  So, for this trip we drove across and were put in secondary for inspection (God only knows why).  After checking our vehicles for bad stuff, we parked on the Mexico side, then found the office where we got our tourist visas stamped.  I am still not even sure why we had to get tourist visas because I have flown into Mexico a gazillion times and never had to do it.  But, when the leaders of the group say you need to do it, you don’t question them.  But, I have to tell you I am curious.

with 30+ species you are going nail some big halibut

La Poma – From the beginning the plan was to break up the 600 mile trip into two days both on the way there and on the way back.  I just assumed it was because 600 miles is too much for one day for the group.  But, really it’s because the campground at La Poma on the Sea of Cortez and it’s restaurant are so awesome.  The folks that run this place are friends of Kai’s.  Such a luxury to have a nice dinner and breakfast when camping on the beach.  The wade fishing there was ok.  Nothing exciting in terms of size.  But a bunch of small spotties on a fly rod from shore is still fun.

Punta Abreojos – For the most part the roads all the way there are outstanding.  Much much better than I remember from the last time I did it many years ago.  Being that said there is a stretch from the sea of cortez side where you cross over to the pacific side where the highway is skinny and elevated.  That stretch is also well travelled by trucks (see calamities below).  So it might be a bit nerve racking to many Americans who are spoiled by huge lanes on the freeways.  The last few miles to where we camped outside Punta Abreojos are dirt roads… but, 4 wheel drive is not required.  I didn’t even put my truck in 4 wheel drive.  Of interest, where to put the trucks and campers on the banks of the lagoon takes some logistics because of the tides.  You have to pick high spots.  I would have screwed that up for sure and woken up to my truck in 2 feet of water had Kai and John not provided the parking guidance.

When we returned home, we crossed back into the US at the Mexicali crossing.  I have Sentri (Global Entry) so that process took 30 seconds.  But, I was shocked when I crossed because the Mexicali crossing is so far east. I had many more miles to go to get home.

the view from where we camped with the lagoon at hide tide

…and the same view at low tide

The Fishing

It’s all about the tides.  In this giant lagoon there are huge tidal swings.  There is one significant deep water channel feeding this enormous lagoon from the ocean.  On a high tide, the moon pulls an enormous amount of water into the lagoon and holds it there through the slack tide.  That is when the predators come in; that is when they are on the move.  I did the best fly fishing on the turn; the slack tide.  Because there are so many back channels and mangrove lined banks and because of the cohesiveness of water it is normal to have 10 to 20 foot tidal swings.  And when that slack tide turns and the moon starts pulling the water out, it goes out in a hurry producing miles of suddenly empty land (under water just hours before) you can walk on.  Why is that important?  Well, although not unsafe, if you are having too much fun fishing in your kayak on the high and it turns to the low and the water goes back out you will have to put the wheels on your kakak and carry it over the land you kayaked over earlier.  If you fish with john, that is just part of the deal.  I like that.

Jim with a nice Corbina he nailed right off the shore.  The devilishly handsome author in the background stripping clousers next to his kayak

The Corvina – Not the “ghost of the coast” corbina that patrols the socal surf.  The Corvina is a ferocious predator that is a hoot of fun to fool and battle.  I am infamous for saying, “Nothing fights like a trout.  I have fly fished all over the world and nothing fights like a trout.”  That usually gets quite the raised eyebrow from saltwater fly fishers.  Let’s face it, most saltwater fish are big and just pull hard.   There are exceptions, of course.  But, nothing fights like a wild native trout (aka the Kern River Rainbow).  When I got home from this trip I told all my fly fishing trout buddies, “When it comes to battling fish on a fly rod, I have found a worthy competitor of the trout in saltwater: The Corvina.”  The Corvina hits hard like a trout.  It head shakes like a trout.  It does long runs like a trout.  The only difference is that the Corbina does not go erratically ballistic like a wild native trout doing those crazy ass herculean jumps like a trout.  Another difference: you can release a big trout in the water by removing the hook quickly with your hands.  You only make that mistake on a Corvina once.  I gave the lagoon some of my blood releasing my first big corbina. The Corvina has fangs.

You only make the mistake of sticking your fingers in a Corvina’s mouth once

The low and then slack tide also produces the most ridiculously fun wade fishing.  On the 2nd day, John lead me on a mile hike over land that was covered in water just an hour earlier to a deep water channel that compressed all the fish during the low tide.  We had to cross a main channel for a couple hundred feet in waste deep water.  As we crossed, he said, “I really don’t want to swim this on the way back so we need to watch the tide.”  We absolutely killed catching Corbina after Corbina.  It was so fun.  Big Fish too.  We even doubled up a few times.  at the crossing the tide was a little higher… like chest high.  But, still manageable.  And yea, the water is warm.  So, there is the perfect set up for the story I tell in the calamities section below.

The Wildlife

We were there to fly fish.  With 30+ species to catch and release it was a dream.  But, also partying in that giant lagoon were pacific bottle nosed dolphins.  And, as you’d imagine this place is a bird watchers dream.  From egrets to ospreys to some tropicals I couldn’t identify.  Also, this place also supports a huge population of well-fed coyotes; even though it’s so close to the beach.  I woke up one morning and stared out the back of my truck at the bay to watch a coyote running it at low tide at full speed.  Pretty awesome.

Kai got this shot of a huge osprey waiting out the tide.

The Calamities

Here are my top 5 calamities of the trip in no particular order.  Take notice that I own 3 of 5 calamities:

  • My Trxtyl Fly rod holder – Well, because of the Kayak I bought Yakama racks so I could put it on top of my truck. I did tell you this was the most expensive free vacation ever.  Well, I love this company Tryxtl from Helena, Montana for many reasons.  So, I asked to join their pro staff team and bought their fly rod holder.  I’m sure it was my fault in the way I mounted the fly rod holder on the Yakima Racks.  But, it didn’t survive the trip in.  It loosened in the journey on the Mexican roads, snapped off the racks, and disintegrated as it hit the highway.  A bummer for sure.  But, I didn’t have any rods in the holders so not a crisis by any stretch.  I’ll replace the Trxtyl rod holder with a new one.
  • Kai’s mirror – I mentioned the skinny, elevated stretches of highway. John told a story of losing his mirror to an oncoming truck on a prior trip.  Well, on the way home I was two cars back from Kai’s camper in the caravan and went through a wash of broken glass.  I was pretty sure what happened right away.  It was Kai’s rear view mirror.  The bummer is that Kai had his window open when the rear view mirror of his camper hit the rear view mirror of an oncoming truck and exploded.  So he was bloody with small cuts when we all pulled over to inspect the damage.  The window in Tom Phillip’s Sprinter van also broke as a result of the disintegrated rear view mirror parts.  Not a crisis.  That is what insurance is for.
  • Tom’s tire – around the end of the 2nd day Tom Rundlett, who’s camper was parked next to my truck. In between was my giant “easy up” that served our eating, relaxing and partying area.  Well, Tom says, “It looks like my tire is low.”.  I didn’t think anything of it because at altitude my tires do weird things.  But, we were at sea level.  By the 3rd day it was a problem.  It was a slow leak that wouldn’t hold air.  John instructed Tom to go to the little town of Punta Abreaojos and within an hour Tom’s tire was quickly fixed for a ridiculously low amount of pesos.
  • My dead battery – When it was time to leave everyone started their engines and drove away… except for me. My new truck was dead.  I’m still not sure how it happened.  I could have left one of the internal lights on and not noticed.  Or it could have been 5 days of charging all my devices in the back of the truck at night.  I started to pull out the jumper cables a little panicked when john doubled back, then ran over with a compact car jumping device.  He jumped my truck with that device and everything was fine.  I now own that gizmo and it lives in my truck.  I wish I knew what happened.  It kind of haunts me.  my new tundra has so many buttons and gizmos I’ll never learn them all.  in that regard I miss my 14 year old Tundra that I gave to my son in Bozeman, Montana.  If you don’t put your seat belt on in that truck it doesn’t care.  And it has a cassette deck.  I miss that simple truck.
  • My getting caught by the tide – This I my best story of the trip. Above I described how much fun John and I had wading the low tide through the slack tide on day 2.  Well, I decided to do it on day 3 alone.  I walked the mile across bay that was filled in high tide and got to the channel crossing.  It was just about the same height as the day before; waste high.  I started fishing and was killing in the exact same spot just like the day before.  And I was laughing and commenting to myself and having a hoot of a time.  I did notice the tide turn go the other way pretty quickly.  I did see the tide coming in.  I don’t know why I didn’t put 2 and 2 together more quickly.  I guess I lost track of time having so much fun.  I totally underestimated how quickly that tide comes in.   Well, by the time I left I was saying to myself, “I hope I didn’t screw this up.” And walking as fast as I could towards that channel crossing.  When I got there I said out loud, “Holy Sh@#$t…”  I blew it. I could tell right away I was going to have to swim it.  It wasn’t like I was in danger.  I wasn’t going to get swept out to sea.  The tide was coming in.  I’m in good shape for an old guy.  the issue was I had my fly rod.  That meant swimming one handed while holding on to the rod with the other.  I was wearing a backpack with my gear in it.  but it was a fancy Columbia dry pack.  When I buttoned it up it actually served as buoyancy.  I only had to swim a hundred yards or so.  And it was more like a one-handed dog paddle.  When I staggered back to camp I was dripping wet head to toe.  John immediately said, “I thought I was going to have to get you in my Kayak.”  And I told them the story laughing.

Again, this trip isn’t for everyone and you really do need a kayak that goes in reverse.  But, if love an adventure and catching multiple saltwater species on a fly rod.  And you love camping with fun people and good food and beer and cocktails, this trip is for you too.  I can’t wait to do this annual trek again next June.

You gotta’ yank the groupers out of the mangroves quickly or they break you off in the roots

Forks of the Kern – June 18-22, 2021

“Wait what?!  You got to fish the Forks?!  But, it’s closed…”

One of the many big Kern River Rainbows i nailed

The San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) got to fish the Upper Kern by the way of the Forks of the Kern Trail in June of 2021.  Technically the only people legally allowed to fish that stretch of the Upper Kern for over 2 years until the trail re-opens in the Spring of 2022.  But my God we earned it.  We worked our asses off fixing up the Forks trail.

A group of 6 of us worked with 2 members of the Western Divide Ranger District to do trail repair on the first 2 miles of the trail: from the trailhead to the confluence of the Little Kern River and the Main, North Fork of the Kern River 1000 feet and 2 miles below.

A great example of the devastation…with the green coming in the following spring

It was physical work in hot conditions with hand tools over a long weekend.  The trail had not been touched in 17 years and the fire most certainly didn’t help it.  I have been using that trail well beyond that 17 years and I can tell you I have never seen it in better shape as a result of the work.  You can practically roll a baby stroller up and down it now.  Unfortunately, no one will not be able to use it until Spring of 2022 when Western Divide reopens the area.

In addition to the trail repair, hand sawing felled trees off the trail, and trash removal, my 5 years of frustration to provide the western divide ranger district the financial resources to replace the “welcome to the golden trout wilderness” sign on the forks of the Kern trail is over.  The sign didn’t succumb to last year’s largest fire in California History.  It succumbed to vandalism around 5 years ago.  Hands down that sign was the most photographed on the entire Forks Trail.  Well, the SDFF club funded the new sign.  I personally was honored to carry it a mile down the trail where we installed it.

The SDFF and Western Divide Forest District Group with the newly installed GTW sign. from Left to Right: me, Daniel, Brooke, Evan, Kevin, Steve, Marty, Warren

A huge thanks to Evan Topal, a fairly new hire of the Wester Divide Ranger district.  Evan handled all the bureaucracy and red tape behind the scenes to make this first of its kind project happen.  Evan succeeded where I had failed navigating for years.  Evan also figured out how to pave through the red tape and legal indemnification to provide hands on the ground for the trail repair.  I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a “doer” in a so poorly under-funded and under-resourced group protecting our forests.  We are in talks about the San Diego Fly Fishing Club “adopting” the trail and what that might mean in terms of financial and hands on resources.  Execution of that would please me intensely.

I personally picked up and carried out over 30 pounds of cans and bottles accumulated over 20 years that were exposed when the trail and surrounding areas burnt.  And I felt like I was working half as hard as my buddies who were using picks and shovels and hand saws.  It was the logical job for me.  the lord didn’t give me much, but he did give me the “goat gene”.  I climbed up and down about 100 feet max off trail from above and below the trail to retrieve cans, bottles and a variety of other junk (ie: a 20 year old white gas latern, mangled jet-boils, etc.) that survived incineration in the fire.

Btw, I am working with Evan Topal to do another foray into the Forks Trail to fix up the next 2 miles of trail in the fall.  Being that said the 25% snowpack year in the Southern sierras is a much bigger concern.  The upper kern is only flowing less than 130 CFS as of writing this.  that is the lowest I can remember for this time of year; lower than I can remember in the 4 drought years.  And it is just July.  We could see disastrous low flow conditions in sept and oct.  I may have to self-inflict “hoot owl” restrictions like they do in montana when rivers get too low and too warm.  At a certain point it is just too dangerous to catch and release the fish in low, warm conditions.  You end up killing them.  And no fly fisher wants that.  Only time will tell.  But, if you are interested in helping; either with hands on the ground or financially then please do send me an email.  Let me tell you that the fly fishing makes the tax of the work completely worth it.

The Fire Aftermath

Honestly I have zero expertise in the science of Forest Fires: the recovery, patterns, etc.  But, I have been reading up on it and it’s fascinating stuff.  This area badly needed a burn.  So, let me tell you right off that the entire area is already showing recovery… green where it looked like the moon.  Trees recovering and growing back.  So much plant growth so that I’m confident when we all get back in there next year we’ll have to look hard for the signs of the fire on the ground.

And yes, the biggest fear from most fly fishers was that the fire would poison the river.  Let me tell you it did not.  it fished better than I can remember it in years.  It’s the simple fact (and irony) that this drought year did not produce rain or runoff conditions that pushed ash and mud into the river.  It’s still as crystal clear and pristine as it ever was.  And because of the new growth from the ashes we will not have mud slides.  Of course the fish not seeing an artificial fly for over a year also helped.

What shocked me first and foremost was seeming contradiction of the areas that barely burnt, the areas that did not burn and the areas that were scorched like the moon.  For instance, a huge area right at the confluence didn’t see fire at all.  Even though it was surrounded by burn in all directions including across the river.  There must have been a sudden wind shift (or fire fighting) that prevented it.  Yet in other places on the Forks trail it still looked “Nuked”; like the moon.

I have good news for you “Huck-site” fans.  The Huck Site Survived.  It burnt all right.  But all the tall pines trees on the plateau survived and were green on top when I got there.  Most of the wooden “benches” around the campfire ring burnt to ashes.  But all the trees down at the river’s edge did not see fire at all.  Even the tree swing survived.  Marty and I both quickly caught and released a couple fish right at the Huck Site after surveying it.

That’s Marty roll casting the big pool in front of the Huck Site. notice the rope swing in tact

The Huck-Cache, however, did not fare as well.  It’s gone.  Just a few hundred yards up river and about 200 feet above the trail, the cache, and the entire area around it incinerated including the giant pine tree it was hidden behind.   Before seeing it, I assumed it burnt and that I would be responsible for hauling out a ton of trash because of it.  there was no trash to haul out.  Everything incinerated short of the saw blades and a backpacking grill.  My buddy Jeff Kimura from the SDFF club hauled in a super nice little camp table just a couple weeks before the fire for a club trip to the forks.  It was aluminum.  It completely incinerated.  Two tents, 5 pairs of wading boots and river shoes and a variety of other stuff donated by the many visitors to the Huck Site: all incinerated.  Not a tragedy; not even sad.  Just interesting.  That cache can be replenished over more time.  It’s just stuff.

Is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that KR rainbow’s face? why yes, it is…

The Fishing

Nuts.  Ridiculous.  Stupid Good. I had a day where I caught 40+ Kern River Rainbows.  4 of them were over 20”.  20 of them were over 14”.  And 95% of the time I was fishing dries: huge size 4 huck hoppers.  I could kick myself for even dropping a nymph off my size 4 huck hoppers.  But, i did want to test my new Huck Perdigons.  I did it for around 20 minutes mid-day on the full day I fished when it slowed.  And I ended up getting takes on every drift.  When they started taking the huck hoppers on top again I just caught off the dropper.

The Kern River Rainbow. Look at that fan of a tail

And it wasn’t just me.  Marty Jansen caught 40+ on that day too.

But, my favorite fishing story from the project / trip has to be from Brooke Sargent.  Brooke is a 25 year old fly fisher, who on this project, was stuck with a bunch of old guys.  Not only is she a hoot of fun to be around, she guided one of the Forest Rangers to landing a 16” KR rainbow… a forest ranger who had never touched a fly rod before.

is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that Fish’s face?

The Mistake

It seemed like such a great idea at the time.  A little background is that earlier in the spring I was fishing the 5 mile section of river above the Johnsondale Bridge.  I came across a family coming down the river trail with backpacks.  It was a dad and two kids, 10 and 8.  I was shocked to find out they had hiked all the way from the Forks.  “My God.” I said to those two kids.  “You are incredible.  That has to be 14-15 miles.  I didn’t even know there was a trail that goes there.”  The dad told me, “There really isn’t a trail.  You have to bushwhack the last 2 miles into the canyon.  We lost that trail numerous times.  And we did take a full week to get there and back.”

Well, armed with that information and remembering that Evan Topal from Wester Divide said, “Your group’s special permits expire at 3pm on Sunday.  That is when we’ll lock the gate on the road preventing access.  But, if you camp on the other side of the river, then you can hike out whenever and wherever you want as long as you stay out of the closed area on the north side of the river.

So the plan for Marty and me was to stash our trucks at the Johnsondale Bridge on the way in.  Then get a ride in from the other SDFF club members.  That would allow us to stay another two nights with a full day of fly fishing in between.  Then we’d hike our way out of the Kern River canyon for 2 miles to find the Rincon Trail which is a straight shot on top of the canyon for 9 miles to a junction trail back into the canyon catching the Johnsondale Bridge trail for the last 4 miles to our trucks.

Here’s Marty climbing out of the Kern Canyon as a process of trying to find the rincon trail

It was awesome.  But, I will not do it again.  10+ hours; 15 miles.  The middle 9 miles of the hike on the Rincon trail was awful.  The first 2 mile hike out of the canyon was quite the adventure.  We lost the trail numerous times.  We were smart about it.  We spread out until we either figured a way forward around the obstacles or wandered until we found the trail.  We did a fair amount of research in advance, so we knew “the trail” followed the creek the entire way.  So we were never really worried about getting lost; just worried about getting stuck.  It’s just that the creek was a pretty rugged canyon.  It’s a barely used non-maintained section of a trail that probably has not seen any work on it for 30 years.  It was a beautiful section, well forested and tons of signs of bear.  So much so I could smell them.  You know that stench of a bear when they are around?  We didn’t see any, but I’m pretty sure they saw us.  But it took us over 2 hours to get out of that canyon and find the rincon trail above.  Not an issue.  We had all day to hike the 9 miles back to the river.  The big mistake was that neither Marty or I paid any attention to how straight the rincon trail is on the trail maps other than finding it interesting.  We also didn’t pay too much attention that you are allowed to drive motorcycles on that trail.  Well, that trail goes straight through the forest for 9 miles because a motorcycle can go straight.  Unfortunately for us humans it was a ton of up the mountain then back down the other side on badly rutted out motorcycle trail.  it was brutal and it was hot.  At one point I said to Marty “if we don’t get to Durwood creek soon I’m going to be in trouble in terms of water.”  He said something like, “and if it doesn’t have water we’ll both be in trouble.”  Well Durwood creek did have water and did support a healthy amount of trout.  My guess is they were Little Kern Goldens, but I am still not sure because we didn’t fish it.

The only highlight of the next 4 miles of the rincon trail was me running into and startling a multi-point buck (deer).  It was a hot death march for the most part.  I was so pleased when we finally got to the turn off from the Rincon Trail to hike back down into the canyon for the last 4 miles to our trucks.  Our original plan was to fish and camp a night there before hiking out.  But we were so beaten up and exhausted when we did finally get down to the river again, we just decided to get it over with.  Even though I have hiked the 4 mile JDB trail a gazillion times it was just a death march.  I actually fell too.  That can happen when you are tired.  That could have been a disaster.  Thank God I landed on a flat piece of granite like a cat.

The Huck Site in tact. Green trees at the river. the pine needles fell from the charred, but alive pine trees on the burnt ground after the fire went out.

Of interest…

Right before Marty and I staggered into the huck site we found the remnants of a wild turkey.  I had never seen a turkey in the forks area but, it most certainly looked like a mountain lion had a party.

Summary

Epic trip.  One of the most special I have had at the Forks…and I have had a lot of them.  We were so fortunate to fish the Upper Kern while it was closed… even if it was just for a few hours.  We did pay the price, though, in terms of physical labor.  Would I do it again?  absolutely.  the hard work is a simple price to pay to fish that special place.  But, there is no way I’m hiking out the 15 miles by way of the Rincon Trail again just to get in a single full day of fishing.  If there is a next time where we work on the next 2 miles of the trail, I will leave the civil way like normal humans.

For the literally hundreds who have emailed me about the status of the Forks after the complex fire of 2020 I can tell you that this is going to be a special place to fish come spring of 2022.  Let’s go!

Believe it or not this is a different fish caught close to the other monster. i put my iphone on timer on the bank to take the picture