Tag Archives: Forks of the Kern

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

 

Forks of the Kern-alone: 170 CFS, 10 miles upriver from the Trail head

Relevant Stats:

July 31st to Aug 2nd, 2020

CFS: 175 down to 165

Water temp: 57 – 72

Air temp: low 50s to mid 80s

Fishing Stats:

  • Two days of fishing with 80+ takes on top
  • 40+ landed to 19”
  • 1 fish of a lifetime lost
  • Size 4 Huck Hoppers 98% of the time (battleships)

This is a 18″-19″ Kern-zilla.  Understand this footage is the end of a 10 minute battle with multiple jumps where he dragged me 200 yards down the river.  And he’s still hot.  you can’t see me release him, but you can see how how he is when he swims away at the end.  Let’s give GoPro some credit here.  It’s an amazing device.  i have a cheap tripod that i pinned in the sand to keep the river from sweeping it away.

Well, I just couldn’t resist.  Even though I was at the Forks just 2 weekends before with the San Diego Fly Fishers Club, the fishing was so good at that time and I kept getting reports of it continuing to be good I went back into the Forks.  This time I had the “advantage” of going alone.  I put “advantage” in quotes because any seasoned backpacker will tell you that you push the boundaries of safety when going into the sierras alone.  Especially on a river like the Kern.  Backpacking alone is not really recommended for anyone.  But, I have to tell you that I do it once or twice a year and I sure do enjoy the clarity of mind and the unplugging when I do….and the ability to hike as far and fish as hard as I want / can handle.    When I’m with a group we always aim for the huck site at 4.36 miles.  It is just too much of a hike over the mountain to 6 miles where the next set of primitive sites are for most.  Also, I just love bringing beginners into the Forks and it’s the simple fact that beginners always underestimate how physical the hike is with weight on your back.

even 12″ Kern River Rainbows figure out how to eat a size 4 huck hopper

Well, my plan, which I was pleased to execute, was:

  • to make the big drive to the trailhead on Thursday night, then sleep in the back of my truck.
  • to hike in early Friday morning before it got hot and camp at “Sand Camp” at 6.5 miles.
  • to fish from Sand Camp to the burnt down house which is frequently called the beginning of Kern Flats at 7.5 miles.
  • the next day, Saturday, to hike all the way to the beginning of the meadow at around 8.5 miles from the TH to fish all the way to the bridge at the 10 mile mark from the TH

Just another KR Rainbow with a huck hopper stuck in his face

There are not many things good about the virus, but the lack of traffic and how easy it is to blow through Los Angeles right now is one of them.  I have been to the sierras 7 times in the last 7 months.  And every time I go to the western side of the sierras I blow through LA with cruise control set at 80MPH without even coming close to tapping the breaks.  It’s awesome.  People actually blow by me at 90+ MPH so I don’t even sit in the fast lane.  Without a stop I can make it to the Forks trailhead in 5 hours.  So, I got to the trailhead in 5:15 hours on Thursday night, climbed into the back of my truck and slept so I could hit the trailhead as early as possible.

Sand Camp – i didn’t use the rainfly on my Big Agnes tent because i anticipated it being too warm at night.  It was not.  It got under 50 and the moon was so bright it woke me up.

Day 1, Friday, July 31

The thing about the forks trail in July and August are the long stretches of trail in the first 2 miles on the 1100 feet down that are exposed to the sun.  they can be brutal.  Especially on the way up.  So, I was hiking by 7:15AM.  That is a new record for me.  I made it down well within 45 minutes.  The little kern river was so low at the crossing I was hiking again well within an hour.  Although I have been really working hard on getting in and keeping in shape, I was a bit worried about running out of gas solely because I am getting old (58) and I have not done that big hike over the mountain with 45 pounds on my back in a long time.  I was pleased my body gave me a lot that day.  I breezed to San Camp without any fatigue and was ready to battle the current immediately after setting up a tent to secure a site at the sand camp.

I would love to talk to a biologist who knows the Kern River Rainbow one day.  It just seems like their tails are much larger than other trout species.  It probably has to do with the Kern being a wild river that goes from 20,000 CFS down to 75 CFS in some years.

Of interest on the way, I ran into a big group in the Huck Site.  I noticed stoves and tables and a ton of stuff.  I said hi on the way by quickly and made a positive comment about the huck site never looking better.  I found out later that a couple of the guys staying in the huck site I know from email from this web site but were fishing at the time.  They had a pack train with mules carry in all their stuff.  It was their intention to go all the way to kern flats.  But, there is a huge deadfall, at least 4 feet in diameter blocking the trail in a really steep section on the mountain between the huck site and Kern Flats.  The mule train couldn’t get around it and one of the mules actually fell.  So, they turned back settling on the huck site.  That has a be a first for the Huck site.  A mule train delivering supplies just 4.36 miles.  The strange thing is that this is the 2nd season in a row for this particular deadfall.  It’s an absolute bitch to get under; especially with a pack on.  The forest service just has not had the resources to clear it.  it’s so huge it would take more than a simple chainsaw.  So, it’s existence is pretty common knowledge.  Even without a backpack on it’s tough to squeeze under it…and I’m pretty tiny.  There is literally no safe way over or around it even if you were strong enough to climb over it.  All the pack outfitters scout the trails from every which way so I can’t imagine any pack outfitter not knowing about that deadfall.  Plus, from the Lloyds trailhead it’s a straight shot most used by pack outfitters anyways.  So this must have been a not so experienced Kernville or Bakersfield based outfitter.  The moral of the story is to use a legit pack outfitter like Golden Trout Wilderness Pack Station at the Lloyd meadow trailhead.  I know the owner Steve Day, from email and he comes well recommended by many.  https://goldentroutpacktrains.com/ steve.gtwp@gmail.com 559-359-3676

you have to realize that this is a big fish.  that is a size 4 huck hopper in it’s face.

Well, I put on a huge size 4 grey huck hopper right at Sand Camp.  I casted the easy flat stuff in the run without a take for 10 casts or so then moved 50 feet up to the head and did the big cast with the really tough “across the river” drift.  You can only hope for about a full second of drift here because the current pulls so strong and you have to cast across the current doing the big ol mend thing, twice, quickly.  Boom!  A 14” kern river rainbow hit me so violently he practically set himself.  It was easy to pull him down through the current (on a 3X leader; highly recommended for the upper kern) and into the flat water where I GoPro’d him then released him quickly…. still pissed off to the point where he splashed his tail and my face as he shot back into the depths.

the first fish i caught right at sand camp.  check out that huck hopper, size 4 hanging out of it’s face.

Wiping off my face, pleased, I moved up river, hopping the boulders to the next run.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you I got takes about every 100 feet for the next 6 hours of fishing all the way to the burnt down house.  My catch ratio was about 50%.  That sounds low for someone of experience.  But, like I tell everyone, when you fish wild natives on barbless hooks, landing them is as hard as fooling them into the take.  They just go ballistic head shaking and jumping and never give up…all the way to your feet.  There is nothing that fights like a 12” to 16” Kern River Rainbow.  At least that I have found….and I have fished all over the world.  If you have ever been lucky enough, like me, to catch a wild steelhead chromer when it’s hot right out of the ocean.  Well, that is the closest thing I have encountered to fighting a Kern River Rainbow.   And yea, I have caught plenty of bass of all types, and the tuna and predators in the ocean and even an 8 foot tarpon.  Nothing fights like a Kern River Rainbow.

The key to takes, which I have elaborated many times here, that is only available in low flow, is fishing the “other side” (the opposite side of the river from the Forks Trail) of the river.  Short of how slippery it is, crossing the river in this low flow is quite simple.  From the other side of the river you can put your fly in places where the trout rarely see an artificial.  It’s just a huge advantage.  At the Upper Kern the other side of the river is also the left handed side of the river (meaning casting up stream, your arm is over the river making that big cast much easier).  And I’m left handed.  Just remember I said “key to takes” not “key to catching”.

even 12″ Kern River Rainbows figure out how to eat a size 4 huck hopper

My first time using a Wading Staff on the Upper Kern

I’m that guy who said, “I will never use trekking poles.  That is for old people.”  Then I met Kyle Focht from this site.  Kyle is around half my age and an excellent fly fisherman.  We have now camped and fished the forks together a few times and will for many years.  Kyle, again, half my age, is the one that taught me the advantage of using trekking poles when hiking with a backpack.  I vividly remember him lecturing me, “It’s that surge of power you get from them.”  Now I can’t live without them.  Well, guess who is the guy that said, “I will never use a wading staff.  That is for old people.”  Yep.  Me.  Historically if I faced a tough river cross, I’d simply grab a tree branch to help me across.  That is before one of my dear friends, much my senior in the San Diego fly fishing club told me that a wading staff is for much more than just crossing the river safely.  He told me the wading staff allows you to move upriver in the water against the current swiftly so that you don’t waste time gingerly and carefully getting to fishing the next run.  So, I added the weight by bringing a cheap wading staff on this trip.  And now I’m hooked.  Having that wading staff so handy at my side allowed me to cover miles of water and not wasting any time in transit.  It also allowed me to plow through current that I normally would have skipped by getting out of the river, hiking up the bank and then back down a few hundred feet ahead.  On the trip two weeks prior to this trip I fell down 3 separate times in the river.  On this trip I did not fall once (just another thing to overcome the safety issue of being alone).  I will never fish the Upper Kern without a wading staff again….and saving my money for a nice lightweight one.  a wading staff truly is a god send for that river soley because it is a slippery one.

I should also note that unlike usual I carried in real wading boots: My Korkers Devils Canyons.  Which are hands down the best wading boots I have ever owned.  I’m on my second pair.  I get more than 5 years out of them.  And I will be hard pressed not to carry in my Korkers again.  My lightweight softscience backpacking wading boots just pale in comparison to my Korkers. Their grip is good.  But, they just are not stable nor have much support.  I end up beating the hell out of my feet and ankles in my SoftScience.   In my Korkers I am comfortable and stable. But, my Korkers are heavy and take forever to dry so I end up having to hike them out heavier.  I have finally decided It’s still worth it.  being that said the beauty of korkers is that you can change the soles.  So, technically, I could hike in with them on with the rubber soles then switch out for the felt soles when fishing.  That would save weight in having just wading boots and sandals.  I did try that once with the wrong two pairs of socks and suffered the blisters because of it.  I should try it again because on this trip I hiked for miles with the cheap simms neoprene wading socks, wet, and did just fine.

I caught so many quality fish like this it was silly

Day one highlight

There is a stretch that is about 1/3rd of a mile short of the burnt down house that historically has been so good to me I fantasize about it during the winter months.  You can only fish this stretch in low flow across the river.  This stretch cannot be fished from the normal side of the river.  It’s completely protected by dense trees.  In 100 feet of river it has everything: a deep run, pocket water, riffles, a head, a tail and a deep cut bank under branches.  Well, I railed 10-15 out of this stretch, including a few monsters of 15-18”.  It was a silly every cast thing.  If I wasn’t running out of time I would have stayed longer in there… which is totally not like me.  But I had a goal to fish out the remaining ½ mile or so, cross back over in the really flat stuff in front of the burnt down house so I could hike all the way back and make it to camp around 6pm.

When I did get on the trail for that mile hike back I was pretty happy.  As I got close to sand camp I could see another tent there.  Sand Camp is huge.  It was a good 200 feet upriver from mine.  No big deal.  I’m a genuinely nice guy.  But, it did seem strange.  As I got closer I could see another single backpacker in the site.  I navigated down the mountain from the trail, b-lined for him and said, “Hey, do you mind if I share Sand Camp with you?” smiling.  He immediately started apologizing, saying he just ran out of steam and had to stop.  I, of course, said “Absolutely not a problem.”  I learned later that my newfound friend John Vernon? was a cancer survivor, just weeks from chemo.  Also he was a bit north of me in age, over 60 with 2 adult kids like me. What an absolute stud and great guy.  His positive outlook on life, as a result of what he’d been through, was infectious for me.  And hanging with him during the evenings was a true pleasure.

the farther you hike up river the more geo-thermal stuff you run into

I flash fried my “sous vide” ‘d steak while sipping on good rum.  Soon after he ate, john wandered over.  He was casting dries while I watched and within minutes landed a nice one.  I could tell from his first cast he was a stick.  It was not a surprise when he let the trout go he looked at me and with a smile said, “This is what it’s all about.”

We both railed a couple more on dries right in front of the site.  By dark I was exhausted and hit the tent.  I woke up about 1230am it was so bright it was like a spotlight was shining on me.  It was the full moon.  Without putting the rainfly on the tent (because I anticipated it being really warm at night; it was not) that moon light up the entire area until it disappeared over the mountain around 4am.

Day 2, Saturday, August 1st

The mission was clear.  I was going to fish water I had not even seen for about 15 years and was pretty excited about it.  I was going to get out early and hike all the way to the beginning of the meadow which is frequently called Kern Flats and start fishing there.  But, for the first time ever I hiked a couple eggs in so I was hell bent on a huge breakfast first.  That way I could simply pack a little food I dehydrated, jerky and fruit and some nuts and be just fine on energy for an all-day fly fishing adventure.

hands down my best backpacking breakfast ever.  those are chunks of steak left over from the night before.

I was on the trail early by 9:99AM.  I waved bye to John up river at his camp and off I went.  Honestly, I didn’t know how far or how long it was going to take me to get to the meadow.  I was just hell bent to do it and had the entire day to fish from there to the bridge alone.  I didn’t even know how far it was from the meadow to the bridge.  Well, as is typical of walking the Forks trail, I kept saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’m passing up all this awesome water I have not fished in years.”  On the trek I did see a couple sets of backpackers camping, but they didn’t look like fly fishermen.  When I got to the meadow my jaw dropped.  I was shocked at how huge it is.  I didn’t remember it that way.  God only knows why I didn’t notice that on the map or on my gps.  It was at least a mile long and beyond my site.  There is a primitive camp right at the beginning of the meadow with a beat up old coral used by the packing mules and horses.  In my notes that Kyle gave me he said just up from the camp a few hundred feet, I’d see a huge rock in the middle of the river and to fish that first.  Sure enough there it was.  I fooled two quickly and moved up the river and found trout holding water every 100 feet.  I was getting takes every hundred feet.  It was nuts.  Realize that I was fishing a battleship sized huck hopper (size 4) and getting strikes constantly no matter how big or small the trout was.  I fished for over 7 hours and the action never stopped.  I also did not see a sole for the entire day of fishing. For most of the day I fished the opposite side of the river.  There were a few times I had to get out of the river to move upstream because of deep water and I kept saying to myself, “I bet a human has not stood here for years.”  Because I was not seeing a sole either it got eerie at points.  At around 7 hours into fishing and landing over 40 trout I was getting tired.  I was in an awesome run with a head and tail and was just railing ‘em.  I was purposely making it hard on myself by casting 60 feet and seeing if I could make the set from that far.  But, after fishing it, I looked ahead I could see a canyon coming that was not navigable on the opposite side of the river.  And where I was standing was too deep to cross.  I’d have to double back a few hundred yards and cross to the trail side of the river.  Once I did, I faced a decision.  I was tired and it was getting late in the day.  I had a big 4 mile hike back to sand camp in wet wading boots and I was already exhausted.  I said to myself, “Well, it will only take a few minutes to hike the trail up to the canyon to see the water.  One last cast.”  So typical of an obsessed fly fisherman.  Well, I walked a few hundred yards on the trail and there it was….the bridge.  I laughed.  I had made it.  So I fished around the bridge.  I think I caught a little one.  I hiked all the way back to sand camp with a spring in my step, meeting up with John and comparing notes on both of our awesome fishing days.

The bridge over the Kern River at mile 10 from the trail-head.  One day someone has to explain why it’s there because it goes nowhere and ends.

Day 2 highlights

#1: Towards the up-stream end of the meadow there is an island with a small back channel.  It riffles, then tails out to a 3 foot pool that thins to the river.  It was easy to speculate how the river carved it in high water.  That swift moving 2-3 foot pool was perfect holding water for Trout.  I was standing in a place that I presumed had not been fished in years.  Because of the thin water I suspected a grouping of small fish in the swift moving pool just waiting there for the back channel to send them food.  I caught one quickly on the first cast.  For some reason, probably because it was just a unique, great looking piece of water, instead of moving on thinking I had put down the pool by catching that first fish, I kept casting it.  It was almost like raking every inch of drift with my huck hopper (similar to the way an expert euro nympher does it).  It was such a beautiful place and such unique water. Then it happened.  It was unique for me and special.  I did something I never do. Typically, I fish really fast:  5 drifts and I’m moving to another area. Especially after catching a fish, which, at the Kern, typically shuts down the run.  Even though the huge huck hopper went over its head at least 10 times prior, Kern-zilla rose, turned sideways and grabbed my fly.  Surprised, I set hard downriver and the battle was on.  That big trout immediately decided to flee downriver and I chased it as quickly as I could move in pursuit.  It seemed like an eternity but I had him at my feet so I could GoPro him quickly before releasing.  I laughed out loud.  I’m not a measurer anymore but I’d guess with confidence between 18” and 19”.  And it was a thick shouldered football of a fish.  “I could end the day here.” I said to myself and I had only been fishing for less than a couple hours and already landed a lot of KR rainbows.

another huge fish that engulfed a size 4 huck hopper

#2: But, why is it that we remember the fish we lose more than the ones we land?  Well, I have another big one lost that will haunt me for decades.  It was just minutes after landing that huge one I detailed just above.  The incident happend way up at the end of the meadow.  From the opposite side of the river, I looked at a deep cut bank that went under a tree.   Branches at the end of the pool were in the water.  It was on the trail side of the river so I said to myself, “Not only is there a fish in there, but I bet an artificial hasn’t drifted through there in 4 years. (the last drought)”.  And even if 4 years ago, most fly fishers wouldn’t take the risk of that cast because of the overhanging tree and the branches in the water.  Me?  I was practically drooling.  I don’t mind taking that risk of losing flies and having to re-tie for a special run like that.  There were a few caddis rising so I tied a size 18 caddis emerger to the back of my size 4 huck hopper.   Now I had 2 floating flies to hang.  I concentrated hard to make sure to get a good cast and drift on the first try because I guessed I wouldn’t get a second chance.  I was right.  The biggest trout I have ever seen on the Upper Kern shot up, rolled like a steelhead does, grabbed the emerger and shot back in the pool.  I set hard pulling his head out of the water.  That really pissed him off.  He shook his head hard, shot back in the deep cut and “Snap!”.  I stood there in shocked silence.  It was my fault, of course.  To my credit I really didn’t have a choice because he wanted to go back under the branches where I would have lost him for sure.  I had to try to muscle him. The 5x tippet behind my huck hopper was probably weak or wind knotted from the prior 500 casts.  I’m still haunted by that fish.  And I will be for a long time.  I plan on going into the forks and trying to get him again before the season ends because we just won’t have a low water year like this one for a while.  For the rest of the day I fished 3x flouro tippet and it didn’t seem to matter.

#3: The mouse.  This isn’t really a highlight as much as it is interesting.  I have always wanted to throw mouse patterns at night on the Upper Kern.  Last season, of the readers on this site reported to me he absolutely killed on small mouse patterns at night.  I never get around to doing the nighttime mouse thing because size 18 anything always works as the sun goes down on the Upper Kern.  On this trip I remembered to look through my literally thousands of flies and found a pretty huge mouse pattern I had used on the Au Sable in Michigan a few years back.  Well, after John and I pounded the deep pool at sand camp as the sun went down I smiled and told him, “I’m going to throw a mouse.”  I’m a pretty good cast.  But, when you cast in the dark you get humbled.  So, I struggled a bit with the double haul worrying about the pine trees behind me.  But, I did get the big mouse out there around 20 times with nothing.  I just figured that pattern was too big.  But, then it happened.  In the process of stripping back line quickly from 60 feet down river I got hit hard.  I had him on for a few seconds.  Enough to tell john, “I’m on.”  But I lost him pretty quickly.  Battling a KR Rainbow against the current, completely downstream, barbless, is always a recipe for disaster.  But, I was pleased to lose that fish.  I think I’ll start researching smaller patterns based on foam and invent myself a “huck mouse”.   I’ll need beta testers.  Email me if you are interested in testing an unproven fly for me.

The Meadow at Kern Flats – this is the view looking at the river 1/2 mile away in a downriver direction walking back to sand camp.  the meadow is at least a mile long.

Summary

Many of my guide buddies and expert level fly fishers in Montana, even my son in Bozeman, say, “I can’t believe trout rise to that huge ugly huck hopper thing.”  Large Mouths love a big ass Huck Hopper.  But, in my experience, the Upper Kern is the only place where the trout consistently rise to a size 4 Huck Hopper. No matter what the size of the trout.  I most certainly get takes on them in other rivers around the world because I don’t fish the bobber anymore.  That size 4 huck hopper is my indicator when I nymph.  On this adventure at the Forks, I fished the size 4 huck hopper exclusively the entire time.  Huge battleships.  There were times when I “double dried”, typically with a size 12 huck hopper behind the huge one, but a few times when I saw caddis I put a caddis emerger on back.  And both those combos were deadly.  I was doing so well I was confident I was going to get a double hookup.  I did not.  My son Mark is the only person I know that has ever landed two fish at a time on the Upper Kern.   I tied and hiked in 8 size 4 Huck Hoppers and after 2 days of fishing they were all chewed up so badly none would float right anymore….and they still got struck.

Here are the undersides of the size 4 huck hoppers i used on the trip. check out how trout bitten they are.  it’s the bites on the heads that are shocking.  it takes a big kern river rainbow to completely swallow a 2″ size 4 huck hopper.

I measured the temperature of the river at 57 degrees in the morning…which is good for trout….not perfect at 54, but good.  By eod it was 72.  Not good for trout at all.  It’s melted snow draining the largest mountain in N. America so after 30 miles in the sun, with the big rocks also heating up the water in that hot sun the river just gets warm by end of day.  And I still consistently got rises in that warm water.  The good thing for me / you is that there is plenty of cooler water in the runs and deep pools where the cooler water is at the bottom.

So I killed on this trip.  I saw rises all day long for two straight days.  80+ takes, 40+ landed.  Many were huge.  Remember my mention of the full moon?  I should mention that the two days I fished were both excellent solunar days.  Which I’m skeptical of because I have disproven it so many times.  But, if you are curious you can read about the Solunar theory of fishing and hunting on my site here.

Forks of the Kern – San Diego Fly Fishers Club

July 15-19, 2020

I serve the board of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club.  For years, I have taken club members into the Forks.  If you read on this site you know how much I love the Forks.  I promised to do an “official” club trip with a larger group and I’m sure glad I did.  The “cat herding” of organizing and planning was well worth it.  We had so much fun.  9 tents in the huck site – a new record.  We set a lot of new “first times” and new records at “The Forks”.  I’ll elaborate some of them below.  What a great and diverse group!  From total beginner fly fishers to advanced experts.  I spent a lot of time guiding some of the beginners and absolutely had a blast doing it.

The weather was fantastic; never too hot.  We always seemed to have a breeze.  There were no mosquitos, but that is pretty common at the forks.  There is just not a lot of standing water near that raging river like there is on the eastern side of the sierras.  My guess is that is got to 80 degrees riverside.  But, the nights were cool; all the way in your 18 degree sleeping bag cool.  My guess was it got under 50 at night.  That is a big swing in temperature which is common at the Forks.

Steve Vissers in battle. Steve and I fished this run just 1/4 mile up river from the huck site for an hour and absolutely wrecked. lots of big fish.

We ate (and drank) well too.  I did not lose weight on this trip.  And I was doing 30K+ steps per day which included hiking, bushwhacking and fighting current.  I did the sous vide thing on a huge steak and lamb chops because there is a forest wide ban on campfires so I couldn’t grill them.  I hiked in a little butter and flashed them in my titanium frying pan under my jet boil.  It worked perfectly.  In terms of adult beverages here is what I noticed flowing: scotch, JD, bourbon, wines, beer….and port wine… now, that is a first.  And clearly not a sacrifice.  Since this is only a 4.36 mile hike to the huck site it offers the opportunity to carry a lot more weight going in and hike out that canyon much lighter.

Check out that giant steak i did by sous vide at home then flashed at huck camp

Everyone caught fish – The fishing was great.  Not a surprise because at those low flows the fishing is always great.  The 4 straight drought years a few years back provided some of the best fishing on the upper kern ever.  Some of the advanced fly fishers did really well.  Lots of big Kern River Rainbows well.  “Top 5 fly fishing trips ever” well.  At 240 CFS the river was crossable in many places safely including right at the huck site.  Like I have said on this site many times if you can fish the other side of the river you will put your flies in places where the fish just rarely see artificials.

Is that a Huck hopper stuck in that big fish’s face? why yes it is…

I’m a big believer in that 3 fly set up I detail in the Forks guidance document with the 3 titanium bead beldar stone pulling down a size 16 green caddis cripple.  I call it the Upper Kern river special.  It’s wildly effective.  I only fished that rig for 15 minutes, catching 2 kern river rainbows quickly.  I didn’t need to nymph.  I fished 98% of the time with dries.  Mostly Huck Hoppers.  Most of the time I fished a double dry with a battleship size 4 huck hopper above, trailed 18” behind by a size 12 huck hopper.  Color did not seem to matter.  I fished tan, brown, grey, black and green and they all got struck.  But, I wish I had those huck hoppers size 4 in yellow with me.  I did not.  there were yellow naturals on the banks and trails… all huge like 2s, 4s, 6s.… with a yellow body and black streaks and yellow wings.  A lot of them.  My guess is that the yellow huck hopper would have done well.  The reason I stopped nymphing when it was so effective?  A large kern river rainbow struck that big huck hopper with the beldar stone and the green caddis cripple below.  I set hard.  There were a lot of jumps and a battle.  I tried to release the tired fish quickly.  It was easy to remove the big huck hopper from it’s face.  But the 3+ feet of flouro and two nymphs were wrapped around the trout; not good.  I snipped the tippet in multiple places quickly so I could release that fish unharmed.  When it swam away I said to myself, “why redo that nymph rig all up again with its 5 separate knots when they are just going to rise for a battleship sized huck hopper.”  I never nymphed again on the trip.  There was no need to.  I saw consistent rises to huck hoppers all trip long even when the river warmed.

I have started tying a lot more size 12 black huck hoppers. they imitate so many naturals including queen flying ants

The flow was at 240CFS, which is drought-like flow.  And really bizarre for July to be so low on an average snowpack year.  It has to do with the amount, frequency and temperature that the snow falls and freezes.  I measured the river temp at the huck site in the morning at 58 degrees.  That is in the range that trout dig.  It is melted snow from Mt. Whitney, afterall.  But, after 35 miles in direct sunlight and air temps over 80, the river rose to 72 degrees by eod.  Typically, trout hate that warm water.  But, we all were getting rises in that water temp and catching fish.  Which means they were hunkered down at the bottom in the cooler channels and pockets and shot to the top to feed.  Don’t get me wrong.  There definitely was a lull in action from 11:30AM to 3:30PM.  But, I cannot explain why the fishing picked up in the later afternoon with those warm water temps.

Bruce Bechard fishing the tail-out at the huck site

As mentioned, we had a number of new firsts on this trip:

  • The way it shook out ½ of the group hiked in on Wednesday morning with me scouting and securing a site. and the other ½ hiked in Thursday. My plan from the beginning was to hike in a day early, securing a spot big enough for the group.  Then hike all the way back out and lead the group in the next day.  But, a bunch of these folks wanted to just hike in with me a day early.  Hiking back out provided an opportunity.  My buddy jeff kimura joined me in hiking back out with an empty backpack.  I filled mine with a 20 can box of coors and a few more random beers and some fresh food and jeff put a huge watermelon in his pack.  Both firsts.  I have to be the first 58 year old to hike a case of beer 4.36 miles up from the confluence on the forks trail.  And there is no way a full watermelon has made it that far up river.

Eric Miller, Angelina and Jeff Kimura eating watermelon at the Huck Site

  • I just realized this was the first 4-nighter I have ever done in the forks. Between the demand of work and family I just have never had the time to do anything longer than 3 nights.  It’s been mostly 2 nighters.  And honestly by the 5th day I was having so much fun, I wanted to stay a few more days.  A lot had to do with the fun group and a lot had to do with the awesome fishing and a lot had to do with not facing the reality of 5 days of going dark from work.  I do have to figure out how to do a 7-day trip to the forks.  I just have not been as far up that river as I would love to.
  • The rope swing at the huck site – I get emails all the time about how fun it is for kids. But, I had no idea how many “adults” could enjoy that thing.  With that late afternoon rise in water temp, a few found a 20 foot swing and 10 foot plunge into the deep pool in front of the huck site a welcome relief and a lot of fun.  Me?  I hiked in a pair of swimming goggles and swam / floated the run in the huck site chasing / spotting fish.  I knew that pool was deep.  I didn’t realize how deep.  It was eerie how deep that pool is.  The bottom was just beyond site even with goggles.  Even in that low flow it was deeper than 20 feet.  And the water was cold below 5 feet deep.

Angelina with Eric looking on at a graceful entrance to the big pool at the Huck Site.

Eric Miller executing on his now infamous 1/2 back flip of the rope swing

Bruce Bechard, grandfather, pretending like he is 14.

The cache is now overwhelmed with great “stuff”.  I’m going to have to start thinking about a more permanent container to survive the winter.  We have 3 saws of all sizes with extra blades, nippers for cutting back those pesky willows.  Cooking stuff.  A tent. Wading shoes. Etc.  But, thanks to Jeff Kimura the cache now has a quality camp table.  Too big for a backpack he hiked it all the way down the mountain holding it.  No more leaning over awkwardly, with back pain, to cook at the huck site.  If you want to use the cache and/or contribute to it download the “Guidance and Directions to the Forks of the Kern” doc.  Yes, I do realize it will be vandalized again by broadcasting it’s existence this.  Like it has been vandalized a few times going back in history.  It is still worth it to me to share.  If vandalized, I’ll just move it farther up the mountain and simply build it up again.

Animals and Calamities

If you have read on this site before I always say, “There are always calamities in backpacking.  You just hope they are little ones and you can overcome them.”  Short of the cuts, bruises and lots of muscle soreness our calamity ratio was pretty low.  I counted 3 broken rods, but we had plenty of spares.  I’m pretty confident everyone fell. It’s just part of the “tax” when fishing that river at such low flows.  I fell at least 3 times.  All 3 were “refreshing” without pain.  in that low flow the silt accumulates on the polished granite and it can be like stepping on ice.

The animals seen down at the forks included coyotes, deer, water snakes, rattle snakes, California king snakes and the normal smaller mammals.  No bears.  At that temp they are way up in altitude.  I’m sure mountain lions saw us, but we didn’t see them.  We had middle of the night visitors even though we hung our food.  They can’t help sorting through the trash bags.  I should have hung them.  But, something happened in the middle of the night that will be a mystery forever.  We put all the cold storage food and the booze and beer in mesh bags in the river.  They are secured to the bank.  On the first morning one of the mesh bags was pulled out of the river and the bottom was surgically opened as if with sharp teeth or claws.  Only the fats were consumed, like butter, which is typical of a predator…typical of a bear.  But, I find it hard to believe that a bear wandered into camp in the middle of the night with 9 tents scattered around and no one noticing.  A racoon?  It would have to be a strong smart one… or one willing to get in the water.  I have never seen a racoon at the forks.  A river otter?  So rare.  Maybe.  I have no idea if they eat anything but fish.

I did have a terrifying moment.  If you fish places like this, you are going to have incidents like this.  Because of the low flow I was getting into a position on an awesome run that is absolutely impossible to fish except in low flow.  I slowly worked myself into position.  I looked toward the bank and was staring face level at a rattlesnake coiled, eye to eye at 3 feet away… definitely within its striking distance.  Its rattle was not going off, but it was tucked back into a crevice in the rocks so it might have been if free.  In fact, it probably would have been.  Well, I jumped away from it, straight into the river and said, “that’s it. not fishing here.”

this beautiful stretch is where i came face to face with the rattlesnake

My favorite moments of the trip:

….were not from my own fishing….although I did catch a bunch of quality Kern River rainbows and one Little Kern Gold-bow.  They were all from fishing with beginners:

  • Delia Cooley – this gal loves to fly fish! It didn’t take me 30 seconds to figure out her husband John was a stick.  He has a beautiful cast.  So, it was super fun to take the “husband guiding the wife” thing off his hands for a few stretches.  It was clear Delia had been taught how to overhand cast.  But, still a beginner. It was her willingness and eagerness to take instruction that was so fun for me.  It got us quickly to roll casting…. A must on the upper kern for success.  Then we moved to multi-current drifts with both upstream and downstream mends, where fish are located, inside and outside seams, downstream setting skills…shoot, we even made it to a really advanced skill: letting a drift swing to the bank and tighten to tension 40+ feet downstream.  Then doing a tension / inertia cast 40+ feet straight back upstream.  Getting 30 foot drift coming straight at you with line control.  Then as the fly gets within 10 feet, roll casting it on a 45 degree down to the run in front of her to drift it out 30 feet and do it again.

I just love this picture John took of me and Delia

  • Jay Gross – I think this might have been one of Jay’s first fly fishing trips. A true beginner.  I had 2 favorite moments with Jay.  first was that witching hour at the end of the day where you can barely see and typically you can throw a size 18 anything.  Well, I complicated things for him by adding a size 20 midge emerger 18 inches down from his top fly.  The take was like a rocket.  I screamed, “Go!”  and he set hard.  He got into a short battle with a 12”- 14” kern river rainbow.  ….Size 20 barbless hook.  Well it shook him after about 10 seconds of battle, but he fooled him and fought him so I call that a catch.  I was most certainly excited screaming, “Wooo!”  Earlier in the day a similar thing went down.  This time in broad daylight in a clear river I watched it like was in slow motion.  A similar size fish shot up from below, grabbed his huck hopper and took it down.  It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet in front of us.  I screamed “Go!”.   that fish took the hopper to the bottom in clear view before head shaking it out of its mouth.  Jay didn’t “go”.  I said, “Why didn’t you set?”  he said, “I didn’t see it.”  I laughed and he laughed saying, “I don’t see very well.”
  • Jeff kimura – Jeff was a beginner last year. He is no longer a beginner. It is of pure coincidence that we met in person.  Because he lives right down the street from me.  Now he has the fly-fishing bug so badly I feel like I have to apologize to his wife, Diane.  Because I know from experience that his “bug” won’t be cured and is just going to cost more and more money.  Jeff caught a big one.  It was every bit of 15” and bordering on 16”.  And it was a football.  And it’s tail was a fan.  That in itself is special for a Kern River Rainbow.  But, the best thing is that he caught it in kern flats.  I don’t think I have ever caught a big fish in Kern flats.  It’s popular, easy to cast, and sees a lot of pressure.  It went down like this: We were leap frogging each other as we plowed up stream to Kern Flats.  I was upriver from Jeff when I heard the shout.  I looked down river and his rod was bent sideways.  The fish was downstream from Jeff and running downstream hot.  I thought he was doomed.  It’s so hard to get a big wild native fish back up river.  You have to chase them. We never got to any detailed fish fighting skills.  Of course, I was so excited for Jeff I threw my rod on the bank and was running to him yelling “Go with him Jeff!  Run downstream with him!”  After I caught up to Jeff he had a lot of line out and the line was still in his hand.  It could have been in the backing.  I was screaming, “rod tip high!”  “Get him on the reel!”.  After I said, “Jeff, get him on the reel.” For the 2nd time Jeff said, “I can’t.  my drag was set too light.  He came close to spooling me when he ran and bird-nested my reel.”  I laughed.  Jeff fought that fish like a pro holding the fly line.  I know an old guide trick about landing fish.  We didn’t have a net.  I ran downstream from the fish, working my way back splashing and scared the fish back up stream to jeff.  When jeff got him close and tired I said, ok swing him in and beach him.  I think I shocked Jeff when I said that, but the fish was still hot and not only did I want a good look at that fish I knew jeff would too.  I knew we could do it without hurting the fish. Jeff swung him perfectly on momentum not pulling too hard into polished granite in about 2 inches of water.  I pulled that huge hopper out of its face, placed the fish in Jeff’s hands and he released him after making sure he got enough breaths to take off.