July 31st to Aug 2nd, 2020
CFS: 175 down to 165
Water temp: 57 – 72
Air temp: low 50s to mid 80s
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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/ firstname.lastname@example.org 559-359-3676
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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.
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.
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.