Tag Archives: Huck Hopper

Forks of the Kern – Springtime Hopper Fishing – Couples Trip

June 4-7, 2020 (Spring Guidance for the Forks)

Hear me huffin’ and puffin’?  i’m going as fast as i can towards the Huck site to see if it’s open

I have been backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail for over a decade….closer to 15 years…could be 20.  Yet in all that time I had never been able to go in June.  The only time I ever got to go to the Forks in the Spring was in a bad drought year…at the end of April…and it was one of, if not the most epic fly fishing experiences I had ever had at the Forks.  I mean the chance to throw flies at big wild native kern river rainbows that had not seen food, let alone artificials in over 4 months?!   There are a variety reasons I never was able to go in Spring:

  • Big Winters; lots of snow blocking the roads in
  • The River is normally too blown out big and dangerous to fish in June
  • Waiting for the road to open. Western Divide has to clear many roads, not just NF-2282 to the forks, of the trees, rocks and debris that fall on the road during the winter.  Western Divide Ranger District is just plain underfunded and it’s a true shame.  NF-2282 is a rarely travelled 23 mile long dead end into the wilderness at altitude.  Not only do people do stupid things in winter, but the pine beetle problem is so bad that trees die and fall on the road blocking it.  Even on this trip a tree fell across the road while we were in the forks and we had to run over the decomposing top of it to get out.
  • Work: June is conference season and I’m a conference speaker.

Look at that sky above the Upper Kern River. It’s like Montana

But this June is different.  We had an average snowpack year, but the Kern is acting like it’s in a drought year.  850 CFS in the beginning of June is so rare.  At the time of this writing, just 3 days later, the flow is at 520 CFS and well below the pace of the last big drought year of 2018.  So, when I got a note from my friend at Western Divide that they opened the road I executed quickly.  It did not matter that there is a forest wide restriction on camp fires.  We could live without a camp fire on this trip. The chance to get in there so early in the year was a treat.

My love of the Forks is well known.  And in our neighborhood in Carlsbad they have been hearing it for years.  My wife kelly won’t go unless a girlfriend goes with her.  I totally get that because I like to fish 24/7 and she does not.  Backpacking can be rugged and physical.  I have told many in the ‘hood: “if you give it a chance I know you will love it.  It’s only 4.36 miles”.  But, I have to admit it’s only for a small portion of people.  Backpackng can be brutal…especially in the mountains.  You have to be fit.  So, two other couples, dear friends, joined us on this one.  That is a first for me.  I never dreamed I’d get to share that experience in a couples scenario….especially us upper middle aged couples who have been married for decades.  Typically, when I go to the forks I fish all daylight hours alone covering many miles of river with 1000s of casts.  With 3 couples, 5 of which are beginner fly fishers it would be totally different and I looked forward to that.

The Group Left to Right: Kelly, Chris, Conni, Meredith, Lance, Me

The Group

Meredith is a “seasoned veteran” of the forks joining my wife kelly and me twice.  There is a saying we made up last summer on the JMT: “Mere would go.”  And that is because she is tough and loves the wilderness.  Last summer in a totally stomach flu like sick state, the poor thing climbed half dome and hiked 15 miles with us into the Yosemite valley and didn’t complain a bit.  It’s her husband Lance that has been a challenge for us to convince to go.  “why would you guys spend all that money on backpacking gear when we can just fly to Fiji?”  it’s a legitimate argument.  But, now he’s a fan and I’m sure he’ll go again.  Kelly and Mere coined the backpacking saying, “More booze; less food.”  I like that.  Conni and Chris Nardo joined us.  They did the Sierra Club Wilderness Basic backpacking Course until covid-19 ruined it.  One of those trips was to the desert where they had to carry like 3 gallons of water.  Talk about miserable.  Conni wasn’t too hot on backpacking after that, but she is a trooper and was game for this trip.  Now I know she’s excited for the next one.  and her husband Chris?  Who hikes 10 high end beers into the forks to share because of his own love of beer?  Talk about a value add!  Talk about going in heavy and lighter on the way back up the hill!

Lance with a nice Kern River Rainbow

The Fishing

Usually I rate the fishing experience for a trip in a simple poor to awesome range.  With average, good, excellent, in between.  On this trip I didn’t fish that much; maybe 25% as much as I normally do.  And that was fine.  In fact it worked out great!  Normally I leave in the morning with a rod and spend the entire day in the water fly fishing while I work miles and miles of river.  I did do a ton of simple little 10 minute sessions right at camp while everyone did other things like relaxing and did pretty well.  I swear there are hundreds of fish in that head, the pool and the tail-out at the huck site.  One day…in august when the water temps are bearable, I’m going to bring a snorkeling mask to verify it.

So, how do you rate the fishing on a trip where:

  • you only catch around 10 trout a day….you don’t catch your normal 40 fish a day…but, only because you’re guiding more than fishing
  • You lose more fish to LDRs and missed sets than you land
  • You don’t successfully land a big one
  • The water is just big enough to be a challenge to casting
  • All 5 beginners get takes on top; the majority of them even land a few
  • My buddy Lance, not without experience, but certainly not in highly skilled and knowledgeable range, casts into whitewater and has his Huck Hopper assaulted by a large trout that set on it self. He landed it.  I’d say very close to 20”.  Size 12 huck hopper in the whitewater….who knew?

When you sum all that up I’d call that good fishing.

Conni battling a Kern River Rainbow

I can tell you this: I fished dries the entire time I was there.  I mostly fished Huck Hoppers.  I couldn’t tell which did better: the little size 12 ones or the gargantuan size 4s.  And I consistently got rises except for in the mornings when it was super cold water.   Frequently I fished a double huck hopper, big one in front and little one in back and the takes seemed to be 50-50 on each.  Also, except for a short stretch on the first day, I had all the beginners fish huck hoppers.  Dries are just easer to cast and more fun to fish.

This trip was fun because I got to guide beginners.  I love guiding beginners.  I promised all of them: “You will get a take; You will fool a fish.  Battling them all the way to landing them is a totally different story.”  And that was certainly true on this trip.

Yea, that is a big ass huck hopper hanging out if his face…

The Food

Normally I wouldn’t write about food on a backpacking trip short of the picture of the big steak on the first night….which we didn’t get to enjoy because of the state wide restrictions on camp fires in the forest.  But, I invested in a dehydrator.  I will never eat expensive crappy freeze-dried backpacking food again.  Even my wife Kelly said a lot of the food I dehydrated was pretty good.  And she is very discriminating.  It wasn’t perfect.  I absolutely ruined chopped chicken breasts that I dehydrated for an asian noodle dish, making them so tough they were inedible.  Mere also bought a dehydrator and made a vegetarian meal that was pretty darn good.  I’m tempted to blog what I’m learning about dehydrating…but, there is already so much good guidance on the interweb on how to dehydrate food for backpacking I just don’t see me lending much more expertise than is already out there.  Good food just makes the effort and suffering of backpacking so much more palatable (pun intended).

That’s Conni’s hand after cleaning it up… ouch

The Calamities

How many times have I written on this site, “There is always a calamity while backpacking.  You have to adapt and overcome.”  Well, this trip was not short of calamity.  Lets’ start with my f-ups.  Firstly, we left Thursday morning and I took a number of conference calls for work.  Our plan was to meet in Kernville, gas up and eat something before driving the last hour up the mountain to the trailhead.  I plugged the forks trailhead into my GPS and didn’t even think of how it routed me.  Since I was concentrating and talking on my phone I didn’t notice it routed me the Porterville way from the east completely missing Kernville before it was too late.  I had to detour south across the mountains on roads I had never been on and my wife was not pleased.  I was out of service, and I had 4 people waiting in Kernville on me and I f’d up.  We drove in 3 cars to be respectful and cautious to the social distancing rule.  That cost everyone 45 minutes and it was completely my fault.  Those minutes late translated into degrees on a hot day.  Totally my fault.

Once at the trailhead, because it was hot, the plan was for us to hike as a group to the bottom and do the little kern crossing together.  Then I’d take off with pace and race to the huck site to see if it was open.  The Huck site is really the last site before the brutal stretch up and over the mountain, which adds 2 gory miles.  And I didn’t want to put the group through that or put them through doubling back.  Conni had an InReach mini and I had my InReach 66i so we could communicate by texting (inReach to Inreach txting is free).  Well, the Huck site was open.  I dropped my pack, quickly put my cold food and booze into a mesh bag with a rock at the bottom and secured it to a tree.  Then I filled up my katadyn with cold river water and took off going to other way trying to track the group down hoping to help…. Even if it was simply by encouragement.   Well, one of Conni update txts to me was “On our way, a little slow, sorry.”  I didn’t think anything of it at the time.  But, it seemed like I hiked a full mile backwards before I ran into Kelly, Mere and Lance.  I offered to take Kelly’s bag.  The 3 of them said, “No. go help Conni; she took a fall.”   It was about 10 minutes later when I ran into a dehydrated Chris and Conni.  Neither complaining but I could tell they were ready for the hike to be done.  I took Conni’s pack from her and put it on…shocked I said, “this weighs more than mine! This has to be over 50 pounds!”  Conni is about 5’2” and a biscuit over 100 lbs.  She took a fall and her hand was cut up and bleeding pretty good.  Nardo was carrying ~10 lbs of beer so I could only imagine how he was doing.  Conni took the water I refilled at the site and we hiked the rest of the way together.  I tried to talk upbeat the entire time so they wouldn’t focus on the misery.  We made it.

Lance and Kelly

At the site we all were setting up camp when Lance said to me, “hey, where do I put my cold food and booze in the river?”  I told him about my mesh bag and pointed at it.  he walked down to the river and said he couldn’t find it.  I thought to myself, “dumb ass how can you miss it?”  well he did eventually find it.  but, it was empty and barely visible because of that.  In my haste I didn’t realize I put the food into a little eddy in the water so that the current wouldn’t hold it downstream.  Normally not an issue, but I seemingly didn’t singe down the string on the top sealing the bag.  Even though I had a rock in there to ballast it, it didn’t sink.  It must have floated backwards in the eddy and all my food and liter of high end rum simply worked it’s way out of the mesh bag and floated away.  I’ve documented some classic f-ups backpacking but that one is at the top of the list.  The food bag was super buoyant, so it hung up just 100 feet down river.   Thank god.  But, my booze probably floated all the way to the Fairview dam to a lucky bait fisherman.

When I got to Conni there was a lot of blood on her hand.  I couldn’t tell because of the amount of scratches if it was a stitches thing.  Once she cleaned up at the site, it was obvious it was not – just a lot of cuts from sliding down the mountain on rock.  This is why I carry a garmin inReach.  Had she broken a leg, cracked her head open, we would have needed help.

I love this picture of Nardo that Conni took.  That is the big pool in front of the Huck Site.  He’s either looking for rises or contemplating life.

Weather

Another first: rain.  In the ~20 years of going to the Forks I had never experienced rain.  Not even a drizzle.  It’s an arid place; in the southern sierras; and it’s only 4000/5000 feet.  So, it doesn’t get those afternoon summer thunderstorms so typical in high elevations of the Sierras.  I told our entire group, who had been staring at the weather forecasts and the 30% chance of rain, “There is no way in hell it’s going to rain there.”.  It did. Not for a huge amount of time.  But long enough and heavy enough for us to put on jackets and hide under the trees for an hour.

On this trip we saw hot sun with clear skies, overcast, patchy clouds, wind, rain, and bitter cold.  That must be a spring thing for the area.

typical of our day hikes: hanging out, relaxing, eating lunch while i pound the water with dries.

The Cache

Since this was the first time in for the year I was really curious to see how the cache survived the winter in it’s new location.  For years I have built an accumulation of “stuff” that stays down at the Huck Site.  It has a tent, a tarp, extra fuel, tools, dishes and silverware, two sets of wading boots and water shoes, etc.  Anyone that downloads the Huck Guidance to the Forks from the site and pays the $5 which I donate to Cal Trout is more than welcome to use the cache.  Many of you have added to the cache over the years.  The cache has also been pillaged a few times; which is why I moved it last November.

Here’s the gang right before rattlesnake creek ready to charge over the mountain and look for soft water

3-Nighter

After the hike in on Thursday afternoon we all set up camp.  I can’t sit still so I rigged up and immediately caught 2-3 fish right in front of the site.  We did the happy hour ritual, ate and went down early.  Honestly when that sun goes down it gets cold and it’s illegal to have a fire.  Hitting the tent is really the only alternative.

On Day 2, Friday I got up early, way before everyone else…like at 530am…  so I snuck a 30 minute fly fishing session at a run that always produces down stream.  I must have got 25 takes.  I landed a few including some nice ones.

A well populated Huck Camp

During the huge breakfast we all made I suggested we day hike up stream.  That meant packing food, rods, etc.  It wasn’t but ¼ mile that I passed a great view spot above the river and a rapid.  I heard the rattle faintly, but the river was so loud I kept walking.  It was that big red diamond back rattlesnake me and so many people had seen in the very same place before.  Chris was behind me and missed it too!  It was Connie that heard it, calling it out.  Nardo and I walked right by it and didn’t notice even though it was rattling.  It survived another winter and it is huge now (which means it’s much safer than a young snake).  Since everyone else was backed up on the trail behind it I tried to shoe it away with my rod towards the river so they could pass.  That didn’t work.  it turned at me, crossed the trail in front of me in front and chris in back.  It took a defensive position in the rocks, ready to strike, with it’s tail going off.  There was no choice for Chris and the others.  You cannot walk within striking distance in front of a pissed of rattlesnake.  So, I routed them up the mountain and around.  Honestly it was a treacherous giant granite face of rock.  Welcome to the wilderness I thought to myself. I sure was proud those guys just scaled right up the side of the granite and over.

Just another nice rainbow with a Huck Hopper hanging out of his face

We continued the trek towards the entrance of rattlesnake creek; one of the more beautiful views in the area and an awesome place to fish… but, literally impossible until under 300 CFS.  I pointed out to Chris, “There is great fishing from here for a full ½ mile up the river.  This is where I cross when the river is low enough to cross safely.”  He looked at the rapids and said, “You have to be kidding.”  “Yea”, I said, “It’s not close to being crossable right now.”  I think that is one of the most alluring things about the Upper Kern.  It is such a different river depending on flow.  The Kern drains Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet.  There are not many rivers in the world left that go from 200 CFS to 20,000 CFS and back.  The few have mostly been ruined by dams.

I knew that once over the mountain there is a great stretch of water with one run being one of the most outstanding runs within the first 6 miles above the confluence.  When we arrived, Lance holed up there.  I told the rest of the gang to spread out every 50 feet up river and start fishing, knowing I’d get to them soon.  The trick with that run is you have to cast straight up stream at it with the fly coming back at you quickly.  Lance started getting strikes like crazy.  His line control was good, definitely experienced with a fast drift.  So I left him there and attended to setting up the others.  I think everyone got takes in that stretch.  I believe lance landed a few small ones too.  We ate lunch and hung out before the 3 mile hike back to the Huck Site.  To enjoy cocktails and appetizers (while Lance and I snuck in some 10 minute sessions right at the site) before dinner.

That’s Kelly in front. But, check out 4 of them lined up in a productive run above huck camp

On Day 3, Saturday I got up early again.  Once the sun comes and the birds start going off around 530am I just can’t sleep any longer.  Plus, when you are asleep by 9pm there is only so much I can sleep.  So, I snuck an early morning 30 minute fly fishing session again.  This time I didn’t do as well.  Just a couple or 3 takes.  From the rain the day before I did notice the river was up a few inches.  It was also much colder.  I should have measured the river temp; I had a river thermometer with me. My guess was that the river temp was a lot colder and that put the fish down.  Of course, when you are fishing dries at 6am can you really expect success?  Well…on the Upper Kern sometimes you can.  It was the simple fact, though, that on this day the rises got better and better as the day went on; as the river warmed up.

This day’s plan was to hike downriver; exploring the myriad of fishing opportunities we simply hiked by on the way in.  Also, as I told the group, there were numerous places down river where we’d fish from rocks above heads, big pools and tail-outs; places where you did not need to step into the water.   Over the years I have caught some huge rainbows in those big pools.

i don’t know what the hell this means. Yoga or something like that.

It was on one of these giant pieces of granite that Lance hooked 2 big Kern River rainbows.  Here’s how it went down.  I was rigging Mere’s rod, back turned, when Lance shouted he was on.  This big fish jumped 3 feet high out of the rapids and raced downstream.  You can imagine what I said to myself.  Something like, “there is no way he is going to be able to wrestle that monster back up stream without it popping off or breaking off.”  Then I remembered the 3x.  “Ok, Lance, see if you can wrestle him tight to the bank.”  Which is a steep granite face that slightly eddies.  And he did.  It was a pretty skilled maneuver.  He pulled the fish back enough to where the raging rapids started again.  I told him, “see if you can keep his head out of the water as you stay tight on him”.  I rarely use a net anymore.  Only when guiding.  So, damnit I should have brought a backpacking net on this trip.  I scrambled like a goat down the rock face, grabbed the leader and pulled the fish to my feet.  And damnit the thing popped off right there.  I told Lance in my, and most fly fishermen’s book that is a catch.  We don’t want to touch them anyways.   But, I was a little bummed I lost that fish trying to land him so that Lance didn’t get a picture.  Lance was a good sport about it.  So, I went back to Mere’s rig, back turned again.  Lance casted back into the raging current without even drying the fly off and son of a bitch he hooked up on another huge rainbow.  This time he tightened hard and kept him up stream.  I can’t remember what I was screaming at him I was so excited.  I told him to pull him to the bank, which is calm water.  And this time after grabbing the leader I did land him.  Lance nailed him right in that really tough cartilage part of the jaw so it was not about to pop off.  I put the fish in his hands and we got the trophy pic and the video.  I was so stoked!  I’m not so sure Lance realizes how special that was.  Not only did he catch a fish that only lives in a tiny part of the world, but he caught a big version of it.  at the time I thought is was north of twenty.   In staring at the video I’d say 18”-19” male Kern River Rainbow.  Huge fanned tail.

Me, Nardo and Lance: Suffering in the rain….while drinking bourbon

We worked our way almost all the way to the confluence of the Little Kern.  There is a great long run there where everyone could set up 50 apart.  We got random takes and caught random rainbows here and there.  We hung out and ate lunch.  It was a great day and the hike back the couple miles seemed pretty easy for everyone.  I ran into the young fly fishermen I gave huck hoppers to on the previous day and we chatted a bit while the rest of the group continued on the camp.  Once I got going again I knew the big 360 degree eddy was coming up.  9 times out of 10 from above you can see a group of fish in their feeding….some of them huge.  I couldn’t resist.  I stopped and made the miraculous, 40 feet cast, under the tree to the 2 square foot patch of soft water at the head.  Shocked, I think I even said out loud to myself, “perfect.”  I got the 1 second drift I needed and got struck.  I tightened as best I could (5x).  But the slack in the line pulling back at me with the 9 foot leader meant I didn’t get tight in time.  I missed him.  Darn.  Another LDR.  I laughed.  But, there is no fooling that fish 2 times a day.  So, I didn’t get struck again after 10 casts so I wandered back to camp to join happy hour.

I did stop at the “big Eddy” where it takes a god-like cast hoping for a 2 second drift, and did manage to hook a monster… but, LDR’d him.  Darn.  I laughed.

Here’s the gang before we headed out from Huck Camp

Day 4, Sunday – We decided the day before that we’d break up the hike out into 2 sections.  Firstly, we’d hike the 2.35 miles back to the Little Kern River, then cross it.  We broke camp before 9am and it was a not so hot day with a cool breeze so it was an easy and quick hike.  But, instead of marching right up that 1100 feet in two miles I led the group 1/3 mile downriver to the confluence of the main fork of the Kern River and the Little Kern River for a little sightseeing and rest before tackling the mountain.  It’s a beautiful place, on a plateau at where a primitive campsite (and the actual launch where the rafters and kayakers take off) overlooks the confluence.  It’s somewhat tricky to figure out how to find to because you have to backtrack.  It’s a plan that worked perfectly.  We ate a bit and honestly I was dying to fish because there are two really good runs right there.  But, we weren’t going to spend a lot of time there so I didn’t break out a rod.  Not a problem.

Clearly Conni knows her way around a camera. This is just another great shot she took as we approached rattlesnake canyon / creek

The plan was that I’d charge up the mountain as fast as I could, empty my pack and double back down the mountain to meet up with anyone … to take the load off anyone who was struggling.  I have done that many many times before and I really don’t mind.  I actually like it because it ends up being such a great workout.  Well, I started the ascent with Lance and Chris behind me.  I focused on going slow because that first part is so steep and can ruin you if you take off too fast.  But, I could already feel the pain / lack of power in my legs.  My cardio was great.  I had worked hard getting into shape.  But, I just didn’t have the leg power and there was pain from simply being so physical for 3 straight days.  My legs needed a recovery day.  “Hmmm, I said to myself.  Maybe I am getting old.  This could be miserable.”  Both Lance and Chris were in good shape so they were right on my tail.  There were times I thought about insisting they pass me.  In my history at the Forks there is only one time where it took me longer than an hour to hike out.  When I was young it took me under 40 minutes to hike out.  But, one time in my early 50s I was overweight and out of shape and I paid for it.  So, I was watching my Garmin Forerunner closely.  I knew I was cutting it close.  The halfway point is now vandalized “Welcome to the Golden Trout Wilderness” sign.  When I passed it I was over 30 mins so I knew I was slow.  With a quarter mile left I told Lance, “We have to see if we can make it under an hour so I’m going to pick it up.”  We did.  We made it in under an hour….barely.  At the truck I quickly unloaded.  I didn’t even take on water.  I couldn’t have spent more than 5-10 minutes when I took off with an empty pack back down the mountain.  And to my shock within 200 yards there were the 3 gals.  Wow.  So strong.  That is definitely the fastest that Kelly has made it up that mountain.

We hit the Kern River Brewery on the way home; the first weekend they had been open since the pandemic started.  I earned that cheeseburger.

I pounded the water at the Huck Site pretty hard. And was rewarded numerous times.

Summary

I fished the entire trip on dries.  And for the most part I put the entire group totally on huck hoppers.  I cannot remember a trip to the Forks where I didn’t nymph.  That beldar Stone fly nymph I tie in for the “Upper Kern River Special” is so wildly effective there (although difficult to cast) because not only is it a good match for the naturals making the big rainbows love it, but, with the 3 titanium beads in it, it gets down to the zone quickly and stays there.  But, I never even threw one on this trip.  Even in that fast water where it would have made sense.  Even for the beginners.  When you love fly fishing and are getting takes on top there really is no reason to nymph.  You will not catch as many fish as nymphing, but, the takes are so much more fun.  And in spring at the Forks, Dries are seemingly the plan and the fun of it.

Conni took this picture of huck-truck on the way to the Forks Turnoff.  i take the beauty of the drive in for granted.  The faces granite are pretty awesome.  I’m always so excited to get to fishing that i race to the trailhead.

 

 

Upper Kern River – Johnsondale Bridge Trail

April 3-5, 2020

A big Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 grey Huck Hopper Hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, the COVID-19 work at home thing is killing me.  let’s just say in addition to the stir crazy I was stepping all over my wife’s (of 31 years) toes.   I travel a lot in my job and have for over 20 years.  So, because i have been home full time for weeks, my lovely bride of 31 years is ready to kill me.  My wife is not used to me in her castle.

As for the stir crazy…. well, it boiled over last week for me.  Being home 24/7 for a guy that constantly travels in his job and loves talking in person to engineers… I couldn’t take it anymore.

So, I backpacked the johnsondale bridge (JBD) trail and camped for 2 nights on the upper kern.  I called the Western Divide Ranger district before going and short of verifying my 2020 CA fire permit and the social distancing advice I got, they were totally supportive.  The JDB trailhead is about 20 miles downriver of the forks trail crossing of the little Kern River above the confluence of the Little Kern River and the main fork of the Kern.   The JDB trail has a lot easier to access on right on mountain road 99 just 15 miles north of kernville.  I really wasn’t worried about social distancing on that trail.  And I was right.  I hardly saw any humans for 3 straight days.

The contrast in the JDB trail and the Forks trail is significant: The JDB trail is pretty flat with very little elevation gain or loss.  but, unlike the Forks trail which is mostly dirt, the JDB trail is a lot rockier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best thing about this trip, though, was meeting up with a couple young fly fisherman who found me through this site.   These two, Jason Headley and Joey Castellanos are over 20 years younger than I am.  And because of meeting them I am no longer convinced the generation below me is doomed and going to destroy the world because of their lack of interest and experience and knowledge of the wilderness.   Because of these two, I have hope for humanity after I’m long gone.   I’m used to teaching kids about the wilderness.  These guys taught me things!   Do you know how to identify a Jeffries Pine and that it smells like vanilla?  I do now thanks to them… and now I am motivated and have already started learning about the native pine trees of the sierra Nevada mountain range of California.  These guys joy of wilderness, and their joy of the fly-fishing experience and their positive attitudes was intoxicating.  It made me rethink the way I have taken some of the fly-fishing experience for granted.

One of the great things about the Upper Kern River is that the crystal clear water sometimes allows you to spot fish.

We txt’d on my way up so I knew they had a couple hours of start on me.  For some reason, I was skeptical I’d actually run into them while hiking.  The trail is rugged, wild and gets away from the river in spots.  But without seeing a single soul I ran into them in a primitive site right off the trail just 2.5 miles upriver.

Another Big Kern River Rainbow with a size 12 Huck Hopper hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I initiated the discussion about the virus immediately.  I’m a traveler and have been in airplanes just ~4 weeks ago.  So, with social distancing in mind we agreed to camp next to each other, but, 150 feet apart.  Clearly you cannot get close fly fishing together.  On the trail we kept the proper distance and even at the campfire we were separated appropriately.  We did the cleanse hands thing with any food we shared.

Interestingly enough, I had only backpacked and camped on the JDB trail once before.  A few years back.  It was the first time I ever backpacked alone.  And this was the exact same primitive spot.  I knew the run in front of it was a great spot to fish.  But, I didn’t want to get any expectations up with Jason and Joey because I wasn’t so sure the river would fish well so early in the season.  So, we started to set up camp, geared up and commenced to fish right in front of the site.  I hooked up on a dry fly on my 2nd cast….hmmm…  we continued to hammer the stretch of river right in front of the site and we all did well.  Hmmmm….

Joey And Jason- lifelong buddies and fly fishermen:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We leap frogged each other for the rest of the day.  I tend to move quickly….to my discredit… I’ll do about a max of 20 drifts and move.  So I got way ahead of Jason and Joey at times.  Not a problem.  I just didn’t want to worry them.  We did well that first day.  By the end of the day I reflected that I fished dry flies all day long.  There never was a reason to switch to nymphing.  There were bugs and rises all day long.  Caddis first, then a pretty epic mayfly hatch.  Midges were around all day.  There were scattered huge (like size 14) mayflies that appeared to be drakes.  Those Kern River rainbows really keyed on them.  I did not have anything to match that big bug and it really didn’t matter.  My hook to land ratio at the end of the day was pretty bad.   In the Upper Kern I am happy with a 50/50.  That was not the case this day.  I hooked a lot of fish.  I only landed very few.  Tiny barbless dries and those native and wild Kern River rainbows are just a bad combo for landing even for the experienced.  No big deal with me.  I want them to shake off at my feet and not have to touch them anyways.

Icicles do not make for a pleasurable “sun shower”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, we got back to camp by nightfall, and it got cold quickly.  The campfire helped. We feasted on fresh food.  I hiked in a pork steak and they had a deer tenderloin.  After eating plus of few sips of JD, I was exhausted so I hit the sleeping bag early like usual.  I woke up a number of times during the night like usual.  My broken down old body just doesn’t relieve me of pain when I sleep on the ground.  So, I knew it got cold.  I just didn’t realize how cold. In the morning there were icicles on my sun shower.

This huge frog was sitting in pocket water. it’s hard to imagine it surviving the winter in that cold water while at the same time surviving brown trout attacks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2, Saturday.  This was going to be a big day.  A full day of fishing.  I suggested to the guys that we hike to where we stopped fishing the day before and start fishing up stream from there.  They loved that idea.

By the end of the day we made it so far…so many miles upriver….to places I have never been before.  In staring at what my Garmin InReach 66i tracked me doing it looks like we made is almost 6 miles upriver from the JDB.  Amazingly beautiful stretches of river.  What is tantalizing is that the trail goes 11 miles.

Who knew?!  the Huck Hopper still got a ton of takes even though in April we are months away from the grasshoppers appearing

We all caught fish all day long and I mostly fished dries.  It was a great day.  Very physical.  25,000+ steps; many of which were climbing or fighting current.  We ate and the guys hiked out at sundown.  I was on my own now.  After warming up to the fire I put it out, then hit the sack early.  It didn’t seem as cold.  At 2am I figured out why.  It started raining.  There’s nothing worse than camping in the rain.  By the time I got out of the sack in the morning it was still drizzling.  This put the kabosh on another day of fishing.  I just wasn’t up for 40 degrees and raining knowing that would have squashed the hatches.  Still happy, I packed up camp first thing in the morning and hiked out in the light rain.  Then drove home, plowing through LA with zero traffic because of covid-19 and everyone working at home.

Hey, Jason took a picture of me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have written many times before that there are always calamities in backpacking.  And that backpacking is about managing calamities.  Well, I had my share this time.

Calamities:

  1. When I put my 6 weight Winston b2X together the lower section folded in half, broken. It wasn’t from the backpack in.  that is for sure.  My guess is TSA broke another one of my rods.  It’s not the first time it has happened.  They see the graphite in the metal detector and take the rod out of it’s sheath and case.  And they never put them back correctly.  I was in montana fishing just 3 weeks prior and that is undoubtedly what happened.  Unfortunately, Winston, although they make awesome rods, is not one of those fly fishing companies with awesome customer service nor warranties.  It costs $150 to fix that rod.  New ones list at $900 so it’s a tough choice to get it fixed.  It’s not the first time I have broken that rod.
  2. My garmin inReach 66i failed again… I didn’t send messages. It has not worked right ever since I purchased it 6 months ago.  It’s a drag because my delorme inReach worked for about 10 years flawlessly.  It still does.  I have been through 3 bouts of technical support with garmin.  It sure looks like the device itself is the issue.  I sure hope I can talk their tech support into replacing the device; even if I do have to pay a fee.  Because many times already I have stress out my wife, kids and friends telling them they can communicate with me while in the wilderness and I’m dead silent in return because the device has never worked well.
  3. My truck was broken into while I was in the wilderness. Right in the Johnsondale Bridge parking lot.   That is a real bummer.  The stretch of river from Kernville to a few miles out of town is well known for car break ins.  Like many small mountain towns, Kernville has its drug related issues too.  The bad guys pulled the back window on the shell of my truck, locked, hard enough to where it bent and popped open.  I have had bears do that twice to me (hilarious stories in themselves), but never by humans.  Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the back of the truck.  They stole my arctic 7 day cooler. It’s a yeti knockoff; but still expensive.  The cooler had 2 Coors lights in it.  They also stole an empty fly rod tube.  There was no damage to my truck.  So, the loss was minimal.  It just kinda’ sucks….honestly makes me feel badly for people who feel the desperate need to do things like that.

Jason in release

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When all was said and done, I did not see another fly fisherman other than Jason and Joey the entire time Friday to Sunday.   I did run into a couple really cranky old guy spin fisherman on a day hike.  It was 30 minutes later when I found out why.  As I waded up stream I ran into a huge kern river rainbow resting on the bank in 3 inches of water.  He had a huge mepps lure with the treble hook hanging out of the side of his face.  I sure wish he would have let me pull that out of his face.  Even with those barbs, that hook will disintegrate after a few days and work it’s way free.

Jason in battle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t excellent or great fishing, but it was good.  I fished dry 90 percent of the time and hooked a lot of fish.  When I did switch to nymphing, twice, I immediately stopped because the rises started again.  I tried a streamer once for 10 minutes in a deep pool and failed.  I switched back to dries and had success in the very same pool.  There were really good mayfly hatches in the afternoons; midges all day.   Even 7am rises.  Really fun.  I will now plan at least one trip up the JDB trail each spring before runoff forever.  The key is hiking in as far as possible up stream.  The River has already started its runoff period so my next chance in there will be on the forks trail mid-summer when it gets back under 500 CFS.

Here is the current river conditions as of this writing (April, 2020):

https://www.dreamflows.com/graphs/yir.681.php

Notice how the river is way way under the beginning of runoff even in the drought years.   Since we had a normal snowpack year that tells me we are going to get a herculean jump in river flow in May which will provide very dangerous conditions.  They call it the Killer Kern for a reason.  I always wonder if the river can get to 20,000 CFS putting the bridge in Kernville in jeopardy.  I’ll be watching that river like a hawk…and dreaming of getting back in there in the summer.

Fall Fly Fishing on the Forks of the Kern – November 7-10, 2019

Pushing the Boundaries of Safety a little too far….

Check out the racing stripe on this bad boy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lied.  In my October (2019) post I wrote, “So, Forks of the Kern lovers: until I get into the Forks again in the Spring of 2020” fully thinking at the time that I would not be able to get back to the upper Kern before the season ended on 11/15, let alone be crazy enough to do it (because of the cold nights).  Well, work has been so stressful I needed a weekend in the mountains just to clear my head and organize my thoughts.  Plus, one of the great things about doing this blog over the years is that so many of you are really good about keeping me updated with fishing reports and other intel by email.  One reader I can definitely call an “internet friend” is Peter Persidok.  Peter is clearly a good fly fisherman.  It was Peter who wrote me an email and inspired me to go for a simple 2 nighter over the weekend.  He went into the Forks last weekend and did well above rattlesnake creek.  He also inspired me to hike past the Huck Site, and camp up river, over the mountain.  I rarely get to do that stopping at Huck camp because of the group I am with.  But, on this trip I went alone.  I have plenty of strength and stamina for an “old guy”.  On this trip I camped at “sand camp” which is about 7-8 miles from the trailhead and a mile short of kern flats.  But, it was quite the adventure just getting there.

I know there is tons of guidance telling you not to back pack alone, but I’m a lot safer than I was when I was young.  Plus I carry a Garmin InReach 66i satellite tracker / safety device.  That means not only can loved ones (or the curious) track where I am on an internet site, but I can use the device to txt through the satellite network.  In the case of a true emergency there is an SOS button and it would call the cavalry to come save me.  I also carry bear spray.  And for the first time ever, on this trip, I had to not only unleash the bear spray (which I have done a few times), but also take the safety off and point it at an animal.  That is a first for me.  more on that later.

 

Hiking alone in the dark

If it was not so hard to plow through LA to get to the Forks, I bet I would go a lot more often.  For about $75 of gas, plus backpacking food and fuel I can’t think of more entertainment bang for your buck in the wilderness for the fly fisher.  Clearly, it’s not for everyone, but it is for me.  Well, I had an important meeting at work Friday late morning that precluded me from going the night before.  I got on the road at 11am thinking I’d be safe.  I was not.  LA’s traffic just nailed me.  yea, I use a garmin GPS with traffic data and waze on my phone at the same time, but this was just one of those Fridays.  I lost a full hour in traffic.  Normally that would not be an issue.   But, this is the time of year where the sun goes down at 5pm.  As I kept losing more and more time I kept telling myself how badly it would suck to have to sleep in my truck at the trailhead.  It was only a 2 nighter.  Let’s just say once I got on mountain road 50 I started pushing it…. clearly speeding.  After almost plowing 3 deer in the road I slowed down.  I didn’t get to the trailhead until 4:45 pm.   I have never backpacked in the dark, let alone done it alone. That is when I told myself, “the moon is almost full and it’s a totally clear night.  That will help light the trail.  I will target the “confluence site” which is at the bottom of the hill, only 2 miles total.  And I won’t have to cross the little kern in the dark.  That will give me a 2 mile jump on the long morning hike ahead of me.”  The other complication was temperature.  My decade old tundra (Huck-Truck) may have a cassette deck, but it does tell me the outside temp… which had fallen into the 40s before the sun went down.  So the clothes I laid out to hike in with were totally inappropriate.  I had to go into my already packed up backpack to get long hiking pants, a fleece and a down jacket.  That cost a little more time.

Well, I took off right around 5pm.  It was already twilight, but I was confident in my plan.  Unfortunately, at many points that canyon and the trees shaded the moonlight so I wasn’t half of the way down before I needed my headlamp.  “Not a problem.” I kept saying to myself.  “I know the trail so well I could do it blindfold.”

I’m not afraid of bears and mountain lions and wolves as much as I am afraid of tiny insects like ticks and mosquitos that give you uncurable diseases.  They key is not to startle an animal like that which means “hiking loud” and always having bear spray at the ready.  Being that said, while hiking alone in the dark, I couldn’t help but focus on Peter’s email about him running into the two mountain lions on the trail right at the bottom by the Little Kern crossing.  I have seen them.  I have heard of plenty of sightings of them over the years.  They are two adult females and I’m sure they do well on deer (I have seen my share of carcasses there) and many other smaller animals down at the Forks.

The first complication: as I got to the bottom I could see two separate camp fires.  And one was in the confluence site.  That was a bummer.  That meant I was looking at a Little Kern River Crossing in the dark and having to find a primitive site to camp in on the main fork of the Kern River.  With the Main fork of the Kern at 285 CFS the Little Kern crossing was well below knee deep.  So, it was not a safety thing at all.  It was just so frickin’ cold.  And a bit creepy.  I’d post a picture here, but none of them came out it was so dark; totally shaded from the moonlight by trees.  Upon getting my shoes back on I reflected on what to do next.  I could either b-line for the river and stumble into the first available primitive site.   But, that would be off trail in the dark.  There are a few primitive sites right there above the confluence.  Or I could stay on the trail and grab the first available site close to the trail.  There were very few cars at the trailhead; not a surprise for November, but that would mean plenty of sites open.  So, I stayed on the trail.  I saw the other group with the campfire right away.  What I didn’t realize is that in the darkness you cannot see the primitive sites that are not close to the trailhead.  At least not with the weak headlamp I was using.  I know I passed a couple without noticing them.  But, I kept pushing on the trail.  It was only around 6pm.  If you know that trail well, you know the primitive sites stop for the next mile as the trail narrows in a canyon.  There is a fantastic site I have never stayed in around 3 total miles from the trailhead.  I have never stayed in it mostly because it’s always full.  The trail looks down on it and it’s on a bend on a plateau above the river.  There is a great run around the bend in front of it I have fished many times.   For the next 30 minutes I basically was praying that site would be open and then, in my head speculating at the few sites, leading all the way to the huck site that I would target if wasn’t open.  I needed to find camp because it was dark and I was alone.  I was pushing the safety thing.  Thank God the site was open.  I got a fire going quickly.  I got my tent up quickly.  It was really cold now.  I couldn’t tell how cold but I could tell it was close to freezing.  I had hiked in 3 frozen lamb chops.  Another complication I am not used to: they were still frozen.  So, I did a little makeshift thawing fire side.  After bbq’ing on the backpacking grill I hiked in, eating and a little jack daniels even the fire couldn’t keep my warm.  I was in my tent and asleep before 9pm with the plan of breaking down camp and backpacking as early as possible with another 4 miles or so to the “sand camp” in the morning.

one of my favorite traditions at the forks: hiking down a hunk of meat to be grilled on the first night by campfire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gear Review

What I learned from the last couple October visits to the Kern is that I do not have a pad and bag that “works” in cold weather.  It’s fine in the summer.  But, in early Spring and the fall my stuff just doesn’t work.  It’s not designed for cold weather.  I literally wore every piece of clothes I had and still shivered my way through the night on those October trips. At times it was awful. So, this time I borrowed my buddy Martin’s Big Agnes Helium 15 degree down bag and his Big Agnes Q-Core SLX and Pumphouse Ultra. Now I cannot live without them.  I will be purchasing them immediately; I don’t care what it costs.  Firstly, the bag is so much warmer than my 20 degree backpacking bag.  I actually slept in my hiking boxers with bare feet.  Secondly the pad is so much thicker than my thermarest so you are much higher off the ground.  And it packs down just as small and light.  On my thermarest the cold floor of the tent goes right through it.  if you slide off the thermarest you feel the bitter cold right through the bag immediately.  Lastly, the stuff sack for the bag doubles as an inflator.  It’s genius.  No more blowing up pads at altitude and getting dizzy for me.  I have become a huge Big Agnes fan in the process of learning backpacking.

Check out how you simply open the Big Agnes pump house ultra stuff sack, fold to seal and roll it down to fill the pad.  It’s genius.  i pilfered this image off the Big Agnes site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s up with the Coyote?

Well I woke up around 5AM and immediately felt the shock of how cold it was.  I dreaded getting out of the bag to pack up.  So, I tossed and turned until I forced myself out of the tent at 6am.  I never do a morning fire.  This time I had to.  The first thing I noticed was my backpacking plate, knife and fork: frozen solid.  I didn’t want to wash dishes in the cold at night so I just filled the plate with river water and let the dishes soak until I could deal with them in the morning.  Now I had to figure out what “dealing with it” meant.

look carefully at my buckknife, frozen solid in the mix. it took me a while to break that thing free

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 8:00 I had eaten and was fully packed up and back on the trail.  There is a primitive site I stayed in once with Kelly and Mere that is directly across from one of the best fishing runs in the stretch from the confluence to rattlesnake creek.  It was right before that site that I saw something in the trail.  As I got closer I could tell it was a coyote.  In Carlsbad, CA we are backed up to a wildlife preserve that sports a few healthy populations of coyote packs.  There are no outside kitties in our neighborhood and frequently dogs get taken.  I run into them at dawn and dusk constantly and upon seeing me they flee in fear.

Now I was within 50 feet of the coyote and it had not budged; sitting in the trail staring me down and not moving.  I did the hooting and hollering and waving my backpacking poles thing to scare if off the trail as I moved closer.  It didn’t move.  At 30 feet I stopped.  I had to.  It was right in the trail facing me staring me down.  and there was no legit detour around it.  It wasn’t like I was scared.  His tail was between his legs which means subservient; not aggressive.  if he charged me, I could have beaten the thing with my trekking poles.  I just couldn’t figure what the coyote was doing.  It occurred to me it might be part of a pack, distracting me, but, I looked around and didn’t see any others.  So, I grabbed my bear spray and continued to shout at it.  It just stared at me in steely silence.  Well, I had lost my patience with it.  I wasn’t about to let this thing get between me and fly fishing so I pulled the safety latch on the bear spray.  While pointing it right at his face I veered off the trail about 15 feet and walked right by it.  It simply turned and watched me.  then continued to stare at me as I hiked away (trust me.  I looked back at it a number of times).  Weird.

I took this picture from ~15 feet away as this coyote stared me down. notice the angle of the camera. i’m actually looking down at it I’m so close.  Also notice the tail between the legs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hiked over the mountain and made it to “sand camp” around 9:30AM.  I know from the October trip that the river fishes really poorly in the cold of the morning, so that gave me the time, to set up camp: make firewood; fill my sun shower and 3-liter Katadyn, etc.

 

The best nymphing on the Upper Kern Ever

 

Another big Kern River Rainbow let go at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 10:45AM I set up my 6 weight to my “go to” upper kern river rig: a 3x leader to a size 4 huck hopper on top.  Not because I thought a huge Huck Hopper would work, but because I knew it could float the weight I was going to tie under it.  I just rarely fish a bobber anymore.  Nor do I use a net.  That’s just me.  You never know when troutzilla might take a size 4 fly so why use a bobber if you are ok with the tangling or loss risk of 3 flies?   4 feet of 4x below the huck hopper I tied on a Beldar’s Stone.  It has 3 tungsten beads so it gets down quickly.  I have found this bug to simply just work on the Upper Kern, in all seasons without fail.  When I tie this bug I don’t do anything different except for I tie it with tungsten cones.  Frankly it works so well I should just sell them on the site (even though I didn’t invent the fly) as part of a “Upper Kern River Special”.  In fact, that is not a bad idea. And now I have the off season to do that.  A foot to 1.5 feet of 5x below the Beldars stone I tie on a “huck bow warrior” which is a derivation of a rainbow warrior fly I have developed and evolved from countless hours of fishing on the upper kern.  I tie it in both a flash back and crippled way.  It doesn’t really imitate anything in nature.  But, for some reason (well, it’s quite the attractor fly) it just kills.  Actually, it kills everywhere, but it just seems like the go-to fly on the Kern.

check out the Huck-Bow-Warrior hanging out of this big boy’s face.  You can tell from the red head.  it’s just a killer fly for all seasons on the Upper Kern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I make my first cast right in front of camp.  It was not a special cast; I didn’t cast it far, just to the seam in the river right in front of me.  Sure enough that Huck Hopper goes down and I set hard.  Within minutes, after a number of jumps, I landed a 14” Kern River Rainbow, unhooked and let him go without even taking him out of the water.  I laugh to myself…and then the sobering thought hits me, “a first cast fish. I just jinxed myself and am now going to be skunked for the rest of the day.”  So, I moved 100 feet up river to another run and hooked two more; fighting one to my feet (no net: perfect) where he popped off and landing the other.  “hmm…” I say to myself, “This could be one of those days.”

That is a big Beldar Stone hanging out of this guy’s face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the next 4 hours (11am to 3pm) I only fished a mile. I typically move pretty quickly and cover a lot of ground.  I have been called an impatient fly fisherman.  If I don’t get a take in good holding water on a good drift, I move on.  Only making it one mile is a testament to how good the fishing was. I hooked big wild kern river rainbow trout (14” to 19”) all day.  In every run, pool and pocket.  It was one of those, “my arm hurts from battling fish.” days. My landing ratio was about right for someone nymph fishing without a net barbless: about 50%.  I battled so many fish I worked on setting them free at my feet without touching them by holding the line tight 3 feet above the fish with my hand.  It works about 1 third of the time.  The weird thing is that for over a decade I have always experienced that catching a fish in the upper kern puts the entire pool down.  man, did I prove that theory wrong.  I caught multiple fish in runs multiple times.  It was almost like a spawn was going down.  and from some of the colors on the males I was catching it could have been true.  I’d love to talk to a biologist to verify if the upper kern produces a winter spawn like there is in the Upper Owens River.  Anyways I guess I landed 25-30 fish; all big and got takes and/or hooked and lost about that many.  That type of fishing is just bananas.  I don’t know any other way to describe it.  To top it off I fished the exact same rig 98% of the time on this trip.  There was no reason to mix it up short of the few late night casts I made with dries.  I did change out 3-4 huck bow warriors because the trout chomped them to the point they were so beaten up they unraveled.  And by the time I was done my beldar stone looked like it had been through the wars.  The big Huck Hopper floated all day long without me needing to dress it in any way.

Sometimes, if i can’t unhook them easily in the water i take them out and before letting them go i snap a quick picture..  i’m holding this big one as far out from me as possible and he still doesn’t fit in the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was about 3 hours into this crazy action fishing session when I got this weird unsatisfied feeling.  My first thought was, “I’m doing so well this is getting boring.  I am switching to dries to make it harder on me.”  And then I realized what my feeling was about: It was not that I was bored or it was too easy.  It was that I wished I was guiding a beginner instead of actually fishing myself.  When I teach someone on the Upper Kern River I always include a statement like, “We’ll most likely hook some today.  Landing them is a totally different.  It’s not likely.  I hope we do.”  It’s very rare when the fishing is so good and when it is there is nothing more fun than the joy of teaching someone how to do it; beginner or not.  Since the Upper Kern is so wild there is just so much preventing a beginner from doing well that is not how active the fish are.  it’s the overhanging trees, the current and getting in a position just to be able to cast to holding water, let alone get a drift.  This was one of those days where the beginner’s odds would have significantly been better.  That would have been fun for me.  As it was I experienced it all alone without a sole in sight.  Which was also super fun.

BTW, I wet waded instead of carting my backpacking waders down.  And that was a mistake.  At points my feet and legs were numb.  At points the fishing was so good I’d catch and release in the water, then wade out of the river to warm up in the sun just long enough to wander back in and catch another in the same spot.  After hooking 4 or 5 in the same place I was so numb I had to hike away just to get feeling back in my legs.

i am not a good photographer by any stretch, but every once in a while i get lucky.  in this pic you can see me staying tight by my shadow and the fish is still in view in the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guidance: Fish the other side of the river

Let me give you some guidance related to success in the Upper Kern: Fish the other side of the River.  I have always done well on the other (South-Eastern) side of the river.  The reasons are numerous.  But, the main reason is that the other side provides casts to places that just don’t see artificial flies all season long.  I love the other side because it’s the “Left handed side”.  I’m left handed.  On the other side I’m casting up stream with my left arm over the river.  On the “normal” side of the river I’m handicapped from making big casts because I’m doing it over my shoulder or forced to role cast. The problem, of course, is that they don’t call it the “Killer Kern” for nothin’.  It’s a wild and dangerous river.  This November the river was 285 CFS as measured at the Fairview dam.  That type of low flow means there are a few thigh high crossings that are really mellow at the Forks.  There is some irony that for this entire 2019 season the upper kern was only crossable safely in the last 3 weeks of the season.  That is what happens in a big snow pack year.

It pleases me when i stick them right on the nose exactly where you should on a good set

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Two

Since I only fished up stream a mile I crossed back over the river at kern flats and walked the mile back to the sand site and was back at camp by 4pm.  I checked the sun shower and it was way too cold to use; bummer.  There was not going to be any cleaning up on this trip.

So, I re-rigged to dries.  I got a rise from a small trout right in front of camp on a size 18 (anything).  And that was the only rise I had on the trip.  During the awesome day before I did not get a single rise on the huck hopper.  I saw very few naturals which explains why.  It’s just too late in the season for that.

I had in my head something else that Peter told me.  that he did really well on mouse patterns the weekend before right as it got dark.  I have never even seen a mouse at the forks.  But, I had to try.  So, until it got too dark to see, I tried a number of casts with a mouse pattern and failed.  Peter said he was using small mice patterns.  I only had one big one and that probably led to my failure.  It was still fun, though.

Now it was dark and cold.  I had to get the fire started quickly.  I burnt a lot of wood that night sitting in my backpacking chair enjoying the fire.  After jack daniels and eating some backpacking food I said to myself, “I wonder if I should drain the sun shower and the 3 liter katadyn.”  I should have.  Lesson learned…

Sunday – the hike out

The next morning my sun shower and both Katadyns were frozen solid as a rock.  My wading boots and wading socks were also frozen solid as were a number of other things.  So, I did another morning fire and dealt with that as best I could.  I was looking at the 6 miles hiking back to the little kern crossing and then the 2 miles up the hill.  I wasn’t dreading it.  I was kind of looking forward to it as part of the adventure. I’m glad at my age I can still hike up that mountain in less than an hour, frequently passing folks younger than me.

In the October trip, we hiked out early to get home early and just got hammered by LA traffic.  This time I was purposely going to hike out later, and target getting home by 8pm (reasonable enough to pack and make my 6am flight for work the next morning).

Well that left me an hour to fish before heading up the mountain.  I put down my pack and rigged up (the exact same way) at the site at the confluence (which was now empty).

The view of the Little Kern entering the “big” Kern from the confluence site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I told myself not to get my hopes up because this stretch had now been hammered for months.  However, within 30 minutes I caught 5 more big trout.  Ridiculous.  One of them went over 20”.  I tried to follow it down river as best I could.  It was quite the battle as he did numerous jumps and runs.  I told myself I would mind losing him by breaking him off because the river bank downstream from me didn’t exist.  I would have had to go waste deep in the clothes I was hiking out in to chase him down stream.  So I laid the wood on him.  I pulled him back to my feet, reached for my camera and he popped off there at my feet.  I laughed.  I didn’t get the picture, but, I did not have to touch him.  He’ll be 22” next season.

So, now it’s over until next season.  At least for me.  but, if there is anyone fly fishing up there in the next 3 days before the end of the season they are going to do well.

 

Forks of the Kern Trail – Upper Kern River – October 8th, 2018

The Kern River Rainbow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am really getting to love these October trips to the Forks.  I think I’ll do it for the rest of my life.  The fishing is always good.  Not great…good.  And if you catch it right in October, not only can you catch some amazing night time hatches, but, with the nights getting colder those big rainbows know they have to feed before “going down” for the winter so they tend to wander out of deep water where you can get a shot at them on top.  The days are always warm; not wet wading warm, but all day in the sun sunburn warm.  The nights and mornings are cold, though…very cold.  And the best part for me…mostly because I’m left handed, is that the flows are so low in October there are many places you can cross the river.  So, not only do I get to fish the “left handed side”, but I’m throwing flies to water that has seen very few artificials over the season.

When hiking in it’s easy to forget you are in Mountain Lion Territory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The absolute best part of this October, 2018 trip to the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trailhead was the group.  We planned this trip a year in advance because one of the guys joining me was Rudi Van der Welt; an old friend that actually took me to the Forks for the first time many years ago and taught me the backpacking thing and many skills to survive in the wilderness.  The reason for a year in advance?  Well, Rudi now lives in Sydney, Australia.   He flew all the way to LAX (18 hours) to backpack into the wilderness.

Joined by Rudi was the guy that actually taught me how to fly fish over 20 years ago, Tim “Big Daddy” Hoffmann.  Big Daddy (nick-named by me because he has 5 boys, all huge and all geniuses and athletes) and I have been friends for 50 years.  That is not a typo.  Yep, we went to school together starting in 1st grade…where even then he was a full head taller than me.  Both Big Daddy and Rudi are outstanding fly fishermen, experts, guide-level fly fishermen.

Left to Right: me, Jeff Kimura, Rudi Van der Welt, Tim Hoffmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, it makes sense that rounding out the 4 of us was a new friend from the neighborhood, Jeff Kimura.  Jeff is…well now was a completely green fly fisherman.  He really lucked out having the 3 of us teaching him.  But, we really lucked out because of all the high quality fresh food he hiked into the canyon.   Jeff is super fit, recently qualifying for the Boston Marathon and frankly if you are not hiking in 2-3 pounds of booze you might as well hike in fresh food.

The first rub was that Rudi showed up wearing a boot: “I recently tore my Achilles tendon.  I’ll be fine.”  In Sydney, he went to the local fly shop with his boot and had them install a sole with spikes in it so he could wade in it safely.  Classic.  The very first time I went backpacking…to the forks…with Rudi….he almost killed me.  I swear we would have hiked in 10+ miles if I had not thrown in the towel at 6.  He’s a total stud and even though he had to walk funny with one leg pointed side-ways he still hiked all the way in, fished all day for 3 days and hiked all the way out – total stud.

Who is crazy enough not only to hike the Forks of the Kern Trail in a boot cast, but to have wading spikes installed into the sole? Rudi is…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was a quick 2-nighter, Monday to Wednesday so I didn’t expect to see many people and that was certainly the case.  We did see people hiking out on our way in.  And it just so happened that one of the groups told us there did stay in the “huckaby site” and left us a bunch of firewood…. Nice.  However everyone we talked to hiking out said they didn’t do too well fishing.  Hmmmm…..

Upon getting to the site we unpacked and set up quickly so we could fish the balance of the day.    I hooked up quickly and the rest of the day went pretty well in terms of rainbows hooked and landed.  “Fishing seems pretty good to me.”, I said to myself.

In terms of flies, well, I just have so much confidence in a handful of flies that I have developed slowly over the years fishing the upper kern.  They just work no matter what the conditions.  I tie most of the nymphs crippled because over the years I have found that wing shucks and fluorescent wings just seem to work better there.  The

is still my “go-to” nymph for the Kern.  In that crystal clear water the fluorescent and U/V materials I use just do such a good job attracting.  It imitates a number of water born insects that are native to the Kern: The spotted sedge, the green rockworm, Chironomids, etc.  Hung 3 feet below a Huck Hopper is a deadly combination.  Rounding out the group of go-to flies for the Kern are the Midge Cripple and the Huck-bow Warrior.  I also have been experimenting with my crippled version of Cal Bird’s famous Bird’s Nest fly.  But, I have not perfected it yet in terms of size and proportions so I’m not going to sell it on the site yet.   On this trip all the flies I just mentioned above caught fish.

Another big Kern River Rainbow with a size 4 Huck-Hopper hanging out of his face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I worked variations of another new fly all year and it’s close to being ready to sell on my site.  it’s a stonefly nymph imitation.  And it’s black.  There are no black stoneflies that hatch on the kern (browns and goldens only).  But, big black stonefly nymph imitations have always worked there.  It really seems like there are always stonefly shucks on the rocks in the river….almost like they hatch all season long from April to October.  I know that can’t be true.  The skwallas and goldens hatch during the spring.  The little brown stoneflies hatch in the summer.  It’s kind of a pain in the ass to tie, but, this fly kills.  It imitates a number of the nymph forms of the naturals in the river like skwallas, stoneflies, salmonflies, and damselflies.  I tie it huge…like in 6-8 and 10 so it’s easily seen and the perfect first fly of the dropper from the huck hopper.  So what is the problem?  it’s too heavy.  Have you ever heard of a nymph being too heavy?  Well, in this latest set of variations I tied them with 2 tungsten coneheads.  My intention was to get that 3 feet of tippet under the huck hopper down as quickly as possible.  The result was it dragging a size 4 (which is huge and very buoyant) huck hopper down with it.  So, I did very well with it, but the constant mend of the huck hopper to get it floating is not practical for the average angler.   I’ll swap out that middle tungsten cone with a smaller bead and it should be good to go.

A Kern river rainbow with a new fly i have been working on in his face; a huge and heavy stonefly nymph imitation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, I plan to get those flies on the site by next spring.  I’ll battle test them winter fishing in a variety of places that are not the Upper Kern by way of the Forks because it will be closed.  But the section above the Johnsondale bridge stays open all winter long (although it does not winter fish that well) so I’m sure I’ll get some time in there along with many other rivers and creeks in the eastern sierras.

BTW, based on a great suggestion from a reader, I have added a bunch of Kern River fishing guidance to the “Guidance and Directions to the Forks of the Kern” document you can download off my site.  I charge $5 for it, but I donate 100% of that to CalTrout at the end of the year.

The cache I have hidden near the “huckaby site” has grown pretty large and quite impressive.   Along with my friends so many readers like you have added quality items to the cache. The saw and nippers are still the most valuable tools.  But, there is a growing group of kitchen items, extra fuel, a tent, wading sandals and wading boots.  On this trip I buttoned the cache down for the winter and this year it should do just fine because there is no longer any food in the cache.  Even with a smell-proof bear bag, the bears still got to it last Spring.  I don’t expect any issues when I retrieve the cache next Spring.  If you are reading this and want to use the cache just send me an email.  I’ll take care of you.  you can

Whether hiking in or hiking out this is one of the best views of the Upper Kern from the Forks of the Kern Trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My most remembered moment was a fish lost.  Why do I always remember the fish lost and not the ones landed?  On this trip I caught enough 16 to 18”s to call it good fishing.  It was late into Tuesday the only real full day of fishing and I hadn’t hooked, let alone landed, any of those monster 20”+ Kern River Rainbows that are so famous up there.  So way up stream I fished on the “left handed side” of the river (often called “river left” by spey casters) where it is not possible to wade.  So, I was up about 20 feet in the air on a little cliff like shelf.  I casted into a riffle  that really didn’t look fishy after hitting some pocket water unsuccessfully below it.   Sure enough a monster shot out from nowhere.  I set hard.  It jumped and I could see it was over 20.  But, it shot down river quickly and I should have stopped it by horsing it at the risk of losing it there.   I didn’t.  And that was my fatal mistake.  It went around a large boulder on the opposite site of the river and downstream.  I failed to flip the line over the boulder as it swam like a torpedo downstream and the line tightened.  I couldn’t get in the water and navigate across (too dangerous and I didn’t feel like doing a brad pitt and jumping into 45 degree water) so I lost the fish there…telling myself over and over how badly I screwed that up.

On the 3rd day we broke camp with the intention of getting a head start on our assault of Lake Crowley in float tubes so short of 10 or 20 casts there was not a lot of fly fishing the Kern on the last day.  All in all it was a great trip.  And like every trip to the Upper Kern just too short.  I’m now in fantasizing mode where I will watch the upper kern flows every day for 5 months wishing I could be at the forks all the way until next April.  That is a long 5 months.  Don’t feel sorry for me, though.  I’ll be chasing the not so rare Andes trout at 14K feet in Ecuador in a couple weeks.