Tag Archives: Huck Hopper

How I Tie the Huck Hopper

I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked to make a video of how I tie the Huck Hopper.  Well, I have finally motivated so here it is.

Over the years, I have sold a gazillion huck hoppers off the timhuckaby.com site.  People adore this thing.  I adore this thing.  I have caught fish on the huck hopper all over the world.  But, many of you fly tyers want to tie it yourself.  I get it.  Fly fishing incorporates a lot of pleasures intermingled with some frustration and even pain.  And one of those pleasures is fooling a fish on a fly that you tied yourself.

I call my home water the Upper Kern River even though it is 300 miles north of where I live.  I have taught many many people how to fly fish on the Upper Kern River.  Shoot, my son Mark is a fly fishing guide in Bozeman and he cut his teeth on the Upper Kern.  My favorite stretch of the The Upper Kern is within the Golden Trout Wilderness and is accessed by the Forks of the Kern Trail; typically with a backpack.  What I call the forks is a 15 mile stretch of river above the confluence of the main fork, north, of the kern river and the little kern river.  There is not a lot of altitude at the confluence, less than 5000 feet, and for that 15 miles and beyond the river and it’s surrounding area supports a huge population of many species of grasshoppers.  Between teaching folks to fly fish losing hopper imitations to trees or simply just having the trout chomp and waterlog those flies I had a similar  problem to Charlie craven. Charlie Craven’s “Charlie Boy Hopper” was my inspiration for the Huck Hopper.  But, unlike Charlie, I was backpacking.  I didn’t have the luxury of tying more flies at night.  I would simply run out.  I needed a durable solution that was easy enough to tie that produced results. 

So, I started field testing my first prototypes on the upper kern and the results were spectacular.  There was just one problem.  I also needed a nymphing solution in a dry/dropper rig.  The upper kern has deep runs where getting the fly down produces very well.  But hanging two heavy nymphs below a fairly large, size 6 huck hopper would sink it.  At the same, I reasoned that the upper kern river should never see a bobber.  It’s too special.  The Upper Kern River within the Golden Trout Wilderness is designated as a “Wild and Scenic” river by the State of California.  It is one of the only places left in the world that supports a majority of wild natives: The Kern River Rainbow (KRR) is its own sub species of the rainbow trout.  So, I started tying huge huck hoppers in sizes 2 and 4.  I call them battleships.  And to my surprise the kern river rainbows continued to attack them.  In fact even the little KRRs would rise to those big huck hoppers, grabbing them by the legs and pulling them down to drown them.  Big flies equals big fish and I started catching some monster KRRs.  And those big huck hoppers could hold up even the heaviest of nymphs all day long.  Doubles were now not a rare thing on the Upper Kern with a big huck hopper on top.

Credits to the great Charlie Craven for the inspiration: https://charliesflybox.com

And thanks to Par Avion for the music! http://www.VivaParAvion.com

The video includes fly tying techniques for the beginner. and details the materials I use and where i get them. but it also covers the background, history, why and how:

Forks of the Kern Report – June 23-28, 2022

It’s difficult to do a trophy shot alone when the KRRs are big

Sidebar: Treat yourself to the professionally done video by Micah Conrad, who I taught how to fly fish on this trip here.

Relevant Stats for the 6 days:

CFS: blown out muddy, 350 when we got there to off colored 225 perfect when we left

Solunar:

  • 6/23 – 13%, poor
  • 6/24 – 13%, poor
  • 6/25 – 26%, fair
  • 6/26 – 59%, average
  • 6/27 – 82%, excellent

Water temp: 57 in the mornings rising all the way to 72 in the late afternoons

Air temp: low 50s to mid 60s at night all the way to 90 at the trailhead on the last day

The Upper Kern River – Beautiful

I have this 25-year love affair with the Forks of the Kern River.  If you have read me before you know I have said that for years.  I feel like I know the 10 mile stretch of the river above the confluence like the back of my hand.  But, I did have some firsts on this trip:

  • The Forks been closed because of the fire for 2 long years.  That made this trip special
  • I didn’t fish that long or that hard.  I guided two sets of young people: two beginners and a first timer. I find guiding / teaching beginners so much more fun than fishing myself.  Because of that I hiked out up the mountain from the huck site to the trailhead twice during this trip.  I have never guided two separated sets on the same trip. That means I went down to the huck site and up to the trailhead 3 separate times in 5 days.  In those two hike out days I had over 35,000 steps… pretty good for an old guy.
  • This is the first time I have had the luxury of 5 nights down there.  When it was time to hike out I said, “I could easily stay another 5 nights.”
  • I have never seen the Upper Kern blown-out before.  A freak storm hit the area the day before I hiked in.  When I hiked in, the river rose from 250 CFS to 350 CFS in 8 hours and muddied up.  It was blown out.
  • My buddy Marty hiked in with me….carrying a portable cooler with ice so we could have proper cocktails for a couple days.  Margaritas at the Huck site have to be a first!
Hey, there’s me in a selfie with the new GTW sign we installed a year ago

Wednesday, June 22

My plan from the beginning was to hike in 2 days early so I could have the time to prepare for the first two folks I was guiding on Saturday.  that meant driving in on Wednesday and camping at lower peppermint campground before hiking in early on Thursday.  Although the Huck site survived the fire it took a beating.  All the wood logs we used to stage food and toys and sit on incinerated.  And 2 years of growth after the fire needed to be trimmed back to make it not only easier for beginners to cast and comfortable to swim, etc.  But, to provide an end to end view of the river from up at the camp site.  I knew the fire pit needed to be cleaned out and rebuilt.  I also wanted to figure out the fishing before they came.  And lastly going in early allowed me to hike back out empty to meet them and fill up my pack again with fresh food (and beer!) to hike back down to the huck site.  I firmly believe as good food as possible really enhances the backpacking experience.  And a beer or a little JD helps too.

After talking to my buddy Marty Jansen who I have been on a number of adventures with… chronicled on this site… we planned to meet at lower peppermint campground around 6pm.  Well, the gods were with me that day because I blew through LA barely having to brake.  I made it to Kernville so quickly I had time to drop off a six pack as a gift to Guy Jeans of the Kern River Fly shop and to find some food.  But, another 1st for me: it was raining like hell.  In a drought year that is pretty darn good for the area… but in late June?  So strange.  It was raining so hard it occurred to me that it might screw up a river that was in perfect shape when I left 5 hours earlier.

The waterfalls at Lower Peppermint Creek

I drove on another hour to Lower Peppermint campground and did something I have always wanted to do, never had the time, and have heard much about.  I grabbed a rod and started fishing peppermint creek up stream.  I did well on a size 16 stimulator that Steve Schalla tied for me.  I had heard there were a set of waterfalls up stream, but I didn’t realize how close to the campground they were.  Here I had been camping in lower peppermint for years, but always as a temporary stop to the forks.  I never stayed long enough to enjoy the awesomeness of it.  my bad.  I only fished for an hour, caught and released 5 small wild trout and stared in awe at a set of waterfalls.  I hiked the 10 mins or so back to camp to find Marty: “I figured you were fishing”.  😊

Marty Jansen: notice he’s hiking in a cooler… with ice. As far as i know, Marty is the first person to serve margaritas at the Huck site.

Thursday, June 23

Marty and I got a decent start in the morning, drove the 20 mins to the trailhead and started hiking in.  Since we already worked on the trailhead a year earlier it was not a shock to see the effects of the fire.  What was a pleasant surprise is how the rain cleared out the haze.  It was crystal clear skies with puffy white clouds like in Montana.   Well, we made it to the Little Kern River crossing pretty quickly.  And then the reality.  The little kern river was blown out.  it was running way high for that time of year and muddy.  In fact the lack of clarity in the water made the crossing a little tenuous only because I couldn’t see where I was stepping and I was wearing sandals to cross.  My heart sunk.  I was guiding 2 beginners in a couple days and the river might be blown out.   There was still hope that the main fork of the kern was still clear but it was obvious when we got a peek at it a quarter mile later on the trail that it was blown out.  so, I said to myself it’s got 2 days to back down and clear up or else there is going to be a lot of casting and very little catching.  I knew the solunar thing was against us too.

Blown Out: Notice the brown color of the water and the level up to the willows on the banks upstream

We got to the huck site and it was clear to me how much work needed to be done.  there was a lot of growth since I checked the huck site out a year ago.  I set up camp and attacked the fire place first.  The structure was still in tact but I had to remove cubic feet of soot, rocks and sand to get it back into a safe effective shape then build a grilling platform.  After that I turned to making firewood.

Marty’s plan was to hang a night with me and then backpack up to his favorite place: Kern Flats, which is about 11 miles up river from the trailhead. then he’d come back on Monday and hang until he hiked out.  So, I took a break, marked the water level and we fished for a couple hours or so.  We caught fish.  But, as expected because of the high murky water it was slow. 

Vicki (see below) took this shot of me.

After fishing I attacked the riverside willows with lopers.  It was brutally difficult work.  I also attacked a few tree branches with a backpacking saw that I hiked in.  I was exhausted but when “happy hour” rolled around I quickly noticed that, although I made two good places for an overhand cast, I had a lot more work to do to clear enough view to be able to watch rises from the site.

I hiked in a couple beers and lamb chops so it was a good night.

you cannot beat that view on the forks trail on a clear day

Friday, June 24

Like always I woke up with the sun around 5:30AM.  The river looked to be clearing.  That was encouraging.  I made coffee and wandered down to the river.  I looked at my mark on the river and the river was down 8”… sigh of relief.  The river was falling.  After coffee I worked on the view with cutting sheers and lopers.  Then I made more firewood.  Exhausting work.  but, I got so much done I set out to fish with Marty.  This time for 3 or 4 hours and we did ok.  We caught fish, but, I knew the river was still not in good enough shape for beginners.  But all the signs were that the river was slowly getting back into shape right on time for the folks I was guiding the next day.  Vicki and Alyssa are young gals that give me hope for the next generation.  The list of outdoor adventures and places they have been at such a young age is impressive.  Both had fly fished a few times…even from a drift boat guided in montana.  their exuberance for outdoor adventure was spirit lifting for me. Late afternoon I txted Vicki and Alyssa who had a hotel in Kernville for the night.  The plan for the next morning was for me to hike out and make it to the trailhead by 8:30am to meet them.

That is a the huck-bow warrior, perdigon style in this guy’s face

Saturday, June 25

I got out right on time at 6:30AM.  I said my goodbyes to marty (knowing he’d be back on Monday), gave him access to the huck hoppers and perdigons I tied for the trip) and I was off.  I was hiking an almost empty backpack so the pace was quick.  And it was early morning so my senses were on alert.  It was not 20 minutes before I ran into my first fresh bear scat right on the trail.  it was fairly close to “bend camp” (my second choice if I can’t get the Huck site.  It’s elevated right on a bend in the river ~ 3 miles from the trailhead) and as I walked by it there were 4 guys in that camp.  I shouted about them having a visitor last night.  “We know.” they said laughing.  I ran into more bear scat about a mile from the little kern river that looked to be from the night before.  Most likely the same bear. 

I made it to the little Kern Crossing in 45 minutes and was up the hill an hour from then.  right around 8:15AM which gave me time to arrange all the fresh food and beer I was taking down.  Vicki and Alyssa showed up (in a Prius I may add which tells you how good a shape the dirt road to the trailhead is) right on time.  I got firm handshakes from them which is an instant indicator of them being firmly planted in the working world which I didn’t know at the time.  By 8:45 we started hiking down and it was already getting hot.  Our pace was fine.  I did a lot of talking including asking the question (I stole from my daughter, Camille): “How is team morale?” To which Vicki always answered, “Team Morale is good.”

Vicki took this shot of me releasing one of the KRRs she fooled. She had this amazing waterproof enclosure and lens for her iphone.

At the Little Kern Crossing these two navigated easily and nicely without my help.  You can always tell how well a fly fisher is going to be by their “river legs”.  And these two were quite agile.  With 2.2 miles to go to the Huck site, though, it was getting hot.  I’m a hot weather guy having grown up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles so I have to pay special attention because most people hate hiking in the heat.  Our pace slowed because of the heat so I kept the conversation going while hiking to take their minds off the suffering.  When we got to the Huck site the plan was to set up camp, eat and relax before we headed out to fish.  That plan worked because when these two were ready they were re-energized.  We had a good portion of day light left in the day.  the plan was to head down river for this half day of fishing then fish up river over the mountain on the next full day we had.  I had them both start in the huck site overhand casting.  Then I taught them how to roll cast…. Which they both took to immediately.  The only issue was that we didn’t get any takes.  We always get takes at the Huck Site.  Hmmm….

That’s Alyssa with one of the many KRRs she fooled

So we ventured off down river.  these two were casting well and getting good drifts.  But, we weren’t getting any takes.  So I kept lengthening the leaders…  which is a sign they were getting better and better at casting on really tough rig: a huge huck hopper dropped by 4 feet or longer with perdigons.  Finally we started catching.  What a relief for me.  between the river still not in good shape and the warming of the water in the latter part of the day it was just slow.  We hiked a mile and a half or so back to the huck site and I got happy hour going while those to relaxed and waited for heads…. During the witching hour, 7:30 to 8:30pm at this time of year, there just weren’t a lot of rises…. Hmmm.  “Tomorrow will be a new day,” I said to myself.  And I was right.

I hiked in 3 enormous high quality steaks prior that day, which I complimented with a doctored up version of fettucine Alfredo… we pigged out…well, I did… we didn’t even come close to finishing it.  “Not to worry.  Steak and eggs in the morning!” 

That’s Vicki in action: pretty much fearless because the submerged rock she is standing on is deep on all sides

Sunday, June 26

I woke up with the sun around 5:30AM and immediately checked the river.  down another 6”!  and good water clarity!  Yes!  I just knew then it would be a good fishing day.  Myplan was to hike those two upriver over the mountain and fish upstream all day long.  And they were excited about it.  So that is exactly what we did.  As we crested the mountain I decided to not do my normal plan of scampering down 300 feet like goats and fishing the cliffs.  I took them straight to my dry fly patch with a great run above it.  And we caught fish!  Fishing the Upper Kern is very physical…very physical.  You cannot be successful without climbing up and down river banks and getting scratches and cuts and aches and pains. And that is what these gals were doing.   

I love this pic for a couple reasons. 1st, the view. 2nd, check out that roll cast from Alyssa

When guiding/teaching fly fishing I always cover my 7 components of fly fishing with emphasis on the very first and most important component: “reading the water”.  In my not so humble opinion, it really doesn’t matter where you cast or how good your drift is if your cast doesn’t land or drift to where the fish are.    Well, these two… well into their 2nd day were now reading the water really well.  As we approached each new “hole” I’d ask the question, “What do you see?”  and sure enough I’d get back things like, “Well, there is a run with a seam between it and the eddy”.  Or “There are two runs with a tail-out at the end.” 

all smiles from Vicki

My favorite moment of the day was fishing “the island”.  It’s ~2 miles upriver from the huck site.  It’s not usually accessible or fished.  And that is because there is good water before and after and it requires a scramble down to what is typically a tough river cross.  But, I fished it a couple days before and caught a bunch of fish.  Plus, the water was low enough and these two were agile enough for a cross.  Alyssa decided to take the bottom so I put her in place at the end of the island which had runs on both side of her with a tail-out 60 feet down river.  But, she had to cast downriver on both sides of her which is a tough set.  “What do you see?” I said.  I can’t remember exactly what her answer was but it was spot on.  Then I said something like, “let out a ton of line and don’t be afraid to let that thing drift all the way down.  Many times trout will hang in the tailout in a run like this with two food sources converging.” And with that Viki and I walked 50 feet up the island in a deep run that is always productive.  I think I was changing out Vicki’s rig to a longer dropper because I heard the shout and Alyssa was on.  So, I ran down, netted and we did the 7th component: the trophy shot.  Back to Vicki… and Alyssa was on again.  I’m pretty sure Vicki nailed one there too after I finally got done running back and forth from Alyssa to get her all rigged up.  Very pleased.

a Alyssa with a healthy male

Those two got a lot of takes that day considering their experience, the conditions, and the fact they were fishing in one of the most technical fly fishing rivers in CA.  my guess is about 20 takes each that day.  My land ratio at the forks is about 50%.  And I know my way around a trout stream.  My guess is these two landed about 1/3rd of every fish that they got a take on.  Pretty darn good.  It was then that Alyssa said something I will remember for a long time: “I used to like fly fishing.  Now I love it.”  I was like a proud father.

Vicki with another good one

So good that if I didn’t hint we should do the long hike back those two would have fished until well after dark and we’d be stuck with a 3 mile hike back to camp in total darkness.  I believe we made it to camp around 6:30.  Enough time for happy hour and watching heads through the witching hour.  But no real significant rises again.  Very strange.  What makes it more strange is that timhuckaby.com readers JT and Stu were in the picnic table aka rattlesnake sight and they told us it was nuts during the witching hour just down from them.  That is only ¼ mile away.  So strange the hatch can be prolific in one spot and just ¼ mile away nothing.  Isn’t that just fly fishing?

Now, after two days of hiking and guiding these two I was “done”.  After dinner, I literally passed out in my backpacking chair watching the river.  If vicki didn’t wake me up I might have slept in that chair all night.

I love this shot. Vicki roll casting off the island with Alyssa below

Monday, June 27

The plan was to hike out with Vicki and Alyssa as early as possible.  Instead of hiking out empty I offloaded some of stuff from their packs.  We didn’t get too late a start but, it ended up being about an hour too late.  In the hike up the mountain we didn’t have a breeze, were exposed to the sun and it was hot.  Halfway up I asked, “How is team morale?”  and Allyssa shot back something like, “below average”.  That made me smile. 

that is a huck-bow warrior hanging out of this guy’s face

In the week prior I told Micah (the next guy I was to guide) that I’d meet him at the site around 9am.  We were over an hour late for that.  Not a problem.  I said goodbyes to Vicki and Alyssa and met an excited Micah. 

Treat yourself to the professionally done video by Micah Conrad, who I taught how to fly fish on this trip here.

I filled my now empty pack with 6 beers and more fresh food (little did I know that Micah had venison steaks in his pack!) and we headed down. 

That’s me and Micah on the Hike out

I’m already way beyond my self-inflicted word count limit here, but the way Micah and I found each other is a great story I have told many many times.  Micah was… and I emphasize was a conventional gear trout fisherman who’s love of the river is infectious.  He reached out to me on timhuckaby.com about flies using “fly and a bubble”.  So he bought some flies off the site and we went back and forth on the tactics of fly and a bubble.  Well, I didn’t think anything of it until he emailed me a week or so after his experience on the JDB trail with a link to a youtube video where he calls me out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GOhJa5Qjy4 .  anyways, his success and pure joy was so intoxicating I sent the link to the video to my son, the fly fishing guide in Montana.  And my son Mark said, “Dad, you gotta’ teach that kid how to fly fish.”  So, a few communications later we worked it out to meet on this trip.  I was pushing it close to my international flight the next day.  But, teaching this kid how to throw a fly was more important.

Micah’s joy of fly fishing and the wilderness is intoxicating

So, back down the mountain we went.  And it was hot.  I was fine but I believe micah’s pack was a little heavy so he slowed towards the last mile.  As we staggered into the Huck site there was Marty as planned. 

After a little rest and food at the Huck site we did the same routine of fly casting teaching and practice at the sight.  Marty had killed in front of rattlesnake creek a few days prior.  But, it’s a brutal bushwhack in there.  But, Micah said he was up for it so off we went.  And sure enough that is the area I gave the most blood trying to get into on the trip.  I put a size 8 huck hopper on him.  Micah was not ready for casting a dry dropper yet.  His first few casts were nasty… probably because he was excited.  So, I settled him down and he got into the timing of the overhand cast.  He put one upstream about 30 feet and it drifted perfectly…as if God shined down on him slowly next to this huge boulder in about 10 feet of water.  It was like it happened in slow motion.  One of, if not the biggest kern river rainbows I have ever seen in that river shamoo’d slowly like the west slope cutthroats of northwestern montana and pulled down that huck hopper.  I screamed, “Go!” and he did… unfortunately I had not worked on line control in any depth with Micah yet and he just couldn’t get tight quick enough.  But, I was screaming “Woo!” and he was screaming “Woo! And we were high fiving and I was so excited I fell in the river.  It wasn’t 5 minutes later that micah set properly and landed a nice one.  More yelling and screaming and high fiving in joy.  A first timer… on the Upper Kern.  It was magical.  The rest of the day went like that.  Micah, since he has so much trout experience with conventional trout fishing took to fly fishing like a natural.  He had a lot of takes.  And landed some nice fish.  Of course I have now ruined him financially as he will buy a ton of fly fishing gear.

Again no rises in the witching hour while I prepared happy hour and dinner.  So no catching in the huck site in over 3 days.  Very strange.  In the morning we broke camp as early as possible.  I did the ceremonial last cast (which is always about 10 casts) with a size 18 BWO.  After a number of good drifts I said to myself, “huh.”  And reeled my fly in.  Sure enough a little KRR caught himself while I reeled it in.  As I let him go, I said, “huh….fly fishing…”

That next morning I scrambled to pack up as quickly as possible, but it was 5 nights and my stuff was strewn everywhere.  Add to that I never found the time to find a place for the new cache of stuff I left down there and that took time.  Well, when micah and I made it to the trailhead it had already crested 90 degrees and even I had some misery hiking up that hill for the 3rd and final time in 6 days.   

Yep, that’s a huck hopper hanging out of this one’s face. but, this is a brown trout. i’m starting to see them more and more….which is concerning. i didn’t have the heart to kill this one, though.

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

Relevant Stats:

July 31st to Aug 2nd, 2020

CFS: 175 down to 165

Water temp: 57 – 72

Air temp: low 50s to mid 80s

Fishing Stats:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1, Friday, July 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first time using a Wading Staff on the Upper Kern

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

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

I caught so many quality fish like this it was silly

Day one highlight

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2, Saturday, August 1st

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

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

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

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

Day 2 highlights

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

another huge fish that engulfed a size 4 huck hopper

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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