Tag Archives: Kern River Rainbow

Forks of the Kern – June 18-22, 2021

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

One of the many big Kern River Rainbows i nailed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fire Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fishing

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

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

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

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

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

The Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of interest…

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

Summary

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

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

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

 

Forks of the Kern 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.