July 15-19, 2020
I serve the board of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club. For years, I have taken club members into the Forks. If you read on this site you know how much I love the Forks. I promised to do an “official” club trip with a larger group and I’m sure glad I did. The “cat herding” of organizing and planning was well worth it. We had so much fun. 9 tents in the huck site – a new record. We set a lot of new “first times” and new records at “The Forks”. I’ll elaborate some of them below. What a great and diverse group! From total beginner fly fishers to advanced experts. I spent a lot of time guiding some of the beginners and absolutely had a blast doing it.
The weather was fantastic; never too hot. We always seemed to have a breeze. There were no mosquitos, but that is pretty common at the forks. There is just not a lot of standing water near that raging river like there is on the eastern side of the sierras. My guess is that is got to 80 degrees riverside. But, the nights were cool; all the way in your 18 degree sleeping bag cool. My guess was it got under 50 at night. That is a big swing in temperature which is common at the Forks.
We ate (and drank) well too. I did not lose weight on this trip. And I was doing 30K+ steps per day which included hiking, bushwhacking and fighting current. I did the sous vide thing on a huge steak and lamb chops because there is a forest wide ban on campfires so I couldn’t grill them. I hiked in a little butter and flashed them in my titanium frying pan under my jet boil. It worked perfectly. In terms of adult beverages here is what I noticed flowing: scotch, JD, bourbon, wines, beer….and port wine… now, that is a first. And clearly not a sacrifice. Since this is only a 4.36 mile hike to the huck site it offers the opportunity to carry a lot more weight going in and hike out that canyon much lighter.
Everyone caught fish – The fishing was great. Not a surprise because at those low flows the fishing is always great. The 4 straight drought years a few years back provided some of the best fishing on the upper kern ever. Some of the advanced fly fishers did really well. Lots of big Kern River Rainbows well. “Top 5 fly fishing trips ever” well. At 240 CFS the river was crossable in many places safely including right at the huck site. Like I have said on this site many times if you can fish the other side of the river you will put your flies in places where the fish just rarely see artificials.
I’m a big believer in that 3 fly set up I detail in the Forks guidance document with the 3 titanium bead beldar stone pulling down a size 16 green caddis cripple. I call it the Upper Kern river special. It’s wildly effective. I only fished that rig for 15 minutes, catching 2 kern river rainbows quickly. I didn’t need to nymph. I fished 98% of the time with dries. Mostly Huck Hoppers. Most of the time I fished a double dry with a battleship size 4 huck hopper above, trailed 18” behind by a size 12 huck hopper. Color did not seem to matter. I fished tan, brown, grey, black and green and they all got struck. But, I wish I had those huck hoppers size 4 in yellow with me. I did not. there were yellow naturals on the banks and trails… all huge like 2s, 4s, 6s.… with a yellow body and black streaks and yellow wings. A lot of them. My guess is that the yellow huck hopper would have done well. The reason I stopped nymphing when it was so effective? A large kern river rainbow struck that big huck hopper with the beldar stone and the green caddis cripple below. I set hard. There were a lot of jumps and a battle. I tried to release the tired fish quickly. It was easy to remove the big huck hopper from it’s face. But the 3+ feet of flouro and two nymphs were wrapped around the trout; not good. I snipped the tippet in multiple places quickly so I could release that fish unharmed. When it swam away I said to myself, “why redo that nymph rig all up again with its 5 separate knots when they are just going to rise for a battleship sized huck hopper.” I never nymphed again on the trip. There was no need to. I saw consistent rises to huck hoppers all trip long even when the river warmed.
The flow was at 240CFS, which is drought-like flow. And really bizarre for July to be so low on an average snowpack year. It has to do with the amount, frequency and temperature that the snow falls and freezes. I measured the river temp at the huck site in the morning at 58 degrees. That is in the range that trout dig. It is melted snow from Mt. Whitney, afterall. But, after 35 miles in direct sunlight and air temps over 80, the river rose to 72 degrees by eod. Typically, trout hate that warm water. But, we all were getting rises in that water temp and catching fish. Which means they were hunkered down at the bottom in the cooler channels and pockets and shot to the top to feed. Don’t get me wrong. There definitely was a lull in action from 11:30AM to 3:30PM. But, I cannot explain why the fishing picked up in the later afternoon with those warm water temps.
As mentioned, we had a number of new firsts on this trip:
- The way it shook out ½ of the group hiked in on Wednesday morning with me scouting and securing a site. and the other ½ hiked in Thursday. My plan from the beginning was to hike in a day early, securing a spot big enough for the group. Then hike all the way back out and lead the group in the next day. But, a bunch of these folks wanted to just hike in with me a day early. Hiking back out provided an opportunity. My buddy jeff kimura joined me in hiking back out with an empty backpack. I filled mine with a 20 can box of coors and a few more random beers and some fresh food and jeff put a huge watermelon in his pack. Both firsts. I have to be the first 58 year old to hike a case of beer 4.36 miles up from the confluence on the forks trail. And there is no way a full watermelon has made it that far up river.
- I just realized this was the first 4-nighter I have ever done in the forks. Between the demand of work and family I just have never had the time to do anything longer than 3 nights. It’s been mostly 2 nighters. And honestly by the 5th day I was having so much fun, I wanted to stay a few more days. A lot had to do with the fun group and a lot had to do with the awesome fishing and a lot had to do with not facing the reality of 5 days of going dark from work. I do have to figure out how to do a 7-day trip to the forks. I just have not been as far up that river as I would love to.
- The rope swing at the huck site – I get emails all the time about how fun it is for kids. But, I had no idea how many “adults” could enjoy that thing. With that late afternoon rise in water temp, a few found a 20 foot swing and 10 foot plunge into the deep pool in front of the huck site a welcome relief and a lot of fun. Me? I hiked in a pair of swimming goggles and swam / floated the run in the huck site chasing / spotting fish. I knew that pool was deep. I didn’t realize how deep. It was eerie how deep that pool is. The bottom was just beyond site even with goggles. Even in that low flow it was deeper than 20 feet. And the water was cold below 5 feet deep.
The cache is now overwhelmed with great “stuff”. I’m going to have to start thinking about a more permanent container to survive the winter. We have 3 saws of all sizes with extra blades, nippers for cutting back those pesky willows. Cooking stuff. A tent. Wading shoes. Etc. But, thanks to Jeff Kimura the cache now has a quality camp table. Too big for a backpack he hiked it all the way down the mountain holding it. No more leaning over awkwardly, with back pain, to cook at the huck site. If you want to use the cache and/or contribute to it download the “Guidance and Directions to the Forks of the Kern” doc. Yes, I do realize it will be vandalized again by broadcasting it’s existence this. Like it has been vandalized a few times going back in history. It is still worth it to me to share. If vandalized, I’ll just move it farther up the mountain and simply build it up again.
Animals and Calamities
If you have read on this site before I always say, “There are always calamities in backpacking. You just hope they are little ones and you can overcome them.” Short of the cuts, bruises and lots of muscle soreness our calamity ratio was pretty low. I counted 3 broken rods, but we had plenty of spares. I’m pretty confident everyone fell. It’s just part of the “tax” when fishing that river at such low flows. I fell at least 3 times. All 3 were “refreshing” without pain. in that low flow the silt accumulates on the polished granite and it can be like stepping on ice.
The animals seen down at the forks included coyotes, deer, water snakes, rattle snakes, California king snakes and the normal smaller mammals. No bears. At that temp they are way up in altitude. I’m sure mountain lions saw us, but we didn’t see them. We had middle of the night visitors even though we hung our food. They can’t help sorting through the trash bags. I should have hung them. But, something happened in the middle of the night that will be a mystery forever. We put all the cold storage food and the booze and beer in mesh bags in the river. They are secured to the bank. On the first morning one of the mesh bags was pulled out of the river and the bottom was surgically opened as if with sharp teeth or claws. Only the fats were consumed, like butter, which is typical of a predator…typical of a bear. But, I find it hard to believe that a bear wandered into camp in the middle of the night with 9 tents scattered around and no one noticing. A racoon? It would have to be a strong smart one… or one willing to get in the water. I have never seen a racoon at the forks. A river otter? So rare. Maybe. I have no idea if they eat anything but fish.
I did have a terrifying moment. If you fish places like this, you are going to have incidents like this. Because of the low flow I was getting into a position on an awesome run that is absolutely impossible to fish except in low flow. I slowly worked myself into position. I looked toward the bank and was staring face level at a rattlesnake coiled, eye to eye at 3 feet away… definitely within its striking distance. Its rattle was not going off, but it was tucked back into a crevice in the rocks so it might have been if free. In fact, it probably would have been. Well, I jumped away from it, straight into the river and said, “that’s it. not fishing here.”
My favorite moments of the trip:
….were not from my own fishing….although I did catch a bunch of quality Kern River rainbows and one Little Kern Gold-bow. They were all from fishing with beginners:
- Delia Cooley – this gal loves to fly fish! It didn’t take me 30 seconds to figure out her husband John was a stick. He has a beautiful cast. So, it was super fun to take the “husband guiding the wife” thing off his hands for a few stretches. It was clear Delia had been taught how to overhand cast. But, still a beginner. It was her willingness and eagerness to take instruction that was so fun for me. It got us quickly to roll casting…. A must on the upper kern for success. Then we moved to multi-current drifts with both upstream and downstream mends, where fish are located, inside and outside seams, downstream setting skills…shoot, we even made it to a really advanced skill: letting a drift swing to the bank and tighten to tension 40+ feet downstream. Then doing a tension / inertia cast 40+ feet straight back upstream. Getting 30 foot drift coming straight at you with line control. Then as the fly gets within 10 feet, roll casting it on a 45 degree down to the run in front of her to drift it out 30 feet and do it again.
- Jay Gross – I think this might have been one of Jay’s first fly fishing trips. A true beginner. I had 2 favorite moments with Jay. first was that witching hour at the end of the day where you can barely see and typically you can throw a size 18 anything. Well, I complicated things for him by adding a size 20 midge emerger 18 inches down from his top fly. The take was like a rocket. I screamed, “Go!” and he set hard. He got into a short battle with a 12”- 14” kern river rainbow. ….Size 20 barbless hook. Well it shook him after about 10 seconds of battle, but he fooled him and fought him so I call that a catch. I was most certainly excited screaming, “Wooo!” Earlier in the day a similar thing went down. This time in broad daylight in a clear river I watched it like was in slow motion. A similar size fish shot up from below, grabbed his huck hopper and took it down. It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet in front of us. I screamed “Go!”. that fish took the hopper to the bottom in clear view before head shaking it out of its mouth. Jay didn’t “go”. I said, “Why didn’t you set?” he said, “I didn’t see it.” I laughed and he laughed saying, “I don’t see very well.”
- Jeff kimura – Jeff was a beginner last year. He is no longer a beginner. It is of pure coincidence that we met in person. Because he lives right down the street from me. Now he has the fly-fishing bug so badly I feel like I have to apologize to his wife, Diane. Because I know from experience that his “bug” won’t be cured and is just going to cost more and more money. Jeff caught a big one. It was every bit of 15” and bordering on 16”. And it was a football. And it’s tail was a fan. That in itself is special for a Kern River Rainbow. But, the best thing is that he caught it in kern flats. I don’t think I have ever caught a big fish in Kern flats. It’s popular, easy to cast, and sees a lot of pressure. It went down like this: We were leap frogging each other as we plowed up stream to Kern Flats. I was upriver from Jeff when I heard the shout. I looked down river and his rod was bent sideways. The fish was downstream from Jeff and running downstream hot. I thought he was doomed. It’s so hard to get a big wild native fish back up river. You have to chase them. We never got to any detailed fish fighting skills. Of course, I was so excited for Jeff I threw my rod on the bank and was running to him yelling “Go with him Jeff! Run downstream with him!” After I caught up to Jeff he had a lot of line out and the line was still in his hand. It could have been in the backing. I was screaming, “rod tip high!” “Get him on the reel!”. After I said, “Jeff, get him on the reel.” For the 2nd time Jeff said, “I can’t. my drag was set too light. He came close to spooling me when he ran and bird-nested my reel.” I laughed. Jeff fought that fish like a pro holding the fly line. I know an old guide trick about landing fish. We didn’t have a net. I ran downstream from the fish, working my way back splashing and scared the fish back up stream to jeff. When jeff got him close and tired I said, ok swing him in and beach him. I think I shocked Jeff when I said that, but the fish was still hot and not only did I want a good look at that fish I knew jeff would too. I knew we could do it without hurting the fish. Jeff swung him perfectly on momentum not pulling too hard into polished granite in about 2 inches of water. I pulled that huge hopper out of its face, placed the fish in Jeff’s hands and he released him after making sure he got enough breaths to take off.