Tag Archives: Upper Kern River

Rescue at the Forks of the Kern

This is the amazing lifesaving side story of the 2022 annual trip of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) to the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trail

Here is the first sms message (txt) that i sent through my Garmin InReach after pressing the SOS button

It was fairly late in the day.  My buddy Mike from Atlanta, a first-time fly fisher, and I hiked the long 2 miles back up and over the mountain back to the Huck site after a long day of battling kern river rainbows (KRR).  We passed John and Delia Cooley going the other way on the trail… going up river to get in another hour or so of fishing before dark.  The Cooleys have a ton of wilderness experience so I didn’t even think about worrying about them.  I knew that Pauly was way up river… like 6 miles… so, I didn’t expect him back until the sun went down.  As mike and I hiked back I did notice looking down from the trail that 3 young backpackers had moved in on the upriver side of the mountain (rattlesnake creek pass) while we were fishing upstream from them.  There is really no trail down to the river from there so I liked their choice of scrambling down to the primitive site that exists down below.  Plus, they were on top of one of my favorite fishing holes.  One I always take beginners to.  My wife has caught fish off those rocks… Mere, my niece and nephews… Vickie and Alyssa who I taught just a couple weeks before.  They have all caught fish there.  And even on this trip Bruce Bechard from SDFF called it “his hole”.  Little did I know how big those rocks would turn out in this story.

Well, tradition at the huck site involves happy hour: a little food and sipping JD while we watch rises to the point where one of us musters enough strength to get up and cast at them with a size 18 anything. 

It was 6:03PM when I sent the SOS on my Garmin InReach Satellite Communicator device.

I will never forget the look on that kid’s face when he ran into the Huck Site Yelling, “My brother has been bit by a Rattlesnake!”  I have seen that look before.  You never forget a look of fear like that.  I focused on remaining calm for that kid… who is now a lifelong friend, Stephen.  But, on the inside I was wigging out.  I briskly walked Stephen to my inreach device on the other side of camp and pressed the SOS button.  A first.  I have never discharged a bear spray.  I have come close.  But, now I have pressed the SOS button on my Garmin InReach.

While assuring Stephen everything would be fine, I asked him some simple questions and found out his brother Nick was bit and that another friend was with him.  Stephen literally ran the 1.25 miles over the mountain (rattlesnake creek below) on the trail downriver to the huck site where we were. He was breathing pretty hard when he ran into the Huck site.

What I didn’t know… because I was focused on Stephen and getting a plan from the IERCC (The International Emergency Response Coordination Center) was that Steve Massey, Ryan Tracey and Patrick Cooley from SDFF were forming a plan to run hike back with Stephen to Nick, the victim at the bite site.  All this coordination was all going on behind me.  I found out later they were getting ready for the hike/run up stream to the site of the incident (putting on proper clothes, shoes, etc.  grabbing water) and Steve Massey was getting his trauma bag which included a Stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, along with helicopter landing panel, and signaling mirror. 

Well, Stephen noticed the SDFF rescue team first and said, “I should go with them.”  I said “Yes.”, as Ryan approached me.  Ryan and I made a plan.  I’d drive Comms from the huck site with IERCC while they ran/hiked/jogged back to Nick, the rattlesnake victim.  I have a decade of messaging experience on the InReach and it just works better when standing still while the satellites are locked.   I told Ryan that once he got there to do an SOS from his own InReach device so that IERCC could lock the coordinates at the site of the victim.  Then Ryan and I could do inreach to inreach messages from our devices to update on status between Nick and the IERCC.

From John: “Delia and I were walking back on the trail towards basecamp when we heard yelling from a long way down the mountain at the river.  We could see someone waving at us but couldn’t understand what the person was yelling.  Delia and I started to turn to continue hiking when the individual started yelling again; we heard the word “SNAKE.”  Delia and I stopped and debated what to do.  We then heard the phrase “SNAKE BITE.”  We quickly formulated a plan.  Delia started running to the Huck Site while I started plunging down the several hundred foot drop to the river.”

Delia ran into Ryan, Steve, Patrick and Stephen coming the other way.  She turned and joined them on the trek to Nick, the bite victim. 

From  John: When I arrived a few minutes later I found two guys in their 20s.  The victim, Nick, was calmly sitting on a rock holding an electronic e-reader.  Andrew, the guy who flagged us down, was standing nearby holding a small first aid book.  Nick pointed to his ankle where he had circled with a black Sharpie pen two large puncture wounds and had written the time of the bite – “4:55 p.m.”  Nick proceeded to list all of the classic venom symptoms he was experiencing, including swelling of the ankle and a metallic taste in his mouth.  Nick and Andrew referred to their first aid books. Nick said the only viable treatment was to remain calm and try to get to a hospital within 6 hours. 

There was no possible way to get to a hospital in six hours . . . unless we could bring in a helicopter.  I told them that my wife was running to camp where we had a satellite communicator and – bonus – a Navy Corpsman.  Nick and Andrew were very relieved to hear that information.

There were now 5 SDFF people on site with Nick (the bite victim, his brother Stephen and the other friend).  We’d learn later how important and how lucky it was to have that many people on site.

From Ryan: “Somehow Steve Massey ran the whole way and carried the stretcher in flip flops which were destroyed by the time he made it back to camp. When Patrick and I saw him take off with just those and a med kit, we both took a minute to load our bags with water and head lamps. Really glad we did because that came in handy on the way back.”

From John: “Thank God Corpsman Steve was there.  He quickly asserted control and started questioning Nick about his condition.  Steve removed a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff from his heavy medical bag.  Meanwhile, Ryan moved into a clear view of the satelites executed an SOS on his Garmin InReach.”

From Steve: “When I got there, Nick was in mild pain and started to show symptoms from the Hemotoxin.  Began by taking his vital signs- Blood Pressure, pulse, and respirations.  Nick had an elevated Blood Pressure and was complaining about respiratory discomfort, along with pain radiating throughout his body to include his head.”

The bite was on Nick’s ankle.  Steve told me later doing a tourniquet was not an option because the poison was already coursing throughout nicks body.

This is the first message from Ryan’s InReach at the site of the bite victim, Nick

I had already warned the IERCC that they were going to get a 2nd SOS from the victim site and they confirmed with me when they got it.  Ryan and I were now “InReaching” each other with updates as the info poured in.

From Steve: “Nick was calm until the toxin caused muscle spasms, nausea, and just sheer concern for his life.  I told him to focus on breathing and keeping his blood pressure down- heart rate down to slow spread of venom through his bloodstream.  When that started to calm him down and the pain increased.  I recommended he find a Mental (happy Place) and focus on that until extraction.  I held his hand until it was time to move him to helicopter.”

Then the wait…I got the ETA on my Inreach from IERCC: “40 minutes”.  Ryan got “30 minutes” shortly thereafter.  The 5 from the SDFF crew had the two other boys gather up all their backpacking stuff for the hike back to the huck site. 

The shots I took of the Helicopter going over the Huck Site to Nick and the helicopter leaving with him headed for the Visalia Hospital

From Steve: “Stephen, Nicks brother found the snake and got my attention.  I went over with Patrick and John and saw that it was a juvenile not adult rattlesnake.  Knowing this made more sense as young rattlesnakes cannot control their venom discharge, which is why Nick’s medical symptoms had become so severe.” 

Those of us who live in rattlesnake areas like California know the juvenile rattlesnake is the most dangerous.  What I understand to have happened is Nick accidently dropped a piece of trash and the wind got it.  He ran for it before it went over the rocks and into the river and stepped right next to the juvenile rattlesnake.  It bit him immediately without even rattling.  It rattled as it slithered off to a crevice in the rocks.

There are plenty of snakes down at the Forks.  Ryan encountered this Western Diamondback.  And I ran into the snake that eats the rattlesnakes: The California King Snake.

From Steve: “Every 5 or so minutes I was retaking Nick’s vitals and they were definitely on the “not so good side”, but not terrible yet.  Nick was concerned about making it out alive and I calmed those emotions as best I could.”

From John: Our group cheered at the first sounds of the helicopter.  It overshot us and disappeared up the canyon.  But two minutes later the helicopter returned, circled and broadcasted over its loudspeaker that they were going to land 1/4 mile up river.  We listened in complete disbelief as the voice on the loudspeaker directed us to hike up with Nick and meet the helicopter.  Nick was in no position to walk anywhere.  I was concerned he may lose consciousness at any moment.  We quickly formulated a plan.  Ryan and I ran up river to try to convince the helicopter to land closer while Steve, Patrick, Stephen and Andrew would do their best to carry Nick up river.

From Steve: “When the helicopter arrived on scene it made several passes to look for a safe landing zone.  It was just in time as Nick’s lip were turning blue (cyanotic).  On their final pass they told us on the loud speaker that they were landing a ¼ mile down river.  Now that might sound easy- but man we are talking about moving a 165 LBS kid along a goat trail through God’s country with no stretcher.  Not an easy or even safe plan, but it was all we had so we made it happen!  Ryan and Patrick along with John made movement to the helicopter to talk with the medic.  They came back with a backboard to carry Nick instead of the way we were carrying him.”

Unfortunately, the helicopter could not make a safe landing on the side of the river where Nick was.  It had to land on the other side of the river, ¼ mile away.  That meant everyone carrying that kid on a stretcher across the “Killer Kern” as the sun went down.  Various folks slipped and fell on that journey across the river.  But, Nick was not dropped into the water.

From John: “Ryan and I took off running cross-country up the canyon to find the helicopter.  After ~10 minutes we spotted the distant lights of the helicopter – in a meadow on the opposite side of the river.  A man in a flight suit was approaching on the opposite side.  After yelling back and forth across the river brought us to an impasse.  I didn’t think we couldn’t hand-carry Nick to the helicopter and the flight medic on the opposite bank said the helicopter couldn’t land any closer to the victim.  But the helicopter had a backboard and the flight medic offered to carry it across the river and help carry Nick. ”

At the same time, Steve, Pat, Stephen and Andrew carried Nick along the river towards the helicopter.  Delia was there and had seen the helicopter land from her perch on the trail and ran back down the mountain to guide the group to the helicopter’s location.  The group carrying Nick was exhausted, but they had gotten Nick several hundred yards farther up the canyon closer to the helicopter.  When the two groups met the flight medic began to examine Nick while Ryan and Patrick assembled and secured the backboard.   After Nick was strapped to the board, our group of six grabbed the backboard while Delia led and cleared the path. 

From John: I thought carrying the backboard would be easy.  However, Nick was heavy, the trail was rocky and narrow, and it was now close to 8:00 pm and getting dark. We walked up river for a while then carefully went down the steep riverbank to enter the water.  Delia grabbed people’s phones and Nick’s e-reader before lighting up the river with a headlamp .The water was opaque and up to our waists; we could not see our feet or the many large rocks under the surface.  None of us were wearing wading boots or had a wading staff.  Steve was only wearing flip-flops.  Frequently, someone would yell out “stop” or “slow down” as they lost their footing, twisted an ankle or banged their shins on a rock.  I think each one of us fell in the water at some point while struggling to keep the backboard above water.  I remember worrying during the crossing that Nick may survive the snake bite but drown during the river crossing. 

From John: The helicopter pilot was waiting for us at the top of the bank.  He took the flight medic’s spot on the backboard while the medic ran ahead to get an IV ready for Nick.  We all walked the last 100 yards and loaded Nick – still on the backboard – into the helicopter. Our group then backed off and took cover behind rocks and trees to avoid any debris kicked up by the helicopter as it took off. 

It was now 840 PM.  It was dark.   So now dark, the 5 SDFF members and the 2 boys with all their gear and walked back the 1.25 miles to the Huck Site over the mountain to camp in the dark of night.  The rest of the SDFF group at the Huck site waited nervously.  It was now after 10PM.  When I saw the flashlights coming down the trail I thanked God in relief.

From John: “After the helicopter flew away, we plunged again into the river.  We had to cross the river again to get back to the Huck site.  This time without having to carry Nick, but still difficult because it was dark.  Steve gave up trying to wade in his flip-flops and simply swam across the river.” 

From John: “Ryan, Steve, Patrick, Andrew, Stephen, Delia and I hiked back to the site of the snake bite, gathered our own personal gear, distributed Nick’s gear among us, and slowly started hiking back up the mountain to the trail.  At the top, Delia and I found our fly rods where we had dumped them along the trail, and the group started walking the mile back to basecamp.  We arrived around 10:00 p.m. – more than four hours after the ordeal started.  Patrick’s girlfriend, Sarah, had dinner waiting for us.”

Stephen and his friend ate dinner at the Huck site, got refilled with water and hiked back to the trailhead in the dark to their vehicle to make the journey to the Visalia Hospital where Nick was taken by helicopter.  Lots of “thank yous” and hugs before leaving.

I have messaged with Stephen numerous times since the incident and happy to report that Nick will be fine, but has a road to recovery.  He was discharged from the hospital a full week after the incident.  It’s now many weeks since the incident yet, he’s still swollen and there is still a lot of pain.  But, he’s not dead.  All in all, he received 22 vials of antivenom. 

I’m trying not to be overly dramatic, but these 5 SDFF members (Steve Massey, Ryan Tracey, John, Delia and Pat Cooley) saved that kids life.  They are true heroes.  Of course, it would have been a lot worse without a Garmin InReach to “call in the cavalry”.

Ryan took this awesome picture of a relieved Steve Massey with the Helicopter taking off with Nick in the background

Another classic picture from ryan: Steve: “Screw it.  I have fallen so many times I’m just swimming it back.

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.

2-nighter on the JDB trail: May 1-3, 2022

Although i still haven’t mastered my fancy GoPro, this release gives you an idea of how dirty the water was

Forks of the Kern Update: It’s Open!

I cannot tell you how many emails I have answered asking about when the Forks will open again.  As of Today, 5/13/22. IT’S OPEN!

Just got word from a buddy who said, “Western Divide, he said Lloyd Meadows and the Forks will be open as of today.  He said they’re “in the process” of clearing it all out, and “there may be escorts”, but it will be open for sure for my trip on Sunday.  I even got my Wilderness permit approved.” 

Beware: There are a couple of barriers to your fishing fun when the Forks finally does open after its 2 year hiatus.  Firstly, in high flow of the main river, the little kern river crossing (which is part of the Forks trail) can be treacherous.  Secondly, the Upper Kern is just difficult to fish in flows over 500CFS.  It has everything to do with the willows, trees and other bushes that line the river.  It’s just hard to find spots in the river to wade in safely when “it’s up.”.  

2-nighter on the JDB trail: May 1-3, 2022

Flow:

  • Sunday: 545 CFS
  • Monday: 560 CFS
  • Tuesday: 585 CFS

Solunar

  • Sunday: 92%
  • Monday: 77%
  • Tuesday: 52%
That is a Huck Midge Perdigon, Size 14 hanging out of this KRR’s face. In conditions like this you have to go big and get down quickly.

Conditions:

A muddy, rising, raging torrent of death topped off with 30 MPH gusts of wind.  I was a week too late; the runoff has started.  I caught it perfectly in 2020 and 2021.  The Upper Kern will be pretty much unfishable to anyone but experts as it rises to over 1000 CFS through mid June. 

Notice that brown raging torent of death beyond my tent in the background. normally this is one of the best plunge pools and runs on this stretch of the river. it’s a great campsite because of the location and view of the river.

Report:

On a full day of fishing on Monday, I got ~10 to hand losing about twice that many.  So, considering the bad conditions and still getting around 30 takes one might think I’d be stoked.  But, I expected to get 40 to hand and lose another 40 like the prior 2 years.  Still totally fun.  How can getting takes on a size 4 huck hopper in April not be fun? 

Casting for Recovery:

I drove straight from guiding the Casting for Recovery Event near Yosemite to the Johnsondale Bridge.  I cannot tell you what a pleasure and honor it was to help in that event.  14 ladies who stared down death in the gun barrel of cancer to get out in the outdoors for 3 days of learning about fly fishing.  I was teamed up with an extraordinary woman.  I’ll call her “B” because her story of breast cancer survival is personal.  It was personal for me because my wife is a breast cancer survivor.  “B” is a  young beautiful lady originally from Toronto and now living in Temecula with her husband from Northern Ireland.   I have been to Northern Ireland a few times; I have a first cousin there.  So we had a lot to talk about.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to fish a river teaming with trout.  We were put on a pond that had not been stocked.  To make it even more challenging trees lined this pond so a traditional overhand cast was impossible.  Not to worry it wasn’t about catching.  It never is about catching…is it?  The night before the event, I tied a bunch of Squirmy Worms in the hotel room I had in Reedley, CA.  The squirmy and the mop fly are now illegal in competition fly fishing events….for a reason….and I tie them with glow in the dark materials… it’s totally cheating…I don’t even sell them on this site anymore for that reason.  I only use them when teaching beginners.  So, yea, perfect for an event with beginners like casting for recovery.   So, I started by teaching a roll cast.  But, we talked through what an overhand cast would be…the 10-2 thing..  teaching the casts in that reverse order was a first for me.  but, in the long term probably a good strategy I may use again.  if you can roll cast you can fly fish anywhere.  Especially on the Upper Kern where it’s tough to find room for an overhand cast.  “B” picked it up pretty quickly.  She clearly has an athletic set of genes in her.  Well, sure enough…within 15 minutes a huge largemouth took that squirmy super close to the shore in 1.5 feet of water .  Unfortunately her teacher (me) didn’t focus on how to set to deeply because I never dreamed we’d get a take.  It was an enormous bass and I was clearly more excited about it than “B”. 😊  we only got a fish for 2-3 hours.  I could have done that all day with her and had the time of my life.  So fun.

“B” is headed to Scotland this summer…and yes, she’ll fly fish with her husband.  I’d really love to get those two on the annual couples trip to the forks this fall.  And I told her as much.  The casting for recovery event was just a great time.  All the guides and support staff are simply awesome people….as you’d imagine.  I can’t wait to be honored to do it again.

Yep, that’s a mountain lion and pretty fresh. I stepped over it entering the river at the end of the JDB trail intersection with the canyon trail to the Rincon Trail. the print was right at the river’s edge and he’s up on his toes taking a drink.

Upper Kern Backpacking and Fishing Details:

I had a long 3 hour drive south and east into the sierras from the Casting for Recovery event to the Johnsondale bridge.  While driving I checked the flow and my heart just sunk.  The river was rising.  I knew exactly what that meant: I was too late. 

I got to the parking lot at the JDB around 3:45PM and took off with 42 pounds on my back from the at 4pm.  I knew I had a couple hour hike and that I should get to camp well before the sun went down at 6:30.  I did not see a single sole from the minute I got on the trail until I hiked out and reached the parking lot on Tuesday at 10:15 AM.  Nice.  But, it was hard not to stare at that rising river as I hiked in.  It had a brown tint to it too.  It was already blown out.

If you are a backpacker, you know the hassle and stress of getting your campsite set up while racing the sun.  So, I didn’t get a cast in that first day.  I didn’t have time to string a rod.  And that was fine.  I knew I’d have a full day tomorrow.  I just love the occasional backpacking alone thing.  It so good for clearing the mind and letting go of the stress of every day life.

Anyone who has caught a Native Wild Kern River Rainbow can relate to this. although the picture isn’t in focus notice the two splash circles. This fish did a double 360 spin in the air while i laughed in amusement. I probably didn’t land him.

Also, as I my habit I was asleep pretty early.  Between the long day, the hike, jack daniels, a fire and bbqing a steak I hiked in I was pretty toast.  I retreated to my tent to listen to fly fishing podcasts and was soon asleep.  And that means I was up and out of the tent at 5:45am.  Guess what I did first.  I stared at the river.  in that low light of the morning when the sun is rising i said to myself, “It’s big; but, It doesn’t look that bad.”  So I strung a rod.  Although I hadn’t seen any I had heard the salmonfly hatch was still on.  I had tied a dozen for the trip so I quickly tied one on and got in position for a 6am cast.  It made a simple 40 foot cast straight up river on the seam. The light was so poor it was hard to see that huge salmonfly coming back at me.  But sure enough I saw what looked like a take and I set hard.  I was on.  I laughed as I released it because I have not caught many fish that early in the day.  Then I made the mistake of saying to myself, “this is going to be a good day.”  because it was exactly then when it hit me: The first cast fish jinx… I cannot tell you how many times that has happened to me. 

Well, I know that upper couple miles of the JDB stretch like the back of my hand so I fished all day where I knew fish held. But, when I wasn’t getting consistent rises I faced the reality of nymphing by way of the Huck Hopper/Dropper. The prior two years of me fishing the JDB stretch in April before the Forks opened I absolutely killed on dries.  Not this year.  I was just a week too late.  The river huge, dirty and blow out.  The flow was tough to get the flies down in the deeper water.  And I knew I had to get them down because the water clarity was only about a foot.  That was why I wasn’t getting rises.  The fish just couldn’t see through the dirty water.  But there are two plunge pools up river from the trail end where I did pretty well on Huck Midge Perdigons in less than 3 feet of water.  Then that wind came in.  I guessed 30mph gusts because I was actually blown off a rock I was standing on in the river.  At points it was really hard to get a drift but I kept fighting through it.  What else was I going to do?  I’m not much of a sit and wait guy.

Normally i miss the nature shots like this one. Springtime can be pretty spectacular in the Kern River Canyon

Out of the ten or so to hand only one was a larger Kern River Rainbow (KRR).  All the others were in the less than 10” class.  Most of which I guessed to be 2 year fish.  But, the reality of the conditions and the river still rising made me decide I’d hike out early the next morning instead of battling all day again.

So, I hiked out early in the morning after breaking camp and was on the road in Huck-Truck by 1030AM back home.  My next adventure will be at the forks.  Most likely end of June / early July.  Hope to see you there.