Upper Kern River End of Season 2021 Fly Fishing Report

BlackRock Trail Head -> Jordan Hot Springs -> Painters Camp

11/12/21 to 11/15/21

Mark Huckaby with just another huge Kern River Rainbow. Notice the fall colors in the background

Intro Summary

My 26 year old son Mark (the fly fishing guide from Bozeman, MT) and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in 2 days.  It was ridiculously good fishing for the wild and native Kern River Rainbow.  I mostly fished dry/dropper with a Huck Hopper on top and Huck perdigons dropped below.  The backpacking hike in and out was not easy; in fact, it was a real challenge.

The Hike

I was “jonesing” to get a backpacking fly fishing trip in before the fishing season closed on 11/15.  With most of the forests that encompass the Upper Kern River closed, it was a real challenge to figure out how to get to the Upper Kern River.  I did hike all the way back from the forks to the Johnsondale bridge in the summer with my buddy Marty Jansen…and that was awful.  The Rincon trail is a motorcycle trail which makes it awful.  Well, sure enough Marty talked me into hiking to the Upper Kern River with 45 pounds on my back…. From the east side… the 395 side.  This time from the Blackrock Trailhead.  We were joined by fellow SDFF member and buddy Bruce Bechard and my 26 year old son, Mark, who is a fly fishing guide at my two favorite lodges in Montana: The Clark Fork Outpost and the Stillwater River Outpost.

From Left to Right: Mark Huckaby, Bruce Bechard and Marty Jansen….all smiling still because it’s the beginning of the hike down.

For over 20 years I have had a dream to access the Upper Kern River from the Eastern Side of the Sierras.  The problem is that access is just brutal.  For the first decade I hike it, I always thought backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail was difficult.  I know now it is not.  The Blackrock Trail is difficult. I never knew how spoiled I was by the Forks of the Kern Trail until I tried accessing the Kern River miles above the Forks.  From the Forks trail I had never made it all the way up river to painters camp.  it’s a challenge just to make it to the first up river bridge crossing from the Forks, which I have fished to many times.

Well, the Blackrock Trail goes to Painters Camp on the Upper Kern River.  It’s only 8.8 miles… which doesn’t sound that bad at all.  But, it starts at 9,000 feet of elevation and you lose 3,800 feet doing it.  We did the entire 8.8 miles with 3800 feet in one hike.  Never again.  Not that the hike in was easy.  It’s steep and I had 45 pounds on my back.  but, it was sheer agony on the hike out: 6.5 hours of misery.  The altitude and steepness was one thing.  But, doing it in November meant many parts of the trail were iced over or snow covered.  Bruce went down 3 times…and it was so slippery he had trouble getting back up.

From the Blackrock Trailhead you hike to Casa Vieja Meadow.  From there you hike steeply downhill to  Jordan hot springs in a canyon that follows 9 mile creek.  And from Jordan Hot Springs it’s a brutal downhill single track, through canyons and miles of fire damage that make it look like the moon down to the river.  In hindsight we should have broken the trip out into 2 days.

Was that hike worth it?…

The fishing

I’m not a counter, but my son Mark is.  That is what guides do for their clients.  That is how I know Mark and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in two days. The fishing…my god… It was stupid good fishing.  Most of the time, I fished a large Huck Hopper on top and trailed them with Huck Perdigons.  And yes, I did catch most of the fish on the Huck Perdigons.   I’d guess 75% of the fish i caught were on the Huck Midge Perdigon, size 16.  But, it was November and I did catch a number of fish on size 4 Huck Hoppers.  Where else in the western hemisphere can you consistently catch fish in mid-November on huge hoppers?  During the witching hour as the sun went down i fished size 18 BWOs right in front of camp.  And did well.  At that time of year, other than the midge, the Blue Winged Olive Mayfly would be the only hatch on the Upper Kern.  There were plenty of double hook-ups on this trip and Bruce even caught 2 at once!

And yes, we did pack waders and wading boots into our backpacks…worth every ounce at this time of year.  Understand 150 means fish landed.  The Kern River Rainbow is wild and native.  I have written this many times: The Kern River Rainbow fights like hell and they just don’t give up.  I cannot tell you how many fish I hooked, but failed to land….which is normal for that river.

Does this stretch look like dry fly paradise or what?! just upstream from camp i caught a 19″ KRR just about 200 feet upstream from Mark

The reason?  Well, I have my speculations that I will share with you:

  1. These fish have not seen an artificial fly in a year and a half and most won’t for over 2 years. The fire closures just have made it really hard for “normal humans” to get into the upper kern to fish.
  2. I have now fly fished 4 end of season (11/15) closings on the Upper Kern River. And I have killed every time.  I believe the trout just know that winter is coming and the food supply is about to grind to a halt so they go nuts feeding in anticipation of a long miserable winter.
  3. The River is always low in November. It’s crossable and there just are not many places the fish can hide from a good cast with a good drift.
  4. I think it’s also interesting to note that this part of the river is in a steep canyon which makes the days at this time of year super short. We didn’t see the sun until after 8am and lost it around 2:30 pm.  Fishing NOT in direct sunlight could help.
  5. A winter spawn? There are rainbows that spawn in the winter…like the Steelhead.  But, Kern River Rainbows are Spring Spawners.  Some of the fish we were catching looked like spawning males because of the colors.  They were dark and colorful not like the chromers we catch in the summer and fall.  Lately I challenge myself to see how quickly I can hook a trout, get it to hand and release it.  I wish I would have taken more pictures.  I also noticed what I thought were spawning behaviors.  I caught one decent sized fish and a huge fish followed it in.  that is normal, of course.  But, what wasn’t normal was this 2 footer was nuzzling next to my hooked fish side to side like a male trout lines up next to a female on a redd. I watched this behavior 3 times before I released my fish.

Notice a few things in the video above.  Firstly, the colors of the rainbow i have hooked.  then look closely at the huge 2 foot+ rainbow following it.  normally i wouldn’t have played that fish so long in front of me.  But, i was fascinated by the behavior as if they were in spawning mode.

My favorite stories from the trip:

  • On the first day Mark and I fished up river from where we camped. Bruce and Marty fished downriver to Marty’s favorite runs at Kern Flats.  Well, within a couple miles of fishing Mark and I wandered into the series of Waterfalls we had heard about.  We had already done really well.  Hiking above the first waterfall was pretty easy on the eastern side.  I watched and took pictures as Mark nailed some nice fish “between the falls”.  But, for the life of me I cannot figure out how fish got into that pool.  It’s well documented that waterfalls are natural barriers that prevent fish from moving up and down river.  And somehow they figure out how to do it. But, it was after 2:30PM and the sun was already behind the canyon walls.  I stared at that huge waterfall trying to figure out how to get around it for the next days’ adventure.  We decided we’d scale it from the west side because there was a huge bolder scree on the east side that looked impenetrable – big mistake.
  • Well, Marty joined Mark and I on the next day. The plan was to hike all the way to the falls and scale it, and start fishing from above.  It took an hour to scale that mountain and it was quite physical and relatively dangerous in spots.  After fishing, we took the trail on the way back to camp.  The trail goes way away from the river and up and over the mountain, but it was easier than the way we climbed in.  But, in between, my God the fishing was good.  Mark and I approached a run that was shaded by trees on both sides.  Like normal I said, “Do you want the head or the tail?”  He took the head.  Within seconds he was battling a big fish.  That big fish is the first picture in this article.  Well, I moved into the river below him where I could cast straight up stream into the run.  I caught a couple quickly.  Mark moved on up river on the assumption that big fish put the pool down.  I told you I’m not a counter but, this run was so prolific I counted…because I caught a fish on almost every cast.  At 14 landed and 2 LDR’d I laughed, left and caught up with Mark.

Fly Fishing the Upper Kern River is not for the faint of heart. There was no river trail in most of the areas we fished.

Sidebar from Mark Huckaby 

“On the way down the mountain I knew nymphing was going to be our best option not only because the time of the season.  But also because the introduction of the perdigon to the fly fishing industry has everyone confident in fishing the winter months (at least that is the case in Montana). Because my dad refuses to nymph and always starts with a dry fly.  When we got to camp he started fishing dry and alas, fish were rising. The next few days we were lucky enough to experience some of the best dry fly fishing I’ve ever experienced in November. The type of fishing where your hands start hurting because you’re catching so many fish. If you’re like me and like to switch it up. I recommend tossing a streamer in the big pools we found. A green, brown, or yellow wooly bugger seemed to do the trick and it was awesome to get chased by the native Kern River rainbows. It seemed like every time you casted into those pools a bunch of little fish would swim right up to check it out. The waterfall created many big deep pools for me to attack; perfect for streamers. To get the big fish, cast up into the white water, let your bugger sink very close to the bottom and strip back quickly.”

Here’s Mark changing out streamers beneath a small waterfall

Summary

Would I do this again?  Was it worth that awful hike out?  absolutely yes.  I’d do almost anything for that type of success in fly fishing for wild natives. But, next time I’ll break up that hike out into two days with an overnight at Jordon hot springs.  And even then that hike from Jordon Hot Springs to the trailhead is pretty gruesome.  Also 3 nights with only 2 fishing days for that amount of hike is too short.  It should be at least a 4 nighter.  Adding that night hiking out makes it a 5 nighter.

Here’s Mark battling just above “Marty’s Hole”. i swear i watched Marty yank 10+ fish out of that hole.

Special thanks to “Steve Ojai”, aka Steve Schalla, aka owner of www.flyfishingthesierra.com for the help on how to pull this backpacking trip off.  Steve was so kind to provide much of the guidance we needed.  Steve has fished this part of the river many times.  We used Steve’s map of the area religiously on this trip.  After the trip I talked to Steve in email.  He speculated the spawning behaviors and colors may have been confused trout as a result of the sudden drop in river temperature.