April 3-5, 2020
Well, the COVID-19 work at home thing is killing me. let’s just say in addition to the stir crazy I was stepping all over my wife’s (of 31 years) toes. I travel a lot in my job and have for over 20 years. So, because i have been home full time for weeks, my lovely bride of 31 years is ready to kill me. My wife is not used to me in her castle.
As for the stir crazy…. well, it boiled over last week for me. Being home 24/7 for a guy that constantly travels in his job and loves talking in person to engineers… I couldn’t take it anymore.
So, I backpacked the johnsondale bridge (JBD) trail and camped for 2 nights on the upper kern. I called the Western Divide Ranger district before going and short of verifying my 2020 CA fire permit and the social distancing advice I got, they were totally supportive. The JDB trailhead is about 20 miles downriver of the forks trail crossing of the little Kern River above the confluence of the Little Kern River and the main fork of the Kern. The JDB trail has a lot easier to access on right on mountain road 99 just 15 miles north of kernville. I really wasn’t worried about social distancing on that trail. And I was right. I hardly saw any humans for 3 straight days.
The best thing about this trip, though, was meeting up with a couple young fly fisherman who found me through this site. These two, Jason Headley and Joey Castellanos are over 20 years younger than I am. And because of meeting them I am no longer convinced the generation below me is doomed and going to destroy the world because of their lack of interest and experience and knowledge of the wilderness. Because of these two, I have hope for humanity after I’m long gone. I’m used to teaching kids about the wilderness. These guys taught me things! Do you know how to identify a Jeffries Pine and that it smells like vanilla? I do now thanks to them… and now I am motivated and have already started learning about the native pine trees of the sierra Nevada mountain range of California. These guys joy of wilderness, and their joy of the fly-fishing experience and their positive attitudes was intoxicating. It made me rethink the way I have taken some of the fly-fishing experience for granted.
One of the great things about the Upper Kern River is that the crystal clear water sometimes allows you to spot fish.
We txt’d on my way up so I knew they had a couple hours of start on me. For some reason, I was skeptical I’d actually run into them while hiking. The trail is rugged, wild and gets away from the river in spots. But without seeing a single soul I ran into them in a primitive site right off the trail just 2.5 miles upriver.
I initiated the discussion about the virus immediately. I’m a traveler and have been in airplanes just ~4 weeks ago. So, with social distancing in mind we agreed to camp next to each other, but, 150 feet apart. Clearly you cannot get close fly fishing together. On the trail we kept the proper distance and even at the campfire we were separated appropriately. We did the cleanse hands thing with any food we shared.
Interestingly enough, I had only backpacked and camped on the JDB trail once before. A few years back. It was the first time I ever backpacked alone. And this was the exact same primitive spot. I knew the run in front of it was a great spot to fish. But, I didn’t want to get any expectations up with Jason and Joey because I wasn’t so sure the river would fish well so early in the season. So, we started to set up camp, geared up and commenced to fish right in front of the site. I hooked up on a dry fly on my 2nd cast….hmmm… we continued to hammer the stretch of river right in front of the site and we all did well. Hmmmm….
We leap frogged each other for the rest of the day. I tend to move quickly….to my discredit… I’ll do about a max of 20 drifts and move. So I got way ahead of Jason and Joey at times. Not a problem. I just didn’t want to worry them. We did well that first day. By the end of the day I reflected that I fished dry flies all day long. There never was a reason to switch to nymphing. There were bugs and rises all day long. Caddis first, then a pretty epic mayfly hatch. Midges were around all day. There were scattered huge (like size 14) mayflies that appeared to be drakes. Those Kern River rainbows really keyed on them. I did not have anything to match that big bug and it really didn’t matter. My hook to land ratio at the end of the day was pretty bad. In the Upper Kern I am happy with a 50/50. That was not the case this day. I hooked a lot of fish. I only landed very few. Tiny barbless dries and those native and wild Kern River rainbows are just a bad combo for landing even for the experienced. No big deal with me. I want them to shake off at my feet and not have to touch them anyways.
So, we got back to camp by nightfall, and it got cold quickly. The campfire helped. We feasted on fresh food. I hiked in a pork steak and they had a deer tenderloin. After eating plus of few sips of JD, I was exhausted so I hit the sleeping bag early like usual. I woke up a number of times during the night like usual. My broken down old body just doesn’t relieve me of pain when I sleep on the ground. So, I knew it got cold. I just didn’t realize how cold. In the morning there were icicles on my sun shower.
Day 2, Saturday. This was going to be a big day. A full day of fishing. I suggested to the guys that we hike to where we stopped fishing the day before and start fishing up stream from there. They loved that idea.
By the end of the day we made it so far…so many miles upriver….to places I have never been before. In staring at what my Garmin InReach 66i tracked me doing it looks like we made is almost 6 miles upriver from the JDB. Amazingly beautiful stretches of river. What is tantalizing is that the trail goes 11 miles.
Who knew?! the Huck Hopper still got a ton of takes even though in April we are months away from the grasshoppers appearing
We all caught fish all day long and I mostly fished dries. It was a great day. Very physical. 25,000+ steps; many of which were climbing or fighting current. We ate and the guys hiked out at sundown. I was on my own now. After warming up to the fire I put it out, then hit the sack early. It didn’t seem as cold. At 2am I figured out why. It started raining. There’s nothing worse than camping in the rain. By the time I got out of the sack in the morning it was still drizzling. This put the kabosh on another day of fishing. I just wasn’t up for 40 degrees and raining knowing that would have squashed the hatches. Still happy, I packed up camp first thing in the morning and hiked out in the light rain. Then drove home, plowing through LA with zero traffic because of covid-19 and everyone working at home.
I have written many times before that there are always calamities in backpacking. And that backpacking is about managing calamities. Well, I had my share this time.
- When I put my 6 weight Winston b2X together the lower section folded in half, broken. It wasn’t from the backpack in. that is for sure. My guess is TSA broke another one of my rods. It’s not the first time it has happened. They see the graphite in the metal detector and take the rod out of it’s sheath and case. And they never put them back correctly. I was in montana fishing just 3 weeks prior and that is undoubtedly what happened. Unfortunately, Winston, although they make awesome rods, is not one of those fly fishing companies with awesome customer service nor warranties. It costs $150 to fix that rod. New ones list at $900 so it’s a tough choice to get it fixed. It’s not the first time I have broken that rod.
- My garmin inReach 66i failed again… I didn’t send messages. It has not worked right ever since I purchased it 6 months ago. It’s a drag because my delorme inReach worked for about 10 years flawlessly. It still does. I have been through 3 bouts of technical support with garmin. It sure looks like the device itself is the issue. I sure hope I can talk their tech support into replacing the device; even if I do have to pay a fee. Because many times already I have stress out my wife, kids and friends telling them they can communicate with me while in the wilderness and I’m dead silent in return because the device has never worked well.
- My truck was broken into while I was in the wilderness. Right in the Johnsondale Bridge parking lot. That is a real bummer. The stretch of river from Kernville to a few miles out of town is well known for car break ins. Like many small mountain towns, Kernville has its drug related issues too. The bad guys pulled the back window on the shell of my truck, locked, hard enough to where it bent and popped open. I have had bears do that twice to me (hilarious stories in themselves), but never by humans. Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the back of the truck. They stole my arctic 7 day cooler. It’s a yeti knockoff; but still expensive. The cooler had 2 Coors lights in it. They also stole an empty fly rod tube. There was no damage to my truck. So, the loss was minimal. It just kinda’ sucks….honestly makes me feel badly for people who feel the desperate need to do things like that.
When all was said and done, I did not see another fly fisherman other than Jason and Joey the entire time Friday to Sunday. I did run into a couple really cranky old guy spin fisherman on a day hike. It was 30 minutes later when I found out why. As I waded up stream I ran into a huge kern river rainbow resting on the bank in 3 inches of water. He had a huge mepps lure with the treble hook hanging out of the side of his face. I sure wish he would have let me pull that out of his face. Even with those barbs, that hook will disintegrate after a few days and work it’s way free.
It wasn’t excellent or great fishing, but it was good. I fished dry 90 percent of the time and hooked a lot of fish. When I did switch to nymphing, twice, I immediately stopped because the rises started again. I tried a streamer once for 10 minutes in a deep pool and failed. I switched back to dries and had success in the very same pool. There were really good mayfly hatches in the afternoons; midges all day. Even 7am rises. Really fun. I will now plan at least one trip up the JDB trail each spring before runoff forever. The key is hiking in as far as possible up stream. The River has already started its runoff period so my next chance in there will be on the forks trail mid-summer when it gets back under 500 CFS.
Here is the current river conditions as of this writing (April, 2020):
Notice how the river is way way under the beginning of runoff even in the drought years. Since we had a normal snowpack year that tells me we are going to get a herculean jump in river flow in May which will provide very dangerous conditions. They call it the Killer Kern for a reason. I always wonder if the river can get to 20,000 CFS putting the bridge in Kernville in jeopardy. I’ll be watching that river like a hawk…and dreaming of getting back in there in the summer.