Nov 5-7, 2020
One of the very few trout i C&R’d on this trip. Huck Hopper, Black, Size 12
- 4 or 5 12” to 14” rainbows landed over 2 ~4 hour fly fishing sessions spread over 2 days. Translation: Slowwwwww….
- 1 20+ rainbow lost downstream on a head shake nymphing barbless
- Awful, wet cold, miserable weather….which resulted in 13 hours in the backpacking tent.
- CFS: who knows? My guess is the flow was 250 CFS at the confluence of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings. The gauge above boyden cave, up river from the confluence by ~10 miles showed 65 CFS….which just does not make sense.
How it Went Down
The plan was a 3-nighter down into one of, if not the most rugged and physical places I have done the backpacking / fly fishing thing at: The Upper South and Middle Forks of the Kings River. That was the plan. It did not quite work out that way.
My buddy, and backpacking mentor, Warren Lew and I had been planning this trip for weeks. We were up against the end of the fishing season (11/15) in most of the sierras. With huge parts of the Sierras burning and most of the forest closed, this was most likely our last chance to fish for a few months. What we were worried most about was the smoke. We tracked it daily. The small patch of the Sierras was the only legitimate place to backpack to fly fishing in the sierra nevadas mountain range that was within a decent one-day drive of us. But, the Upper Kings River sits in between the two largest fires in California history. And they still were not contained. So we were at the mercy (and crapshoot) of how the wind blew…..and unfortunately the wind did blow…hard.
The picture on the left is the view down from the trailhead. Notice how deep it is and how high Spanish Peak towers above. on the right is simply the same shot zoomed in on the confluence of the Middle (top) and South (below) forks of the Upper Kings River
Although I still have not figured out a legitimate way to gage the flow in either of the South or Middle forks the Upper Kings I knew from my trip in 3 weeks before, alone, that the river was way down in great shape and crossable in multiple places. That is the key to any big river in the Sierras. It’s pretty much the most important factor of the Upper Kern River so, although I don’t have hardly any Kings River experience, I just had to assume flow was just as important in the Upper Kings. I also assumed that we’d see as good, if not better fly fishing than 3 weeks before when I hike in there alone and was getting takes on huck hoppers on almost every cast.
Here’s Warren with a really nice rainbow he stuck stripping a wolly bugger
It was the first week in November after all. and that stretch from mid-October to mid-November is typically just nutty good throughout the sierras. My theory, unproven, is that the trout just know winter is coming and feed like crazy because they know it’s going to be slim ‘pickins until Spring. That theory could be totally wrong, of course. But that is how I convince myself each year to bear the bone chilling conditions. There is winter spawning in the Sierras too which can also positively affect fishing.
I have written the contrasts of the Upper Kings and the Upper Kern before and there is another striking contrast I experienced. This area of the kings canyon is arguably the deepest canyon in N. America. The confluence of the South Fork and Middle forks of the Kings River is only at 2,260 feet of altitude, while towering above the confluence is Spanish Peak, which is 10,051 feet tall. Why is that important?: Light. With the shortened days of winter, I bet that middle fork was only seeing 4 hours of direct sun per day. I was in the tent for 13 hours not so much that it was raining. I have done a ton of fly fishing in rain and snow and everything in between for years. I was in that tent for 13 hours because it was dark and raining for 13 hours.
Yes, the weather did chase us out. We hiked in Thursday morning and had plenty of time to fish. ~4 hours. And it was slowwwww…. I couldn’t figure out why… it should have been epic. We fished downriver on the middle fork to the confluence and all the way down to the epic water. We ran into two other sets of advanced fly fishermen and 2 of them got skunked. Not a single take. I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the time. I caught one fish nymphing. I didn’t think I’d have to nymph. But, I could not get a fish to rise for the life of me. I planned on dry flying the entire time. No hatches or bugs anywhere. Hmmm….
The next day, Friday we headed up river on the s fork. It started getting windy. Then it hit me. The barometer must have been falling like a rock, with bad weather coming, killing the fishing. There is some support to that theory. So, I busted out the $2 and got a weather report off my garmin inreach satellite tracker….not good….heavy rain and snow coming. It was about 2pm and I had caught a couple fish on size 12 huck hoppers. at one point I said, “if I’m gonna’ get skunked I’m gonna’ do it with a dry fly. Upon staring at the weather report, Warren said, “Should we hike out now?” I said something like, “No way, we just got here.” On Friday around 4pm it started raining. By 5pm we were in our tents because it was raining hard. And it was cold. 13 hours later … yes, 13 hours in the tents, wet and cold. It was a miserable wet cold night. there was a break in the rain on Saturday morning. so, we hiked out a day early. It was 11am when we got to the truck. It started again. by the time I was driving out at that higher altitude it was snowing; snowing on top of a foot that had already stuck.
Don’t get me wrong it was a total blast of a trip. It was Fly Fishing; not working. and I just love doing the backpacking / fishing thing with Warren. We are total opposites (he’s felix and I’m Oscar if you are old enough to know that analogy), but we are dear friends and have so much fishing fun together.
Although I love this place one of the big reasons is because the lord gave me the “goat gene”; I’m unusually agile. I basically scaled half dome last summer without needing the guide wires and was confused at what the big deal is. Also because I’m willing to suffer to fish in the back country of the sierras. The Upper Kings River accessed by the Yucca Point trail is so rugged and physical it will scare away 90% of fly fishers….especially those, like me, who are not the fearless totally fit and agile 25 year old I once was. My buddy warren….he’s crazy like me. We have backpacked to a lot of fishing. We love places like this. But, here’s what is working against you if you want to go there:
- the trail is poorly maintained…Well, it’s not maintained at all. I guess I’m spoiled by the forks of the Kern trail. Or it’s my own ignorance to the trails on the western side of the Sierras because I was pretty critical of the Clicks Creek Trail The Yucca Point Trail a constant brush and snag against bushes, tree limbs and branches. And there are 3 spots where you have to get around deadfall across the trail. It’s not so bad (especially for a bushwhacker like me) going downhill. But, it’s definitely annoying, impeding your progress, and slows you down going uphill. If you did this trail in shorts and short sleeves you would be scratched up and bloodied as a result of it.
- It’s a big drive….even if you live in the San Joachin Valley. I live in Carlsbad, CA. It’s 350 miles and I have to plow through LA to get to it. There is no local hotel close to overnight before hiking in. and because of the pandemic, most if not all the campgrounds close are closed. Even if not closed, the campgrounds close are wildly popular because they are in the national park.
- It costs money: you have to pay to get through the national park to get to the trailhead…I carry a yearly national park pass…mainly because my son lives within 30 miles of the northern entrance to Yellowstone and also because I love fishing in Yosemite. But, in my experience most fly fishermen don’t want to pay to play.
- It’s rugged and physical. Once you get to the river the trail ends. There is no river trail. It’s bushwhacking, boulder hopping, rock climbing and brutally slippery wading. I can’t imagine not using a wading staff to fish that river. I need a couple weeks just to lick my wounds from it. Shoot you can follow a well-defined and maintained trail along the Upper Kern for 30 miles. I’m a board member of the san diego fly fishers club and only a tiny percentage of that club is willing to do the forks of the kern trail…and The Forks pales in comparison to the Yucca Trail and Upper Kings River. Most of that group who do the forks never do it again because of the hike out where you have to gain back 1,100 feet in 2 miles….which pales in comparison to the Yucca Point Trail which in my estimation is ~1,000 feet in 1.5 miles. I know tons of guides from CA to WY to MT to ID and beyond. And have done a bit of guiding myself, of course. I don’t know many guides who would even do the Yucca Point Trail.
- You have to be safe because I have not encountered many rivers more dangerous than the Upper Kings. There is a reason not a lot of people have died on the Upper Kings River: you cannot drive to it. You can drive to miles and miles of the “Killer Kern” and get within 100 feet of it. One of the readers of this blog, Lansing McLoskey, emailed me and gave me some great guidance. And the most important guidance he gave me was about not attempting to fish the river during runoff when “the river is a raging torrent of death”.
- Poison oak – everything I have read about this place has complaining about the abundance of it. I still have not seen any. And I am a pro at identifying it. I have to look for poison oak practically every day because I trail run, hike, and mountain bike in Calavera behind our home and Calavera really does have an ton of poison oak. I have brushed it so many times getting it I feel like I have built an immunity. But if so many people have complained about it, it must be there; probably downstream where I still have not go to.
- There are bears. Seemingly lots of them. They are just black bears, of course, so not that scary to me. But, i know that many are terrified by them. On my last trip in i saw a juvenile. On this trip there was scat everywhere. And very close to where we camped. As i was leaving (Warren got a head start on me) I smelled one. if you have been in the backcountry much you know that foul smell.