Category Archives: Kern River Rainbow

Tim Huckaby’s Upper Kern Fly Fishing Outlook for 2024

Tim Huckaby’s Upper Kern Fly Fishing Outlook for 2024

What a tough fishing season 2023 was for the rivers of the Sierra Nevada. And specifically difficult at my beloved upper kern river.  I should have known something was up when me and my buddies tried to get into the Forks for the end of season: 3 days in mid November 2022… and were stopped by too much snow and a giant fallen tree on unplowed Forest Road 22S82.

There’s huck truck… stuck on unplowed forest road 22S82 with a giant tree in the way in Nov of ’22

2023 was all about high flows.  It is the simple fact that all rivers just fish a lot tougher in high flow.  Even when the Upper Kern is not blown out in muddy conditions, if the water is higher than the willow line it’s just going to be tough to get in position safely for a cast.  Last year, the Upper Kern River just never backed down into a fishable state…. Only experts (or those who hiked more than 10 miles upriver, above the confluence of the Kern and the Little Kern) had any modicum of success there.

And like the Kern’s buddy to the North, the Kings River, it is just really tough, if not dangerous to fly fish the Upper Kern in high flows.

That’s me hiking upriver from the Huck Site looking for good water in 400+ CFS conditions.  Picture Credit: Valerie Rose Hirschberg, a guide client of my who brought a DSLR using actual film!

My definition of the Upper Kern is up river from the Johnsondale Bridge. I have written many times that the Upper Kern fishes great below 250 CFS.  When it’s below 250 CFS the Upper Kern is crossable in many stretches.  When crossable, you can get a fly almost anywhere.  You can get a fly to places on the opposite bank that just are not possible to reach without crossing. And with lower flows there are just not many places where a trout can hide from an artificial fly.  Well, the Upper Kern never really came down below 400 CFS in any significance for the entire 2023 season.  And in early March of 2023 it went to 24,000 CFS!

As I write this article in early January, 2024, in California we are at the lowest snowpack level in 10 years. This is a sharp contrast to last year, the biggest winter in California recorded history.  What is interesting, though, is that the current runoff is still at the highest level I can remember for this time of year… by far.  It’s still hovering at 400 CFS.  And it’s January.  We should be seeing the upper kern river flowing well below 200 CFS in January.  It’s twice that volume right now.  What does that mean in terms of fly fishing the 2024 season?  Well, maybe nothing.  The River could back down to a trickle.  Runoff depends on many factors not the least of which are the density of the snowpack and the temperature.  But, it may mean we have to add 400 CFS to the normal springtime runoff… which would be bad for spring and summer fly fishing on the Upper Kern.  We’re waiting to see how the Spring Runoff period goes.  And when the road to the Forks Trailhead is going to open.

That’s a KRR in the hands of my buddy Addea, who nailed it right at the Huck Site.

Western Divide Ranger district opens Forest Road 22S82 and the ~2 miles of dirt road (Forest Road 20S67) to the Forks trailhead when:

  1. They are confident the snow has backed down enough to clear indicating the winter is over.
  2. That is when they can clear the roads of the boulders and fallen trees blocking the road from the prior winter’s storms.
  3. The Little Kern River Crossing (which is part of the trail) is not too crazy dangerous which coincides with big flows on the Kern.

In my 20+ years of fly fishing the Forks, the opening can be as early as the beginning of April and as late as the end of June.  It’s not like Western Divide Ranger District has unlimited resources to get the road open quickly.  It’s the simple and sad fact that we have consistently cut our forest service budgets for decades in California. Technically, the season is May 15 – Nov 15.

So, I’ll be watching the flow of the Upper Kern River every single day until then.  Feel free to check in with me.  I will pay special attention at the beginning of March.  Historically in March, before the runoff period, the flows can be well below 400CFS.  The Forks trail won’t be open.  But, if the river is in shape and the weather cooperates, I backpack from the Johnsondale bridge upriver 4-5 miles and get a little springtime fly fishing in.  That was not doable successfully (or safely) last year.

Epilogue

That’s Val standing at the Huck site in the exact position of where the big tree with the swing used to be.

 

For you Huck Site Fans: I cannot tell you how many emails, txts and conversations I had last season that started with “Did the Huck site survive?”  It did.  The “Huck Site” is a primitive campsite on the Upper Kern River 4.2 miles from the Forks of the Kern Trailhead.  I have been working on that site for over 20 years.  It’s a popular site for many reasons.  And now it has survived the ‘21 fire and the ‘23 flood.  But that atmospheric river in March of ‘23 and the 24k CFS that came with it took its toll. Because of the steep decline of the river down from the site, the rapids that go with the decline, and flat area across the river downstream from the Huck Site, water didn’t build up to the level of where the firepit is and when we put tents.  But it got close.  Remember the tree swing?  It’s gone. In fact, the giant tree that the swing hung from is gone with it…without any trace of it, roots and all.  You can’t even tell a huge tree was ever there.  Of course that means it has opened a 50 foot long unobstructed area for casting. I had trimmed the branches on that tree for over 20 years so that people could get a side-armed roll cast under it.  Now, the entire tree is gone.

 

The State of the Upper Kern River – 2023

Update – June 28, 2023

If you read my article below and watched that video you are going to be shocked by this incredibly surprising great news:

As of today, 6/28/2023, The Forks of the Kern is Open!

Yep, it’s true.  Steve Day of Golden Trout Pack Station just called me with the news.  I then called Western Divide Ranger district and confirmed it.  As it turns out the private businesses (ranchers, loggers, etc.)  that are on Forest Road 22S82 fixed it themselves.  They couldn’t afford not being able to get in there.  My guess is that Western Divide Ranger District then went in and fixed the dirt road to the trailhead.

of course, the river is currently a raging torrent of death at 5,500 CFS and rising right now.  It’s unfishable.  Just crossing the Little Kern River that is part of the trail would be a challenge, if not impossible.  But, i will be watching the flow closely through July and get in there as soon as possible and report back.  Remember that the Upper Kern fishes best under 500 CFS.  if you are an advanced / expert fly fisher, you could manage under 1,000 CFS.  But it would be difficult to find fishable water.

I was resigned to the fact that the Forks would be closed the entire year like it had been in two prior years after the fire.  So, this is just awesome news for someone like me.  I’ll be guiding under the permit of Golden Trout Pack Station this year.  If interested in fishing with me guided on a backpacking adventure contact me to discuss details, questions, etc.

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This is the article I have procrastinated on for months.  But daily I answer so many emails, calls, txts, messages about the 2023 fly fishing season for the Upper Kern River.  It’s time to come clean on the reality of the situation.  I have talked to a few experts and done a ton of research.

It’s official: 2023 is the biggest winter in California Recorded History.  The mountains above 12,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, we have a lot of them, have over 75 feet of snow. 

On March 10th, 2023 my beloved Upper Kern River shot up from 500 CFS to 26,000 CFS in just 12 hours!  By the time that water reached Kernville the river was at 39,000 CFS and there was worry of the bridge being compromised.  The bridge did survive.  On the Upper Kern, I doubt anything at the huck site still exists. My guess is even the fire pit is gone.  The good news is that type of flooding flushes the Kern of it’s silt and makes for a better spawning habitat.  We want wild native Kern River Rainbows spawning in abundance.

So I have some news and it’s not necessarily good.  The biggest winter in CA history has already wreaked a lot of havoc.

I recently heard from Western Divide Ranger District that the road to the Forks of the Kern Trailhead turnoff, FR 22S82, is destroyed in numerous places. 

Check out this helicopter video footage of FR 22S82. It’s shocking.  The road is just gone in multiple places.  There are landslides and boulders as big as cars on that 20 mile stretch.  God only know what that 2 mile dirt road stretch looks like that goes to the trailhead.

Video Courtesy of Jim Uni

Western Divide Ranger District told me it is very unlikely that the forks of the kern trailhead will be opened this year.  That’s all they can say right now.  There currently is no official word.  IMHO, It’s going to take 10s of millions of dollars to fix that road.  Since it leads nowhere and so few people live on that road, it’s not going to be a priority like fixing highway 180 is on the western side of the Sierra.  And come springtime there will be a lot more roads to fix.

So the reality is that you will not be able to come even close to driving to the Forks of the Kern Trailhead this season.

 I have been discussing this with my backpacking fly fishing buddies, the forest districts and Steve Day of Golden Trout Pack Station.  You have heard the saying: “Where there is a will there is a way”.  Well, with fly fishers, where there is a river, there is a way.  The yearlong closure of the roads to Forks Trailhead means the backpacking into the upper kern are just going to be longer, harder and more arduous this year.   It’s also just a given that the river won’t back down and be fishable until august.  It’s funny that for years I thought of the Forks as a difficult trail.  Now that it’s gone, I think of the Forks TH as convenient. Realize that the Forks Trailhead was closed for 2 years just a couple years ago because of the fire.  Talk about a river getting a break to recover: for 3 of the last 4 years the Upper Kern won’t feel the pressure of us waving sticks throwing artificials at it.

Here are the most legitimate options for Backpacking overnighters for Fly fishing the Upper Kern this season of 2023:

  1. Lewis TH near the town of Ponderosa and the clicks TH.  Currently you can’t do it because the roads are destroyed.  Nor would you want to do it now because of the snow.  But, the roads will most likely be fixed all the way in to this trailhead by summertime.  it’s 4wd to the TH.
    1. Lewis TH to the Forks TH – 8.5 miles + the 2 miles down to the confluence
    1. Lewis TH to Kern Flats – 12.5 miles.  1400 ascent; 4000 decent
    1. Lewis TH to Hole in the Ground – 13 miles with 4k of elevation gains and 2k of loss on the hike in.
    1. Lewis TH to grasshopper flats – 12.5 miles with 4k of elevation loss and 2k of gain on the hike in.
  • Freeman Creek Trail to Forks TH – 7 miles to the forks TH + the 2 miles down.  Near quaking aspen and just north of Ponderosa.  500 feet of elevation, plus 1800 decent, then the 2k decent to the confluence.  Not at elevation.
  • Blackrock TH to Painters Camp – 9 miles starting at 9000 feet and losing 4,000 feet in the process.  This is a brutal hike out where you have to gain back 4k feet and you are already at altitude.  So, you do it with a stopover at Jordan hot springs half way.  9 mile creek there fishes well.  I did this one last year and the fishing is spectacular.  So is the camp.  So is the scenery. 
  • Rincon TH to the forks – 12 miles.  9 miles of straight motorcycle trail awful until you descend down to the forks from the other (south) side of the river, bushwhacking a good portion of the way because the trail is rarely used.  2500 of ascent and 2700 of decent.
  • Johnsondale Bridge Trail – 5.2 miles.  Easy access on the highway from Kernville.  The trail is much more rugged than the Forks trail and a lot more used and fished.  The trail officially ends around 4 miles where the logical continuation is up the old mining trail to the rincon trail.  But, you can climb and bushwhack your way another 1.2 miles until the canyon walls are so steep and the water is so deep you can’t go any farther.

Of all these there are 3 that are the most logical for the backpacking fly fisherman:

  1. Easiest – Freeman Creek Trail to Forks TH – 7 miles to the forks TH + the 2 miles down. 
  2. Farthest up river – Lewis TH to grasshopper flats – 12.5 miles with 4k of elevation loss and 2k of gain on the hike in.
  3. Blackrock TH to Painters Camp – 9 miles starting at 9000 feet and losing 4,000 feet in the process. 

There are other ways to get to the Upper Kern for the adventurous, young and fit and fearless, of course.

The “Other” Issue

The white elephant in the room is, of course, flow.  The largest snowpack year in California recorded history is going to start melting in June, if not earlier. 

The havoc has yet to even start.  When that snow starts melting.  Well, it’s going to cause flooding conditions and destroy roads.  Hopefully, it won’t take more lives.

According to LADWP, April 1 snow surveys came back with historic results. We surpassed 2017 (the biggest year in the past 50 years), and 1969 (the biggest year on record), and set a new April 1 high snow level with the final snowpack recording 296% of normal April 1.   That is just short of 70” of water content that will mostly melt and wreak havoc below.  See the details here.

The question I’m asked the most is: “When will the Upper Kern be in shape to fish this year?”  I use the gauge above the Fairview dam on the Dreamflows site to track the river flow here.  My general rule is that the Upper Kern fishes great when the river gets below 500 CFS.  That usually happens at the end of June / Early July.  This year that won’t happen until August…if we are lucky.  Sure, you can successfully fish stretches of the river when it’s higher flow.  But, it’s just harder to wade.  It’s harder to get a cast for a legit drift.  And it can be dangerous. 

News

So, what is the good news?  Well, it’s ultimately going to be a better river as a result of this big winter.  Also, a legitimate way to fish the Upper Kern this year is to have Golden Trout Pack Station do the heavy lifting. 

Over the last 20 years I have run into owner Steve Day and his wranglers, horses, and mules of Golden Trout Pack Station many times on the Upper Kern River and have come to know him as a genuinely great guy.  let’s face it… Steve’s business and the services he offers are pretty awesome.

So, for those of you, like me, that dread a 11 mile hike at altitude with a 4,000 foot gain and 45 lbs on your back… One of the modalities Steve’s business offers is called a “dunnage trip”.  That is where mules carry all your stuff and you hike in (separately) empty.  But, the mules don’t just carry your backpack… they carry coolers full of ice and fresh food… and beer.  And you hike in empty.

This would be a legitimately fun way to fish with or without me.  To have the mules carry all your stuff, depending on group size, it’s ~$400 per person, max of 150 lbs per mule …. fresh food, beer, coolers, everything.  You hike in empty.  In addition to that are guiding fees if you choose to use a guide. 

Contact Steve Directly from the Golden Trout Pack Station site.  Feel to contact me to discuss details, questions, etc.

Final Notes

Last season I was lucky enough to guide and teach a young film maker, Micah Conrad and his wife Dasha, how to fly fish.  Now, there are addicted fly fishers.  if interested to see the fun had when I’m guiding check out the two short videos Micah produced on the experiences here:

Fly Fishing a REMOTE River for Wild Trout with a 30 YEAR Fly Fishing VETERAN – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEEm1Ql9RFo&t=165s

EPIC FLY FISHING and Backpacking a JAW DROPPING Remote River! – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDXa_wv1AxE&t=419s

So, there it is.  I can / will live without another season of the Forks of the Kern Trailhead….at least by driving there.  I sure as heck am going to hike there.  I trust you can too.  Look forward to seeing you out on the river… no matter how much harder / farther it is going to be to get to it.

The Hybridization of the Kern River Rainbow

The Kern River Rainbow

This article is about the spread and hybridization of non-native trout species to the upper sections of the Kern River. Let me be clear: this increase and hybridization of nonnative species makes the fly fishing even better. With more species in the river there are more trout to catch. With more little trout being hatched, more bigger trout are eating them and getting huge. The great fly fishing in last few seasons of fly fishing on the Upper Kern certainly prove that. The fly fishing on the Upper Kern River has been nothing short of spectacular. The concern to many is that the Upper Kern River is one of the few places left in the world that only contains wild native trout…. A pureness that has not been “ruined” by the stocking of non-native fish.

Notice the white tipped fins and the faint par marks on the lateral line

The Kern River Rainbow is special.  It is classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act.  The upper Kern River is also special. From the Forks of the Kern upstream to Tyndall Creek is a designated Heritage and Wild Trout Water.

At the end October ’22, on the annual “Couples Backpacking Trip to the Forks”, my wife Kelly caught and released a large rainbow on the Upper Kern River just short of Kern Flats. It was a beautifully colored fish. But, other than a glance I barely looked at it. That is typical of me. In my haste to get the hook out of its face and take the trophy shot and get the fish back into the river unharmed and healthy as quickly as possible I failed to notice something interesting. And concerning to many. I didn’t notice that it was most likely a male fish in spawn.

Well, one of the couples on this trip (Micah & Dasha) love to eat the trout when backpacking.  So, legally, they harvested two trout.  I’m not weird about that.  Just like I’m not weird about conventional tackle fishermen like some fly fishers are.  I just don’t like the taste of a wild native Kern River rainbow.  To me, they taste like bugs…. which, of course, is mostly what they eat. My wife Kelly likes to eat them to as does her buddy Mere.  So I do a recipe where I poach the hell out of them wrapped in foil over an open flame in olive oil, white wine, lemon and seasonings that does it’s best to take that gamey taste away… but, it really doesn’t.  I have documented it in my stories on this site a few times. 

Well, in the process of preparing the fish for the frying pan Micah says to me, “Do you want to eat some of the eggs?”   “Eggs?” I thought to myself.  “It’s October.  Kern River rainbows are springtime spawners.  Huh?”.  There are plenty of rainbow trout that are fall and winter spawning fish.  The Upper Owens River is a testament to that.  And those trout in the Upper Owens are all nonnative stocked fish that have turned wild.  They come out of Crowley Lake and up the river to spawn.  Most of those rainbow species in Crowley (and there are a number of rainbow trout species in that lake) come up the Owens River to spawn in the winter.

Well, I wrote up the story of that trip here.  And on the very top of that story is that now fairly infamous picture of my wife Kelly with that fish.  Here it is:

Notice the lack of spots below the lateral line and none on the face

Steve Schalla, my friend, authority of fly fishing in the sierra, and owner of https://www.flyfishingthesierra.com/ – the ultimate resource for the fly fisher who wants to learn how to fish the sierra, saw that picture and said to me, paraphrasing, “Tim, look closely at that trout.  It’s a hybridized fish.  It barely has any Kern River Rainbow in it.  Notice the lack of spots below the lateral line.  Also notice the lack of spots on the face.  Also notice the sparse, large spots on that fish.  A Kern River Rainbow has small, peppery spots which are profuse over most of the body and on the fins.”

I pulled this straight from Steve’s site, and you can find it directly on the “interweb” at Steve’s site here:

Distinguishing Characteristics
The Kern River Rainbow can be distinguished by irregularly shaped spots that are both above and below the lateral line. The spots decrease as the extend towards the belly. Coloration is similar to the Coastal Rainbow trout, however the Kern River Rainbow has a distinct red stripe with faint parr marks along the lateral line. The dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins have a white tip. You will also find orange tints along the belly.

The Kern River Rainbow (Oncorhynchus mykiss gilberti) is a subspecies of the Kern River Golden Trout. The Golden Trout are thought to be derived from the rainbows that were isolated about 70,000 years ago by both glacial and tectonic activity. It is suspected that 10,000 years ago, Redband Rainbows or Coastal Rainbows migrated from the Northern Sacramento Basin to the Kern River System by way of the San Joaquin drainage into Lake Tulare. This was a period of very wet climate conditions. The Redbands hydridized with the Kern River Goldens to produce an unique subspecies, the Kern River Rainbow. This fish had a distinctive “rainbow trout” appearance with the coloration and spotting pattern but retained the “Golden Trout” aspect with the distinctive, yet fading, Parr Marks and Red Stripe along it’s lateral line.
Much of the integrity of this subspecies has been lost within the Kern River system due to stocking of hatchery-bred rainbow trout throughout the 1900’s. Only since 1990, has non-native trout stocking been discontinued. Recent genetic testing indicates that the purest strains of Kern River Rainbows occurs in the Kern River from the confluence of Durrwood Creek (5 miles below the confluence of the Little Kern River) to the headwaters in Sequoia National Park. These Kern River Rainbows are genetically distinct from the other rainbows found further downstream. Genetic sampling found that the rianbows below Johnsondale Bridge have hybridized with stocked rainbows to such an extent that they could no longer be considered “Kern River Rainbows”.
Pure strains of Kern River Rainbows are being reared at the Kern River Hatchery in Kernville. A program is in place to re-introduce these pure strains into its historical range and keep non-native trout out of the upper river.

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Trends

I’m not a scientist; I’m not a fish biologist.  What am I is someone who is fascinated by the biology of the Kern River and its surrounding ecosystem.  So, I read and study and listen to experts as much as I can about it.  I am also someone that has fished the Upper Kern River for ~25 years.  And because of that I notice trends.

It appears to me that this hybridization of the pure strained Kern River rainbow with stocked fish is a trend that seems to be spreading farther and farther up river each year.

Another trend I have noticed is the lack of fight in some of the fish I catch and release.  I cannot tell you how many times I have said out loud and on this site, “Nothing Fights like a Kern River Rainbow.”  The Kern River Rainbow does numerous aerial acrobatic jumps and they just don’t give up.  But over last season I really did notice fish with the lack of vigor typical of a nonnative stocked fish.

Additionally, one of the trends I have noticed over time is the amount of brown trout in the Upper Kern River. Brown Trout are not native to the Kern River. They are not even native to the United States. When I first started fishing the Upper Kern it was unheard of to catch a brown trout in the Upper Kern. 15 years ago I’d catch maybe 1 brown out of every 250 trout I’d catch. 10 years ago that ratio was down to 100-1. I swear for the last couple seasons it’s more like 50-1. Shoot, I even caught a large brown right in front of the huck site.

How did stocked nonnative trout get in the Upper Kern River?

Before I attempt to explain this little “chestnut” let me talk about the sections of the river relevant: 

  • Section #4 is from Riverside Park in Kernville up to Hydroelectric Powerhouse #3 run by Southern California Edison (SCE)
  • Section #5 is from Powerhouse #3 to the Fairview Dam
  • Section #6 is from Fairview Dam to Brush Creek which is .6 miles short of the Johnsondale Bridge.
  • It is generally accepted that the Upper Kern section starts at the Johnsondale bridge and goes for over 60 miles to the river’s headwaters at Lake South America (which helps to drain Mount Whitney).

It’s well known and publicly published on the California Fish and Game site here that that the lower, downstream sections of the river (4&5) get stocked with nonnative trout. That huge amount of fish planting supports a number of businesses in Kernville and the surrounding areas. It written that CDFW tries to plant only triploid trout within these sections. A triploid is a fish that has been genetically engineered not to spawn. So, all the energy that is used for spawning goes into making them get big quickly. It’s great for the catch and keep traditional gear fishers and the sporting industry. But, as a fly fisherman if you have ever caught a 8 lb triploid, you know it’s like pulling dead weight. Hatchery fish, so crowded, eroding their fins on narrow cement lined pens has not been a recipe for success…. Especially in California. That is well documented. Interestingly enough, The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has the only captive California Golden Trout brood stock program in the world….Wyoming! How embarrassing for us Californians. It’s also interesting that most folks in the science and fly fishing communities of the rockies believe that there is no such thing as a pure strained Yellowstone Cutthroat anymore. It has succumbed to hybridization.

A few years back there was an attempt to rear pure strained brood stock Kern River Rainbows at the Kern River Hatchery. But, those fish succumbed to disease and had to be destroyed.  Disease is a common story for hatchery fish. 

So, with a man-made impediment in the Fairview dam preventing the hatchery stocked nonnative trout in sections 4 & 5 from moving up to the Upper Kern River.  And plenty of natural impediments in terms of waterfalls and class 5 & 6 rapids between the Johnsondale bridge and the confluence of the Little Kern River and the Main Fork (north) of the Kern River (commonly called “the forks”) in the way.  Then how the hell are nonnative, planted trout appearing 40 miles upriver?

Well, the short answer is that the experts assume nonnative trout were occasionally planted above the Fairview dam at the Johnsondale bridge at some point in the last 125 years.  But, there is no evidence nor documentation that I can find to that fact.  There, is, however plenty of documentation of nonnative trout being planted in the many tributaries of the Upper Kern River from the Western side of the Sierra.  In fact, there is documentation of once instance where a dozen or so women rode horse back to Upper Peppermint creek (~10 miles from the trailhead of the Forks of the Kern) and planted brown trout fingerlings around 100 years ago.  That would explain how brown trout are appearing and getting more prolific through time.  That is what brown trout do.  Just look at how they have taken over the Lower Owens River.  So seeing more and more brown trout in the upper Kern River is concerning to me.

“Honey, I’m going hunting. Do you mind grabbing your girlfriends and a bunch of the horses and carrying these little fish in buckets for 40 or so miles and pour them into peppermint creek so I can fish for them next summer?”

But get this: Many scientists believe hybridization could have occurred naturally: through a natural invasion of coastal rainbow trout. And consequently, hybridization could simply be a natural process. There are plenty of examples in nature of cross breeding.

In recent years, the California Dept of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) conducted surveys in search of pure strained Kern River rainbow trout. Genetic studies found a population in a headwater lake to Big Arroyo which is on the High Sierra trail at an altitude above 10 thousand feet. Those pure strained Kern River Rainbows we the ones attempted at the Kern River Hatchery. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. An Upper Kern Basin Fishery Management Plan was written by CDFW to restore, protect, and enhance the native Kern River rainbow trout populations and prevent them from becoming an endangered species. The execution of that plan has yet to be realized.

Call to Action

Let’s be clear: Hybridization is not something that is fixable in a legitimate, let alone humane way.  You can only slow it down.  And one may not even want to fix it. Plenty of states including my own have done the “kill everything, then plant hatchery born pure strains.”  But, you can imagine the complications and risk for failure in that tactic.  Nature has a way.  Even if it’s not natural. 

Every year for the last 10 or so I have fished the Upper Kern at the end of the season.  I have documented it well on this site. The fishing season closes on November 15th.  But, the weather makes it miserable for the backpacker.  This trip is not for the faint of heart because even if it’s not snowing or raining, the nighttime temps can dip into the teens.  The fishing, however, is always spectacular.  Now I know one of the reasons why.  Much of the great fishing has to do with the spawn of the non-natives.  Male trout get really stupid during a spawn.

So, after that October 2022 couples trip I was motivated and inspired to pay special attention to catching nonnatives during the November end of season backpacking / fly fishing trip. By this time, that picture of Kelly and my stories and discussion had spread to CA DFG, CalTrout, Trout Unlimited and numerous people from the relevant forest districts. I had email threads going a mile long with the good folks interested in the state of hybridization.

The ask was simple.  Me and some of my expert level fly fishing buddies were to pay special attention to and document what we caught and released.  Documentation was defined as the picture of the trout, where it was caught, and the date and time it was caught.  Today’s smartphones stamp each picture with a lat/long in addition to the date/time so the “where and when” would be easy.  Our lack of photography skills would be the issue, but seemingly not too difficult to overcome.

Armed with an excel spreadsheet provided by the Forest District we would also have a column where we would estimate the mostly hybridized and/or nonnatives, barely hybridized or pure strained and document that.  Not a scientific process at all.  Just a gut feel from some fly fisherman.  But, this would be valuable research (and generally interesting) before a massive genetic testing effort occurs… which I imagine is in the works soon.  For me, the most exciting, interesting part of this trip was that we were going to fish and document above the giant waterfall that is around a mile upstream from Painters Camp.  It’s 200, maybe 300 feet tall.  Getting around it requires a death defying climb up the west side, which of course, I have been stupid enough to do.  Or following a trail that goes over 2 miles and almost a mile away from the river on the east side.  If you stare at that waterfall you would say, “There is no way in hell a trout can make it up that thing.”  But, mother nature has a way.

So what did amateur field biology project to see the effects of trout hybridization in the Upper Kern River yeild? Nothing. The snowstorms of mid November 2022 prevented us from even getting to the Forks trailhead. I was fine with driving my tundra in 4WD in 2-3 feet of snow on roads not plowed. We got within 4.5 miles of the trailhead. there were some awesome huge boulders on the road we had to navigate around. Ultimately, we were forced to stop in front of a giant tree, felled on the road by the storm. We didn’t even attempt to budge it. The tree lying on the ground was taller than me. We couldn’t push or pull it with the trucks because it landed perpendicular on the road. Darn.

You can see the felled tree in the way off in the distance.

So the mission is planned for spring / early summer.  And since it seems like we are going to have the biggest winter in California snowpack history it may be end of July before we can get in there to do the amateur field biology project to see the effects of trout hybridization in the Upper Kern River.  If you are interested in participating in the project, either as part of my group or on your own then email me from the contact page on this site.  

Sources:

Sections of the Kern River, July 31, 2022 by Arnold Lynn

https://www.dependablepickup.com/what-are-the-sections-of-the-kern-river/

California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Kern River Rainbow

https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Fishes/Kern-River-Rainbow-Trout

https://wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Inland/Kern-River-Rainbow-Trout

Steve Schalla’s Fly Fishing the Sierra

https://flyfishingthesierra.com/upperkern_lk.html

https://www.flyfishingthesierra.com/kernrain.html

Wyoming Game and Fish

Wyoming Game and Fish Department – Wyoming Wildlife Magazine

California Fish and Game Fish Planting Schedule of the Kern River

https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FishPlants/Default.aspx?county=Kern

THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON COMPANY KERN RIVER 3 HYDROELECTRIC PROJECT REVISED SEDIMENT MANAGEMENT PRACTICES https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/water_quality_cert/docs/kern3_ferc2290/kern3_wqcert.pdf

How I Tie the Huck Hopper

I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked to make a video of how I tie the Huck Hopper.  Well, I have finally motivated so here it is.

Over the years, I have sold a gazillion huck hoppers off the timhuckaby.com site.  People adore this thing.  I adore this thing.  I have caught fish on the huck hopper all over the world.  But, many of you fly tyers want to tie it yourself.  I get it.  Fly fishing incorporates a lot of pleasures intermingled with some frustration and even pain.  And one of those pleasures is fooling a fish on a fly that you tied yourself.

I call my home water the Upper Kern River even though it is 300 miles north of where I live.  I have taught many many people how to fly fish on the Upper Kern River.  Shoot, my son Mark is a fly fishing guide in Bozeman and he cut his teeth on the Upper Kern.  My favorite stretch of the The Upper Kern is within the Golden Trout Wilderness and is accessed by the Forks of the Kern Trail; typically with a backpack.  What I call the forks is a 15 mile stretch of river above the confluence of the main fork, north, of the kern river and the little kern river.  There is not a lot of altitude at the confluence, less than 5000 feet, and for that 15 miles and beyond the river and it’s surrounding area supports a huge population of many species of grasshoppers.  Between teaching folks to fly fish losing hopper imitations to trees or simply just having the trout chomp and waterlog those flies I had a similar  problem to Charlie craven. Charlie Craven’s “Charlie Boy Hopper” was my inspiration for the Huck Hopper.  But, unlike Charlie, I was backpacking.  I didn’t have the luxury of tying more flies at night.  I would simply run out.  I needed a durable solution that was easy enough to tie that produced results. 

So, I started field testing my first prototypes on the upper kern and the results were spectacular.  There was just one problem.  I also needed a nymphing solution in a dry/dropper rig.  The upper kern has deep runs where getting the fly down produces very well.  But hanging two heavy nymphs below a fairly large, size 6 huck hopper would sink it.  At the same, I reasoned that the upper kern river should never see a bobber.  It’s too special.  The Upper Kern River within the Golden Trout Wilderness is designated as a “Wild and Scenic” river by the State of California.  It is one of the only places left in the world that supports a majority of wild natives: The Kern River Rainbow (KRR) is its own sub species of the rainbow trout.  So, I started tying huge huck hoppers in sizes 2 and 4.  I call them battleships.  And to my surprise the kern river rainbows continued to attack them.  In fact even the little KRRs would rise to those big huck hoppers, grabbing them by the legs and pulling them down to drown them.  Big flies equals big fish and I started catching some monster KRRs.  And those big huck hoppers could hold up even the heaviest of nymphs all day long.  Doubles were now not a rare thing on the Upper Kern with a big huck hopper on top.

Credits to the great Charlie Craven for the inspiration: https://charliesflybox.com

And thanks to Par Avion for the music! http://www.VivaParAvion.com

The video includes fly tying techniques for the beginner. and details the materials I use and where i get them. but it also covers the background, history, why and how:

Forks of the Kern Report – October 20-23, 2022

That is my wife Kelly with a beautiful fish she nailed on a Huck Bow Warrior Perdigon

Relevant Stats for the 4 days:

Flow & Water Conditions

CFS (https://dreamflows.com/graphs/mon.681.php) :

  • Crystal Clear, stable
  • ~10 feet of silt to 18″ deep at rivers edge
  • 10/20-23 – ~100 CFS

Solunar

(I use the app “Fishing & Hunting Solunar Time PRO” $3.99):

  • 10/20 – 14%, Poor
  • 10/26 – 26%, Fair
  • 10/22 – 59%, Average

Water temp: 48-48 in the mornings rising to 53-55 in the late afternoons

Air temp: mid 70s in the day lowering to 38-45 at night

Weather: mild, then wind gusts to 30mph.  stretches of overcast and light rain

Group: Annual Couples Trip: Huckabys, Novaks, Cooleys, Conrads + Jake

This trip was the annual couple’s trip. I love this trip because my wife Kelly comes. And some really fun couples. And Kelly never backpacks anywhere without her best buddy, Meredith. Which means my buddy Lance “has to come”. Also joining us were John and Delia Cooley who you have also read about on this site through many adventures. That is the 3 “over 30 years of marriage” couples. Topping off the group was Micah & Dasha Conrad. Micah is the young filmmaker with the awesome youtube channel who I taught how to fly fish earlier in the summer down at the Forks. Stay tuned on Micah’s Youtube vide of this trip. I will update it here when it publishes.

And sure enough, my old friend Jake Blount, an excellent fly fisher and guide showed up.

Mere took this picture of the run just over the Rattlesnake creek hill. How about that water clarity?!

Peppermint Creek

The plan I typically do with a group like this is to hike in a day early, find a site, then hike out empty the next morning to meet that group filling up with fresh food, beer, etc. before hiking back down with the group.  So, I drove up Wednesday, listening to the Padres-Phillies playoff game on Satellite Radio.  I made it through LA without much trouble so I still had a good hour of daylight when I hit the lower peppermint creek campground.  There was a video of the peppermint creek waterfalls from August when the monsoon rains came.  It was a shocking view of the ash from the fire finally making its way down the mountains into the river system.  You can see it here.  I wanted to see the effects.  Not only because of Peppermint creek.  But, because I was getting a lot of reports of ash and silt blowing out the Upper Kern River from the Huck site all the way down to the Johnsondale bridge.  Also, because in July I fished Peppermint Creek above the campground and did really well.  Well, the effects of the flash flooding in the creek are obvious and concerning.  Below the campground, the creek is choked with ash and soot.  I don’t see how trout could even hold in that first ½ mile before the structure by the BLM primitive camp sites.  I don’t believe I even casted once.  So, I hiked back up the creek, crossed the road and hiked the creek above the campground.  It’s steeper terrain so the creek is not as choked up but there is soot / silt on both sides.  I did not see a trout…nor anything alive like bugs in the river.  I did cast some moving water but not a single take after an hour or so of fishing while making my way upstream above the falls.  In July I was pretty much getting struck on every cast.  Granted the water was really low because of the drought and the end of the season.  But, I am not confident there was a single trout in that milelong stretch above the campground.  It was clear the flash flooding of soot pushed them out or killed them.  Mother nature has a way of quickly fixing things so my guess is after a good winter it will be back in shape and the trout will come back. 

Fall 2022 on Peppermint Creek: there’s still water, but no trout that I could find

In Quest of the Huck Site

When I got to the Forks of the Kern Trailhead it was already dark.  The mission was to get the Huck Site the next morning.  To my surprise and dismay there were 4 cars/trucks in the dirt parking lot and 4 more sets of trucks and campers in the primitive campsites.  Then it hit me: camping at the trailhead.  Without running water nor anywhere close to fish, the only reason to do that was to hunt.  And yep, I had forgot deer hunting season had started.  That was confirmed the next morning around 5am as I peered out my window seeing groups of guns pass my truck on the way into the wilderness.  It was really cold sleeping in my truck that Wednesday night at the trailhead; uncomfortably cold.  My guess was low forties.  Hmmm…. 

Sunrise at the Forks of the Kern Trailhead

There was an awesome sunrise at the trailhead.  That is pretty rare.  I started my hike in on quest for the Huck site around 8am.  There was not a single sole camping for the first 3 miles.  But, when I got to rattlesnake camp (the site with the cement picnic bench) I had a giant black dog charge at me barking with it’s fangs bared.  Two old guys were in the site and couldn’t control their dog.  It was one of 4 times during the trip that dog charged me barking uncontrolled.  But, my concern now was if the Huck site was taken I’d have to double back over a mile to “bend camp” and set up there.  The more I write on this site about the Huck site, the more popular it gets.  That is not a problem for me.  I encourage it.  I want more people, especially young people to experience the wilderness.  That is why I write it on this site.  But, I really don’t like doubling back and the next site that can handle 4 or more tents is another mile over the mountain.  I was confident the couple’s group was not up for that long a hike in.  As I approached the huck site I could see a couple people and gear.  Darn.  So, I approached them with a smile saying something like, “Hi, are you just setting up here?”  “no.”, they said, “We are just leaving.” “Thank God”, I said.  “I have 4 tents coming tomorrow and the Huck site is one of the few sites that can handle that many tents.”  “Wait, are you Tim Huckaby?”, they said.  I believe I said the exact same thing I always say when people recognize me down at the Forks: “Tim Huckaby?  That guy is a douche.”  Then I laugh and introduce myself.  Julian and Lauren were their names.  A great young fly fishing couple that loves the Upper Kern like me.  Well, it wasn’t long into the conversation before Julian told me he proposed marriage to Lauren at the Huck Site!  Talk about proud… I had tears in my eyes hearing that.

Julian and Lauren: A wedding proposal at the Huck Site!

So, I set up my tent in the Huck site.  I pinged the couples group I had secured the Huck site with my Garmin InReach. 

Soot and Silt

I examined the water in front of the Huck Site.  Just like I was warned, the bank was ten or so feet of silt and ash.  Silt that was over a foot deep.  It had settled so the water was still crystal clear.  But, if you stepped in it, the water exploded clouding the water to zero visibility. 

I had heard from friends and a number of visitors to this site that after the monsoon rains of august, the johnsondale bridge section (JDB) was completely blown out with soot and ash and silt and unfishable.  Mother Nature had finally pushed the ash, soot and exposed dirt of the fires into the river.  I had also heard from the same folks that the silt made the fishing from the confluence at the forks all the way up to the huck site really tough.  Well, the unfortunate news for spring fly fishers is that the huge amount of silt is going to make its way down the river when runoff starts.  Even another drought year is going to push that silt downstream. How bad and how long will depend on the winter we have.  I love to fish the JDB stretch in April.  But, I fear blown out conditions in 2023 will prevent it. 

Yea, that is a Huck Hopper in his face. But, i tied it tiny, size 14 in orange to imitate the October Caddis

Fishing upriver of the Huck Site

I rigged up a 3x mono leader to a size 4 tan huck hopper trailed with 3 feet of 3x flouro to a size 16 Huck-bow Warrior perdigon and set off to fish.  I had already told the couples group in planning that I didn’t need to fish much and would concentrate on guiding the beginners.  I also wanted to spend a lot of time with Kelly because close to 2 months in Montana and Wyoming over the summer took its toll.  So, this was my chance to get in some fishing before Kelly and the gang showed up the next morning.  I didn’t cast in front of the huck site.  I could see trout in the crystal-clear water in front of the Huck site, along with a group of huge pike minnows (aka squawfish or suckers).  I wanted to save those for the beginners.  So, I started up stream about 100 feet above the Huck Site just below “Latrine Hole”.  First cast: “Whack!”  An 8” Kern River Rainbow (KRR) took the Huck-bow Warrior perdigon.  “Hmmm…” I said to myself.  “Oh no.  The first cast jinx.”  I casted again….drifted…  Nothing.  3rd cast: “Whack!” A 12 inch KRR that rose to the Huck Hopper!  I continued to fish upstream and continued to get rises to the Huck Hopper and continued to catch and release KRRs. 

Another nice rainbow with a Huck Midge Perdigon stuck in his nose

I was about 20-25 minutes into it… about 100 yards upstream from the Huck Site when I heard, “Tim!”  I looked to the bank and could see someone, but he was obscured by the trees.  He came closer and said, “It’s Jake.”  I smiled and said, “How in the world did you find me?”  “Well, I saw your truck in the parking lot.”  That’s Jake. He asked if he could stay a couple nights in the site with me and excitedly, I said, “Absolutely yes.  In fact, I’m going to need your help guiding.” Jake, like me, is the type of fly fisher that gets more joy over teaching and guiding other people to catching fish than he does catching his own.

It was around 1pm.  Well, Jake ran back to set up his tent then met me in river.  I had only moved a hundred yards or so upstream the fishing was so good.  I fished the left handers side of the river and he fished the right as we moved up stream together.  And we did really well.  I can only remember a little lull when the wind blew and I simply switched to two huck perdigon droppers; one size 14 and the lower one 16 and never missed a beat.  One out of four takes was on the huck hopper.  I caught between a dozen and 20 fish to 16” and Jake did the same.  Maybe more.  

That’s Jake: an excellent fly fisher who loves guiding and teaching others more than catching fish himself

I told Jake that Micah was going to show up with his wife Dasha around 4:30PM and that I told her I’d teach her how to cast.  I asked Jake to take Micah while I did the basic fly casting lesson with Dasha.  He gladly agreed.  We walked back to the site at 4:30 and no Micah.  At 5:30 still no Micah and I started to worry.  But, they did show up.  All we had time for was a simple casting lesson, though.  It was getting dark.  Dasha did get 4 takes though.  Right at the huck site.  We had time to cover setting or fighting fish yet.  But, she was a natural at casting.  I know this is a generalization, but, it just seems like females take instruction so much better than males.  It’s just so easy to teach absolute beginner females to cast for me. 

John took this fantastic picture of Delia. It looks like she’s hooked up. If i was there I’d be yelling, “Rod tip High! Get tight with him.” 🙂

I did buy a $9 transistor radio and hike it in hoping to listen to the Padre playoff games.  And at nighttime it works!  We got to listen to all the games when it was dark.

Why does AM radio work better at night? It is called the ionosphere because when the sun’s rays hit this layer, many atoms lose electrons and turn into ions. You can pick up some radio stations better at night because the reflection characteristics of the ionosphere are better at night.

Source: rovertip.com/which-goes-further-am-or-fm/

That radio now lives in the cache.  You could argue it is a safety device.  In fact, the Huck Site Cache is more abundant now than it was before the fire incinerated everything.  Tools, Camp Tables, extra Fuel, cutting board, kitchen stuff, pads, etc.  If you want to use the cache at the Huck site email me and I’ll give you the detailed directions to find it. 

Well, it was a huge relief that Jake showed up because I had to do the big hike back up to the trailhead the next morning. I didn’t anticipate getting back to the Huck Site until 11am with the gang. Jake gladly agreed to guide Micah and Dasha the next day while I was on the hikes out and back in.

Does that look like a fun run to fish or what? I put 4 beginners in this run and i believe everyone caught fish

The Hike Out Empty

The next morning, I got hiking with an empty pack at 6:45AM.  I got to the trailhead at 8:30AM as planned.  But, none of the gang had arrived yet.  I talked to some nice folks in the lot and filled my pack with 24 beers and fresh food.  The gang showed up, we got a late start, hiked slowly with breaks and didn’t even make it to the huck site until after 12pm.  The gang was tired and needed to set up their tents.  And frankly so was I.  So, I grabbed one of the 24 beers I just hiked down, sat in my backpacking chair and stared at the water looking for rises.  It wasn’t long after that Micah, Dasha, and Jake showed up.  Jake had a smile on his face when he approached me so I knew it went well.  Micah said something like, “Well, tell Tim.”  Dasha caught 3 KRRs over 15”!  ..a total beginner.  I was stoked.  Micah did well too under Jakes’s guidance.

That’s Dasha – a total beginner and a natural. Micah gets credit for this outstanding picture

So, suffice it to say that jake and I had our hands full guiding a bunch of beginners and didn’t fish much for the next few days. The moon was totally against us and the gang still did ok on dry/dropper rigs.  In the following days the barometer crashed, the wind moved in, we even saw a little rain.  All that really hurt the production.  So we did see weather… and we were fishing during a really bad solunar stretch.  It was tough for the beginners.  The wind was bad.  It was cold.  The wind blew the aspen leaves into the river completely shutting off the dry fly thing.  There is only one scenario where I’d switch to the bobber and this was it.  The nymphing was still good if you could make the cast and get a drift.    It was on the bobber, that my wife Kelly caught a nice 15” in what looked like spawning colors…. But, only after some significant frustration with me as her guide.  What is it about trying to teach your wife how to fly fish?…or play golf?…or anything for that matter?…  Mere did catch a couple nice KRRs in that session too.

That’s Mere in the background with what looks to be a juvenile pure strain KRR with a Huck Midge Perdigon stuck in his face

Kern River Rainbow Hybridization

What was interesting is we kept seeing colorful fish that looked like they were in spawn…. And sure enough Micah harvested a fish to eat and it had eggs in it. That totally explains why we do so well in the end of season trip. There is a late fall / early winter spawn on the upper kern. Last year I asked steve Schalla of www.flyfishingthesierra.com aka steven ojai about it and he reasoned it could be a sudden drop in water temperature. But, Steve has been watching the hybridization of the rainbows in the Upper Kern closely. And now we have confirmed it: There is a winter spawn in the Upper Kern River. But, environmentally, this is not a positive thing.

I got this from Steve in an email when I sent him pictures: “Notice the spots…they are somewhat large and very few below the center stripe. I would guess there is considerable hybridization with Rainbows.”  Steve went on to describe what has happened in the Upper Owens and Lake Crowley seems to be happening in the Upper Kern.  “During the winter, the eastern sierras guides call the migrating rainbows their “sierran steelhead”.  They come out of Crowley Lake and spawn upstream in the Owens River.  I suspect the same is true on the Kern: the Rainbows are not just a Spring Spawn species any longer.”

“Notice the spots…they are somewhat large and very few below the center stripe”. Steve Schalla says this is a hybridized rainbow trout

Translation: stocked rainbow trout (not native to the Kern) have made it all the way up to the Upper Kern River above Fairview dam.  That stocked species of rainbow is a winter spawner.  These trout are now wild and they are breeding with the Kern River Rainbows (KRRs).  The hybridization of the KRR with other species of rainbows is now significant.  When you couple that with a significant increase in the number of brown trout in the Upper Kern River (In 1932 a group of women on horses released brown trout fingerlings into Peppermint Creek), it is a huge red flag for one of the very few places in the world that contains a majority of wild native trout. 

I have fished the Yellowstone River and its tributaries for years.  And I have watched the hybridization of the pure strained Yellowstone cutthroat.  Many of the guides in the area claim there will be no pure strained Yellowstone Cutthroats within a few short years.  That is a shame and a very tricky problem to fix.  As far as I know you can only slow it down.  So, my ask of you is this: if you are the type of person that likes to harvest the trout on the Upper Kern (current regs is 2/day).  Then make sure you don’t cull a pure strained KRR.  Make sure you harvest a hybridized trout.  Or a brown trout…. Which are also turning into a problem on the upper kern river.

Check out the spot pattern on this KRR that Micah nailed. Notice the peppery spots that pretty much cover the entire body of the fish: that is a pure strained KRR with a huck hopper in his face.

Last year (2021) I fished the end of the season, nov 15.  And we did very well.  The fishing was just awesome. Story here.  I always seem to slay at the end of the season.  And for years I have explained it as “the fish know the food sources are ending and have to fatten up for sitting at the bottom of the deep pools for 3 months until spring”.  Last year, many of the fish looked so colorful that they looked and behaved like they were in spawn.  Well, now I know for sure why the fishing is so good: Many of those males are in spawn and they just get stupid when they are in spawn.

I am headed back into the Upper Kern for the end of the Season in a couple weeks.  My mission is to pay very careful attention to the spot patterns… ie: the pure strained KRRs caught above the big waterfall which is around a mile up river from painters camp.  If the hybridization is significant way up there…. Well….uggg… the Entire species of the KRRs in the Kern River is going to suffer the fate of the Yellowstone cutthroat. 

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.

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.

Forks of the Kern – June 18-22, 2021

“Wait what?!  You got to fish the Forks?!  But, it’s closed…”

One of the many big Kern River Rainbows i nailed

The San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) got to fish the Upper Kern by the way of the Forks of the Kern Trail in June of 2021.  Technically the only people legally allowed to fish that stretch of the Upper Kern for over 2 years until the trail re-opens in the Spring of 2022.  But my God we earned it.  We worked our asses off fixing up the Forks trail.

A group of 6 of us worked with 2 members of the Western Divide Ranger District to do trail repair on the first 2 miles of the trail: from the trailhead to the confluence of the Little Kern River and the Main, North Fork of the Kern River 1000 feet and 2 miles below.

A great example of the devastation…with the green coming in the following spring

It was physical work in hot conditions with hand tools over a long weekend.  The trail had not been touched in 17 years and the fire most certainly didn’t help it.  I have been using that trail well beyond that 17 years and I can tell you I have never seen it in better shape as a result of the work.  You can practically roll a baby stroller up and down it now.  Unfortunately, no one will not be able to use it until Spring of 2022 when Western Divide reopens the area.

In addition to the trail repair, hand sawing felled trees off the trail, and trash removal, my 5 years of frustration to provide the western divide ranger district the financial resources to replace the “welcome to the golden trout wilderness” sign on the forks of the Kern trail is over.  The sign didn’t succumb to last year’s largest fire in California History.  It succumbed to vandalism around 5 years ago.  Hands down that sign was the most photographed on the entire Forks Trail.  Well, the SDFF club funded the new sign.  I personally was honored to carry it a mile down the trail where we installed it.

The SDFF and Western Divide Forest District Group with the newly installed GTW sign. from Left to Right: me, Daniel, Brooke, Evan, Kevin, Steve, Marty, Warren

A huge thanks to Evan Topal, a fairly new hire of the Wester Divide Ranger district.  Evan handled all the bureaucracy and red tape behind the scenes to make this first of its kind project happen.  Evan succeeded where I had failed navigating for years.  Evan also figured out how to pave through the red tape and legal indemnification to provide hands on the ground for the trail repair.  I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a “doer” in a so poorly under-funded and under-resourced group protecting our forests.  We are in talks about the San Diego Fly Fishing Club “adopting” the trail and what that might mean in terms of financial and hands on resources.  Execution of that would please me intensely.

I personally picked up and carried out over 30 pounds of cans and bottles accumulated over 20 years that were exposed when the trail and surrounding areas burnt.  And I felt like I was working half as hard as my buddies who were using picks and shovels and hand saws.  It was the logical job for me.  the lord didn’t give me much, but he did give me the “goat gene”.  I climbed up and down about 100 feet max off trail from above and below the trail to retrieve cans, bottles and a variety of other junk (ie: a 20 year old white gas latern, mangled jet-boils, etc.) that survived incineration in the fire.

Btw, I am working with Evan Topal to do another foray into the Forks Trail to fix up the next 2 miles of trail in the fall.  Being that said the 25% snowpack year in the Southern sierras is a much bigger concern.  The upper kern is only flowing less than 130 CFS as of writing this.  that is the lowest I can remember for this time of year; lower than I can remember in the 4 drought years.  And it is just July.  We could see disastrous low flow conditions in sept and oct.  I may have to self-inflict “hoot owl” restrictions like they do in montana when rivers get too low and too warm.  At a certain point it is just too dangerous to catch and release the fish in low, warm conditions.  You end up killing them.  And no fly fisher wants that.  Only time will tell.  But, if you are interested in helping; either with hands on the ground or financially then please do send me an email.  Let me tell you that the fly fishing makes the tax of the work completely worth it.

The Fire Aftermath

Honestly I have zero expertise in the science of Forest Fires: the recovery, patterns, etc.  But, I have been reading up on it and it’s fascinating stuff.  This area badly needed a burn.  So, let me tell you right off that the entire area is already showing recovery… green where it looked like the moon.  Trees recovering and growing back.  So much plant growth so that I’m confident when we all get back in there next year we’ll have to look hard for the signs of the fire on the ground.

And yes, the biggest fear from most fly fishers was that the fire would poison the river.  Let me tell you it did not.  it fished better than I can remember it in years.  It’s the simple fact (and irony) that this drought year did not produce rain or runoff conditions that pushed ash and mud into the river.  It’s still as crystal clear and pristine as it ever was.  And because of the new growth from the ashes we will not have mud slides.  Of course the fish not seeing an artificial fly for over a year also helped.

What shocked me first and foremost was seeming contradiction of the areas that barely burnt, the areas that did not burn and the areas that were scorched like the moon.  For instance, a huge area right at the confluence didn’t see fire at all.  Even though it was surrounded by burn in all directions including across the river.  There must have been a sudden wind shift (or fire fighting) that prevented it.  Yet in other places on the Forks trail it still looked “Nuked”; like the moon.

I have good news for you “Huck-site” fans.  The Huck Site Survived.  It burnt all right.  But all the tall pines trees on the plateau survived and were green on top when I got there.  Most of the wooden “benches” around the campfire ring burnt to ashes.  But all the trees down at the river’s edge did not see fire at all.  Even the tree swing survived.  Marty and I both quickly caught and released a couple fish right at the Huck Site after surveying it.

That’s Marty roll casting the big pool in front of the Huck Site. notice the rope swing in tact

The Huck-Cache, however, did not fare as well.  It’s gone.  Just a few hundred yards up river and about 200 feet above the trail, the cache, and the entire area around it incinerated including the giant pine tree it was hidden behind.   Before seeing it, I assumed it burnt and that I would be responsible for hauling out a ton of trash because of it.  there was no trash to haul out.  Everything incinerated short of the saw blades and a backpacking grill.  My buddy Jeff Kimura from the SDFF club hauled in a super nice little camp table just a couple weeks before the fire for a club trip to the forks.  It was aluminum.  It completely incinerated.  Two tents, 5 pairs of wading boots and river shoes and a variety of other stuff donated by the many visitors to the Huck Site: all incinerated.  Not a tragedy; not even sad.  Just interesting.  That cache can be replenished over more time.  It’s just stuff.

Is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that KR rainbow’s face? why yes, it is…

The Fishing

Nuts.  Ridiculous.  Stupid Good. I had a day where I caught 40+ Kern River Rainbows.  4 of them were over 20”.  20 of them were over 14”.  And 95% of the time I was fishing dries: huge size 4 huck hoppers.  I could kick myself for even dropping a nymph off my size 4 huck hoppers.  But, i did want to test my new Huck Perdigons.  I did it for around 20 minutes mid-day on the full day I fished when it slowed.  And I ended up getting takes on every drift.  When they started taking the huck hoppers on top again I just caught off the dropper.

The Kern River Rainbow. Look at that fan of a tail

And it wasn’t just me.  Marty Jansen caught 40+ on that day too.

But, my favorite fishing story from the project / trip has to be from Brooke Sargent.  Brooke is a 25 year old fly fisher, who on this project, was stuck with a bunch of old guys.  Not only is she a hoot of fun to be around, she guided one of the Forest Rangers to landing a 16” KR rainbow… a forest ranger who had never touched a fly rod before.

is that a Huck Hopper hanging out of that Fish’s face?

The Mistake

It seemed like such a great idea at the time.  A little background is that earlier in the spring I was fishing the 5 mile section of river above the Johnsondale Bridge.  I came across a family coming down the river trail with backpacks.  It was a dad and two kids, 10 and 8.  I was shocked to find out they had hiked all the way from the Forks.  “My God.” I said to those two kids.  “You are incredible.  That has to be 14-15 miles.  I didn’t even know there was a trail that goes there.”  The dad told me, “There really isn’t a trail.  You have to bushwhack the last 2 miles into the canyon.  We lost that trail numerous times.  And we did take a full week to get there and back.”

Well, armed with that information and remembering that Evan Topal from Wester Divide said, “Your group’s special permits expire at 3pm on Sunday.  That is when we’ll lock the gate on the road preventing access.  But, if you camp on the other side of the river, then you can hike out whenever and wherever you want as long as you stay out of the closed area on the north side of the river.

So the plan for Marty and me was to stash our trucks at the Johnsondale Bridge on the way in.  Then get a ride in from the other SDFF club members.  That would allow us to stay another two nights with a full day of fly fishing in between.  Then we’d hike our way out of the Kern River canyon for 2 miles to find the Rincon Trail which is a straight shot on top of the canyon for 9 miles to a junction trail back into the canyon catching the Johnsondale Bridge trail for the last 4 miles to our trucks.

Here’s Marty climbing out of the Kern Canyon as a process of trying to find the rincon trail

It was awesome.  But, I will not do it again.  10+ hours; 15 miles.  The middle 9 miles of the hike on the Rincon trail was awful.  The first 2 mile hike out of the canyon was quite the adventure.  We lost the trail numerous times.  We were smart about it.  We spread out until we either figured a way forward around the obstacles or wandered until we found the trail.  We did a fair amount of research in advance, so we knew “the trail” followed the creek the entire way.  So we were never really worried about getting lost; just worried about getting stuck.  It’s just that the creek was a pretty rugged canyon.  It’s a barely used non-maintained section of a trail that probably has not seen any work on it for 30 years.  It was a beautiful section, well forested and tons of signs of bear.  So much so I could smell them.  You know that stench of a bear when they are around?  We didn’t see any, but I’m pretty sure they saw us.  But it took us over 2 hours to get out of that canyon and find the rincon trail above.  Not an issue.  We had all day to hike the 9 miles back to the river.  The big mistake was that neither Marty or I paid any attention to how straight the rincon trail is on the trail maps other than finding it interesting.  We also didn’t pay too much attention that you are allowed to drive motorcycles on that trail.  Well, that trail goes straight through the forest for 9 miles because a motorcycle can go straight.  Unfortunately for us humans it was a ton of up the mountain then back down the other side on badly rutted out motorcycle trail.  it was brutal and it was hot.  At one point I said to Marty “if we don’t get to Durwood creek soon I’m going to be in trouble in terms of water.”  He said something like, “and if it doesn’t have water we’ll both be in trouble.”  Well Durwood creek did have water and did support a healthy amount of trout.  My guess is they were Little Kern Goldens, but I am still not sure because we didn’t fish it.

The only highlight of the next 4 miles of the rincon trail was me running into and startling a multi-point buck (deer).  It was a hot death march for the most part.  I was so pleased when we finally got to the turn off from the Rincon Trail to hike back down into the canyon for the last 4 miles to our trucks.  Our original plan was to fish and camp a night there before hiking out.  But we were so beaten up and exhausted when we did finally get down to the river again, we just decided to get it over with.  Even though I have hiked the 4 mile JDB trail a gazillion times it was just a death march.  I actually fell too.  That can happen when you are tired.  That could have been a disaster.  Thank God I landed on a flat piece of granite like a cat.

The Huck Site in tact. Green trees at the river. the pine needles fell from the charred, but alive pine trees on the burnt ground after the fire went out.

Of interest…

Right before Marty and I staggered into the huck site we found the remnants of a wild turkey.  I had never seen a turkey in the forks area but, it most certainly looked like a mountain lion had a party.

Summary

Epic trip.  One of the most special I have had at the Forks…and I have had a lot of them.  We were so fortunate to fish the Upper Kern while it was closed… even if it was just for a few hours.  We did pay the price, though, in terms of physical labor.  Would I do it again?  absolutely.  the hard work is a simple price to pay to fish that special place.  But, there is no way I’m hiking out the 15 miles by way of the Rincon Trail again just to get in a single full day of fishing.  If there is a next time where we work on the next 2 miles of the trail, I will leave the civil way like normal humans.

For the literally hundreds who have emailed me about the status of the Forks after the complex fire of 2020 I can tell you that this is going to be a special place to fish come spring of 2022.  Let’s go!

Believe it or not this is a different fish caught close to the other monster. i put my iphone on timer on the bank to take the picture