Relevant Stats for the 4 days:
Flow & Water Conditions
- Crystal Clear, stable
- ~10 feet of silt to 18″ deep at rivers edge
- 10/20-23 – ~100 CFS
(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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.