Backpacking to the Upper Kern River – August 28-30 2015
Wet Wading; 40+ takes a day; all nymphing; no real action on top;
View down to the North Fork of Kern River at the confluence of the Little Kern from the Forks of the Kern Trail
I have written a few posts about my experiences on the Kern so if you are reading this to learn how to fish it make sure and read those other posts. I won’t rehash here other than one important fact: the reason the fly fishing is so good is because not many people are willing to do the 1100 foot decent in 2.1 miles to get down to the river….because to get out you have to do the ascend in reverse. It is physical and that part of the southern sierras gets hot in the summer.
Here is what my fitbit told me I did on the first day after hiking in and fishing all day. That is a big day for an over 50 like me.
10k steps a day reccommended to keep healthy
I had this trip on my calendar for a long time because my wife was out of town this weekend. And that makes it really easy to get out into the wilderness. We are empty nesters after all.
In this 4th year of drought I knew I was going to face a tame river. At 65 CFS it was wadable and crossable almost everywhere. I was in shock because I have fished that river when you can barely get a toe in the water while still being afraid of being swept away. On that first day all by myself I kept laughing to myself “I cannot believe I am just wading the middle of the river up-stream for miles.” Because in non-drought years the Kern is a nasty dangerous wild river in its upper section. Even the best kayakers avoid it because of the many class 5 rapids. Well, in august of a drought year it’s just a completely different river and fishes different too.
Notice the Graph below. It contains data from 1999 to present. And can clearly see august averages are around 300 CFS. Well, the Kern is at 65 CFG and it has been about 1/5th of what it should be at for a couple years now.
65 CFS in August of a drought year when it should be 300+
The other thing I noticed, especially because of drought is how badly that area needs another good fire. You can clearly see it has had fire before. I can’t find the records on the internet, but from seeing some of the left over burnt trees in the area I’d guess that area hasn’t burnt in over a decade. There are so many dead trees (pine beetle) and a full foot of dead leaves on the ground in many places. It just seems that either Mother Nature with lightning or some dumb ass is going to set that place on fire soon. There are so many places on fire in California right now. And as much as the area needs a fire, having a fire during low water conditions is going to ruin the fishery for a while when the ash “sludges” up that beautiful river.
Montana skies in the Sierras with Grant Slaying in the River
The great thing about this trip was that my buddy Grant Palmer joined me for Saturday and Sunday. Grant is a very good fisherman and is one of the many that originally taught me how to fly fish. I will never forget meeting him for the first time about 15 years ago, trying to cast a $60 cabellas 6wt and him saying, “Try this rod”. And then my good friend Tim Hoffmann, also credited for teaching me how to fly fish saying, “Huck, be careful. That is a $2000 rod.” I almost fainted. Grant worked for Backpacker Magazine at the time and got all the “good stuff” for free.
Anyways I feel like I know the Kern well and how to fish it in all seasons. But, I learned a lot from Grant on this trip. I also re-affirmed my belief that you just can never stop learning in fly fishing. Firstly I learned the contrast of how differently Grant and I fish. He is methodical and deliberate. He rakes the river until it succumbs to him. I’m a 5 cast and move type of guy; always moving, always casting. Grant basically picks a run and then fishes by high-sticking a perfect drift 10 feet in front of him with an upstream roll of the line at the end to start the process over. He basically nymphs from 45 degrees up stream to 45 down; highsticking over and over until he catches a fish; similar to European style nymphing, but with a bobber. Grant uses a bobber and weight so he gets all the way down.
Me, I fish a hopper as my indicator in the Kern because you never know when the monster might rise from the deep. And I drop self-weighted nymphs off that – 3 total flies. Yes that means I succumb to more trees and wind knots and lose more flies. And I cast 20 to 60 feet with hugely long drifts. I don’t get down like Grant does…especially up stream. And I never rake 5+ fish out of a hole like grant does. But, I love casting and I love the long distance fights and technical prowess of the drifts and the sets so I sacrifice quantity. Which is fine by me.
But, it was obvious to be more well-rounded, I need to balance my fly fishing with more of what Grant does. Because I bet he hooked 60 fish on Saturday. I hooked at least 40 also. Some of them were quality fish.
Rubber Legs in the Nose
The difference in the fish hooked on this trip was size. In April it seemed like every fish I hooked was huge. In August 9 out of ten fish were 6” to 8”. Is there anything harder to land than a 6” wild river trout on a size 18 barbless nymph? If you have only fished stocked or lake fish you have no idea what I’m talking about. Wild fish go ballistic when hooked. And I don’t just mean 4 or 5 jumps. And they never seem to tire…if you do get them to hand you can’t get them to relax to unhook them. On this trip I really perfected my 10 foot release of the little guys. Some times on purpose; many times not. It’s better on the fish when you don’t touch them or bring them out of the water. Just a little too much vertical tension with the trout’s head just out of the water can many times get a small fish to shake himself off. In a “wild river” it is easier to land a big trout than a little one. The big trout leap, but they don’t go crazy like the little ones.
The Burly Little Left Hander – picture taken by Grant Palmer
In 3 days of fishing I only had 5 or 6 takes on top and even a small amount of refusals. I tried many different sizes and colors of “Huck-Hoppers” which normally kill there. The weird thing was that grasshoppers were everywhere on the banks in the grass just like you’d expect in August. So, I’m perplexed at why I wasn’t getting rises because the naturals were there. Sometimes you can match the hatch and it still doesn’t work. That is fly fishing.
I had one huge fish follow a small fish I had on trying to consume him. I should have switched to a streamer right then and there. I bet Grant would have.
There always seems to be some type of calamity back packing. And overcoming issues backpacking makes you better and better at it. On this trip I had a couple calamities that caused bruises and bleeding, but the biggie was that my Korkers Felt Soles on my wading boots failed; Total drag and relatively dangerous. I’m a huge Korkers fan. They are the wading boots where the soles are interchangeable. The Kern is really slippery because of the round and oblong granite soccer ball sized boulders polished by the river. The titanium spiked felt Korkers are great in most rivers, but a nightmare on the Kern. The pure felts work just fine in the Kern. I have never had a problem with soles, but I bought a 2nd pair of Korkers Mudder Duckers off www.SierraTradingPost.com in May that were too cheap to resist. When I got them I was pleasantly surprised by how light they were: perfect for backpacking. I’d wear the rubber soles to hike in (extra socks because you size up wading boots for the neoprene booty in the waders) and just switch to the felts before entering the river. That saved 5 pounds in my pack not having to bring wading boots and hiking boots. This was only the 3rd trip I had used the felt soles and they failed after a couple hours of wading on the first day. The adhesive failed and the felt peeled back from the soles. Uggg…i’d have to fish in the rubber soles for the next 3 days… dangerously slippery. Well, I assumed that it would be very painful to do a warranty replacement, if at all. What I found was the exact opposite and incredible customer service. On the www.Korkers.com site there is a nice little web application that allows you to send a picture of the defect product, load the proof of purchase, etc. Within 12 hours of submitting my warranty application I got a personal email from Ari Zolonz from Korkers practically apologizing for the defect and promising an immediate replacement. We went back in forth in email and I told him I was a huge Korkers fan and was surprised the felts failed. He basically said I bought a discontinued model of Korkers that was probably 7-8 years old that was just sitting in a hot Wyoming sierratradingpost warehouse for 8 years. Ari told me, “… there are a few crucial variables in production when it comes to adhesives. Time, temp, pressure.” Makes total sense. And I’m even more of a Korkers fan now.
Big Kern River Rainbow
We didn’t eat any trout and I’m glad Grant didn’t want to. I packed in a huge steak and between that and dehydrated backpacking food we were fine.
On the way in a fox and a bobcat crossed the road in front of me. on the hike out I followed a fox for a couple hundred feet on the trail. On the last day Grant and I closed up camp and backpacked our way back close to the ascent. Then we fished downriver away from the trail and into the wilderness. It was a bit creepy seeing all the bear tracks. Grant left at 10am and I landed 7 quality trout in the next hour after he left. I kept getting deeper into the wilderness and farther from the trail out until I finally convinced myself I had to end it and go home. My estimate was another 2 miles wading the river. So, I was already a bit exhausted when I started the 2.1 mile, 1100 foot ascent. It took me a full hour. Exhausting, and totally worth it.