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