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
- 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
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!
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.
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”. ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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….
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.