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.
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.
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.
Western Divide Ranger district opens Forest Road 22S82 and the ~2 miles of dirt road (Forest Road 20S67) to the Forks trailhead when:
- They are confident the snow has backed down enough to clear indicating the winter is over.
- That is when they can clear the roads of the boulders and fallen trees blocking the road from the prior winter’s storms.
- 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.
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.