Exploring The Kern River, Kernville, CA, USA.
I’m fortunate to have a job that takes me around the world, and I always pack a rod and reel on the off chance I get a free day or two. On this occasion it paid off as I found myself in south western California with a couple of days free from the shackles of work. I’d done a bit of research before leaving the UK but hadn’t really looked in detail, but what I did know was that I wanted to get into the wilderness and fish for wild trout. I engaged with Analiza Del Rosario from Southern Sierra Fly Fishers on Instagram, the club are based in Kernville California high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was immediately evident from her helpful advice that the Kern River was an ideal destination for me; remote, wild, quiet and some rainbows that can only be access by hiking high into the mountains. I quickly booked accommodation at the Sequoia Lodge just outside of Kernville and located on the Kern River itself.
I jumped in the car and made the four-hour journey from Paso Robles, passing huge orchards and oil fields, eventually arriving at the mouth of a huge canyon - the geological gateway to Sequoia National Park. The vastness of the canyon was overwhelming and I had to keep my eyes off the river below or else I would find myself in it. I arrived in Kernville and dropped into the Kern River Fly Shop where I met local guide Guy Jean. After a short introduction Guy explained that the river had a hatchery downstream of a dam and that the wild fish can only be found further upstream. His advice was to go upstream of the Johnsondale Bridge and find the hard to access areas for the best fishing. The fishing was on good form with nymphs, dries and lures all on the menu. I could already see that the Kern was very different to my local Wiltshire Avon, the water varied from gentle glides to raging rapids which had taken the lives of 300 people in 20 years. I grabbed a selection of Woolly Buggers in case I had to do some river pulling, something I was slow to adopt a few years previous in Arkansas which accounted for nearly all my fish there. Guy suggested fishing a nearby camp ground with what little light was left of the day, so I bid farewell and motored away armed with a blurred photo of a map with some circles marked on it and bags of enthusiasm.
I kitted up, opting for my 4wt Greys GR70 Streamlex Plus a versatile 9’6” fast action rod with a 6” extension, allowing me to fish dries, nymphs and lures with confidence in the fast water and downstream wind. I loaded an Airflo Euronymph line and a team of 2 natural coloured flies onto the rod and headed down to the river. I was greeted by an idyllic, shallow rapid which ran out into a riffled glide, perfect, exactly where I’d expect a couple of fish to be laying in wait. I worked the nymphs through the tail of the pool and was immediately hit by a fish that failed to stick, excellent I thought, I must be doing something right! A couple of casts later, into the seam of the faster water and the rod was ripped from my hand, and after a spirited fight in the fast water I netted my first fish. I continued up the pool and accounted for a further four fin perfect rainbows and a couple of missed takes before the light began to fade and I made my way to the accommodation. That evening I headed out into town for some BBQ and a beer, as expected I met some fellow anglers at the bar and after buying them a drink got some further advice on areas, methods and flies. In particular, the told me about a super secret spot exclusive to locals and only accessible to those who know how, the method of entry was unique to say the least!
The next morning, I left at first light and wanted to head up to Johnsondale Bridge and get into some wild fish, but first I wanted to hit the secret spot I’d marked on google maps which was on route. After walking, crawling and jumping for 5 minutes I dropped into the surreptitious spot, a short, narrow, fishy looking run that was screaming to be fished. I flicked the nymphs in and whack! I was straight into a small rainbow, this was quickly followed by another 3 in almost as many casts. I worked my way back to the car and headed to the bridge feeling vindicated by the decision. On arrival I packed my waders into my back pack and set up a 3 fly cast after noticing that all my fish so far had come to the point fly, a simple copper beaded yellow hares ear. The idea was that the fish were biting at depth and adding more flies would get more of them into the taking zone.
There was no phone signal after leaving town, luckily I had downloaded a satellite photo and it was evident that the trail followed the eastern bank of the river for some miles. I set off upstream, hiking the trail and taking in the magnificent scenery while trying to spot fishy areas that could be accessed without risking my life in the process. I had to be cautious, after all there was nobody around to hear my screams for help. This part of the river was raw, aggressive and varied in comparison to where I’d had a dabble the previous evening. I started off working a lot of water for not much reward, then later, on realising the vast amount of water before me took a more mobile approach looking specifically for smaller, more obvious fish holding areas. Despite reducing my actual fishing time I began to hit fish in fairly quick succession when I did drop into the areas, and felt vindicated by my decision to switch to the three fly cast.
As the day went on I took time to sit and take in the tranquil setting, watching the birds and listening to the roaring river. As I sat eating a snack I almost fell off a rock when a pair of F16 fighter jets made a low level pass, similar to the rivers back home where the RAF love to fly low along them and scare the bejeesus out of unsuspecting fishermen. Later in the day I saw the first rising fish and switched to a size 16 Parachute Adams, a generic pattern that will catch trout anywhere in the world, and immediately missed a take. I then spent some time targeting some surface feeders in tricky water and despite slowing my catch rate, I really enjoyed the challenges the river presented in terms of presentation. I finished the day about 3 miles from the car, at a wide, ambling pool, but before turning back I chose to give the lures a swim, a decision which paid off accounting for my best fish of the trip, a perfect 2lb fish that predictably slipped away before capturing a photo, typical.
The final morning, I was confident I could catch more fish, especially if I covered lots of ground selecting the best spots and switching methods to suit the water. I wanted to explore further, so I hit the trail and started fishing above where I’d turned back the previous afternoon. I quickly noticed some paw prints and fresh droppings on the track which were later identified as Mountain Lion. Luckily for me I was following it rather than the other way around and it was 15 years since the last recorded attack in that area. The fishing was worth the risk so I cracked on and found an absolutely perfect pool, a veritable fishing heaven that I couldn’t replicate if I built it myself. Two rapids merging together with a waterfall from a creek dribbling into the flank of the main run. It was narrow in parts and wider in others with a combination of riffles, swirls, seams and glides, a bit of everything for everyone. I opted to fish the Duo New Zealand style in the shallow, slower tail, accounting for two fish on a Mary Nymph and one on a Klinkhammer – just like home. I then switch to the tried and tested Euronymph method and picked out a further four fish in the complex water, working the seams and pockets. I then sat on a large boulder in the water, had some lunch and let the pool rest before swinging a black Woolly Bugger back downstream. In all I landed 10 fish from that magnificent pool, before moving on, quite possibly one of the best experiences of my 22 years fly fishing. I continued fishing until mid afternoon and quit to provide enough time to hike the several miles back to the car. I packed my kit away and hot footed it back to the bridge where I waved farewell and hopped in the car to drive back to Paso Robles, mentally refreshed with a head full of memories that I’ll never forget.
Originally written for iFlyfish.info