Not as prized, but just as golden…

With the fishing season coming to a close in the next couple of months and another trip to Kenya on the horizon I wanted to get back to the GTW. I’d intended to target the Little Kern Golden Trout over Labor Day but the Pier Fire messed with my plans. Anytime you’re planning a back country trip be sure to check for any wildfires in the area. Assuming you’re good to go only to find roads, campsites, and trails closed is never a fun way to quickly end a weekend trip. Thankfully after three tough weeks, fire crews were able to sufficiently contain the fire which led to the re-opening of Hwy 190. With this good news on hand, my wife and I decided to give it a go. Along with the LKGT, I wanted to see if I could get to a remote population of exceedingly pure Kern River Rainbows (in their native drainage) as well. My wife and I loaded up the Santa Fe and left the LA area by about 3:30 on Friday…only made possible by being on the phone with my African colleagues by about 5:30am.

We made it to Porterville by about 6:00 and grabbed some last minute supplies at the local Walmart. Before long we were through Springville, then Camp Nelson, and finally our point-of-entry to native trout mecca. It was 8:00pm before we arrived and it was quite dark. It was also really cold. The car registered 41 degrees…at 8:00pm. To add insult to injury the following morning was the opening for hunting season. Let’s just say that loads of people were around and plenty of guns could be seen glinting in the dancing light of the many campfires. I was NOT excited. Certainly it was good to be out of civilization but this was not the peace and calm I was anticipating. I feared the following morning (and two days) would be filled with the ringing of .306 rifles. Spoiler: it was not as bad as it could have been.

It was a really cold night. So cold in fact that while tending the campfire we made the decision to forgo the tent and actually sleep in the back of the SUV. We removed the bins holding our gear, pulled out the sleeping bags and pads, and setup “home” in the back of the vehicle. All in all it was a much better option than the original plan. At 10:30 I turned the keys to check the temperature and it was already 33.

The morning came swiftly. We loaded up on oatmeal and coffee before breaking camp (i.e. tossing the bins back in the car) and driving to our take-in. We decided that instead of an overnight in the GTW we’d day hike in and out to leave room for the possibility of fishing for KRR on Sunday morning. We loaded up our light packs with the essentials: water, jerkey, energy bars, and libations (why not…) and hit the trail. It wasn’t long until we found moving water. This is was incredible relief compared to last year when flows were so low and the initial meadows and runs were stagnant pools of death suitable only to frogs and tadpoles. We couldn’t see any fish but the running water ensured their ability to survive. Fair amounts of trail hiking, bushwacking, boulder hopping, tree-crossing, and scrambling had us to the intended destination where I knew a nice population of trout should be.

I set down the pack, unzipped the rod holder, busted out the reel, and began to string up. That “never gets old” feeling of butterflies started to dance in my stomach and I could feel the adrenaline begin to flow. I was excited. That’s what I love about fly fishing. It doesn’t matter how often I wet a line, each and every time is like Christmas morning.

Seeing that a number of pools were a bit deep and that not many flying insects were seen I tied on a size 18 copper john. I figured that I could pop it off the bottom a couple of times to see if anybody was home. I’ve used this method time and again to evaluate if fish are present. I’m amazed by how well it works. Just tie on a bead headed nymph and drop it into the calmest section of a pool where you can watch it hit bottom. Try to stir up the soft ground at the bottom upon impact and repeat this a couple times. Call my a liar if you don’t see a trout or two slowly emerge from a deep lair investigating if a meal ticket has arrived. I don’t know what they expect but it never ceases to amaze me how many times I can locate a fish with this simple technique.

Anyways, the very first cast and “test” as outlined above drew a nice LKGT out from under a submerged log. Now knowing where he was, I simply cast the same nymph to his location and bam, fish on! Nothing beats seeing the white open mouth of a hungry fish as he takes your fly. That momentary flash is the perfect signal to set your grip, and moments later, the hook. After a brief battle I brought this beauty to hand.

Not much feels better than getting the skunk off on the second cast with a really nice sized native trout. This wasn’t a 4″ dink. That was a legit fish. As my wife can attest, I was beaming. We continued to work up and down the small creek taking time to admire the incredible scenery. Not much beats fall in the Sierras.

Hole after hole held low numbers of relatively large fish. In fact I was very surprised by how different this section of the GTW is compared to the eastern reaches. Golden Trout Creek, the SF of the Kern, even Volcano Creek…these are relatively large waters chalk full of tiny hungry trout. This tiny high altitude stream held relative lunkers in small volumes. I anticipated that after extreme drought I’d find only little guys. Instead, I only found respectable specimens. Warning….fish blitz to follow…

It was getting late, the clouds, were moving in, it was already pretty cold, and my hands were virtually frozen from holding so many fish in the water. We were about done but that all too common “just one more corner” thing kept playing over and over in my mind. Boy am I glad it did. We hiked another 10 minutes or so down the trial to where a couple tributaries converged. About 10 feet downstream a large deep pool formed with an undercut and back flowing current. Ideal for big fish. While carefully stalking the spot I saw a hulk of a LKGT. Truly. This was the largest LKGT I’d seen in four trips and miles and miles of cataloged stream(s). I was dumbfounded, stressed, and terrified all at once. I’m pretty sure you know the exact feeling. That “don’t you dare $#%@ this one up” feeling that you get.

I tossed out another copper john and the fish immediately zero’d in on it, only to halt millimeters away without a proper strike, just a simple head bob to the side. Bastard!

I tied on a prince nymph streamer. I tossed it to the back of the run (about 15 feet) and stripped it in letting it plunge and bob with each draw. Again, same thing. Lightening fast response from Mr. Fatty with an even faster halt only a hair’s distance from the fly. $@%$^%^$%#^%#&!!! At least I think that’s what I said. It’s certainly what I felt.

The large trout receded back to its safe zone.

I tied on another larger (size 16) copper john, this time in green. A flick to the middle of the pool, a patient sink….nothing. A quick strip….nothing. This was getting frustra…….FISH ON!

Out of nowhere the beast of a mother fish (relatively speaking for remote native trout) attacked the nymph from the backside of the pool and the game was a foot. A solid two minute battle ensued. This guy had shoulders and was not afraid to use them. He knew where every underwater branch, weed, tangle, snare, and trap was. I was dancing to keep him and the line clear. My wife came to the rescue with the net but upon seeing her tore off once again to the back (and bottom) of the run. Another 45 seconds of tense , brow sweating action played out before I could draw him up and she could then scoop him up. What a fish. What a rush. What a ride.

By this point I knew that I wouldn’t top that fish. My wife gave it her best shot but we were cold, wet, and concerned because the frequency of gunshots was increasing. The last thing we wanted was to be in the sights of some stupid trigger happy hunter who wasn’t willing to let the brush clear before taking a shot. We decided to call it a day and make for the car. I love how hikes out always feel shorter than hikes in. It’s the saving grace, especially for “V” trails (down then up which means that it’s the same for the return….down then up again).

Safely to the car we quickly loaded our gear and hopped in only to find that the thermometer read 36 degrees. No wonder we were cold. We turned up the heater and slowly retreated from the GTW to our campsite…from where we could attempt to catch Kern River Rainbows the following morning. On the drive back to the paved road we passed hunter after hunter after hunter. Please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against people who hunt. I was just thrown for a loop because I thought this would be a quiet weekend of relative solitude.

After about 45 minutes of driving we finally found the turnoff and made it back to our same campsite. Seeing that the thermometer read 31 at the time we decided to sleep in the SUV again like the prior night. We would not, however, go without the campfire, libations, s’mores, and some sort of dinner that we’d fashion together. In the process of setting things up our neighboring campers blessed us with the offer of burritos. This set of two families (brothers with their wives and one son each) from Central CA seriously hooked us up. The prior night upon arriving so late, they walked us over a lit log from their fire and two plates of tri-tip steak with rice. Whoa! Thank you very much. Tonight was much the same. We thankfully did not need the fire-start but Mexican-lineage made burritos were too tough to turn down especially with their homemade salsa that they truly need to bottle and sell.

That took care of dinner but there was still time for beer, s’mores, drying off boots, and talking with my lovely wife about our future together. Nights like that under the starts are about as good as it gets in my book. Especially with minds full of recently caught native trout. We talked, warmed, and relaxed for a few hours before heading to the car for the night. Again, not a bad way at all to stay warm. I’m sure we would have been fine in the tent with our gear but I will say that we were both chilly which only makes me wonder what being cold would have felt like outside. Yes, we would have been fine but we probably would not have slept near as well.

Once again morning greeted us with the sun peering through the trees and the sheriff making his sneaky early morning rounds making sure that hunters properly extinguished their fires. The authorities were on high alert and were very diligent in the wake of the Pier Fire and other fires in recent memory that raged through the region. More oatmeal, more hot cocoa, and more was on the docket before making the drive back to home and work.

Today’s journey would require some serious bushwacking and off-trail explorations but hey, “in for a penny, in for a pound” as a good friend of mine always says. After properly breakdown of camp (loading the bins and chairs back into the car…a good 15 minutes of work) we were off. Dirt roads, pot holes, a bald eagle, and plenty of chipmunks later we made it to our launch-point. I was very excited for today’s adventure because I love Kern River Rainbows. They are absolutely stunning. In the upper reaches such as these you don’t anticipate monster fish. The small waters cannot sustain the 20+ inch cruisers that call the upper Kern (8+ miles above the Forks) home. Instead you’re graced with speckled and bejeweled fish that run green, red, purple, orange, and blue. They are fireworks of color. Though not as vibrant as the CA goldens, and not as rich as LKGT, the KRR is perfect in its own right. The setting could not have been more ideal.

And I was serious when I said bushwacking. There is no established trail for much this section of stream. Every now and then you’ll stumble upon what you swear is a path but you’re not sure if its for people or animals. Regardless, you use it. Deeper and deeper we worked. The stream split and re-merged forming pockets and pools. We’d fish each and every one of these. Dropping a nymph here, tossing a caddis there we continued our journey enjoying every moment regardless of the catch. After long and without even seeing as much as a fish I was beginning to fear that perhaps the recent drought really impacted this particular watershed. We finally stumbled upon a very fishy looking section of stream.

I worked this pocket for a good 30 minutes without so much as a nibble. I tried everything in my repertoire with every fly I had on me. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Ziltch. I could have sworn there would be fish hiding beneath the branches just grazing the top of the water. Nope. Oh well. We continued downstream. After another hour or so of nothing I was done. Not frustrated, just done. I was resigned to realizing that perhaps years of drought, compounded by high fire activity, compromised the sustainability of the unique genetics in this stream.

Passing by that hole once more I had to try again. That whitewater, the current, the trees, the depth…there had to be fish. And there were. They may have been small but by golly, I was not getting skunked in water this enticing. I managed to sink a bead head beneath the current so that it was swept deep toward the far bank and as it emerged from the trees so too did a small trout giving chase. A few seconds later I was holding a pretty little fish that really reminded my of a coastal cutthroat.

Glad this this hole was productive, we triumphantly proceeded back toward the car. There was just too much good water to pass by and the recent catch gave me hope that I might find more fish in waters I too hastily worked on my way in. This just was not the case. Hole after pocket after riffle after falls produced nothing but reeds, grass, and moss. Finally we came upon “the last place” that I was going to wet a line this weekend. Just one more….like my wife hasn’t heard that one before. But in this case I really was serious. I didn’t need to catch fish. I was not itching to catch fish. Honestly, I was just more curious than anything. Maybe I should be more curious more often.

Just try to tell me that doesn’t look perfect! As I crept down to the waters’ edge I saw a lovely trout holding about 12 feet in front of my completely unaware of my presence. It was just above the really bright sunspot on the water in the middle of the above photo. I carefully flicked the fly out and was crushed as the weighted line fell a bit too hard and spooked the fish. I could not tell in which way nor toward which pocket it darted. Oh well. I tossed the fly a few more times working each “obvious” spot to no avail. After about 5 minutes I gave up. I turned back to the hillside to begin navigating my way out. Giving one last glance at the creek I could not believe my eyes when the trout reappeared and gently swam directly toward me. I froze. Too nervous to breathe I watched as he drew nearer…and nearer…and nearer. I kid you not when I say that it stopped exactly level with me not more than four feet away. In the most calm and collected fashion as I could muster up, I delicately dropped the fly on the water a few feet above the fish and let the current drift it down. Once spotted, the fly was zero’d in on, and bam! My wife scrambled by my side and gently scooped the immaculate rainbow into the net for it’s few moments of glory and token photo shoot.

What a looker. Even a faint cutthroat slash can be seen. The lateral line is bright red. The gill plate looks like steak, tints of green can be seen across the top of the back, the parr marks are a perfect grey-blue, and the body a slight sandy gold. Perfection. Pure perfection.

We released the fish and watched it peacefully take cover under an outcropping while it caught it’s breath. My wife and I just sat on a rock in the shade and reflected on the wonderful two days we’d spent together. It’s amazing that with just a little planning a weekend like this could be pulled off. Sure beats most Saturday and Sunday combos in my book. Why don’t we do this more often?

For those of you who stuck it out, here’s a video recap of the trip:

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