By Craig Ballenger, CalTrout Fly Fishing Ambassador
Follow Craig Ballenger as he travels into the canyon of the Kern River, exploring fire, drought, and trouting in the High Sierras.
I was evacuated during the Lava Fire at the base of Mount Shasta in late June 2021. Mountain folk from all of our California digs were in contact with each other as the summer of fire progressed. We learned the names of fires threatening each other’s homes. It’s tough to talk about wildfire without noting drought and 100 years of forest mismanagement in California. You have to live out here to name all the national forests in this state. I live in Shasta Trinity National Forest, 2.2 million acres, and largest in the State.
But I wanted to traipse around a bit in the southern high Sierra last August, through Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest. I wanted to fish the backcountry, and specifically along a neck of the Kern River.
The Kern is a curious river. Western America has more curious rivers than you can shake a stick at. Some wither and finally dry up. The Kern is just one of several flowing out of the Sierra Nevada. They include the Truckee, Carson, Walker, and Owens. Uniquely, the Kern splits the Great Western Divide and the eastern escarpment of High Sierra with peaks rising to over 13,000 feet to the west and over 14,000 to the east. It slices south, seemingly straight as an arrow, forming a breathtaking granite canyon over 6,000 feet deep.
I had been chased out of the mountains by fire further upstream on the Kern the season before. And in addition to fires, we had experienced relentless drought again over the winter. I even wondered how much water would be in the river. What if I walked in for days, only to find it at a trickle, and the alpine water too warm to fish? Right out of the parking lot, the creek we had filmed several years earlier at Horseshoe Meadows, then teeming with golden trout, was now just a dusty, parched stream bed. Milkey and Bullfrog Meadows on the other side of 11,000 foot Trail Pass was a desert.
Photo courtesy of Craig Ballenger.
After ten or so mountain miles though, I struck a spring. I dumped my pack, leaned against it, gulping ice cold water. Amid the silence of wilderness, I lay there refreshed by just the sound of the bubbling tiny stream.
From there, water was plentiful. Winding down the trailside creek, headwaters of the East Fork of the Kern, golden trout darted away from my roving shadow. Things were looking up. And finally, a peek down deep into the Canyon, 2600 feet below, the trail dropped to the Kern River Bridge, and the remote entrance to Sequoia National Park.
Here were fish worth chasing after. The Kern River rainbow. A fish rarer even than the golden trout. Considered a subspecies resulting from hybridization between coastal rainbows and Little Kern golden thousands of years ago, they grew to prodigious size. This was during an era when the Kern once connected through sloughs and shallow inland lakes, turned north, and finally joined the San Joaquin River, emptying into San Francisco Bay. Fish over eight pounds once led locals, fishing in the plains above Bakersfield, to call them salmon.
Now though, decades of hatcheries along the lower river led to introduction of other rainbow trout from through the State. Some have even suggested there was a plant of McCloud rainbows from Mount Shasta’s Sission Hatchery. Apocryphal or not, the story rings with more than a hint of authenticity.
Are there any pure strain Kerns left? Only genetics can confirm. There may be some in isolated tributaries deep in the mountain fastness of upper Kern tributaries. We’ll keep searching. If there are any, they would be another legacy salmonid, reflecting the amazing variety found only in the Golden State.