KERNVILLE, Calif. — A few months ago Ken Walton was warning people to stay out of the Kern River. The Kern was running so fast and furious that it posed a danger to anglers along the bank and those wading in search of rainbow trout.
Walton has since changed his tune as the Kern has lived through its normal cycle, transforming from a wild, out-of-control, free-flowing river to a more calm, slower, approachable and easy-to-fish river.
"The river couldn't be fishing any better. Right now the trout bite is excellent up there," said Walton, who works at Bob's Bait Bucket in Bakersfield (661-833-8657).
"Guys are catching limits in less than an hour. I've seen some trout as big as 8 pounds."
The Kern River stretches for more than 100 miles; however, you'll want to focus on the section from Kernville to the Johnsondale Bridge. A month ago the flows were so high that anglers had no chance at catching trout. Fortunately though, snowmelt has been reduced to a minimum, thunderstorms have become less frequent and the river has cleared and subsided.
In short, after a wild and challenging spring and early summer conditions are favorable for anglers looking to tap into a limit of trout. And as flows continue to decrease, the river will fish even better. Hands-down, in August and September there will be few trout fisheries in California that can keep pace with the Kern.
"The Kern is the best trout fishing around here right now for sure," Walton said. "People have been catching some really nice fish."
From now through fall, anglers will continue to fill creels with half-pound and larger trout. Fish & Game's Kern River Fishery Hatchery plants the river almost weekly. And new this summer is a program that plants trophy trout in the Kern a few times each month.
Anglers can expect trout that compare to those caught in Eastern Sierra lakes and streams.
Thankfully, they are much larger than the three-to-the-pound dinky trout that are planted in Southern California waters during the winter and spring.
To anglers the Kern has far more value that most Southern Cal, Eastern Sierra and Western Sierra rivers and streams.
With nearly 20 miles of roadside water on the upper stretch there's no shortage of spots to fish. Whereas you're forced to arrive early to get a good spot in other rivers and streams, the Kern stands taller and doesn't pose the same risk of not waking up early.
There's so much fishable water that hundreds of anglers can have their own secret spots, even during the middle of the day.
The river is stocked in dozens of locations. With this year's stocked trout joining tens of thousands of holdovers from previous years, the trout surplus is unmatched by any other coldwater fishery within hundreds of miles.
Adding to its merit is the Kern's topography. The river lends a hand to all anglers, be they fly fishermen, bait dunkers or those opting to toss spoons and spinners.
The Kern is as wide as a basketball court in some spots, narrow as a tennis court in others, but has deep enough holes, riffles, tailouts, runs and soft water, making it the perfect destination for an array of anglers.
For decades Pautzke Balls O' Fire salmon eggs and crickets have been a staple on the Kern River. According to Walton, that hasn't changed.
"We sell a ton of salmon eggs," Walton said.
"The guys catch all the fish on Pautzke's Balls O' Fire Green Label salmon eggs. We used to carry the orange ones, but people want red eggs here. Pautzke is the best, but crickets and nightcrawlers are close behind."
Natural baits are the way to go on the Kern. The river is fairly easy to read; you won't have issues trying to figure out where to toss the eggs, worms and insects.
Even during late summer and fall the Kern maintains a strong current in many areas. This is a clear sign that trout are going to be just outside of the fast moving water trying to conserve energy.
To capitalize on this you'll want to look for obstructions in the river that break the fast moving water, creating a pocket of calm water where trout rest and wait for food to come downriver.
On the Kern, many of these breaks can be found behind large boulders in the river.
One of the best ways to entice trout to bite is casting either a Eagle Claw treble hook or Gamataksu single salmon egg hook with red or orange salmon eggs on it behind one of the many boulders anywhere in the river.
The great thing about the Kern is that you don't have to seek out boulders to do this.
The entire upper section is loaded with them. Some are visible others only seen with a pair of polarized glasses, but rest assured there will be lots of them.
The river tends to fish well from just below the Kernville Bridge in Kernville to about ¼-mile below the Johnsondale Bridge near South Creek Falls. Perhaps the best fishing can be found in picnic areas and campgrounds as most of the stocks take place here.
You don't have to use bait to find success. Many anglers catch dinner with spinners and spoons. Because of the size of the river, it's a good place to bring spoons and spinners.
Hardware enables you to make longer casts to approach trout that may be hiding on the far bank, and also helps you cover more water and target more actively feeding trout.
Make sure to bring several types of lures though. Depending on flows you many need small to medium size spinners.
To cover the spectrum well with spinners, I'd bring a set of Blue Fox, Mepps, Bangtail, Rooster Tails and Panther Martins, both dressed with feathers and featherless.
In regards to spoons, a Super Duper, Kastmaster, Cripplure, Thomas Buoyant and Krocodile will get the job done. These will aid in targeting some of the deeper holes and long runs.
Fly fishing is also popular, but not the mainstay.
You'll find morning and evening hatches and should be able to get trout to rise to the surface in search of dry flies, but nymph fishing with an indicator will be tops.
With a streamer or Woolly Bugger fished in a deep hole you'll likely find bigger trout.
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