We’re counting down to Saturday’s opening day weekend for trout fishing in the state. Today: Some great trout fishing options around the Kern River Valley.
By Jeff Walters
The drought that has plagued California and other Western states has taken its toll on our water resources. Lakes, rivers and streams that we count on for the annual late-April trout opener will be less than full.
However, this doesn’t mean you must wait for the official trout fishing season to begin, because unlike other angling destinations, the Kern River in the Sierra foothills is open to fishing all year long.
The mighty Kern flows from Mount Whitney and travels some 165 miles to Bakersfield, forming Lake Isabella, Ming Lake, Hart Park, Buena Vista Lakes and more along its route. There are many different sections of the Kern River to fish, however, and knowing where to go and how to fish the low water levels is imperative.
Unlike the Fishmas crowds that usually descend on Eastern Sierra fisheries, the Kern River Valley is smaller, less crowded and full of fighting fish. There are over 20 different campgrounds, numerous hotels and a host of Airbnb options to choose from for overnight trips.
Anglers and their families will always have a place to call base camp.
EASY ACCESS FROM SOUTHLAND
There are a few ways to get to this area from most of Southern California. Starting on the lower Kern River coming up from Bakersfield on State Route 178, you’ll drive through one of the most inspiring river canyons you can ever think of. The river flows all along the road leading up to Lake Isabella. This section of the Kern is considerably warmer than the upper river. It’s full of swift water, rapids, rafting, hot springs, picnic areas and day-use facilities.
There are only two overnight camping areas here: Sandy Flats Campground, which is operated by a private concessionaire and part of the Sequoia National Forest, and Keyesville Special Recreation Management Area, which is free dispersed camping. For more information or to make reservations, simply go to recreation.gov or fs.usda. gov/recarea/sequoia/recreation.
Fishing tactics for the lower Kern River below the dam at Lake Isabella are completely different from what’s used on either the lake or other sections of the river. Here, you will find steep canyons, boulder-lined shores, giant rocks, huge gravel bars and some very deep, slow-moving sections that require caution when
near because of the strong currents. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks trout when water levels permit. Tactics include using jigs or small spinners around most of the midstream boulders, casting near the many cut banks, and drifting bait like nightcrawlers or salmon eggs. The current simply won’t allow forn bait-on-the-bottom-style fishing.
A FAMED TROUT LAKE
State Highway 178 leads you to Lake Isabella and the surrounding town of the same name. Exit Route 178 near the base of the dam, turning left onto Highway 155. Just about 1.5 miles after you cross the river on the left, you’ll find access to Keyesville Special Recreation Area. Continue north on Route 155 for
access points and campgrounds.
Lake Isabella is home to the Isabella Lake Fishing Derby. However, due to the severe drought and the Covid-19 pandemic, the tournament has met with some drastic changes
(see sidebar for more information). Fishing the lake from shore can be a challenge at times due to the need to find a deep spot, as well as staying out of the ever-present and sometimes overpowering wind. The deepest spot is near the dam and home to the natural river channel, making it a good choice. Even though the drought-impacted water is very low, a lot of semi-exposed structure is readily available to explore. The other areas to consider are French Gulch Marina on the western side of the lake and all along the Auxiliary Dam on the east side, which happens to be the most popular for campers with RV trailers. Bait rules this area when it comes to trout fishing and you don’t have to cast way the heck out there either.
BACK TO THE RIVER
The Kern River really starts to shine as it flows through the small town of Kernville, just a few miles upstream from Lake Isabella. On this stretch of river, the trout stocking program is very generous, so it draws a lot of anglers. This is moving water and, for now, very shallow, so there are not a lot of deep pools to fish.
The best tactic for this area is keeping your rod tip up and using salmon eggs, nightcrawlers, jigs or flies. The best place to fish the river around here is Riverside Park, which has free parking, a playground, barbecue grills, restrooms and plenty of places to eat nearby. It’s a very family-friendly environment.
UPSTREAM OPTIONS ABOUND
Once you cross the bridge in Kernville you are on your way “upriver,” as the locals call it. Mountain 99 is the main road that leads you there and it passes some terrific fishing spots. One very special place to fish is called
Powerhouse. Just a few miles from Kernville you will see the Kern River Trout Hatchery. This is where you slow down and look for a Southern California Edison sign; turn left and follow the road to the parking lot below the Powerhouse. This is a great spot to wade, bait fish and explore. It’s a must-stop if you’re fishing this area (if you can’t seem to find it, just ask at any of the local shops nearby).
Just a few miles further beyond Powerhouse, you’ll hit the very small town of Riverkern (slow down while driving this section, the speed limit is only 30 mph). There are campgrounds with river access, pull-outs, open-use areas, dispersed camping, hiking trails and more all along this well-used road.
On this section of the Kern you’ll find lots of pocket water, wading areas, deep pools, riffles and more. The trout stocking is very generous and is broken down by sections. For more information on the locations, stocking schedule and more, visit nrm.dfg.ca.gov/fishplants.
WILD AND SCENIC SECTION
Johnsondale Bridge is the furthest upstream you can drive and still parallel the Kern. Here is the Wild Trout Special Regulations Area. The trail leading down to the river is not for the faint of heart, as very steep stairs will take you down to the trailhead. Make sure to check out the description of the Special Regulations Area, which is strictly enforced. Even though this area is very well known and has a lot of hikers and anglers all the time, you should always be careful and not go alone.
This is the most exciting part of the river to fish due to its remoteness and giant wild trout. Kern River rainbows call this water home and they are part of the California Wild Trout Heritage Program – a must-do for any serious trout angler because it takes you to so many great areas of the state to try and catch some special fish.
While this area is the last drivable access to the water without a very long hike and overnight stay, it is by far the most scenic. Regs here include no bait fishing, and you can only use barbless hooks on artificial lures or flies. CS
Editor’s note: Go to kernrivervalley.com and facebook.com/visitkernriver for more information on the region.