When spring flowers bloom, I come down with a serious case of trout fever. The symptoms are instantly recognizable: a twitchy casting arm and an insatiable craving for sparkling waters and biting fish.
I typically look to the Eastern Sierra for the cure, but with the trout season opener set for Saturday, I know better than to join the crowds that make a beeline each spring for the Owens River Valley and the lakes off U.S. 395. Last year, the crowds at Crowley Lake made the shores look like rush hour on the 405. Fishing should not be a contact sport.
Looking for a change of pace, I packed my fishing pole and turned my wheels toward the Kern River, which is open to fishing year round (with only a few restrictions that are eased during trout season).
Flowing from a series of lakes on the slopes of Mt. Whitney, blitzing through canyons of pine and fir and flowing into Lake Isabella before trickling into the fields and orchards of the San Joaquin Valley, the Kern has more than 80 miles of shoreline, and Lake Isabella has 11,000 acres of water.
In playgrounds like those, trout hunters can find plenty of elbow room. During three days of scouting, I came back with 10 sure-fire destinations for fishing, camping, hiking and sightseeing that will remedy any bout of fever.
1. KENNEDY MEADOWS
The murky brown water that rushes past this 6,100-foot elevation campground along the South Fork of the Kern is so cold that ice spears cling to the reeds and branches that reach into the current. I am told the fishing is good here because the California Department of Fish and Game dumps buckets of rainbow and brown trout in these pools from March through November.
All is quiet on an early April afternoon: just the sound of the rushing water and wind through the pines. I amble along the bank, looking for the best fishing spot. The opposite banks are steep, adorned with gray boulders, pine and fir trees. On the campground side, I come across a spot marked "Fire Safe Area No. 2," where the bank is free of thick brush and trees to snag my line. Just a wide stretch of slow-moving water. If I were a 5-year-old again, I'd call dibs on this spot.
From U.S. 395, just north of the Inyo County line, take Ninemile Canyon Road west for about 25 miles and follow the signs to Kennedy Meadows. The campground has 38 sites, bathrooms and running water. Overnight fees: $5. A small general store operates on the road just outside the campground.
2. RIVERKERN BEACH
For more than 20 miles, a two-lane road that starts as Sierra Way then becomes Mountain Route 99 shimmies along the banks of the Kern River from Lake Isabella to Johnsondale Bridge. The road is bordered by dozens of fishing spots that anglers can reach without bushwhacking through shrubs or climbing over boulders. Among the best is Riverkern Beach, a flat, grassy picnic area about three miles north of Kernville. Riverkern Beach made my list of favorite fishing sites because of its deep, languid water and the gnarled oak that shades the eastern bank in the morning. It also helps that it's a stocking spot for the California Department of Fish and Game.
From Kernville, follow Sierra Way about three miles north of Kernville and look for a sign at a clearing by the river.
3. WHITEWATER RIVER HIKE
Park next to Johnsondale Bridge and climb down the yellow staircase that leads to a four-mile trail along the upper Kern where the really serious anglers pursue wild trout. At places, the path narrows, bounds over rocks and climbs over downed trees. On the trail, don't expect bathrooms or running water, but you'll find countless brilliant fishing spots, many in the shade of willows and oaks. About a mile north of the bridge, I found a giant granite outcropping that juts into the river like a stone dagger. I sat on the dagger's point, my feet hanging over the edge and cast baited line into a swirling pool of emerald green. Time stands still in places like this. I might have fished from that stone dagger for an hour or five minutes. I can't recall.
From Lake Isabella, follow Sierra Way until it becomes Mountain Route 99, about 22 miles north to Johnsondale Bridge. There is a bathroom at the parking lot. Cross to the staircase and follow the trail on the east side of the river.
4. PARADISE COVE
The only things moving on the flat, calm waters of Lake Isabella are the red-eyed Western grebes, hunting carp and other small fish off the shores of Paradise Cove. I take this as a sign of bigger fish. It's midmorning, and several other anglers have already staked out the bare, rocky shores of the cove. There are no trees to break up the landscape or provide shade, and anglers can park right up on the shores of the lake. A few yards away, a fisherman sits in the bed of his pickup and stares at his line in the water, as if in a trance. Just beyond him, a second angler sits in the front seat of his pickup, his pole held up by a prop, smoking a cigarette, also contemplating the shimmering surface. What are they thinking about? The fleeting nature of life? Reincarnation? The existence of God? That's when I get a tug on my line, and I think about the best way to grill a trout.
From Lake Isabella's dam, follow California 178 east for two miles and look for the signs to Paradise Cove. Bathrooms and running water are available.
5. DEMOCRAT PICNIC AREA
Several locals in the town of Lake Isabella suggested I check out natural hot springs about 12 miles south of the lake, along the banks of the Kern. Sounds relaxing, so I drive along several narrow canyon roads in search of the springs with no luck. That's when I pull into the parking lot for Democrat day-use site. The banks here are flat, the emerald green water is deep and the view of rolling hills, dappled with willow and oaks on the opposite shore, is gorgeous. The screech of a red-tailed hawk breaks the silence. I spot an angler in a bucket hat who says he hooked a monster trout here a day earlier. He also tells me he knows the directions to the hard-to-find hot springs. Never mind, I say as I cast a line upstream; I'll unwind right here.
From Lake Isabella, follow California 178 south about 12 miles toward Bakersfield and look for signs for the campground on the right. Water, bathrooms and barbecues are available.
6. FAIRVIEW CAMPGROUND
Six campgrounds dot the banks of the upper Kern from Kernville to Johnsondale Bridge, but Fairview has to be the best. The campground, along Mountain Route 99, about 15 miles north of Kernville, is within walking distance to McNally's Fairview Lodge, home to gut-buster meals, including a 40-ounce Porterhouse steak.
If I were to pitch a tent here, I would try to stake out campsites No. 20 through No. 22, where I could camp in the shade of cottonwood and pine trees.
These sites are also close to a footbridge that crosses the river, linking to several great hiking trails, including Whiskey Flat trail that leads all the way to Kernville.
From Kernville, drive north about 15 miles on Sierra Way, which becomes Mountain Route 99, and look for the campground on your left. The grounds have bathrooms, running water and fire rings. Fees: $17 per night; $19 for holiday weekends. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777.
7. CANNELL TRAIL
The painted lady butterflies and bees are rioting. Who can blame them? The 12-mile Cannell Trail begins at the bottom of a hill that is awash in purple owl's clove, white gilia and lavender lupine. The colors are so vivid that the hill looks like an Impressionist painting -- and the flowers should be blooming for the next few weeks. I hike up the narrow dirt trail under a hot midday sun to a small mountain meadow where the white gilia is so abundant it looks like snow and I fight the urge to lie on my back to make flower angels. After about 45 minutes on the hot trail, I hear water splashing and I ditch the path to find the source. After pushing through scrub and brush, I'm sitting in a tiny canyon, soaking my feet in a chilly pool of Cannell Creek. An hour later, I'm back in the world of Monet and Renoir, watching the afternoon sky turn pink.
From Kernville, follow Sierra Way north for about two miles and look for horse stables on your right. Nearby, a sign and a gate mark the trail head for Cannell Trail.
8. KERN RIVER PRESERVE
More than 250 species of birds call the preserve home, but as I begin my hike along the flat, 1.5-mile nature trail, an animated red-winged blackbird is commanding my attention: "Cong-a-lee, cong-a-lee." I've obviously upset the bird, so I pick up my pace and continue along the path. Butterflies and bees flutter on the dangerous but beautiful prickly poppy. Along either side of the trail, lizards and snakes rustle the dry leaves and brush. The route circles a grove of red willows and cottonwoods. Up ahead, a bevy of quail peck at the ground. Near the parking lot, a jack rabbit bounces across a clearing. It's no wonder the Tubatulabal people called this valley home.
From the town of Lake Isabella, follow California 178 east to the small town of Weldon and look for a sign for the preserve on your left. Open sunrise to sundown, seven days a week. For more details, go to kern.audubon.org. or call (760) 378-2531.
9. KERN RIVER HATCHERY
The rainbow trout in the first long concrete trough are the size of meaty kielbasa. I buy a handful of fish pellets from a dispenser and toss a few into the water to watch it boil and ripple with fins, tails and gaping mouths. Hatchery workers dump 124,000 pounds of trout throughout the rivers and streams in the valley, and visitors can see them before they go out. In the next trough, the trout are nearly the size of a 6-inch submarine sandwich. Another few pellets and another fish scrum. In the last trough, the trout are big enough to swallow a man's fist. They probably don't taste as good as wild trout, but they make for great trophies, and, in a couple of weeks, these troutzillas will be in the waters, eyeing lures, artificial flies, spinners and you.
From Kernville, take Sierra Way north for about a mile and look for the hatchery on your left. For more details, call (760) 376-2846.
10. SILVER CITY GHOST TOWN
The saloon is haunted. So is the jail. That's what the curator of Silver City Ghost Town tells me as I pay the $4 general admission. Right. This roadside attraction in Bodfish is a collection of ramshackle buildings that were salvaged and relocated here from towns throughout the area, and now the curator is trying to tell me the ghosts came along in the move.
But as I saunter along the sun-bleached wooden boardwalk of Silver City, I hear bumping and scratching sounds in the saloon.
I poke my head into the old barroom where ridiculously dressed mannequins in wigs sit around tables, holding empty shot glasses. No self-respecting ghost would be caught dead here.
Address: 3829 Lake Isabella Blvd., Bodfish. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission: $4 for adults; $3 for children younger than 12.