Kings Canyon, the Forgotten National Park : For Fishing and Beauty, Cedar Grove Is Equal to Yosemite’s Merced River
John Muir said Kings Canyon had everything Yosemite and Sequoia had--granite walls towering over wildflower meadows and ferny forests of giant trees--and yet those two were national parks 50 years before Kings Canyon joined the elite in 1940, after Ansel Adams showed his pictures to Congress.
Now linked geographically and officially as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the latter remains a latecomer and a sleeper, somewhat off the tourist track despite an added attraction held hush-hush by locals from the Central Valley: wonderful, wild fishing.
For angling sport and beauty, the South Fork of the Kings River is a match for Yosemite’s Merced River--and together, some dream, they might become an alternative to a fly fisherman’s pilgrimage to the holy waters of the West Yellowstone.
Several steps have been taken to fulfill that dream:
--For 20 years, the South Fork of the Kings has had only naturally produced fish, since a California Fish and Game Commission with vision designated it as a wild trout stream.
--There is one dam on the Kings system, creating Pine Flat Reservoir in 1954, but there will be no more. The South Fork area was given federal status as a Wild and Scenic River in 1987, and more recently Congressman Richard Lehman (D-North Fork) was instrumental in killing the Rogers Crossing Dam proposed below the confluence of the South and Middle Forks.
--Through all that, Jeff Boghosian, 39, working through the Kaweah Fly Fishers of Visalia and as conservation director of the Fly Fishers for Conservation in Fresno, lobbied state and national park leaders to achieve special regulations limiting takes of the indigenous rainbow trout, starting this year.
Boghosian, a nephew of former Raider assistant coach Sam Boghosian, has been fishing the South Fork of the Kings and other California streams since his father and uncle took him along 30 years ago. In the last three years, based in Fresno, he has been putting his knowledge to work as a professional guide.
Irv McConaghy of the Wilderness Fly Fishers in Santa Monica said after a trip to the South Fork with Boghosian: “In the many times I’ve fished the Kings, I’ve never done so well.”
How good is the fishing?
“I almost don’t want to tell you,” said Jim Huebner, who sells fishing tackle in Fresno. “Then everybody will know.”
The prime stretch is 10 miles long, half outside the park upstream from Boyden Cavern and half in the park east of Cedar Grove to the end of the road. Fishing is permitted year-round, although the road is closed in winter. Locals claim the best fishing is in October, after the store closes at Cedar Grove but before snow blocks access.
The South Fork falls farther than any river in the country. From the Sierra snowpack at 13,000 feet, it descends through Paradise Valley and Kings Canyon, bisects the park, then runs along California 180 beyond the park to meet the Middle Fork before tumbling through an 8,200-foot-deep canyon, the deepest in North America. Ultimately exhausted, it surrenders its identity to the San Joaquin River on the Central Valley floor.
There are a few runs of long, deep pools, but generally the South Fork of the Kings is what anglers describe as “pocket water,” where fish seek out parking spots behind rocks to wait for food to float by in the current. For several months, the river is shallow and warm enough--61 degrees recently--to wade in shorts, although felt-soled wading boots are recommended for good footing.
But there are two facts anglers must know about the Kings: The rainbows aren’t very large--8 or 9 inches, smaller even than the state’s hatchery fish--and the limits are well below the state standard of five. With new regulations, anglers may keep only two rainbow trout in some stretches, zero in others, with only artificial lures with barbless hooks allowed.
Generally, larger fish are found outside the park. In the upper reaches, an angler may keep two to five German brown trout, which run larger than the rainbows but hold lower status as “introduced” species.
By his adult years, Boghosian had developed a fly fisherman’s sense that the fun was in the catching, not the keeping and the eating. The catch-and-release ethic that is now the law may be the salvation of the South Fork.
“I feel in parks it should be catch and release,” said Boghosian, whose license doesn’t permit him to guide commercially inside the park. “In some parks, you can’t hunt. You can’t pick up wood or do anything to disturb nature, and yet you can go in and kill trout. I think that’s a contradiction.”
Fish aren’t easy to kill on the South Fork, anyway. Because they don’t have to compete with hatchery fish, they are finicky eaters and they learn fast to distinguish a real bug from a clever imitation.
But until the regulations tightened up, all that kept the trout from the extinction of the frying pan was that the river wasn’t heavily fished, despite being only a couple of hours’ drive from Fresno.
The campgrounds are clean and shady and have flush toilets, yet they are so underused that some are closed on weekdays and before the end of summer. Working most of the 25 roadside miles of the river in and out of the park on a recent Sunday and Monday, Boghosian and a companion encountered no other anglers.
Of those that do fish it, about 65% use flies. Boghosian prefers a skating caddis. The area’s acknowledged master, Tom Legler, ties parachute-pattern blue dun mayflies and parachute cahills. Not much Power Bait sold here. Even where bait is allowed on the river, the fish are too small to appeal to most “meat” anglers.
But, Huebner said: “We’ve noticed just in the past year that the new regulations have put an inch or more on the (average) fish.”
Boghosian stopped his pickup along the road and got out to “read” the river. His companion saw only clear, green water cascading through boulders into deep pockets or flowing through long runs unbroken by surface rocks.
Boghosian saw fish.
“There should be one holding right there,” he said, pointing his rod toward a place where two converging flows formed a pocket behind a rock. “There--see him?”
His polarized sunglasses reduce glare on the water, allowing Boghosian to see beneath the surface. But he also knows where to look, how to look and what to look for.
Was that a shadow of a ripple? A dark rock? Or a fish? Did it move, or did it only appear to move with the refraction of the flowing water? Was Boghosian conning us?
The answer came in two casts. The shadow flashes up at the fly drifting on the surface-- phloop! Boghosian pointed his rod skyward at arm’s length and hauled in line with his left hand, forcing the fish to swim toward him.
Holding it underwater, he gently curled the size-12 hook out of its lower lip, then opened his hand to let the fish dart away, alive and wiser.
Farther along, there was a deep, clear, sunny pool about five feet wide among three boulders, where food washing downstream must pass. One fish was clearly in the feeding mode--then, subtly, a much larger shadow drifted in alongside.
“That’s a nice fish,” Boghosian whispered, estimating the size at three pounds and 15 to 18 inches.
It was a short cast but a difficult one, because of willows on the right and a steep bank behind. Boghosian, hunkered down out of sight, dropped the fly right in the middle. The big fish moved toward it tentatively, looking it over, then decided to pass and disappears.
Win some, lose some. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Fly fisher Dick Thies of Long Beach said that sometimes when he is fishing the South Fork, he stops for a while, “just to take in the beauty of it all.”
That’s the kind of reverence fly fishermen feel about the West Yellowstone. With larger fish, could the South Fork of the Kings become another Madison?
Hank Urbach, president of the Fly Fishers for Conservation, said it’s possible, “if we can keep the poachers under control.” He added: “It will take some time, but it’s not a difficult process.”
Stan Stephens, Region 4 Wild Trout manager for the California Department of Fish and Game, said: “Biologically, it’s possible. It seems to be unusually productive--a fish factory.”
Kings Canyon will never be another Yosemite. Good. So much the better for the future of the South Fork of the Kings. Jeff’s Fork.
For fishing guide service in the Central Valley, Jeff Boghosian may be contacted at (209) 229-5640. He is scheduled to speak at Thursday night’s meeting of the Sierra Pacific Flyfishers in Encino. Information: (818) 785-7306.