Fishers have the mighty Kern River pretty much to themselves once the water gets too low for rafting and the summer crowds go home. On a winter weekend, you'll see few cars along its boulder-strewn banks. Even anglers are scarce, which is a mystery because, unlike in much of the Sierra, fishing is allowed year-round on this part of the Kern, below the Johnsondale bridge.
My wife, Iris, and I were enjoying the solitude a few months ago when we first stumbled upon the handsome new Kern River Golden Trout Resort, which overlooks the water nine miles north of Kernville. The motel, open less than a year, caters to fishers. Each of the 24 rooms has a kitchen that will charm cooks, and a large communal deck outside has a stainless-steel sink and counter for cleaning the day's catch, plus two huge propane barbecues and plenty of picnic tables, all with views of the surrounding mountains.
I suspect the place is packed in summer, but in winter it's another story, with few guests, no neighboring businesses and little else around for miles.
On that trip a few months ago, I didn't have my fishing gear. Freshly caught trout are among my wife's favorite foods, and she knows how to cook them to perfection, so we made a note to return. In mid-December we finally found a free weekend. It had been cold and rainy in L.A., but the forecast for the Kern mountains had said the weather would be clear and mild. To the resort we headed.
From Los Angeles, the drive to Kernville is about three hours, along Interstate 5 and California 99 north to Bakersfield, then California 178 east toward Isabella Lake. From the town of Lake Isabella, signs guided us to Kernville. After a stop at James Store for groceries and last-minute advice from the tackle department on that week's hot bait, we drove north on the Sierra Highway to the remote motel.
Leaving Los Angeles County, we had been amazed to see the Tehachapi Mountains blanketed with snow, but farther north, Kernville was warm and dry. The motel is at 3,100 feet, and though the surrounding mountains can be capped with snow, I had been told the area doesn't feel too wintry.
We pulled over and did a little fishing before checking into the inn. The folks at James Store's tackle department had said salmon eggs were doing the trick but that some people were catching rainbow trout with crickets, so I got both, plus No. 14 salmon egg hooks and No. 8 bait holders. (I already had my license. A two-day license costs $16.55, and an annual pass is $32.80; both can be purchased at tackle shops.)
The evening chill arrived quickly, so we packed it in. The Golden Trout owners had our room ($100 plus tax nightly on weekends) warmed when we arrived. We sipped hot cocoa and watched the sun leave the mountain peaks, then drove back south on the highway for dinner, stopping at the first restaurant that was open, Cheyenne's Stage Stop in the community of River Kern.
I could smell the big outdoor barbecue as soon as we got out of the car, so it took me only seconds to decide on a combination plate of beef tri-tip and pork ribs. Iris, in a fish frame of mind, ordered the night's special, sautéed catfish. Both were excellent.
A frosty start to the day
I got up early the next morning to fish, but after looking out the window and seeing the car covered in thick frost, I joined Iris to watch the sunrise from our room. The thermometer read 29 degrees, so after breakfast I put on every piece of warm clothing I had and went across the street to the river.
"Dress in layers" is the rule here, because winter temperatures may rise from 30 to 60 in a couple of hours. Sure enough, I was down to shirt sleeves by 10:30 a.m., which is also when I caught dinner for two. I hooked the first trout on a salmon egg, then 10 minutes later caught a larger fish on a cricket.
There are special techniques for fishing in rivers, but all I know is to use a tiny split shot about 18 inches from a small hook with no leader, then make short casts and let the bait drift down to the fish, which often rest behind submerged boulders where they don't have to fight the current. Iris joined me for a while but then went into Kernville to browse shops and antiques malls. I should have joined her because the two bites were all I would get.
Then again, I don't often get to sit by a wild river and listen to the churning and gurgling of water over rocks. The willows on the banks were still a bright gold, illuminated by the low winter sun. This time of year, shrubs that grow under the ghostly gray pines and deep green canyon oaks are spectacular in their own right. The seed heads on buckwheat turn a deep rust color, while those on the gray rabbit brush turn a soft buff. The winter palette is remarkable — almost enough to make me forget about catching fish.
Iris later joined me by the river for a few hours, and we took in the mountain scenery. Back at the resort we were tempted to barbecue my fish, but it was getting dark and chilly, and she knew a pan-fry recipe I love. (A key ingredient: Lawry's Perfect Blend Seasoning and Rub for fish.) Carrots and potatoes with rosemary and steamed spinach rounded out a meal that proved my wife should open a restaurant.
An hour or so later, we went searching for dessert and found it at Cheryl's Diner in Kernville. Iris had an OK boysenberry cobbler, and I had a dynamite Dutch apple pie with ice cream.
The next morning, I started fishing before the sun was in the canyon. It was still cold — about 33 degrees — and clouds gathered as I fished. By midmorning it was drizzling, and I knew a storm forecast for later in the week had arrived early.
We decided to drive home a different way, over Walker Pass (California 178) east to the desert, then south on California 14. On the way lies the old Kern River Fish Hatchery (www.kernvalley.com/fishhatchery). The rain started falling harder, and the hatchery, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends in winter, was deserted. We wandered down to the concrete tanks, bought fish food from a dispenser and fed the enormous rainbows. I can sit for hours and watch trout feed, curving up and slashing at the food, but I was getting pretty wet, so back to the car we went.
The valley leading up to Walker Pass is pretty, wide-open cowboy country, so we took our time. When we finally reached the 5,000-foot-high pass, the biggest snowflakes I had seen in years were sailing horizontally though the gap in the mountains. The landscape was blanketed with wind-blown white. We pulled over to watch for a while, then drove on. The snow quickly became rain. Then a brilliant rainbow appeared and followed us back to Mojave.
It was a fine ending to the weekend, and though it could be argued that our home-cooked trout dinner on Saturday was the most expensive meal we've had in months considering all the driving, it was worth every precious gallon of gas.