DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Kern River (North Fork) in California

Known as the “Killer Kern,” the Kern River is not to be taken lightly.

As of May 25, 2018, it is believed that the River has claimed 294 lives since 1968. Typically, the people who died were recreational users who were not wearing proper life vests. The River was even the subject of Merle Haggard’s song “Kern River,” which describes a fictional drowning accident. 

But the North Fork of the Kern River is famous for something else, and that’s fly fishing. If you’re careful, you’ll find success and adventure in these waters.

Check out our guide so you can ensure you are well-equipped to tackle this River as safely as possible.

Fly Fishing in the Kern River (North Fork)

The Kern is a 165 mile long river that passes through scenic canyons and mountains. Originally known as “Rio de San Felipe” or “La Porciuncala,” the River is a popular destination among kayakers, white water rafters, and river boarders. The North Fork begins in Sequoia National Park and flows through the Sequoia National Forest. It is joined by the Little Kern River before flowing into Lake Isabella.

The North Fork is heavily stocked with rainbow trout and you’ll see plenty of wild trout as well. Additionally, many of the North Fork’s smaller tributaries hold impressive populations of trout, including Dry Meadow Creek, Freeman Creek, Peppermint Creek, Durwood Creek, Nobe Young Creek, Trout Creek, and Bush Creek. Any one of these creeks can provide good fly fishing opportunities.

Because the Kern River has such a thriving aquatic insect population, it is important to match the hatch closely when fly fishing. Keep in mind that some sections of the North Fork have special regulations.

Kern River (North Fork) Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access sites on the North Fork Kern River in California

Get directions to fishing access points and real-time stream flow data with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Kern River (North Fork)

The four mile section above the Johnsondale Bridge has special regulations. It can be fished year round, but with barbless hooks only. Many consider this one of the best places to fish the North Fork, as you’ll find plenty of wild brown and rainbow trout here. 

The North Fork is paralleled by Highway 155 for 25 miles, so access to the upper reaches of the River is relatively easy in this area.

Best Time to Fish the Kern River (North Fork)

The season for the North Fork of the Kern River is from the last Saturday in April to November 15th. Summertime is the best time to visit, but you can also find success fishing in the spring, depending on the discharges that year. Fall is also a good time to visit, as you will find larger brown trout during this time.

The most important hatches for the Kern are Pale Morning Duns, Yellow Quills, and Blue-Winged Olives. You’ll also have luck with stoneflies, including Golden Stoneflies and Little Yellow Stoneflies, and terrestrial insects.

Fly Box - What You'll Need

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for Kern River (North Fork):

  • Midge (#16-26)
  • Little Olive (#16-20)
  • Slate Gray Dun (#12-14)
  • Pale Morning Dun (#14-18)
  • Salmon Fly (#4-8)
  • Spotted Sedge (#14-16)
  • Brachycentrus Caddis (#12-18)
  • Slate Cream Dun (#14-18)

Need flies? 

Ventures Fly Co. offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere.  Set includes 40 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and waterproof fly box. 

Dry Flies
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant

Nymphs/Wet Flies
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black

Streamers
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Kern River (North Fork). A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Kern River (North Fork) Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Kern River (North Fork) fly fishing report are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of California requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available. You can purchase a one-year, 10-day, two-day, or one-day license. Some areas also require a permit. You can purchase the license and learn about the most current regulations through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Trip Planning Tips

The nearest municipal airport to the Kern River is Meadows Field Airport, while the closest international airports are Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. If you travel to a major airport, it will take longer to get there, but we guarantee the scenic views during your car trip will make the journey worthwhile.

The Quality Inn & Suites is the perfect choice for the budget-minded fisherman looking for lodging in Bakersfield. They offer clean rooms and a seasonal outdoor pool, along with free breakfast and WiFi. 

If you are searching for an unforgettable camping experience, look no further than Frandy Park Campground. Nestled in a breathtaking landscape, the campground offers close proximity to the Upper Kern River and other local attractions, which include a golf course and a ghost town. You can even stay in a covered wagon that sleeps up to six people. 

Kern River is definitely not for the faint of heart. But, if you are careful and exercise plenty of caution, the North Fork of the Kern can provide excellent fly fishing opportunities. 

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing California

Feature image by Roger Howard

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