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Is Fly Fishing Always About The Fish? A story of connection, adventure, and healing.

By Rob Buhler, Guide At Kern River Fly Shop and Co-Founder of Buhler Bros Flies



It's not always about the fish….or is it?


Back in September, I was scheduled to meet my client, Steve, at the shop at 8am for a “small creeks” trip. (Quick aside - our creek trips have ended in November but we are still offering guided trips on the Kern River! Check out our latest fishing report here or blog on winter fly fishing.)


 Arriving at the shop, I find Steve and Guy (owner of KRFS) engaging in friendly conversation and learn that Steve is from Indiana and is looking to check some California Heritage Trout off his bucket list. Good news Steve! We have three of those California Heritage Trout in the Kern River watershed (Golden, Little Kern Golden and Kern River Rainbow) and two of them can be caught in the same day with a little luck! 


Steve prefers to fish smaller creeks, so with an itinerary planned to catch a single Kern River Rainbow and then head up the hill for the Goldens, we drive up to Johnsondale Bridge to start the day. As we're gearing up Steve asks a question to break the ice and get to learn a little something about me. It's the same question he asks many of his business colleagues while traveling the country for the exact same reason. “What's the best meal you've ever had?”After some quick thought I settled on not the best single meal, but what is my favorite meal that my mom prepared on holidays and special occasions over the years: A simple rib roast, with homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, and a vegetable side. That's the one! Now Steve has a bit more insight into my personality and divulges that most people select an elite restaurant which teaches him a great deal about me before we even hit the water. 


While hiking out, we engage in small talk and learn a little more about each other, as well as local history and wildlife. The first stop does not yield a trout and knowing we're on a timeline, we hike upriver to our second run. After a few drifts a 16” Kern Rainbow rises to the Fuzzy Wuzzy in clear water just ten feet from the rod tip and refuses at the last second. Epic! A few more drifts doesn't bring him up again, so we switch to the bobber rigged with a Pat's Rubber Legs. Bam! Fish on! This one a little smaller. After a short battle, we gently net him, take pictures, and discuss the unique features of the endemic Kern River Rainbows. Steve lets the trout glide back into the water and we admire it as it slowly fades away into the depths.


With a slow, reserved tone Steve begins telling me a story about something in common on each of his fishing adventures. He has a son who has faced significant health challenges in recent years and loves fish and fishing but is unable to join him on the bulk of his fishing journeys. In turn, Steve takes a picture of each fish and keeps the fly that he caught it on. Upon arriving home they review the photos and flies together and Steve says, “Look at the fish WE caught!! Aren't they beautiful? And here are the flies that WE caught them on.” while they celebrate and admire their catches. Tears now welling up in both of our eyes, I thank him for sharing his deeply personal emotions as we engage in a warm embrace, having met only two hours prior. River therapy at its finest!!


Still standing in paradise, Steve picks up the rod and begins fishing again. I recall him mentioning that one Kern Rainbow was enough and we could head up to the creeks, but it's not every day that Kern Rainbows are rising to Fuzzy Wuzzies and our day just started, so I encourage a few more casts with the dry before we head out. Unfortunately, Steve couldn't get the big bow to rise again. To the trail and back to the car with over an hour drive ahead to reach the creek of the day that has a healthy population of the California State Fish, the Golden Trout. 


Now at 7,500ft. and at the trailhead for gold, we grab our lunches and a pair of chairs to enjoy the fresh air, Sierra Checkerblooms, Brewers Lupines, and Jeffrey Pines. After a short talk of music, Billy Strings and Steve introducing me to Colter Wall, we hit the trail with my new Redington Trailblazer 7’6” 3wt. Rigged with the ever trusty #16 Elk Hair Caddis, it only took Steve a couple of casts to watch his caddis entice a Golden Trout to rocket towards and absolutely destroy it!


Another set of pictures, a saved fly, and hugs follow now that the second California Heritage Trout is checked off of their list completing not only the California Heritage Trout Challenge but also the Western Native Trout Challenge “Advanced Caster” level of a dozen Western natives. Steve continues to catch 7 or 8 more as we work our way up the secluded, meadow stream surrounded by large-leaf lupine, yarrow, and Jeffrey pines enjoying the afternoon in serenity. 


Unfortunately, all great days must end and we decide to head back to the trucks in the late afternoon for the long drive back into town. With the mission accomplished of two Heritage Trout, complete with accompanying flies and photos, Steve mentions potentially bringing his son to California to fish the Golden creek. One last hug and we have to head back to civilization. 


It's not always about the fish….or is it? I’ll let you decide.



Photo of man holding a Heritage Trout Challenge certificate
Steve with his Heritage Trout Challenge Cert: Mission Accomplished for him AND his son!




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