October 26, 2022
From its headwaters in the shadows of Mount Whitney, south to the flatlands of Bakersfield and beyond, the Kern River carves an amazing 165-mile path from California’s rugged Sierra Nevada down to irrigated farmland. Along the way, it creates an array of opportunities for anglers, campers, hikers and white-water enthusiasts alike.
In general, the river is broken down into three sections. The northernmost waters of the river are known to many as the “wild trout section,” which adheres to special regulations (artificial lures, barbless hooks) in a 4-mile stretch upstream from Johnsondale Bridge. This section is popular with fly anglers and is famous for producing large golden and black stoneflies, as well as strong hatches of mayflies and caddis.
The Upper Kern flows south from the Johnsondale Bridge to where the river is impounded to form Lake Isabella between the towns of Kernville and Lake Isabella. The Lower Kern flows south from the dam at Lake Isabella to Bakersfield and beyond. Much of the river in the lower two sections is easily accessed by roads.
Near Bakersfield, the river supplies water to several lakes with camping areas nearby. Southwest of the city, Buena Vista Aquatic Recreational Area has two lakes: Lake Webb (873 acres) is open to both recreational boating and fishing, while Lake Evans (86 acres) allows fishing boats and sailboats and has a maximum speed limit of 5 mph. Ming and Hart Park lakes are located northeast of the city about 4 miles apart from each other, just north of State Route 178.
Kern River Campground is in the Kern River County Park, with camping near Ming Lake and access to the river. All three parks offer very good warm-water fishing for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappies, catfish, carp and panfish. The river near Hart Park and Ming lakes produces excellent smallmouth bass fishing. This section of the river is best traveled by kayak or by wading close to shore. There is a bike/walking trail that follows the river and offers access to fishing.
INTO THE CANYON
Leaving Bakersfield, SR 178 (Kern Canyon Road) tracks the river north into the Kern River Canyon. Smallmouth bass anglers will want to make a quick detour before entering the canyon. About 12 miles east of Bakersfield, take a left turn onto Rancheria Road, a two-lane road in the middle of the orange groves. Travel just a few miles and turn left into a dirt parking lot before you cross the bridge over the river. This area has many well-worn trails that provide easy access to the river and features excellent fishing for smallies.
When SR 178 enters the Kern River Canyon, the winding road has many pull-outs and day-use-only sites, and it hugs the river almost the entire way north to Lake Isabella. The drive up the canyon toward Lake Isabella is breathtaking. This section of the river is fast-moving in the wetter years and offers some challenging pocket-water fishing. However, due to the extreme drought that most Western states have endured in recent years, the water flow is a mere trickle of its former self. This gives anglers the chance to fish many exposed areas that are typically inaccessible. Live bait like nightcrawlers, grasshoppers and other insects work great, as do smaller jigs and spinners.
TO LAKE ISABELLA
Farther north and east, the Old Kern Canyon Road (County Road 214) off SR 178, leads to many river access points and has a sign posted for the turn to the right. This road will take you to Remington Hot Springs, Miracle Hot Springs, Hobo Campground (closed to camping) and Sandy Flats Campground, the only seasonal campground on this road, which offers access to Sequoia National Forest trails and roads. Black Gulch, a dispersed, free campground right on the river, is across SR 178 north of Sandy Flats Campground. From Black Gulch, it’s about a 5-mile drive north on SR 178 to the town of Lake Isabella and the reservoir. There are three exits to enter the town; take the second exit and turn left onto SR 155 (Kernville Road/Wofford Heights Blvd.). A few miles down the road you’ll find Keyesville South; to the left and just across the bridge is Keyesville North. Both are dispersed camping sites and right on the river.
Keyesville South is smaller and does not permit OHV use. Keyesville North is huge and does allow OHV use. Located just below the dam at Lake Isabella, this section of the river can be swift and deadly with its rock-wall canyons, boulder-lined riverbanks and very fast and deep water. Anglers should exercise extreme caution when fishing this area. Continuing on SR 178 from the town of Lake Isabella takes you around the lake on the east side to several other fee-based campsites and boat launch areas. Auxiliary Dam Campground is fee-based and very popular with RV campers. South Fork boat launch offers some overnight camp sites and is fee-based. Paradise Cove is fee-based camping, while Kissick Cove is day-use only.
THE UPPER KERN
Back on SR 155 (Wofford Heights Blvd.), north of Keyesville on the west side of the lake, you’ll find numerous fee-based campgrounds and boat-launch areas, including French Gulch Marina and Campground, Hungry Gulch Campground and Boulder Campground. Continue north on Route 495 (Wofford Blvd./Burlando Road) to the town of Kernville and turn north onto Route 521 (Sierra Way), which becomes Mountain Highway 99 and parallels the river to the Johnsondale Bridge, where the road leaves the river.
Traveling north from Kernville leads you to numerous fee-based campgrounds and a few free dispersed camping areas. However, just past Kernville and right past the now-closed trout hatchery you have Powerhouse Access. Turn left on the road marked “SoCal Edison” and follow it to the parking lot. This area is known for some outstanding trout fishing. It is stocked regularly and offers good access for wading and shore fishing.
This section of the river is referred to as the Upper Kern, and the characteristics don’t change very much. There are some deep pools and plunging rapids, but anglers have a lot of open access. With at least 12 different fee-based campgrounds and a handful of free dispersed campgrounds in this area, you will always find a place to camp. The last camping area on this road is a free dispersed camping area called Brush Creek. It is a huge dirt parking lot with vaulted toilets and trash cans. Nearby Brush Creek and the river here produce some good trout fishing just a short distance from Johnsondale Bridge.
Upstream from the bridge should be considered a “must fish” location thanks to the wild trout special regulations that create some amazing fishing. This is a very well known spot for avid fly anglers and hikers. There is plenty of adventure packed into this section of the Kern River for the day-use angler and overnight camper alike.
California’s Kern River is a vast waterway that offers a wide variety of adventures for anglers, campers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who are drawn to this slice of liquid paradise. If you love the outdoors, chances are you’ll find something to love about the Kern River.