Kennedy Meadows Fishing: Catch South Kern River Trout

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If you’re heading up to Kennedy Meadows for its stunning high-country camping or hiking, be sure to bring your fishing rod.

The South Fork of the Kern River runs through this large meadow surrounded by timber-lined hills and valleys, offering some excellent trout fishing next to this famous stopping point for hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail.

At this elevation, the South Fork is a high-mountain creek near the top of its journey southward to join with the North Fork and Lake Isabella below.

The river around Kennedy Meadows is stocked with hatchery trout during the high season, while wild trout populations are higher in more remote areas.

The immediate Kennedy Meadows area is not part of the Special Regulations Area on the South Fork of the Kern. That section is above Monache Meadows and only accessible by foot. 

South Fork Kern Fishing Tactics

Bait and Lure Fishing

In my experience, bait fishing is the most widely used technique to catch trout at Kennedy Meadows. PowerBait, salmon eggs, nightcrawlers and redworms will all do the job here.

Spinners, jigs and other lures also work very well in fast-moving water.

With jigs and spinners, the smaller, the better. Most of the trout here are small enough that they seldom hit a large lure. Lighter lures also fish better in small water.

You will need little weight to cast. In fact, most anglers don’t use any added weight at all, letting the current move the bait naturally.

Ultra-light rods about 5-6 feet long work the best in these tight spaces.

Kennedy Meadows Fly Fishing

Fly angling is very popular because of the openness of the area, and you will see people wading up and downstream from the bridge.

This stream consists of small water with pockets, pools and obstacles, including logs and beaver dams.

The best overall flies are midges in sizes #16-22, smaller hoppers, flying ant patterns, Elk Hair Caddis in #16-22, and ladybugs.

Bring your smaller, shorter, and lighter fly rods. A 3-weight with floating lines and very long thin taper leaders to 2X or smaller is a great setup.

Where to Fish at Kennedy Meadows

The South Fork Bridge spanning the gently flowing South Fork of the Kern River, the most popular and accessible area to fish at Kennedy Meadows.
Photo by Jeffrey Walters

The South Fork flows near the campground.

The most popular spot is around the South Fork Bridge, where Kennedy Meadows Road/Sherman Pass Road crosses the river and trout stocking is most consistent.

The South Fork is officially named a “river,” but most high mountain rivers are small streams, and the South Fork is no exception.

Fishing the sections close to the bridge is often your best bet to find planted trout. That said, going upstream or downstream to find less-pressured areas may pay off.

South Fork Hiking Bridge

This footbridge is on the Pacific Crest Trail beyond the campground. The hike there and back is about 4.2 miles from the parking area. This trail section is easy, well-marked, and offers some fishing access to the river.

Fishing near the bridge on either side will produce trout of various sizes and colors. Some of the wild trout I’ve caught in this area have mixed in with the stocked trout over the decades but still carry many of their native colorful markings, including a golden hue to some.

This area takes you into the wooded section of the river and some very steep canyon walls on either side. Make sure you travel in pairs and stay alert for wildlife. This area is not part of the Special Regulations Area, located many miles upstream and only accessible by foot.

Trout Stocking

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife heavily stocks rainbow trout in the Kennedy Meadows section when it remains accessible in the spring, summer, and fall. Most of the area is closed off during the winter due to snow.

Anglers may find golden trout in the upper reaches of the South Fork, but those areas can only be reached by foot. I’ve never found golden trout in the Kennedy Meadows area, however, some hybrid fish may still be found.

While no trout are stocked in the South Kern River above Kennedy Meadows, additional fish are stocked in Trout Creek and Fish Creek.

Fish Creek also has a National Forest Campground and offers some interesting fishing. However, the creek typically produces farther downstream, about a mile below the campground.

Planning Your Trip

How to Get to Kennedy Meadows

Located in the Southern Sierra Mountains of Southern California, one of the most common ways to get to Kennedy Meadows from the desert floor west of Barstow is from U.S. Route 395. From the highway, head west on 9 Mile Canyon Road. This very steep road takes you up into the valley and is the quickest route.

From Bakersfield up the Kern River Canyon, you’ll pass through the small town of Lake Isabella. Go west on Mountain 155 to Kernville, then to Mountain 99 up towards Johnsondale Bridge, where you will find the turnoff for Sherman Pass Rd. (S2205). This drive is longer for many but often the preferred route for people coming here from north of L.A.

The area is technically open all year round, however, weather conditions may prevent travel. 

The area is known for massive snow drifts, and Sherman Pass Road is only open seasonally from late May or early June until the first snowfall in autumn. For up-to-date road conditions check the Inyo National Forest webpage.

Kennedy Meadows Campground

The Kennedy Meadows Campground is within the Golden Trout Wilderness, part of Inyo National Forest. The South Fork flows nearby, so the campground offers convenient access to fishing, hiking, biking trails, and more.

The campground is not directly on the river but within walking distance.

The campground has vault-style toilets, seasonal running water, picnic tables, fire rings, and campsite grills.

They don’t have electrical hookups, black water dump stations, or showers. Dogs must always be on a leash.

This site is not considered “dispersed camping” but is close enough to it. Bring your water, take your trash with you, and make sure you have plenty of fuel before you head out.

There are 38 campsites and almost all can accommodate 30-foot trailers. Tent camping is available at any site. Check the campground’s webpage for details.

There is limited cell service, so don’t rely on those devices for accurate readings.

The campground is easy to find, with a sign pointing the way from Kennedy Meadows Road. This paved narrow road takes you almost two miles to the campground entrance and parking area for the day-use hikers.

Kennedy Meadows Campground is a good “base camp” as you explore the surrounding areas.

Wildlife on the South Fork

This is National Forest land, and wildlife is abundant in the area. There are raccoons, skunks, bobcats, bears, beavers, mountain lions, mule deer, occasional elk, and lots of rattlesnakes.

The rodents here will get into anything, and the bears will smell your left-out food from miles away. So, make sure your food is stored in rodent-proof containers, even if kept inside your vehicle or trailer.

Here’s an article about bears and other wildlife the Inyo National Forest.

Kennedy Meadow Attractions

Beyond fishing, camping and hiking, here are a few stops I like to make at Kennedy Meadows.

Grumpy Bear’s Retreat

I like to stop at Grumpy Bear’s Retreat to grab a burger or breakfast. The food is very good and filling. 

Grumpy Bears has been around for well over 50 years and accepts packages for PCT hikers. They offer laundry services, hot showers, and a small camping rest area for the hikers. 

This must-see spot offers many services for not only the locals but also has a strong bond with hikers, anglers, hunters, and tourists alike. See the Grumpy Bear’s Retreat website for more information.

Kennedy Meadows General Store

The American flag flies outside the General Store in Kennedy Meadows, California, where trout fishing, backpacking and camping are all popular.
Photo by Jeffrey Walters

This fun little general store welcomes everyone with a smile. It’s full of funny signs and sayings, photos of the old days, and much more.

The store has a small cafe, and their burgers are the hot ticket. They are also a package depot for PCT hikers who can send supplies beforehand. They have hot showers, laundry, donated shoes and supplies for the hikers, and much more.

The store is another must-see when visiting Kennedy Meadows. Check out the Kennedy Meadows General Store website for more info.