Meet the Kennedy Brothers – Northern California’s Favorite Fly Fishing Duo

It takes a special sort of character to be a successful fly-fishing guide, and sometimes the right stuff runs in families

By Chip O’Brien

Neither of these Kennedys has been President of the United States, Attorney General or heir to a fortune, but if you get to do what you love every day in NorCal’s splendid outdoor office space, that privilege might be almost as grand.

Drive anywhere near the Sacramento River it’s hard not to notice the armada of drift boats ushering anglers down the sprightly riffles of our home water, almost every day of the year. People flock to NorCal for many reasons, not the least of which is world-class fishing. Some have even dared imagine what it might be like to become a recognized expert, and sharing that knowledge and experience with others.

It takes a special sort of character to be a successful fly-fishing guide, and sometimes the right stuff runs in families. Brothers Kris and Greg Kennedy live the rugged, fanciful dream life of fly-fishing guides for The Fly Shop in Redding.

It’s probably difficult for people with more common occupations to visualize all you have to know and do to be a successful guide. While not required, there are actually schools around the country where people can go to learn how to be a successful fly-fishing guide. Guides obviously have to know fly-fishing very well, yet that’s not nearly enough to guarantee success. Guides have to work very hard, keep insane hours and schedules, go for weeks without a day off, possess all the right equipment like drift boats, trailers, extra rids and reels and enough of the right flies to outfit a fly shop.

Successful guides become accomplished teachers. Not everyone who hires a guide knows how to cast or even how to tie a fly on the end of his or her line. Like other professions, there is a dictionary full of words and expressions common in fly-fishing that you might not here anywhere else for the rest of your life. A non-fly fisher might overhear a conversation between two anglers and think they are listening to some foreign language. Guides learn to be sensitive to both what their clients know and don’t know. Beyond just loving fly-fishing, successful guides have to love people.

“It just of kind of fell into place for us,” said Greg. “Kris went to the fire academy here in Redding after high school. I went to school down in San Diego and pushed business alternatives, then got into real estate. After a while I said ‘What the heck am I doing? Why am I chasing a dollar sign instead of a smile?'”

“Both of us just shook our heads,” Greg continued. “We realized that we only have a short time here, and it’s about what we make of it. Money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness. We’ve had a lot of people in our lives that’ve had a lot of money, and they didn’t seem to be really satisfied with what they got out of life. We realized at a young age from both our mom and our dad that time spent with the people you love brings happiness.”

“We’re originally from Mammoth Lakes, California,” said Kris. “I moved here in ’96 after I started guiding. Then my parents sold their fly shop (The Troutfitter in Mammoth Lakes, California), so I went back to help with that. I managed it for the new owners for a while, then came back up here and brought my brother Greg with me.”

“We’ve grown up in the industry,” said Greg. “We thought, ‘Why not network ourselves?’ We’re associated with The Fly Shop and have an in with everybody in the industry, sales reps and fly-fishing companies. It’s great to be out there and people seem to really like our ads. We get a lot of really great feedback from our guests who tell us ‘You’ve got to write more! You’ve got to do more!’ With guiding it’s sometimes hard for us to do, but it’s fun balancing how we’re going to push more.”

“I’ve been guiding about fifteen years,” said Greg, “my brother about another five years longer. We cut our teeth fly-fishing the likes of Hot Creek and the upper Owens Rivers (near Mammoth Lakes). Kris guided a bunch on the East Walker River. Compared to the waters we use to delve into in out childhood, the bigger rivers like the Trinity and the Klamath were calling. We said, ‘What the heck, we’re moving up.'”

Our back yard fishery

“If I had to choose one river to guide for the rest of my life,” said Kris, “the Sac (Sacramento River) would be the one I’d choose. It literally fishes well from through the middle of town (Redding) to Chico. I could fish that and never leave, and I’d be a happy camper. The Sac has trout and steelhead, and not just any trout fishing. It’s some of the best. It’s the best in January. It’s the best in July. It’s the best in November. There’s not a month (other than in the heat) that I don’t want to be out there. I would say it’s the most consistent year-round trout fishery in the world. If there’s another one out there, have people get ahold of me and I’ll go check it out.”

“They can’t even count the trout in the Sacramento River,” continued Kris. “It’s totally incalculable. They’ve tried to do studies. They’ve tried to do electroshocking, but the river’s so big and the fish are so migratory. It’s just ridiculous. On Hot Creek where I grew up there were 13,000 -15,000 fish per mile. The Sacramento has to dwarf that, and most people don’t even know it’s there.”

“In March we have what we call March Madness,” Kris continued, “the ‘Blanket Caddis Hatch.'” [This refers to the Brachycentrus caddis hatch where there are so many bugs on the water they literally blanket the surface of the water. These same bugs leave a sticky green residue on car windshields in the springtime anywhere near the river. The trout, obviously, take notice.]

“Some of the other big hatches on the Sac,” continued Kris, “include the March Browns and other mayflies in the spring, then we’ll slowly move into the Pteronarcys, the big Salmonflies. Pale Morning Dun mayflies start showing up around this same time, but you never know. They could come off (hatch) one year, and then the next year they don’t or something else comes off. You’re like, ‘What the heck?’ It’s constantly, constantly changing, which as a guide keeps you on your toes.”

We’ve seen huge Hex mayflies come off on the Sac,” Kris said, “and we have to say, you know, like, what the heck? There are huge cranefly hatches and midge hatches and then you have the big Salmonfly hatch which can be slow some years and absolutely ridiculous others. This last fall we started throwing dry droppers (floating flies with sinking flies tied to them). Most people just fish with nymphs and strike indicators (sinking flies tied to a bobber). We started sticking ’em (hooking fish) with dry droppers and the technique works just as well. I think there are still untapped ways to fish the Sac.”

Kris continued, “The only thing we can’t get Sac fish to eat consistently is streamers (swimming flies that imitate small fish). I think that’s because there’s so much other food in the river. We’ll go out there on our days off and try new techniques. We have days that are good, but then we go back and try to replicate that day and fail. It’s hard to get any consistency with it. We’ve gotten some big numbers of fish and caught some big fish, but can’t repeat those experiences day after day. Other techniques are much more consistent.”

“We pretty much don’t like to say ‘no’ to our guests,” Greg said. “If someone comes to us and says ‘We want to fish here,’ we want to say ‘We’ll be more than happy to take you.’ If clients pick a specific river or lake, we try and excel at it, whether it’s bass fishing, trout fishing, steelhead fishing, you name it.”

“I started working for The Fly Shop,” said Kris, “around 2002. But being from 8,000 feet, Redding gets a little warm during summers. So I go to Alaska every year for typically three to four months. I go to the raw wilderness and fly around in floatplanes.”

Tough duty avoiding the heat

“Kris goes to Alaska in the summer months,” said Greg, “and I go to Kamchatka, Russia. It’s just like Kris’ deal in Alaska, except I jump out of helicopters instead of floatplanes. It’s pretty darned fun. Kris also guided down in South America. I think he did four seasons down there. Now Kris is guiding up in Alaska in the summer months for a place called Royal Wolf Lodge. It’s an awesome break from day-to-day life here in Northern California. As much as we love it around here, it’s just nice to get away and get a fresh brain and come back excited about Northern California again.”

Royal Wolf Lodge in southwestern Alaska is located in “the heart of the world’s greatest natural rainbow trout fishery.” Though they don’t target salmon in their operation, they do credit the incredible runs of sockeye salmon in the Bristol Bay drainage with making their trophy rainbow trout what it is. The rainbows feed greedily on salmon eggs, salmon fry and eventually dead sockeye salmon carcasses in a year-round cycle of protein production.

From the Royal Wolf Lodge (RWL) web site: “Focusing on fly-out fly-fishing for rainbows, RWL fishes three main drainages; the Kvijack, the Alagnak and the Naknek. Located in the middle of all three, the lodge has access to many creeks, streams and rivers, the Nonvianuk, (home river fishing) is exceptional and within walking distance of the lodge.”

While Kris stays on US soil, brother Greg spends his summers hopping in and out of huge, orange and blue MI-8 helicopters in Russia’s eastern peninsula, an unspoiled landscape known as Kamchatka. Similar in many ways to Alaska, this region reaches south from Siberia into the Bering Sea and contains some of the best rainbow trout and steelhead fishing in the world. Trips with either Kris in Alaska or Greg in Kamchatka can be booked locally through The Fly Shop.

Home again

“I start over on the Trinity in September,” Kris said, “when I get back from Alaska. I’ve been doing probably half my fall trips on the Trinity and half on the Sac. Some days I’m driving 200 miles if I’m coming home that night. If I’m staying over on the Trinity I usually stay in Weaverville. I’m kinda’ like a ghost.”

“Come January we’ll start doing some other coastal streams,” added Kris. “We’ll do the Mad and the Eel and the Van Duzen. Once the coastal steelhead thing kind of fades, I don’t know, in March some time, we’ll switch back to the Sac and others, including the Pit and the upper Sac. We even do some warm water stuff like fishing for bass on the Shasta Lake.”

“We’ve got to keep it fresh,” Kris continued. “It’s one of the things. You know we love doing it, but once we go to the same spot over and over again, we try to think of where would we want to be on our day off? We think our clients might want to be doing the same thing. It’s still a job, and there are days we have to do things we might not want to do. But overall we’ve started collecting a group of clientele that appreciates the same things we do.”

“I would say I’m a people person,” stated Kris, “but I don’t like to fish around people. My favorite Sacramento River drifts are from Balls Ferry to Los Molinos. They’re not always the biggest fish, but I get way from people and I don’t see houses. You have a lot more steelhead down there, so there’s always a chance for a really big fish. You’re going to have better numbers, too. An average day down there will be 30-plus fish on a normal day. You’re not going to see anybody else. That’s the cool thing. I don’t know of any other place like it, and it’s right in the middle of California.”

“There are definitely a lot of great guides in the area who are our dear friends,” said Greg. “We kind of know everybody and stay on good terms. What I think we bring to the table that not everybody else does, is our perspective on what fishing represents to the human body. I think is refreshing. Its not always just about catching fish. We work very hard and get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but those times out on the water with good friends and people who appreciate the moment are the best. Sometimes being still and watching a bald eagle or watching a tree change colors, whatever, a rainstorm, all the natural beauty around here is what it’s all about.”

“We do everything through The Fly Shop, said Greg. “That makes sense. They keep a good hold on our calendar and take care of us when we’re gone or out of the office, when Kris is in Alaska and I’m in Russia. It’s nice to have their backing.”

Part of why we chose the Kennedy Brothers out of the hundreds of very capable guides in the area had to do with how well they market themselves. They maintain the web site, and are continually posting stunning photos from their worldwide fishing adventures on Facebook.

“I think what makes it unique is that we both love to take photos,” said Kris. “We both love to share our experiences. Doing something you love with your brother is pretty unique.”

“There’s a bunch of great guides out there,” said Kris. “There’s a big cult following. With my brother and I it’s just the two of us, and we’re all over the place. There’s so much in NorCal, and fly-fishing’s definitely a big part of that. Redding’s an iconic fly-fishing destination. It’s kinda’ crazy, but it is!”

When you talk with Kris or Greg Kennedy there is also an infectious enthusiasm you simply can’t help catching, along with lots and lots of fish. If their photos say anything about how they see their world and chosen occupation, they live and work in a land overflowing with color and wonder. Some might call it God’s Country.

You can follow the Kennedy Brothers and their antics on their Instagram or Facebook pages.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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