The sun was barely rising over a nearby ridge as Mike Nicholson climbed out of his red pickup truck and pulled on a new pair of waders and his boots at the Mokelumne Fish Hatchery Day Use Area on Wednesday. Nicholson set up his 9-feet-long fly fishing rod and fixed a nymph, or sinking fly, to his line.
"I hope there's some steelhead," Nicholson said. "If not, I'll catch little rainbow trout out there."
Nicholson strapped on a tackle bag, tucked a net into his belt and secured a wool beanie over his baseball cap. He scoped out an ideal spot and waded thigh-deep into the river, flicking his line back and forth before sending out a long cast.
Taking in the gently flowing water and calm scenery, it's easy to see what draws people out into the cold winter air.
"This is where I get away from it all. It's peaceful," he said.
The Lower Mokelumne River is now officially open for fishing. Salmon often get the most attention and publicity, but the river is home to a robust population of rainbow trout and steelhead, too. Those are the quarry this time of year. And with unusually sunny weather, fisherman can catch some rays while they catch fish. The season runs through March 31; a second season runs from late May through Oct. 15.
On opening day, the Delta Fly Fishermen were on site at the Mokelumne day use area, offering coffee and doughnuts to the crowd and trying to drum up membership.
River aficionados warn that if you go strictly for the catch, you might miss something. There's lush scenery on the banks and otters, beavers, herons and bald eagles also call the area home.
"It's a celebration of getting fish to bite, the fun of fighting that fish," said Bill Ferrero, who runs a fishing guide service called Mokelumne River Outfitters. He is a strong promoter of careful catch-and-release to preserve fish populations.
For those who do head out, Ferrero offers some advice.
"Understand all the rules," he emphasized.
This means showing up with a fishing license and a steelhead report and restoration card already filled out. The card serves to gather catch data over time and to pay for projects dedicated to restore and manage California steelhead habitats.
Remember only one hatchery fish, identified by a clipped adipose fin, is permitted per person per day to take home. Wading is fine, but do keep an eye out for salmon redds, or nests, marked by bright yellow and red flags. Disturbing them could damage the fragile eggs.
Chinook salmon have had a very good year on the Mokelumne, according to Bill Smith, general manager of the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery.
The fall run saw 15,000 fish return to the hatchery. Compare that to a little over 5,200 last year, and it's easy to see the river is thriving. Due to continuing restoration efforts, there has been no salmon fishing season on the Mokelumne since 2007.
Smith credits a change in salmon release strategies, attraction flows sent down from Camanche Reservoir and closing the Delta Cross Channel gates in October with the rise in numbers, along with good survival rates of young salmon out in the ocean.
Salmon fishing regulations have not yet been released, but Smith says this year might be the one in which salmon are again up for grabs.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.