We’re counting down to Saturday’s statewide general trout opening day. Today: the underrated Mokelumne River in the San Joaquin Valley.
By Brad Hall Photos By Mokelumne River Outfitters
With opening day of California’s trout season looming gloriously close – some devoted anglers no doubt are counting the hours and checking their gear – numerous popular fishing destinations will soon be grabbing headlines.
Mountain lakes and streams up and down the state will be crawling with trout anglers beginning Saturday, April 30. Popular spots like the Eastern Sierra’s Crowley and Convict Lakes, the Central Sierra’s Walker and Carson Rivers, and Northern California rivers like the Yuba, Feather and Pit are just a few of my favorites. Lights-out fishing is possible at any of them. Magnificent scenery is guaranteed and, depending on the weather – which has been unsettled, to say the least, this spring – crowds can be overwhelming. So finding your own rock on which to fish sometimes can be an issue.
For those fishermen seeking a quieter, calmer, later-spring experience with plenty of rod-bending opportunities, the lower stretches of the Mokelumne and Calaveras Rivers might be worth a look-see; this is especially the case for the Moke.
Season dates on these rivers are usually Jan. 1 to March 31 for winter steelhead and trout, and the fourth Saturday in May through Oct. 15 for steelhead, trout and salmon (the Calaveras season runs all the way to March 31 and requires artificial lures with barbless hooks only). Anglers can still hit their favorite early-season hotspots before trying these lower-altitude fisheries.
HIT THE MOTHER LODE
If you’re not familiar with these waters, the lower Mokelumne is a tailwater fishery with cold, clear water flowing out of Camanche Reservoir just a few miles east of Lodi. The lower Calaveras flows out of New Hogan Dam (from the lake of the same name) near Valley Springs, 30 miles east of Stockton. Lodi? Stockton? Aren’t those Valley towns, you ask, in a state where most anglers flock to high-mountain lakes and rivers? Yes, they are, but just a few miles drive from each lies some of the finest trout fishing anywhere in the state. Just ask Bill Ferrero.
Ferrero has been fishing the Mokelumne for 50 years. A licensed fishing guide who operates Mokelumne River Outfitters (209-604-9004), Ferrero grew up across the street from a wilderness area that included the lower reaches of the Mokelumne. Like most anglers, Ferrero’s earliest days fishing included primitive rods and reels and doughballs as bait. He’s climbed the fishing ladder significantly since then, producing double-digit-fish days and frequent 20-inch-plus rainbows for his friends and clients. He’s also a cherished speaker for local fly fishing clubs and has authored magazine articles on the subject.
“Back in 2005, I purchased a raft and began taking people fishing and showing them how,” says Ferrero. “I got a really big kick out of it. Friends started saying I should be a guide, but I didn’t really know where to start. I got some help from (a fishing guide in the Delta) who walked me through the process and the rest is history. I’m in my 11th year.”
Ferrero is an an adamant catch-and-release advocate who claims the stretch of the Mokelumne between Camanche Dam and the town of Clements is first rate. Numbers seem to support his analysis. Ferrero’s best day fishing the Mokelumne as a guide there produced 87 fish among three anglers. The Mokelumne fishery has declined somewhat in recent years as far as quantity is concerned, but the river still holds its share of trophies, says Ferrero.
Ferrero believes most of the decline can be attributed to lack of water coming out of Camanche. He credits East Bay Municipal Utility District, which controls the water flow, with being a “steward of the river,” however. It is East Bay MUD, after all, that has brought in tons of gravel at several locations below the dam to recreate spawning areas for salmon, steelhead and trout.
Ferrero says his clients still average 12 to 20 fish per day using conventional fishing rigs with nightcrawlers as bait. Fly fishermen, who make up 90 percent of his customers, average between eight to 10 fish.
“Flows make a huge difference,” says Ferrero. “Between 1998 and 2005, if you didn’t catch 30 or so fish a day, something was really off. But things change. The quantity is down a little but the quality is still there. We’re still seeing 20-inch fish this spring.”
He says productive methods in the spring and early summer include dragging a nightcrawler or live crickets. Some anglers like to toss spinners such as Mepps, Panther Martins and Rooster Tails, and others will back-troll plugs. Ferrero says theMokelumne also holds smallmouth bass.
The Calaveras is a more difficult fishery to conquer, mostly due to limited access. Private land reigns supreme along the river. Many years ago, before the development of the Rancho Calaveras and La Contenta subdivisions, which now line its banks, the Calaveras was phenomenal. Fly fishing expert Vic Bertocchini of Stockton recalls 50-fish days and steelhead weighing 6 to 7 pounds. I recall an opening day several years ago when six of us pulled limits of 14- to 16-inch rainbows from deep, boulder-lined pools in the Calaveras. My dad hooked and landed a 28-pound salmon that day. I remember it well since I toted the monster up the canyon to a remote parking lot that no longer exists.
Like the Mokelumne, the Calaveras also is subject to flow conditions, and water quality there has not been good in recent drought-stricken seasons. Since New Hogan relies solely on rainfall to fill, the Calaveras hasn’t had a decent flow of fresh water since 2011, says Bertocchini. Ample rainfall this year has improved the situation somewhat, so fishing can be good if you can obtain access.
Similar to trout fishing most anywhere in the state, rods and reels and fish are only part of the experience. Peace, serenity and joining hands with nature are equally important to many outdoorsmen and -women. Although the lower stretches of theMokelumne and Calaveras lie mostly in the valley, wildlife sightings are common. Deer, wild turkeys, eagles, osprey and otters are frequent visitors. California’s state flower, the golden poppy, is abundant along steep canyons of the Calaveras and bordering gravel bars of the Mokelumne.
You might even have these prolific sights and sounds all to yourself. CS