They've buzzed up mountain highways in SUVs, pickups and trailers, and they've checked into cabins and even pitched tents.
Their trips have been planned for weeks, even months, all for one reason — to feel that magical and almost addicting tug on the line, the sign that they've caught one.
"I still get excited each time," John Simunich of Galt said.
The anxious have counted the minutes, waiting for the clock to tick to 5:12 a.m. today, one hour before sunrise, the beginning of the general trout fishing season in California. From that moment until one hour after sunset Nov. 15, it's fish-fry heaven.
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There is an unmistakable romance about the elusive trout, the freshwater fish found everywhere from high-country lakes to cascading streams. They've served as a food source since the beginning of time, of course, but they've also brought together families and friends.
Simunich, shopping this week with 19-year-old son Jordan at Bass Pro Shops in Manteca, has fished his entire life.
"You get out of the city and breathe fresh air," he said. "Even if you don't catch anything, you have a good time."
The unifying force is the trout — the spirited cutthroat, the pretty rainbow, the wary brown. From natives only 10 inches in length swimming along in flood-swollen creeks to the 30-pounders snared in lakes, they provide men and women both a recreational and nutritional treat.
Trout present an almost intimate appeal. Contrast that with the majesty of marlin fishing in the open seas, which requires a different kind of passion. With trout, you're surrounded by scenic landscape.
Trollers sit patiently on a lake at dawn, the water's surface mirroring mountains overhead. A young girl baits a hook on the banks of a creek in a lush meadow. A senior citizen wades into a stream, seeking the best angle for his fly-cast.
"Other than just being extremely fun, fishing has that grand mystique. It transmits the love of the outdoors. You won't forget the first time," said Harry Morse, spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game. "Yes, it gives you a great time for reflection. But as a kid, I just wanted to catch fish. I'll reflect when I get older."
A growing appeal
In recent years, trout fishing has grown in popularity as the tough economy has mandated less expensive forms of recreation.
"It's a lot cheaper than going to a ball game," Simunich said. "You can use a boat, but you don't need one. You can just throw out a line on the bank."
Like anything, the expenditure depends on one's commitment. The hard-core enthusiast can spend thousands, but parents can equip a child with rod and reel and the rest for about $100 and have it last for years.
The state has prepared, as usual, for today's opener. Thirteen of California's 21 fish hatcheries cater to trout, and one of them is Moccasin Creek Hatchery on the junction of Highways 49 and 120 about 20 miles south of Sonora.
Moccasin has joined in the planting of more than 56,000 pounds of trout for the first day. Recent storms and winterlike conditions, including snow on the ground at the higher elevations, have complicated matters this year. More mild weather is desired.
Which does not discourage the hardy or those who simply can't wait.
"I go up to Frazier Flats (the middle fork of the Stanislaus River near Cold Springs). I have friends who've fished their whole lives there," Steve Vierra of Manteca said. "My grandfather started me when I was just a kid. All four of my children fish. We usually eat eggs and trout for breakfast."
Good trout-seekers possess an intuition honed by years of practice. Theirs is almost an art form. The convergence of the perfect fly or bait with the right condition, mixed with knowing the trout's habitat, often results in a day's limit.
Or, at a different level, it's just wetting a line and hoping for the best. That's why all bodies of water, from the forks of the Stanislaus to Moccasin Creek to many regional lakes, will draw opening-day crowds.
For many, it boils down to reliving the time a father advised his son to cast about 10 feet toward a large creekside boulder and to just let that salmon-egged hook settle into a quiet area away from the current. "He's there," the father said, the wisdom of experience dripping from each word. "Just wait."
And seconds later, the son's pole nearly is yanked from his hands. A strike!
"Take your time," the father calmly said. "Reel him in slowly." And after a noble fight, a 3-pound cutthroat is pulled out of the water.
It's about people catching fish but, somewhere along the way, it's often the fish who catch people.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.