Take Stock In Collins Lake

Here are some insider tips to success at the lake with the most aggressive trout-planting program in Northern California. Collins Lake is a short trip from Sacramento, and the payoff's worth it! (August 2007)

The Mills family landed these fine rainbows from the bank at Collins Lake. Every spring, more than 40,000 trout are planted here. And this year, anglers got a surprise.
Photo by Cal Kellogg.

As I motored away from the launch ramp, I spotted a bald eagle in a tree on the far side of the lake. Its snow-white head stood out distinctly against the gray-green backdrop.

A mantle of clouds hung just above the ridge tops. But there was no rain in the forecast, and the lake's surface was as flat as glass.

The electric trolling motor churned silently beneath the surface, pushing me toward the dam.

On my first rod, I tied on a chrome-and-blue Cripplure. The second was armed with a 3-inch smelt-colored floating minnow plug.

I stuck the rods in the holders and opened both bails until the lures were about 200 feet behind the boat.

When the boat neared the corner of the dam nearest the spillway, I circled slowly to the left and motored across the face of the dam.

I was about midway across the dam when the rod with the Cripplure dipped and then popped back up.

The fish hit, but wasn't hooked. A beat later, it struck again -- and this time, luck was on my side.

The rod bent over into a satisfying arc. Line started flowing off the reel before I could get the rig out of the holder.

The thick-bodied rainbow put up a determined battle. But within a few minutes, it was safely in the cooler.

For the rest of the morning, I worked back and forth along the face of the dam. By early afternoon, I'd hooked and landed more than two dozen nice rainbows.

I released most of them, but did keep three, plus one lone brown in the 2-pound class.

Easing the boat back onto its trailer, I looked across the lake and was surprised to see the bald eagle still sitting on its perch.

Between seeing the eagle and battling a bunch of hard-fighting trout, it had been a majestic morning indeed!

As most avid trout anglers know, a number of big Northern California reservoirs are capable of providing this kind of action. But would you be surprised that I was fishing a relatively small lake just a little over an hour's drive from the Sacramento metropolitan area?

But yes, that's the case.

That fabulous morning of trout trolling took place at Collins Lake. And though that outing may have been more productive than average, I've experienced fishing just as good or better many times.

I remember a trip my wife Gena and I took to the lake one winter. In a single afternoon of bait-fishing from the bank, we put seven rainbows on our stringer that, all together, weighed more than 23 pounds!

FULLY EQUIPPED

Collins Lake lies at 1,200 feet, about midway between Marysville to the north and Grass Valley to the south. At full capacity, the lake has 1,600 surface acres and more than 12 miles of shoreline.

The recreation area surrounding the lake is home to deer, turkeys and coyotes. The oak- and pine-studded ridges create a beautiful backdrop of foothills. Unlike a lot of the state's premier trout-fishing destinations, the Collins Lake Recreation Area offers all the amenities an angler requires -- and is family-friendly.

Facilities include a boat ramp and marina, picnic grounds, camping sites, RV sites, rental cabins and trailers, general store, laundry equipment, hot showers, sand swimming beach and a playground.

And if you don't have your own boat, the marina offers outboard-equipped aluminum fishing boats, patio boats and ocean kayaks.

While the recreation area does allow recreational boating, the focus is really on fishing. Water-skiing is permitted in the lake's main body between May 1 and Oct. 15.

Skiing is never allowed in the river arm, providing a year-round sanctuary for anglers. Personal watercraft in the form of water bikes or wave runners are never allowed.

SUPER-STOCKED

So what makes Collins Lake such an awesome fishery? Several factors drive the lake's superb trout fishing. For one thing, its rich waters provide an exceptional forage base in the form of prolific numbers of threadfin shad. Yet most important is the recreation area's commitment to providing a top-notch fishing experience.

Collins plays host to the most aggressive trout-stocking program north of Sacramento. Each spring, an average of 40,000 trout are planted, most of them in the 2- to 3-pound class. But several thousand are trophy-caliber fish, weighing to 8 pounds.

For each plant the lake receives from the Department of Fish and Game, the recreation area managers purchase three plants of higher-quality trout from private hatcheries.

This year, the trout fishing at Collins got an additional boost.

In late 2006, the recreation area cooperated with the DFG and two nonprofit organizations -- Kokanee Power and the California Inland Fisheries Foundation -- to start a trout-rearing pen project.

A total of eight 1,400-square-foot underwater net pens were built at the lake. Kokanee Power provided materials and food for two of the pens, while the other six were funded by the CIFF. The state provided planter rainbows, and the recreation area staff takes care of them every day.

Due to their nutrient-rich feed, these penned rainbows doubled and tripled in size. In May, by the time they were released, many of them had reached the 3- to 4-pound class!

The quality of the fish was exceptional. They sported full fins and tails, along with vivid colors. They look like wild rainbows, rather than the usual hatchery fare. It's estimated that this program resulted in an additional 10,000 to 13,000 pounds of trout released into the lake in 2007!

In addition to rainbows, the lake hosts a

decent population of brown trout, planted as fingerlings several years ago in hopes that they would grow to trophy proportions.

Over the last three years, those browns have started to show up in the catches. While none of them have been double-digit monsters as yet, many of them have been quality fish in the 3- to 4-pound class.

No one is certain how many of the fingerlings survived, or how big the largest of them have grown. Research at other lakes indicates that even when the total number of browns in a lake exceeds the number of rainbows, rainbows show up in the catches over browns by a ratio of about 15 to 1.

A lot of us believe that Collins now has a strong population of big hard-to-hook browns lurking among its legions of rainbows.

SUMMER SUCCESS

OK, Collins is a great place to visit or camp. The lake is full of trout. But you want to know when and how to catch them.

Collins Lake provides excellent trout fishing all year long for the anglers who are willing to adapt their approach to match the depth and activity level of the trout. It is one of the few north state lakes where I've caught trout every month of the year. But as you can imagine, some time periods throughout the year are distinctly better than others.

Typically, during the first week or two of June, the surface temperature shoots up significantly above the trout's comfort zone. They react by moving into deeper water.

Throughout the summer, the lake's rainbows and browns could be out of the range of both bank-anglers and top-liners. But anglers who troll with downriggers can find superb action by working the thermocline.

The trout will lock into a 20-foot-wide band on either side of the thermocline. Once you dial into that zone, it's possible to catch trout after trout.

Sometimes the summer's hottest daytime temperatures come in September. At other times in the fall, a mild weather pattern takes over, and we get some early storms combined with chilly nighttime temperatures.

The weather, and its corresponding effect on the lake's surface temperature, will dictate when the trout abandon their deep-water summertime haunts and move back to the surface as husky, hard-charging holdovers.

In general, when surface temperature drops back into the middle 60s, you'll start to encounter trout feeding in the top 25 feet of water.

This lowering in temperature usually occurs at some point during the month of September, and outstanding fall trout fishing often continues through the end of November.

The period from late winter through early spring -- from the beginning of March to the beginning of June, say -- is a great time for anglers to visit the lake.

Trout plants at Collins Lake begin in March and generally continue through May. This ensures that plenty of unsophisticated trout will be finning about, waiting to be caught. In addition, surface temperatures during this period are generally in the ideal 50- to 65-degree range. This means that most of the lake's trout will be holding in the top 25 feet of the water column, making them accessible to both boat- and bank-anglers.

During the winter, two limiting factors can have a profound effect on your trout-fishing success: water temperature and water quality.

In December through February, the foothills can get very cold and send water temperatures plummeting at lakes like Collins. When the surface temperature gets down into the lower 40s, getting the trout to bite can be a real challenge, especially if you want to fish with lures.

Collins is at a fairly low elevation, which means that there's a lot of watershed above the lake. During periods of heavy rain, Dry Creek and Willow Glen Creek, the lake's primary tributaries, can become raging muddy torrents in a matter of hours.

On the positive side, Collins Lake is a reservoir that fills up quickly and seldom suffers from exceptionally low-water conditions.

On the downside, during and after major winter storms, the lake's water takes on the hue of creamed coffee, effectively shutting down trout fishing until it has a chance to clear.

WHERE TO FISH?

Catching Collins Lake trout can be as simple or as complicated as you'd like to make it. Collins is one of the few lakes where shore-anglers do every bit as well as boat-anglers.

And fly-anglers aren't left out when it comes to hooking the lake's handsome 'bows.

Trout can be encountered just about anywhere in Collins, but the largest concentrations are in the western half of the lake, in front of the dam and up in the creek arm. This is also where you'll find the most anglers.

The western shoreline is a tantalizing combination of coves, flats, drop-offs and rock humps. Since the submerged creek channel traverses this section of the lakebed, trout holding in these areas always have easy access to the security of deep water.

TROLLING

A number of different trolling lures will tempt the lake's trout effectively, as long as you consider their primary forage before making your selection. Threadfin shad are the trout's favored prey. Lure and color selections should be made accordingly.

Chrome-and-blue spoons account for many of the largest trout taken by trollers. Other good choices include small minnow plugs and light shad-colored plastic grubs. When the trout are playing hard to get, a slow-trolled threaded night crawler fished without flashers or a dodger is often just what the doctor ordered.

While trolling and bait-fishing, I'm a firm believer in fluorocarbon leaders. When fishing Collins, I also make it a practice to apply Pro-Cure Super Gel, in either the threadfin shad or herring scent, to my lures.

Though Collins trout might not be the most sophisticated fish in the world, a stealthy approach is still a good idea. When top-lining, I like to employ an electric motor and keep my lures from 150 to 200 feet behind the boat.

In the spring, I typically concentrate on working the top 10 feet of the water column. But as the season matures, I work progressively deeper water, using my downriggers.

As mentioned earlier, trout really stack up in the thermocline during the heat of summer, and the strongest concentrations of fish are almost always found above the submerged creek channel.

BAIT

During both the spring and fall, soaking bait is a popular pastime for veteran Collins Lake anglers. Since I always buy a two-rod sticker, generally I start out with one rod rigged with a sliding sinker rig, and the second setup with a slip-b

obber for drifting bait suspended below the surface.

The most popular baits at Collins are PowerBait, Power Eggs and night crawlers. But I've enjoyed very good action while using minnows, too.

Most bank-anglers fish the stretch of shoreline on the western side of the lake between Elmer's Cove, located roughly behind the store, to the corner of the dam. One of the most productive and popular areas is the sandy flat around the swim beach.

Boat-anglers get in on the bank-fishing action, too. Instead of fishing the area where shore-bound anglers ply their trade, boaters go up the lake and beach their boats near likely-looking structure. Then they get out on the bank to fish, or toss their baited lines off the back of the boat.

All things considered, this is really my favorite way to fish the lake. Using a boat takes you to areas that receive relatively little pressure from bait-anglers.

Plus you get to enjoy the kicked-back relaxation you just don't experience while trolling.

FLIES

Elmer's Cove and the face of dam represent prime areas for fly-anglers working from float tubes. There is little or no dry-fly action. But slowly stripped streamers such as Woolly Buggers in brown, olive, black or white often receive a rave reception from the trout.

While trolling the dam, I've seen fly guys catch a number of husky trout in the 3- to 4-pound class.

If you haven't yet sampled the exceptional trout fishing that Collins Lake provides, make it a point to visit the lake this fall. I think you'll be pleased by what you find!

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