Collins Lake is a favorite destination for northern California anglers during the spring and summer, and why not? The 1,600 acre impoundment with its 12.5 miles of oak and pine studded shoreline boasts the most aggressive private trout planting program in the north state.
Bass anglers are drawn to the lake in hopes of encountering trophy spotted bass and Florida strain largemouths that have been known to reach the 15 pound mark. In addition to trout and bass, strong populations of channel catfish and panfish also call the lake home.
As fall gives way to winter, fishing pressure at this foothill jewel drops off steadily, and by the time the holidays roll around, visiting anglers will likely find the lake practically deserted. I've been fishing Collins Lake for more than ten years. While I thoroughly enjoy hitting the lake during the spring when the trout stocking program is in full swing and aggressive prespawn black bass are on the prowl, my favorite time to visit the lake is during the fall and winter months.
When you fish Collins during the spring there are always anglers nearby, but during the winter the lake has the feel of being far off the beaten path and it is this feeling of solitude that I enjoy, especially when the holiday hustle and bustle reaches its peak.
The variety of quality gamefish that Collins hosts makes it one of the lakes that I consider virtually "skunk proof," meaning that the angler who is willing to adapt and change tactics can almost always catch some fish even if the target species for the day is being uncooperative.
This was certainly the situation the last time I fished the lake back on December 13. My dad and I wanted to fish for a few hours, but we didn't want to hassle with towing a boat so we decided a bank fishing trip for trout was in order and quickly settled on Collins Lake as our destination.
Rain was in the forecast as we left dad's house in Auburn that morning, as it had been for the past few days. Undaunted, we were dressed in our rain gear and prepared for the worst. When we arrived at the lake, it wasn't raining hard, but the area was enveloped in a dense soaking mist that refused to relent as the day went on. After checking in with Lincoln Young at the Collins Lake Store, he advised us that the trout fishing was productive, but related that he would not describe the action as hot.
"I think your best bet is to fish up around the bridge. If you drive up there and the water flowing in is muddy, come back down here and try it off the swim beach or up near the dam," advised Young.
I was pretty sure that with all the recent rain the water near the bridge would be muddy, but never one to ignore informed advice, I made the short drive up to the bridge. Unfortunately the water coming in looked pretty much like creamed coffee, so we headed back down to the swim beach.
After setting up our four spinning rods with slip sinker rigs we spaced them out along the deserted bank and began soaking a variety of bait oil injected worms and Power Bait. As we initially settled in and began to wait, I figured we'd have a trout go to work on one of the baits in short order, but as 30 minutes gave way to an hour, my initial optimism started to weaken.
Young had told us the trout were feeding on shad near the surface, so I reeled in one rod and switched the bait rig for a chrome Cripplure, but after 15 minutes of casting it was clear that plugging wasn't the hot ticket either. When I suggested to dad that we move down to the dam and try our luck there, he agreed.
At the dam we once again spaced out our four rods and started to wait. We hadn't been there for long when I spotted a bass boat coming our way. As the boats got closer and slowed down I recognized the driver. It was Collins Lake's most knowledgeable and high profile bass pro, Larry Hemphill.
"Is that you Cal? They told me at the store that you were out here some place bank fishing," hailed Hemphill. Larry related that he'd been having solid results on the lake's bass while drop shotting and asked Dad and I if we'd like to join him for a few hours. The offer was tempting but the idea of our muddy boots in Larry's spotless boat prompted me to stay put on the bank.
Just as Larry left, one of my spinning rods registered the first bite of the day. Picking up the rod I opened the reel and gave the fish plenty of time to gulp down the worm. When the line started paying off the spool vigorously, I engaged the reel and set the hook into what I assumed was a rainbow.
While the fish put up a vigorous fight, something just didn't feel right and once it came into sight I understood why. The fish wasn't a rainbow, but rather chunky half pound bluegill. Now when I think of bluegill fishing I don't think about soaking garlic oil injected night crawlers in the middle of December. I think of warm spring weather, bobbers and red worms, so I dismissed the catch as pure chance.
After releasing the feisty panfish, I put on another worm and got back to the business of trout fishing. Only a couple minutes had passed when another fish started tugging at my worm. Once again I paid out a little line before raising the rod and feeling the erratic pulses of a hard fighting fish. This bluegill was a little bigger than the first.
Well, I wasn't catching trout, but I wasn't getting blanked either. I asked dad if he wanted to cast into my panfish hole and get in on the action, but he turned me down and opted to stick with Power Bait in hopes of catching a trout. His trout never arrived, but my bluegill bite remained red hot. Before heavier rain sent us packing I landed and released five more of the scrappers.
I've caught larger individual bluegill, but in terms of average size they represent best quality number of bluegill I've caught on any given outing. I'm sure they would be great to eat, and if I didn't have enough striper fillets in the freezer for a few dinners, I would have found out!
If you'd like to get away from the stress of the holidays and spend some time with Canada geese, blacktail deer and wild turkeys, while catching a few fish, plan on taking a trip to Collins Lake. The bluegill action is apparently pretty darn good. Catfish are on the move as evidenced by the 7.12 pounder that Rick Erkson landed recently. Bass are hitting for both boaters working plastics and bank anglers soaking worms or crawfish.
And of course trout are always a good bet for both bank anglers fishing with bait and trollers using shad imitating lures.