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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Get Alaska-like Day Of Fishing In Sierra Foothills

San Francisco Chronicle Posted By Tom Stienstra in Outdoors April 29, 2012

Brother Rambob looked like he'd been jabbed with a cattle prod, all from fighting a fish.

The big trout sent a series of shockwaves, from lure to line to fishing rod, and Rambob held on for each jolt. The fish boogied and bulldogged, surged to the surface, and then flashed to the side, where we got our first glimpse of it.

"Look at that, the size of that fish," he said. "I'm stunned how big these trout are, way bigger than I expected. Really strong."

If we had caught any bigger ones, it might have felt like getting darted with a Taser.

Our trip to Collins Lake this past week was better than some days I've had in Alaska: A 5-trout limit that weighed more than 10 pounds, another half dozen or so rainbow trout in the same class that we released, plus a 14-inch crappie and a few bass, also released.

People spend thousands of dollars on trips to Canada and Alaska for a chance to catch big trout, all for that electrical sensation when you hook one.

You can pop all your circuit breakers this spring at Collins Lake, and other outstanding lakes in Northern California. The hardest part of the trip for many is making the time for it.

This weekend is the opening of the 2012 trout season in California, though it has become a symbolic event with most lakes open year-round and many streams that are high, cold and unfishable in April.

To get a head start on the season, we headed to Collins Lake in Yuba County, tucked in a valley at an elevation of 1,200 feet, with a reputation as one of California's best lakes in the foothills for fishing and camping.

The key at Collins Lake is that the lake manager charges a day-use fee - $10 per vehicle during the week, $13 on weekends - and all visitors pass through an entrance kiosk. That money helps pay for a program where large trout are raised in 12 submerged net pens and then released in pulses throughout the year. An attendant at the entrance kiosk enforces the fees and employees provide oversight. That means people who might cause problems often go elsewhere.

Collins has beautiful campsites perched at lake's edge, so close that you can pull a boat right up to many of them. Cabins are also available. A marina rents boats. A small store has supplies, fishing gear and a soda shop. A lakefront grill will open for summer.

It's a mini self-contained recreation center with a trout-filled lake as the centerpiece. In what might seem something of a miracle, every person we met, both employees and other anglers, were friendly and happy.

Big fish can do that to you.

As we arrived, the first thing we noticed is that the oaks had budded out in fresh lime-green leaves in the past 10 days (spring is full-on). At the boat ramp, the water was over-the-bank full (lots of water equals high carrying capacity for the aquatic food chain) and many trees submerged along the shore (ideal habitat for bass). A flotilla of grebes were bobbing and diving in the shallows (lots of food).

In the first 10 minutes we hooked up and the game was afoot. Right from the start, the trout were big, strong and healthy, their sides gleaming and full of fight. The average trout ranged 14 to 18 inches, with a chance at 5- to 10-pounders that roam the lake.

In one 45-minute sequence, we caught four big ones in a row and passed the rods back and forth, like when we were little kids, having a ball.

One key we noticed at Collins, an issue at so many trout lakes for anglers, is that some use fishing line and snap swivels that are too heavy and can spook the fish. Yet many bait dunkers still catch plenty of fish from shore using two-hook rigs and a Power Nugget and a night crawler.

For line, we use 6- or 8-pound Berkeley Vanish, or Maxima or P-Line in "Ultragreen," then tie on a high-quality black barrel swivel. We then add 18 to 27 inches of 4- or 6-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader and a small snap swivel. This is virtually invisible to the fish.

We constantly test lures, and on this trip tried about 20. What worked best this time was the 1-inch black-silver Countdown Rapala, with other lures in black or black/gold getting bites. That makes sense on an overcast day with rain, like we had last week.

On sunny days, bright lures work better. For this weekend, for instance, we'd probably switch to a red/black Needlefish, silver/purple Humdinger and jointed Rapala in the color that is called "clown" (yellow with a red head), and then stack them on a downrigger so it looked like the Rapala (small fish) was chasing the Needlefish (minnow).

The water temperature was 66.7 degrees. That put the fish about 7 to 14 feet deep, and our best luck was in 40 to 60 feet of water on the windward side of the lake.

At one point, I set the hook on a bite, and the fish reacted with such a surge that I let out a yell and told Rambob, "You gotta feel this."

He grabbed the rod, and when the same thing happened to him, he joked, "You better hold on to my belt to make sure I don't get pulled in."

Just like when we were kids.
If you want to go

Location: Collins Lake Recreation Area is northeast of Marysville near Oregon House in Yuba County.

Lake records: 21-pound, 2-ounce catfish; 15-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass; 13-pound, 4-ounce rainbow trout; 9-pound brown trout; 8-pound, 9-ounce spotted bass; 2-pound, 13-ounce crappie.

Day-use fees: $13 per vehicle on weekends, $21 with boat (includes boat launch), $10 and $18 on weekdays; dogs free.

Facilities: Campgrounds, cabins, small marina with boat rentals, boat ramp, store with supplies, grill.

Camping: Standard family campsites, no hookups, $35 per night on weekends, $28 weekdays; lakefront, $45 and $38; RV site with full hookups at lakefront, $56. Reservations at (800) 286-0576 require two-night minimum and $10 fee.

Cabins/RV trailers: $110 to $240 per night, depending on size, on weekends; $90 to $200 on weekdays.

Boat rentals: Fishing boat with motor, weekend rate $70 for half-day rental and $90 for full day, $50 and $75 on weekdays; kayaks, paddleboats, patio boats available.

How to get there: From San Francisco, take Interstate 80 east for 84 miles to Sacramento and Exit 86 for I-5 north toward Highway 99. Take that exit, merge on to I-5N/Highway 99 and drive 3 miles to exit on right for Highway 99. Take Highway 99 north for 12.5 miles to Highway 70 (stay right), then continue on Highway 70 for 22 miles to Marysville. Turn right on 9th Street (still 70) and go 0.2 miles (get in left lane) to B Street. Turn left on B Street and go 0.2 miles (get in right lane) to East 12 Street/Highway 20. Turn right on Highway 20 and drive 12 miles to Marysville Road. Turn left and go 9.8 miles to signed right turn for entrance road to Collins Lake. Turn right and drive 0.7 miles to entrance kiosk.

Distances: 145 miles from San Francisco.

Contact: Collins Lake Recreation Area, (800) 286-0576, collinslake.com.

Tom Stienstra is The San Francisco Chronicle's outdoors writer. tstienstra@sfchronicle.com

This article appeared on page B - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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