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Changing Plans on the Collins River

    I obviously miscalculated. The Collins River had been described to me as a gentle flow with no significant rapids. I therefore figured the Collins would be an appropriate destination for a paddle-up/fish-down trip when a Friday off presented itself. Upon arriving at the Collins, I saw water ripping downstream at a pretty good clip. While far from raging whitewater, the smooth water was moving at a pretty good clip. I parked the truck and walked to the water's edge. There was no way I'd be able to paddle upstream here. I checked the water temperature. 54 degrees. Brrrr. I wasn't real excited about hopping in the water and dragging my kayak upstream here either.

    I decided to consult my maps and look for another access point. Luckily, there was another good launch site about fifteen minutes away. The water was moving pretty good at this bridge, but was much slower than the previous spot. As it turns out, the Collins River gets slower and wider the closer it gets to Great Falls Lake, and the last 15 or so river miles are basically flat water. Had I ventured downstream a ways, my paddle up would have been easy. Of course, I wouldn't have really been on a river either. At least not the way that God originally made this river.

    Anyway, I am sweating bullets trying to paddle upstream and the bridge is frustratingly still in sight. Note to self: 1,000 cfs and 3.7 on the USGS gauge is a little too high to try and paddle up the Collins this far upstream. At the first riffle, just around the bend from the bridge, I have to hop out of the kayak and walk the boat upstream. I've made about five casts in an hour. Every time I make a cast, the current pushes me downstream by the time I can grab the paddle again. Note to self: Whatever a jet boat costs, it's worth it.

"Can't you paddle any faster than that!?!"

    The original plan was to paddle about four miles upstream (stopping occasionally to rest and fish) and then fish hard on the way downstream. I obviously wasn't going to make it four miles upstream in this current, so I needed a new plan. I decided to hug whichever riverbank had the least current, wedging the kayak up against whatever tree or rock I could find. I'd then fish the area thoroughly before paddling up to the next "parking spot" and repeat the process. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to see much of the Collins today, I needed to make the best out of the small amount of river I would see.

    I started out throwing a 1/8 ounce spinnerbait and mixing in a 4" curlytail worm rigged on a 1/16 ounce slider head. On about my third stop, I felt a slight tap and set the hook into the year's first smallie, who treated me to a couple jumps and was nice enough to pose for a quick picture. I was able to catch smallies of similar size at my next few stops before the water began getting shallower and quicker. It was time to drag again.

This is the look of a guy who didn't get skunked after all

    The shoals I encountered on the Collins were more like wide, shallow, and flat spots in the river. There didn't seem to be a lot of big rocks or other obstructions for fish to hide behind. Maybe these places reveal themselves at lower river levels, but I wasn't finding many juicy places to cast. Another problem was hangups. I don't know the exact geologic makeup of the Collins riverbed(Limestone? Sandstone?), but whatever type rock that is loves to collect jigheads, hooks, and bullet weights. Tumbling the small worms down the current was getting expensive quickly, and I wasn't catching any fish from the type of water from which I expected to have the most success.

    When I had finally worked my way nearly to the top of the shoal area (dragging the kayak behind me), I came to a large downed log in about three feet of water adjacent to the fastest current. This was classic smallie water, and if I couldn't pull a fish from here, I should just turn around and head home. I cast my small worm (I had moved up to a 1/8 ounce Texas rig by this point) right next to the log and a nice smallie hit immediately. The outcome was in doubt until I was able to get the fish out from under the log. Though far from a trophy, this was a really solid fish. Starting to gain more confidence, I pulled that fish's twin from the same log on my very next cast. This day was turning from bad to good pretty quickly!

Another bass off the log!

    Up above the shoal, I encountered the slowest water and the slowest fishing of the day. I ran into Ernie and Richard from McMinnville who informed me that this area was known as a pretty good spot for large muskie, which the Collins is developing quite a reputation for producing. Ernie and Richard fish the Collins often, and have caught quite a few smallies in the four pound class. I asked them how the river was upstream, and they said the next mile or so upstream was kind of shallow and not very productive. They suggested I check out a good-sized tributary just upstream. I paddled into the tributary, ate some lunch, and admired the scenery for a bit. It was a pretty stream, and I was able to wade around and pick up a tiny smallie and a few nice rock bass (on the small spinnerbait) before paddling out and heading back up the Collins.

Pretty tributary of the Collins

    Ernie and Richard were correct about the Collins upstream from this point. It was shallow, fast, and unproductive. I gave up on this pretty quickly and started fishing my way back downstream. On my way up the river, I had walked my kayak up the sandy side with less current. The other bank, I noticed, was rocky and eddies formed occasionally up against the bank. On my way back downstream, I pulled into each of these eddies and fished them thoroughly.

I took this while wading upstream on the slower sandy side of the river. On the way back downstream, I fished the other side. There were more fish over there hanging in and around current breaks and small eddies near the bank.

    The key to catching fish without getting hung up was to throw the worm upstream and reel it in quickly enough to keep it ahead of the current but slowly enough to hit bottom occasionally. I managed about five more smallies and ten sizeable rock bass using this method. I also stopped by the log from earlier in the day and pulled another nice smallie off it. All told I managed 12 smallies and 20 rock bass for the day, which is a solid day in my book. I also added a pretty effective fishing technique to my repertoire (slowly reeling the worm just off bottom) that I feel certain will work in other smallie waters.

This was my third nice bass off that log so I figured it deserved to be in the picture too

    I also discovered a pretty cool river. The Collins is not a wilderness river by any means, but the houses I saw were located well off the river and there weren't a lot of them. This may change farther downstream, but I was pleased with the relative lack of trash and the good water clarity. I would liked to have seen more of the river, but the strong current (which is about normal for mid-April, I've come to find out) kept me confined to about 1.5 miles of water. Next time I'll either arrange a float trip or come when the water's lower. I'd also like to figure out the best time of year to fish for muskie and throw some big lures for some really big fish.

I didn't see any muskie in the Collins, but I've got a feeling this guy has seen one



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