Shasta Is Back; Explore The Big Lake In A Houseboat

The following appears in the July issue of California Sportsman:

A Lake Shasta houseboat adventure is a bucket list adventure for any California freshwater angler. (CAL KELLOGG)

By Cal Kellogg

The boat was beached on a point in Big Backbone Cove. The point was made up almost entirely of broken rock about the size of my fist. The water was clear and the bottom fell away quickly. I guessed the water directly behind the boat was 20 feet deep and I suspected a halfway competent cast could reach water 40-plus feet deep.

My wife Gena and I – along with Lucy the Labrador – had boarded the rental houseboat the afternoon before and it was my first morning on the water. It was about 7 and I was enjoying a hot cup of coffee when I decided to pitch out a line. The question was what should I use: A plastic worm for bass or maybe a spoon for trout?

I settled on the all-around catchall freshwater bait: a nightcrawler. I had eight cans of ’crawlers in the fridge, plus 2 pounds of white prawns and a pound of liver. Gena and I planned to spend a lot of time on the back of the boat relaxing and soaking bait.

I rigged the worm to drift 12 feet beneath a big slip bobber. With the water so deep and clear, I was thinking trout, but I figured a spotted bass might take a swipe at a worm too. I tossed the bobber out and finished my first cup of coffee. I headed back into the galley, filled my cup again and returned to the stern just in time to see the bobber disappear beneath the rippled surface!

Picking up the rod, I reeled in several feet of slack and came tight to the yet unidentified fish. At first it felt substantial and then it felt downright huge. At times the fish bulldogged; at other times it shook its head violently. And several times it took wild runs and smoked braid off the reel.

Gradually I wore the fish down and yelled for Gena to bring me the net, which was still stowed up front. The suspense was intense. I was going to let the fish go but I wanted to see what it was. A huge rainbow? A trophy postspawn spotted bass?

When the fish finally materialized off the starboard corner, I was shocked to see it was a big, bad channel cat!

Don’t get me wrong: I love fishing for catfish and had planned to spend a fair amount of time over the next few days targeting them. But I didn’t expect one to bite in broad daylight while cruising 12 feet down over really deep water. But such is the way Gena and I kicked off our May anniversary trip aboard a Lake Shasta houseboat.

Cal Kellogg is a regular visitor to massive Shasta Lake, where he tests his angling skills against brown trout and many other species. After a wet and wild winter the reservoir is essentially full, making a trip here worthwhile. (CAL KELLOG

EVEN WHEN SHASTA LAKE was 150 feet down during the peak of the drought, this was still a massive body of water, but there is something special about being on the lake when it’s brimful like it is right now – with its 4,552,000 acre-feet of water and a mind- boggling 365 miles of shoreline!

Gena and I have piloted our own Shasta houseboat several times, but the fact the lake was full clinched it for us when it came time to choose a destination for our annual trip. I was coming off a long winter guiding season and we were both looking to kick back and relax.

Fishing would be an added bonus, but we wanted to keep the fishing casual and employ techniques like drifting the aforementioned slip bobber off the back of the boat while enjoying a cup of steaming hot brew.

If you’ve ever fished Shasta, you know it’s one of the best lakes in the state. If you haven’t visited the big impoundment, this is a great year to make it happen, since the lake is full. As I said earlier, even when it’s drawn down significantly, Shasta is still huge and it still fishes well, but there is something special about navigating the largest reservoir in California when it is full or nearly full. When the water level is high, the beauty of the lake is at its apex and elbow room is plentiful, even on busy weekends.

Shasta’s iconic I-5 Bridge is a great spot to start a fishing adventure because it marks the convergence of the Sacramento, Pit and McCloud Arms of the lake. (CAL KELLOGG)

SHASTA HAS THREE MAJOR arms and a massive main body, so it really has four distinct personalities. The main body is huge and deep. When trolling the main body, your sonar unit will often register water in excess of 300 feet deep.

The Sacramento River Arm is the longest arm and runs basically from north to south. Back when I ran big aluminum trout sleds, I’d leave the top end of the Sacramento Arm running at 35 miles per hour and it would take me about 30 minutes to reach the dam, which should give you an idea of the length of the Sac Arm.

The Sacramento Arm features lots of points and large coves, such as the O’Brien Inlet and Waters Gulch. These coves are themselves larger than a lot of small- to medium-sized California reservoirs.

The McCloud River Arm meanders downward from the northeast. A lot of folks feel the McCloud is the most visually stunning arm of the lake. It features big rocky peaks and expanses of dark timber. The famous Shasta Caverns caves are located on the McCloud Arm.

The McCloud typically features the clearest water in the lake, although the Sacramento can be exceptionally clear too. When north winds blow, the McCloud Arm, with its limited coves to hide within, can be inhospitable to both anglers and houseboaters. As with navigating any body of water, when boating on Shasta, you’ll want to stay informed about weather conditions and plan accordingly.

The Pit River Arm comes in from the east. Since the Pit flows through agricultural land, the arm’s water tends to be high in nutrients and therefore cloudier than the water found in the rest of the lake.

The really interesting thing about the Pit Arm is the standing timber it features. When most reservoirs in California were built, all the timber was logged off before the terrain was flooded. When fishing around the thousands of acres of standing trees in the Pit, it feels like you’re boating a lake in the Ozarks rather than a Golden State canyon reservoir.

With Shasta’s high water level this spring, bass anglers are having a heyday working submerged trees and brush. (CAL KELLOGG)

DIVERSITY IS THE WORD that best describes Lake Shasta’s fishery. The lake boasts largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Spots outnumber the other two bass species, but smallmouth to 5 pounds and largemouth to 8-plus pounds are common.

I’ll never forget one evening when I was catching small spotted bass on a topwater plug when a truly massive largemouth exploded out of nowhere and slammed a 12-inch spot I’d hooked. The largemouth was hooked for a nanosecond. It jumped and shook loose. When I inspected the plug, one of the hooks was missing and apparently still pinned in the largemouth’s lip!

Anglers who prefer targeting coldwater fish can chase several species of rainbow trout, big brown trout, landlocked kings and kokanee.

In addition to the bass, trout and salmon, Shasta houses a strong crappie population, bluegill and lots of channel cats, which can range up to 30 or more pounds. I’ve always been impressed by the number of catfish the lake has to offer. I’ve caught them in every area of the lake, in every season of the year.

Finally, there is a reproducing population of seldom-caught white sturgeon within the confines of Shasta. I was out on a kayak for trout in November a couple years back, and there was a massive splash about 100 yards behind me. I turned in time to see a 6-plus-foot sturgeon catapult out of the water a second time. The fish looked and behaved just like the monsters you see jump in the California Delta.

I’ve also marked Shasta sturgeon on my sonar. Some of these fish were swimming in the middle of the water column, but others appeared “stuck” to the bottom, making the sort of mark you’d associate with a feeding sturgeon down in the Delta or in the saltwater of Suisun Bay.

Clearly these fish can be caught, since once in a while a catfish angler hooks one. Yet, as far as I can figure, nobody has ever cracked the case of how and where to hook them consistently.

This big Shasta catfish inhaled a nightcrawler late at night. Fortunately, the author tethered his rod to the houseboat’s rail before going to sleep! (CAL KELLOGG)

OK, IT’S CLEAR THAT Shasta is big and full of fish; let’s talk about how to hook up. I’m not going to share every nuance, but I’ll broadly detail the basic approaches and areas to give you something to work with should you decide to give the lake a visit this summer or fall.

For big numbers of bass, the soft plastics – namely, Mother’s Finest finesse worms and 4-inch Senkos – are royalty. If you want up-to-the- minute advice on the colors you should be working, give the folks at Phil’s Propellers (530-275-4939) in Redding a ring.

Obviously, other bass baits can be fished. Standard reaction-type baits in the form of crankbaits, ripbaits and spinnerbaits hook fish. Anglers interested in going big can toss swimbaits with success. I’ve had a wonderful time hooking Shasta bass on topwater poppers and walking baits. The average bass caught on soft plastics runs 10 to 13 inches. The topwater fish tend to start about 14 inches and range up from there.

You’ll catch bass all over the lake, but the standing timber and clay banks up in the Pit Arm are the most iconic stretch of the lake for chasing bass, and it’s the area most likely to give up a whopper largemouth.

For rainbows, trolling is king. During the cold months you can work the top 15 feet of the water column with leadcore and toplines. As the surface gets warmer in the late spring, you’ll have to follow the trout as they move into deeper, cooler water using downriggers.

The main forage in Shasta is threadfin shad, so shad-imitating spoons are the No. 1 offering when targeting the lake’s epic rainbow population. Hoochies and dodgers, trolling flies, Apex Lures and minnow plugs work well too.

Rainbows are spread all over the lake. The Sacramento Arm and main body are always a good bet, as is the area where the Pit and McCloud Arms meet at the I-5 Bridge. Shasta is a big body of water, and the rainbows can play hide and seek at times.

The best strategy is to troll in the 2.5 to 3.5 mph range, use your sonar and stay on the move until you find an area holding fish, and then stay on them the best you can.

The landlocked king salmon population at Shasta tends to cycle up and down. When the action is good, 5-plus-pounders are common. These fish fight hard and provide great table fare. Rigged shad, plug-cut anchovies and hoochies teamed with dodgers are top tempters for kings. Generally, you’ll find the kings holding from 30 to 60 feet deep in the main body or in coves connected to the main body.

One mistake would-be king anglers make at Shasta is ignoring the top of the water column. Often the kings will move up early and I’ve gotten several salmon over 5 pounds rolling shad on one or two colors of leadcore.

Shad-imitating spoons are a top choice for Shasta anglers targeting trout and landlocked king salmon, but not the only one. Kellogg picked up the rainbow at right on a watermelon-patterned trolling spoon. “If you haven’t visited the big impoundment, this is a great year to make it happen, since the lake is full,” he writes. (CAL KELLOGG)

Kokanee were reintroduced into Shasta a few years back and there is now a catchable population of these landlocked sockeye salmon that range up to 17 inches. Standard kokanee tactics produce results, but the fishery is still forming, so there is no defined kokanee fishing area. The best advice is to work the main body and watch the sonar until you cut a school of sockeye.

Channel cats will gobble a range of baits from worms to live minnows. I’ve had great luck soaking nightcrawlers both off the bottom and under slip bobbers. Crappie can be tough to find in the large impoundment, but fish to 3 pounds are possible. Minnows work great for prospecting, but once you find them small jigs work well too. I’ve caught crappie all over the lake, but the Pit Arm’s timber is an obvious place to explore, as is the entire lake. And now being full, it’s that much better. CS

Editor’s note: Cal Kellogg is a longtime Northern California-based outdoors writer. Subscribe to his YouTube channel Fish Hunt Shoot Productions at youtube .com/user/KelloggOutdoors.


Day fishing at Shasta Lake is fun and the lake is dotted with boat ramps to launch your craft, but for me, the best way to fish the lake is from a rented houseboat. A houseboat vacation on Shasta is a classic California getaway, and it’s a bucket list trip for Golden State freshwater anglers, for sure. Several companies rent houseboats on the big lake ( has links). During the summer, rates are high and it can be very hot on the lake.
I like to plan my trips during the offseason, when rates are at the lowest and boat traffic is at a minimum. Early spring is a good time, but October and November are my hands-down favorite months for houseboat fishing.

You can catch plenty of fish tossing lines off your houseboat, but if you want to get really serious, bring your boat or kayak. Use the houseboat as your mothership and get after the fish from smaller craft! CK