The Best Lake In Northern California

The Best Lake In Northern California

With 30,000 pounds of catchable rainbows planted each year, 370 miles of shoreline and almost no one on the water in the winter, Lake Shasta is tops for trout.(January 2007)

If you want to target brown trout when you're on Lake Shasta, head for the McCloud arm.
Photo courtesy of John Higley.

Of course, there are the snow sports. But if you aren't into downhill or cross-country skiing or Heaven forbid, snow boarding, what's an outdoor enthusiast with a bad case of cabin fever supposed to do?

Well, if you're an angler, how about braving the elements during a lull in the usual string of winter storms to go fishing?

If you're into trout, for example, you can try the upper Sacramento River above Shasta Lake, which was opened to year-round angling for the first time two years ago. Or you can head for the main stem Sacramento below Shasta and fish for trout on the Redding to Anderson stretch, which can be very good in the winter -- providing the flows are favorable.

But therein lies the rub. Above-normal rainfall last winter, and swollen tributaries, kept the Upper Sac high and roily all winter long. And the main stem wasn't much better. Bigger-than-average releases from Shasta kept the river unfishable for weeks on end.

What does all this mean for trout anglers? Even on streams that are open in the winter, it's hit-and-miss.

However, there's one serving on the plate that is well worth a taste nearly every day of the year. I'm talking, of course, about Lake Shasta. For my money, it is the best fishing lake in the entire Northern California region.

Here's a little background on Shasta. It's the biggest manmade body of water in the state, and the keystone impoundment of the massive Central Valley Water Project. After being constructed from 1935-45, the lake was filled in 1948.

Shasta has four major arms, named for the major streams it corrals: the Sacramento River, McCloud River, Pit River and Squaw Creek. When full, the impoundment has 370 miles of shoreline and covers more than 30,000 acres. The dam is 602 feet high. The lake is as deep as 500 feet.

As you might expect, all that water has a few fish in it. Trout and bass are abundant, and there are also landlocked king salmon, catfish and panfish.

When it comes to trout, fisheries biologist Larry Hanson, of the California Department of Fish and Game, is an expert.

Hanson said each year the department plants more than 30,000 pounds of catchable rainbows from Eagle Lake and Pit River stock. That's in addition to thousands of trout raised to magnum size in underwater cages at several resorts.

Hanson said that wild rainbows are also produced naturally in incoming rivers and watersheds with perennial streams. And there's a viable population of self-sustaining brown trout -- a favorite with anglers -- which spawn mainly in the McCloud River.

Of course, Shasta's resident trout are available every month of the year. Getting into them is just a matter of adjusting tactics to fit the situation and the season. Some anglers would say that the best fishing takes place in the fall and spring, rather than winter. However, I've had great trips in the winter as well, including a couple of off-season, overnight houseboat trips that were really fun and productive.

I remember one of those outings when the clouds hung over the lake like soiled gauze, and the banks were liberally dusted with snow. I also remember catching several nice trout while trolling from a small boat we brought along.

While the fishing might be more pleasant in the spring, winter has some spectacular days between storms. On such days the air will be crisp, the sky blue, the lake flat and the fish willing. You can't beat those conditions with a stick. Also, while there are certainly boats on the water nearly everyday of the year, in winter there usually won't be many. And like you, everyone will be there to fish. In short, winter can be a great time to target Shasta's trout.

In fact, I like the colder months for other reasons, too. The trout that are planted in the spring and hold over have several months to grow by the time winter rolls around. In other words, they'll average anywhere from 16 to 19 inches, with some going up to 22 inches and more. The DFG's Hanson noted that quite a few trout survive two or three years, and may weigh 5 or more pounds. If you hook one of those old-timers, you'll really have your hands full.

Another plus of winter fishing is the fact that the water temperature throughout the lake is favorable for trout, and many of them can be found close to the surface. They are readily accessible to most forms of fishing including bait-fishing, trolling and lure-casting.

When it comes to fishing on the move, local angler Gary Miralles has it down pat.

He owns Shasta Tackle, a company that manufactures fishing gear especially for lake fishing. Among the products are popular Cripplure and Hum Dinger wobblers, which Miralles designed, and a variety of other goodies for casting and trolling.

Miralles can see Shasta from his hilltop living room, and he obviously spends a lot of time on the lake testing products and guiding trips for eager anglers. I've fished Shasta with him in all four seasons and have noticed subtle differences in technique, depending on several factors including the weather, water temperature and distribution of the fish.

I've noticed, too, that we've never been skunked while fishing together, although some days were definitely better than others. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, here are some of Gary's ideas concerning successful winter trout fishing.

One thing Miralles stressed is the progression of fishing tactics from early to late winter.

"Usually, when it just starts getting cold, but winter hasn't yet set in with a vengeance, I've found some of the best fishing in and around areas where the baitfish -- in this case, threadfin shad -- are still hanging out in shallow water," Miralles said.

"As you know, a lot of the terrain around Shasta is steep enough to hinder a goat, and it falls abruptly off into deep water. I'll certainly try those spots when the time is right. But in the winter, I spend most of my time in the vicinity of Jones Valley."

Miralles likes this area because a lot of the points drop off gradually, so there's more c

omparatively shallow water than at most other places on the lake. Even when the trout are feeding on shad, they may be no more than 15 feet deep.

Miralles noted that winter trout often forage close to the bank in really thin water, and he adjusts his trolling methods accordingly.

"In the winter, I think it's important to pull your lures close to the bank whenever you can," he said. "I vary my approach, of course, and cover different types of water until this place or that pays off."

However Miralles might also pull an unweighted Hum Dinger close to the surface, without dodgers or anything else on the line. This technique is called top-lining and is designed to present a lure on the same plane as, or slightly above, a waiting fish. It does happen, but the trout seldom go down to take a lure because they naturally look up most of the time.

"Because it's so close to the top, I like the lure to run at least 150 to 200 feet behind the boat," he said. "That way, any fish disturbed by the boat have a chance to calm down before the lure gets there."

Another thing Miralles does to get the lure in as close to the bank as possible is to troll in a lazy "S" pattern, rather than follow a straight path parallel to the bank.

He noted that sometimes the fish are only a few feet from shore, and a lure has to be right there to do any good. While top-lining is a plausible technique, it is not the only approach he uses in the winter.

"I'm a big downrigger fan," he said. "And even in the winter, I like to use them at times. While top-lining sometimes pays off big, I still run a lure or two off downriggers. They may only be 10 or 15 feet deep, but at least I'll know exactly how far down they are. That way, when I connect with a fish, I'll know where the lure should be next time around."

While Miralles has his favorite lures for Shasta -- which, of course, he manufactures himself -- plenty of other plugs and spoons will also do the job. The main thing, according to him, is to mimic the size of the baitfish the trout are eating at the time.

Match the hatch, so to speak.

Use lures in shad and minnow patterns about the same size as the shad at that particular time. If they don't work, don't be afraid to experiment a little. Switch to bright patterns such as fluorescent orange or pink, or try red, blue or green on a gold base, and you may find a winner.

Of course, there is more than one way to fool a trout. In cooler months, you might see trout harassing baitfish. Biologist Hanson likes to cast spoons to these marauding trout.

"Man, that's a lot of fun," Hanson said. "If you find a ball of bait that's being pushed around by trout, I guarantee you'll get bit if you cast a lure like a small Krocodile or Kastmaster in their midst. It's deadly."

Hanson went on to say that you can sometimes get a handle on the whereabouts of baitfish by word of mouth, or you can drive your boat around and scan for them. Another way to find shad -- which is easier said than done -- is to watch the mergansers. Sometimes they'll be right on top of the bait, while schooling trout are feeding on the baitfish below.

Though most of what we've been talking about applies primarily to rainbow trout, this is no time to overlook the browns.

Interestingly, although browns are fall spawners, studies have proven that many of Shasta's browns leave the lake by midsummer and spend the next several months in tributary streams, especially the McCloud River. After spawning, the fish come back to the lake, arriving sometime in November or December.

I've seen some long-as-your-arm browns caught on the Pit Arm near Jones Valley Inlet. However, if you want to target browns, head for the McCloud Arm. On at least one outing with Miralles a few years ago, hefty McCloud Arm browns outnumbered rainbows two to one.

A lot of browns are caught by trollers, but some of the biggest are taken with live bait, such as minnows. For that matter, lots of nice rainbows are taken on minnows, too. The usual routine is to boat to a likely spot, then anchor and cast your minnow toward shore with just enough weight on the line -- a single split-shot will do -- to keep it down. Try retrieving the minnow slowly toward deeper water, as if you were worming for bass.

To minimize snags, you can employ a bobber. But again, you'll need some weight on the leader to keep the minnow from surfacing.

There are a couple of different ways to secure a minnow to your line and keep it lively at least for a time. I usually hook them just above the lateral line, behind the dorsal fin. Some anglers prefer to hook them through the lips.

Other things commonly used for trout on Shasta include ever-popular night crawlers, Berkley's Power Baits and salmon eggs made buoyant by the addition of a small marshmallow on the same hook.

Boats have figured prominently in this article for good reason. Shasta is huge, and fishing from shore greatly limits your options. That said, bank angling is justifiably appealing to some anglers who lack watercraft. And, thankfully, there are some good shore-fishing spots on Shasta that are readily accessible.

A few that come to mind include the area around the Centimudi Boat Ramp, Fisherman's Point, Mariner's Point and Jones Valley. There's plenty of bank access on the Sacramento Arm off Lakeshore Drive south of Lakehead and on the upper reaches of the McCloud Arm as well. In addition, several maintained hiking trails in different spots also offer shore access for anglers willing to walk a bit.

As far as fishing from the bank is concerned, I've always found winter to be one of the best times. That's because a lot of trout are close to the surface, and many of them are cruising the banks, looking for food. That puts them within easy range of your spinning tackle -- as my old sidekick Henry Miller and I found out in between squalls one overcast day, west of Shasta Dam on the banks of Dry Creek cove.

I remember that the lake was down more than 50 feet, not uncommon in early winter. The banks were slippery and steep, right down to the water's edge. Eventually, we found a relatively flat spot where other anglers had tread before us, and settled in for the long haul. Actually, we were there for only an hour, which was long enough for each of us to hook and subdue a pair of flashy rainbows in the neighborhood of 2 pounds.

If I recall correctly, we were using minnows with bobbers -- and it was great fun.

For boaters, there are seven public ramps with parking areas offering access to most portions of the lake. The ramps are located in Jones Valley, Centimudi, Bailey Cove, Antlers, Hirz Bay, Packers Bay and Sugarloaf. Use fees are required at all locations. An annual pass costs $90. Visitors without a pass pay

$8 per day.

For information, contact the Shasta Lake Visitor Information Center, located in Mountain Gate. Take the Wonderland Boulevard exit from Interstate 5. Or call (530) 275-1589.

You can also get information online at ShastaTrinity.com

For information on goods and services throughout the immediate area, contact the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association at 1-800-474-2782, or visit ShastaCascada.com

Now, I'm not going to contend that winter fishing always beats indoor activities. After all, you can only take masochism so far. But in the December-to-March time frame, there are always a few nice days when the decision to get outside is quite easy to make.

When that happens, there's no better place in the state to target winter trout than Lake Shasta. With any luck, I'll see you there.

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