The first time I saw a trout as long as my arm follow my lure almost to my waders, I squealed like a kid. I clearly saw the speckled black spots along its flanks, the large and iridescent blotch of pink across its cheeks and the whiteness of its open maw. I watched in awe as the dark-shouldered fish opened its jaws to snatch my one-ounce spoon, only to wheel around at the last moment, a manhole-size swirl on the surface the only evidence of its existence.
While that trout and I didn’t connect, from that moment I was hooked. I now understood why barren, high-desert Pyramid Lake draws trout pilgrims from across the country in search of one of freshwater fishing’s trophies: huge Lahontan cutthroat trout that trace their ancestry to the Pleistocene Age, when ancient Lake Lahontan covered some 8,500 square miles of northwest Nevada, California and southern Oregon.
To twist a line from a certain famous dinosaur movie, this is a fishing adventure 10,000 years in the making. (To be fair, the Jurassic period was 145 milllion years ago.) However, Pyramid Lake — a remnant of Lake Lahontan — in it’s more recent history has been fraught with greed, stupefying water management and a fisheries plan based on displaying as many big, dead fish as possible. It got so bad that following a brief boom-period of amazing trout fishing in the 1920s and ’30s, the lake’s Lahontan cutthroat was declared extinct in 1941 (more on that to come).
Trout Fishing Mecca
While a mere shadow of its prehistoric enormity, Pyramid Lake is the largest natural lake in Nevada, covering about 125,000 acres of high desert with a maximum depth of 350 feet. It’s slightly larger than its famous neighbor Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California/Nevada border. Lake Tahoe’s crystal-blue waters flow through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas into Pyramid Lake via the Truckee River. Along the way, the water picks up sediment and minerals, giving Pyramid a greenish tinge and salinity levels about 1/6 that of ocean water, prompting some anglers to call it “Salt Pond.” Pyramid is a terminus lake, meaning there is no outflow; water leaves only through evaporation. Less than an hour’s drive from Reno, the lake rests entirely within the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.
Here, every “next cast” — whether fly-fishing from a ladder or float tube, chucking large spoons from shore or trolling — can result in a cutthroat of 20 pounds or more. It takes a 10-pounder to get even a wry smile of recognition from neighboring anglers, and a 15-pound fish may elicit a half-hearted thumbs-up. Giant cutthroat catches are fairly routine today, yet they pale in comparison to how it was before the fishery collapsed. Much bigger trout were the norm; the largest was a 42-pound, 39-inch specimen landed by native angler Johnny Skimmerhorn around 1925.
Today, visitors get their trout fix in a variety of ways. Many serious freshwater fly anglers place Pyramid at or near the top of their bucket list. The lake is famous for its “ladder fishing,” where fly casters wade out into waist-deep waters, then climb onto ladders to gain some elevation and visibility. Some of these are custom platforms sporting rod and net holders, stripping baskets and even stadium-style chairs, set out in the best locations by local guides. Some anglers simply haul a stepladder from The Home Depot, plant it in an open spot and make it work as best they can. When ladder fishing is in full swing, spots fill up early, and popular beaches can be lined shoulder to shoulder with elevated anglers.
Perching yourself above the water offers several advantages, the most basic being comfort. The largest cutthroats often cruise near shore during the harshest months of winter. The mantra among Pyramid anglers is “the worse the weather, the better the fishing.” You can usually count on water in the 40s, wind in the 30s and air temperatures in the 20s — not an environment conducive to spending eight hours chest-deep.
Whether fly or spin fishing, getting above the surface helps with casting and line management. In addition, although this is mostly blind casting to a shelf or drop-off where big cutthroat hunt, these fish sometimes present sight-casting opportunities. A little extra elevation can help anglers spot fish and make accurate presentations.
Pyramid’s shoreline is not solely the domain of fly casters. The cutthroat grow big and fat on the native tui chub, a member of the carp family that reaches 10 inches. Lahontan cutthroat are used to eating large prey, and they respond well to a wide range of metal spoons, plastic tube baits, marabou jigs and other artificials.
In addition to “heavy metal,” spin anglers find success casting and retrieving plastic tubes and swim baits, along with marabou feather jigs. Jigging for trout from a boat, tube or kayak also can be highly effective during certain times of the year. No scent of any type is allowed at Pyramid Lake, including salt infusion or chemical scents commonly added to “plastics” during the manufacturing process, and a tribal ranger might well give your terminal tackle a sniff. Also, hooks on lures and flies must be barbless, or the barbs must be completely pinched down.
Although Pyramid Lake boasts endless miles of shoreline, access points from the road are limited. And the entire eastern shoreline is accessible only to members of the Paiute tribe. As a result, popular shore spots such as Sandhole, Wino Beach, Popcorn Beach, Pelican Point, Blockhouse and Spider Point can get crowded, particularly on weekends. The early bird gets the trout, so guides often stake out places for clients and plant their ladders long before even a hint of first light creeps over the horizon. Casting begins an hour before sunrise.
Pyramid Lake is not strictly a shoreline fishery; many fly and spin anglers take to kayaks, float tubes and boats, which can be particularly effective when baitfish school up and jigging is the preferred technique. Plenty of guides and boaters target large fish by trolling big spoons and diving plugs. When the trout are spread out all over the lake, trolling is a great way to cover ground.
Todd Keller, of Pyramid Lake Guides, says finding the best “where” and “how” to fish the lake depends largely on seasonal and other conditions. “I’ve consistently had great trips in the weeks following the opener in October, positioning myself over schools of fish in my float tube and jigging for them,” Keller says. “I’ve rarely had any issues with wind or bad weather during this time, either.” Keller adds that shore fishing generally remains strong from December through April. As air and water temperatures warm with longer and hotter days, the trout generally move deeper, and the edge shifts to boat anglers.
Cold and windy weather can bring big trout into the shallows and within reach of ladder and shoreline anglers. Conversely, a warm spell or sustained high pressure can push the fish into deeper waters. When this happens, shore anglers have the most success in the early and late hours of the day, in locations where the shore provides easy casting access to deeper drop-offs.
Back From the Brink
If you’re wondering how anglers are enjoying a robust trophy fishery for a species that was declared extinct more than 80 years ago, you’re not alone. Surviving: The Story of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, a documentary film by Reuben Kimmelman, does an excellent job of unpacking the demise of Pyramid Lake, its miraculous recovery, and the hard work being done to ensure this fishery and way of life for the Paiute nation continues.
Pyramid Lake’s downfall began in the early 1900s, when Nevada U.S. Senator Francis G. Newlands pushed through the construction of the Derby Dam, diverting about half of the Truckee River’s flow to supply nearby towns and farms. Over time, taking from Pyramid’s only water source resulted in a catastrophic 80-foot drop in the lake’s level, preventing the Lahontan cutthroat from entering the river to spawn.
For a while, this created a “fool’s gold” fishery, where natives and visitors alike marveled at consistent catches of larger and larger fish. They didn’t grasp the reason: fewer fish competing for food and no juveniles “diluting” the population. The fishery went from feast to famine quickly, leading to the extinction of the Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat. The last recorded spawning run occurred in 1938, and three years later they were gone. Fortunately, their “extinction” proved temporary.
The tide began to turn after the cui-ui, a native sucker fish whose habitat was Lake Lahontan and is found only in Pyramid, was listed as an Endangered Species in 1967. The Paiutes secured funding for a hatchery program to raise and repopulate the cui-ui, which had sustained the tribe for generations. (Paiute translates to “cui-ui eaters.”) With dogged effort and litigation by tribal leaders, an agreement was reached in 1973 to reduce the amount of water diverted at Derby Dam to maintain the lake at levels that could sustain these important fish.
A strain of cutthroat trout from Nevada’s Summit Lake was introduced to Pyramid during the 1970s, and these fish thrive today as Summit-strain cutthroat. Although they are established and flourishing with the help of hatchery-assisted breeding, they don’t live as long or grow to the size of the original Lahontan cutthroats. This is where fate took a fortuitous turn.
In the late 1970s, Don Duff, a fisheries biologist working for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, came across some strange trout in a tiny, brush-choked creek at the base of Pilot Peak. He jigged a few up to study and eventually moved the fish to a series of small rearing ponds constructed by Steve Doudy, owner of the ranch land where the fish were discovered.
Biologists tested the fishes’ DNA against preserved museum samples and determined that they were from a small population of genetically pure Lahontan cutthroats. How did they end up in a trickle of water 400-plus miles away in a neighboring state? Nobody knows for certain, but theories include the intentional transplanting of fish to Utah by railroad workers in the late 1800s, or the accidental transporting of fertilized Lahontan eggs or fry in the fresh water supplies carried by steam locomotives, which were sometimes dumped and replenished at stops along the route. Either way, the discovery presented a rare opportunity to right a wrong.
Battles over water between the tribe, the state of Nevada and the Department of Interior continued, and in 1991, Congress passed the Truckee River Settlement Act, providing additional protections for the lake. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that an expanded hatchery program paved the way for the reintroduction of the “new” Pilot Peak-strain of Lahontan cutthroats to their ancestral home.
“These fish grow incredibly fast, with all the available forage in the lake,” says Ryan Dangerfield of Pyramid Lake Guides. “Tagging studies have shown that these fish can grow at the rate of 5 pounds per year, with 4-year-old fish eclipsing 20 pounds.”
Anglers began catching XXL-size trout in 2011, confirming that the Pilot Peak fish had taken hold and anglers could again cast for that “fish of a lifetime” with reasonable expectations of catching one. Not wanting to botch this crack at redemption, the Paiutes, state fisheries managers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working together on various programs to sustain and manage the population of both cutthroat strains. The tribe runs a hatchery at the lake for Summit-strain trout, which are coaxed into a manmade stream created by pumping water from the lake into a shoreside pond. The overflowing cold water runs down a channel to the lake and, voila, instant spawning tributary. The released juvenile trout imprint on this spot and return to the hatchery’s front door as adults ready to spawn.
The eggs of Pilot Peak-strain fish are collected, fertilized and raised at a separate hatchery run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 80 miles away in Gardnerville, Nevada. During increasingly rare winters when the Sierras are blessed with heavy snow and runoff, trout are also able to make it past the Truckee River delta to spawn in their natural habitat.
Today the Paiutes closely manage the fishery. Anglers must purchase tribal fishing, boating and camping permits, and all guides must be approved and permitted by the tribe. Trout season runs from Oct. 1 to June 30, and regulations allow keeping two fish per day between 17 and 20 inches, or one larger than 24 inches and one slot fish. Most anglers, however, treat this jewel as a catch-and-release fishery.
While the outlook might seem as rosy as a cutthroat’s gill plates, Pyramid Lake continues to face serious challenges. Among them, a drought that continues to grip Western states, the effects of climate change and humankind’s propensity for repeating our worst mistakes. Still, anglers are an optimistic lot, so we collectively hope for the best for Pyramid — just as we hope for a 20-pound trout at least once in our life times.
Will Pyramid Lake’s Lahontan cutthroat ever fully regain their former glory and once again mesmerize anglers with tales of 40-pounders? If movies have taught us anything, it’s that, given the chance, life finds a way.
FLY-FISHING PYRAMID LAKE
By Joseph Evans
For the last three years, I happily braved 4 a.m. wake-up calls, cracked lips, raw hands, no cell service and no showers to fish Pyramid Lake, or “Salt Pond,” as many anglers call it because of the alkaline content in its water. I go to the desert to fish for the largest strain of cutthroat trout on the planet, the Lahontan cutthroat, which can grow to more than 20 pounds.
This fishery is most prominent during winter and early spring, when the fish are shallow and easy to target with a fly fished from shore. The fish take bigger flies until January with fewer eats, and then the large fish show up to spawn, followed by numbers of smaller fish in the spring. My favorite time of year to fish the lake is February, hoping for a combination of “good” weather and ideal water temperatures to bring the fish in tight. This year, we did have good weather — sunny, calm and 65 degrees — but bad weather for the fish, as they were not on the move whatsoever. We ditched our typical tactics, hoping for a storm to roll in.
When fly-fishing Pyramid Lake, there are two options. One is selecting a sandy beach and wedging a stepladder into the sand a few feet from shore for extra distance and better visibility compared with standing. With a full sinking line, anglers dredge the bottom with a big fly upfront kicking up sand as a foam beetle pattern floats up behind with each aggressive strip and sudden pause. The other method is indicator fishing, which is basically bobber fishing. Watching bobbers drop is our go-to technique. It can be effective off the beach, but we primarily fish bobbers around rocky structures where the midges hatch most. The technique is simple, if not the sexiest.
When indicator fishing on still water, we typically use Scandi floating lines to roll-cast two size-12 chironomids patterns with a 15-foot leader and a big bobber that we can see in the waves. Because of the tough conditions this year, we started fishing an hour before sunrise, stripping a tungsten streamer and a beetle on a floating line, covering the upper section of the water column. This worked best at night — fishing is allowed for one hour after sunset — so the trout could see the silhouette of our flies above them, under the bright moon. The movement varied from the slow-rising beach beetle, but we never snagged bottom, and the bites were enticing before bobber-watching began again at sunrise.
The best way to find success on the banks of Pyramid Lake is to just keep fishing. Cast through every hour of light and each mile per hour of wind. You may not be using the perfect fly or technique, but it won’t matter when a 20-pound cutthroat swims by.