Trout on the rise
Postcard from Pyramid Lake
On a recent Sunday morning, about half an hour before sunrise, a line of 22 anglers—some sitting on top of stepladders, others standing waist-deep in the water—extended north along the shoreline at Pyramid Lake’s Pelican Point beach.
Out in the water, the Lahontan cutthroat trout were biting. As the sky to the east brightened from a pale blue to pink to yellow, the anglers cast their lines toward the sunrise, occasionally pulling in trout and releasing them back to the lake. Late arrivals rolled in, dragging ladders down the beach, while others out in the water chatted quietly with their neighbors. It was a scene of serenity, if not quite solitude.
By 7 a.m., Jose Luna, a fly fisherman from Carson City, had caught two fish. He stood with his friend Eddy Willis at the boat launch. Willis, in for the weekend from Winnemucca, was about to head out in a kayak.
“What a beautiful day. God, I can’t believe it,” Willis said. “I thought it was going to be freaking cold out here. This is perfect!”
“We showed up at 4:30 am,” Luna said. “It was 33 degrees.”
“I made a fly I called ’Merica, after I watched Donald Trump take care of the Syrian nerve gas guys,” Willis said, holding up a red, white and blue feathered fly. He finished prepping his boat—a sit-on-top kayak outfitted with a fish finder and a GoPro camera—and set off.
“You get all walks of life that come out here,” Luna said, as Willis paddled away. “It’s pretty neat. You can have executives. You can have local fishing bums. Our friends here, they’re from Utah and California, and we’re locals. But the size of the fish that are coming out of here just attracts people from all over the world.”The fall and rise of local trout
In recent years, Pyramid Lake has gained attention from far and wide for the revival of its trout fishery. The story of the demise and recovery of the lake’s Lahontan cutthroat trout, a species of great cultural importance to the local Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, is an epic tale. The abridged version is this:
Pyramid Lake’s original strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout was driven to extinction during the 1940s, in part due to decades of heavy fishing pressure and a decline in the lake’s water level. When the U.S. Reclamation Service started the Newlands irrigation project in 1903 with the construction of Derby Dam to divert water into the desert, it completely dried up nearby Lake Winnemucca and reduced the depth of Pyramid Lake. It also blocked the upstream spawn.
During the 1970s, the Tribe’s fisheries department began re-stocking the lake with a hatchery-raised strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout known as the Summit Lake strain. These fish originated from outside of the Pyramid Lake watershed and were able to survive in the lake’s saline waters, but have rarely been observed spawning here naturally, and have never grown to the legendary size of the lake’s original strain.
In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began releasing a new strain of captive-bred Lahontan cutthroat trout into Pyramid Lake. These fish, known as the Pilot Peak strain, are believed to be descendants of Pyramid Lake’s original strain of cutthroats, which were planted in a far-off stream near the border of Utah during the early 1900s and forgotten about for many years. DNA evidence supports this hypothesis, and since being released back into Pyramid Lake, Pilot Peak trout have thrived. In 2014, they were observed spawning in the Truckee River for the first time. Pyramid Lake Fisheries has since begun raising the Pilot Peak strain as well, and each year, the fish grow larger and larger.
Luna, who has been fishing Pyramid Lake since 2001, said the difference is noticeable. He’s not complaining.
“The fish that are coming out right now are just humongous—huge," Luna said. “Five years ago, you’d get an eight pounder and be like, ’Oh my God, it’s an eight pounder.’ In the last few years, They’ve gone from eight to 10, to 15, to 20 pounds. I caught my first 20 pounder two years ago. Like, holy crap.”
As the Pilot Peak trout grow larger, so too do the crowds of people fishing along Pyramid’s shoreline. According to Debra Harry, business officer for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, the tribe sold 40,211 fishing permits in 2016. The numbers aren’t in yet for 2017, but according to many who fish there, the beaches this year have been quite crowded—especially after damage from January storms resulted in the closure of many of Pyramid’s fishing areas.Fishing culture
Rob Anderson, a local fishing guide, has been fishing at Pyramid Lake for 20 years and has noticed many changes in fishing culture during that time. First, there was the rise of ladder fishing, a technique that is fairly unique to Pyramid Lake, which Anderson said grew popular during the late 1990s. Step ladders, many of which are customized with seats, wheels and other accessories, keep the anglers out of the cold water and make casting easier.
Over the years, Anderson has noticed an increase in the popularity of fly fishing at Pyramid Lake. He has seen catch-and-release fishing become more common, and derbies—in which fish are killed and brought to a checkpoint to be weighed and measured—have lost favor among many anglers who prefer to see the trout live.
“I think that we, as human beings, have evolved into the attitude that there’s more of us than there are of [the fish],” Anderson said. “There’s a lot more of that catch-and-release mentality, or picking out a specific fish or animal to harvest and planning to do the right thing with it. When I was growing up, there was nothing like that.”
Most of Anderson’s clients come from California, but he has also guided for visitors from all over the world, especially in the last few years as word of Pyramid Lake’s trout has spread. Nevertheless, he said that there is a tight-knit community of fishermen out at the lake, and that’s one of his favorite things about spending time there.
“It’s pretty cool, the camaraderie,” Anderson said. “It’s funny, you get up at four in the morning and run out there, you’re tired, you’ve had half a cup of coffee. Some guy moves his ladder in a little too close to you, and you want to cut his head off. Two hours later, you find out you’ve known the guy for 10 years, you played golf with him a couple of weeks ago. It’s kind of a neat thing.”
The world record for a hook-and-line caught Lahontan cutthroat trout, a 41-pound fish, was set in 1925, before the demise of Pyramid Lake’s original population. Many hope that this record will someday be beat. The modern-day fish-of-record, brought in on Jan. 19, 2014, was a 25.25 pounder, 35 inches long.
Bob Wheeler, a retired timber faller from Susanville, fishes the lake three or four times per week. His personal best, he said, was 19 pounds, 34 inches long—and as he continues the hunt for the Big One, Pyramid Lake is not a bad place to hang out.
“I love the scenery,” Wheeler said. “The sunrises in the morning are just phenomenal. The people, I know everybody out there. You go out there, and there’s no stress in the day. You leave everything at home. You fish all day long, and any cast can be that big bite. That lake’s just got you.”