Story and Photographs by Nick Roberts
Standing atop a stepladder blind-casting a jig fly into a bitter headwind that’s churning up rollers I could surf on, I feel like I’m playing the quarter slots in nearby Reno—cast, strip slowly, lift and repeat, all in hopes that Lady Luck leads a cruising Lahontan cutthroat in the direction of my fly.
To my left, guide friend Matt “Gilligan” Koles is perched on a ladder in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake launching a streamer with his 7-weight switch rod. Sporting neoprene waders and ski goggles, he’s prepared for the cold, blustery conditions that bring big fish out to play.
“Pyramid isn’t that technical a fishery,” Gilligan had explained to me while driving that morning. “Catching fish is about being at the right beach at the right time with the right wind. If they’re in close and see your fly, they’re going to eat it. They’re cutthroat.”
Like many anglers, I could fill a book with the list of times I’ve showed up at the wrong place on the wrong morning in the wrong conditions, but I would need only the back of a cocktail napkin to record those occasions when I’ve hit the ideal coordinates at precisely the right moment. Considering that Pyramid has 125 miles of shoreline, there are a hell of a lot more wrong places a fisherman could stand than right ones. That’s why I was glad to be fishing with Gilligan, who owns Gilligan’s Guide Service, in Truckee, California, and has fished the lake for 15 years. He said that late fall, when I arrived, offers the best odds of catching the kind of fish I was looking for: something from 10 to 20 pounds or more.
As hard as it was blowing on the south shore that day, that combination of chop and wind is what anglers look for when deciding which beach to set up on. Rather than jump from spot to spot, the prevailing strategy is to stake out the edge of a drop-off and wait for the fish to come to you. The wind and current sweep schools of tui chub toward the beach along with leeches, midge larvae, scuds and damselfly nymphs. The cutthroat, as if riding an incoming tide, follow bait into the shallows, where they often are caught by fly fishermen within 15 feet of their ladders. Of course, there’s no guarantee that many, if any, cutthroat will show up at the beach you’ve bet on.
“Sometimes a huge school will cruise the beach and everyone in the lineup hooks up,” Gilligan said. “Other days the fish won’t come in all at once, so guys will just catch a couple here and there.”
In late fall the fish usually come in during the afternoon, the warmest part of the day, and that’s when Gilligan and I had our best action. However, there are always exceptions, and it’s not like the one beach you’ve chosen to fish is the only one with favorable conditions. On slow days even Pyramid’s most seasoned anglers scratch their heads, faced with the same dilemma frustrated fishermen have pondered since the Stone Age: Should I stay or try a different spot? If you stick it out, you might get skunked and could miss out on a bite happening just around the next point. On the other hand, if you give up on the beach you’ve been fishing, later you may hear from some grinning guy that the place went off just minutes after you left.
When I first heard about Pyramid Lake, roughly six years ago, I was instantly intrigued. And the more I learned about the lake and the Lahontan cutthroat that inhabit its alkaline waters, the higher the lake rose on my hit list. To cross it off, I was willing to make the long trip to Nevada from my home in Asheville, North Carolina, where I guide for trout, most of which would make an easy meal for a big Lahontan cutty.
Fed by the famed Truckee River, which begins as the outflow from Lake Tahoe, Pyramid is the country’s third-largest salt lake. (It was the second-largest natural lake in the West prior to the construction of the Derby Dam, in 1903, which diverted water away from it.) When Gilligan and I crested the bare, windswept mountains surrounding Pyramid and its mirrored surface came into view, the lake appeared to be a mirage. After all, we had driven through the desert for miles without seeing even a trickle of water when, out of nowhere, the bright-blue oasis suddenly appeared, shimmering in the arid basin below. But my eyes weren’t deceiving me; there lay the largest remnant of Lake Lahontan, a prehistoric inland sea that once covered much of what is now Nevada.
Recognized as one of the state’s natural wonders, Pyramid Lake sits on the Paiute reservation, whose people have inhabited the lake’s shores for 10,000 years. The Paiutes consider the lake sacred, and it is easy to see why: Pyramid provides sanctuary amid a desolate landscape, its azure waters contrasting the brown and muted-orange hues of the surrounding desert. Strange-looking tufa-rock deposits line the lake, while one such formation in the shape of a pyramid rises from the depths along the eastern shore. The lake has an otherworldly feel. As Gilligan and I headed toward the water along a rugged two-track that resembled the dirt roads I’ve traveled in Patagonia, I felt as if we were traversing the barren surface of another planet.
The lake’s Lahontan cutthroat are as unique as the waters they inhabit and have deep spiritual meaning for the Paiute, who have relied on the fish as an essential food source.
The largest trout native to North America and one of the biggest trout species in the world, Pyramid’s strain of cutthroat evolved in the open waters of Lake Lahontan 2 million years ago, growing to be upward of 60 pounds. Because of their enormous size, John Frémont, the American explorer who “discovered” Pyramid Lake in 1844, dubbed the fish “salmon trout.” The settlers who followed Frémont did everything they could to ensure the fish’s demise. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Lahontans were netted by the hundreds and shipped by railcar to San Francisco and mining and logging camps in the Sierra Nevada. The Truckee was dammed, preventing the fish from spawning, and much of its flow was diverted for irrigation, causing Pyramid Lake’s water level to drop by 80 feet. To make matters worse, the Truckee became polluted with chemicals and sawdust, and Lake Tahoe, home at the time to huge Lahontan cutties, was stocked with non-native mackinaw, which feasted on juvenile cutthroats. By the 1940s, only a century after Frémont tasted his first “salmon trout,” all of the giant Lahontan cutthroat were gone from both lakes, and the species was declared extinct.
I often marvel at the lengths to which people—myself included— will go to catch fish. We slog through stinking muck, endure sunburns and insect bites, risk mosquito-borne illnesses and traveler’s diarrhea, sleep in airports and our trucks, venture down sketchy roads, and chance rapids capable of swallowing our drift boats whole. We do this to cast flies into the waters that ebb in our dreams. Late-season anglers at Pyramid Lake demonstrate those traits, bracing against bone-chilling wind as they methodically cast from atop their ladders, waiting for that one big Lahontan cutthroat to cruise their way.
Whether you ever land a giant from Pyramid or not, the fact that you have the chance to cast to these prehistoric super trout in their native waters is a miracle in itself. After all, 75 years ago these bruisers were believed to have vanished from the face of the Earth. They would have remained “extinct” had not a fisheries biologist in the late-1970s discovered the long-lost strain of Lahontan cutthroat living hundreds of miles outside its native range in an isolated stream on Pilot Peak, a mountain on the Nevada-Utah border. It turned out that, during the West’s fish-stocking boom of the early 20th Century, Pyramid Lake cutthroat were hauled to Pilot Peak and planted in Morrison Creek. No official record was made. Whoever stocked the creek never would have imagined that they would be saving Pyramid’s strain of giant trout from extinction.
In 1995 US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists collected cutthroat eggs from Morrison Creek and transported them to a hatchery east of Lake Tahoe. Eleven years later this “Pilot Peak strain,” an exact genetic match to the original strain of giant Lahontan cutthroat, was introduced into Pyramid Lake. Today, a decade after the initial stocking, Pilot Peak cutties are thriving in their ancestral home alongside the smaller-but-more-colorful Summit Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat, which the Paiutes have been planting in Pyramid since the mid-’70s.
While Lahontan cutthroat are still listed as a threatened species, fish in the 20-pound class are once again being caught. Considering that the first generation of stocked Pilot Peak cutthroat are only about a third of the way through their expected lifespan, Gilligan expects some to reach or exceed the size of the 40-pound world record, caught from Pyramid in 1925. The rapid growth rate of the Pilot Peak fish has astounded biologists and fishermen alike, but the biggest cause for celebration came in spring 2014 when the lake’s giant Lahontans spawned in the Truckee for the first time since 1938, ushering in a promising new era. If you get the chance to fish Pyramid, take it as often as you can. You might be the one to pick the right beach at the right time, with the wind bringing the biggest cutthroat in the world your way.