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Most native cutthroat trouts in the western United States are insect-eaters, and seldom grow bigger than about five pounds as river residents, somewhat larger in lakes. The mind-boggling exceptions are the native trout of the Great Basin, which adapted to become fish-eaters and grew to enormous sizes in historical times.
The largest of all cutthroats, indeed of all native American trout, is the Lahontan subspecies, Onchorrynchus clarki henshawi, of northwestern Nevada and eastern California. The still-standing rod and reel record was a 41-pound specimen taken from Pyramid Lake in 1925; others recorded by early commercial netters sometimes exceeded 60 pounds.
Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake are today’s remaining remnants of the much larger ancient Lake Lahontan, an inland sea the size of Lake Erie, which formed perhaps 75,000 years ago and covered most of present-day western Nevada. At some point during its ice-age peaks, migrating cutthroats from the Snake/Columbia River system apparently crossed over the low-lying passes separating the two basins. They evolved in isolation thereafter, along with smaller sucker-like fish which became their forage base, allowing them to reach such giant sizes. In drier, more recent eras, the ancient lake shrank considerably and changed character from lush forested surroundings to the bleak but beautiful desert settings of today.
The Lahontan basin encompasses some 45,000 square miles, and includes the Humboldt River to the east, the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers draining the Sierras to the west, and a few streams to the north. As the Lahontan cutthroats spread throughout this vast region, they evolved into notably different forms that some scientists believe are distinct subspecies adapted to different conditions, varying greatly in size, appearance, habits and genetic identifiers. The granddaddy of them all was "Big Red," the giant yellow-orangish strain that developed in present-day Pyramid Lake, an hour north of Reno.
When white explorers first reached the area, they found it occupied by a tribe of northern Paiute Indians known as "cui-ui-eaters," who had developed fishing for suckers and cutthroats as the mainstay of their economy. The big cutthroats were vulnerable to netting when they swam up the Truckee River to spawn. Indeed, they apparently migrated up and down the river all the way to its source, Lake Tahoe, which once had a thriving cutthroat population of its own.
White settlers soon established commercial fisheries on these lakes, netting tons of enormous fish for market. But it wasn’t the fishing that spelled the doom of the Lahontans so much as the depletion of the Truckee by water diversion as the area developed, degrading both the quantity and quality of water entering Pyramid Lake. The Indians, whose reservation wholly enclosed the area, eventually found themselves owning a dead lake.
The death blow to the Pyramid Lake Lahontans was administered by the US Bureau of Reclamation, which constructed Derby Dam in 1905 to irrigate the Carson Desert for agriculture. About 40 miles upstream of the Truckee’s discharge into the lake, the dam reduced river flows some 50 percent, causing the lake to drop by 78 feet between 1905 and 1967. It also deprived the trout of access to upstream spawning grounds, and exposed a delta which completely blocked the migration of both cui-ui and trout to the river. Later channelization by the Corps of Engineers made the destruction complete. The last known spawning run of Pyramid Lake Lahontans was in 1938; by 1940, the renowned trout fishery there had vanished.
It was brought back by conscientious state wildlife officials, Endangered Species Act mandates, and the determination of the Pyramid Lake Tribe to reclaim their water rights and restore the fishery. In 1974 the tribe booted out the state government, which had resisted the effort for years, and took over fisheries responsibilities and revenues themselves. They then filed and won extensive legal battles against the federal government, forcing acceptance of its trust responsibilities to the Indians and the fishery. Several federal agencies contributed to the restoration effort, led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In 1990, the tribe finally secured a settlement of its water rights claims, including better-timed flows, fish passages, and new storage capacity for enhancement of the fishery. The future of Big Red is now secure, and limited harvest is permitted around a 19 to 24-inch slot under the tribal management program (permits are $6 per day).
It is not, however, exactly the same fish. The original Pyramid Lake strain was extinct when recovery efforts began, and stocked fish from other sources were used instead. They are pure Lahontans and very close to the originals, but evolving with less abundant food resources, apparently lack the genes to grow as large. Today, although five-pounders are common, they seldom grow larger than about 15. Fishery managers are hopeful, though, that with gradual repair of the Truckee River and continuing evolution of this highly adaptable fish, the days of frequent 20-pounders may come again.
On your first trip to this unusual place in search of a Lahontan, it would be wise to employ a guide with a boat. There are only two approved by the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, both highly qualified and cooperative with each other. George Molino, a Shoshone-Paiute, runs the Pyramid Lake Store and has 12 years of experience guiding the fishery, usually by trolling, but also fly fishing from both boat and shore. Lex Moser, an Orvis-endorsed guide from Reno, grew up fishing for Lahontans and specializes more on the fly fishing and scenic-tour side. Using refined fish-finder and float-tubing-off-the-boat techniques, he can focus on either numbers or trophy size, with 15-fish days typical. This is a winter fishery, closed in summer, with prime time from October through April.
You can also fish the lake on your own, from shore or belly-boat. The Reno Fly Shop, whose owner Dave Standley has long been a supporter of Lahontan restoration, has vast staff experience at Pyramid. Local expert Terry Barron works there, and shared some key tips from his upcoming book, The Lake of 10,000 Casts: Techniques On Flyfishing Pyramid Lake (due out this winter from David Communications). As his title suggests, you should expect to do a whole lot of casting if you want to succeed on Pyramid Lake.
The most effective fly is the old tried and true Woolly Worm in sizes from #8 to #2, probably imitating a dragonfly nymph, fished deep with medium-fast strips. Black and purple are the most popular colors. Streamers like Zonkers and Clousers will also work – Lahontans are pisciverous, after all – but most sources say not as consistently. "Big Reds" occasionally come up for dries during fall and spring callibaetis hatches, but your basic approach is fishing the bottom. High-density, fast-sinking shooting heads are regular issue here, with a longer rod in larger sizes to throw them, especially in windy conditions. Short leaders with 2X to 3X tippets are appropriate. You have to strike hard to penetrate the Lahontans’ bony, toothy mouths, so barbless hooks are more effective as well as more suitable for catch-and-release. The same techniques apply to Walker Lake southeast of Reno, which also has a healthy population averaging two to four pounds.
The other important thrust of Lahontan recovery has been in the upper Humboldt watershed of northern Nevada, where several fine small-stream restoration projects have been completed (now totaling 160 Lahontan populations basin-wide). According to USFWS recovery plan coauthor Pat Coffin, the visiting fisherman’s best bets are the Mary’s River, the North Fork of the Humboldt, and small lakes in the west Ruby Mountains like Hidden and Verdi (with 29-inch specimens). There are local guides, but none who qualify as expert fly fishers. For advice on fishing the Elko-Humboldt County area, contact Matt Holford, local Trout Unlimited (TU) president and winner of TU’s "Conservationist of the Year" award. His group also maintains a site on the Internet with pictures of 26 to 30-pound fish.
For those who would like to support continuing Lahontan recovery, tax-deductible contributions are recommended to Northeast Nevada Trout Unlimited which has a dedicated Lahontan Restoration Project Fund to support its stream improvements. Contact Holford for further information. – Hugh Gardner.