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Lahontan Cutthroat Trout go from threatened to plentiful in ancient Northern Nevada lake.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Lake Operations hatchery above & below)
If you’re looking for new and different Nevada angling opportunities this year, try lugging a ladder for Lahontans.
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, one of 13 cutthroat subspecies in the American West and designated as Nevada’s state fish, were once listed as threatened, but are now on the rebound at Pyramid Lake thanks to cooperative efforts of the federal government and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
Back in the Pleistocene era, ancient Lake Lahontan covered a large part of what is now northwest Nevada desert. When the glaciers disappeared and the climate changed, isolated lakes remained—deep, cold, and alkaline—such as Pyramid Lake, which is fed by the Truckee River. There is no outlet, and water leaves only by evaporation, thus giving anglers a fishing pond 26 miles long, five to 10 miles wide, and 350 feet deep.
Because of its salinity (one sixth as salty as sea water), fish had to adapt or die. “Lahontan Cutthroat evolved into a fish able to withstand environmental extremes that today readily kill other species,” says biologist Craig Spring of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Trout are a resilient and adaptive species,” adds Lisa Heki, Manager of the FWS Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex, an entity authorized more than 50 years ago to mitigate the loss of the Pyramid Lake fishery and provide oversight for recovery of the Lahontan Cutthroat. “[Terminus] lake systems like Pyramid are rare, probably only 10 like this around the world, and the health of this particular ecosystem has improved greatly in two decades,” Heki adds.
Her hatchery complex is involved from start to finish in raising Lahontan fingerlings (three to four inches long for stocking) and supplying some 200,000 to 300,000 of them to annually re-stock that Pyramid Lake. “Because of the lake’s continuing freshwater inflow, lots of zooplankton, and a population of chubs and suckers to prey on, Lahontans in Pyramid Lake can get big quickly,” she says.
Pauite tribal environmental director John Mosely says the equation is a basic one: “River flow determines water quality for the lake, and a healthy Truckee River will feed a healthy Pyramid Lake which, in turn, will support a population of healthy fish.”
The Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office says the lake version of the fish, endemic to Northern Nevada’s Lahontan basin (and also found in eastern California and southern Oregon), can reach more than 30 inches long by feeding on aquatic insects and baitfish over their up to 14-year lifespan. The tui chub minnow is the most abundant fish in Pyramid Lake and, as such, is the primary prey of the trout.
In lake habitats, Lahontans are rumored to grow to 60 pounds or more, although the world record from Pyramid Lake is 41 pounds. A respectable-sized fish from these waters runs about 20 inches long, and cutthroats exceeding 10 pounds are becoming a fairly common occurrence.
Fly Fishing & Fly Tying magazine last year named Pyramid Lake as “one of the top public fisheries in the world,” while others have referred to the waterway as “world-renowned” and predict, because of the size and numbers of cutthroats available, that the opportunity to land a trophy fish is possible on any given cast.
As part of their restoration efforts, the Pyramid Lake Pauite Tribe protects spawning fish and has a slot limit to help prevent these fish from being taken. Size and catch limits were implemented in 2004 with legal keeper size defined as 17-20 inches or more than 24 inches. The daily catch limit is two, but not more than one of them may be 24 inches or longer.
Bait fishing is prohibited. Regular lake anglers start out with spoons and swimbaits in bright colors to cover lots of water, while others prefer to fly-fish, either operating out of a watercraft or wading out into the lake from shore. And that’s where the previously mentioned ladder comes in. Fly-fishermen like to perch on stepladders or customized platforms planted in the sand. They can spot cruising fish easier, increase their casting distance with a sinking line, and keep at least a portion of their bodies out of the frosty waters.
This specialized approach to angling is effective because the lake has long flats that transition into sudden drop-offs and because cutthroats don’t hold in one spot; they cruise the lakes changing contour, visiting the many drop-off edges in search of a meal.
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe estimates that more than 150,000 visitors showed up at the lake last year, with anglers accounting for a big percentage of the overall visitor total. “Tourism is our largest industry and drives employment and revenue,” says Tribal Planner Scott Carey. “Fishermen dollars for permits, goods, and services generate needed revenue to fund tribal programs.”
Trout season runs from October to June, and in late October the Tribe will host the third annual Pyramid Lake $50,000 Cutthroat Challenge, a two-day fishing derby in which five tagged trout could be worth $10,000 in prize money to lucky anglers. The 2010 challenge featured one lucky fisherman from California who caught a cutthroat worth $10,000.
Because of the salinity of the water, visiting anglers are cautioned to rinse off all gear as soon as they are ready to call it a day. The salt content is so high that it only takes a matter of hours for rust to start to build up on rods, reels, and terminal tackle.
Permit information, fee schedules, and current regulations are available online.