The Lahontan Cutthroat - A Conservation Victory
When a fish story makes it to the NY Times, it is unusual and it is important. That is exactly what happened on April 23, 2013 in an article by Nate Schweber titled 20 Pounds? Not Too Bad, for an Extinct Fish. The whole story of the rise and fall and rise again of the Lahontan Cutthroat trout is truly amazing and should be very encouraging for those of us interested in fisheries conservation. If a problem this big can be solved in such a remote desert area where water is so scarce, we should certainly know that conservation efforts can be successful in many other places.
About the Lahontan Cutthroat - The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi) is the largest cutthroat trout species and is the state fish of Nevada. It is one of the 14 recognized subspecies of cutthroat. The present distribution is limited to just a few lakes and streams in and closely surrounding its historic range (Northern Nevada, Southeast Oregon and Northeastern California). Historic records indicate there were at least 11 lakes and up to 600 streams inhabited by Lahontans in 1844—those numbers have been reduced to just five lakes and fewer than 130 rivers and streams. The stream dwelling fish have (typically) a dark olive back and red/yellowish sides.the larger lake-dwelling Lahontans are often more silver. Lahontan cutthroat are stream spawners and have the same basic requirement as other trout. The largest recorded Lahontan trout weighed in at 41 pounds but anecdotal records indicate there may have been fish as large as 60 lbs.
History - (Wikipedia) The Lahontan cutthroat is native to the drainages of the Truckee River, Humboldt River, Carson River, Walker River, Quinn River and several smaller rivers in the Great Basin of North America. These were tributaries of ancient Lake Lahontan during the ice ages until the lake shrank to remnants such as Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake about 7,000 years ago, although Lake Tahoe—from which the Truckee flows to Pyramid Lake—is still a large mountain lake.
Lahontan cutthroats evolved into a large (up to 1 m or 39 in) and moderately long-lived predator of chub, suckers, and other fish as long as 30 or 40 cm (16 in). The trout was able to remain a predator in the larger remnant lakes where prey fish continued to flourish, but upstream populations were forced to adapt to eating smaller fish and insects. Some experts consider O. c. henshawi in the upper Humboldt River and tributaries to be a separate subspecies, O. clarkii humboldtensis or the Humboldt cutthroat trout, adapted to living in small streams rather than large lakes.
When settlement of the Great Basin began in the early 1800's, the Lahontan cutthroat began its decline to near extinction. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Lahontan cutthroats were harvested in great numbers (up to 1,000,000 lbs each year from 1860 to 1920) and were shipped to towns and mining camps throughout the Western US. First, a dam in Mason Valley blocked spawning runs from Walker Lake. By 1905, the Derby Dam on the Truckee River below Reno stopped Pyramid Lake's spawning runs. A poorly designed fish ladder washed away in 1907, then badly timed water diversions to farms in the Fallon, Nevada area stranded spawning fish and desiccated eggs below the dam. By 1943, Pyramid Lake's population was extinct. Lake Tahoe's population was extinct by 1930 from competition and inbreeding with introduced rainbow trout , predation by introduced lake trout, and diseases introduced along with these exotic species.
Conservation success story - The first efforts to repopulate Pyramid Lake with Lahontan cutthroats began in 1970 when the local Paiute tribe opened a hatchery and began stocking Pyramid Lake with a Summit Lake strain of Lahontans. This effort developed into a fine fishery, but the Summit Lake strain did not live as long and did not grow as large as the native strain once had.
In the late 1970's, famous fish biologist Robert Behnke identified a small trout he found in the Pilot Peak streams of eastern Nevada as being the long believed extinct Lahontan cutthroat trout. Evidently, In the early 1900s, before Fish and Wildlife Services even existed, a wildlife commission (name unknown) took small fish from Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe and transported then in buckets by train and placed them in streams in eastern Nevada and across the border in Utah (Pilot Peak area). Many of the streams already had populations of fish, but the Pilot Peak streams were fish-less, and the Lahotans survived. At the time, there were no genetic tools to determine if the fish was really the same species. In the 1990's, tools for genetic testing were being developed to help determine if the trout found by Behnke in the Pilot Peak area were really the true genetic offspring of the enormous Lahontan cutthroat trout that had once populated Pyramid Lake and other waters of the Great Basin.
In the early 2000's, University of Nevada, (Reno) Associate Professor of Biology Mary Peacock became involved with the research and recovery of the Lahontan cutthroat trout at the request of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. As there were no original Lahontan cutthroat trout left in Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake or the Truckee River, Peacock and researchers turned to museums for genetic samples of the historic fish. Several museums has "mounts" of known original Lahontan cutthroat. Peacock and her team took samples from these mounted fish and developed the methodology necessary to do the genetic testing on them. "We asked a very basic question: ‘Who do these fish look most similar to?'" Peacock said. "We probably had 50 populations in this analysis. So we took those fish (those found by Behnke in the Pilot Peak area), and we compared them to all the populations and did the genetic analysis - and bingo! They're the original dudes."
In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, stocked the Pilot Peak strain back into its home waters in Pyramid Lake. The fish thrived for several years, growing bigger and bigger.It was not long before people began catching 20-pound cutthroats in Pyramid Lake. Today, anglers are catching trout up to 30 pounds. The big monsters have returned.
To read more detail about the significant efforts to save and restore the Lahontan cutthroat to its native range...click here...
Fishing for Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat - To say that fly fishing for Lahontan cutthroat in Pyramid Lake is a unique experience is a significant understatement. When you take a 6-8 foot step ladder as part of your necessary gear...that is unique. Right off the top, it is necessary to tell you that the Lahontan cutthroat in Pyramid Lake are all hatchery fish. In the early 1900's, the Derby dam effectively blocked the Lahontan from its traditional spawning water so there is no natural spawning. You should know that there are also two different but closely related strains of Lahontan in the lake. The first strain that was used to repopulate Pyramid Lake was the Summit Lake strain. This strain was taken from nearby Summit Lake and used to breed and grow this strain in the Paiute tribes fish hatchery. This started in the 1970's and continues today. Summit Lake still has a self sustaining Lahontan population but all fish currently being used to repopulate Pyramid Lake are hatchery raised. The second strain that was used is the original and genetically pure strain that was initially identified by Robert Behnke in the 1970's. This is the so called "Pilot Peak" strain. This strain grows much faster and larger than does the Summit Lake strain and are the really big fish we hear and read about.
Aside from the ladder and the real potential to catch a 20 lb. trout, there are other things that make Pyramid Lake unique for most fly fishers. In the 6-8 times I have fished there, the wind was a strain s a factor...not a breeze...real wicked wind. As a result, I highly recommend a fast action rod a weight or two heavier than what you might consider normal. As you are not "sight fishing", a big key to success is covering a lot of water. A heavier "fast" rod and a little double haul practice before hand will serve you well. Although not really necessary, I have almost always used a 300-400 grain shooting head. Regardless of the gear or techniques you decide to use, be aware that these fish seem to follow the fly for long distances...so, keep your fly working as long as you can. I hooked one of the biggest fish I ever hooked at Pyramid just 5-6 feet from the ladder I was standing on.
Aside from my personal experiences, I looked at more than two dozen articles and videos before writing this article (links to several of them are listed below).
Legal Season: The Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat season starts on Oct.1 and ends June 30.
Fishing Seasons: The locals and those that fish Pyramid Lake often tend to divide the "legal season" into three distinct "fishing seasons". They are as follows:
Fall – (Opening to mid December) When the season opens on October 1, the water is already cooling from the very hot summer. The fish start to move into shallow water and chase the tui-chub minnows and Perch frey but most fish stay in deeper water and do not move into the shallower water until later in the fall when water temps are much cooler. It is this time of year that baitfish patterns are fished from beached that are fairly close to deeper water.
Winter – (mid December to March-April) By this time the water has cooled considerably. Until late February or early March water temps will stay in the low to mid 40’s. Fish are more frequently found cruising the shallows on most beaches. Due to the very low water temperatures, the fish become more lethargic. This often requires slowing down your retrieve. This is the time that wooly buggers and popcorn beetles fished right on the bottom is the technique of choice. A shooting head is really good in this situation. It seems that most of the really big fish are caught during this time.
Spring – (March-April to June 30) As the days warm and the days get longer, the fish again start to cruise the shallow edges but this time looking for a place to spawn. It is during this time that there are the most fish in shallow water and more fish are caught. Sinking lines and shooting heads with wooly buggers and popcorn beetles or nymphs are still quite effective but this is the time that many fly fishers start using floating lines and move to fishing nymphs under an indicator. Although an indicator is not necessary, the wave action creates a slight "up and down" motion to the fly/flies suspended from the floating indicator and that seems to attract the fish. Note: I hate fishing with indicators so I have rarely used them and do not think I catch fewer fish. I use a simple slow retrieve and it has proven to be quite effective for me. As mentioned above, the fish are in the shallow water looking for a place to spawn and it is fairly common to see them cruising in schools in just a few feet of water.
Regulations: As Pyramid Lake is on the Paiute Indian reservation, a state fishing license is not necessary but a "reservation" permit is required. Catch and Release is strongly recommended. If camping or boating, additional permits are required. All licenses can be purchased locally. Legally, you can use either 1 or 2 flies with up to 2 hooks per fly/lure. The hooks can be single, double or treble but all barbs must be completely "pinched" down. You may keep up to two fish per day based on the following...both fish must be between 17" - 20" or one can be over 24". Gear is regularly checked by numerous "wardens". Click here to see the complete set of regulations.
Rods: minimum 7wt. 9' up to 10 wt. Preferably fast action.
Reels: preferably something that can handle "salt" with a sealed drag. Pyramid Lake is very alkaline and if not thoroughly cleaned in fresh water daily, many fresh water reels will just not do as well. Also, very fine sand is everywhere...it is a desert.
Lines and Leaders: depending on the technique (see more below), everything from a 300-400 grain shooting head to a floating line can be used. Sink tip lines are also very popular...it should have a 15-20' sink tip as it is very common to be fishing in water over 20' deep and you always need to keep your fly on or very near the bottom. Lahontan cutthroat are not very leader shy. I typically have used a tapered 12' 2X to 0X leader. Many use just 10-12 lb monofilament or fluorocarbon.
Flies: Historically, a #8-10 dark wooly bugger (black, dark olive, etc.) is the most commonly used fly. These are often tied with a little flash and a lighter color marabou tail. Both weighted and unweighted flies are used. I more recent times, I read a lot of articles that talk about also using a "popcorn beetle" in tandem with the wooly bugger. If you are a trout guy like me, you have probably fished with beetle patterns before. It is always fished as a dry fly. In this case, the popcorn beetle is fished behind a weighted wooly bugger and stripped. To see more click here... and more here...
Techniques: There are two primary techniques used to fish Pyramid Lake with a fly rod.
(1) Stripping with sinking lines. This is the traditional method and the one I used for the 6-8 years I fished Pyramid. It requires a sinking line (sink tip with a 15-20 tip or a 300-400 grain shooting head). Typically 2 flies are used and they are rigged 18-24 inches apart. Most frequently, I see a weighted wooly bugger followed by the popcorn beetle. Although I have never used this setup, it has become very popular and proven to be very effective since it was first introduced in the early 2000's. From what I can tell from the 5-6 hours of reading I have done on this topic, the weighted fly is stripped across the sandy bottom creating a disturbance and getting the fish's attention. When the motion of the weighted fly is stopped, the high buoyancy popcorn beetle begins to float towards the surface and this action seems to be very attractive to the fish.
(2) Floating line and nymphs and chironomids . This techniques has become increasingly more popular over the last 15-20 years. I have to say that from my reading, I must have been among the first to use this techniques back in the early 80's...not because I was all that innovative but because I broke a 8# rod and all I had was a lighter 5# with a floating line. I did not think much about it at the time. I think I tied on a larger callibaetis nymph. Regardless, I was hooked up within minutes after fishing the 8# and sinking line for several hours with no success. I landed several nice fish that afternoon. There are two primary ways to fish the floating line...with and without an indicator.
With an indicator - Evidently, the "thingamabobber" is the indicator of choice with those that like this technique because it can be easily moved up and down the line/leader easily. It is very important that your fly/flies be on or very near the bottom. In order to do this properly, you need long leaders (15-20' in some cases). You also need to have a way to be sure your fly is on the bottom. The only way I know to do this is to attach a terminal weight that is heavy enough to sink the indicator. You simply move the indicator up or down until the indicator is floating back on the surface and then remove the extra weight you added. I have used this technique in other places using a pair of hemostats clipped to the terminal fly as the additional weight.
With no indicator - As I hate indicators, I prefer this method. Again, you need a leader long enough to be sure your fly is on the bottom...usually 12-18' depending on water depth and a fly or flies heavy enough to get quickly to the bottom. With this method, the retrieve is quite slow with short strips as is typical when fishing nymphs in stillwater everywhere.
image credit: John Barr and pyramidguideservice.com
Another unique factor with Pyramid Lake is the topology of the bottom. As you can see from the diagram on the right, the bottom of the lake is "stepped". This is the result of thousands of years of fluctuating water levels and wave action. From my experience and all that I have read, the fish travel these steps at whatever depth they are holding in search of food. If you pay close attention, you can actually feel your weighted fly come up and over these steps and it seems to coincide with many of the takes. Aside from this feature, there are very little structure to be found anywhere in the lake other than a few rocky stretches of beach. Also, there is little in the way of aquatic vegetation in the lake. Note: I have witnessed more than one fisherman wade out and suddenly disappear after stepping off of one of these shelves and come up cussing.
Links to fishing Pyramid Lake: (***recommended)
Techniques by Pyramid Lake Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing Pyramid Lake (video) by Lost Coast Outfitters
Fly Fishing Techniques (for Pyramid Lake) by Pyramid Lake Guide Service
Fly fishing for Lahontans at Pyramid lake, April 2019 (video) by TroutHowler
Catching More and Bigger Fish on Pyramid Lake by Lee A. Weber, Ph.D.Professor of Biology, University of Nevada. Note: Although it does not appear that he is a fly fisherman, there is good info on the lake itself that appears useful.
Pyramid Lake: Fly fishing for desert trout by Rasmus Oversen/outdooruae.com
AN ANCIENT INLAND SEA by ERNIE GULLEY/RIO Products
Fishing Pyramid Lake in Nevada by Dub Paetz/Troutster.com
ANGLING FROM THE TOP RUNG by Landon Mayer/Fishpond