High-Desert Heavyweights
At Nevada’s Pyramid Lake anglers battle wind, sleet, and snow, all for the chance to catch the world’s largest cutthroat trout, once believed to be extinct.
By Nick Roberts

Standing atop a stepladder blind-casting a tandem marabou jig rig into a bitter headwind that’s churning up rollers I could ride to shore on my longboard, I can’t help but feel like I’m playing the quarter slots in nearby Reno, Nevada. Cast, strip slowly, lift, and repeat, all in hopes that Lady Luck leads a cruising Lahontan cutthroat to one of my flies. To my left, my guide buddy Matt “Gilligan” Koles is perched on his ladder, launching a streamer with his seven-weight switch rod.

Sporting neoprene duck-hunting waders and a pair of ski goggles, he came prepared for these cold, blustery conditions, which are known to bring Pyramid Lake’s big fish out to play. I cast again into the waves, let my flies settle near the sandy bottom, and begin to strip, waiting for another grab.

“Pyramid isn’t that technical a fishery,” Gilligan explained to me on the drive out earlier 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 the pages of a hefty tome with the times I 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 list those rare occasions when the stars aligned and I was standing knee-deep at ideal coordinates at precisely the right moment. Considering that Pyramid Lake has 125 miles of shoreline, there are a hell of a lot more wrong places than right places on this lake. That’s why I was glad that for my first trip out to the Nevada desert I’d have the chance to fish alongside the owner of Gilligan’s Guide Service, based in Truckee, California. According to Gilligan, who has been fishing the lake for 15 years, you can expect to catch fewer fish in the late fall than you might during warmer months, but your odds of landing a trophy are better, especially in stormy weather.

As hard as it was blowing on the south shore that day, the combination of chop and wind we were casting into is exactly what savvy Pyramid Lake anglers look for when deciding which beach to set up their ladders 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 the 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 the bait into shallow water, where they are often hooked by fly-fishermen within 15 feet of their ladders. But of course there is no way to know for sure how many cutthroat, if any, will show up at the beach you’ve bet on.

“Sometimes a huge school will cruise the beach and everyone in the line-up hooks up,” Gilligan explained as we were driving along the rim of the lake. “Other days, the fish won’t come in all at once, so guys will just catch a couple here and there.”

Predicting when the cutthroat will show up, if at all, can prove just as difficult. 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 to the norm, and it’s not like the one beach you’ve chosen to fish is the only one with favorable conditions along the 200 square mile lake. On slow days even Pyramid’s most seasoned anglers scratch their heads: should I stay where I am, or try a different spot? If you stick it out in hopes that the fish will eventually cruise your way, you might get skunked and could miss out on a bite that may be happening at that very moment just around the next point. On the other hand, if you give up on the beach you’ve been fishing, you run the risk of hearing from some grinning guy, later that night at Crosby Lodge, that the place went off just minutes after you reeled up in defeat and left in search of greener pastures.

“You should’ve been there,” he might say, as you’re flagging down the bartender for a stiff drink.

When I first heard about Pyramid Lake, more than a decade ago, I was instantly intrigued. And the more I learned about the lake and the Lahontan cutthroat that inhabit its alkaline waters, the higher it rose on my list of places to fish. Sure, I wanted to try my luck at catching a species of trout that grows to the size of a salmon. But, for me, the real draw of fishing Pyramid lies in the unique history of the fishery.

Fed by the famed Truckee River, which begins as the outflow from Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake is the country’s third largest salt lake, and was the second largest natural lake in the West prior to construction of the Derby Dam in 1903. 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’d 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 shores of the lake 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 standing in contrast to 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; time seems to have stood still here. As Gilligan and I headed toward the water along a rugged two-track that resembled dirt roads I’ve traveled in Patagonia, I felt as if we were traversing the barren surface of another planet. There was not a single tree in sight and, as I crossed the beach with my eight-weight in hand, I was struck by an eerie quietness. The only sounds were waves lapping against the shore and the persistent desert wind.

The lake’s Lahontan cutthroat are as unique as the waters they inhabit and have deep spiritual meaning for the Paiute people, who have long relied on the fish as an essential food source. The largest trout native to North America and one of the biggest species of trout in the world, Pyramid’s native strain of cutthroat evolved in the open waters of Lake Lahontan two million years ago, growing to be upwards 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 later followed Frémont to the region seemingly did everything they could to ensure the fish’s demise. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lahontan cutthroat were netted by the hundreds and shipped by railcar to San Francisco and mining and logging camps in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Truckee River 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 back then to huge Lahontan cutties, was stocked with non-native mackinaw, which feasted on juvenile cutthroat trout. 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 will go—myself included—to catch a fish. We slog through stinking muck, endure sunburns and insect bites, risk mosquito-borne illness and traveler’s diarrhea, sleep in airports and our trucks, venture down sketchy roads, and chance rapids capable of swallowing our driftboats whole. We do this to cast a fly into the waters that ebb and flow through our dreams, in hopes of battling species that have long inhabited our imaginations. Late-season anglers at Pyramid Lake are no different, bracing themselves against the bone-chilling wind as they methodically cast all day from atop their ladders, waiting and waiting for that one big Lahontan cutthroat to cruise their way.

And whether you ever land a trophy from Pyramid or not, the fact that we even have the chance to cast to these prehistoric super trout in their native waters is a miracle. After all, 80 years ago, these bruisers were believed to have vanished from the face of the earth. They would have remained “extinct” had a fish biologist not discovered in the late 1970s small specimens of this 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 trout were hauled all the way up to Pilot Peak and planted in Morrison Creek. No official record was made. Whoever stocked the creek could never have imagined that they would be saving Pyramid’s strain of giant trout from extinction.

In 1995, U.S. Fish and Wildlife 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, about 15 years since the initial stocking, the 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 putting in Pyramid since the mid-1970s.

While Lahontan cutties are still listed as a threatened species, Pilot Peak fish in the 20-pound class are once again being caught from the desert oasis. Gilligan expects some to reach the size of the 41-pound world record Lahontan cutthroat, 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 for this remarkable fishery. If you ever get the chance to fish Pyramid, take it. Who knows? You might just find yourself on the right beach, at the right time, with the wind bringing the big cutties your way.

Nick Roberts
Nick Roberts is director of marketing and communications for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and editor of Bonefish & Tarpon Journal. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.