Fly fishing rod

To fish for those big trout, bring a ladder

As I rounded a bend above the Windless Bay section of Pyramid Lake in Nevada, a strange sight appeared: a row of 40 or 50 ladders in the shallows spread over half a mile.

It could have been mistaken for a public art installation or a painters convention gone awry. But I knew better. The scales suggested there had been a congregation of Pyramid’s famous Lahontan cutthroat trout. We’d do well to plant our own ladders for the chance to throw the distance needed to hook the trout of a lifetime.

Pyramid Lake sits in a bowl of stark mountains about 40 miles northeast of Reno, a mirage-like sight amidst a harsh desert environment.

At 188 square miles and reaching depths of over 300 feet, it is the largest remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, which once covered much of Nevada. Tuff formations, a porous limestone, dot the lake, including one that gave its name to Pyramid. The lake and surrounding area is part of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe reserve.

Living in San Francisco 30 years ago, I would sometimes hear whispers about the giant trout that once inhabit the Truckee River near Lake Tahoe. Named fierce for the streaks of red under their jaws, these fish were said to reach over 40 pounds. They swam out of Pyramid Lake in the Truckee to spawn, sometimes reaching Lake Tahoe, 120 miles away. They looked like mythical beasts. And they basically were – the fish had been gone decades ago.

“There was some testimony that the raids in the late 1800s were so prolific you could walk on the backs of the fish,” said Travis Hawks, a fisheries biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife who watches the Truckee. “The commercial fishing effort was considerable and the fish were used to feed the miners in the Sierras and shipped to San Francisco. The Truckee is not a big river. You can see how a few well-placed mosquito nets could prove to be very effective. “

The overexploitation of the trout populations of the Lahontan Pyramid, as well as the water diversion projects – notably the Derby Dam, completed in 1905 – sealed their fate, as the fish could no longer reach their spawning grounds. In 1943, the Lahontians were declared extinct at Pyramid Lake.

But they weren’t quite extinct.

Decades ago, a group of interested citizens began taking juvenile fish from Pyramid Lake and placing them in streams across the state. Many of the fish did not survive, but in a small stream near Pilot Peak on the Nevada-Utah border, they did.

Don Duff, a US Forest Service fisheries biologist, discovered the fish there in the late 1970s and shared his findings with Robert Behnke, an authority on classifying fish in the salmon family. Behnke believed that these fish could be remnants of the Pyramid Lahontan strain.

In the mid-1980s, a strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout from Summit Lake in northwestern Nevada was introduced into Pyramid. The fish thrived and continue to reside in Pyramid, but they did not show the longevity or incredible growth potential of the original Pyramid strain.

In the early 1990s, news of the discovery at Pilot Peak reached Lisa Heki, who is now the project manager for the Lahontan National Hatchery Complex in the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A lifelong Nevadan and advocate of native fish species, she was intrigued. Heki used resources at his station to oversee the development of the Pilot Peak sire program at the Gardnerville, Nevada hatchery.

“I was confident that the genetic inheritance of the original Pyramid Lake population would be expressed if the fish returned to their original habitat,” she said.

Heki hired Mary Peacock, a professor of biology at the University of Nevada at Reno, to perform DNA analysis, and Peacock’s team established a protocol to extract DNA from museum specimens at Pyramid Lake Lahontans. The DNA matched samples from the Pilot Peak fish.

The Paiute Tribe and US Fish and Wildlife agreed to introduce fish from the Lahontan Hatchery into Pyramid in 2006. “In 2010, fishermen started catching big trout,” Peacock said.

A major milestone has been taken in the resurgence of the Lahontans Pyramid: this year nearly 1,500 fish returned to the Truckee to spawn, some reaching the Derby Dam. Several fish were manually passed around Derby to continue swimming west. A $ 48 million dam renovation was recently completed to facilitate fish passage. The Lahontians could one day reach Lake Tahoe again.

The allure of the really big trout – and the thrill of meeting a fish once thought to be extinct – had a friend and I attached house ladders to the roof of our car for the 11-hour drive from Portland, Oregon, to Pyramid at the start. April. The decrease in the return of rainbow trout to our rivers of origin had made encounters with our large local fish rare. We hoped the Lahontians would fill the void.

Our ladders appeared pedestrian alongside local models – custom gear made by a Reno craftsman that included a platform and padded seat.

“When people first started fishing in the lake, they used crates of milk,” recalls Joe Contaldi, senior guide at Pyramid Lake Anglers. “It helped them cast far enough to reach the dumps where the fish navigate in search of food. And it also helped them out of the cold water. The crates gave way to conventional ladders and then to chair ladders.

The Lahontans of the Pyramid Lake strain grow so large in part by feeding on other fish – mainly the tui chub and the cui-ui, a sucker fish endemic to Pyramid Lake. But they’ll also eat beetles and chironomids, an insect the size of your fingernail. A number of flies have been developed for Pyramid, including the Popcorn Beetle and the Booby. The latter features two foam eyes that might look like… well, you can imagine.

Fly fishing at Pyramid Lake is underground and comes in two basic techniques – Anglers will cast the tip of the sink or the full downlines on sturdy 7 or 8 weight rods as far as possible and strip the fly – a chub tui or imitation beetle – slowly back. Alternatively, anglers can cast a float line with an indicator (fly fishing lingo for a bobber) to hang multiple flies, often a balanced leech and chironomid pattern, in the water column. When the indicator moves, the fisherman sets the hook.

My fishing trio opted for sink tips and stripping most of our visit, lacking patience for the indicators. As the sun rose in the clear Nevada sky, groups of Lahontans – some individuals approaching 20 pounds – slowly swam past our ladders.

We didn’t land any fish in this class, but we each found trout eclipsing 10 pounds, fish big enough to shake our rods like the rainbow trout we look for at home and to oblige another angler. to come down from his ladder to help with a net. . While anglers are allowed to keep a limited number of fish for consumption, most anglers practice catch and release. Releasing the fish into the lightly salted water was a moving experience, a brief dance with a troubled past and a hopeful future.

For anglers looking for seclusion, Pyramid may be less than ideal. With the assemblage of fishermen lined up along Windless Bay, conversations were inevitable. On our last day, a nearby fisherman, Alex Varner, invited us to an impromptu barbecue. “There is camaraderie on the best beaches,” Contaldi said. “People who don’t want to be with others will find a different place.”

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