I got a chance to get in on the epic Lahontan cutthroat trout bite up at Pyramid Lake a few weeks ago. This is the story of that trip. ~Hank
Fish long enough and the individual members of that school of fish you’ve caught over the years fade into a gauzy haze, each fish pretty much looking like the last. It takes a rare combination of time and place and fish to spring it from the school and into your permanent memory.
I sit in a broken plastic chair next to the trailer I’ll be sleeping in tonight. It’s quiet here, except for the chattering of a flock of swallows chasing each other around this little fenced-in trailer park. A little girl laughs somewhere I cannot see.
So this is Sutcliffe, Nevada? Not so much a town as a smattering of weathered trailers and battered frame houses nestled against the shores of Pyramid Lake, nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. This is high desert of the highest order. Even in April the world is barren, brown. Precious little of the spring green I’d been enjoying back home in California is apparent here; I see it only in the cracks of old pavement, where pineapple weed and an odd brassica with lavender flowers bloom hurriedly before the heat sets in for the summer.
Only one business still stands in Sutcliffe: Crosby’s Lodge, a pretty typical jack-of-all-trades establishment run by the venerable Fred Crosby, who looks older than his 66 years. Everyone does out here; the high desert is a harsh mistress. Crosby’s is where I am staying: They have a small motel, several trailers in the back, a gas station, bait shop, general store and bar and grill. Soon I’ll be drinking Sierra Nevada beers there, but not before I try to piece together what had been a remarkable day of fishing.
It began in a rush. I’d overslept in Sacramento and had to toss everything into my truck to get to Pyramid Lake before noon. At only 30 miles north of Reno, it’s relatively easy to get to, although you must cross the Donner Pass, which be dicey even into spring… as the Donner Party learned right before eating each other. Today was crisp and clear, however. I reached the dock by 10:30 a.m., where Joe Mendes of Eagle Eye Charters and his mate (and uncle-in-law) Tex were waiting for me. Joe seemed a little annoyed I was late, and I apologized as I jumped into the boat.
Tex cast off and we headed into the lake at once. I’d just come from three days of salmon fishing on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon and the contrast between there and here was stark. Portland was cold, misty and greener than Ireland – if you overlooked the gritty, industrial sprawl on the riverbank. Pyramid Lake is in the middle of nowhere, with no trees, very little greenery, and air so dry it’ll make your nose bleed. And the water! Where the Willamette is a sullen green, the waters of Pyramid Lake are a tropical turquoise as clear as an epiphany.
Joe set a course across the lake to a gigantic hunk of limestone called a tufa; tufa formations are dotted throughout Pyramid Lake, and their slow disintegration makes the water slightly alkaline. This particular tufa is called the Pyramid, for obvious reasons: It looks remarkably like the Old Pyramid in Egypt, with its uneven slopes. It is something of a seamount in the lake, and even just a few feet offshore the depths can sink more than 100 feet. We began to set up our gear to fish about a quarter mile out from the pyramid.
Pyramid Lake has always been synonymous with big trout. Lahontan cutthroat trout, to be exact. When pioneer John Fremont first visited the lake in 1844, the silvery cutthroats that came out of Pyramid were so large he called them “salmon-trout.” Soon entrepreneurs teamed up with the local Paiute Indians to fish the trout commercially, and the fish soon fed both miners and the wealthy in restaurants as far away as Chicago. Predictably, the fishery crashed. The construction of the Derby Dam in 1903 cut off the trout from their spawning grounds on the Truckee River, and by World War II the trout had been exterminated.
The half-century since then has seen a series of efforts to restore the trout to the lake, largely spearheaded by the efforts of the Paiutes, who opened a hatchery on the lake in the 1970s. It has largely worked, and ever since the early 1980s, catching a 10-pound trout has been noteworthy, but not altogether unusual.
Flash forward to 2006. This was the first year the hatchery began stocking the lake with a different strain of Lahontan cutthroats. This strain came from Pilot Peak in Utah, which scientists had determined several decades before was the exact same strain that had once lived in Pyramid Lake; how they got to a little stream in mountainous Utah no one quite knows. The hopes were that these new fish would grow larger than the existing variety of trout – hopes realized in 2012 when an angler landed a cutthroat weighing nearly 20 pounds. Since then several 20-pounders have been caught, and fish heavier than 10 pounds are caught every week.
I had heard none of this when I booked my trip with Joe. All I knew is that the fish in the lake were big – and tasty. I’d fished Pyramid Lake before, and was fascinated both by the size and the flavor of these fish. Pyramid Lake trout start life eating zooplankton and little shrimpy things; this gives the meat its pretty peachy color. But once the fish reach about a foot long, they switch to eating other fish, mostly chubs and small perch and such. Large fish taste more like lake trout (which is actually a char), while younger fish are more trout-like in flavor.
What’s more, Pyramid Lake trout have adapted to a slightly saline environment. The relentless sunshine over the lake has evaporated it over the centuries to the point where it is nearly brackish. This gives the fish more of a saltwater fish flavor.
Fishing for them is typically either a fly fishing deal – something I don’t do – or a matter of trolling lures with barbless hooks. This is what Tex and I were doing while Joe maneuvered the boat. Non-Indian anglers are only allowed to fish one rod, but Tex is a Paiute, so he can run as many as he wants. So we set up four rods, mostly with Flatfish lures in a lurid chartreuse “spring frog” pattern. Catching the fish involves figuring out which depth they are at and what lure they want to bite. Until you figure that out, trolling involves a lot of time sitting down, staring at a rod in a holder.
At least it normally does. Within seconds of setting the lines, a fish struck. I grabbed the rod and set the hook. A decent fish, but not a giant. Tex, who had barely finished setting the last line, rushed for the net. I reeled the fish in closer and saw it was probably smaller than the 17-inch minimum to keep, so I lifted its head out of the water, gave the trout some slack line and watched as it spit the hook and returned to the depths.
Joe wanted to know what had happened. When I told him, he said, “That’s OK. We always release the first fish anyway.” It was the last time I saw Joe so sanguine. Mendes is a burly man of Portuguese descent; he married a Paiute woman and moved to the reservation 37 years ago. Deeply tanned with a brush cut hairdo, Joe’s booming voice sounds almost exactly like that of the character Lucca Brasi in The Godfather. Like most guides, he hates losing fish.
Tex Williams, which is his real given name, looks like a Paiute from Hollywood’s central casting. He has that wondrously weathered face that only an old man whose life has been led outdoors can achieve. Calm, quietly competent and funny, Tex and I had a great time sitting there running the lines, waiting for a trout to bite.
Soon we had an 18 ½ inch trout in the cooler. As an eater of trout, Joe says I am in the minority of anglers on Pyramid Lake; almost everyone releases everything they catch. Me? I don’t wet a line for a fish if I can’t eat at least a few of them. Our goal is one fish in the 17 to 20 inch slot limit, and another larger than 24 inches.
We settled in. Fishing was slow by Pyramid Lake standards. Two years ago I caught 38 trout in five hours with Joe, but this time we were fishing a different spot, where the fish were larger but less abundant.
“FISH ON TWO!!!” Joe shouted, pointing at the stern rod on the starboard side of the boat.
The rod was buried. I picked it up, reeled out any possibility of slack and set the hook with a controlled jerk parallel to the water. Fish on, and a much heavier fish, too! This fish was strong enough to not only stop the 12-pound test on the reel, but to peel off yards and yards of it.
Joe wanted me to reel the fish in fast, so I didn’t lose it. But I took my time. This was certainly a trout over five pounds, something not every angler gets to experience. Fighting a trout of this size is why people come to Pyramid Lake. I wanted to savor it.
“There it is,” Tex said. Thirty feet behind the boat, we all could see the fish was larger than we’d thought. A few more feet and the trout sensed its impending doom. It went berserk, thrashing and diving deep. I slowly brought it closer to the boat, where Tex was waiting with the net.
With a lunge he slashed the net at the trout. And missed. I thought Joe was about to have a heart attack. But for whatever reason, the trout calmed down for a moment and I brought it up close enough for Tex to try to net it again. This time he didn’t miss.
What a trout! Clearly a silvery Pilot Peak strain, this cutthroat measured a hair over 26 inches, weighing nearly eight pounds. A giant? No. But it is by far the largest trout I’ve ever caught, a chrome-plated bullet of a fish, thrashing and slashing its way through azure waters and into my memory.