In search of Pyramid Lake trout
The choice on Christmas Eve was simple: either bide my time waiting for the mercurial Santa Claus or the legendary Oncorhynchus (Salmo) Clarki Henshawi – the Lahontan Cutthroat trout of Pyramid Lake.
Since I had never seen the former in person despite devoting countless hours over the years to the task, I figured it was finally time to focus my holiday attention on something I might be able to hang next to the fireplace, rather than the fat guy sliding down it.
Actually, a person’s chances of catching a Lahontan Cutthroat in December are far better than of glimpsing ‘ol Saint Nick. Depending on the weather, December can be a prime time to fish at Pyramid Lake, located about 60 miles northeast of Carson City on State Route 445.
Along with Walker Lake near Hawthorne, Pyramid Lake is believed to be a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan which covered much of Northern Nevada. Pyramid Lake, which lies entirely within the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation, is fed by the Truckee River and is about 25 miles long and 4-11 miles wide.
With its tufa formations (including the “pyramid” tufa formation on the east shore which John C. Fremont saw when he named the lake in 1844), exposed rock and constantly changing light and colors, Pyramid Lake is often described as the “Jewel of the Desert.”
But it’s not the scenery which lures people out to Pyramid most days; it’s the possibility of landing a giant Lahontan Cutthroat.
Pyramid is one of the few places in the nation where an angler, even if he’s fishing from shore, can hook into a 10-pound trophy trout. Although rarer today than in the early 1900s, 20-pounders are a possibility; the official lake record according to the Nevada Division of Wildlife was a 23-pound, eight-ounce, 38-inch long specimen taken in 1977 by Ben Barlow. It’s been calculated that an average mature Lahontan Cutthroat (7 years old) will be 25.5 inches in length.
The photos on the walls of the Pyramid Lake Store (29555 Pyramid Lake Road) attest to the number of trophies that have recently been pulled from the lake; the store’s proprietors joke that they won’t even consider putting up the photo of your catch “unless it’s a two-hander” and has to be held up with both arms.
The Pyramid Lake Store is a good place to pick up your required Paiute Tribe fishing and boating permits ($6 each) as you might pick up some inside information on what the fish are biting on at the lake. The permits are also sold in Reno at Mark Fore and Strike, Spanish Springs Market and Long’s Drug Store and several areas in Sutcliffe, the small community next to Pyramid Lake.
No bait is allowed in Pyramid Lake, so it’s a good idea to stock up on the flies and lures you’ll be using. It’s generally agreed the best flies to use are “Woolly Worms” and the best lures are spinners or Tor-P-Dos.
I had always been reluctant to fish at Pyramid Lake because I wasn’t keen about putting my marginal fly-casting ability from shore on display. But when someone pointed out that by using a canoe just a few yards from shore, we could get our flies to the desired location using a spinning reel. (Note that Pyramid Lake is notoriously windy and taking a canoe onto the lake is not always advisable.)
Using the canoe and a simple set up of a Woolly Worm and weight fished off the bottom, it really didn’t take too long to hook up with a Lahontan Cutthroat. In fact, the person I was fishing with caught three fish (all about 16 inches) in four hours, right on the Pyramid Lakes Fisheries estimate of 1.3 fishing hours per trout. (My own fishing only served to increase the number of hours per fish.)
Although catch-and-release fishing is the best way to guarantee the future success of the Pyramid Lake fishery, if you do decide to keep a fish, make sure it falls within the somewhat tricky length and creel limits. The legal size to keep is between 16-19 inches and 24 inches or longer; no fish less than 16 inches or between 19 and 24 inches may be kept. The daily trout limit is two fish.
The Paiute Tribe, which has done a great job of improving the fishery since the Lahontan Cutthroat became nearly extinct in the lake in the early 1940s, is very serious about the restrictions; don’t be surprised if you’re stopped at a creel census station while leaving the area. (If the station finds your “16-inch trout” is just 15 inches long, expect a $100 fine.)
If you do catch a trophy-sized fish, remember that a nice photographic display of the catch will last longer than a skin mount.
For information on fishing at Pyramid Lake, call the ranger station at 476-1155.