October 05, 2021
This article was originally titled "The Paiute Fisheaters" in the June-July 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The story of the Lahontan cutthroat is one of survival, against all odds. They are the largest of the cutthroat species. Naturalist Steve Raymond called them “the last survivors of an ancient race of super trout.” The records, stories, and photos support the idea that these were indeed the world’s largest true trout. The world record was landed at Pyramid Lake in 1925 at 41 pounds. a replica of that fish is still on display at Crosby Lodge. There were even unsupported claims of fish in the 50- to 60-pound range. These are trout so big they don’t look real—they look like obese caricatures.
Lahontan trout evolved in the tributaries of ancient Lake Lahontan through the ice ages until about 7,000 years ago, when the lake shrank to leave only remnants. Lahontan cutthroat in these lakes evolved into a large predator species by preying on baitfish such tui chubs and large suckers called cui-ui.
Pyramid Lake is one of the remnants of Lake Lahontan, and it’s supported by the inflow of the Truckee River. It is the only inflow, and there are no outflows. It is the terminal point in this watershed. Sierra Nevada snowmelt flows out of Lake Tahoe, and runs north for 120 miles before emptying into Pyramid Lake. This tiny watershed is unfortunately home to one of the most tragic and educational fishery stories in American history.
The decline of Lahontan cutthroat began with the construction of Derby Dam in 1905, on the Truckee River 36 miles upstream from Pyramid Lake. Derby Dam was built to divert water into the Truckee Canal. It reduced the flow of the Truckee River by 75 percent, Pyramid Lake levels dropped by 75 feet, and Lahontan cutthroat were unable to bypass the dam to reach their spawning grounds.
The fishery declined almost immediately. A biologist from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) witnessed the last spawning run of the Lahontan cutthroat in 1938. He reported seeing almost 200 fish averaging 20 pounds. As the water slowed to a trickle from the dam, the last spawning run of the Lahontans was lost, and with it the entire species. The Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout were declared extinct in 1943. In just five years, America’s race of super trout was destroyed.
In the 1970s, Pyramid Lake was stocked with a different strain of cutthroat trout from Summit Lake, Nevada, but these fish never reached the gigantic proportions of the former Lahontan legends. In the 1990s, a fish of 8 pounds was considered a big one.
This all changed in 2006, when an original strain of Lahontan cutthroat was located in a tiny creek near Pilot Peak on the Utah/Nevada border. A university researcher compared DNA from museum samples of the “extinct” Pyramid Lake fish with the Pilot Peak fish and found that they were genetically similar.
By using these fish as broodstock for Pyramid Lake, the fishery has rebounded in remarkable ways. The average size of the trout has ballooned upward, and fish near 20 pounds are now caught frequently—something that hasn’t been seen in almost a century. That success story is remarkable in and of itself, but there is another layer to the onion that makes it even more fascinating.
Northern Paiute Tribal Land
Pyramid Lake rests entirely inside the tribal lands of the Paiute people: They are culturally entwined with this story on many levels. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation is home to the Northern Paiute people otherwise known as the Numu or fisheaters. Historically, their lives were tightly connected to Pyramid Lake and its fish—especially the cui-ui. The same dams that destroyed the Lahontan cutthroat also devastated the cui-ui.
With the creation of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the cui-ui became one of the first protected species. In turn, the Paiutes began a long and protracted legal battle to return water to the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake. They ultimately won one of the largest water-rights battles in history. While the dam still exists, the Paiutes now get to determine the flow schedule and can ensure there is adequate water when the fish are spawning.
Derby Dam still prevents Lahontan cutthroat from spawning in their ancestral waters. But since the Summit Lake strain was introduced, there has been a joint effort from the tribal members and the Fish & Wildlife Service to restore cutthroat trout populations. Since that time, an “artificial river” is created by pumping water and creating flow in a man-made spawning channel below Derby Dam. A pheromone is released into the water to attract the fish, and as they migrate into the spawning channel they are captured and separated by sex. The milt and eggs of the larger males and ripe females are then manually extracted and stirred together. The fertilized eggs are hatched and raised in a hatchery for nine to ten months before they are released back into Pyramid Lake. Nearly a million fish are stocked in the lake every year.
It is an amazing amount of work, and it’s happened over 50 years to support the cutthroat of Pyramid Lake. The Paiutes have long been the protectors of the lake, and without their involvement and protection, this fishery would not exist today. The community’s involvement is only growing—tribal schools bring the kids to participate, learn, and watch the artificial spawning process. The importance of the fish to the community is ever present, but fly fishers seldom get to see it.
The Paiutes have made sure the fishery exists, but very few fly fishers who make the pilgrimage to Pyramid Lake have any idea. They often have little interaction with the tribal community.
To fish Pyramid Lake, you do not need a Nevada fishing license, you only require a tribal fishing permit. Barbless hooks are required, and there is no bait fishing allowed.
There are no licensed tribal members who are fly-fishing guides. This creates an interesting opportunity to create jobs and put more money back into the local community that has done so much to protect this fishery—one of the few fisheries in this world that is improving.
Casey Anderson of Pyramid Fly Co. is one of the few fly fishers who has recognized the importance of the local community. He has put on clinics for native kids to get them interested in fly fishing, he has raised money and purchased equipment for them, and helped them enjoy the incredible resource they are so connected to.
One of the graduates of these clinics is Autumn Harry, who is now an avid fly angler and also pursuing a graduate degree in indigenous mapping methods and restoration of indigenous place names. Anderson invited me to visit Pyramid Lake, as he knew of my involvement in Indifly, a nonprofit I helped found that focuses on creating opportunity for indigenous people. I had never fished Pyramid Lake, so of course I jumped at the opportunity.
New Opportunities for Pyramid Lake's Lahontan Cutts
Pyramid Lake is a unique fishery where the tried and proven method is standing on a ladder and bombing casts out there and slowly working them in. When it happens, it happens fast. There are hours of nothing, nothing, nothing, and then the whole conga line of folks standing on ladders hooks up with fish ranging in size from 6 to 15 pounds. That may sound like little skill is required except for casting, but I would strongly disagree with that sentiment. Local anglers dominate in terms of catching fish, often putting better casters to shame. As with most places it’s the subtle technique adjustments in your fishing that make the difference.
The fish and the lake are both remarkable, and stunningly beautiful. I don’t know of anywhere in the world where fly fishers have a legitimate chance of catching a 10-pound-plus cutthroat trout surrounded by the snow-capped Sierra. It’s an amazing fishery, unlike any other I have seen, and when I learned the history and effort that have allowed it to exist today, it made the lake even more captivating and mysterious.
It is easy to be optimistic when considering this fishery. The Pilot Peak strain was introduced only 14 years ago, and we have already seen monster fish. Is it possible for them to continue to thrive and bring Pyramid Lake back to where 30- and maybe even 40-pound trout are realistic?
A world-class and unique fishery that is exclusively on tribal land, and exists only because of the Paiutes’ perseverance is an amazing story. There is also an opportunity to work with the native community to increase their involvement with the fishery and the anglers who come to visit.
Currently nontribal members have access to only about a third of the lake shoreline. That leaves two-thirds of the lake and the lower Truckee River itself that could potentially be used exclusively by native guides. I’m a firm believer that all begins with igniting a passion for fly fishing.
It was great to see Anderson at Pyramid Fly Co. make the effort to ignite that passion within the local community. Hopefully that helps grow their interest and involvement. I could imagine a fishing program on the untouched side of the lake that is available only to anglers with native guides. Or could you imagine being the first person to float the last 10 miles of the Truckee River, and target 20-pound cutthroat trout in a river?
Oliver White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.