Back From the Dead : The Incredible Survival Story of Pyramid Lake’s Legendary Cutthroats

The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout of Pyramid Lake in northwest Nevada defy description of the written word.  Their most stunning feature is difficult to define.  Is it their bucket-shaped mouths that allow the biggest specimens to prey upon other fish that would be classified as trophies in other waters?  Is it the iridescent, neon glow that the females emit when the desert sun strikes their flanks at the perfect angle?  Is it the stupendous size to which they grow, with individuals now pushing 30 pounds?  A full appreciation of these fish cannot be gained until the angler understands their history, how they were almost exterminated by humans, and how a small group of people saved them from the brink of extinction.

The survival story and re-establishment of the lake-dominant strain of Lahontan Cutthroats begins with their presumptive extermination.  Long ago, they provided a key source of protein for the local Paiute tribes.  During the early 20th Century, a combination of over-harvest, drought, habitat degradation, and diversion of the Truckee River above Pyramid Lake pushed the lacustrine Lahontans to their limit.  The last spawning run in the Truckee River happened in 1938.  By 1941, they were thought to be extinct.  Populations of other Lahontan strains persisted, and they were introduced in to Pyramid Lake during the 1970s.  There, they flourished, but this so-called “Summit strain” did not reach the preposterous sizes of the original Pyramid Lake strain.  As the memory of these “salmon trout” faded, a chance at their reincarnation materialized on the other end of the Great Basin.

Contemporaneously, on the Utah-Nevada border, biologists and BLM workers scoured the remote mountain ranges for remnant populations of another imperiled cutthroat, the Bonneville subspecies.  Also feared to be extinct in its pure form, Bonneville Cutthroats were at the beginning of their own comeback story.  In 1975, a BLM worker was searching for genetically pure “Bonnies” on the east slope of Pilot Peak in far western Utah when he found something unexpected.  In a tiny trickle of water, he found a cutthroat trout with unusual features for the eastern Great Basin.  He collected a few samples and sent them to one of the leading fish biologists at the time, Bob Behnke.

Based off morphology alone, Behnke compared these specimens to all the known subspecies of cutthroat trout.  He noticed a relatively high number of gill rakers (for the purpose of filter feeding phytoplankton and chironomids), and a large amount of pyloric caeca (stomach folds found in piscivorous fish).  With these features in mind, Behnke determined that these fish were the same lineage of Lahontans that once patrolled the depths of Pyramid Lake.  But he couldn’t prove it, and the little Lahontans of Pilot Peak would stay isolated for two more decades.

During the late 1990s, DNA sequencing technology advanced to the point where the Pilot Peak fish could be compared with museum specimens of the original Pyramid Lake fish.  The DNA analyses were a match, and the Pilot Peak fish were proven to be the direct descendents of the original Pyramid Lake Lahontans!  How did they get there?  Shoddy records from a Nevada state wildlife commission suggests that programs existed to spread the Pyramid Lake Lahontans to small streams across the state during the early 20th Century.  Miraculously, this single, small population survived drought, wildfires, and the limitations of living in a tiny creek to keep alive the genetic freakishness of the original Pyramid Lake fish.  A hatchery program expanded, and biologists introduced the Pilot Peak strain to Pyramid Lake in 2006.  The rest is history, as the Pilot Peak Lahontans now exceed 20 pounds on a regular basis.

I think about this amazing story of conservation every time I have the chance to hold a Pilot Peak Lahontan.  Human greed and stupidity should have eliminated these fish, but they now thrive again due to sheer luck and a few dedicated individuals.

What’s next for the Lahontans of Pyramid Lake?  Conservationists and biologists have designs to re-establish this massive strain of fish throughout the Truckee River system.  Dams on the Truckee River are being outfitted with functional fish passages.  Purchase of water rights allows better inflow volumes to the lakes where the Lahontans live.  The Pilot Peak fish are starting to inhabit and spawn in the Truckee River.  Some believe that Lahontans could be caught in downtown Reno during our lifetimes.  Upstream, Lake Tahoe now receives stocked Pilot Peak Cutthroats.  With better inflow management of the Walker River, there is hope that Walker Lake (another terminal lake in the western Great Basin) could become a “second Pyramid” in the future.  While the Truckee River system’s cutthroat population is a shell of its pre-European immigrant condition, the gains made during the past 15 years represent one of the best salmonid conservation stories around.  Hopefully, this progress represents only the beginning of the Lahontan Cutthroat recovery story.

Pyramid Lake is now a unique and flourishing fishery.  With some research and a respectable cast, a decent angler can show up to its picturesque shores with the reasonable expectation of catching a salmon-sized trout.  On the surface, the fishing sounds relatively unappealing.  Discouraged by reports of crowds and turned off by the thought of watching a bobber, it took me many years before I decided to make the pilgrimage to Pyramid.  But I understood the appeal once I caught my first 10 pound fish.  Now, after holding several fish around twice that size, it is difficult to get those Lahontans out of my head.  They are special fish, and Pyramid Lake is a special place.  Crowds can be mitigated by fishing during the winter months and by moving to lesser-known parts of the lake.  And while I usually do everything in my power to avoid crowds while fly fishing, swapping advice with a few friendly nearby strangers is part of the experience at Pyramid.  There are nuances to the bobber-watching that make it somewhat interesting, and sometimes stripping popcorn beetles and streamers is more effective than watching a bobber anyway  Though it won’t happen for many months, I am making plans for my next trip already.  When the temperatures in Salt Lake hit triple digits in July, I’ll be dreaming about a frosty February sunrise at Pyramid.

If you’re feeling nerdy about the Lahontans of Pilot Peak, the best resource I’ve found is a scientific paper by Mary Peacock, one of the foremost researchers on cutthroat trout.  The link to the free article is below.

Other interesting links about the history of Pyramid Lake and the Pilot Peak Lahontans are included below.