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Tails from the Road: Pyramid Lake

Tails from the Road: Pyramid Lake

The blog hasn’t been getting posted much at all lately and we’re sorry for the delay. But, in all honesty it’s hard to talk about midges every single week with very little change. So in order to remain authentic to you, I don’t want to publish garbage articles on a weekly basis. But now we’re back and in fashion with a new Tails from the Road!

I recently got back from a three day trip to Pyramid Lake and want to share my experience with you. If you don’t know, Pyramid Lake is a massive saltwater lake in western Nevada that is the remnants of the former inland sea, Lake Lahontan. This ancient lake is where a few unique fish species evolved, and for the most part, is the only place these fish reside in modern times. One of these species, and the most notable, is the Lahontan Cutthroat (LCT). This subspecies is by far the most ancient form of Cutthroat Trout, dating back to the ice age. Unfortunately, due to many factors that all stem back to human interactions, LCT were decimated from the lake by the 1940’s and were functionally extinct. Fast forward to decades of fighting to revitalize Pyramid Lake forwarded by the Paiute Tribe, water was redirected back to the lake and hatchery operations brought back the LCT to Pyramid in the 1970’s. 

Although, the fish that was being stocked by the Paiute Tribe was not the original strain, instead a strain originating from Summit Lake that historically grows smaller and has fewer adaptations made for the large salty lake. This strain of LCT is called Summit strain (duh) and is distinguishable from the other strain by their often bright red side, sleeker body, and most notably the adipose fin. The adipose fin can be confusing at times though. Reason being is the other strain of LCT in Pyramid, the Pilot Peak, typically has a clipped adipose fin. But, in recent years the rate of natural reproduction has increased and the amount of people catching unclipped Pilot Peak fish has gone up. However, many anglers confuse these wild born fish as a Summit. The Pilot Peak fish are much different in appearance, often displaying less color, bigger heads, much bigger stature, and hatchery fish have a clipped fin. Take a look at the difference between the two fish below and you’ll notice the two strains are very different! 

Pilot Peak LCT
Pilot Peak LCT

 

Summit LCT
Summit LCT

How did the Pilot Peak strain come around though? Well without getting too deep into this topic, I’ll make it brief. Speculation is that early fish “biologists” planned to stock the original Pyramid Lake strain across the west in order to create a food supply for traveling settlers. This plan didn’t really take off and once the fish were functionally extinct from Pyramid, most assumed the original strain was gone forever. That was the case until 1975 where fish biologists were searching for another cutthroat on the brink of extinction, the Bonneville Cutthroat. In the search for Bonneville, a researcher stumbled upon a small creek on Pilot Peak in western Utah and noticed strange features on the cutthroat swimming in the tiny piece of water. After further looking into these fish, the researcher was certain these were the original strain from Pyramid. Unfortunately, DNA technology wasn’t the best at the time and there was no real way to prove his theory. So his findings went under the rug for two decades. Long story short, they were eventually able to prove that the fish on Pilot Peak were in fact the original strain of LCT from Pyramid Lake. A hatchery program dedicated to these fish was put together and in 2006 the original strain of LCT returned back to Pyramid Lake!

Enough of the history lesson, I’ll get to how the trip went. Not going to lie, Pyramid Lake is an absolute grind. Two of my buddies and I fished for three days and faced all types of weather conditions. But no matter what the weather was like, it didn’t seem to matter. You’re staring at your bobber patiently waiting for a fish to cruise by and hope it dunks your rig. Big chironomids, small ones, flashy, dull, nothing really seemed to matter, it’s tough fishing. Particularly when you put it into perspective that the lake averages 2 miles wide and is 20 miles long and you have to be lucky enough that a fish just so happens to swim by your rig. It’s daunting, but that’s what makes it all the more exciting. Once that bobber finally goes down, all your doubt slides away and now you become occupied with keeping up with a fish that isn’t gauged by its length, but its weight. 

Starting off the trip, we got into Reno late Saturday night. This was rather unfortunate because our trip centered around daylight savings, so we got practically no sleep the first night. Exhausted from our sleepless night, we fueled up with energy drinks because the gas station coffee sucked. Getting to the lake, the hype was all but real. Even being as tired as we were, we were acting like children on Christmas morning. This stoke quickly ran up though, we didn’t hook a single fish or have any fishy interactions for 4 hours. In hindsight, this wasn’t a very long time, but being as tired as we were it felt like an eternity. Before our first hookup, the wind was gusting over 50mph and nearly blew us off the rocks we were fishing. We were more focused on keeping steady footing and laying low than our cast/drifts. That said, we remained vigilant in the off chance that our indicator would drop. At about 10:20 am I was BSing with my buddy and looking away from my rig and BOOM, my bobber was completely gone. It’s almost as if the fish know you aren’t looking at your rig and decide to take it right then and there. Luckily, when I went to set the hook the fish was still there and was hooked perfectly in the top lip. In the midst of the fight my buddy Sage was stationing himself for a solid netting position on the rocks. With the combination of the heavy winds, big waves, and slick rocks, Sage fell off his rock and began to sink quickly! While battling the fish I quickly responded and grabbed Sage’s arm and pulled him out the shoulder deep water. Luckily, he wasn’t submerged for too long and didn’t get too much water in his waders. But it was certainly a scary scenario, in waters like Pyramid a dunk into the water can result in deadlier scenarios much more often than any river. Sage immediately laughed off the situation and I continued to fight the fish. After another minute or two, we were able to land the fish and all celebrated! My first fish at Pyramid Lake wasn’t a giant for this lake’s standards, but it was one of the biggest trout I’ve caught to date so I was unbelievably happy.

 After releasing my first ever Pilot Peak LCT, fishing action went quiet very quickly. We didn’t see any type of action for another 5 hours. It was a drag and we were running on fumes. During this timespan we decided to make a move to a spot that one of our customers said was doing well for him. While re-rigging our rods upon arriving at the new location, we watched a group of beach anglers hook and land two fish. To say the least we felt really good about the changeup. I honestly do not recall when we moved and how long we were fishing in the new location, but I do remember seeing action of our own very quickly. Staring at a bobber floating on the surface for hours on end makes it a strange sight once you finally watch it disappear. You almost forget what to do once that moment occurs and you get a little brain lag, but your body quickly takes over before the overthinking takes over. My bobber dropped and I quickly gave a firm hookset. I wasn’t afraid to lay the wood on these fish, I was fishing 0x fluorocarbon paired on a 7wt switch rod. This seems like a powerful rig, but trust me when I say you want this heavy of a rod. It helps with casting and effectively fighting these large and powerful fish. It only took a few headshakes for me to realize that this was a better fish than my first one. This time around we had much better footing and lighter wind so there were no mishaps when getting this fish to the net. It still took a decent amount of time landing the fish though, this fish nearly got me to my backing. Upon landing this fish, we quickly removed the hook, took a few quick photos, and got this right back into its home.

 The rest of Sunday I was able to catch one more LCT, which happened to be a small Summit Strain, and Richard got a Pilot Peak that was deemed “unworthy” of a photo (haha). Richard has fished Pyramid Lake in the past so his standard for a quality fish is at par with those who have fished it many times as well. That said, Sage or I would’ve been stoked to have caught it. It just goes to show the true magnitude of these fish and gives a true perspective of what a giant ecosystem can create. A small fish in Pyramid would be a fantastic fish for someone who regularly fishes South Park. Fish size and trophy status are all relative, but it’s definitely noticeable at Pyramid. 

After our four fish day, we packed up and quietly drove back to Fernley which is where we stayed for the length of the trip. We were brutally exhausted and were ready for sleep. That night we ordered a pizza which was at par with gas station food at best. But we all munched it down and I passed out on my bed with all of my clothes on from the day of fishing. 

Fast forward to the next morning, we got a late start heading to the lake and arrived after sunrise. Most of the time you want to be on the lake prior to sunrise to optimize your fishing time. Many eats happen right when it’s light enough to see your indicator. Even with our late start, Monday ended up being our best day on the water. We still only caught 6 fish, but from what we were hearing from other anglers, this was a good day for the time we were there. Sage  doesn’t fish nearly as much as Richard and I and I prompted him before the trip to purchase a switch rod to make the trip easier and more enjoyable. But, being that he lives in Iowa he didn’t see the necessity for a rod purchase that he might not use again. Sage fished a single hand 8wt all of Sunday and was having a hard time getting distance with our heavy nymph rigs and stiff wind. He received a blank on the first day and I wanted him to get on some fish, so I let him fish my switch rod and I opted for my Hardy Ultralite X 9’ 8wt on Monday. 

The morning kicked off with a bang, Richard and I both had bobber downs within the first 30 minutes of showing up to the lake. Richard’s was a beautiful Pilot Peak that went probably 5 lbs, while mine had an abnormally large head for his underwhelming body. Had he matched up, definitely would’ve been a 10 lbs fish. Again, I will never complain and the fish put up an absolutely amazing fight on my 8wt. After taking a look at the fish in the net I noticed something I’ve never seen before in person, this fish had a tag on it! If you’re unfamiliar with fish tags, they’re a small device used to track either the movement and distance a fish makes and/or to tell if the fish has been at a spawning station in the past. This fish had been tagged for a while by my best guess due to the ample amount of weed growth the tag had on it. It was super cool to see something like that, especially living in Colorado where few to no tagging operations occur. 


Once again, the midmorning bite was brutally slow and we spent more time enjoying some cervezas, talking smack, and endlessly watching bobbers than we did anything involving a fish. About 1:30 pm strolls around and Sage thinks he has a bobber down (context: there’s a lot of rocks to get caught on so sometimes a promising dunk is just a nice boulder). With a solid set, Sage bends the switch rod in half. None of us know what happened, but it appeared for a moment he was caught on a rock so a frustrated roll cast was thrown and Sage stripped in his line to check the flies. Sure enough as he pulls in the slack he just threw out, he’s tight on a fish! The entire time Sage was hooked onto an LCT but the fish’s initial reaction looked like it wasn’t one at all. Crazy times. As I mentioned before, Sage was born and raised in Iowa and still lives there today. He does trout fish out there and I can attest to the amazing spring creeks that are abundant through the Iowa Driftless region. But none of those fish are particularly big and a giant fish out there is 16-18” which is a rather common sight here in Colorado. Sage has only touched one of those fish prior to this trip and now he’s hooked onto a two foot LCT. We were all stoked for him and were happy to guide him into landing his biggest trout ever. A “small” fish for this lake was a personal best for Sage and brought more stoke to the group than our bigger fish. It was a special moment.

 Only a short 20 minutes later I get another bobber drop and this time I can really feel the difference in this fish. Big headshakes, bulldog fight, and just about every time I gained a foot of line, it took three. Keep in mind, I was fishing my 8wt so the amount of power I had in my rod to effectively turn this fish was limited in comparison to a switch rod. I still fought the fish more than appropriately, it just took a lot more time to get this fish in. Several times I was able to get my leader into the guides and close to netting, but it would instantly turn its head and take back some line. This fish ran back and forth down the back several times and attempted to wrap me around a rock right at my feet. This was particularly nerve wracking since I only had a 9’ rod and had less ability to extend and stop this from happening. Luckily I was able to crank on the fish and stop it halfway through. A sigh of relief was let out and less than 30 seconds later we got the fish into the net. This was the biggest fish of the trip in pounds by far. We caught two or three other fish right about the same length, but this fish had substantially more mass than the others. It was also awesome to see another tag on this fish! Two fish in a row for me that were tagged. This tag, in comparison to my last fish, appeared to be a little more fresh judging by the less weed growth on it. But this merely circumstantial evidence, in reality I have no idea but it was still a cool little bonus for the trip.

 We fished for another three hours with, of course, no bites. We made a decision to call it about 5 pm and get some much needed rest. In the last hour of fishing, Richard proceeded to catch two fish within 15 minutes of each other. One was another decently sized Pilot Peak female, but the true gem was beautifully colored up, large Summit that gave him a working. I remember running to grab the net before we saw what the fish looked like and immediately once we caught a glimpse of the fish underwater we were dumbfounded by its beauty. You can tell in the picture just how colored up it was and underwater its red glow was even brighter. After snapping a quick picture we decided to pack it up and call it a day. On our way out we saw one of the coolest weather displays any of us had ever seen. The far northside of the lake was clearly experiencing much heavier winds than what we were seeing and because of that there were giant mist “waves” blowing as high as The Needle Rocks. An absolutely beautiful display of nature. 


Day three was an absolute bust. Richard quickly connected after first light on another cookie cutter Pilot Peak, while I found a standard Summit in the net promptly after his. Tuesday was supposed to be the worst weather day, which is ironically the best fishing weather. Forecast predicted heavy cloud cover with a stiff breeze. Instead we saw the exact opposite. Fish were hunkered down and far away from the shore. There was a group of anglers who we hung out with for a few days from Steamboat that saw the only success in our area. They landed four or five fish between the three of them, but nothing to call home about. Our bobbers weren’t dropping so I ended up taking a nap on a very awkward boulder. Tuesday we fished the entire  day, from sunrise to sunset and the only fish landed were right at the start of the day. I did end up hooking a fish right as it was getting dark, but eventually popped off. It would’ve been nice to cap off the trip on a fish, but in hindsight it wasn’t a total loss. We saw the size of the fish and it wasn’t anything big, so I wasn’t too bummed about it. Still, it would've been a great way to finish it off.

All in all, it was an amazing experience even though we didn’t see a ton of action. The atmosphere and culture of those who fish the lake are unlike any other I’ve experienced. People are friendly and willing to help others out. Even though the beaches and rocks are crowded, everyone makes space for one another. Sharing beers, flies, and food isn’t a very common thing out here, so to see such comradery is amazing. We’re already gearing up for our trip next year and putting together a bigger group to hopefully increase our luck. We all had fun and all three of us would highly recommend you giving Pyramid Lake a go, even if you aren’t a fan of stillwater fishing. 

I hope you enjoyed our second edition of Tails from the Road and if anyone has questions or comments please reach out to me via email at xavier@goldenflyshop.com, or feel free to call the shop at 303-330-1292. Also, if you’re gearing up to go to Pyramid yourself, stop into the shop and we’d be happy to help you out with our top flies, rods, reels, and terminal tackle. Take care!
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