SUTCLIFFE, Nev. — His expedition journal shows that on Jan. 10, 1844, the explorer John C. Fremont rode over a desert-mountain pass in what is now northern Nevada and was startled to see a vast, blue lake.
Fremont and his 24-man party, who were looking for a river thought to flow from the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco Bay, traveled down the east shore of the lake. They found a rock island that reminded Fremont of the Egyptian pyramids. So he named it Pyramid Lake.
Fremont also found that the lake contained fish. Big fish. In camp, his party feasted on trout, up to three feet long. His party also discovered a large carp-like fish local Indians call Cui-ui (Kwee-wee).
Pyramid Lake, roughly 32 miles long and 14 miles wide, is about 35 miles northeast of Reno on Highway 445. The lake is actually the last remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, which geologists say once covered much of northern Nevada, more than 8,000 square miles--roughly the size of Lake Erie.
The trout fishery that Fremont found was to last about 100 years. Before dams were built on the Truckee River, the Lahontan cutthroat trout had evolved into one of the largest native trout species in North America. But the Lahontan cutthroat, which over hundreds of centuries evolved in the Pyramid-Truckee and Carson River-Lake Tahoe water systems, virtually disappeared in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when water diversions from the Truckee River to agricultural lands caused a delta to form at the river's mouth at the lake, blocking upstream spawning runs.
Heavy turn-of-the-century market fishing and the introduction of non-compatible species such as rainbow and lake trout also contributed to the decline of native cutthroat.
In the three decades following the first alteration of the Truckee's flow, in 1905, Pyramid Lake was one of North America's great trout fisheries. Clark Gable used to hide out at Pyramid and catch 20-pound cutthroat. So did former President Herbert Hoover. In 1925, a local named John Skimmerhorn caught a 41-pounder, still believed to be the largest cutthroat ever caught, even though his fish was never submitted as a world record. Evidence exists that native Lahontan cutthroat once reached the 60-pound class.
Early non-Indian fishermen at Pyramid called them "salmon trout."
From roughly 1940 to the early 1950s, deprived of its former inflow volumes of fresh water, Lake Pyramid became virtually troutless. But today, the once fabled Lahontan cutthroat has made quite a comeback. It isn't the same pure-strain Lahontan that Fremont found, but it is a close hatchery relative.
In the winter months, trollers, spin and fly fishermen from the west converge on the big lake to try their hand at 5- to 10-pound cutthroats.
Says U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Bob Hallock, who works with the lake's fishery: "The unique thing about Pyramid is that while it's not what it once was, it still produces some very big trout. Where else can you have a reasonable expectation of catching a five- to seven-pound trout? I don't know of any other place like that. I've caught 5 to 10 fish over five pounds in one day at Pyramid."
Hallock and other fly fishermen work the shallows on the lake's west and south shores in rubber waders. Spin fishermen cast from high shore rocks.
"Some fly fishermen use inner tubes and swim fins and kick out to deeper water, but that scares me," Hallock said. "Pyramid is a desert lake, and desert storms around here can come out of nowhere. You can be fishing in clear weather, and in a few minutes have thunder and lightning all around you. I've heard of winds blowing guys in tubes clear across the lake, and this is a big lake. You can get awfully cold out there."
Dark wooly worm patterns, fly fisherman Hallock reports, work best during Pyramid's cold months, when cutthroats are in the shallows.
"Black works best for me consistently, but there are days when purples, dark greens and browns work, too," he said. "And I've even taken trout on whites."
Two summers ago, Ray Johnson, a noted brown trout fisherman from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah, noticed that the International Game Fish Assn. (IGFA) record book was devoid of a cutthroat trout category.
Johnson decided to create one. Between July 21 and July 30, 1984, fishing with Gus Brennan of Reno, Johnson put six Pyramid cutthroat into the record book, ranging from 9 pounds 2 ounces to 11-9. He caught all the fish trolling, with downriggers, on 2-, 4-, 8-, 12-, 16- and 20-pound test line and carp minnow-patterned homemade lures.
Since then, due in large part to heavier-than-normal Sierra runoff, Pyramid fishing is even better.
Said George Black at Mark Fore and Strike, a Reno tackle shop: "Our annual contest winner this winter was a 16-pound fish. The next two were 15-11 and 15-9. The 15-9 was caught on a fly rod. I know one guy, Jose Silva, who caught a 13-0 fish on four-pound test, but the IGFA turned him down for a record because the scale wasn't certified."