Streaming the Depths for Lahontan Cutthroat

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Are you familiar with Nevada’s Pyramid Lake? If you’re a fly-fisherman, that’s a rhetorical question. Where else has anyone waded a hundred yards into a lake and perched atop a ladder for twelve hours, casting through whatever Mother Nature cares to drop on that particular day? A veritable Hell for some. But the reward?  

If you’re lucky, suffering the grind of a rough day on Pyramid Lake can land you a dark and muscly Lahontan cutthroat. If you’re really lucky, that cutthroat can breach 20 pounds. A trout of that magnitude only appears in the dreams of many anglers. 

Not the most elegant of the trout species, Lahontans are beautiful in their own way. Their typical appearance is a shimmering, chrome body covered head to tail with consistent black speckling. Spring spawning males darken to a vibrant merlot red along the lateral line flanked by rich bronze and olive ensconcing the dorsal. 

These cutts are unique in that they originated in the Lahontan Basin of northern Nevada, northeastern California, and southeastern Oregon, thriving in highly alkaline water uninhabitable by other fishes. Once prolific throughout their native range, water manipulation and invasive fishes greatly reduced populations to the point of being listed “Threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. Lahontans in their native range remain listed today but state fish and wildlife agencies can allow angling. Sparing the details of how and why, you can dig into it yourself online. 

Numerous propagation programs have introduced these fish to alkaline lakes across Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada offering opportunity closer to home and likely a climate with les vengeance. The fish, maybe not as hulking as you may find in Pyramid Lake, but ranging in size from 20-inches to 10-pounds with regularity. 

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California’s Heenan Lake, Oregon’s Mann Lake and Washington’s Lake Lenore offer fine opportunity, to name a few. Being a Washington resident, I cut my teeth on Lenore Lahontans, wading the shoreline, casting Little Cleo spoons. Jerking the spoons back to shore elicits an erratic chasing behavior with many fish following to within a rod’s length before violently smashing the spoon. The flash of the spoon grabs their attention and the zealous roll out in hot pursuit, nipping and slashing as far as 100 feet before closing the deal or peeling off after easier insect prey. 

Eventually I traded spoon for a streamer and sinking line. Many Pyramid Lake fishermen strip streamers or dunk leeches and midges suspended below a strike indicator. Dropping flies under a strike indicator can feel like tree-stand hunting while streamer fishing is more like spot and stalk. Rather than wait for the fish to cruise by and take the fly (or not), moving and casting streamers keeps an angler engaged. And covering water can dramatically increase opportunity at times.   

Cruising a cliff-sided shoreline, I rolled a black bugger with a brass bead head and modest bling onto the boulders scattered about the water’s edge. The lake was clear but choppy, putting the fish down a bit. Counting down the sinking line a good 20 seconds before making that first twitch dropped the little black bugger right in the wheelhouse of a heavy fish with an eye on the breakfast menu. 

We had just drifted into a wind-sheltered cove and over water about 30 feet deep when subtle tension triggered my sixth-sense, strip-set reaction. There was no budge.  

“I snagged a boulder, could you spin us around?” I asked my buddy Chas at the helm.  

About the time the bow and stern swapped ends, so did my personal best Lahontan as he made haste for the main lake. Having caught my share of these slick-water beauties, I was surprised by his moves and strength. Even the big boys tend to dive and shake rather than run, but this guy wasted no time and cut me no slack. 

Clasping the spool on my switch rod I coaxed him into lateral runs as I fought to draw him closer to the boat. Dodging Chas’s chiding about my Bill Dance fish-playing skills, retrieving the net became top priority as the fish finally surfaced.   

Boating the beast, we guessed its weight between five and seven pounds. A gorgeous buck with a slight kype. The remnants of a lesser-skilled angler adorned his snout as tightly-wound tippet and a small green bugger embedded in the roof of his mouth.  

Plucking the bugger, I stuck it in my cap, then freed the beast of the entangled tippet and released him to steal another fly, frustrating the angler who knows what he lost. 

Discover new challenge and adventure chasing speckled adipose fins on a desert lake concealing Lahontan cutthroat. The experience may be miserable. But landing a weighty Lahontan? Utterly unforgettable.  

Brad Trumbo

Brad lives in southeast Washington State with his wife Ali and pack of Llewellin setters on a small homestead. He serves the public as a fish and wildlife biologist and active Pheasants Forever life member. His free time is devoted to habitat, the pursuit of fin and feather, and writing about his outdoor passions.

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