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Return of the Lahontans

Once thought extinct, Pyramid lake’s cutthroat trout makes a massive comeback
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Fifty years ago, the prehistoric resident of Lake Lahontan — the Pleistocene era body of water that once covered most of Nevada — was extinct. The Lahontan cutthroat trout, Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi, was once known to grow to a size of 40 pounds in Pyramid Lake and the Truckee River, but the growth of industry eventually led to the eradication of every living lake-form member of the species. The so-called Monsters of Pyramid Lake were gone; at least that’s what everyone thought.

Then in 1975, in a twist of fate reminiscent of a Jurassic Park narrative, wildlife biologist Don Duff was looking for Bonneville trout in the Pilot Peak range near the border of Nevada and Utah, and pulled out a few interesting cutthroat with his fishing rod that proved to be a genetic match to the ancient lake cutties. It took years of work to carefully rear a thriving hatchery population and reintroduce the species to Pyramid Lake, but now there are fisherman swarming from around the world to try their hands at pulling a 20-pound cutthroat trout out of the desert lake 45 minutes north of Reno.

“We’re so fortunate to have a fishery that was almost decimated reintroduced, and now you have these prehistoric fish thriving. It’s a fairy tale, is what it is,” said Robert Hagerty, co-owner of Pyramid Fly Co., adding that most of his clients come to Pyramid for one thing: to catch one of the big ones.

“Even if fishing’s slow, they’ll hook up with a big fish. Whether they land it or not is a different story.”

The question now is, will we ever see the shadows of these 20-30 pound Lahontans moving through the Truckee River again? Fallen Leaf Lake? Lake Tahoe? Fate has turned Pyramid Lake into an immediate world-class fishing destination, a reintroduction success story of the ages, but it remains to be seen if the same will happen upstream.

Westbound

The Pilot Peak strain of Lahontans were first stocked in Pyramid in 2006, and it wasn’t until 2014 that the first fish successfully spawned once again just upstream of the lake — a pivotal event because it suggested the fish had not yet lost their genetic memory to spawn in the Truckee’s waters. It was that same year that the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery, located along the Truckee River south of Pyramid Lake, agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) to provide 70,000 of the Pilot Peak Cutthroat trout each year to stock in the main stem of the Truckee River on the Nevada side. If you’ve fished there in the past few years, chances are you might have caught one — note a red/orange streak running along the fish’s jaw before the gills.

“Those progeny are basically the genetic legacy of the original Pyramid and Tahoe strains,” said Lisa Heki, project leader for the hatchery, adding that  the hatchery has various contracts to provide trout to various entities for stocking. It sends more than 200,000 to the Pyramid Paiute Tribe, 70,000 to NDOW, about 200,000 to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and 30,000 to Fallen Leaf Lake near South Lake Tahoe, a place that they stock themselves.

Most of these contracts, however, are primarily intended for recreation, and Heki says that the rainbows and cutthroat typically don’t hold in the river due to the high fishing traffic. The spawning below Derby Dam leads Heki to be more optimistic however, and the hatchery is working with the Truckee Meadows Water Authority on the Truckee River Fish Passage Improvement Project to improve all the current manmade barriers to the Lahontans. Construction of a fish passageway on the Steamboat Ditch Diversion near Verdi will begin this fall, and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the program has already “reconnected 78 miles of fish passage and removed or remediated 14 fish passage barriers in the state of Nevada.”

“We have the opportunity to track the migration of Lahontan cutthroat trout out of Pyramid,” Heki said. “What a magnificent opportunity to see coming through Reno and Sparks, and hopefully one day Truckee, these big 30-pound cutthroats coming through to find spawning habitat.”

Get Our Water Back

The Derby Dam is still the main migratory barrier to the Lahontans, a dam that Pyramid Lake Fisheries director Albert John says changed Pyramid Lake more than 100 years ago. Since the dam obstructed the fish movement and diverted water away from the lake, John says one of the main goals of the Paiute Tribe has been to “get our water back.” When the dam went in, the level of Pyramid dropped about 90 feet, and it wasn’t until the ’90s or so that the Tribe was able to negotiate agreements for more water and to buy up water rights.

A boon to the tribe, and the Lahontans, is the Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA), which has given the tribe more control over dam releases in order to keep a healthy supply of water coming into Pyramid Lake. “This has been going on for 100 years, so I think we’re at our best point now that TROA has been signed, so we’ll see where it goes with that,” John said. “The main goal is getting more water and clean water.”

Poor Competitors

On the other side of the state line, California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist Mitch Lockhart says to be wary of calling the Lahontan stocking effort a “reintroduction.” The roughly 200,000 eggs that the Fish and Wildlife department receives are stocked only in many of the lakes and reservoirs around Truckee/Tahoe — Donner, Boca, Prosser, Stampede, Echo, etc. — and are meant simply for anglers. There is an allotment for stocking the Truckee River on the California side, but it has not yet been fulfilled, according to Lockhart.

“In only some of these lakes do we expect any sort of natural reproduction to occur,” said Lockhart. “Especially in the rivers with large populations of rainbows and browns, we don’t expect these fish to establish a population. They just don’t compete well with non-native salmonids. The reintroductions that we’ve seen work, and that Fish and Game has been involved in, have been in areas where we could completely remove alien trout species [rainbows and brown trout].”

Lockart said that Lahontans — in a strain developed by Fish and Game separate from the Pilot Peak trout — have been successfully reintroduced in Pole Creek, the Upper Truckee, and a handful of places that “probably nobody’s heard of.”

Have any of the stocked Pilots managed to find a more permanent place in the Truckee River Watershed upstream of Pyramid? Both Lockhart and Heki agree that it’s too early to tell. Stocking in California is very recent, and only kicked off on the Nevada side of the Truckee about four years ago. The next decade will be a pivotal time for the Lahontans, which grow about a half inch per month. (A 6-year-old trout can weigh up to 24 pounds). If any of the Pilots have been able to outwit the region’s voracious brown trout, it’ll be apparent soon.

Don Duff, the original discoverer of the Lahontan cutthroat trout, is optimistic. “Given the habitat, the fish will grow,” he says.

 
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