Giant cutthroats hint at revival in Nevada lake

March 04, 2013 at 11:06 AM
RENO, Nev. (AP) — It's been three months, and Ed Smith still gets worked up talking about it.

After all, the 72-year-old Sparks resident has been fly fishing for Pyramid Lake's cutthroat trout for more than 30 years. He's caught plenty of fish. Plenty of big ones.

"You want to catch a 10-pound fish or over. That's what we look for," said Smith, who generally throws a line into the lake five days a week.

So imagine Smith's surprise on Nov. 21 when he pulled a struggling 24-pounder out of the water, an experience he said came with a thrill that still sometimes wakes him at night.

"Excitement is an understatement," Smith told the Reno Gazette-Journal ( "It was a giant fish. It would barely fit in the net."

Smith's not the only one excited. That fish might have been the biggest, but cutthroats in the 20-pound range are now "coming in pretty regularly" as efforts to restore native fish to Pyramid Lake appear to be paying off big-time, said Lisa Heki, complex manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Lahontan National Fish Hatchery.

It's still early to say for sure, but the size of the so-called "Pilot Peak" cutthroat being caught in Pyramid Lake over the past year points to a healthy fish population that might, in a few years, be producing fish like the 41-pound world record fish landed in 1925 by Paiute Johnny Skimmerhorn.

"We've turned a corner," Heki said. "Based on what we're learning, there's a strong indication they're going to provide a great fishery, a fishery reminiscent of that 1930s fishing experience."

A troubled fish

If that's true, it would be a profound reversal.

Nevada's state fish, Lahontan cutthroats (also known as Pilot Peak cutthroats) once thrived in all the major rivers and lakes on the eastern side of the Sierra, including Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River. The fish were famous for their size and taste, with explorer John Fremont declaring in 1845 that "their flavor was excellent — superior, in fact, to that of any fish I have ever known."

Lahontan cutthroats were fished extensively from Tahoe and Pyramid. Rail cars full of the fish were sent to mining camps and to San Francisco as people harvested a succulent resource that one newspaper reported in 1881 was "inexhaustible."

That was not the case.

Overfishing, destruction of spawning habitat and the introduction of non-native game fish — particularly the Mackinaw — combined to collapse the cutthroat population in Lake Tahoe, with the fish gone from the lake by 1939.

By 1944, cutthroats disappeared from Pyramid Lake as well, with the death knell for that lake's population largely linked to the 1905 construction of Derby Dam about 30 miles upstream. The dam diverted much of the Truckee River's previous flow into Pyramid Lake into the Carson River for irrigation use, destroyed spawning habitat and blocked fish passage.

Lahontan cutthroats were listed as an endangered species in 1970 and reclassified to threatened five years later, a status change designed to provide greater flexibility for restoration efforts.

In 1974, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe established a new cutthroat fishery. To this day, the tribe releases fish raised at its Sutcliffe hatchery into the lake, but these fish come from stocks originating outside the Truckee River Basin, a step taken because experts assumed Pyramid's original cutthroats were gone for good.

Pilot Peak discovery

That assumption came into question in the late 1970s when a taxonomist named Bob Behnke collected trout from a small stream in the Pilot Mountains on the Nevada-Utah border. Based on their physical characteristics, Behnke came to the conclusion those fish were likely related to the original Pyramid Lake stock.

Decades later, that conclusion would be confirmed through DNA testing.

"This strain definitely represents the original Pyramid Lake legacy," Heki said.

Based largely on Behnke's early conclusions — in a move later supported by the DNA tests — the Fish and Wildlife Service began raising the Pilot Peak strain of cutthroats at its Lahontan hatchery in Gardnerville in 1995. The first of those fish were released into Pyramid Lake in 2006, joining those already planted there by the tribe.

It was late on a breezy afternoon on Jan. 21, 2012, when Matt Ceccarelli — having fished unsuccessfully throughout the day at two locations — threw his line into the water near the marina at Sutcliffe. After his third or fourth cast, Ceccarelli recalls, he hooked a fish that was a big surprise when he finally got it ashore. It was the first confirmed catch of an adult Pilot Peak cutthroat, and the fish weighed 19.8 pounds.

"When we pulled that fish in, it was amazing," Ceccarelli said. "I had no idea fish were getting that big out there."

In October 2012, Ernie Gulley landed a female Pilot Peak cutthroat that weighed 17 pounds. The following month, Ed Smith caught that whopping 24-pounder, an experience he describes as "just beyond belief."

They keep on coming. At Crosby's Lodge in Sutcliffe, there are 19 photos posted on the wall of big cutthroats caught during the lackluster fishing season of 2011-12. More than 80 photos of big cutthroats are posted for the current season, and many of them are of the Pilot Peak variety, said owner Fred Crosby.

"It's quite the buzz," Crosby said of a situation that is gaining increasing attention by fishing magazines and blogs around the country. Crosby said he thinks a 30-pound Pilot Peak cutthroat will likely be landed within two or three years, and he agrees the long-term prospects for the Pyramid Lake fishery appear very promising.

"It would sure be nice to get those fish back," Crosby said. "It's a shame we lost them in the first place."

Positive effects

Tribal officials, who agreed to allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife to begin stocking the fish into Pyramid Lake in 2006, concur.

"Now they're getting big, so we're pretty happy about it," said Albert John, fisheries director for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. The Pilot Peak strain, John said, is "the closest there is" to the lake's original cutthroats.

"This is really what it's all about," agreed tribal planner Scott Carey. The seeming success of the Pilot Peak cutthroat introduction, Carey said, bodes well not only for conservation goals but for the tribe's economy.

"From a tourism perspective, this has been absolutely huge," Carey said.

What's unique about this particular cutthroat? Plenty, said Heki, the hatchery manager.

The main thing, of course, is their size. Several factors combine to cause these fish to grow big and at an estimated rate of about a half-inch per month. Among them, the Pilot Peak cutthroat reach sexual maturity at six or seven years — relatively late. That allows them to put more energy early in life to growth, "which is a good thing," Heki said.

They also switch from eating zooplankton to other fish when only a little more than a foot long, earlier than other cutthroats, which also helps promote quicker growth. Heki also believes they are long-lived, maybe 15 or 20 years, which could make for some whopper old-timers.

"These are the traits we are looking for," Heki said, adding that decades of efforts to restore Pyramid's cutthroats may well have reached a positive tipping point.

"It's been a long time, and this is very exciting," Heki said. "Now, it's tangible."


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.