In early October 2015 I found myself standing on a platform ladder in a high desert lake. After releasing a fish that only a few years ago did not really exist, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe it’s been over 15 years since I started fishing here and how much my life has changed because of this lake!” Then I started thinking how much the lake itself had changed. What a gift to have this place so close to home and to have the desire to share my knowledge of it with others. I am (now) grateful to have the opportunity to tell a story of how it has unfolded and thanks to the generosity of other anglers who have shared their secrets, creations and ideas that have made fly fishing at Pyramid Lake what it is today.
Evolution of the Lake
Located 30 miles East/North East of Reno Nevada, Pyramid Lake rests within the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation. The huge Lahontan Cutthroat Trout that roam its waters attract anglers from all over the world on a yearly basis. The lake has experienced many changes during the course of its natural history and almost as many in fly fishing equipment, techniques and fly patterns.
Pyramid Lake is a remnant of the once expansive Lake Lahontan that encompassed 83,000 square miles stretching across Northern Nevada, California and Idaho as far back as the Ice Age. Evaporation caused by climate changes eventually reduced Lake Lahontan into the now smaller high desert lakes we know now as Pyramid Lake, Walker Lake, Honey Lake, Winnemucca Lake, The Humboldt Sink and the Carson Sink hundreds of years ago. The latter three are dry now with Honey Lake going through periods of no water. Today the Truckee River Drainage provides Pyramid its main source of water.
Evolution of the Fish
Pyramid Lake is home to the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, the largest subspecies of Cutthroat Trout. Although the fish have roamed its waters for generations the present day fish have endured many changes through the years. At one time the lake was a commercial fishery supplying fish that fed the mining towns, railroad camps and cities like San Francisco as recently as the mid 1930’s. As farming became more widespread and local towns and cities grew, the need for water increased. Diversion dams were built along the Truckee River to carry water to local farms and communities. These dams along with evaporation lowered the lake level almost 80 feet in 10 years, cutting off the spawning grounds in the Truckee River. By the late 1930’s, Pyramid Lake was devoid of Cutthroat Trout leaving the Cui Ui (a native sucker) and a large minnow called Tui Chub, which have always spawned successfully in the lake itself as the only fish to live in the lake.
Finally in the early 1940’s a hatchery program restored the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout to Pyramid Lake. By way of a smaller lake called Summit Lake, the Summit Lake strain of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout were transplanted and have thrived in Pyramid Lake since the restocking. Today three hatcheries, one run by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Gardnerville Nevada and two on the reservation are responsible for the Cutthroat Trout that are planted back into the lake. Until recently, the Summit Lake Strain of Lahontans were thought to be the original strain of fish that lived in the lake before dying off in the 30’s.
In the 1980’s another subspecies of Lahontan’s was found in a small mountain range near the Nevada – Utah border called Pilot Peak. The fish were located during a research mission to find other species of trout. They were raised and studied for years until they were deemed to have been the real ancestors of the original Lahontan Cutthroats that grew to 40-50 pounds back in the early 1900’s. The Pilot Peak Strain was reintroduced to Pyramid Lake in 2005-06 and has been thriving there since. DNA tests indicate the Pilot Peak strain are the original Trout from Lake Lahontan and now Pyramid Lake. The Pilot Peak Cutthroat in its short history in the lake are growing to tremendous size, dwarfing it’s relative from Summit Lake.
In years before Pilot Peak fish were put in the lake anglers could expect to catch lots of fish in the 16-20 inch range with the females topping out at around 4 pounds or 24 inches and some of the males reaching 10-15 pounds and a few larger than that. In the last years before the Pilots were introduced Pyramid was as much a numbers fishery and big fish although out there, were much more uncommon.
The Pilot Peak strain is proving to grow much faster and to greater sizes for sure. The life span is thought to be longer and the fish are maturing later giving them a chance to really put on some weight. These fish are also much more voracious and are really thriving on the Tui Chub minnows and smaller trout. Both males and females are growing to tremendous size in the last few years with fish (upwards of) over 20 pounds up to the high 20 pound range are being caught by anglers every year. The numbers of 10-20 pound fish has really gone up making Pyramid Lake one of the best Stillwater trout fisheries in the World. Both species of Lahontans are currently stocked in the lake and both are important to the fishery. The Summit fish are easier to target and tend to school up better and give anglers the chance to catch more fish and the big Pilot Peak fish give the angler a real chance to hook into the fish of a lifetime.
Evolution of the Gear
As the lake came back into shape in the late 40’s and 50’s sport fisherman became more common to Pyramid. Conventional anglers have been tossing spoons into the depths of Pyramid since the beginning. Fly fishing started becoming more popular at the lake in the mid to late 1960’s. Locals Ike Berry and Roger Iveson were some of the first pioneers of fly fishing Pyramid Lake. Bamboo and fiberglass fly rods were used and early fly lines were homemade by splicing and nail knotting Lead Core trolling lines to the front end of a fly line to create a faster sinking line to get flies to the bottom more effectively. By the late 60’s about 1 in 10 fishermen at Pyramid Lake were equipped with fly fishing gear. Flies were simple Wooly Worm patterns meant to fish along the bottom with a sinking line. The most popular fly was the black Wooly Worm with a very short red Yarn butt. These flies were also tied in white and olive. Early anglers Pyramid Lake would stand out in the cold water in rubber waders lined up much like today but without a ladder and according to some, much further apart.
As fishing equipment evolved so did the Pyramid Angler. Milk Crates were the first improvement to the fishing conditions at the lake and were commonly used together with a rope and a milk jug or duck decoy to locate and remove. Anglers could now stand up out of the water another foot or so to help with casting flimsy rods and awkward fly lines. Plastic tubs were attached around the angler’s waist with some type of rope to create a stripping basket as well.
By the late 70’s and into the 80’s lots of new equipment started to appear at Pyramid Lake. Lead Core lines and eventually shooting heads were being needle nail knotted to mono running lines and made casting much easier as did the first Graphite fly rods and finally, the ladder. Lightweight Aluminum ladders and even some wooden ones started to appear at Pyramid Lake to replace the milk crate. The only problem with early ladders was when an angler got off, the ladder would float to the top so they had to be anchored in some way. Neoprene waders also made wading much more comfortable in the frigid water. Flies remained much the same although some new materials were making their way onto the tying scene like antron and some new synthetic chenille.
Some of the biggest changes to the fly fishing at Pyramid came in the 1990’s. Breathable waders, Fiberglass ladders, wearable stripping baskets, Integrated shooting heads and maybe the single most effective fly pattern of all at Pyramid Lake, Ike Berry’s Pyramid Lake Beetle. Long time steelhead guru, Jim Teeny designed an easier type of shooting head setup for Steelhead fishing and helped create a new fly line that had the shooting head and the running line be made as one complete line. This line was the first of its kind and had no connections or knots to go through guides on the fly rod. The Teeny series of shooting heads really changed the game at Pyramid around 1992-93 and made casting in windy conditions at Pyramid much easier. These lines pioneered modern day aggressive taper lines both in floating and sinking and helped other fly line companies create some incredible fly lines for the modern day angler. And, the fiberglass ladder was a great new piece of equipment at the lake. Now there was something for anglers to stand on that would stay put in the water, not rust and provide some added height for anglers to help with casting and getting out of the cold winter water. Soon after attachments like rod holders and net holders were fastened on to create more of a station to fish from.
One day while out fishing at the lake in the late 80’s, Ike Berry came across a large sagebrush bush floating in the water and when he went to move it he noticed a pod of small water beetles clinging to its branches. It soon became evident that these beetles were also part of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout’s diet. It did not take Ike long to create a fly that is now in every fly box of every angler at Pyramid Lake… The Pyramid Lake Beetle. Early models were tied with Brown or Green foam and anything from dubbing to chenille for the bodies. Fast sinking shooting heads had no problem pulling the foam flies to the bottom and dragging them along just like Wooly Worms. Most of the early beetles were tied on size 8-12 hooks to most closely imitate the beetles in the lake. Larger sizes were also effective and easier to hook fish. For a while Ike and his fishing buddies like Reno local Bill Ladner kept the Beetle thing pretty quiet. The word started to get out in 1996 and by 1997 other local Pyramid anglers had become privy to the Beetle and it was now in many anglers fly boxes. In 1998 Dave Stanley, owner of the original Reno Fly Shop received permission from Ike to tie and sell the Beetles in the Reno Fly Shop. “The beetles were tied in every color foam they could find” said Ike of the new fly at the Reno Fly Shop. Terry Barron who wrote the first book on fishing Pyramid Lake tied most of the beetles and wooly buggers for the Shop at the time. Tying guru and fly fishing rock star Andy Burk came up with the Wrapping Paper Beetle while working at the Reno Fly Shop in 1998. The Wrapping Paper Beetle was made by gluing an iridescent wrapping paper to the foam to create a sheen. Loco Foam, a 2mm foam that has the wrapping paper sheen built right onto the foam, was next. Loco Foam is still used in commercial Beetles tied by Umpqua Feather Merchants for Pyramid Lake. In 2000 Sash Nakamoto and Richard Dickerson started tying beetles with marabou tails and not long after referred to them as Tadpoles. Ike Berry had experimented with the tails back in the 90’s but it was not until later that these really hit the scene.
The turn of the century saw even more changes to the gear used at Pyramid Lake. Kitchen ladders became more popular with a larger standing area. The most interesting of all ladders at Pyramid Lake also came onto the scene in the form of the Pyramid Lake Chair. These homemade fishing stands have bass chairs built on them. Some of them have wheels to get them in and out of the water and some even fold to make transportation easier. The Pyramid Lake Chair is often customized for rod holders, fish finders, nets, seat caddy’s and stripping baskets. There are several local Pyramid Lake anglers who have the skills to do the welding needed to put one of these together and they can now be seen all over the lake.
Another huge change at fishing at Pyramid came in the early 2000’s. Anglers were used to coming to town to fish Pyramid with their 8 weight rods and their Shooting heads. Spearheaded by Reno Fly Shop employees, anglers were now seen Nymphing at Pyramid Lake with a floating line and an indicator. The earliest Nymph specifically tied for the lake was the Maholo Nymph. The Maholo Nymph is tied like a Pheasant Tail but with Holographic tinsel for the body. Employees would go out to the lake and have a 50-70 fish day and then go back to the Fly Shop to see the shop full with anglers purchasing spare spools and floating lines. The Maholo Nymph was the go-to guide fly back in the day and is just as effective today. Guides were fishing all day and then going home and tying flies all night to keep up. Short for time one night and a bunch more flies needed for tomorrow, the creation was modified. “What if I tie it midge style like a Zebra Midge”. And just like that, the Maholo Midge was born. The Maholo Midge is a more popular pattern now with Pyramid Lake anglers because it is really easy to tie and also catches a lot of fish. Nymphing at Pyramid has opened up the lake to fishing for a much wider skill level of angler who might not be able to cast a shooting head set up at the lake. It is one of the most important changes to the fishing that Pyramid has ever had.
Anglers are using a wide variety of stripping flies at the lake these days but the Wooly Bugger and Wooly Worm are still hard to beat. Anglers are encouraged to bring their saltwater patterns and streamers but it usually turns out that the anglers using the tried and true Wooly Buggers and Beetles are the ones catching the most fish. Chenille has come a long way since the early days with UV flash and Holographic strands built right into the chenille. This has also brought on fancy names for Wooly Buggers like the “Midnight Cowboy” and the “Olive Martini” but in the end, just like the Ike Berry Beetles, they are just nicknames for copies of the original patterns. Fly patterns and ideas tend to make their way around these days much faster due to social media.
The Balanced Leech created by Phil Rowley is the latest piece of the puzzle to modern day Nymphing at Pyramid Lake. The Balanced Leech was designed with Canadian Still Waters in mind and not so much for Pyramid. Not only are Pyramid anglers using the fly in the traditional manner by hanging it under an indicator but in the fall it is also being used on a fast sinking line in deeper water. The Pilot Peak strain has given anglers a new sort of ‘peak’ of the season in October when the Chubs are close to shore in warmer water. This has also made fishing from the lake from a float tube or pontoon boat in early fall really popular and effective when the fish tend to hang out in a little cooler water while keeping an eye on the bait. The Balanced Leech can be fished both horizontally and vertically around schools of Tui Chubs with or without an indicator this time of year.
Today the fishing at Pyramid Lake is in great shape despite the water shortage in the area. We do need water at some point to have this fishery take us through our lifetime and future generations but for now I do my best not to take it for granted and to enjoy the opportunities the lake is giving me and be humbled with the opportunities I’ve been able to share with others. As I sit in a van on a dirt road in the middle of Patagonia traveling to South America’s version of Pyramid Lake, pondering the end of this story I am hoping I will have similar opportunities to share more experiences like that of Pyramid Lake in the future. I wonder what new inventions will once again change the way we spend our days fly fishing such a unique and amazing place.
“…and the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.” — Ray Wylie Hubbard