New Heathens
6Mar/11Off

Lahontan Dawn (with a nod to Mark Twain)

I’d been wantin’ a Lahontan, the giant cutthroat trout that swim around Pyramid Lake near Reno, NV, since I read about them as a kid. A family thing put me in range last week and after years of failed attempts I finally got one.

 

Lahontans are the biggest species of cutthroat trout to ever swim in western waters but their tale, and allure, runs much deeper than just their size. Lahontans are a story about something lost and something brought back, diminished, but still phenomenal.

Before the middle of the 20th century Pyramid Lake Lahontans were thought to be extinct. For decades scores of the great trout, which grew bigger than salmon, were netted to feed the miners and loggers plying Northwestern Nevada and the crook of Northeastern California. Lahontans ran the Truckee River, which flows between Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, until the stream was dammed, diverted and dewatered to hydrate crops in the high desert. Without a stream to spawn in, and with so few left, the last time anybody saw Nevada's State Fish in the Tahoe/Pyramid watershed was in the 1940s.

A beautiful trout was gone.

In the 1970s a fish biologist exploring a tiny stream in the mountains of Utah discovered a strain of cutthroat trout he didn’t recognize. I’m guessing these mountain trout were conspicuously huge because genetic tests showed that they were Lahontan cutthroats from Pyramid Lake. Although no stocking record exists, somebody at some time took trout from Pyramid and planted them in that little, Utah creek.

It was to be the Lahontan cutthroat’s lifeline.

Biologists harvested eggs from the Utah Lahontans and brought them to a fish hatchery on the shore of Pyramid Lake. With man’s help, the Lahontans repopulated their ancestral home and today Pyramid Lake is not just the only place in world to catch a lake-dwelling Lahontan in its native waters, it’s also a rockin’ sportfishery.

Catching a Lahontan can be a weird adventure, as I found out with my brother on a few Pyramid trips when he caught one and I didn’t. The cold-water loving trout dive deep in the summertime but in late winter they cruise closer to the shore. Hearty anglers pioneered the technique of hauling ladders as far out into the lake as possible and fishing from them. Most fishermen I saw last week had a nifty contraption that one-upped the ladders. It was a cage-like structure with a chair on top from which they could sit over chest-high water and fish.

Smurfette displays the ladder technique.

Sister-Smurf and Smurfette show off the “just-about-to-cook breakfast-‘Smores-on-coathangers-over-the-shoreline-bonfire” technique.

 

I display the “how-nice-it-is-to-have-a-bonfire-when-fishing-in-February” technique.

Most of today’s Lahontans are smaller than their ancestors. The world record, caught at Pyramid in 1925, weighed 41 pounds. Old photos show Lahontans that topped 60 pounds. But today’s Lahontans are still whoppers. In other waters a 17-inch trout would be something to crow about. Pyramid’s regulations allow keeping two fish per day so long as they are either between 17-inches and 20-inches, or longer than two-feet. Notice the regulations don’t even mention trout smaller than 17-inches!

A pastel, rainbowed, 18-inch “little guy.”

When I caught my first Lahontan, I let out a triumphant shout. With each additional Lahontan I caught, I grinned far too wide for a man wading past his crotch in wintery water.

Sadly, Lake Tahoe hasn’t fared as well as Pyramid Lake. Despite Bill Clinton declaring in 1997 that the government would help Lahontans once again swim in Tahoe’s cerulean depths, attempts to restock them were doomed to failure. Humans planted both mysis shrimp and carnivorous Lake trout in Tahoe. The little Lake trout eat the mysis shrimp and grow into big predators that gobble up any and every baby Lahontan.

But at least Pyramid Lake, a stark, desert oasis shrouded in legend, can still hold the mighty Lahontan Cutthroat. And maybe more. The lake, which sits on Paiute tribal land, is said to be the home of prankish, drowned souls called “Water Babies.” You’re advised to bring the Water Babies treats, lest they decide to haul you under and drown you too. Each day I visited Pyramid Lake I threw in pieces of candy for the Water Babies.

In goes candy, out comes trout.

Maybe they wanted something else. On Friday I rose at 4 a.m. and drove my stepmother’s SUV out to Pyramid Lake before dawn to make sure I had a choice spot when the fishing clock began, one hour before sunrise. I wound down to the lake in pitch black on a dirt road and saw in the headlights tire tracks snaking toward the shore through yellow brush. Foolishly, I tried the shortcut. I ended up bogged down, spinning my wheels, stuck in thick, cold, clay.

For two-and-a-half hours I made like a gopher and dug that car out with my damn bare hands (which ache like a sonofabitch today). Behind me, the sun rose over the lake and I could see the silhouettes of fishermen hauling up big Lahontans. It was like a version of hell. Or at least purgatory.

Speaking of which, in 1879 Mark Twain traveled to Europe. He so hated the food in the old country that he wrote a mouth-watering list of more than 80 wild, American foods that he couldn’t wait to come home and savor.

Lahontan cutthroat trout from Lake Tahoe, on which Twain feasted when he wrote for a newspaper in Carson City, NV, made the list.

So in honor of Twain, Smurfette, who loves to eat trout, and my step-grandmother, who is awesome at cooking them, I took home one Lahontan. I don’t keep many trout, especially not cutthroats because they’ve lost so much of their native habitat, but I dare say they might be my favorite. Cutthroat flesh is meaty, almost like a salmon, and it’s more savory than other trout, which can occasionally taste nutty, fishy or at worst, dirt-y.

(Too bad Twain never tasted Orange Blossom beer from Reno’s Buckbean Brewery; it’s the perfect compliment to a Pyramid Lake meal.)

It was refreshing to spend time outside, breathe cold air, watch high desert sunrises, and even do ridiculous things like frenzy in mud and throw York candies at myths while standing on a ladder in the middle of a freezing lake in February.

It was a hard week in Reno. I came out to bury my stepmother. I couldn’t help but think of my family when I caught those Lahontans, a fish that was feared lost, but one that made it back, though never to be the same as it was before.

Twain was right. I miss them too.

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