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An Ancient Inland Sea

By Ernie Gulley
12/18/13 -- Pyramid Lake is located 35 miles North of Reno, Nevada on the Piute Indian reservation. This ancient lake, along with the Piute Indians, has been around since the beginning of time.

This beautiful sea has only one inflow, the Truckee River, which is being cut in half by the derby dam that was completed in the early 1900’s to divert water into the Carson City basin. The lake has been hanging on by its finger tips over the years and the much needed 2011 winter raised this lake over four feet due to one of best winters the Sierra’s has had in its history.

Still with all of the trials and tribulations this ancient lake and its people have gone through, it remains in my opinion one of the best still water destinations in all of the United States. In no other still water lake can I think of at any one given moment, on any given cast, you have a chance to hook a 10, 15, or 20 pound cutthroat trout on a fly rod. Here is the story of my trip of the year, Pyramid Lake, NV.

My trip was to be a 7-day expedition to Pyramid; however with unforeseen adjustments with my fishing partner, we decided to make it a four day trip with three days of fishing. This is a very long drive for me, more than 540 miles one way but it was going to be Pyramid Lake or bust. I started my journey from my home in Riverside, California at 9 a.m. in the morning, next stop, Mammoth Lakes, California to pick up my fishing buddy, Joe Contaldi of Performance Anglers Guide Service. This would be an opportunity for my first trip with Joe to Pyramid Lake and hopefully many, many more in the years to come.

All reports since the beginning of the season were dismal to say the least. Anglers were averaging 1 to 3 fish per day. This year’s fishing reports from Pyramid had been the worst reports in over 20 years. The fish were not moving into the shallows to spawn, water temperatures had held them back and with a very warm weather front moving in we decided to take a chance and make the trip anyways. With a lot of hope and a few prayers, a chance at a monster Lahontan cutthroat on any given cast was on our mind.

Nine and a half hours later, which seemed like an eternity to the both of us, we arrived at the ancient shores and unpacked the truck. Along with our entire fly fishing gear and camping equipment we also unpacked our ladders, yes ladders.

An Ancient Inland Sea, Ernie Gulley, fishing ladders, By Ernie Gulley, Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Special ladders are used at Pyramid Lake to reach fish that are near the drop offs. Photo by Joe Contaldi

This is one of the tools that you need to fish Pyramid and be successful, however this year we didn’t need our ladders, we used them sparingly with very minimal success. We fished mostly deep drop-offs that can be found on many of the different beaches found along the 25 mile long western side shoreline of the lake, mostly standing and wading in ankle deep water along the edge of the shoreline. Our favorite and most productive beach turned out to be a beach named “Sand Hole” located on the southern end of the lake close to where the Truckee River feeds into the lake.

There are two different styles of fishing at Pyramid Lake for the fly anglers, one is called stripping, which includes throwing a very heavy shooting head (200gr to 350gr) that gives you an advantage in the high winds that you will always find at this lake. Your flies for this technique are very large, size 10’s all the way up to a size 2, in wooly buggers, wooly worms, floating beetles and tadpoles made out of foam.

The other style of fishing is called indicator fishing. In this technique we fish very large size 12 flies all the way up to a size 6 or larger, in midge patterns, nymph patterns like copper johns, prince nymphs and pheasant tail nymphs. The rule of thumb for fly patterns at Pyramid lake is, make your patterns very shinny and very bright. Colors include purples, reds, yellows, pinks, oranges, chartreuse, blacks and whites and any other colors you can think of because these Lahontan cutthroat trout are very color happy more than the type of fly you choose.

Day one of our trip, we fished more than 6 different beaches searching for the fish. We fished mostly from our ladders, again with very little success. Every beach had very few fish and no fish were moving into the shallows, even in the early morning, at dark and late evening during low light. We ended up with 12 fish between the two of us, Joe had 7, and I had 5. New plan of attack, if the fish would not move into shallow water beaches, we would go to deep water beaches and wait for them to come to us.

The next morning, Day 2, we started at the North Nets. We used the stripping technique by throwing (shooting heads) on that shallow water beach. We fished early morning in the low light and only picked up two fish. Immediately we moved to Sand Hole beach and fished the deeper drop-offs, using the indicator technique with 12 feet of leader under our indicators and 25 to 30 feet away from the shore line. We fished until night fall and moved back to Pelican beach to see if the fish moved in under the low light but this was a waste of time, we didn’t pick up any fish. We ended the second day with a total of 22 fish, including a very large hen that weighed close to 17 pounds, 31 inches long and 19 ½ inches in girth! Joe had 10 fish, and I ended with 12.

Ernie Gulley, Pilot Peak, Lahontan Cuttthroat Trout, Pyramid Lake, NV
The author with a beautiful Pilot Peak Lahontan Cutthroat. Photo by Joe Contaldi

This of course made the whole trip worthwhile for me and why every angler comes to Pyramid Lake. Anglers who come to Pyramid Lake will travel over a 1,000 miles round trip looking for a chance at the fish of a lifetime and now it was in my net! This fish was taken while indicator fishing a very deep drop-off along “Sand Hole” beach, 12 feet below my indicator, in 16 feet of water. I was using a size 6, yes and size 6 midge with a black holographic body, amber tungsten head and amber wire. These fish will eat a very large midge pattern so by all means, give them a large pattern. Before I let you know about a twist to this story and about this magnificent fish; let me tell you how I landed it.

Effective Midge flies tied by Ernie Gulley. Photo by Ernie Gulley
Effective Midge flies tied by Ernie Gulley. Photo by the author

My indicator dipped a little and I set the hook, the line snapped tight, the rod loaded and bent over double. I felt two very slow head shakes. This is normal for a very large fish to give you some hard slow head shakes. Just as l thought, oh boy, this could be a big fish the fly line started to come off my reel at a pretty good rate. I was using 6 pound tippet and my drag on my fly reel was as tight as it could be for my tippet size so this fish was really pulling hard. I said to my fishing partner, this is either a very large fish or a decent fish that has been tail hooked, and the fish didn’t stop until he got into my backing. The fight continued for the next 5 minutes and when this fish hit the net, I could not believe my eyes. There were three other guides waiting for this battle to end and to see how big this fish could be and every one of them gasped with bulging eyes, including myself, at the sheer mass and thickness of this fish when it made it into the net. I immediately new this was a fish of a life time, as did my fellow anglers, and possibly one of the largest cutthroat trout I may land for the rest of my life. The thickness of this fish was like I have never seen, very fat and a head the size of a small bullet tuna. This is as far as I know was the largest fish ever taken on the indicator style of fly fishing at Pyramid Lake in history at the time.

While I was admiring this beautiful fish, something caught my eye; it had a tag in its dorsal fin. The tag was yellow and was placed on this fish with a phone number to the Nevada department of fish and game. This fish was given its very own number so they could track the fish when it was caught. I called the number on the tag and left a message to biologist and awaited his return call. In a matter of minutes my phone started blowing up and two messages for me to return the call. When I returned the call, the biologist David Miller, was as excited as I was about the catch. His exact words were “I have all the paperwork on this fish right here in front of me, please tell me all the details you can about the fish”. I informed him that the fish was 31 inches long and had a girth of 19 ½ inches. He told me the fish was released from a beach called Popcorn, just a few miles south of Sand Hole beach and she was released on May 30, 2007. When she was released she was 7 ½ inches long. My reply was “what, are you kidding me!” are you telling me this fish went from 7 1/2 inches long to 31 inches long and 16 pounds plus in just 5 years. He said this is the largest tagged fish caught and released that has been turned into the department. I released the fish and it swam away strong like a torpedo, which I was very happy to see such a great release of this beautiful fish.

This is a new strain of Lahontan cutthroat called the Pilot Peak strain. This is supposed to be the original fish that was completely killed out of the lake in the 1940’s and thought never to be found again until years back when in a small stream on the Utah/Nevada border, these fish were found in the Pilot Peak mountain range. The fish have been genetically tested and found to be the original fish from the ancient Lake Lahontan. This fish is just the tip of the iceberg for this Pilot Peak strain, a ten year old fish could sneak into the 30 to 40 pound weight class explains the Nevada department of fish and game.

Day three we fished “Sand Hole” beach, where else would we fish after yesterday’s fish of a lifetime. We fished hard from sunrise to 2pm when we decided to make our long journey home. We ended the day with 18 fish, Joe landed 8, and I with 10 but still with big smiles on our faces. The smile on my face has not left since I released that beautiful fish of a lifetime back into its ancient home. Farwell ancient Lake Lahontan, thanks for giving me a one of the most fantastic fish of my life and memories that will last me a lifetime!

Ernie Gulley is a premiere guide at the famous California still water Crowley Lake. His passion for sharing and teaching others how to be successful is genuine, and his knowledge on Chironomid techniques for still waters is at the highest level. Ernie also does fabulous presentations across the state of California at major fishing shows and fly clubs, including at ISE 2014 in Sacramento. He can be reached at

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