Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pyramid Lake - The Giants are Back

Dave Hamel with a massive 34", 20lb-class Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, February 2013

Preface: I never do this but these two articles (scroll down) were too good to pass up and they won’t be easy to find on the internet for long.  They were in the RGJ and written by Jeff DeLong and Mary Peacock to whom I give full credit.  I just had to put them up again because not much is written about the plight of the mighty Lahontan Cutthroat Trout and I found the info in the articles worth sharing. So in other words, I'm doing this for posterity's sake.  Over the past 12 years I’ve spent a good amount of time fishing and researching Pyramid Lake combing through books, magazines, blogs and internet articles in an attempt to better understand this unique desert fishery.  I’ve visited Summit Lake, NV and Independence Lake, CA, the last two bastions for self-sustaining lacustrine populations of these apex predators, have spoke with several fisheries biologists and have visited the Lahontan National FishHatchery in Gardnerville to see and inquire about the Pilot Peak Strain first hand.  

Now then, I’ve been theorizing for the past few years that the seldom heard of Pilot Peak strain, which even fewer people knew was introduce into Pyramid Lake back in 2007 (~13,000 juveniles per the biologist I spoke to), was the culprit which explained the ever increasing size of fish showing up in the creel in recent years.  I’ve kept loose tabs on fish caught out of the lake since 2000, and whereas for the next 10 years that followed, 14-15lbs seems to be a glass ceiling for rod and reel anglers (per the Tribe’s “creel census”) and the Sutcliff Hatchery (per the brooder spawning records that the Tribe used to publish), starting about 3 or 4 years ago fish started showing up that mysteriously broke (and even shattered) that ceiling.  In particular, several 15+ pounders showed up in 2009 and 2010 timeframe, fish up to 17lbs or better were reported in 2011, in early 2012 they were pushing the low 20's and by the end of 2012 and into this year, there are reports that I'm aware of about three 23-24lb class fish (amongst others slightly smaller).  You can even go to the Crosby Lodge website, its as if 10 pounders don't even't turn heads anymore and 15-18 pounders are a weekly occurrence (for everyone but me, I can't break 10).   Are they going to have to start a 20lb club?  There is no denying that in recent years, the big boys seem to be coming back and the maximum size for mature fish had grown by an astonishing 8-10lbs (60-70%) . How could this happen if food sources, alkalinity, spawning habitat and fishing pressure remained relatively static during the same period?

The good news is that it was happening, and there is speculation by some that fish approaching 30lbs could be a reality in the not too distant future....i tend to agree.  Will they grow to their historic gargantuan proportions of 60lbs or more, who’s to say, but biologists believe the recent slough of 20 pound pilot peakers are only 1/3 through their natural lifecycle.  Even still, they'll have some challenges given whats been done to the Truckee River (and the water rights contained therein) over the past century.  The fish have many things going against them these days than was the case before 1905 from the lake level being 100 feet lower than it was 100 years ago, thereby increasing the alkalinity and decreasing the life expectancy of these fish, to the inability of brooders to navigate the Truckee/Pyramid delta and Derby Dam to spawn naturally, to antiquated fishing rules that allow the biggest fish to be culled rather than released to propagate their genes.  On top of this, the Pilot Peak fish has been living in a small desert creek for the past 60 plus years, and I've read that there is concern that some natural selection may have occurred over that time frame that may have deselected certain traits that allowed these fish to grow to be 60 pound apex predators in a tui chub-rich lacustrine environment in exchange for the traits of stealth, agility, wariness and perseverance needed to survive in the harsh environment of a small desert creek half way up Pilot Peak on the Nevada and Utah border.  Only time will tell.  Anyhow, now that it seems to be widely accepted that the Pilot Peak strain is the cause for all the hub-bub, it’s a good thing I’m not the type of person who says “I told you so”.  Now for the articles:

Giant cutthroats show efforts to restore native fish to Pyramid Lake working

By Jeff DeLong

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 said. “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.”
Ed Smith caught this 36", 24lb Pilot Peak strain Lahontan Cutthroat in November or 2012.  It was stocked in 2007

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.”

DNA confirms Pyramid Lake trout's origin

By Mary Peacock

Bringing them home required years of costly efforts combined with cutting-edge science to scrutinize clues of the past.

In the end, DNA analysis confirmed what experts had suspected for decades. Cutthroat trout pulled from a once-fishless stream in the rugged mountains on the Nevada-Utah line were the last remaining remnants of the native Lahontan cutthroat trout, also known as Pilot Peak cutthroats, that disappeared from Pyramid Lake nearly 70 years ago.

After Bob Behnke discovered the fish in that stream in the late 1970s, he and other experts agreed their characteristics indicated they were descendants of the original cutthroat strain. They had the right look, grew the right way.
The experts also knew that Nevada officials in the early 1900s had pulled cutthroat trout out of Pyramid Lake and, as one researcher put it, “dumped them into streams all over the place.”

That was the assumption about what had happened, and in this particular case, the population survived.

Science of the 1990s allowed researchers to examine DNA from the Pilot Peak cutthroats found on the state line. The problem was that DNA from the museum mounts of fish taken from Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe and the lower Truckee River before they vanished from the area could not be examined for comparison.

Because the specimens were preserved in formalin — which chemically bonds to DNA — the old genetic material could not be successfully extracted.
“They were really interested in finding out if these were the original fish,” said Mary Peacock, a professor of biology and genetics expert at University of Nevada, Reno. “But we had no way to get the DNA out.”

Fast forward to around 2005, when evolving science solved the problem. Peacock and colleagues then gained the ability to compare DNA taken from the Pilot Peak strain with museum mounts of cutthroats taken from the Truckee River system between 1872 and 1911. It was a match, or nearly so.

“I think it was a watershed event,” Peacock said. “These guys are genetically the closest. When you ask the question where these fish came from, the answer is very clearly from the Truckee River system — from Pyramid Lake.”


g_rob said...

I'm in the same boat - I've been closely watching the increasing size of trout caught at Pyramid since the late 90s when I caught my first fish there. I don't get up there very often but it is a fascinating story.

Here's a couple more articles:

JRob said...

Great pics and story. I didn't get the 10+ pounder yet but I know he is close. Lots of other great fish to be caught.

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