Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi) at Marble Bluff Dam, Nevada. Photo: Kelsey McCutcheon.
“An Indian brought in a large fish to trade, which we had the inexpressible satisfaction to find was a salmon-trout [Lahontan cutthroat trout]; we gathered round him eagerly. The Indians were amused with our delight, and immediately brought in numbers, so that the camp was soon stocked. Their flavor was excellent – superior, in fact, to that of any fish I have ever known. They were of extraordinary size…generally from two to four feet in length.” –John Charles Fremont, arriving at the mouth of the Truckee River in 1844.
Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki) are native to all major river drainages of western North America (Sigler & Sigler 1987). The Lahontan cutthroat trout (O.c.henshawii), our local subspecies, evolved from fish that became isolated in the waters of the Lake Lahontan basin thousands of years ago. As lake level decreased after the end of the Pleistocene, populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout persisted in the water bodies that remained, including Tahoe, Pyramid and Walker Lakes, the Carson, Walker, Truckee and Humboldt river, and tributary lakes and streams (Rivers 1994). In Pyramid Lake, a dead-end lake where water leaves only by evaporation, Lahontan cutthroat trout adapted to the slightly saline waters and grew to immense sizes (up to four feet in length), feeding primarily on a diet of Tui chub.
Cutthroat trout live in lakes during most of the year, but swim up into river and stream habitat to spawn (Sigler & Sigler 1987). Pyramid Lake’s Lahontan cutthroat trout would traditionally enter the Truckee River during one of two spawning runs: a winter run and a spring run. From December through March, large, brilliantly-colored cutthroats (called “Redfish” by white settlers and “Tomoo-agaih” or “Winter trout” by Native Americans) would swim from Pyramid Lake up the Truckee River as far as Verdi to spawn. From March until May or June, smaller, darker-colored cutthroats (called “Tommies” by white settlers and “Tama-agaih” or “Spring trout” by the Paiutes) would spawn in the Truckee (Rivers 1994). During spawning runs, cutthroat trout were subject to heavy fishing pressure, both from humans and birds such as pelicans and cormorants (Rivers 1994).
The Lahontan cutthroat trout of Pyramid Lake have a long and interesting history. The very short version is this: a combination of fishing pressure, dams and diversions in the Truckee River, dropping water level in Pyramid Lake, and other factors caused a local extinction of Pyramid Lake’s cutthroat trout by the early 1940s (Sigler & Sigler 1987). They have since been reintroduced — first with Lahontan cutthroat trout from Summit Lake, located in far northwestern Nevada, and more recently with members of an original strain of Pyramid Lake cutthroats that had been transplanted into a stream near Pilot Peak in eastern Nevada many years ago. Today, populations of cutthroats in Pyramid Lake are rebounding. They are currently listed as a Federally Threatened species, but 2014 marked the first successful spawning run for Pyramid Lake’s Lahontan cutthroat trout in 76 years. These fish were (and are) of great importance to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and are popular with sport fishermen as well.
Delong, Jeff. (2014). Cutthroats Spawn at Pyramid Lake. Reno Gazette Journal, June 3, 2014. Available: http://www.rgj.com/story/tech/environment/2014/06/03/cutthroats-spawn-pyramid-lake/9932583/
Frémont, John Charles, and Allan Nevins. Narratives of Exploration and Adventure. New York: Longmans, Green, 1956. Print.
Rivers, I. L. (1994). Fishes and fisheries of Nevada. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Sigler, W. F., & Sigler, J. W. (1987). Fishes of the Great Basin: A natural history. Reno: University of Nevada Press.