February 17, 2022 8 min read
Night time is the right time. Most of our bites came either early in the morning or late in the evening. Dawson put in long hours that paid off with the fish of lifetime.
Authors note: I am not an expert Pyramid Lake angler—far from it. This isn’t meant as a kiss-and-tell article about Pyramid Lake’s extraordinary Lahontan cutthroat, it’s meant to be a tasty recipe for putting together a fun and effective do-it-yourself (DIY) trip.
For starters, I love DIY trips and have nothing against hiring a guide. I spent 18 years as a freshwater guide and have shoveled water thousands of miles in various watercraft. What I loved about guiding then is the same thing that I love about DIY fishing now—a chance to work the puzzle.
On our second evening, I caught this one off a ladder after we started to connect the dots a bit. It would be slow for a long while, then they’d seemingly swarm the cove. Right before I hooked into this one, we all saw one roll and I spotted another one behind my ladder. I started wondering, shoot, am I too far out? Then BAM! This one was right on the transition from the deep to the flat.
I always head into a new fishery with a great deal of humility. Even water I’ve been on before, or even several times. Going to a new fishery and expecting to do as well as someone who has spent every day the last two months on that water making micro adjustments to their game along the way can be a recipe for frustration. That being said, I genuinely enjoy the experience of formulating a theory or approach, preparing as best I can, and then making adjustments as I learn more about the fish and fishery. It’s that simple. I am far more interested in what happens up to the point of a fish eating my fly than I am of almost anything that comes after. Don’t get me wrong—the fish and the fight are part of the joy. I’m just saying that it’s the problem solving that interests me and keeps fly fishing fresh and fascinating as a pursuit.
(A note on Covid: The team was all tested before we bubbled together for the trip. This was a prerequisite to be part of this trip and something that we never could have foreseen 18 months ago, but here we are. Adapt and fish!)
Not the biggest cutthroat Matt caught, but it the most colored up. Every night Matt sat down at the tying bench making new variations for the whole team. He researched the bugs, putting his own spin on them, and came up with two variations on the Booby Fly that were the most productive patterns for us.
A good DIY trip starts with the right crew; one that works together and functions as a unit. My A-Team of anglers was pulled from my old guide buddies in Missoula.
Gear Guy: John and his son Dawson. John has a wealth of backcountry experience and thinks of what others might not. He doesn’t overpack, but has the experience and gear savvy to be prepared for anything. It helps that John owns a fly fishing equipment shop—but don’t think that got us any sort of discount!
Awesome father and son moment. Here’s Dawson with a personal best cutthroat—which is saying a lot for a guy from Montana!
Fly Guy: Matt. One of my best fishing buddies and an expert tier who has stocked my boxes for trips all over the globe. He loves to research and tie forgotten classics as well as the new hot bugs.
Logistics and intel: That’d be me. My job was to find the optimum accommodations for ease of fishing. I like to be as close as possible to where we want to fish. I also work to get the true local’s scoop on how the water is fishing.
The Energizer: Sean. Always up for fishing, he’s the guy with great attitude, who will fish from dark to dark. Unafraid to ask anyone about what is making them successful on the water, he is convinced that, deep inside, all anglers want to share what they know with appreciative people. He proved his theory time after time on this trip.
Matt with a real bruiser that weighed in at over 12 pounds. We always weighed the fish by attaching the scale to the handle of the net, never to the fish. Taking care of the resource, especially one being shared with us, was always our top priority.
Part of what makes a great trip is the preparation that builds anticipation. For Pyramid we had a couple of interesting questions arise (apart from how to safely travel during Covid.)
Our group was made up entirely of boat people: All of us own and fish out of drift boats, skiffs and rafts. But in analyzing the fishery, we decided that this was a no-boat trip for us. Pyramid is notorious for wind and weather that can blow in quickly and create extreme danger for watercraft. Add our lack of experience on this water and no boat was a no-brainer.
Although skeptical of fishing on ladders at first, we quickly came to appreciate their utility. You don’t strictly need one, but it opens up more possibilities—especially on the beaches. They keep your back-cast high so you get your fly out there easier, you can see better, and you just stay out of the cold water more so you’re warmer.
I had fished Pyramid years before without ladders. We were successful, but we fly fished on the rocks and cliffs—not the beaches. Locals assured us that ladders would help us fish more effectively in more areas. We remained skeptical until we used them. They are perfect for the beaches. First, they get you closer to the drop offs that have a higher number of cruising fish. The height helps you see and cast better, plus they keep you warmer since you are not standing in frigid water the whole time. I also found a stripping basket tied on the front of my ladder to be super handy.
Setting your ladder securely is key. Eventually you have to get off of them to get on the shore to land those big fish!
Pyramid is home to two strains of Lahontan cutthroat: Summit and Pilot. While they look similar, the Pilot strain grows much faster—up to an inch a month! Both have giant heads reminiscent of bull trout, but at the end of the day they are cutthroat, the least picky and mildest fighting of trout. I looked up recommended line and leader set ups. We brought everything from switch rods for a bit more reach when trying to hit the drop offs, as well as rods with the ability to handle full-sink lines.
With most of the fish we caught, we simply took a quick rod measure and let ‘em swim free. The less a fish is handled and exposed to the air, the better your catch-and-release technique.
We always seem to bring piles of flies and this trip was no different. From some online searches, tips from locals, and a bit of theory we tied up some standards: Booby flies, chironomids in different colors, peanuts and balance leaches. But we also brought tying kits and supplies. A 13-hour drive is a great way to fill your fly box, though I don’t recommend this if you get car sick. We tied every night improving on what worked and trying new bugs. We also bought some flies from the local shop—more to support their business than out of need. Supporting the local community is the only way I know to BUY some good river karma!
Being inefficient is a pet peeve of our group. We don’t ever want to miss the witching hours of sun-up and sunset. So, we decided to summon our inner trucker and drove straight through the night, leaving in the evening from Missoula so we could catch first light at the lake. This proved to be very important for our trip, as we had terrible conditions which worsened through the week.
Some things we found out the hard way—like using forged hooks instead of wire ones. Some of these fish are true brutes that will easily bend out wire hooks
Pyramid is notorious for fishing well during the worst weather imaginable: high wind, cold weather and cloudy skies. The lower the barometric pressure, the better. Well, we got the worst fishing weather imaginable for Pyramid: sunny skies and not a breath of wind for 3 days. Since our plan was to stay close to the fishing, we were right on the lake which allowed us the best access to fly fishing early and late. We caught all of our fish only in those low-light windows.
Pyramid lake is on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian reservation and the tribe has, graciously, allowed outsiders to fish it with a tribal license. Only the west side of the lake is open to fishing, with a few closed areas scattered on that bank. It is also a barbless fishery. Either way we always fish barbless—if you play a fish correctly, barbless isn’t an issue and it’s the best practice for catch-and-release. What is an issue is ripping off a fishes mandible, or worse.
Our not-so-secret weapon—the world-famous Burrito Bus in Dylan, Montana, where we fueled up for our 14-hour overnight haul. If you’re wondering about the fuel efficiency of burritos: we arrived on time to fish the sunrise. Enough said.
This seems obvious, but it sometimes means more than simply leave no trace, fish courteously and follow the rules. For Pyramid it definitely means more. This is a mystical place with an amazing history, both of the people and the fish. Spend some time learning about the culture, the amazing story of the fish and of the watershed. Did you know that there is an inflow—the Truckee River— but no outflow? Some of the spires and rock formations are not only spectacular and spiritual, they also tell an ancient geological story that helps give us perspective.
Everyone loves coming back from a trip with something for the brag board, or just to revisit on our phones, but don’t let the quest for good photo injure a fish. Three tips for a great photo that respects the fish: 1. Be prepared. Your fishing buddy should be ready long before the fish is landed. 2. Keep the fish wet and at the waterline— it’s better for the fish and it frankly looks better than the usual grip-n-grin shots. 3. Get low and tight for the shot—fill the frame with the fish, angler and water and you won’t have to do those bad photoshop jobs to protect ‘your’ secret spot.
The rocky outcroppings and high desert terrain add to the overall fishing trip experience. Signs of this area being part of an ancient sea are all over and made for awesome exploring in the middle of the day. Understanding the local environment and appreciating it for both its natural and human history—past and present— is just another way of enjoying and respecting the place. We felt fortunate to have access to so much great water and amazing fishing. No matter where you fish, always leave it better than you found it; we’re all guests on the land.
We believe in passing knowledge on so we can all be successful on the water. But keep to the code: if someone shares a secret spot, fly or technique with you, make sure you have their permission before sharing it, and that credit goes where credit is due.
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