Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Legends of Pyramid Lake

I've heard a lot about the legendary fishing at the legendary Pyramid Lake over the last few decades.  The lake has long held a reputation for harboring some pretty legendary sized trout.  As a matter of fact, it's the location of the largest Lohanton Cutthroat Trout (LCT) ever caught.

The Lahontan Cutthroat is an over 2 million year old species.  Kind of like the dinosaur, only, you know, LCTs are still swimming around.  The "Cutthroat" part of their name came in the 1880's when English speaking anglers discovered the distinctive red slashes below their gill openings.

It has been reported that an LCT was once caught that weighed over 80 pounds, but that was before official record keeping.  You know, back in the day when you scribbled gibberish with a porcupine quill dipped in beet juice on trees.  That data did not last long.

In 1925, after paper and pencils were invented, Johnny Skimmerhorn, a native Paiute, caught an LCT that weighed in at 41 pounds.  That, too, is a big fish and the official record.  Today, a lake side world class fishery promotes the management of trophy sized fish while also maintaining their viability within the ecosystem of the lake.

Pyramid Lake covers 125,000 acres and is roughly the same size and shape as Lake Tahoe.  A big oval.  It is one of the largest natural lakes in the state of Nevada and is the biggest remnant of the ancient Lake Lahontan, the colossal inland sea that once covered most of Nevada, Utah and parts of Wyoming and Colorado.  Pyramid Lake is located approximately 35 miles North East of Reno.

Since it's a high desert lake with essentially nothing but flatland and sagebrush surrounding, wind has an opportunity to whip up rather hastily at times.  Which makes it somewhat dangerous to be out there in a smaller fishing or flat bottom boat.  One can easily encounter two to three foot swells in the middle of the lake, which can easily swamp a smaller fishing boat.


Plus the waves and the wind can easily overcome an angler leaning over to scoop up a prize fish.  So much so that a half dozen or more anglers drown out there every year.  And more than half those bodies are never found.  Pyramid Lake has swallowed hundreds of anglers over the years, never to be seen again.  As a matter of fact, the day we were out there they were looking for a body that had drowned the previous week. 

It's obviously not advertised much, but the facts are there.  When the anglers aren't.  Their empty boat washes up, overturned on shore, or their road vehicle is left all alone for a couple of days, those are the dead giveaways.  Get it? 

There's even a small US Coast Guard Auxiliary outpost on the lake.  Think about that.

It's no wonder so many anglers drown, really.  Most of those guys are bundled up pretty good against the cold.  If they get swept overboard they'd sink like a rock.  The basic rule of thumb is if the wind starts kicking up get the heck off the lake! 

Now, I've Gone Fishing before.  I usually never catch anything though.  So when an opportunity came to give the legendary Pyramid Lake a go I jumped at the chance.  Both my son and I would be heading up with his girlfriend's father, who is quite an avid angler.  He had talked with both of us about fishing the lake at a BBQ one night, now he was going to show us his mettle.

One of the first things to consider when dealing with a fishing trip to a high desert lake in January is body warmth.  It's a real big deal as a matter of fact.  My plan was layers, and lot's of 'em!  For my lower torso, I started with long johns.  Then a pair of sweat pants.  Covered by another pair of water proof nylon sweat pants.  I brought along another pair of waterproof rain suit pants too.  Just in case.  3 to 4 layers there.

For my feet I had thick wool socks and water resistant hiking boots.

For my upper torso I had a long john covered with a t shirt.  Then I had on a really warm long sleeve fleece.  Covered by a really warm flannel shirt.  Topped off with a water proof rain suit parka.  Yeah, 4 to 5 layers on top.  Per requirements I also brought along a complete change of clothes in a "dry sack" which would stay in the truck.  The "dry sack" was just in case you got rained on or went swimming.

My plan worked pretty good, except for exposed skin in the morning.  I did find out later two to three layers covered by a heavy duty 5 inch thick insulated gore tex smothered camo parka worked better.  As a matter of fact, there's so much heat generated inside those things that the wearer could probably roast whatever the catch of the day is. 
We met @ Commander Kenny's house @ 4:00 AM, sharp.  I don't like to be late and I'm sure as hell not going to be late for a host.  His truck and boat were primed and ready and we were off within minutes.  After topping off my traveler with some of the Commander's coffee.  And taking a quick leak.

It was an uneventful 2.5 hour trip up to the lake.  We all yakked and enjoyed the scenic early morning moonlit views of the snowy high sierra.

Once we hit Sparks, Nevada we turned North on Highway 445.  A couple miles further we stopped in at a gas station to top the gas in the boat and the coffee in our travelers.  And to take another quick leak.

Twenty-five minutes later the lake was within view. Ten minutes later we were at the Crosby Lodge on the west shore of the lake in the teeny weeny little Paiute reservation town of Sutcliff.  There I topped off my traveler, purchased a $4.95 stocking hat because my ears were frightfully cold and took another quick leak.  We also picked up our fishing permits for the day.

You see, a regular California or Nevada fishing license won't cut it at Pyramid.  Since it's on a Paiute tribal reservation they get to make their own rules.  And their rules charge $11.00 for a daily pass.  Or, if you're an avid angler like Commander Kenny you can get a season pass for $88.00.  The day pass was perfect for me since I only go fishing once or twice a year.  Although now that I know what the Commander is capable of I may go a little more often.

In the wee morning dimly lit hours I did manage to notice one of the walls in the lodge is littered with Polaroids of men and women with LCT catches ranging from 10 to 20 pounds.  For a trout!  Besides having restrooms, coffee, stocking caps and permits, the lodge also contains a small but well versed general store.  There's also a cafe and a well stocked bar that serves it all.  Except for maybe pink champagne.  And Pina Coladas.

Unless you like those with whiskey and beer.

Many of the anglers that give Pyramid a try do so in boats.  We've already covered what can happen if you go out on a small fishing boat on the lake and the wind whips up.  You could go swimming with angels.

I was happy to hear and see that the Commander was sporting a 16 foot 160 Hawk made by Fisher.  With a 60 horse power engine.  And all the trimmings.  I don't know much about what most of that means, except it was big enough to handle rough seas and fast enough to get us out of Dodge if need be.  Plus the guy at the helm had been fishing at Pyramid a hundred times over the last 40 years.  I'll throw in any day with someone that has that on their resume. 

If you don't have a boat, no worries at Pyramid.  Colossal fish are pulled in from the shore every day.  Lures and flies.  Many of those anglers are standing on actual ground.  Many are standing on actual ladders.  In the water.

It's true.  I've seen it with my own eyes.  Along much of the 20 mile west shore line there's a twenty to forty foot wide shelf that's about five feet deep.  If you're a swimmer, or a walker, beware.  It'll drop to a hundred feet in a heartbeat!

But if you have a ladder, you can get yourself out there just a little bit further.  You can bring one from your garage, 

or, if you have an extra $300 to $800 you can get one custom made.

 Either way, as I say, a ladder can get your cast out to a little bit deeper water.

Ahem.  That's some incredibly serious angling or really deranged behavior.  Probably both.  You know, maybe on a sunny day.  But...

I'm glad we had a boat.  Cause, like, if the Commander said we'd be standing on a ladder thirty feet out in the water on a cold day in January, with temperatures hovering around 28 degrees out of the water and 38 degrees in, I'd a told him, "Ummm, no." 

I'm also glad we were blessed with great weather for our trip.  I had visions of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," but we could have happily water skied all day.  It was cold, but there was hardly any breeze, which made it easy to launch the Hawk.

We launched at the Marina, which is a couple miles from the lodge.  But before we launched, I used the porta potty by the pier for one last quick leak before being confined to a coffee can on the rollicking water.   Me and coffee.  What can I say? 

The Commander has launched from the same location when there were 2 foot waves crashing against the small pier.  We launched on glass.  While some of these photos, like the ladders and rough seas, have been pilfered from the internet, the sunrise below was pilfered from my son's camera.  It was spectacular.

By the way, no bait allowed is allowed on Pyramid Lake.  Lures or artificial flies only.  Fortunately, Commander Kenny was prepared.  He had a few different tackle boxes containing an assortment of flatfish and lures.  Like 400 of 'em.  And those were just for Pyramid and Lake Tahoe.  Trophy size prize trout lures.  He's got hundreds of other lures for different fish and occasions.

The Hawk is also totally dialed in for fishing.  Nooks and crannies and pole holders.  Pot holders too, I'm certain.  He also had two down riggers installed on both the back corners of the boat.

A "down rigger" is a device that carries several hundred feet of line and a heavy weight, maybe ten pounds or so, and looks a lot like this:.

Once the actual fishing pole line is out and in the water, the down rigger line is attached to the fishing pole line.  Then you drop the down rigger line and weight as deep as you want your fishing line to be, from 25 to 100 feet or more.  If you didn't attach the down rigger weight to the fishing line then your lure would end up skimming along from 5 to 15 feet deep, which is usually not deep enough to nab a big one.

However, besides the two lines ranging in depth from 30 to 50 feet on each side down rigger, another line was tossed straight out the back right in between.  With a left handed reel.  Bouncing along from 5 to 15 feet deep, which is usually never deep enough to nab a big one.

It was a left handed reel because that was the last proper reel left, even though we were all right handed.    The other reels along for the ride weren't suitable for this type of trolling.  So it became the "what the hell why not there's three of us" line.  I mean, it only makes sense if there's three anglers there should be three lines in the water.  Left handed or whatever.  So it was this left handed line, the one bouncing along at a ridiculous depth that is usually not deep enough to nab a big one that got the first strike.

And I was first up.  We were only a few minutes out.  I hadn't even got settled in for the long, cold, scenic but expected boring day.  I figured I'd have half the morning to get dialed in before the first one struck.  I mean, I never catch anything.  I was still trying to get my new stocking cap ideally yet stylishly covering my frigid ears.  And that new stocking cap had to go on over a base ball hat because I needed the visor due to the blazing morning sun on the horizon.  Plus I was wearing ski gloves.  Trying to attain the rugged outdoor Marlboro man look without a cowboy hat, mirror and wearing ski gloves is not easy.  I clumsily morphed into the outback adventure dork instead.

But at least my ears were warm.

I bounced up, grabbed the pole and tried to reel.  Left handed with ski gloves on.  It was almost futile. 
Reeling in a four pound trout left handed is not really a big deal.  If you're left handed and not wearing ski gloves.  If you're right handed AND wearing ski gloves, it becomes a little more challenging.   Plus the creature on the other end of that line did not want to get acquainted with me.  He was not providing any assistance at all.  And this was no minnow.

After a minute of ungainly antics with the lesser of my two upper limbs I finally got wise and tossed the gloves.  Damn the cold!  This enabled me to add a little gawkish finesse to the battle, and in another couple minutes we finally had him netted and aboard.

My first catch was a good 18 inches, right around four pounds.  The Commander wrestled the large lure hook out of his greedy fish lip.  I had a photo snapped, smacked him on the ass and dropped him back in the water.  After a painfully lousy start his day was certainly looking up.

Since the Lahonton Cutthroat is an endangered species, their are strict rules governing the catch.  Keepers are 17 to 20 inches or over 24 inches. All other sizes must be returned to the water.  Each angler may keep 2 of the smaller sizes or 1 small and 1 large.  21 to 24 inches are prime breeders and hence, catch and release only.  Since my first one was only 18, I was holding out for a 20 as a keeper!

I didn't have to hold out long.  Another was on the left handed line within minutes.  Son's turn, in it came.  We raised the two down rigger lines, swapped out a couple lures and soon all lines were popping.

Within an hour we had probably landed ten LCTs.  We had our three smaller keepers, each at the maximum 20 inches.  Then we went in search of Moby Trout, the elusive big one.  So far the largest fish ever pulled in on the Commander's boat was a 16 pounder.  He is still continually looking for that elusive trophy, and he's also having a great time doing it.

Here's the closest we got the day we were out, a solid 25 inches.  Probably 5 to 6 pounds.  He would have been a keeper except he was pulled in early in the day.  I figured, considering what we had been doing so far that a double digit fish was just a nibble away.

Here's another keeper that got tossed back.

And this is what a minnow looks like at Pyramid:

We pretty much stayed within a half mile or so of the shore, trolling along around 15 knots, or 17.3 MPH.    Since it was January and the water was cool, the cutthroats can be found in depths ranging from 20 to 70 feet.  As the season wanes into summer and the water gets warmer the fish run deeper.  Anglers in June can be found in the middle of the lake trolling at depths of 150 feet or more. 

Trolling with a down rigger puts a pretty big bend on the fishing pole, making it look like a big one is already on.  Ironically you know when a fish gets on with the down rigger when the pole goes straight, or limp.  That means the fish took the lure and pulled the line free of the heavy weight.  There's about fifty feet of slack on the line after he gives that first tug, that's why the pole goes limp.

When that happens you have to move quick.  You jump up, grab the line and start reeling because live action is seconds away!  One of your buddies also hits the switch on the down rigger, pulling up the weight and getting that out of the way for the upcoming battle.

I have been on a few ocean going guided fishing trips.  Mostly for the cold beer and camaraderie, because, if you read my post Gone Fishin, you'd know I never catch anything.  But I'd never been fishing with someone that knows their craft as well as Commander Kenny. 

You know how some people have teeth and chew food?   That's how innate fishing is to the Commander.

He made this statement when we were out on the water.  I think it sums up his fishing philosophy rather succinctly.

"You know, if you're not out here fishing then you're home watching The Fishing Channel wishing you were out here fishing.  So you might as well be out here fishing."

Yes, he had sonar and a fish finder, but he also utilized some ideas and skills I have never before had the privilege to be a part of.  I won't go into details because one of these days he may go pro, but I was impressed how he mounted the assault.  And that's about what it was, because we pulled in 38 cutthroats.

Fish on.  Down rigger up.  Boat from 15 knots to stall.  One guy watches depth and steers, another reels and another grabs the net.  Pandemonium and chaos.  We're all getting prepared to greet a creature who does not want any part of this new experience.  He just kind of got enticed into our orbit.


The good news for the fish that day is 35 of 38 are still swimming.  Three had to come home for an epicurean experience.  I mean, who wouldn't want to try some fillet Lahontan trout, smoked or otherwise?

The Commander has a good luck talisman on his boat which he consults from time to time, but I don't think it's necessary.  He just knows his stuff.  By the afternoon both he and I had caught and released a couple 6 pounders, prime breeders.  But my son had not.  So the Commander pulled a flatfish lure out of the box that he calls "The Closer."  

Yes, the man has named some of his equipment.  What's wrong with that?

I have names for some of my socks.  That's stranger.

The Commander also knows exactly where just about every single one of those 400 lures are located within the tackle box.

I have no idea where my socks are for the most part.  Except when they're on my feet.

Commander Kenny also kind of compares his fishing day to a baseball game.  Obviously, the day we went out we scored often and early.  I'd say we jumped out to a big lead in the first inning.  And we kept on scoring throughout the day.   But it was now the eighth, around 3:30 PM and my son had not yet pulled in a big one.  It was time for The Closer.

He put it on the line and within ten minutes there was a 22 inch 5 pound trout on the line.  Bam!  The Closer.  Doesn't come out of the box until the 8th or 9th.  I pulled in another 5 pounder shortly thereafter with The Closer.  Truly a late inning marvel.

We were out of the water around 4:30 PM and on the road as the sun was setting.  It may not be the most hospitable country, but sunrise and sunset in the high desert is always a visual treat.  Besides glorious scenery, from a fishing stand point it had been an epic day.  Utterly epic.

My lovely wife texted soon after we were on the road home.  She wanted to make sure I wasn't at the bottom of the lake.  She also asked how many fish did we catch?

I responded by texting, "Over 40."

Which was true.  We lost count.

And she said, "Come on, really?"

And I responded back, "OK. 38."

An exact number seemed more plausible.  We all easily pulled in a dozen.  More like 15 each.  I think 45 is closer to accurate.  But 38 seemed more plausible.  

But how do you tell your lovely wife you essentially caught more fish in a day than you've caught in your entire previous 50 years of fishing?

I was grilled when we got home.  As was the trout I brought home. Grilled wild trout.  Mmmm, good.

It was a legendary day of fishing by anybody's standards.  Going after a legendary fish on a legendary lake. With a legendary angler.  His boat doesn't necessarily bring in 38 fish every time, but he has never been skunked.  Which is good.

Cause that would mean there's skunks on the water and who wants to think about that?

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