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TCO Education

Part 1 – Early History of Pyramid Lake


Let’s start at the beginning with a little history of the lake, the people who live here, the challenges this lake has faced, and of course the fishery.

by Miles Zimmerman


Part 1 – Early History of Pyramid Lake

by Miles Zimmerman


Part 1 in a Series about Fly Fishing at Pyramid Lake

Let’s start at the beginning with a little history of the lake, the people who live here, the challenges this lake has faced and of course the fishery. Pyramid Lake is the remnant of Lake Lahontan, an inland ocean that once covered 8,500 square miles of Nevada and portions of eastern California and southern Oregon around 12,700 years ago during the Pleistocene era, commonly referred to as the last ice age. After 9,000 years of climate change the only remaining lakes are Walker Lake and, you guessed it, Pyramid Lake.

Located 40 Miles northeast of Reno, Pyramid sits at an elevation of 3,796 feet above sea level. It has a surface area of 188 square miles and a max depth of 356 feet. For a quick comparison, Lake Tahoe has a surface area of 191 square miles (although it does have a much greater max depth of 1,645 feet) so while Tahoe contains a much greater volume of water, Pyramid is of relative size. Pyramid contains only one significant source of water, the Truckee River, which is the only outflow of Lake Tahoe. Pyramid is referred to as a ‘terminus lake’ or ‘Endorheic Basin’ for the Truckee. This means that there is no outflow here and after the Truckee flows into Pyramid Lake the water has only one place to go, into the atmosphere through evaporation. It is also interesting to note that Pyramid is considered a ‘salt lake’ with a salinity level of 1/6th of the ocean. This complex tapestry of waterways and its history of its evolution is only one of the things that makes pyramid so intriguing. It was also its reason for the fisheries near demise less than a hundred years ago.

The Indigenous People of Pyramid Lake

The Native American tribes Kuyuidökadö (translated to Cui-ui Fish Eaters) and the smaller tribe of Tasiget tuviwarai (translated to those who live amidst the mountains) are a part of the Northern Paiute People and are those of which who currently inhabit The Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation covering 742.2 square miles of Pyramid Lake, the Truckee River, and some of the outlying mountain ranges. There are 3 major settlements in this reservation, Wadsworth being the largest, Nixon which is home to the seat of the tribal government, and Sutcliffe which is nestled right on the shore of Pyramid Lake. This Reservation was established in 1859 and has a population of 1,734 according to the 2000 census. During the turn of the last century, settlement of the surrounding area put a huge burden on both the populations of the native people and their native fish, which they relied on for sustenance. To learn more about the Paiute tribe, visit the website here

The Downfall of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

When John C. Fremont and Kit Carson ascended the river on January 16, 1844, they named it “Salmon Trout River” after seeing the large Lahontan Cutthroat trout that where running up the Truckee River from Pyramid Lake to their natal spawning grounds.

After their initial discovery of this tremendous population of fish, commercial harvesting began. During the late 19th and early 20th century, white settlers were believed to harvest up to a million pounds of these fish annually. They would can or cure the Lahontan Cutthroat and ship them to surrounding settlements and mining camps reaching as far as the San Francisco area. This fish was considered a delicacy by many and it was reported that movie stars such as Clark Gable enjoyed eating these native fish.

In addition to the over harvesting, and number of factors contributed to the demise of this species. In 1903, The Derby Dam was built on the Truckee River to divert a proportion of water into irrigation canals for agriculture. This project alone, not only dried up Winnemucca Lake, but also dropped Pyramid lake by 80 feet, while eliminating their natural spawning habitat up the Truckee River. Yet today we celebrate the recent completion of an innovative fish screen by the Bureau of Reclamation to allow the native cutthroat to bypass the dam and return to their natural spawning grounds farther up the Truckee River. Follow the project on the Bureau of Reclamation Derby Dam page.

Unfortunately, many challenges still exist today as a number of smaller dams with little to no value are still in place along the Truckee that will prevent the Lahontan from completing their journey to Lake Tahoe. There is more work to be done.

Read Part 2 of the Series

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