Kathy and I bought 2-day Nevada fishing licenses at Ken’s Sporting Goods, in Bridgeport, in anticipation of fishing the Nevada portion of the East Walker River the following day. On the morning of Sept. 30, we left our campsite at Twin Lakes, returned through Bridgeport and followed the East Walker River downstream from Bridgeport Reservoir and into Nevada. This reservoir once backed up close to town, but the on-going drought has caused it to recede considerably, leaving a number of “lakeside” homes at some distance from the water. The East Walker River (aka East Fork of the Walker River) is a tailwater stream, issuing from the dam and running a few miles to the Nevada border. We were interested in fishing the Nevada portion of the river because my son, Ethan, had fished it before, and given it a glowing report. In particular, there was a section in Nevada called the Rosaschi Ranch, which had a no-kill regulation, and was noted for having large fish. Once in Nevada, we crossed a bridge over the river and continued a couple of miles further downstream, to a section my Nevada fishing guide (“Dave Stanley’s No Nonsense Guide to Fly Fishing in Nevada”) calls “The Elbow”, where the river runs right up against the road for about a quarter of a mile. Just upstream of the Elbow is a side road that leads to a series of undeveloped campsites alongside the river. These are grassy campsites right at riverside, each a private space hollowed out from the thick willow cover. We chose one very attractive site, and prepared to fish.
So, you are asking, just how was the fishing? Well, it was great! On my first cast, right at our campsite, a brown trout grabbed my dry fly. We caught lots of fish (but nothing very big). The river was low and clear enough that the fish could easily see surface flies, so we used PMXs (a grasshopper imitation), sometimes using a bead-head nymph as a dropper in the deeper pools. In every piece of obvious holding water, we caught fish – and mostly on the PMX. It was excellent dry fly action. It could hardly have been improved upon. What else? We watched an otter slink along below the cliffs on the opposite side of the river from our campsite. The camping was serene. We saw only 3 other fishermen. What a change from over-crowded California! After fishing for a few hours on our second day, we returned to Bridgeport and continued north, on our way to Pyramid Lake and its renown Lahontan cutthroat fishery. I hadn’t passed through the Carson City area for decades, and was it ever built up. Minden, Gardnerville and Carson City had merged into a megalopolis – with all the identical malls, tract housing and car dealerships imaginable, and an endless succession of traffic lights. Suburbia continued well to the north of Reno, close to where we entered the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. We bought tribal fishing and camping permits (cheap!) at Sutcliffe, and continued to the end of the paved road on the west side of the lake. This brought us to Warrior Point, which had plenty of campers parked along the lakeshore, and plenty of fishermen hard at it. We chose a somewhat secluded patch of lakeside grass to park on, and had drinks and dinner.
About the fishing. Pyramid Lake is fed by the Truckee River, which drains Lake Tahoe high in the mountains to the south and west. The native Lahontan cutthroat trout of Pyramid Lake used to attain a giant size. But, as elsewhere on this side of the Sierras, diversions of water from the Truckee River began to lower the lake. The cutthroats were almost extirpated, but then saved in time. Since then, with careful management, the cutthroats have been regaining their former numbers and size, and reports of giant trout have been circulating amongst fishermen the country wide. Facebook posts helped spread the story, along with depictions of the strange methods used to fish the water. Photos and videos of fishermen standing on step ladders, all bundled up against the winter weather, one beside the next, caused increased interest. But, why were they fishing in the winter, and why were they using stepladders? We fished from shore the first day. It was one day after the season opener (Oct.1), and the water was still quite warm – 66 degrees at the surface. The fish, we were told, preferred a water temperature of mid-to-low 50s. This meant that they would stay at a depth that provided water of this temperature – in this case at least 20 feet down. So we put on our sinking shooting heads (30′ of sinking line) and gave the line a chance to get to the bottom. We used two flies. The lead fly was a baitfish imitation, followed by a foam-backed “beetle”. The theory behind the latter fly was that as you paused after a strip, the buoyant beetle would rise up, looking very lifelike to a fish. And it worked! On the first day of fishing, I caught two and Kathy lost one. The large trout I landed were considered to be the average size for the lake, with the real lunkers fewer in number. Our choice of location was fortunate, because it gave us access to deeper water close to shore. But it was still a difficult business to keep our flies close to the bottom.
The other fishermen (as seen in the photos above) were in a variety of boats and tubes, and some of them were catching fish at a regular clip. As we learned, they were able to get straight to the bottom. The spin fishermen amongst them were jigging at the bottom, and the fly fishermen doing something similar. Well, as it happened, we had a boat with us, so we were on the water on the second day.
Once in the boat, we were better able to see what was going on. Shoals of baitfish would come and go, and there were times when we would see cutthroats herding them along, or slashing into them. “Bait balls”, as seen in the ocean, would form, when the cutthroats drove the baitfish into a tight ball at the surface. Also, as I had read, the trout would often follow a fly right to the end of the retrieve. This happened to us, which made for an exciting moment in sports. But, as it turned out, fishing in the boat didn’t increase our rate of fishing success. As the boat drifted, it would pull our lines away from the bottom. At one point, I put my heaviest fly at the end of a 20′ leader in the attempt to keep my flies down. The float tube and pontoon fly fishermen, on the other hand, could maintain their position by flippering against the drift, thus keeping their flies on the bottom. And the flippering/jigging spin fishermen had the most successful technique of all. This was on a very calm lake. If the wind blew up, forget it!
So, what about those winter fishermen? They start around Thanksgiving, as the surface water temperature has lowered into the lower 50s by then. This will bring the fish into the shallower water, where they will be more easily targeted by wading fishermen. At this temperature, however, a wading fishermen would eventually get too cold to stay in the water. Nor would a pontoon or tube be much warmer, since the feet and lower legs are still immersed. Hence the step ladders. We fished Warrior Point for 3 days, and then deflated the boat and headed down the lake for our final evening .We chose Tamarack Beach for our campsite, which is set into a grove of tamarisk trees. I fished off the beach, but found that I couldn’t get to deeper water, and caught nothing.
So, no, we didn’t catch a lunker, although we did hear first-hand of two 13 lb. trout being caught. And, as the locals will tell you, the fish just keep getting bigger! Since the bigger fish are more likely to be encountered in the winter, we’ll have to figure out how to get there at that time of the year. We definitely want another shot at a big Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat. On the morning of Sunday, October 5, we headed south from Tamarack Beach to the town of Nixon, the reservation headquarters, at the lower end of the lake.
Still on the reservation, we continued south to Wadsworth, along the Truckee River …
and then on through Yerington and Schurz to Walker Lake.
The present condition of Walker Lake is yet another tragic story of an eastern Sierra watershed gone to hell. I quote from Wikipedia: “The area around the lake has long been inhabited by the Paiute. Beginning in the mid-19th century the introduction of agriculture upstream of Walker Lake has resulted in the water from the Walker River and its tributaries being diverted for irrigation. These diversions have resulted in a severe drop in the level of the lake. According to the USGS, the level dropped approximately 140 ft (40 m) between 1882 and 1994. By October 1, 2012, the lake level was 3,923.2 feet above sea level. This is the lowest lake elevation since measurement began in 1882. The lower level of the lake has resulted in a higher concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS). As of the Fall of 2012, the TDS concentration had reached 19 g/L, well above the lethal limit for most of the native fish species throughout much of the lake. Lahontan cutthroat trout no longer occur in the lake and recent work by researchers indicates that the lake’s Tui chub have declined dramatically and may soon disappear as the salinity levels are lethal to Tui chub eggs and young chubs. The decline of the lake’s fishery is having a dramatic impact on the species of birds using the lake. By 2009, the town of Hawthorne canceled its Loon Festival because the lake, once a major stopover point for migratory loons, could no longer provide enough chub and other small fish to attract many loons.” The de-watered tributary referred to is the Walker River. There was no boating/fishing activity to be seen on the lake, as we drove by. From Hawthorne, our route took us back to Mono Lake.
Part 9 completes this travelogue, as we drive south along the eastern side of the Sierras, before turning east and returning to New Mexico.