Lahontan trout: ancient survivors
by Mike Caltagirone
It’s likely that the reason Nevada doesn’t leap to mind when the subject of trout fishing is brought up is because it’s a desert, a big desert. At least that’s the way it’s perceived. The southernmost third of the state is certainly desert. Las Vegas is sitting in the middle of it--but surrounded by some rather high peaks. The middle of the state is a little different. It’s mostly Basin and Range topography, which is not to say that there isn’t a whole lot of desert. It’s just that the traditional desert areas are valleys between mountain ranges that can reach quite high. Driving west to east (or east to west) through the middle of the state is breathtakingly beautiful and mind-blowingly vast. Interstate 50 is called the Loneliest Road in America. They aren’t kidding. But it really is spectacular.
The northern third of the state is different still. It’s still very dry and can be quite hot in the summer. But it’s also full of farms and ranches. Agriculture is a big part of all of Nevada but it is even more significant in northern and western Nevada. Large irrigated stretches turn desert into farms and ranches that help feed America.
All of these amazing places were really unknown and unconsidered until around 1859, when the Comstock Lode was discovered in Virginia City, Nevada, just outside Carson City. That discovery sparked the silver rush into western Nevada, with over 17,000 people making their way to western Nevada that year with dreams of striking it rich. And with the thousands of prospective miners out to dig up their fortunes came the need to feed these same folks. The Sierra Nevada range runs like a wall down the western side of the Carson and Washoe Valleys on the border between Nevada and California. It takes a little bit of effort to cross them today; back then it was a serious, time-consuming endeavor. So food had to be found on the eastern side of the Sierra to support the mining efforts or the silver rush would starve itself out.
Fortunately about 15 years earlier, explorer John C. Fremont came through the area and happened upon a very large lake about 60 miles north of Virginia City. Pyramid Lake is roughly the same size as Lake Tahoe and was named for the large pyramid-shaped tufa formation on the eastern shore. It is a remnant of the vast Lake Lahontan that stretched over most of northwestern Nevada during the Pleistocene. And while all this is interesting and beautiful to see, it was the inhabitants of the lake that really put the kick in the tail of the mining boom.
Pyramid Lake is the ancestral home of the world’s largest cutthroat trout. The Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT) inhabited ancient Lake Lahontan and as it receded they also retracted into small isolated watersheds throughout the basin….and Pyramid Lake. And they proceeded to thrive in Pyramid Lake. Fremont documented catching some enormous fish and feeding his men well. So when the rush of miners came to the area, they ate trout. They ate a LOT of trout. The commercial fishing on Pyramid Lake was efficient and effective. Some estimates state that up to 1 million pounds of LCT were taken from Pyramid Lake and nearby Walker Lake every year during the boom.
Eventually the boom died out. But western Nevada had been discovered, and the taste for Lahontan cutthroat trout had been developed. The majority of the remaining fish were netted and shipped to San Francisco in the following years. The rest of these majestic, mammoth fish died out when poor irrigation planning cut off the Truckee River, their historic spawning grounds, and left them high and dry. Since then, the amazing fish of Pyramid Lake have been sustained through an effective breeding and stocking program maintained mostly by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe with some help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But naturally reproducing populations haven’t been seen in the area since the early 20th century.
The impact of mining on LCT didn’t really stop with the collapse of the silver boom, however. Thousands of abandoned mines dot the Nevada landscape with piles of waste rock leaching heavy metals and poisons into adjacent creeks, streams and rivers. The surface openings of mine shafts, called adits, can leak acidic waters into nearby streams as well, creating conditions that are not conducive to thriving fish populations. These impacts are on a much smaller scale than the elimination of the Pyramid Lake population, but the LCT are also on a much smaller scale habitat-wise. Mining leftovers are impacting small creeks and streams but small creeks and streams are the only place left for LCT to prosper. There is no longer a single grand move that can be made to restore and protect these amazing fish. What’s left for us is a series of incremental steps that build upon each other with the ultimate goal of producing habitat that will service self-sustaining populations of Lahontan trout.
Trout Unlimited’s Lahontan Keystone Initiative and Nevada Western Abandoned Mines project are taking these steps to restore, preserve and protect this iconic fish.
Mike Caltagirone is TU's Nevada Abandoned Mines Project Manager.