A Problem at Its Peak : Pyramid Lake Is Dropping 3 1/2 Feet a Year and Taking Fish With It


Along the eastern shore is the 400-foot-high rock formation for which Pyramid Lake is named. It guards a smaller formation the Paiute Indians call, “Mother and the Basket.”

Steering a boat past the site, Jerry Hunter, a tribal fisheries employee, said: “She’s supposed to have wept and filled the lake.”

That was, geologists say, between 9,000 and 40,000 years ago, when ancient Lake Lahontan covered most of what is now northern Nevada. The receding waters left Pyramid and some smaller lakes behind, and now it appears that this lake 35 miles northeast of Reno needs another thousand years of tears.


What humans have done to this special fishery in this century would make anybody cry. The cui-ui (pronounced kwee-wee) fish, sacred to the Paiutes, are on the endangered species lists of Nevada and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What few remain are found only in Pyramid Lake and are the last pure species of the genus chamistes.

Because of the Indians’ efforts, the lake once again has the world’s largest Lahontan cutthroat trout, but even the cutthroat are still listed as threatened--all because of ongoing drought and diversions in the Truckee River to serve municipal and irrigation needs in the developing region.

In 1907, the Bureau of Reclamation, envisioning a garden in the Carson Desert, activated its first major, misguided dream: the Newlands Project, a diversion dam that cut the Truckee’s flow to a trickle. Over the next 60 years the lake’s level dropped 85 feet. Nearby Winnemucca Lake, a Pyramid drainage, dried up entirely by 1938, and the mouth of the Truckee became a swampy delta that frustrated the fish’s instincts to swim upstream and spawn.

By 1940, the cutthroat were gone and the cui-ui were hanging on by their scales. Their spawning habits were less demanding and only their greater longevity allowed the hardiest to survive between high-water years. Worse, the project was wasting 45% of the water it diverted.

Only the Paiutes seemed to care. It wasn’t the first time their interests had been ignored.

John C. Fremont named the lake in 1844. The gold and silver rushes came right on his heels and disrupted the Indians’ lives. In 1859, when Pyramid was declared a reservation, the Paiutes managed to hang onto their greatest resource--the lake--although a year later a series of disputes led to a confrontation with the U.S. Cavalry that local history describes as “the first battle of Pyramid Lake, May 12, 1860, (in which) more white men died than in any prior (pre-Custer) white-Indian engagement in the far west.”


A hundred years later, the Paiutes went to war again--this time in the courts. In the mid-1960s era of enlightened environmental thought, they again were victorious, although it has been a bitter battle to bring the lake back to where it was.

In December, 1925, the world’s largest cutthroat--41 pounds--was taken from Pyramid by one John Skimmerhorn. Since the restoration started, the lake has also produced a 23-pound catch and all six line-class records for the species salmo clarki, including three from 9 pounds 14 ounces to 11-6 taken by Ray Johnson of Salt Lake City during a remarkable nine days in July 1984--testimony to the Indians’ own success at restoring Pyramid as a premier fishery.

That’s nice, developers might say, but why bother with the cui-ui at the price of stifling development? Aren’t suckers trash fish? Not to the Paiutes.

Joe Ely, chairman of the Paiute Tribal Council, said: “This isn’t just a fish issue. The cui-ui is very important to us. If you go back 10,000 or so years, there is the Legend of the Stone Mother that describes the origin of our people. It tells about the simultaneous creation of three components that make up our people. One is Pyramid Lake, which is cui-ui pah. The other is the people, which is cui-ui tucutta , meaning cui-ui eaters. The third is the cui-ui , the fish.

“We feel very strongly that if we lose any of these components, we cease to exist as a people. This is what has sustained us over the years and why we continue to fight the battle, and why when people have said in the press this is a fish vs. people issue, we have said, ‘No, it isn’t. This is a people vs. people issue, and it has to be resolved in a way that everyone understands the importance of these things to our people.’ ”

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has Senate Bill 1554 pending to guarantee Pyramid’s future water supply. But while legislation and litigation run their slow courses, the lake is dropping 3 1/2 feet a year. Ely hopes the disputes can be resolved quicker in current talks with all factions that have interests in the water.

Otherwise, he said, “We may have no resource left to protect.”

Pyramid Lake is 33 miles long and up to seven miles wide--still slightly larger than nearby Tahoe, but it would never be mistaken for Tahoe, by any of the senses:

--See the brown, brushy hills that transform into a lavender backdrop at dusk.

--Hear the silence of a place without congestion.

--Feel, taste and smell the dry, desert air.

The only significant pollution is what the Truckee collects in its journey from Tahoe through Reno and environs. You won’t find any oil drilling, strip mining or casinos--not even bingo--on this Indian reservation. At Sutcliffe there is a small motel, a neat campground and a cafe-store with food, fishing tackle and some slot machines in one corner.


The reservation has 1,634 residents, most of whom live in expanded mobile homes of recent construction. Six or seven hundred are pure Paiute.

“We are planning development,” Ely said. “You have to grow economically to some extent so you can take care of your people and your people have opportunities for employment. But we will not do anything that is not compatible with our traditions, our culture, our land and our resources.

“We could be filthy rich. We don’t have oil but we have gold, copper and uranium. We have a lot of beautiful sites for casinos. Unfortunately, the gold and copper and uranium are found right on the hills surrounding the lake and right on the lake shore--deep in the ground. It would be an immense scar on the land. You change the land like that and you change it forever. It’s something we don’t need to do.”

He said the tribe has had hundreds of development proposals, “and in this little office of mine millions and millions of dollars (has been) discussed on what a development company would be willing to give to put a casino site on the lake shore.”

But the primary goal has been to restore the fishery, which is most popular in the winter months when the rest of the Sierra’s waters are closed. The tribe counts on tourists and anglers for income.

Starting in the 1950s, the cutthroat, culled from the surviving Walker strain found in nearby Summit Lake, have returned to thrive on the lake’s abundance of tui chub minnows.


Last Sunday, 387 anglers caught 1,021 cutthroat, although only 86 were “keepers.” The limit is two, each of which must be 19 inches. Anything smaller goes back to grow up. Most are produced by three hatcheries at the lake managed by Paul Wagner, director of Pyramid Lake Fisheries.

Because of a limited water supply, the fishery had to develop its own system to filter and recycle 90% of the water used in the hatcheries. The water, overheated by the desert sun, also must be cooled to suit the eggs.

Then, there was the matter of how to keep the thousands of sea gulls from eating the fish.

“The fish used to go directly to the lake, which was like a Meals on Wheels program for the sea gulls,” Wagner said. “They’d feed for days.”

So, rearing tanks covered by nets were built to hold the fish for one to seven weeks, until they were large enough to have a fighting chance.

The cui-ui also have a hatchery, but it’s a short-term residence. The omnivorous suckers don’t do well in an artificial environment, eating processed “junk” food, as Wagner calls it, so they are released as larvae only one to four weeks old--not even fingerlings.

The survival rate is very low, but Wagner and his crew are working on it.

Although there are no more cui-ui eaters these days, Jerry Hunter said: “They taste pretty much like a red snapper.”

He speaks from memory. The cui-ui can weigh up to eight pounds, but about the only ones ever caught are snagged accidentally at the mouth of the river during their spring spawning run, and any that are caught must be returned to the lake.


The cutthroat, along with some Sacramento perch and Tahoe suckers, are all around the lake, and fly anglers seem to have considerable success in a version of shore fishing that may be unique to Pyramid.

Dick Thies of Long Beach, senior vice president/communications of the Federation of Fly Fishers, grew up in Reno and fished Pyramid frequently.

“It was a celebrity lake in the ‘30s,” he said. “Clark Gable, Herbert Hoover. It was generally all fly fishing before the spinning reel was invented.”

A drop-off runs around most of the lake, and the cutthroat tend to hang around it because that’s where the tui chub live. Even anglers in boats troll along the shelf. Then as now, Thies said, fly anglers would carry stepladders or milk crates out to the depth of their armpits and stand on them to reach the drop-off.

“We’d just drop a fly--a black-bodied woolly worm with a green fluorescent butt--over that shelf and strip in the line,” Thies said.

That hasn’t changed, either.

“The hairier the better,” Hunter said.

The lake is still 65 feet below its 19th-Century level, currently at 3,807 feet above sea level. That’s five feet below the level that would allow fresh Truckee River water to flow in freely, and Wagner said, “We’d be happy with 10 feet higher,” for a security margin.