WON First Person Report: Testing our metal at Pyramid Lake

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A NICE PILOT PEAK-STRAIN cutthroat, put on display by guide Todd Keller.
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BY RON BALLANTI

SUTCLIFFE, Nev. – Casting metal lures for trophy trout has long been my favorite type of freshwater angling. Whether walking the shorelines of Sierra lakes, casting spinners into mountain streams or hunting jumbo stockers at the Fin and Feather Club in Palmdale, “flinging the iron” has been the mainstay of my trout fishing adventures over the past 50 years.

So it should be no surprise that for years, I’ve longingly cast my vision towards Pyramid Lake, Nevada and its population of trophy Lahontan Cutthroat trout. This lake is famous for what I like to call “two-hander” trout — specimens of 10, 15 and even 20 pounds that literally require both arms to support and lift them clear of the water for photos. These pictures regularly grace the pages of Western Outdoor News during the season (including the cover of the recent Dec. 17 edition). After years of dreaming about it and several months preparing for it, I finally found myself standing on the shore of this unique high desert fishery.

I’m a big believer in hiring a local expert when fishing a new piece of water — particularly one that offers more than 123,000 acres to explore. A visit to pyramidlake.us provided a wealth of information about the fishery, the Paiute Tribal history and special angling regulations, and most importantly for me, a list of available fishing guides approved by the tribal council.

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FISH OFTEN bite early and late, like this chunky cutthroat in the net.

Most of these are listed as fly fishing guides, but don’t let that dissuade you. After a few calls, I connected with Ryan Dangerfield and Todd Keller of Pyramid Lake Guides (435-549-0358 and 775-217-0592, respectively) and found that Todd would be available Dec. 18-19 to fish with me, along with Colorado fishing buddies and fellow trout junkies Dennis and Eric Neal. More importantly, even though both are expert fly fishing guides who specialize in targeting trophy fish from shore, ladders or float tubes, they were more than happy to indulge our desire to fling lures on spinning gear.

Over several planning discussions on the phone, they helped me get the right tackle dialed in. Fish of this potential size require a serious step up from the typical ultralight gear commonly used for stocker trout. With their help, I settled on two key outfits: For maximum casting distance with half-ounce to 1-ounce Sierra Spoons, Thomas Buoyants and other “heavy metal,” a 2-piece, 8.5-foot, 8- to 17-pound rated St. Croix steelhead rod matched with a 3000-sized reel spooled with 15-pound braid. I used a short topshot of 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leader to whatever lure I happened to be chucking.

A second lighter outfit was set up for casting and working Hookup Baits. This was a 2- piece, 7-foot Fenwick HMX rod rated for 6- to 12-pound and paired with a 2500-sized reel. I spooled this with 10-pound braid and 10-pound fluorocarbon, and it worked perfectly. In fact, I landed my first two fish of the trip this way. Ryan and Todd like to fish this way when they’re not fly fishing, and mentioned that they use lighter 8-pound line for extra casting distance with the light Hookup Baits. It was early on in our tackle discussions that Ryan mentioned that both guides actually worked with Hookup Baits owner Chad Gierlich to help design color patterns and sizes that would appeal to Pyramid Lake’s jumbo cutthroat.

It’s important to note that in addition to barbless hooks, all lures must be free of any type of scent. It’s quite possible that tribal rangers might stop by to check your tribal permits ($62 for 3 days), inspect your hooks and give your lures a “sniff test.” So, Hookup Baits offers a special line of unscented jigs in 1/8- and 1⁄4-ounce sizes for use in Pyramid. These can be ordered online from the company, and some smart tackle shops like Fish-N-Fools in Granada Hills have a special Pyramid Lake Hookup Baits display.

Before I move off gear, I did want to make clear that while I told our guides I was most comfortable spin fishing, I would gladly accept fly fishing lessons if this seemed the path to better results. That’s another advantage of hiring a guide, as they were armed with all the ideal fly gear and knowledge how to use it, should this be the hot ticket. On our trip, however, spoons and plastics seemed to rule the beach everywhere we went.

“We fish hard from dark to dark, will you be up to that?” I heard this in one of my first phone chats with Ryan, and figured it was a marketing ploy or a test to see how serious we were as anglers. I call tell you, this was no joke. We met Todd a half-hour before sunrise each morning and — aside from a few lunch and warmth breaks — didn’t quit until we needed headlamps to return to the car. Todd explained that while eight-hour days were more usual in the guiding business, his company wants anglers to benefit from both the early morning and late evening bite periods.

When we rolled up to our meeting spot on Day 1, it was still pitch black out and the air was a chilly 17 degrees. With his headlamp, Todd guided us down a path to an area where he had already set up chairs with lights for the three of us, strategically positioned along the best drop off this particular beach had to offer. Pyramid is famous for its unique “ladder fishing” technique, where anglers wade out and climb onto ladders to gain elevation for casting and managing fly line. However, because we were targeting deeper drop-offs and casting spoons and jigs out 100 feet and more from shore, we were able to fish effectively by wading or even from the beach itself.

A FINE SPECIMEN of the coveted Lahontan cutthroat, among the largest of the trip.

Following Todd’s instruction, we casted our spoons off the ledge and let them sink until they hit bottom (from 10 to as much as 30 seconds). We then worked them back with a steady, medium-fast retrieve, accented with occasion twitches and jigging motions to impart extra action. With spoons of this size and profile, you need to retrieve them faster than you would your typical 1⁄4-ounce Kastmaster. These trout like to prowl along the edge of the dropoff, which means that strikes often occur close to shore. More than once we had a big cutthroat follow our lures almost to our feet — a sight that is sure to raise your voice and your pulse.

Hookup Baits (or traditional Marabou-style jigs) are fished by casting off the edge of the drop and working them back with a nearly continuous jigging motion. Strikes often come as the lure is on the initial sink, so be prepared. It also pays to slow down and twitch/sink the lure even more as you approach the ledge, as this is the trout’s prime ambush zone. By the way, it’s worth noting that we often shared the beach side-by-side with fly anglers, without the slightest hint of attitude or snobbery. Several of the fly anglers also had spinning gear in easy reach.

In the weeks before our trip, unseasonably warm weather had kept the Lahontan and Pilot Peak strain cutthroat in deeper water and made life tough on shore anglers. Fortunately, a series of winter storms hit right before our trip, dusting the area with snow and keeping daytime highs in the 30s. Fishing rounded into typical winter-time form, bringing big fish closer to shore for a “quality over quantity” experience. Over two full days, we worked hard for about a fish-per-hour between the three of us, most between 5 and 8-plus pounds. My self-imposed goal for this trip was to land my first double-digit trout. While I did not succeed in this, I did land 10 fish over the two days, with my largest topping out at 8 pounds 9 ounces. Upon reflection, I had to ask myself, in what world could it possibly be a disappointment to catch a bunch of trout each day between 4 and 8-plus pounds? And do it casting lures and plastic jigs? If such a place exists, it could only be Pyramid Lake.

Using the knowledge and locations shared by Todd, our trio had short two hours to fish on morning number three before we had to leave for the Reno Airport. We ventured out in the pre-dawn hours for one last collective crack at that double-digit, two-handed trout that is the benchmark of a successful Pyramid Lake adventure. The sky has barely began to lighten from black to purple when Eric exclaimed, “Fish on!,” his rod doubling over with stronger- than-usual head shakes. After a few tense minutes, I was able to slide the net under a “no- doubter” double-digit fish. Without benefit of a scale, we estimated Eric’s fish at between 12 and 14 pounds, based on comparison to our earlier top fish. We later added another “normal” 6 pounder, making for a great ending to our Pyramid Lake adventure.

If you’re a lure-fishing trout junkie and want to tangle with the largest trout you’re ever likely to see, I highly recommend a trip to Pyramid Lake. I’m already planning my return trip in search of one of those two-handers of my own.

GUIDE TODD KELLER reaches out to net a fish for Dennis Neal.