• Back from the brink

    Big trout saved from close call with extinction
  • PYRAMID LAKE, Nev. — Hour after hour, Brian Dunn lofted his fly line into the turquoise-blue water of this shimmering desert lake north of Reno.
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  • PYRAMID LAKE, Nev. — Hour after hour, Brian Dunn lofted his fly line into the turquoise-blue water of this shimmering desert lake north of Reno.
    Finally, just after lunch, his line straightened and a smile spread on his face. Before long, a 6-pound, 25-inch-long cutthroat trout was splashing in the net.
    But what made his catch more special was a yellow ID tag near its dorsal fin, indicating this was no ordinary fish but one scientists once thought was extinct: the Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat, the largest inland trout in North America.
    "It's a great day when you can bring back a species from extinction," said Dunn, a technology consultant from Truckee. "It's kind of sad these events are so rare."
    What's unfolding here is a regionwide fish story about the one that didn't get away, a tale of loss, discovery and restoration that reaches from Utah across the Great Basin to Pyramid Lake and up the Truckee River into the snow-clad Sierra Nevada around Lake Tahoe.
    At the center of that story is a torpedo-shaped trout with orange-red cheeks and sequined, rose-pink stripes that grows as large as salmon and inhabited Pyramid Lake when it was part of a much larger body of water called Lake Lahontan tens of thousands of years ago.
    From near extinction to stunning recovery, its comeback is a rare win for threatened and endangered species, a decades-long odyssey of biological risk and scientific discovery made possible by the uncommon commitment of a fisheries biologist laboring in one of the most remote corners of the West.
    Some of the most dramatic chapters are playing out now. At Pyramid Lake, where the fish was reintroduced in 2006, leviathans are being landed in excess of 20 pounds. There is talk that a new world record — the existing one is a 41-pounder caught in 1925 — may be on the horizon.
    "It's exciting watching them come back," said Dave Hamel, a Reno fisherman who landed and released a 21-pounder on a fly rod in January. "That's what keeps me coming out here."
    Another reintroduction at Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe in California in 2002 also is paying dividends: Last year, Lahontan cutthroats spawned there in a tributary for the first time in more than 70 years.
    "This is such an exciting story because this was such a unique fish," said Mary Peacock, an associate professor of biology and a genetics expert at the University of Nevada, Reno. "You can see pictures from the early part of the 1900s with people holding really large trout out of Tahoe or Pyramid. We thought those fish were gone.
    "This puts this fish back into people's imagination," she added. "I cannot emphasize how important that is."
    Almost as improbable is Pyramid Lake itself. Thirty-five miles north of Reno, it is a dazzling inland sea 27 miles long and 4 to 11 miles wide, surrounded by parched, rust-colored hills and mountains.
    Nearly every drop of water is a gift of the Sierra: the icy, tinseled snowmelt that whooshes out of the mountains down the Truckee River into Nevada. Flooded by sunlight, raked by wind, the lake itself changes color often, from deep cerulean blue to sun-spanked silver and gold.
    More magic swirls beneath the waves, where for thousands of years the Pyramid Lake Lahontan evolved in isolation from other cutthroats. With a smorgasbord of smaller native fish to feed on, it grew large fast — a tiger of a trout. And with access to the Truckee River, it ranged west into California, including Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake.
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