The Pyramid Lake Mistake

When you travel for a fly fishing trip, you expect to catch fish.

May 31, 2018 #fishing

Writer Spencer Durrant took a fly fishing trip to Pyramid Lake, an experience he later called the “Pyramid Lake mistake.” Like any angler, he expected to catch fish. But by the end of the trip, he couldn’t remember why he’d gone in the first place. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant.

When you travel for a fly fishing trip, you expect to catch fish. If you spend three or more hours driving to a river, stream, lake, or pond, it feels like you’re owed a fish the minute you pull up to the water.

If only that were true.

I just got back from a trip to Pyramid Lake, a 125,000-acre lake in Nevada. It was my second visit in six months. The first visit wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either. Tim Johnson – the fly fishing artist – and I went out a few weekends before Christmas. Tim’s best catch was immortalized by Bob White, while I managed seven fish that never broke the 21-inch mark.

When I went back in May 2018, I stepped out of the truck into balmy, shirt-sleeve weather. It was a far cry from December, and I had that sense of anticipation only big fish inspire.

By the end of the trip, I couldn’t remember why I’d gone in the first place.

For two days, I stood in knee-deep water while giant cutthroat trout swam past. On either side of me, my buddies Hyrum and Brett stood on their ladders, reeling in fish after fish. Brett even caught two at once (though he admitted he wouldn’t have landed them without my mad net skills).

I’d fished with Hyrum and Brett before, and knew they’d out-fish me on this trip. They always do. But I’d never fished with their friend Eric. True to form, Eric showed he belonged with Hyrum and Brett with his share of great catches.

I had two bites in two days. The first one looked like a done deal for all of ten seconds. The fish I hooked must’ve been hooked before; instead of running away from me like a sensible trout, he went full Michael Phelps. I couldn’t strip line in fast enough to keep tension on the fish. It spat the hook at my feet with what felt like contempt.

The other bite came when I wasn’t paying attention. Brett hooked into his two fish at once and I was closest to the big landing net. I dropped my rod and grabbed the net only to hear Hyrum yell, “You have a fish!”

I turned to see him handlining my fly line, a bruiser cutthroat on the end. With two violent head shakes, the fish popped off. I sighed and went back to netting Brett’s double catch.

For everyone else on the trip, it was their first time at Pyramid. Somehow, I called the shots on where we fished. It’s as if a trip six months prior qualified me to be a guide.

That’s when I realized I’d made what I now dub my “Pyramid Lake Mistake.” I let my self-aggrandizement talk me into ignoring common sense. Instead of making the usual litany of phone calls to guides, outfitters and various fishing buddies before a big trip, I figured it’d be easy enough. Hyrum looked up fly patterns online and tied a few hundred before the trip. We were set. It’s fishing a lake for cutthroat trout. That’s as uncomplicated a proposition as you’ll see in fly angling.

But here’s where my knowledge fell short and that of a guide’s would’ve been worth the few hundred bucks. We spent almost an entire day fishing on a beach that didn’t hold many trout. On top of that, the hatchery managers had just finished the last round of egg-gathering. Instead of seeing fish concentrated near the spawning channel just south of Sutcliffe like we expected, we only saw small schools of cruising fish that weren’t on the bite.

The best action came when we left South Nets Beach and went to fish at Blockhouse. It took a day and a half to figure that out.

A guide could’ve put us on the big fish at Blockhouse the first day. How much more of a success would the trip have been in that regard?

Hyrum, Eric and Brett would’ve caught more fish. I might have even managed to land one. Even with Hyrum’s research on fly patterns and the combined angling knowledge of the group, we should’ve at least asked a guide for in-depth tips on the lake.

Specifically, we should’ve asked:

  • Where are the fish? Are they still in shallow feeding most of the day, or are they out deeper where only guys on ladders or with boats can reach them?
  • What’s the water clarity like? Are the fish leader-shy or are they willing to smack streamers?
  • Which section of the lake should we focus on?

A lot of anglers just ask the usual, “Where do I go and what do I use?” questions. While those are all well and good, asking pointed questions about the lake’s behavior – and that of its denizens – gives you a clearer picture of what to expect.

So while you’re planning this year’s summer fishing trips, don’t have your own Pyramid Lake mistake. Plan time during each trip to stop in at fly shops, and make sure you’re asking the right questions. Don’t just ask about hot flies and good stretches of water; instead, focus on the overall goal of your trip. If you’re chasing trophy trout, ask about how the ‘bigguns have acted lately. Are they being picky, or can you get away with a big streamer on 3x tippet?

Knowing which questions to ask – and following through on the advice you get – is how you’ll avoid a Pyramid Lake mistake this summer.

Spencer DurrantSpringville, Utah
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