Three years is, in the context of space and time, a blip. Even in the context of a human life, three years isn’t much time at all.
Still, three years is the difference between being 47 and 50. It’s 1,095 days. It’s the length of the Korean War. It takes a kokanee salmon at least three years to reach spawning maturity. And so it’s somewhat surprising just how much life can happen in three years. A newborn turns into a toddler, a 10-year-old into a teenager, and a 13-year-old into a licensed driver. Those are the Instagram moments, the momentous instances where we stop, take pictures, and wonder how so much happened in just three years.
While I sat in a hotel in Fernley, Nevada, on January 1, 2021, I wondered how I’d managed to squeeze so much into my past three years and still have such a glaring omission.
In 2018, I made my first trip to Pyramid Lake.
In 2021, I still hadn’t caught a fish from Pyramid.
December 28, 2018
The dash clock in my car read 12:37 a.m. as Tim Johnson and I lapped the mostly unlit lot next to Crosby’s Bar, trying to find trailer number 7. We finally settled on an unnumbered trailer that was two trailers down from one with a sign emblazoned with a handwritten 5, reckoning it was either number 3 or 7. At almost one in the morning, we didn’t particularly care so long as we were able to get a few hours of sleep before our early wake-up call.
The old fifth-wheel trailer had two flat tires and listed to the left. I fumbled with the heater while Tim hauled in gear from the car. I couldn’t get the heater running, even after Tim had unloaded the car and set up his sleeping bag on the fifth-wheel’s old lumpy couch.
I finally gave up on the heater, cursing while I looked through the trailer for extra blankets. I crawled into my sleeping bag knowing I’d wake up sore from the cold seeping into my bones, but I shrugged it off. If this is what it takes to catch one of Pyramid’s massive Lahontan cutthroats, so be it, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.
6 a.m. came early. It was still dark, and colder than when I’d gone to bed. The sun lit a faint, frosty orange in the eastern sky. Our guide, Ryan Dangerfield, was already waiting for us on Popcorn Beach. The butt of his cigarette glowed red in the still darkness. Dangerfield stabbed it out in the sand when we approached, handed us each a pair of black nitrile gloves and fly rods already rigged up with indicators and chironomids.
Within five minutes of my first cast, I saw the dark outline of my indicator wobble across the lake’s surface. I set my 7wt like my life depended on it, and felt the immediate weight of a big, heavy fish taking line against a tight drag.
I turned to let Dangerfield know I’d hooked up, but he was already knee-deep in the gentle swell with a big net in his hands.
“Good one,” he muttered.
The rod bent in half, the fish gave three powerful shakes of its head, and then the line went limp. The sudden absence of the forward pressure almost pushed me flat on my back into the lake.
Dangerfield looked at the rig he’d tied on for me. The flies were still attached. “Must have popped out. These fish know how to throw a hook.”
Emboldened by my early success, I kept at it while the sun rose. The bite was fast and furious in those first two hours of the morning, but each time I hooked up with a fish it ended like the first one. Meanwhile, Tim was putting fish after fish in the net and looked like he was having the time of his life doing it.
When the morning indicator bite died down, I switched to a balanced leech and popcorn beetle rig, stripping them low and slow on a 300-grain sink-tip. The weather was gorgeous, which is exactly what you don’t want at Pyramid. I think I stripped that leech and beetle rig for five hours without a tug. Then, on the last cast of the day, I had a feeble bite. I strip-set, felt the fish briefly fight, and then the line went limp.
That night at Crosby’s we ate dinner beneath the mounts of Pyramid’s enormous fish. The world-record cutthroat hung just above me and to my right. Other anglers sat at the bar, comparing pictures of their catches from the day.
We left the next day, after fishing the first hours of the morning. Tim landed a few more fish. I didn’t get so much as a nibble.
May 4, 2019
I stood on a ladder in the dead-calm, achingly blue-green water off South Nets Beach and watched my buddy Hyrum Weaver reel in his tenth fish of the day. He had the hot spot, apparently. Two other guys – Brett and Eric – were with us, and both of them also had multiple fish under their belts. We’d been there for two days, and had two more planned. The most excitement I had experienced was when I threw my rod into the lake out of frustration over missing the only bite I had. Hyrum took a break from catching fish to snag my rod from the depths – the mark of a truly good fishing buddy.
I was in a foul mood. Not just because I wasn’t catching fish, but because I was the only one not catching fish. None of my companions on the trip had caught fewer than ten fish. I’d had a nibble.
Leaning against a ladder for long periods of time wears a fellow out. Yet, four days passed with that single bite all I had to show for my sore back and aching shins. On the endless drive home through the Nevada desert, I informed everyone in the truck that I wasn’t ever coming back to Pyramid.
February 15, 2020
I pitched my tent in the sand on Nets Beach, surprised that it was only 40 degrees outside at 9pm. Hyrum and I had opted to camp on the lake since the forecast didn’t call for unbearably cold weather. We’d have the next two days to scour the beaches looking for fish. Despite my protestations almost a year earlier, I’d let Hyrum talk me into another trip to Pyramid.
Honestly, I wanted to go back. I had a score to settle with the lake. Not because I’d been skunked for two straight years, what bugged me was the feeling that I’d simply been ignored by Pyramid and its monstrous cutthroat. I’ve been skunked plenty of times on dozens of waters, but not the way I’d been at Pyramid. It felt less like I was doing something wrong, and more like the lake and fish weren’t even aware that I was there.
The weather turned out to be stunning once again, and the fishing was as dead as I’ve ever seen it. Hyrum tells me he hasn’t been skunked in the 21st century, and I’ve always privately wondered how true that claim is. As our first day neared its end, he hadn’t caught anything and was visibly agitated. But then Pyramid smiled on Hyrum. As the last of the good fishing light faded over the mountains behind us, he set the hook, the whipping sound of fly line breaking an otherwise soft silence.
The fish was gorgeous – 27 inches and brightly colored – and the only one of the day.
I woke up the next morning with a grim determination – I wanted to catch a fish and finally get this monkey off my back, but if it’s possible to have a negative amount of faith in something, I had that in my ability to catch anything from Pyramid Lake.
The day followed the same pattern as the day before, but Hyrum hooked one fish in the morning. Sensing my growing despondency, Hyrum decided I needed to catch something. I needed to feel a fish on the line again.
We drove the two hours to Reno, bought fishing licenses for the state of Nevada, and found some public access on the Truckee River within casting distance of the California border. The Truckee looked gorgeous, and the warm spring day had fish feeding in the first pool we approached. I felt confident, now. In my element – on a river, behind rising trout.
I messed up the first cast, put that fish down, and didn’t see another fish for the next three hours.
We got back to Pyramid in time for the last two hours of fishing, which is about the only time the fish had been biting, anyway. Hyrum hooked and landed two, and I netted and took pictures of both. As I put the big landing net back on the shore, I saw my rod tip bouncing where I’d left it on my ladder. I charged into the water, grabbed the rod, and set the hook just in time to feel a fish shake the hook free.
We left the next day and I renewed my pledge to never return to Pyramid Lake.
January 1, 2021
New Year’s Day was the best start to a fishing year Hyrum could’ve ever asked for. Within a half-hour of getting to Pyramid, at 1:30 in the afternoon, he put a 15-pound fish in the net.
I stared slackjawed at the thing – it was the biggest cutthroat I’d ever seen in person. The fish taped at 33.5 inches, with a girth of 28 inches. Splashes of red on its gill plates complemented the earthy brown of its body. I held it briefly, so Hyrum could get an underwater shot of the fish swimming away. I couldn’t wrap my hand even halfway around the tail.
Hyrum caught three more fish that day. The smallest was 27 inches. I didn’t even get a bite.
We didn’t eat at Crosby’s that night. Instead, we went back to Fernley, where we’d booked a hotel. The only place in town that didn’t have a huge line was Jack in the Box, so we grabbed burgers and sat in the room, watching TV and looking at the pictures of Hyrum’s epic catch.
The trip was already halfway over and I hadn’t caught a thing, but it felt different. Maybe it was the absence of fried bar food from Crosby’s, or the wonderful distraction the trip was from the start of my last semester of college. Whatever the case, I was actually enjoying myself. I didn’t feel as spurned by Pyramid as I had in years past.
January 2, 2021
Hyrum drove like a bat out of hell and he put us on the lake right after sunrise. I jumped out of the truck, grabbed my ladder, fly rod, and a few cans of Diet Coke. That’s all I’d need for the morning, at least. I hoofed it over to the exact spot Hyrum was standing in when he’d caught his 15-pound fish the day before.
Like a good fishing buddy, Hyrum gave me plenty of distance. He set up shop well down the beach from me, but close enough to come over and help net fish.
I threw my first cast out and to the left, where the wind would push the flies off a shelf and hopefully into the waiting jaws of a hungry trout.
Much to my surprise, that’s exactly what happened.
My indicator twitched, then shot under the water. I set the hook, the fish ran, and it felt solid. Please don’t spit the hook, please don’t spit the hook, I prayed quietly.
“Hyrum!” I hollered. “I got one!”
“It’s not in the net yet!” he yelled back. “Don’t get ahead of yourself!”
I couldn’t help myself. I grinned like a schoolboy skipping class who knows he’ll get away with it – a sensation I reckon is pretty close to pure joy.
The fish did its part to make things interesting. It ran, shook its head, took line, and absolutely hated the sight of the net. After one last burst of energy, I finally guided its head into the rubber basket. Hyrum lifted up swiftly, and in that single motion, three years of anxiety vanished. I lay my rod on the ladder, spread my arms wide, and hollered up at the sky in a mixture of relief and joy. In less than ten minutes I felt Pyramid’s three-year-old cold shoulder finally start to thaw.
Never has a single fish brought as much peace to a soul as that cutthroat did to mine.
Hyrum started snapping pictures, and I happily posed with the fish. The cutthroat spent a few seconds out of the water in the five minutes I held it in the net.
After measuring the fish, I realized it was my new personal best trout on a fly rod – 27.5 inches, and just a hair under eight pounds. For a kid who grew up celebrating a 13-inch wild rainbow from the streams near my home, this fish was almost too good to be true.
I held the cutthroat by the tail, watching as its gills pumped water and it swayed side to side. The water was cold, enough that my fingers started to ache. I was emotionally spent, and I realized I didn’t want to let that fish go. I didn’t want to lose that connection, not so soon after I’d finally found it.
Eventually, the fish gained its strength back, and with a powerful kick of its tail it shot back to the depths.
Suddenly, the water didn’t feel as icy as it did moments ago. I washed my hands, mounted the ladder, and cast again.