American Fly Fishing

Resurgence and Perhaps Resurrection
By Bob Gaines

Truckee River

The boulder-filled deep pools of the Truckee River canyon harbor big, wild brown and rainbow trout. Deep nymphing works well here. Be sure to use enough weight to get your fly near the bottom, particularly during the high flows of spring.
ALL PHOTOS BY BOB GAINES

After the last ice age, a great salty lake receded into what is now Pyramid Lake, home of the world’s largest cutthroat trout, Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). These trout were apex predators that grew to legendary proportions—up to 60 pounds—by feasting on abundant tui chubs, Tahoe suckers, and cui-ui suckers. With the clean gravel of the middle and upper reaches of the Truckee River as their spawning grounds, this great race of trout flourished in the nutrient-rich, pristine environment.

Throughout the 19th century the 100-plus-mile-long Truckee River flowed unfettered, unimpeded by dams, from where it emanated from Lake Tahoe, California, to where it poured into Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Every spring, in what is now downtown Reno, the Truckee filled with cutthroat, averaging 20 pounds, on their spawning run from Pyramid Lake. The fish were so numerous that one witness recounted, “You could walk across the river on their backs.”

Since 2016, spawning Lahontan cutthroat trout from Pyramid Lake are allowed to pass above Marble Bluff Dam, thanks to an elaborate fish lock, after they are measured, weighed, documented, and tagged (if not previously tagged) for individual monitoring. In the spring of 2020, 1,560 cutts were allowed passage.

But in 1905, the construction of Derby Dam, 35 miles upstream from the Truckee River’s inlet at Pyramid Lake, sealed the fate of the watershed’s Lahontan cutts. Derby Dam was part of the Newlands Reclamation Project, America’s first federal reclamation project, in which the federal government began to implement major irrigation projects throughout the West. Ralph Cutter, in his book Sierra Trout Guide, wrote, “With one short-sighted and illconceived project, the Bureau of Reclamation destroyed the greatest freshwater trout fishery in the world.”

When nearly 75 percent of the Truckee River was diverted at Derby Dam into Lahontan Reservoir on the Carson River drainage, Pyramid Lake’s water level dropped 80 feet. Silt began to fill the inlet, blocking upstream spawning in low-water years. By 1944, LCT were extinct, or so everyone thought. But in one of the most miraculous discoveries in the history of fisheries recovery, a graduate student, studying rare cutthroat trout in 1979, discovered a small population of cutthroat living in a small stream near Pilot Peak on the Nevada–Utah border. Serendipitously, Dr. Robert Behnke, perhaps the world’s leading authority on trout, was the student’s thesis adviser, and the great discovery was later confirmed via DNA analysis using old fish mounts from Pyramid Lake LCT. These fish were indeed descendants of the original LCT, planted before 1930, saved from hybridization by isolation, and rediscovered to seed the genesis of what came to be known as the Pilot Peak strain.

Lisa Heki, project leader of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex (LNFHC), describes the amazing progress of reintroducing what once was thought to be an extinct fish, saying, “Since 1995 we’ve been developing a conservation brood stock of the Pilot Peak strain at LNFHC, and in 2006, in partnership with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, we stocked the Pilot Peak strain back into its home waters in the lake. It took several years for the fish to mature in the lake, but in 2014 we documented the ... migration and reproduction of this fish in the lower Truckee River for the first time in 80 years.”

By 2020 the Pilot Peak LCT in Pyramid Lake were routinely achieving weights over 20 pounds, and hopes are high that a 30-pound fish will be caught in the near future.

The original Lahontan cutthroat trout grew to legendary proportions by feasting on vast schools of tui chubs, Tahoe suckers, and cui-ui suckers. This fish mount memorializes the official world-record specimen, caught December 1, 1925. The trout weighed 41 pounds and measured over 40 inches in length.

Today the Truckee River is primarily a brown and rainbow trout fishery, with rainbows averaging 14 inches and the browns 16 inches. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) stocks rainbow, brown, and LCT, although rainbows and browns predominate. Kim Tisdale, Western Region fisheries supervisor for the NDOW, estimates that about 70 percent of the fish are wild fish (born in the river), based on surveys done each fall.

Upper Truckee

Controlled by a small dam, the Truckee emerges from the northwest corner of Lake Tahoe into a mountain valley, at an elevation of 6,000 feet, and flows through a pine-forested canyon. In its initial 4 miles, from Lake Tahoe downstream to River Ranch Lodge, the Truckee forms numerous clear, deep pools, connected by slow runs. Perhaps the most scenic section of the Truckee, it’s also very popular with rafters, who clog the river on warm summer days; your best bet during the summer is to fish here very early or very late in the day.

Below River Ranch Lodge are 10 miles of freestone riffle water, paralleled by California State Route 89, which provides easy access for targeting the stocked rainbows and the small population of wild browns that populate this section of the river. The numerous big, wild rainbows and browns the Truckee is famous for are largely absent in the upper Truckee, but the scenery is beautiful, and the easy access and numerous campgrounds add to the appeal.

By late summer, the flows in the upper river can reach anemic levels during low-water years. However, during higher flows from spring runoff or during storms, this section never gets blown out, and never gets too muddy.

Downstream from the Little Truckee River confluence, the invigorated middle Truckee River flows through the boulder-strewn Truckee River canyon.

Small midge patterns (such as size 18 Zebra Midges) and small mayfly nymphs (such as size 16 Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail Nymphs) work well early in the season, drifted under an indicator. Later in the summer, a caddisfly or stonefly nymph fished as a dropper under an attractor dry fly is effective in the clear water. Ideal flows for the upper Truckee are 150 to 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). General fishing regulations apply to the upper section, and the season runs from the last weekend in April to November 15. Along the river’s course, small feeder streams add to the flow, and before the town of Truckee, the river emerges from the canyon and enters a broad, flat valley.

The town of Truckee itself offers limited river access throughout its downtown section, as the river is lined with residential areas and a business district. The eastern edge of town, where Trout Creek flows into the Truckee River, marks the start of the river’s special-regulations (barbless hooks only) stretch, which continues all the way down into Nevada; fishing is allowed year-round.

Heading east out of Truckee, Glenshire Drive parallels the river, providing excellent access to several miles of prime water all the way down to the Glenshire bridge. The next 3 miles, downstream of the Glenshire Bridge to the Union Mills bridge (the Interstate 80 overpass), is the private water of the San Francisco Fly Casting Club, and is closed to the public.

From a large parking lot just east of the Glenshire bridge, trails lead upstream to some of the best water on the upper river. During cloudy summer days, mayfly hatches here can produce outstanding dry-fly action; during sunny days, nymphing with caddisfly and stonefly nymphs is the standard technique.

This is a popular area, thanks to easy access, easy wading, and numerous wild rainbows and browns. This section fishes best when flows are from 150 to 300 cfs, which usually happens after the spring runoff recedes. Carpenter ant imitations can be deadly at that time of year. In early summer, Green Drakes hatch, and stoneflies and caddisflies are prevalent all summer long.

Not far from where the Truckee crosses from California into Nevada, the river flows through Crystal Peak Park. This reach is known for great pocket water among small boulders—ideal for drifting a nymph under an indicator.

Truckee River Canyon

Below the Union Mills bridge, Prosser Creek, which is the outflow from Prosser Creek Reservoir, and the Little Truckee River, which flows from Boca Reservoir, add clear, cold water to the Truckee, often swelling the main stem to twice the water volume flowing in the stretch upstream through the town of Truckee.

Below the mouth of the Little Truckee, the invigorated Truckee roars through miles of boulder-strewn canyon, down through the towns of Hirschdale and Floriston. The canyon is largely inaccessible by car, even though busy Interstate 80 parallels the river canyon through this section, high above the river, but there are no viable turnouts or parking spaces for the 8 miles between the Boca–Hirschdale Road exit and the Floriston exit. Access and parking are available on Hirschdale Road just off I-80 at the town of Hirschdale, at the Hirschdale Road bridge, and at the Floriston exit.

From Floriston you can walk upstream into the remote Truckee River canyon section. Although the railroad tracks on the south side of the river might look appealing as a hiking path, I recommend staying off the tracks, as freight trains barrel through the canyon with regularity, and you might not hear the train coming due to the roar of the river.

I’m a longtime rock climber (I’ve climbed El Capitan in Yosemite five times), and I’m drawn to rocky, boulder-filled river canyons with difficult wading and scrambling—the more inaccessible the better—where deep pools harbor big, wild brown trout. The Truckee River canyon is such a place, with plunge pools, pocket water, and deep holes that are lairs for big browns. Deep nymphing is the way to go in this stretch; the biggest mistake is not adding enough weight, particularly during high flows. The canyon section fishes best when flows are between 200 to 400 cfs.

The farther you walk upstream from Floriston, the more likely it is that you’ll find a big, wild fish that hasn’t seen a fly in a long time. Sticky-rubber wading shoes and a wading staff are indispensable.

State Line to Reno

Below the canyon, the Truckee River flows into Nevada. There is good river access in the town of Verdi. Exit westbound I-80 at exit 3 and turn left onto South Verdi Road, then left onto Quilici Ranch Road, and drive to a small parking area marked by an NDOW signpost. From there, a short walk leads to a footbridge over a diversion (sometimes with a locked gate) that gives access to the main-stem Truckee.

Wild browns average 16 inches throughout the middle and lower Truckee, but grow to much larger proportions.

From a parking area at the west end of Quilici Ranch Road, you can walk upstream and access about a mile of river—all the way to the California border.

Farther downstream, in Nevada, is the popular Crystal Peak Park (take westbound exit 3 from I-80, turn left onto South Verdi Road, then right onto Crystal Park Road), which features pocket water among small boulders, a great spot for high-sticking a nymph under an indicator.

As the river flows east into Reno, the scenery becomes distinctly urban, but the fishing can be incredibly productive, especially off the beaten path, early or late in the day, and during the winter months. A series of city parks, accessed off West Fourth Street, are all connected via a city walking and biking path. Among these parks (from upstream to downstream, or west to east) are Ivan Sack Park, Idlewild Park, Truckee River Whitewater Park at Wingfield Park, and Fisherman’s Park. Farther east (downstream) the setting becomes downright industrial as the river flows through Rock Park, Glendale Park, and Cottonwood Park, all accessed off Greg Street. In this stretch, fish numbers are low, but occasionally fly anglers catch surprisingly large trout.

The lower Truckee is known for world-class sight-fishing for carp. The side sloughs are full of carp averaging 10 pounds and ranging up to 30 pounds.

The Lower Truckee

Downstream from Reno, the river slows and deepens as it flows east toward Pyramid Lake. The number of fish declines downstream from Reno, but the average size increases, with the real possibility of a trophy brown. This section of the river is well known for its blue-ribbon streamer fishing. Ideal flows for streamer fishing on the lower river are around 500 cfs. Another productive tactic is to use a crayfish or sculpin pattern dead-drifted under an indicator—a proven technique that has fooled a lot of big and cagey browns.

The lower river is accessible via I-80. At exit 22, at the town of Lockwood, ample parking at the Lockwood bridge allows access to trails leading downstream on the north side of the river. Farther downstream, at the town of Mustang, exit 23 provides access to a dirt road that parallels the Truckee upstream for a mile or so. Mustang was once the home of the infamous Mustang Ranch, Nevada’s first licensed brothel, which opened its doors in 1971.

Today Mustang resembles an industrialized ghost town. A few miles farther downstream is another good access point at exit 32. Follow the road (State Route 439, aka USA Parkway) south to where a spur curves back left under SR 439, then crosses over the river on a bridge, to a parking area on the right, giving you access to the north side of the river.

The lower river is also known for worldclass sight-fishing for carp, which average 10 pounds and range up to 30 pounds. From Lockwood to USA Parkway, you can find carp anywhere the river slows its course or floods into side sloughs and channels. The carp are particularly active in the spring and summer. Find “frog water” out of the main flow and current, and chances are the carp will be there. Watch for signs of mudding (emerging puffs of clouds of silt) and the holy grail of carp fishing: tailing fish. Weighted worm patterns are particularly effective, in sizes 10 and 12, as are crawfish imitations. Carp are bottom-feeders but extremely wary, so a lightly weighted pattern, with bead-chain eyes instead of dumbbell eyes, will get your fly down with less commotion.

Hatches

From the town of Truckee downstream through Reno, winter is the time for Blue-Winged Olive (Baetis) mayfly dun and emerger patterns, and Pheasant Tail Nymphs. These Baetis hatches continue into the early summer and reoccur in the fall. In springtime, Skwala stonefly hatches begin. A size 8 Stimulator, or a black stonefly nymph for a wet fly, will match the hatch. Summer insect activity includes a variety of mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly hatches. Be sure to carry a variety of standard patterns: Hare’s Ear Nymphs, Bird’s Nests, Zug Bugs, and Pheasant Tail Nymphs, in sizes 12 through 18, and stonefly nymphs in sizes 8 and 10.

Beginning in early summer, the trout key in on the prolific caddisfly hatches. Adult caddisflies are best imitated by a standard Elk Hair Caddis in sizes 12 through 20. One of the best tactics this time of year is to drift a caddisfly pupa with some weight to keep it deep under an indicator, or as a dropper beneath an Elk Hair Caddis in shallower runs. The best-producing caddisfly larva and pupa patterns include the Green Rock Worm, Matt Koles’s G6 Caddis, LaFontaine’s Sparkle Pupa, and Barr’s Graphic Caddis.

Since 2016, spawning Lahontan cutthroat trout from Pyramid Lake are allowed to pass above Marble Bluff Dam, thanks to an elaborate fish lock, after they are measured, weighed, documented, and tagged (if not previously tagged) for individual monitoring. In the spring of 2020, 1,560 cutts were allowed passage.

The Future

After two decades of hard work, spanning multiple agencies, remediation efforts to allow Lahontan cutthroat trout to pass upstream of three major dams on the lower Truckee on their annual spring spawning run from Pyramid Lake are near fruition. “This is really a remarkable conservation story,” says Lisa Heki, project leader of the LNFHC. “Having the opportunity to restore this fish population to its home waters in Pyramid Lake is important for the state of Nevada, it’s important for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, for anglers, and has been the most rewarding part of my 25-year career.”

Beginning in 2014, growing numbers of LCT have successfully spawned in the lower reaches of the Truckee River, mainly below Marble Bluff Dam, which is 3 miles upstream from the Truckee River’s inlet at Pyramid Lake. In 2016, LCT were allowed to pass above Marble Bluff Dam, thanks to an elaborate fish lock that allows them to successfully pass the dam after being measured, weighed, documented, and tagged (if not already tagged) with individual monitoring units. These fish successfully spawned all the way up to Numana Dam, 12 miles upstream from Pyramid Lake, and since 2017 LCT have been allowed to pass above Numana Dam, spawning in the river all the way up to Derby Dam, 30 miles upstream from Pyramid Lake. In the spring of 2020, 1,560 LCT passed above Marble Bluff Dam to spawn below Derby Dam.

But spawning habitat in the lower river is less than ideal, with warmer water and siltier gravel than the prime habitat of the middle and upper Truckee, the genetically programmed spawning grounds for the original LCT strain.

The $31 million Derby Dam fish screen, completed last fall, is the largest and perhaps most important fish passage screen ever built, allowing LCT to access their long-lost natal waters. In anticipation of this long-awaited spring spawning migration, the NDOW instituted “only artificial lure with single barbless hook” regulations for the entire lower river.

“I think this is a big step, for the state of Nevada, to change the regulations to protect these fish as they come up the Truckee River,” says guide Doug Ouellette. “They belong in the river; they’re native here. There will be anglers coming from all over the world just for the challenge, and just for the opportunity to catch a native species.”

But some people fear the reintroduction of LCT in the Truckee will lead to a decline in wild rainbow and brown populations. The Pyramid Lake Tribe has begun eradication efforts to remove nonnative rainbow trout from the Truckee River within their tribal boundary to reduce chances of hybridization. While there are no efforts by the NDOW to remove rainbow and brown trout from the Truckee, stocking efforts reflect a change in management goals that favor LCT. Annual stockings of rainbow trout, which averaged 200,000 fish per year in the Truckee River in the 1990s, were down to 25,000 fish annually in 2016. In 2018, the NDOW began stocking mainly triploid rainbows, incapable of reproduction, and in turn began stocking more LCT in the river and its tributaries.

Unlike rainbows, browns do not hybridize with cutthroat, so they don’t pose the same problem. “A recovery of cutthroat in the river will mean some hybrids, browns, and rainbows all sharing the same river,” says guide Matt “Gilligan” Koles. “They first have to see if all the fish coexist, through a tagging program [using] transceivers on rainbows and cutts. They have them on both right now. The thought is that some will hybridize—rainbows and cutts—and some will not. There are no plans in the future to eradicate any nonnative fish on the Truckee River.”

In May 2020, the NDOW stocked 4,645 small LCT in Lake Tahoe. “Feeding the Mackinaw?” one pundit quipped on Facebook. So far, efforts to stock small LCT in the Truckee River basin have had limited success, perhaps because they could not compete with the established wild rainbows and browns for food and habitat, or maybe because they fell victim to predation from hook-jawed browns.

This past spring, a remarkable LCT weighing 27.2 pounds and measuring 36.5 inches long was documented and allowed passage above Marble Bluff Dam, free to migrate past Derby Dam and up to the prime spawning habitat near Reno.

As LCT migrate above Derby Dam, hybridization with wild populations of rainbow trout could complicate LCT recovery efforts, since the genetic purity of the original strain, so painstakingly cultivated from near demise, could be compromised.

Future research will focus on this issue, and data will be used to guide management strategies. The goal for fisheries managers is clear: “If we could get this fish, the state fish of Nevada, to run the entire length of the Truckee River, all the way up to Lake Tahoe, that would be an amazing accomplishment,” says Roger Peka, a fish biologist at the LNFHC. “I hope to one day see a family looking over and seeing these fish, these large fish from Pyramid Lake, all the way up where they belong.”

California-based author and photographer Bob Gaines is a regular contributor to American Fly Fishing magazine.