PYRAMID LAKE, Nev. – For most fishermen, a 20-pound trout is a trophy, but for Paiute tribe members and fish biologists here, the one Matt Ceccarelli caught was a victory.
That Lahontan cutthroat trout he caught last year, a remnant of a strain that is possibly the largest native trout in North America, is the first confirmed catch of a fish that was once believed to have gone extinct.
Lahontan cutthroats, Nevada’s state fish, evolved in the Great Basin, which was flooded under a giant inland sea called Lake Lahontan during the last ice age. Pyramid Lake, which today lies on a Paiute Indian reservation, was part of that ancient lake, and inside its unique inland water system, a giant strain of trout evolved.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fishermen netted scores of Lahontan cutthroats to feed miners and loggers. But the river, where the fish spawned, was dammed, and its level dropped as water was taken for irrigation. It was also polluted with chemicals and sawdust. By the mid-1940s, all the native trout in Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe were dead and the strain was declared extinct.
In the late 1970s, a fish biologist identified what he thought were surviving specimens of the vanished Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat in a small creek on the border of Nevada and Utah. A Utah man used buckets to stock the rugged stream with trout in the early 1900s, but made no record, federal biologists say. Geneticists recently compared cutthroats from the Pilot Peak stream with mounts of giant Pyramid Lake trout and discovered an exact DNA match.
“They are the originals,” said Corene Jones, 39, the broodstock coordinator for the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery in Gardnerville, Nev.
In 1995, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists harvested cutthroat eggs from Pilot Peak and brought them to the Gardnerville hatchery. In 2006, federal officials, in cooperation with the tribe, began stocking Pyramid Lake with what many now call Pilot Peak cutthroats. They waited to see how the fish might readapt to its ancestral home.
The answer came from ecstatic anglers. Late last year, a Reno man caught and released a 24-pounder. David Hamel, 27, of Reno, just did the same with a pair of 20-pound cutthroats.
“Biggest fish of my life,” he said. “Amazing.”