How To Fish Stillwaters

December 15th, 2003

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

The Winter Cutthroat Of Pyramid Lake

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

The next two or three months is the time of year many fly fishermen choose to sit at their tying tables, with space-heaters at their feet, tying flies, waiting for warmer weather to tease them back to the lake or stream. Others jet to world class fishing holes in Central and South America, New Zealand, Tasmania, Christmas Island, or the Bahamas.

I've been mentally planning trips to these exotic fishing holes for years. I have just one little problem: An unsympathetic company treasurer. Vina seems to think mundane things like new carpeting and a paint job on the house, takes precedent over the head of R & D catching reel-smoking bonefish on a January trip to Christmas Island.

Oh, she does dispense mid-winter fishing perks. The only problem...the money she is willing to allocate to such projects, gets me only about as far south as Reno, Nevada.

While my jet-setting friends are sipping cocktails on the veranda of some South American lodge, wiping their brows after a day of battling five and 10 pound German Browns in 90-degree air temperatures, I'm waist deep in Pyramid Lake, breaking ice out of my guides.

If I'm lucky, I'll hook enough four or five pound Lahontan Cutthroat to keep the old bones warm. I might even hook a larger trout than anything my friends catch on their world-wide fishing expeditions. But...I'll still be freezing my butt off, while they're using sunscreen by the gallon.

While I've been fishing Pyramid Lake off and on nearly 35 years, I've yet to hook into any real tackle busters. Several fishing companions have caught cutthroats up to 15-pounds. That's the beauty of the place; As slow as the fishing might be, on any given cast an angler can conceivably hook the fish of a lifetime.

Several years ago, I and three other Boise fly fishermen spent three days in late January, fishing Pyramid. The fishing was terrible. I think we had hooked only three fish by the end of the second day. I was ready to head home, but was voted down and we spent the third day on the lake. Just as the sun was sinking behind the Virginia Mountains - after a fishless day - one of our party hooked and landed an 11 pound cutthroat. He considered it the end of a "beautiful trip." Since I had only caught one 24-inch fish in three days, I considered it only a somewhat "merciful ending" to a trip that should never have been scheduled in the first place (the reports had been poor, but we rationalized we would enjoy ourselves in the casinos and great restaurants of Sparks and Reno, even if the fishing wasn't up to par).

As a sport fishery, Pyramid Lake has had its ups and downs over the years. During the '20s, the lake produced Lahontan cutthroat up to more than 40 pounds. The world record cutthroat came from the lake. Caught by John Skimmerhorn, a Paiute Indian, the fish weighted 41 pounds. Some old newspaper clippings suggest there were actually cutts in the 50- and 60-pound range in the lake at that time.

But even as the lake was producing these giant fish, their death knell was ringing. The fishery was doomed by commercial overfishing, and worst of all, by the building of irrigation diversion dams that reduced the flow of the Truckee River so drastically that the great fish could not navigate the river. By the 1940s nobody wasted time fishing at Pyramid.

Although many authorities thought the shrinking lake had become too alkaline to support trout life, in 1948 biologists discovered otherwise. Stocking began and by 1960, some 10-pounders were showing up. During the early '70s, the average weight of cutthroats in the lake was six pounds, and anglers caught lots of fish over 10 pounds. Between 1973 and 1978, at least a dozen fish weighing more than 20 pounds were reported. Many authorities believe that was merely the tip of the ice berg so far as large fish were concerned.

While fishing conditions in recent years have often been less than perfect, mostly due to drought conditions, excellent management strategies on the river and at the lake seem to guarantee Pyramid will remain one of the top trophy trout fisheries in the nation for years to come.


Fish the lake from now until the first of June (with the prime months March and April). After the water begins to warm, the fish will go deep and become unavailable for shore fishermen. The lake is closed for trout fishing during July, August, and September.

While some float tubing does occur on the lake, most knowledgeable Pyramid Lake fly fishermen prefer to wade the shoreline and cast. The big trout roam close to shore in their search for food. Windy, nasty, tough-to-fish days, seem to produce the best results.

Most shore fishermen use metal milk cartons or kitchen stepladders, on which they stand in order to get more height, therefore more distance to their casts; And be able to fish in deeper water, further from shore (a note of caution: anglers using milk cartons or any other device to stand on, must occupy them at all times. If you leave them unattended, you might be cited for littering). The angling theory at Pyramid is to let the fish come to you. I still prefer using a float tube or pontoon boat. Just casting from one spot hour after hour after hour, gets a little boring...unless, of course, you are catching a lot of fish.

Since one of the keys to catching fish is to "scratch the bottom" with your flies, most anglers use hi-density shooting heads or tapers. While rods from 6-weight to 8-weight can be effective in fly presentation, if the wind is blowing - and it mostly is at the big lake - the heavier 9- and 10-weight rods are usually more appropriate.

Choosing a successful fly pattern is not an especially sophisticated endeavor at Pyramid Lake. When I first began fishing the big lake, in the late '60s, most of the experts I've talked with, used a size 4 through 8 black or purple Woolly Worm (or bugger) on the point, and a white Woolly Worm as a dropper. I've had good luck with the old dependable Stayner Ducktail .

Pyramid Lake lies 30 miles northeast of Reno, on State Highway 33. Managed by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, the angler will need an Indian fishing license to fish the lake. Current fees are $7.00 per day, $50.00 for the season. Licenses may be purchased at the Pyramid Lake Marina, in the town of Sutcliffe, on the west side of the lake; or at the tribal headquarters.

Fishermen can also obtain a map of the lake from the license vendor. The various beaches and bays are marked on the map. Some of my favorite spots include: Dago Bay on the southeast corner of the lake; Popcorn Beach where the river enters the lake; near the Sutcliffe fish pens (you cannot fish within a 1,000 foot radius around the fish attraction channel); and Pelican Point on the west side.

For more information, phone the Pyramid Lake Marina, (702) 574-1000; or write the Marina at 2500 Lakeview Drive, Sutcliffe, Nevada 89510. The marina has a laundry, showers, restrooms, boat ramp, and 44 full RV hookups.

Crosby Lodge operates a small motel and campground at Sutcliffe. For information, phone (702) 476-0400. ~ Marv

About Marv

Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West, The Successful Angler's Journal, More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from Marv. You can reach Marv by email at or by phone: 208-322-5760.

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