A Relic on a Comeback

As the midday sun strikes the black-spotted, silvery-white flanks of a Lahontan cutthroat trout, the wet gleam highlights the lines that zigzag on the side of the fish, like a stretched out letter Z. Myomeres, zoologists call them, little segments of flesh that really show on this muscular fish as it wriggles and writhes in the hands of Jay Bigelow.

This trout is a male, about three-years-old and 16 inches long, part of a brood stock Bigelow is helping to develop at the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery in Gardnerville, Nev., on the banks of the Carson River.

The fish is from stock that early settlers of the West knew to grow to immense lengths and weights, and one day, it may be returned to the waters of its ancestors. But it's frightening to consider how close the fish came to extinction, despite its natural hardiness.

The Lahontan cutthroat trout evolved in the ancient Lake Lahontan, which at its maximum size inundated about 8,600 square miles of northwestern Nevada and parts of surrounding states. When glaciers retreated north in the last ice age, an attendant climate change dried the basin, where fossils of the trout still swim.

The ancient lake shrank to a few isolated lakes, leaving playas and friable Great Basin dirt. Two forms of the trout arose: one accustomed to life in flowing waters, from tiny headwater streams to larger rivers that banded the margins of the basin; the other, a lake-dweller.

The changes forced the trout to develop a resistance to environmental extremes that readily kill other species.

Pyramid and Walker lakes at the bottom of the present-day basin held native Lahontan cutthroat trout. In the last epoch these lakes probably fluctuated greatly in drought and wet seasons. They are terminal lakes, meaning no running water leaves them, which makes mineral content extremely high. Yet Lahontan cutthroat trout not only tolerate these waters, they evolved to thrive in them.

These lake-form fish had other remarkable adaptations to life in flat water. The number of cartilaginous filaments inside their throat, called gill rakers, are exceedingly high for any trout in the American West, indicating that it feeds on microscopic animals. But it also has a digestive track for preying on fish. For eons it swam atop the food chain in the relict lakes, wreaking havoc on its smaller neighboring cui-ui sucker, tui chub, and most likely cannibalizing its own.

The trout grew to phenomenal size. Explorer John Freemont was the first writer of English to document the fish, in 1844. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian tribe offered his expedition fish 4-feet-long. The heaviest recorded specimen tipped the scales at 62 pounds in 1916.

Where the slow grind of time created such large fish, they were undone by the cursive strokes of a fountain pen in 1905. The first water development project by the Bureau of Reclamation, called the Newlands Project, altered water availability and flow to the trout. Pyramid and Walker Lakes dropped to irrigate those friable fields. One casualty was access from Pyramid Lake to spawning gravels in the Truckee River that feeds it.

All cutthroat trout are obligated to spawn in flowing water. With it, Pyramid was devoid of the leviathan cutthroat trout by 1939. By the 1970s, fish was on the list of species threatened with extinction, and it came to reside outside its native range.

A transfer of trout from Pyramid Lake into a small, fishless stream, Morrison Creek, on Pilot Peak in Utah, proved priceless in recovering this imperiled trout. When and by whom the transfer was made, no one knows. But Bryce Nelson of the Utah Department of Natural Resources subsequently transferred some Morrison Creek fish to nearby fishless Bettridge Creek on federal lands as a precaution against extinction.

In 1977 Dr. Robert Behnke, a western native trout expert at Colorado State University, compared the fish to known specimens and determined they were indeed living relics. Later genetic studies revealed that the fish on this Utah mountainside are pure representatives of the original lake-dwelling form of Lahontan cutthroat trout. And they have since come to reside elsewhere: Lahontan National Fish Hatchery.

The fish that Bigelow wrangled from a tank is a Pilot Peak fish — that is, a Pyramid Lake fish. Through Heki's 12 years working to recover this trout, the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery has changed from a short-term, non-native, put-and-take sport fishery to one centered on the conservation of a native, threatened species — yet a species with incredible sport fishing qualities.

"Twenty years down the road," Heki says, "we could have 20- to 30-pound cutthroat trout running the river right through Reno."

Building brood stocks from wild fish takes time. To maintain genetic integrity, Lahontan cutthroat trout are the only fish on station here. Families are kept separate; the family founders are kept separate; the young are frequently graded and separated to keep bigger fish from smaller fish, and the need to do so speaks to that inborn innate sense for piscivory of the lake-form fish. To keep the wild in the fish, fertilized eggs from trout captured in Morrison Creek are brought to the hatchery and infused into the brood stock.

It will be a few years down the road that success could be measured, but in 2004, the hatchery put 13,197 fish back into Pyramid Lake, where they are expected to grow quickly in the recreational fishery managed by the Paiute tribe.

In Bigelow's hands is the future of Lahontan cutthroat trout. He puts the fish back in a tank and with a flit of the tail it dashes away faster than its shadow can keep up.