The fish that wouldn't die

For nearly 40 years a strain of cutthroat trout had been officially "extinct." Then one day, in a small Utah creek, researcher Terry Hickman made a big discovery
March 17, 1980

The characters in this fish story range from Clark Gable and a reservation full of Paiute Indians to a professor of ichthyology, various ogres from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the fish themselves, a few scrawny cutthroat trout in a nameless trickle of a stream that shouldn't even be there. It is a story of drama and discovery, and it extends over vast reaches of time.

The Great Basin of Nevada and Utah is now mostly desert, but 75,000 years ago it was largely under water. The western two-thirds of Utah lay under Lake Bonneville, which was the size of Lake Michigan. It covered the site of what is now Salt Lake City to a depth of 800 feet. Much of northern Nevada lay under Lake Lahontan, which was the size of Lake Erie. For 65,000 years each lake was home to a different subspecies of cutthroat trout. But as the climate grew drier the lakes began to evaporate, and some 8,000 years ago they were all but gone. Lake Bonneville grew saltier as it shrank, its trout retreating to feeder streams, and today its largest remnant is the Great Salt Lake. Lake Lahontan, fed by the snow-melt from the Sierra Nevadas, has survived as the fresh green water of 31-mile-long Pyramid Lake. Its native trout remained until a moment ago, as geologists measure time, to be admired and desired by modern man and finally to be destroyed by him.

The Pyramid Lake strain of cutthroat was the largest native trout in western North America. The official record is 41 pounds, but there are indications that some trout grew to be more than 60 pounds. These fish were the product of a glorious accident of nature. As Lake Lahontan receded, the remnant that became Pyramid Lake had an inlet stream, the Truckee River, but no outlet, and for hundreds of centuries the Truckee pumped nutrients into the lake, making it phenomenally productive of fish life. Pyramid swarmed with large chub, the staple of the trout diet. And the Truckee and its tributaries also provided 200 miles of ideal spawning habitat for the trout. But the critical fact about Pyramid Lake is this: it is the only remnant of Lake Lahontan that never dried up, which means that the chub, the spawning grounds and the rich flow of the Truckee functioned together as a monster-trout factory for 75,000 years. As the leading authority on cutthroat trout. Professor Robert Behnke of Colorado State University wrote last year, "...a continuous environment endowed the trout...with specialized adaptive maximize efficiency of energy conversion...."

It seemed there could never be an end to the trout of Pyramid Lake. In the spawning runs of 1889 and 1890 an estimated two million pounds were harvested by the Paiute Indians. The lake had been part of a Paiute reservation since 1859, and fishing was the tribe's main source of income. In the run of 1912, 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of trout were shipped out each week, and that was six years after 85% of the spawning grounds were cut off by the construction on the Truckee of Derby Dam, 30 miles above Pyramid Lake.

Derby Dam was the first irrigation project of the Bureau of Reclamation, and more water was diverted each year. A delta of sand began forming at the river mouth. Then the outside world discovered the lake. Clark Gable was one of many celebrities who fished there, and a photograph taken in the early '30s shows him holding two trout, each 2½ feet long. Nine-pounders were considered small then. In the spawning run of 1938 the average trout weighed 20 pounds, but these fish were that large because they were old. No successful run had taken place for eight years, and that run of 1938—an unusually high-water year—was the last. In 1940 the Pyramid Lake strain of cutthroat trout was declared extinct.

In 1976 a Brigham Young University graduate named Terry Hickman began a masters thesis project, a study of the rare Bonneville cutthroat, thought to exist in only five streams that remained from ancient Lake Bonneville. After two years of searching he eventually found them in 13 streams and in a lake. One foray was prompted by a letter from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. A biologist had found what appeared to be a pure cutthroat in an unnamed stream on Pilot Peak, which rises to 10,716 feet from the western edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Hickman had driven past Pilot Peak many times on Interstate 80, and it had always looked barren. As for the stream, he couldn't even find it on the map.

In June of 1977, after a spine-wrenching Jeep ride up a dry gully and a mile-long hike with a 36-pound device for shocking fish strapped to his back, Hickman found the stream, which was barely two miles long. He named it Donner Creek; it had once drained into Donner Springs, which was the first source of fresh water located by the famed pioneering party of that name, after its 1846 trek across the salt flats.

Hickman lowered two probes connected to the shocking unit into the creek, and two strange-looking trout rose to the surface. Bonneville cutthroat would have been short and fat, but these were long and very slim. Hickman collected three more and returned to his cabin. He had all the appropriate Behnke writings there. Of 13 cutthroat subspecies described by Behnke, only one had the spotting pattern of the trout Hickman had taken from Donner Creek, or as large a number of gillrakers. That was the Lahontan. But what was it doing so far from home, 300 miles across the Great Basin from the nearest remnant of the ancient lake?

Hickman wrote a letter to Behnke, who was his thesis adviser. "You're not going to believe this," he wrote, "but I think I've found some Lahontan cutthroats." He advised Behnke as to where Donner Creek was and mentioned the telltale spots and gillrakers. Behnke replied, "When I saw the data...I realized you may have made the rare cutthroat discovery of the century! They...may be the original 'extinct' Pyramid Lake race."

Behnke added that from 1885 to 1930 millions of eggs were taken from Pyramid Lake trout. (All Lahontan cutthroats introduced in Nevada and Utah in those years were hatched from those eggs.) Behnke said that he had tried for many years to find a population that had perpetuated itself without hybridization. But before congratulating Hickman he wanted to know one thing: When were the fish put in Donner Creek?

Hickman learned from the Nevada and Utah Departments of Fish and Game that no Lahontans were stocked in either state between 1930 and 1949. Then, after nearly two months of interviewing in the Pilot Peak area, he met a retired game warden who told him that in the late '40s he had stocked rainbow trout in many local streams, but that he had never put them in the creek Hickman dubbed Donner because it already had trout.

Hickman deduced that the trout in the creek had almost certainly originated in Pyramid Lake. They had been stocked before 1930, when Pyramid was the only possible source. The problem now was what to do with them.

To duplicate the original Pyramid Lake fishery, he knew, would be impossible. The Truckee is no longer suitable for spawning; in fact, in 1975, the Paiutes won an $8 million settlement from the government to compensate them for their lost source of income. Lahontan cutthroat trout from California's Summit Lake were stocked in the lake, and a channel was built to get them around the delta at spawning time and into an egg-taking facility upstream. Since then the eggs have been hatched and the finger-ling trout released in the lake. But of course they are not the original Pyramid Lake strain.

Now the Paiutes have brought another suit, this time to get more water released over Derby Dam. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to partially restore the spawning habitat below the dam, and to get a run of the Summit Lake fish each year. The Service has also expressed interest in eventually utilizing Donner Creek stock, but those would almost certainly hybridize with the Summit Lake fish and with the Truckee's rainbow trout, and they would no longer be what they once had been.

But other possibilities exist. This spring, when the trout in Donner Creek are spawning, a Fish and Wildlife biologist will gather eggs, have them fertilized and take them to the national fish hatchery at Hotchkiss, Colo. A breeding stock will be developed, and fingerling trout will be placed in large reservoirs full of bait fish. Natural reproduction will not be likely in those reservoirs because the proper conditions don't exist there, but spawning could occur in reservoirs yet to be built. Before the dams to form them are constructed, the feeder streams, which would provide suitable spawning habitat, will be emptied of existing trout, to avoid hybridization, and ultimately descendants of Donner Creek fish will be introduced. Neither plan will create thousands of three-foot-long trout overnight, but there is hope, and when you are dealing with an extinct fish, hope is a rare and wonderful thing.

PHOTOHickman shows a slide of one of the Pyramid Lake cutthroats that could not be, but indubitably was. PHOTOHickman at work with his fish-shocking device.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)