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Lessons from the Big Salty Pond

Updated: Mar 13

Morgan Barbeau | @morgan_is_fishing

Pyramid Lake. The Mid. The Big Salty Pond. Kooyooe Panunadu. These are just a few names for the remaining waters of ancient Lake Lahontan, home to some of the most massive cutthroat trout in the world. Located on Paiute land just north of Reno, NV, this lake commands respect. The weather is moody and unpredictable, the wind can whip up into hurricane force gusts at the drop of a hat, the swells can make you feel like you’re surf casting inland. But the mere prospect of hooking one of these unreasonably large creatures can drive anglers to stand atop ladders from dawn to dusk, undeterred by the elements.

Our campsite and fishing beach for the week

In February, Tanner and I packed up all of our fishing gear, enough layers and blankets to endure an arctic winter, and of course the dogs, snugly into the ambulance to go take some shots at these behemoth fish. We had warm, sunny days (nice for us, but unfortunately not great for fishing), blustery, windy days, overcast, calm days, and pretty much everything in between. This was my first time at Pyramid, Tanner’s second, and the fishing was much slower this trip. Tanner had boasted 30+ fish days this same week last year, so when we were averaging about 1-2 fish each per day, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. However, even the smallest fish caught out of this lake would be deemed a trophy just about anywhere else, serving as ample motivation to keep me perched on my ladder for 12 hours a day.

Fishing from sun up to sun down for six consecutive days felt like stepping into an alternate reality. Each morning we’d wake up at 5am, sip black coffee, wolf down a quick little breakfast, wader up, and be on the water by first light. It was hard for me to get motivated to break for lunch, or take any breaks for that matter, because any time your flies aren’t in the water, you definitely aren’t catching fish. We’d fish until it was too dark to see our indicators bouncing on the water, eat some dinner, be completely passed out cold by 8pm, and start the whole process over the next day.

The toll of our marathon fishing sessions on my body became obvious by the end of day two. My hands were sore and swollen from countless casts of the switch rod, my feet were numb from icy water seeping through the worn patches in my waders, bruises adorned my thighs and knees from hours of leaning into my ladder, my face was pink from relentless wind assaults, my hair was a greasy knotted rat’s nest, and my stomach was growling due to sustaining itself almost exclusively on Coors and beef jerky. But despite all the physical discomfort, I’m not sure I could have been any more content on this trip. Camping for a week in such a magical place, far removed from the distractions of modern life, with my little family and the promise of massive trout, it’s hard for me to think of anything that could enhance the experience. These are the moments we live for.

It's much easier (and more fun) to land these fish with a partner

After such an immersive week at the Big Salty Pond and a treacherous drive home, we’ve made it safely back to Colorado, and distilled a few key takeaways that might enhance your chances of success if you’re planning a visit.

  1. Understand the weather: This should go without saying, but be prepared for the unpredictable weather conditions at Pyramid. The day can go from calm and sunny to freezing and gusty at the drop of a hat, so keep an eye on your surroundings, bring layers, and trust your instincts. 

  2. Know your gear: While not a requirement, a switch or spey rod can really up your game out here. These rods are longer than most standard trout fishing rods, require two hands to cast, and typically use a longer, heavier shooting head and line, all of which can take some getting used to. I brought the Douglas DXF 10’6” 6wt switch rod and really enjoyed it, but it was my first time using a two-handed rod, so I spent quite a bit of time the first day getting my cast down. If you go this route, consider getting some practice in before your trip so you can feel more confident on the lake. 

  3. Check your line and flies regularly: Make sure you take some time to check your line for nicks and wind knots periodically. Some of these fish are quite toothy, and the shoreline has some pretty abrasive rocks and ancient coral, making your line extra susceptible to damage. I lost one of my biggest fish of the trip at the net because my leader snapped up high. It was a heartbreaking moment, and I suspect it might have been damaged from the rocks on the beach, so don’t let that be the reason you lose a trophy fish! On that note, it’s always good to check that your flies aren’t bent out and barbs are crimped too (this is a requirement at Pyramid). 

  4. Don’t be afraid to switch up your tactics: Leading up to this trip, we had all kinds of friends telling us which color of chironomid crushed it for them out there. We had some days where red and gold seemed to be the ticket, and other days where all they would eat was all black (plug: check out Tanner’s MIDnight midge tying video, this fly was a banger for us this trip). We also had some calm days where stripping leeches under an indicator brought success. Tanner caught some of his biggest fish stripping beetles on a sinking line last year, while this year we had very little success with this method. All that to say, every day is different out there, so don’t be afraid to change it up and try new tactics and colors if fishing has slowed down for you. 

  5. Bring an extra large net: To be honest, I thought folks were looking a bit over-confident bringing out nets that seemed big enough to hold a beluga whale, but it turns out it’s incredibly necessary. We brought our largest boat net with us, but still lost a fish because it flopped right out. It’s worth investing in a large, Pyramid-specific net like this one with a deep basket so you can keep the fish in water while you remove your flies, get ready for your pictures, etc. 

  6. Secure your belongings: I’ve mentioned the wind several times, but it’s worth reiterating that you should tie down any belongings you care about. The wind will pick up out of nowhere, and if it’s strong enough to knock a grown man off a ladder, it definitely will not have a problem blowing your fishing bag, your ladder, your chairs, etc into the abyss, never to be seen again. A friend of ours on our trip had a gut-wrenching incident involving the wind and his bag holding three rods, three reels, and a cell phone getting blown into the middle of the lake in a matter of seconds. Don’t let it happen to you.  

  7. Be respectful: This again should go without saying, but be respectful. This is sacred native land that is heavily trafficked by anglers. Pick up after yourself, leave no trace, and be respectful and mindful of those around you. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves. Let's keep the lake pristine and well cared for so we can all enjoy it for years to come.

Of course these aren’t hard and fast rules, but rather just some things to consider that we learned along the way, that might help you as you plan your trip out there. If you’re more of a visual learner or want more inspiration, we’ve also published a YouTube video about our time at Pyramid as well. If you watch it and enjoy what you see, we’d be so grateful if you’d subscribe to our channel. Your support keeps us motivated and allows us to continue making all kinds of fishing content.

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