Social media has a way of painting things through a filtered lens. A way of making the ordinary seem extraordinary and the mundane even mystical. Not just the photography itself – as beautiful and engaging as it may be, designed to catch the eye and stimulate the mind – but the stories these images seem to convey as a whole. I’ve known people who were miserable but looked so damn happy on social media and vice-versa. A good picture is a good picture, but it rarely ever tells the whole story.
In fly fishing, there is often a disconnect between the captured moment and the entire story. I can’t blame folks for buying into this. Guides have to market their services and the industry has to sell product to keep the lights on. But I’d argue that somewhere along this path, we might have lost our way a bit. Focusing on the end result and neglecting the journey. See, our culture of drippy hero shots often suggests hero days. Hero days suggest a Jedi-Level of skill from guides. A Jedi-Level of skill suggests that guides are gods with mystical powers over feeding fish at all times….and unfortunately…we all know this isn’t true. Great guides have bad days… but when you take a step back, are there really any bad days on the water?
I feel bad for folks who come into a destination trip thinking it will just be like the Gram. When I see a picture of a great fish – I think about all that went into making that moment happen…and how much fun it must have been to be a part of it. Was it a hot bite and this was the Grande OR was it a slow bite and this was your reward for grinding hard all weekend?
Either animal is a tangible mile marker in the angling journey that reaffirms all that gumption and sacrifice in the name of a funny sport. But the latter of the two will always hold a special place in my heart. Those days where a slow grind and a handful of good fish make all of the early mornings, research, tying, and spending countless hours on the water not catching anything – but observing everything – worth it.
There’s something to be said for when the angling ethos turns from “expectation” (I better catch X amount of fish or a fish X size) to “appreciation” (I like hanging with my friends, cold beer is great, and fishing is fun). As a community, I believe there is a long-overdue tip of the cap to the enlightened anglers who no longer care about hero shots or numbers and instead realize that good fishing is often the direct opposite of mindless catching.
As most folks can attest to – hero days are few and far between. Sure, when they happen, they are great…the stuff of legend…the days you’ll remember when you’re old and bedridden. But do you remember every single fish you caught on those days? Probably not. You most likely remember the chaos, fun, and bent rods. If you’re like me, you carve a little spot out for the special critters on those days and stash them away in your phone for a rainy day. I may sound jaded, but I realized a while ago – it’s just fishing. That’s more than fine enough for me now.
Prior to a destination trip, I always try to quiet the stoke a bit. I realized long ago that the fish do not care how many hours or dollars were spent to get there. They don’t care that this is your only vacation for the year. They don’t care how far you can cast or that you’re with the best guides on the water. They exist to persist and no matter how hard you flex or try to make something happen out of nothing – there is no secret fly or magic elixir to turn the odds in your favor. Fish hard and good things will often happen.
No place has cemented these beliefs in me more so than Pyramid Lake.
If you speak with anyone who has ever fished this mythical inland sea outside of Reno, there is a consistent level of stoke that is hard to describe. For example, when I posted a nice fish (not a monster) in my IG stories a few weeks back, I received no less than 30 DMs in short order from folks from the “all walks of life bucket”. It became an inside joke on the trip – but going to Pyramid is a very similar experience to whenever I post a picture of Traeger’d bacon on a Saturday morning. Unsurprisingly, each of those messages expresses a similar sentiment that can only be described as yelling “PYRAMIDDDDDDDD!!!!!” at the top of your lungs… in a stoner voice… and flashing a double hang loose sign to the homies.
It’s the universal vibe regarding this place. Can you blame folks? Where else do you get the opportunity to chill on a scenic beach in the middle of the desert and fish hard for the world’s largest cutthroat trout? Where else can you achieve such a high level of Lebowski-esque good vibage while standing on a ladder overlooking 188 square-miles of pristine water with NOTHING else to do but fish? Exactly.
Now, I know this lake isn’t for everyone. For every “PRYAMIDDDDD” homie – there are a dozen folks who came out, got their ass kicked for a day or weekend and went back home questioning their time and investment. I’ve had a folks reach out and ask, “Is it worth it?” which I honestly don’t even respond to. I think it might be the single dumbest question ever when considering the ultimate question, “is fishing EVER worth it?” The answer for me is always a resounding yes – especially in regard to this place. But this rings true of anywhere to be honest. When you really take a step back and consider some of the most epic fishing locations on the planet, even then – the fishing is only good at the right times.
If you want to go goat rope all day every day on your vacation, Pyramid is most likely not the place for you. You can stop reading now. There are some good private water streams in Northern Georgia or Colorado that will accommodate you. But if you want to fish hard, have as much fun as you want, and potentially stick a fish you will tell your grandkids about, a fish you most likely damn-well earned – welcome home.
Set Realistic Expectations
Fishing is all about having fun, right? So why do folks get so caught up in the Me First and The Gimme Gimmes whenever they take a destination trip? Yes, there is the financial and time investment, but just because you invested those things doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a slay day. It means you’re entitled to FISH YOUR ASS OFF and HAVE FUN for the amount of time invested. There’s nothing much better than that.
While the grass is often greener on the Gram, destination fisheries are still fisheries…that have peak seasons, intermittent moods determined by barometric pressure and lunar cycles, and ever-present local weather conditions to navigate. For Pyramid, the fish seem to really turn on as the barometric pressure drops from an incoming storm. This is usually the common denominator for hero days out here.
While you can certainly hope for the best conditions possible on any given trip, trying to plan your adventure around a 10-day weather pattern can be costly if you’re flying in from out of town…and not a slam dunk for guaranteed results. Instead, plan your trip around a peak season and hope for the best. I always suggest at least 3 days of fishing when planning a trip here. More likely than not, one of those days will produce something special. That said, my first day out on the lake was incredibly successful with the worst possible conditions (bluebird skies).
First Trip to Pyramid Lake:
I started fishing Pyramid Lake in 2017 with my best friend and fishing adventure buddy, Brogan. Brogan is the adventurous trout angler in our dynamic and I’m typically the saltwater and weird species guy. Naturally, he saw a common denominator between us in this lake that is more reminiscent of Jurassic Park and striper fishing than it is your typical stillwater trout fishery. I came in with ZERO expectations, just stoked to be fishing somewhere new.
On that first trip, I got into town late on Friday night and had two full days to fish before heading home. We made the most of it – encountering a hot “stripping” (ie streamer) bite on the first afternoon that resulted in a couple double hook ups and even a triple hook up. At that time, the lake was just starting to turn into the BIG FISH mecca it is now with anything over 10lbs turning heads and anything over 15lbs garnering whispers at the then Crosby’s Lodge (now Pyramid Lake Lodge). On that particular day, we caught a ton of Summits (smaller, more colored up strain) and a few chunky Pilots (chromed out, murderous giants) pushing 8lbs.
We felt really good about ourselves and had some of the most fun I’ve ever had fishing. To put it in perspective…when you make a tequila-based drinking game around fish landed and fish missed…and the bottle is empty before sundown…you know you had a good time. That first day was magical as we were fueled on youthful enthusiasm and Espolon running up and down the beach netting fish. Somehow not just surviving- but flourishing in a foreign land despite a lack of food, sleep, and intimate knowledge of the fishery. We were flying high. However, in typical fashion, we were skunked the next day and rolled out of town in a glorious whimper. It was too late though – we were already hooked on this place for life. One good hour can do that to you.
Fast forward to now and those fish we caught are considered to the be the bottom of the Pyramid Hierarchy. Great fish anywhere else but average for this lake. The new scale is something like: 10lbs as a solid fish, 15lbs as a good fish, and 20lbs or more as a “get the whole lake buzzing” specimen. Pretty neat, huh?
Since that first trip in 2017, I’ve made annual returns to the lake multiple times each year. Typically, I’ll look to try and get in on one of the three “hot” bites. Nov-December is generally reserved for stripping and balanced leeches, Jan-Feb usually starts with leeches and then transitions to chironomids, and Mar-April represent the pre-spawn/spawn periods were the fish are shallow and eating pretty much anything they come across. While the weather is typically nicer in March and April, the early winter/winter window is my favorite time to fish this lake as the fish are generally harder to come by but are bigger, lit up and ready to brawl at the first hint of steel to the face.
Pyramid is a place where one bite can justify everything. The below story is a testament to that. You honestly never know how the bite will be on a given day on this lake. Weather makes for added confidence, but I’ve been out in pristine, awful conditions and gotten skunked before…while fishing the worst possible conditions and absolutely wrecking fish. There is some rhyme and reason to this lake but for the most part it’s simply a game of putting your time in. Keep your flies in the water and good things happen…
On my 6th trip to the lake in December of 2019 (a great year), we brought a group of 10 anglers to the lake. Everyone had fished the lake before and was a good stick. The conditions and season were spot on for someone to wrangle a big fish…but despite all the bugs in the water, fishing prime zones – nothing happened until the final 30 minutes of the trip.
A little back story is needed here to do the story justice. It was supposed to be my other best friend and fishing buddy, Connor Donovan’s final fishing trip before welcoming his daughter into the world. We had strategically planned everything to be 60+ days out from the due date so he could cut loose, fish hard, and have some fun before becoming a daddy. He was supposed to fish Saturday-Tuesday, but the lord works in mysterious ways…
After arriving early Saturday morning (around 1am to be exact), Connor fished hard Saturday to no avail on a second consecutive slow day, partook in an epic impromptu karaoke party at the lodge that night, and woke up to frantic texts and phone calls on Sunday saying he was needed in the delivery room. A little over 24hrs after arriving….
After the chaos of rescheduling flights and all of the logistics that come with cross-country travel – Connor was able to fish for a bit (again to no avail) before the clock struck metaphorical midnight and he had to head to the airport.
It was a bittersweet moment. I don’t get to fish with Connor that often these days as he’s still in DC. We were supposed to have another day and a half of fishing with our other good DC friend Clarence Fullard (part of the OG FlyTimesDC crew) prior to heading home. At the same time, I was super stoked and proud of my best friend to become a father. It was an emotional send off and 100%, without a doubt the only possible call to make. As we said our farewells and wished him luck on his break-neck journey home (he made it just in time to welcome his daughter into the world – with 15 minutes to spare), it was just Clarence and myself left on the beach from the original group of 10.
Up until that point, Clarence had caught a couple small cutthroat and a Tui Chub earlier that day to take the skunk off. But with only a few precious hours remaining in the trip, I still had nothing to show. Not even a bite. But something weird happened as the sun started to set over the mountains surrounding the lake. I found myself not fighting the skunk anymore. Not fishing anxiously or regretting the work put in organizing logistics, convincing folks to take vacation, making food for the group, tying flies, and making the short/long drive from SLC. I stopped trying to make something happen.
For the first time all weekend, I just found myself fishing. It felt good to cast into the fading light, knowing that I fished as hard as I could have but it just didn’t happen. I had controlled what I could control by keeping my foot pedal on the gumption and there was nothing I could do to further my case. The scene on the sand took me back to my days of fishing for schoolies in the cape as the sun sank behind the mountains pushing a violent array of blues and pinks over the horizon.
As I twitched my bugs back it sunk in that I was going to be okay with this…that I was going to take a 3-day skunk at a lake I always considered a friend. I chuckled a bit, laughing at myself for realizing how foolish I was to ever expect anything from this incredible place. But as my sink tip came through the guides, I gave the flies a pause and on the ensuing strip the line stopped. Violent headshakes ensued. After a few minutes of back and forth – Clarence had my 15lb Pilot in the net.
The following moments were a blur. I think we sprayed beers on the beach. I vaguely remember howling…and now whenever I need a pick me up, I can look back on that fish and remember to just keep casting.
One bite. Some karaoke…and a fly fisherman’s rendition of Due Date. Best trip ever.
Congrats to the Donovans and sweet baby Sallie ‘Crosby’ (not her real middle name).
Control What You Can Control
Now that we’ve set some expectations for Pyramid, I’m going to share some tips and tricks to make your trip the most enjoyable it can be. The first two are mentalities that will help any upstairs when they’re on the water. “Control What You Can Control” and “Do Less”.
While these may seem counter intuitive – one stresses initiative to control some of the elements that you know make for an awesome trip. Loaded fly boxes, good food, ample booze, and whatever outdoor toys you need to be fueled up and comfortable fishing 12 hour days in variable weather. The “Do Less” applies more to fishing here – meaning be patient, keep your bugs in the water and wait for the fish to come cruising. Swap out flies as you must – but keep them in the water as much as possible….otherwise you’re just boogie boarding.
PERMITS at Pyramid Lake:
You’ll need them for fishing, camping, boating, etc. Get them here: https://pyramidlake.us/permits
Where to Stay + Rental Cars at Pyramid Lake:
With Reno a short 35-40 minute drive from the lake, there are a ton of options in town to hang your hat at. That said, the drive to and from the lake each day after a long hours fishing is the stuff of nightmares. For folks looking to stay on the lake – Pyramid Lake Lodge (formerly Crosby’s Lodge RIP) is the only form of formal lodging available. The lodge acts as a general store, grocery store, tackle shop, fly shop, gas station, and bar and grill (sans global pandemic). It is essentially the North Star of the lake and if you’re looking to fish as hard as possible it is THE place to stay on the lake putting you smack dab in between the Northern and Southern beaches. The only other option for lodging on the lake is via camping. If the weather is mild, I highly recommend looking into this option…but if you planned your trip right…and a storm is coming…you’ll want the warmth and comfort of a cozy room at PLL.
PLL has several rental properties ranging from mobile homes to slick RV campers, rustic cabins, and full on rental homes. The pricing is pretty spot on for folks balling on a budget and the accommodations, while simple, are exactly what you need to get you through a long weekend on the water. Running water, heat, toilet, coffee maker, comfortable beds, full fridge/freezer/microwave/stove top/oven kitchens, and DirectTV so you can watch SportsCenter on repeat for hours when you pass out at 10pm.
If you’re renting a car – make sure it is an SUV with good four-wheel drive. Otherwise you will not be able to access most of the good fishing beaches. Pickup trucks are even better as you can stash sandy waders and ladders in the bed while using the backwindow as an impromptu and secure rod holder.
Where to Fish at Pyramid Lake:
Pyramid Lake gets a reputation for being a crowded fishery. Sure, there are certain beaches and rocky points that get a lot more attention than others BUT there are literally fish all over this lake. Any drop off, point, ledge, or beach with 7-12’ of water can hold fish for one reason or another. Do not feel like you have to fish in the crowds.
If you want to fish a particular spot that gets some traffic, simply get there first. Wake up early, get to the zone, mark your spot with a ladder, rod/stripping basket, etc and go warm up in the car for a bit and enjoy a few extra ZZs or breakfast. If you find yourself in a predicament on where to fish and HAVE to fish in a crowd, most folks are good people and won’t mind. That said, ALWAYS practice good angling etiquette and ask permission before crashing someone else’s party.
Gear for Fly Fishing Pyramid Lake:
Fishing this lake is all about being able to keep your flies in the zone. There are two main techniques out here – stripping and bobber fishing. Both are effective year-round but definitely have their individual moments when they shine.
For bobber fishing, most folks will use a 7-9wt switch rod as a means of making long, repeatable roll casts to the drop. These rods are particularly useful when fishing from a ladder or rocky outcrops with limited back casting room. However, if you’re fishing a beach and have some room to air it out – a single hand 7-9wt fly rod with a good double taper floating line will get the job done. Standard rigs are a bobber with about 8-9’ of 2x to the bottom fly.
For the strip bite, it’s again the 7-9wt single hand rod with sinking line. Think striper fishing from the beach and you’re in the right ballpark – stripping basket included. You’ll want to carry some different types of sinking lines depending on the beach you’re fishing but I personally like a 250-300 grain as the all-around line. That said, I won’t hesitate to go as heavy as 450grain on some of the deeper beaches or even an intermediate on the shallower ones.
Staying warm is essential to making the most of the winter conditions these fish love. When the weather is mild you can definitely get away with less but remember – you’ve got to be able to hang for about 12hrs a day. Good waders, base layer, socks, jackets, etc all come into the equation. While base layer, jackets, beanies, etc are universal heat retainers – there a few things I’ve picked up on over the years that make a huge difference.
Waders: If the forecast is looking cold and gnarly – do not come and fish here with leaky waders. Seriously. Even breathable, non-leaky waders with appropriate base layer do not fair all that well in the cold. Fishing from a ladder will help you stay out of the water, but neoprene waders are the name of the game here in the wintertime. On mild days the breathable waders work great but if you’re spending a lot of time in the water – the extra insulation of neoprene goes a LONG way.
Gloves: While many brands make specialized fishing gloves, I have yet to find one I actually like for winter fishing. The best combination I’ve come across is something ironically borrowed from the BBQ world – hot gloves!
A simple, two-glove system comprised of a cotton glove liner and a nitrile glove outer, this cheap, resourceful get-up keeps your hands warm and dry…while also allowing you to handle fish without removing their slime. In all – a box of 100 nitrile gloves and some disposable cotton gloves will run you about half the price of specialized fishing gloves… which won’t keep you as warm or dry but will mess up a fish.
Pro-Tip: The Biolite Firepit or similar portable fire pits are a game changer for those early mornings and periods of darkness on the beach. Being able to stand around a heat source while rigging/packing up and enjoying coffee or breakfast in the dark is a beautiful thing. You’ll also want to bring a comfortable chair like the Yeti Basecamp or something similar for when you want to take a break. This will help keep sand out of your car too.
Staying Well Fed/Comfortable:
I’m a foodie and my current occupation has made it that much worse as meals have become a BIG part of our fishing trips. While I am nostalgic for the days where I could fish all day on a bag of almonds, some jerky, and pop tarts – I’m good with the current state of affairs.
Prior to these trips, I’ll spend an afternoon cooking and prepping everything I need for the trip. Pre-making and flash freezing burritos, pickling/caramelizing onions for tacos and brats, dicing cilantro, ¾ cooking steaks (cook to 120 internal, wrap in foil and sear next day to serve), etc. It makes a huge difference in being able to focus on the fish and make the grub only when it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve learned firsthand that you don’t want to be dicing onions on the hood of your car while multiple buddies are hooked up below. Because of that, you’ll probably notice a theme here…MONSTER pre-made breakfast, quick scratch lunch, big, simple dinner. Below is what a typical menu looks like for us on these trips…
Breakfast: Frozen GRANDE breakfast burritos (thaw in microwave or in foil by fire) w/ black coffee, followed by sunrise Michelada
- Each burrito contains: 13.5” Tortilla, 3 scrambled eggs, 1 hash brown patty, 3 slices of smoked bacon, 2 smoked sausage patties, two slices Velveeta cheese, and Yellowbird Habanero hot sauce.
- This burrito is designed to keep you fueled from sunup to early afternoon.
- Micheladas are the king of the breakfast beer cocktails. There are many ways to make them but this is by far my preferred method.
- Rim a 25oz cerveza or light beer with Tajin (Habanero Tajin if you’re feeling especially picante), spritz some lime juice into the can opening, and then add your hot sauce. Tapatio is my favorite. Let the lime juice mix with the beer and get it bubbling, when you see a red-ish foam emerging from the can you’re ready to rock n roll.
Lunch: Something quick and easy. My favorites are street tacos, brats, or meat on stick. Something you can quickly assemble, demolish, and get back to business.
- Steak Street Tacos: Mission Street Taco Tortillas, pre-marinated hanger or flank steak, pre-made diced cilantro/jalapeno, pickled red onion, cotijia, Sriracha Mayo, Tapatio hot sauce.
- Sear steak for 3-4 minutes each side, wrap in foil to rest for 10 minutes, slice to serve.
- Beer Brats: Ballpark buns, brats, caramelized onion, spicy mustard. Assembly need no explanation.
- Meat On Stick: Ground meat of choice (venison or bison is my preference) OR pork belly, kabobs or sticks (from nature), dipping sauce of choice (buffalo, ranch, Sriracha mayo). Season meat and work onto the stick (use extra nitrile gloves for cooking). If it looks like a skinny turd, you’re in the right ballpark. Cook directly over an open fire or on grill grates until the meat has a nice char and a solid consistency. Dip in sauce and eat off the stick (perfect for ladders).
- Seared Rib Racks:
Dinner: You’ll be hungry and tired so making an elaborate meal from scratch probably isn’t in the cards… Picking up something from the lodge is always a good call and supports their business but you can’t go wrong with busting out any of the following:
- Frozen Pizzas – work great on a portable grill or in the basic kitchens at the Lodge. Cook in 10-12 minutes. I recommend Eat Pizza brand – best-frozen pies in the game.
- Steak/Wild Game Night – bring the meats and grill down. I’m a big fan of Maui Nui Venison Rib Racks (2) or a Tomahawk steak (1) in this scenario. Show stoppers and crowd-pleasers. For $30-$40, you have enough meat to feed 3-4 people.
- MORE TACOS – ground meat, a skillet, fire, a couple of leftover lunch fixin’s and some tortillas are all you need to bring home the flavor and go to bed happy.
To Ladder or Not to Ladder:
Ladder fishing has become slightly more popular over the years as a way for anglers to access deep water without having to wade out to their chest. The ladder is an effective tool in that it allows for a high vantage point while also providing the ability to keep the angler out of the water for extended periods of time. Popularized on Pyramid and making their ways to other reservoirs and salt flats near you – ladders are a game changer for their ability to provide a stable platform and refuge from wading in cold water…plus they make a great beer perch.
Before you go checking that kitchen step ladder with your fishing gear – remember that not all ladders are created equal. The most common ladder you’ll come across is a 5-6ft Little Giant or something similar. You want a wide base to distribute weight and for additional security if/when the waves kick up. The veterans on his lake have found ways to “Pimp Their Ladder” by securing clutch add-ons like swiveling, padded seats (fancy), cupholders, net/rod holders, and even a small cooler. For most though, a small section of foam pool toy over the top section of the ladder supplies just enough leaning comfort and a buoyancy in case your ladder decides to take a tumble.
While ladders are my personal preference for fishing beaches with gradual drop offs, ladders ARE NOT NECESSARY for fishing this lake. Sure, the ladder allows you to access deeper water and directly fish the ledge. That’s a sweet luxury to have. But if you can cast a sinking line or indicator rig more than 40’ you’ll be in the zone more often than not. The only real disadvantage of not having a ladder is for fishing the beaches where there’s a long, gradual drop. Other than that, there are plenty of rocky points, rock formations, and beaches with deep drops on the shoreline that provide ample opportunity to tangle with fish without having to drag the ladder around.
Despite its reputation for crowds and fickle fish, Pyramid is the ultimate adventure for anyone seeking a bit of escape, fellowship and revelry. Between the fish, setting, and community – there is no place quite like it. None that I have encountered yet, anyway.
Bored of your home water and resident trout? Try your hand at the biggest cutthroat trout in the world.
Saltwater guy who never wants to go on a trout trip? You can fish on a beach AND see your backing here…on a 9wt!
Want a high-desert adventure and Martian-like scenery? Walk the shores of this ancient inland sea and fish from Tufa Rock formations.
Want a trout trip that’s literally like no other on the planet and is a convenient DOMESTIC flight and 40-min drive away from Reno? Well, shucks, that sounds lovely.
Don’t be afraid of the adventure in an adventure fishing trip. Skunkings make for funny stories and they don’t last forever. It’s the entire experience and memories made that you end up taking home with you. Catching is just a small iota of what makes the whole experience worthwhile…and when you catch one of these fish, it makes the road traveled all the more worth it.
While I can’t go to Reno every weekend, I find peace in knowing that this lake is firmly part of who I am. Whenever I have trouble getting to sleep, I try to drift off to a place from my past where my mind was completely at ease. This is usually a moment in time like… stripers spraying bait at sunset in the fall or a first light bite when your coffee is still warm. A place I can firmly recreate in the mind’s eye down to the most minute of details.
More often than not, I find myself at Pyramid. Standing on the ladder with the sun well behind the mountains, the sky lit up, showing off in only the way a desert sunset can. The water, once a dynamic shade of emerald green in the overcast light, now a ripe blueish hue (ready for market) as the light gradually continues to escape the horizon. I make a cast and allow my flies to descend to the sandy bottom for a solid minute or two. I’m not really fishing so much as I am purposefully existing. Savoring the last few seconds of light and yet another exhaustingly fun weekend on the Big Pond, I begin my retrieve. I freeze-frame the image on the ladder and in a few seconds feel myself drifting away to the happy place.
The whole point of fishing is whatever you want it to be. If you want to chase trophies, hero days, and likes – go for it. If you want to crack a beer and hangout on the shoreline while watching a bobber and not looking at your phone all day – why not? That sounds rad. We’re all in this game for different reasons but when it comes down to it – there’s an underlying appreciation for the sun on our faces, a gentle breeze from a good direction, and creature that swims for a living.
I think we could all use a little more Pyramid in our lives.
Article and photos from Remick Smothers, an avid angler based in the Utah area, give him a follow at @flytimesdc.