"The story the Paiute have of her is that she and her husband and two children moved in this direction from the north and stopped in the desert," said Ely. "There was no lake here then. But the two boys fought constantly, and their father sent them away, never to return. The mother learned what had happened when she returned from gathering food that day. Her tears became Cui-ui-pah, which is our name for the lake. And a fish, the cui-ui, which you would call a sucker, sprang up—and the people, the Cui-ui tuccatta [eaters of the cui-ui]. These are the three elements—the lake, the fish and the people—that make up the tribe."
The cui-ui are found only in Pyramid Lake. Like the Lahontan cutthroat, they, too, spawned in the Truckee River. "So when you talk about our struggle for the fish," said Ely, "it is not merely a fish but an intricate part of who we are, of our identity."
Although the cutthroats were important to the Paiute economy, that fish was never considered an integral part of their culture. For the Indians, the biggest annual festival of all was the harvesting of the cui-ui fish. "It would run for two or three weeks in midspring—the rest of the year the cui-ui would live in inaccessible depths," said Ely. "But at festival time the water would turn black with cui-ui [like the Lahontan cutthroats, the cui-ui grew to remarkable size, as much as 10 pounds] in the shallows. After the cui-ui were caught, they were dried and stored for the coming year. They were our staple food.
"I'm looking for an analogy." said Ely, and after a pause, he found one. "This controversy going on over the desecration of the American flag, all the fervor and conviction it's arousing. People ask us, So what is this fish that nobody likes, that nobody else wants? Essentially, it is a flag—a symbol. In the first 40 years after the dam was built, the lake had dropped 70 feet. The Lahontan cutthroat disappeared, and the cui-ui numbers shrank to a point where harvest became impossible. Pyramid's sister lake, Winnemucca, dried completely."
What should have been the coup de grace came in 1944, when the federal government tried to settle how the water of the Truckee—and by extension, Pyramid Lake—would be allocated. The principal claimants were the city of Reno, farmers to the east of the lake and the Paiute. The Paiute were represented by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"The bureau made a critical error on our account and a near fatal one for the fish," said Ely. "It was an error that would set the tone for many years of hardship and litigation for our tribe. We tried to explain our status as 'fishermen,' but the BIA insisted on representing us as 'farmers.' The result was called the Orr Ditch Decree. It might have been called the Last Ditch. From receiving 450,000 acre-feet of water annually—it takes at least 400,000 a year just to replace Pyramid Lake's evaporation losses—we were cut down to 31,000 acre-feet for agriculture irrigation and zero for fisheries."
So how come in the spring of 1989, Crooks—from his perch atop his step-ladder—not only has caught a dozen or so Lahontan but also is climbing back up those ladder rungs with every hope of landing another one? Hadn't Ely said the trout were gone from Pyramid Lake by the early '40s? The lake, the experts thought, was by then so shrunken and saline that it could no longer support any species of trout or salmon, and certainly not the cutthroat. Or could it?
In 1948, Thomas Trelease, a former chief of fisheries of the Nevada Fish and Game Commission, had an idea that, one would think, would have been tried earlier. In an attempt to see whether any trout could live in such salty water, he dunked rainbows enclosed in cages into the lake. Those fish, which were not released, survived. Thus the way was open for efforts to restock Pyramid. However, not until after 1956—when Congress passed the Washoe Act, which returned to the lake some of the water that had been diverted to the farmers, and provided facilities for restoring the fish—did any serious restocking effort begin.
In the '60s and '70s the state planted in Pyramid thousands of Salmo clarki henshawi from Heenan Lake in California and Walker and Summit lakes in Nevada, lakes all thought possibly to have been part of Lake Lahontan Basin. Those fish prospered, and anglers began to enjoy fine fishing again. Ten-pounders were not unusual, and every now and then a 20-pounder was landed. It seemed that Pyramid Lake was on its way back to being one of the finest cutthroat trout fisheries in the world.
Except that the cutthroats from Heenan and Walker lakes were probably not true Lahontan cutts after all; they showed evidence of hybridization with rainbows. Further, many of the cutthroats from Summit Lake did not appear to have the gene pattern that had permitted the Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroats to reach such enormous sizes. A 40-pound cutthroat from Pyramid Lake had become an impossibility now. thought many biologists.