Throughout the night, because of the glow from the neon lights of Reno, 30 miles to the south, there has been no true darkness in the sky over Pyramid Lake. Not until 6:30 a.m. does the first finger of sunlight come over the Nightingale Mountains to the east. Then, in the dim light of dawn on this strange and legendary lake on the Paiute Indian reservation, the first-time visitor is witness to a seemingly inexplicable sight.
On the western shore fly-fishermen are working in a style that shows them to be expert in the ways of Stillwater trout fishing. They are throwing the long, heavy lines that anglers call shooting heads. They barely pause between stripping in one cast and sending the next one flying out over the flat surface. While this in itself is not remarkable, the visitor blinks in disbelief because it appears that all these anglers are standing on the water. The sight is made stranger still by the chest-high waders all of them are wearing.
Not until the sun rises above the distant mountains and the efforts of one of the fishermen are finally rewarded is the mystery solved. As the fish thrashes, the angler steps down into the water. It suddenly becomes clear that he has been standing atop a stepladder.
The fisherman uses one hand to steady himself as he descends, the other to hold his rod high so that the formidable fish he has hooked can run free. Now he is chest-deep in ice-cold water as he fights the trout, backing up—when the fish allows—into shallower water. At last the battle nears its end in the shallows, and the newcomer sees the fisherman slide the big trout onto the sandy beach. He asks the angler not to release the fish quite yet so that he might approach and see it more closely.
"Cock fish, ready to spawn," says the fisherman, who will later make himself known as Bernie Crooks. It's more than 11 pounds, maybe 12, reddish brown in color, heavily speckled with gray spots and slashed with glorious, heraldic scarlet on its cheeks and throat. Crooks carefully removes the fly, a black leechlike creation known as a Woolly Bugger, and glides the fish through the bright shoreline water and back toward the dark depths. The trout's gills pulse steadily, and then, with a flashing swipe of its tail, it is gone.
The visitor watches the fish disappear into the slightly saline waters of Pyramid Lake. This is the first specimen he has ever seen of Salmo clarki henshawi, the great Lahontan cutthroat trout, a fish that was generally thought to have been extinct for two or three decades.
Meantime, Crooks is in no hurry to start fishing again. He is a thick, balding man of 46, and he has discovered that Pyramid Lake is perfect therapy for the stress of his day-to-day life at Reno Airport as a customer-service agent, which entails ticketing, handling baggage and telling standbys that the plane is completely filled. Even after 30 years of fishing this high-desert lake, he is fascinated by its ways.
"I've been out here camping and it was so calm that the smoke from my fire went straight up into the air," he says. "Then here would come two-and three-foot swells. They must have just spawned on the other side. I don't know what from. This lake is special to the Paiute Indians, and they have many stories to tell about it. They say you can hear crying at night—babies crying. They call them water babies, and they say they were Indian children that drowned in the lake. You hear all kinds of stories. But I'll tell you for sure, Pyramid Lake does not give up its dead. A Navy plane went in last year, and they never found the crew, only a piece of wing and a part of the motor."
Crooks is not the first man to be captivated by Pyramid Lake. In 1844 the advance party of the explorer John C. Fremont "discovered" the lake. Actually, the group was lost; Fremont thought he was on the return route to San Francisco after having explored the Columbia River. Here's part of what Fremont wrote in his journal on Jan. 10, 1844: "Leaving a signal for the party to encamp, we continued our way up the hollow...the snow deepening to about a foot as we reached the summit. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about 2,000 feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water some twenty miles broad. It broke upon our eyes like the ocean.... The waves were curling in the breeze, and their dark green color showed it to be a body of deep water. For a long time we sat enjoying the view for we had become fatigued with the mountains...."
The next day Fremont and his group made their way down to the lake. On Jan. 13 they headed south along the lakeshore, right into the teeth of a blizzard that blew up a five-foot surf and created deep snowdrifts on the beaches. But the following day the lake radically changed its mood. The snow melted, and Fremont could make out something that he had been vaguely aware of during the storm. It was a rock out in the water that, according to his journal. "presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops.... [So] I called it Pyramid Lake, though it may be deemed by some to be a fanciful resemblance."