Written by Michael Stepp. Photography by Brenton Lammers.
"Oh good, you guys are tall,” Glenn said as we stood up from out of our pickups. Peculiar first words from a man we were just meeting for the first time. “You our guide?” I asked. The confidence came through in my voice, bolstered by the giant ladder stands towering over the cab of his pickup. We shook hands and made our way through formalities in the rain and the dark of a gas station parking lot in Reno, Nevada. “It’s good when my clients are over 6 ft. We can fish my favorite spot,” Glenn reasoned, explaining how taller waders can reach deeper water. I felt incautious not having put my rain gear on for the parking lot introduction; I knew we had a long, cold day ahead of us, and I didn’t want to start it out wet. We finished up with a few self-deprecating jokes about our fly-casting abilities and a disclaimer about my duck blind waders, grabbed coffees from inside and hit the road.
Six months ago, Brenton asked me if I wanted to go on a fishing trip. “Guide and rooms are taken care of. You just gotta get yourself to Pyramid Lake”. I told him I would check in with Momma and let him know, but it sounded pretty good. I used to be a fisherman. I don’t responsibly feel I can lay claim to that title any longer; the dust accumulated on stacks of Bassmaster magazines on a closet shelf at my folks’ house has grown far too deep to justify any validity to such a claim. It used to be that my mom, my dad, my buddy’s sister, anyone we could get to drive us would drop us off at a farm pond some twenty miles from town. The hours we would spend in a weekend bass fishing every inch of those banks might sicken a modern-day parent. My Bassmaster member pocket knife and spiderwire clipper lanyard served as reassurance of my skills on the slow days, but we had figured out how to catch fish; we caught a lot of them over those summers. Age, sports, girls, and college seemed to fog the lure of those glassy ponds over. Marriage and babies put the nail in the coffin. I still hold fun at the top of my list; it’s just that fishing, as a priority, has waned over the decades.
It was a rainy drive in the dark from that Reno quick-stop to the mountain lake named for the pyramid-shaped rock protruding from its surface waters. The winding yellow lines of Highway 445 guided us some fifty miles to a dull, dreary beach. The darkness was the most defining feature so far, save for the bouncing headlamp of a single fisherman more zealous than us. “I’ve got some rain gear,” Glenn mentioned. His voice was muffled as he dug around in the back seat of his pickup. He handed us a couple of tough-feeling jackets. My reluctance to borrow his gear melted away with the pelting rain as I examined the piece. Built for ultralight backpacking applications, my gear might not have been up to the task. I peeled my hunting rain gear off. I didn’t know if my pride was worth wagering against the severity of the rain and the hours I knew we’d be at it. I fumbled around by the light of my headlamp as I navigated the closures, buckles, and straps of Glenn’s self-dubbed “Alaska Jacket”- a heavy, tough Patagonia piece. “Maybe I won’t stick out as bad amongst the locals”, I thought, as I covered the top half of my camouflage neoprene waders.
“You in on the trip?” Brenton texted. “Yep. Let me know when you book plane tickets” I fired back. It was about four months before the scheduled trip. At that point in my life I knew we were going fishing at Pyramid Lake. I didn’t know if that meant jigging minnows for smallmouth in North Dakota, running walleye or musky outriggers in Minnesota, or fumbling around with a fly rod halfway up some mountain in Montana. Brenton was a relatively new buddy, and I was grateful enough to be invited that details didn’t matter. It had been a while since I’d fished any real distance from home, and I was excited for whatever kind of fishing I was getting myself into. I was sure Brenton probably assumed I knew what we were doing; I decided that day I had better look up Pyramid Lake. Trout. Nevada. Cool, must be fly-fishing.
Daylight faded turning the black into gray as we stood on that soggy beach. Glenn was giving us a crash course on the basics. “I’m a blank-slate, man. Let me know if I am doing something wrong. I’ve got a better chance of breaking this damn thing than learning how to run it,” I half-joked as I tried to imitate Glenn’s patient casting demonstrations with frozen fingers. The confidence was low beneath the pitter patter of that oversized Patagonia rain hood. I left the certainty of surefootedness on the beach as I tiptoed through an offshore slough - wondering if Glenn had correctly judged our height back at that gas station. Each step seemed a fraction of an inch deeper, and I was quickly running out of wader. I was fully expecting a whoosh of icy water into my waders as I gently navigated towards the silhouette of my ladder stand. Relieved to be able to spend the day dry, I carefully fit my clunky boots into the rungs as I made my way up that peculiar perch.
“Ladders!” my buddy responded. I chalked it up to a misdirected text message. We were chatting about “what’s new,” and I had mentioned my recently booked trip to Pyramid Lake. A month later the exact same response from another acquaintance had me considering the coincidence. Four weeks out from our trip a social media post from a celebrity-of-sorts prompted me to dial my Google research a bit tighter. “Pyramid Lake Fishing”. Photos of fellas standing on ladder tops with fly rods and giant fish filled my phone screen. “What in the heck do these knot-heads have against boats?” I wondered as I dialed Brenton’s phone number frantically. “Brenton, I think I just made a discovery”. “Yeah?” he replied. “Are we fishing from ladders!?” His pause could only cover his laughter for a moment. “Yep!” he said, probably in total disbelief that I didn’t know, yet. Nonetheless, it had begun. My curiosities of the details of just what we were getting into had been unleashed.
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. A subspecies native to Pyramid Lake, Nevada, these fish were extirpated in the 20’s and 30’s, overfished commercially to feed the folks comprising the gold-rush of neighboring California. The biggest cutthroat in the world, the Pilot Peak strain has left artifacts suggesting they grew to 70 and 80 lbs. in that day. Modern-day, after rediscovery in a high mountain stream and successful reintroduction and conservation efforts, folks are catching fish near the 30 lb. mark while balancing on top of a ladder. These fish have insatiable appetites and that number seems to climb every year. The Pilot Peak strain shares the water with the Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan Cutthroat. The latter is typically a smaller fish, but still has the capability of runs that leave you all but helpless, clinging to the cork grip of a fishing pole wondering what you just tangled with.
Our game-plan was to fish the flats. Our beach had a mellow gradient, and we would try to intercept the feeding fish that cruise along that stretch throughout the day. Casting is king in this strategy. It appears as though the fish have learned to stay just out of reach- which is just great for a couple of newbies from flat land. Standing near the top of a six-foot ladder placed in 5 feet of water serves multiple purposes. First, it keeps your elbows up out of the water making repeated casting less cumbersome. Next, it gets your eyeballs up off the lake surface. Spotting fish as they cruise and roll along the shallows can be advantageous if you can get your bug to fall through the water column in their line of travel. Last, it keeps your body out of the water. The time of year this method is effective finds you fishing in 40-degree water temps. The everchanging Nevada mountain forecasts grace you with temps from the 30-degree mark to well above 60 on a nice day, coupled with rain or wind at a moment’s notice.
Glenn stood in the water near my ladder coaching me from his chest-deep vantage point. He slipped away after a couple of casts either thinking I had a decent start or figuring I was a hopeless case. Silently, he moved to check how Brenton was getting along forty feet to my left. I was almost solely focused on not making a mess of the fishing line, piling it neatly into the stripping basket. The confusing list of jargon muttled my mind: shooting head, strip setting, water hauling. I felt like I needed a picture book to keep it all straight. I chuckled at the idea that water hauling was something I probably had a better chance of doing with my waders than with my fly rod. Everything was so foreign and awkward; it seemed as though actually catching a fish would be nearly impossible.
It was my fourth or fifth cast. I hadn’t been on my ladder for more than 6 or 7 minutes. That fish smashed whatever the heck Glenn had tied onto the other end of my outfit. It was like a largemouth bass on performance enhancing drugs.
“I’ll be damned” I exclaimed. I was still in disbelief that a fish had afforded me the courtesy of taking my bait. Brenton’s glance came my way for a split second, before settling in on my stressed 8 wt. I am not sure what the defining look on my face must have been, as it was comprised of equal parts astonishment and shit-grin. Nervous anticipation remained as high as the tension on my line for the next several minutes. Glenn made his way towards my ladder with a rubber net. He was laser-focused on getting us newbies on the board as he coached me through folly. Slowly and awkwardly I stripped that fish in. More than once I would lose my lock on the line with my rod-hand, allowing the big fish free run of a pile of slack. Much gratitude to that fish on that day for sticking with me. Lord knows I tried my hardest at losing her.
I will never forget the feeling of seeing that first fish in the net. Glenn did a perfect job of teaching us the defining features of this beautiful female Lahontan cutthroat; an 18” silver-hued Pyramid Lake strain. We knelt in the lapping waves near the beach admiring her for quite some time. The connection between her and I felt very natural and very mutual. She waited patiently in the water, almost posing for us as we revelled in our first impressions. She was a class act; a true ambassador of her species.
Slightly more than a year before this trip Brenton was in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was bedside in a special care facility room with his Uncle Lynn. Lynn had been diagnosed with leukemia mere days before and, weakened by his year-long fight against MDS, was likely on his deathbed. Though it is tragic, Brenton speaks of that experience and of his Uncle fondly. Even barely knowing Brenton I could sense that the connection he shared with his uncle was a deep one built over many years, rooted to when Brenton was a little kid growing up. They spent the afternoon that day recounting stories of hunting, fishing, and camping with family and friends. Brenton told me that it was almost surreal and that the weirdest thing was it didn’t seem as if he was visiting a dying man. They were in a hospital, sure, but Lynn was every bit himself. The outstanding detail was Lynn’s fishing trip he had booked to Pyramid Lake. That trip was less than a month away, and Lynn was dejected that he wouldn’t likely be around to take it. Brenton said goodnight at the end of the evening; he would stop back in the morning for a visit before flying out. By the next morning things had taken a turn for the worse. Uncle Lynn died within a few hours, leaving Brenton awfully thankful for the hasty trip to Nevada the day before.
Lynn’s funeral was April 14, 2018. It was a full law-enforcement procession in Pasadena where Lynn spent much of his career with the Pasadena Police Department. Brenton wouldn’t make it to the ceremonies on account of a planned trip to Boise, Idaho for the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ annual Rendezvous. The fact that he’d shared a great afternoon with his uncle just before his death, coupled with the knowledge that Lynn most certainly wouldn’t miss a huntin’ and fishin’ party for some damn funeral put Brenton at peace with sticking to his original plans. As it would happen, the online auction at the rendezvous featured a guided trip for two, ladder fishing at Pyramid Lake; omen enough that Uncle Lynn endorsed the decision.
It was pure excitement, but I would be dishonest to say there was not some underlying guilt for having caught the first fish. Beginners luck as it was, I would have hoped for Brenton to find it first. The day went on and I caught a good number more fish, though they did not come easily. I spent the long draws between hook ups pondering and I likened the day to that of backpacking in elk country with archery tackle. The similarity lies in the fact that some suffering is required. If you’d have made this comparison to me before I’d experienced our entire first day of ladder fishing I’d have called you crazy, or worse. Doing anything for 12 hours, though, can be grueling. Standing in one spot without the freedom to move about was trying at times. The cold bore into us, as well. At one point my left knee got to knocking so uncontrollably against the tower of my ladder stand that I was certain my neighbors must be staring me down wondering what all of the rattling and commotion was about. Casting an 8 wt rod spooled with heavy sinking line time after time, hour after hour became tough, even downright miserable. In the waning hours of the daylight as evening progressed, I had slowed my retrieve considerably. I spent the duration of each retrieve almost dreading the suffering of the next cast. The lake was void of anything beautiful. Soggy, sloppy shores with anything but vegetation were the same tone of gray as the sky. The lake was a choppy and frigid hue of slate blue that made my teeth clack at the sight of it. The opposite shore of the lake was more of the same, though that was a hunch. The fog and rain rendered it invisible for most of the day. A worn out arm, creaky aching knuckles, and raw fingers begged me to sack up the bats. Giant cutthroat trout nipping the surface ahead kept calling upon every last drop of determination. All of this and still, those encounters would reign. Just as the distant bugles of bulls erase your short term memory and drag you over ridge after ridge, the crushing blows of Lahontan cutthroat trout and the ensuing ride they take you on thaws your fingers and warms your soul, if only for a frozen handful of minutes.
It was mid-afternoon when the rain dried up. Shortly after, the sun broke through. Before long, we were feeling halfway decent. I no longer needed 10-minute beach breaks every half hour in order to get my blood pumping and my fingers feeling. What followed the sun was, without a doubt, a handsome reward for our perseverance throughout the first two-thirds of the day. After burning away all of the fog and most of the clouds, the sun lit up the far side of the lake in a way I will never forget. Suddenly you could get lost in an hour. The opposing repetition of casting and stripping became a trance led by the unbelievable beauty of the snow-capped, sun-kissed peaks that stared down at us. “There’s some serious elevation over there” I mentioned to Brenton. He nodded in agreement. Purple mountain’s majesty couldn’t possibly make more sense than from atop those ladders that evening. The lake was lit in the most vibrant way. The cold breeze coming in at us was revitalizing now, as if the color of the water alone changed it’s feel. Sun-powered aquamarine is apparently more refreshing than icy steel-blue. If the trout alone couldn’t make the suffering worth it, we cast flies and admired fish under the most spectacular hand-painted sunset I’ve witnessed in my 33 years; and we did it until darkness was all around us.
I had caught a good many fish. They did not come quickly, maybe one an hour, but with each one my apprehension grew. It was 3 in the afternoon and Brenton had yet to experience the excitement of his first fish fight. Beginner’s luck was off the charts at my ladder, but that lady was overlooking Brenton in a bad way. He would never say it but I could feel his frusteration from 40 feet away. Even still, with every fish I caught, he was off his ladder to admire those colors from right beside me.
It was 4 or 4:30 and I had waded back to the beach to stretch my legs. After a quick granola bar and some down time staring into the amazing and ever-changing painting that lay before us, I was heading back out to my perch. I walked by a red rubbery dry-bag and the beads of water on it glistened to me. It laid on the wet gravel just out of reach of the slapping surf and perfectly executed its task of keeping Brenton’s camera gear dry. It almost called to me. That camera, and whatever lens was currently affixed to it, was way above my pay-grade; it had more bells and whistles than I could shake a stick at. But that turquoise….that purple...the way the sun was orange-washing those snow-cappers...and there was a lone fisherman lit up in the middle of it all, diligently working those flats with a laser focus; searching for that first fish.
I dug his camera out. The lens was astounding. It must’ve weighed 5 lbs and had 3 or more wheels on it that, beyond my knowledge of zoom and focus, were Greek to me. I powered it up and looked through the viewfinder. I was shocked at the translation of the image to my eye. It was almost prettier than the real version, except for all the leveling lines and blinky lights. This was most likely a hopeless cause but it was worth a try and besides, I really didn’t want to catch another fish before Brenton. I fumbled around for 5 minutes and got to a point where I could take 1 out of 3 pictures with frame and focus and lighting somewhere close to decent. After a few chest-wader yoga poses and the muddy acrobatics of shooting photos on the beach I walked back towards the bag to put the camera away. As I knelt I looked once more at the scene ahead of me. I hadn’t gotten this angle yet and I might as well try. I didn’t know what I was doing but I figured my only insurance policy towards a decent image was by sheer volume. Awkwardly, I balanced on a hip and an elbow, trying to achieve a perspective a bit closer to water level. I was fidgeting with the zoom wheel and WHAM!!! Brenton’s fly-rod doubled over. That camera must be built well for as hard as I mashed my index finger into that button. I held it down tight and the shutter sounded like a ratchet wrench clicking away as fast as it could. “Glenn!” I hollered, as I kept shooting the situation. I sacked up the camera and waded out to Brenton’s ladder in time to watch Glenn slip the net beneath the fish. Sighs of relief and congratulatory high fives circled the three of us and we headed for shore with grins as bright as the cheeks on that cutthroat. We must have spent 10 minutes admiring that fish, letting him rest, taking a photo now and then. It was quite a moment; it felt cooler to me that my first fish earlier in the day. I didn’t tell Brenton about my photoshoot- about how I’d experienced my luckiest moment of the trip when I watched him set the hook on that fish through the lens of his camera...and I hoped like hell one of those pictures was good. We sent the fish on his way with high hopes of catching some of his buddies for a look.
I was ahead of Brenton and made it to the top of my ladder a few moments before him. I spun around to face the lake and was fiddling with my reel. When I looked up, a giant neon rainbow had appeared. It dipped into the lake from the mountaintop across from us.
My heart stopped.
I looked at Brenton and his head was down. He was stripping line from his reel in preparation for his next cast. “I think your Uncle Lynn saw that fish” I choked, trying to get it out loud enough for him to hear. He looked at me half wondering what I was talking about.
I motioned with a nod. The bill of my hat cast Brenton’s gaze across the lake.
The waves, and the wind, and the whip of fly lines were the only response to that notion.
And Uncle Lynn smiled.