List of Pyramid Lake Fish Species 2021 [Updated]

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sunrise over Pyramid Lake in Nevada
An early morning sunrise over Pyramid Lake. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Pyramid Lake is a large body of water located in western Nevada, just northeast of Reno. It is approximately 15 miles long, 11 miles wide, and 350 feet deep. Pyramid Lake is connected to Lake Tahoe through the Truckee River and is the drainage site for the river, which means it is a sort of final destination for this watershed, and there is no outlet into another large body of water.

Recently, Pyramid Lake made the news in the summer of 2020 by changing to a bright turquoise color.  This phenomenon was caused by a combination of an algal bloom and an abundance of calcium carbonate in the water, which dramatically decreased the lake’s pH. Water samples showed that the lake was at a toxic level which would be harmful to people and pets but fortunately did not threaten the native aquatic species. The lake had already been closed to the public earlier in the year due to Covid-19, so no visitors were put at risk. The water has since returned to safe parameters.

What Makes Pyramid Lake Unique?

Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge in Pyramid Lake, Nevada
The Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the world’s largest colonies of white pelicans. Luke H. Gordon / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pyramid Lake is named for its unique, pyramid-shaped island structures made of limestone, also called tufa. Tufa are formed at the bottom of the lake when mineral springs discharge and calcium and carbonate are mixed.

Radiocarbon dating shows that Pyramid Lake’s tufa are between 13,000 and 26,000 years old and were formed during the Pleistocene era. During this time, Pyramid Lake was part of the larger Lake Lahontan basin, which has long since dried up.

One notable structure for wildlife in Pyramid Lake is Anaho Island, found in the middle of the lake. It is a National Wildlife Refuge and houses many colonies of nesting birds, including one of the largest colonies of American white pelicans! Bird watchers can also find double-breasted cormorants, great blue herons, and California gulls, just to name a few.

The lake is part of the Paiute Tribal Reservation and is historically valuable and sacred to the Paiute people. According to the Paiute tradition of the Stone Mother, the lake was created when a mother missing her children wept so many tears that it formed a lake around her, and she sat there for so long she turned to stone. She can still be seen as a tufa formation sitting on the east side of the lake.

Much of the Paiute Tribe’s economy is driven by recreation during the summer season. Pyramid Lake is a very popular recreational spot for boating, fishing, and camping. Unfortunately, due to the desecration of sacred sites, the Paiute closed certain areas of the lake to the public in 2011. In order to fish, one must obtain a Tribal Fishing and/or Boating permit from the Paiute Tribe. The Paiute Tribe is very involved in maintaining and preserving populations of native fish species through hatchery operations.

List of Fish Species in Pyramid Lake

1) Cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus)

A cui-ui being measured by the USFWS
The US Fish & Wildlife Service runs a hatchery and monitoring station (pictured) to help protect the endangered cui-ui. Photo by Richard Adkins/USFWS

Cui-ui (pronunced kwee-wee) is a sucker fish that spends most of its time close to the shoreline and near the lake bottom, feeding on zooplankton, algae and insects. It has a wide face, a narrow body, and exhibits some sexual dimorphism. The females average about 25 inches long and have a gray-blue coloration, while the males are generally a few inches smaller (21 inches) and are brown or black. Cui-ui have an impressive lifespan and can live 40+ years!

Cui-ui is endemic to Pyramid lake, so its conservation is a priority in the area. It is currently listed as endangered and fishing of it is illegal. Cui-ui lives most of its life in the lake and will migrate up the Truckee River to spawn in the spring. Spawning behavior is highly dependent on temperature and water flow, so populations have been sensitive to past changes like dam diversions in the river, as well as changing water levels and water quality. It has always been an important food source for the Northern Paiute people, so much so that their traditional name was Cui-ui Ticutta, which means “Cui-ui eaters.”

An adult Tahoe sucker Catostomus tahoensis
An adult Tahoe sucker. Photo by Dave (Gio) Giordano

Tahoe suckers are another sucker fish that can be found in Pyramid Lake, though they have a much wider distribution than the Cui-ui. They are common in both Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe, as well as the rivers and streams in-between. Because they can often be confused with the endangered Cui-ui, it is recommended to return them to the water if caught when fishing just in case. The main physical difference between the two species is that Tahoe suckers have thicker lips than the Cui-ui.

Tahoe suckers can reach lengths of 24 inches and live for about 15 years. They have olive backs and yellow bellies, and the breeding males are distinguishable by a large red streak running down the side of the body. Like the Cui-ui, they will also spend the majority of their lives along the bottom, near the shore. Their diet mainly consists of plants and algae but they might also feed on insects and crustaceans.

3) Tui chub (Siphateles bicolor)

Tui chub (Siphateles bicolor)
Tui chub are the most common fish species in Pyramid Lake.

In Pyramid Lake, Tui chubs are the most populous fish species and they can be easily spotted even from the surface because they congregate in large schools. There are two forms of the Tui chub in Pyramid Lake: the Lahontan Creek Tui chub, Sipheteles bicolor obesa, and the Lahontan Lake Tui chub, Sipheteles bicolor pectinifer. The two types are physically distinguishable by the number of their gill rakers and they will spawn at different times of the year, so they do not hybridize. They average 10 inches long and are generally olive and brown colored with a white underside. In large lakes like Pyramid Lake, they can live over 30 years.

Spawning takes place in the summer, just along the lake’s shoreline and preferably in dense vegetation. Young Tui chubs mainly forage on invertebrates, plants, and algae, and when they grow large enough they will also prey on smaller fish. The Pyramid Lake chubs will also feed on zooplankton in the open water at night.

Small chubs are an important food source for the Lahontan cutthroat trout. Their presence is also a general indicator of the lake’s ecological health.

4) Lahontan Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi)

An adult Lahontan cutthroat trout
This trout was once endangered, but has made a bit of a comeback and is now considered threatened. California Department of Fish & Wildlife / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Lahontan cutthroat trout is the largest fish that can be found in Pyramid lake. They grow to an average of 19-24 inches in length, but have been seen up to 50 inches long! Their lifespan is shorter, averaging about 5 years. They are olive and silver colored, and the name “cutthroat” comes from red markings that resemble slashes under its mouth. Its diet consists of smaller fish (including the Tui chub) and insects.

The Lahontan cutthroat trout is Nevada’s state fish and has a turbulent history worth discussing. In 1939, the Lahontan cutthroat trout was declared extinct from Pyramid lake and the neighboring areas, attributed to the construction of the Derby dam in the early 1900s and overfishing. It wasn’t until 40 years later, in 1979, that a small population was miraculously discovered by accident in a small brook on the opposite side of the state. DNA testing showed that this population matched the original species, and they had most likely been dumped there decades ago and survived.

Over time, the Lahontan cutthroat trout has been successfully reintroduced through coordinated efforts by the Paiute Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, it is still classified as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Paiute Tribe’s website currently lists the limit for trout fishing to 2 fish daily, and only within certain size ranges to protect the fish for future spawning.

5) Sacramento Perch (Archoplites interruptus)

A Sacramento perch Archoplites interruptus
Sacramento perch aren’t native to Pyramid Lake, but seem to coexist just fine with the native fish species. Photo by Monty Currier/CA Dept of Fish and Wildlife

Sacramento perch is the only fish species in this list that is not native, but it made the list because Pyramid Lake is now one of the few locations where its population is doing well. The Sacramento perch is an endangered sunfish that has unfortunately disappeared from its native range in the Central Valley of California, due to habitat destruction and competition from invasive fish species. It was first introduced in 1877 to Pyramid Lake and has successfully colonized.

They do compete with Lahontan cutthroat trout for the same food sources (including the Tui chub), but they will also feed on aquatic insects and large zooplankton, so they have coexisted well with the Lahontan cutthroat trout for quite some time. It is known to be particularly tolerant of brackish waters, which may be one reason it has been able to thrive in the alkaline environment of Pyramid Lake.

The Sacramento perch is brown and metallic green in color, and are most distinguishable by their dark and jagged stripes running down their sides. They can grow up to 24 inches and live for 6 or more years. In Pyramid Lake, they are most likely to be found hanging around the tufa structures where the water is cooler and more protected. Spawning occurs in shallower water, and males will attentively defend the nests from predators and care for the eggs until hatching.

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