Twain’s Ghost Trout: An Extinct Giant Returns

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More than 150 years ago, Samuel L. Clemens raved over the flavor of bacon-fried trout he savored while camping along the transparent shorelines of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. He had arrived with the intention of staking a timber claim but instead returned less than two years later as reporter and columnist for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. After becoming better known as author Mark Twain, those trout would later inspire lines he penned for his classic Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s culinary delight focused on the teaming Lahontan Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi). In addition to Lake Tahoe, Lahontan cutthroat were native to Pyramid, Walker, and Summit lakes. Lahontan cutthroat were a staple for the Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Washoe tribes. Once dried, the trout could be stored and eaten over cold winter months. Later these trout would feed hungry trappers, explorers, miners, and settlers in northern Nevada. During spawning runs up the Truckee River, commercial fishing could net 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of trout each year, shipped in rail cars as far away as Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and even Chicago.

In 1844 explorer Captain John C. Fremont referred to them as “salmon trout,” and for very good reason. Lahontan cutthroat were huge. The official record was 41 pounds, caught in 1925 by Paiute Johnny Skimmerhorn, but early settlers mentioned fish weighing in at more than 60 pounds. But tragedy struck: competing non-native trout were introduced, headwaters were overgrazed and dammed, lake waters became increasingly diverted and contaminated. Most varieties of Lahontan cutthroat trout were listed as endangered in 1970. The giant form of Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake, however, faded into extinction by the 1940s.

Or so everyone thought. In the early 1900s, an enterprising Utah man used buckets to salvage a few Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake and transport them all the way to a small, rugged stream along the Nevada-Utah border near Pilot Peak. There they remained hidden until the 1970s when biologist Bob Behnke re-discovered what he thought might be the missing strain of giant Lahontan cutthroat. Geneticists later confirmed their identity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service harvested eggs for hatchery rearing, incredibly just a few years before a catastrophic forest fire wiped out the entire creek and all remaining wild trout.

Today, and with man’s assistance, the Lahontan cutthroats have repopulated some of their ancestral home. Pyramid Lake now boasts a rockin’ sport fishery for Lahontan cutthroat that benefits the Paiute tribe. Hearty anglers pioneered fishing from ladders far out in the lake. By 2012, these ghost trout had reached 20-25 pounds, and both anglers and fishery biologists expect a 30 pound fish to be caught within just a few years. After twice dodging extinction, the Lahontan cutthroat is well on its way to recovery.

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

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Chris Haney oversees Defenders’ Conservation Science program as its chief scientist. He provides research and analysis to guide and support Defenders’ science-based policy and advocacy needs for endangered species, marine science, wildlife biology, forest ecology and management, and conservation policy. He has published extensively, with his work featured in Conservation Biology, Natural History, Ecological Economics, Limnology and Oceanography, Marine Policy, Natural Areas Journal, and others.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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