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Fish and wildlife officials help restore population of iconic trout in eastern Nevada river

This is a close-up image of a large fish in shades of green and red with its mouth hanging open as it's held out of the water.
The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Nevada's state fish, is the largest member of the cutthroats, with lake-dwellers weighing up to 40 pounds. For decades, they've been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

For years, fish and wildlife officials have been working to help an iconic Western fish whose habitat is shrinking. That includes efforts to return the fish to a river in the Mountain West where the species had disappeared.

It’s a cloudy day east of Reno, and Chad Mellison, wearing waders and holding a flyfishing rod, steps into the Truckee River. He unfurls his line and casts upstream into the fast-flowing waters.

“If you're a fish and live in a river, your nose is pointing upstream because that's where your food's coming down,” said Mellison, an avid flyfisher and longtime biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Right now, Mellison’s fishing for Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Nevada’s state fish.

He isn’t having any luck yet.

A man wearing waders is standing in a shallow river holding a flyfishing rod on a cloudy day.
Robyn Gerstenslager
Chad Mellison, a USFWS biologist, casts his flyfishing line in the Truckee River east of Reno.

“That’s why they call it fishing and not catching,” Mellison said with a laugh. “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be as fun.”

The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, characterized by a vibrant red slash under its jaw, is a trophy fish many anglers hope to hook when they cast a line in Northern Nevada.

Just ask Mike Anderson, a guide with the Reno Fly Shop. Every year, he has a handful of clients land a 20-pound cutthroat – a size that makes the fish “almost look prehistoric” – in nearby Pyramid Lake.

“The fish that get that big, and the people that hook into them, it's a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime kind of a thing,” Anderson said.

The Lahontan Cutthroat once swam in a dozen lake systems and more than 7,000 miles of streams in the Lahontan Basin, which extends from northern Nevada to central California.

Now, they occupy just about 10% of their historical habitat. For decades, they’ve been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Two of the biggest threats are poor habitat quality, and then non-native fish,” said Mellison, adding that river diversions, dams, and wildfires damage their habitat, and non-native trout outcompete them for food and territory – and even eat them.

That’s decimated cutthroat in some areas, like the North Fork of the Humboldt River in northeastern Nevada. Decades ago, that was home to one of the biggest populations.

By 2011, the fish no longer survived there. One big reason?

“There was a mining company out there doing exploratory drilling and they wanted to drill some really deep holes,” Mellison said.

This is a wide-angle image of a rolling mountainous landscape covered in green trees.
The headwaters of the North Fork of the Humboldt River in northeastern Nevada, where the population of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout disappeared in 2011 due to habitat loss.

So deep that the drilling punctured the local aquifer and connected it to another one further downstream. Like a straw, it sucked up the headwaters of the North Fork.

That forced the cutthroat further and further downriver, where they met brook trout, which had “taken over” within a couple of years, Mellison said.

In response, officials installed a fish barrier, paid for by the mining company, to stop brook trout from traveling upriver. The Nevada Department of Wildlife worked to remove those that remained by treating river and area waterways with a chemical called rotenone.

The habitat still showed problems when the agency started returning the fish in 2015, said Jacob Stoller, a fisheries biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

“There are still concerns with habitat conditions being impacted from mining, irrigation, livestock grazing, and drought,” Stoller said.

It wasn’t until June 2021 that officials felt confident that the cutthroat were not only surviving, they were thriving. Mellison provided the defining moment. After doing field work in the North Fork area, he decided to flyfish a bit before heading home.

“First cast, hooked the fish, and I'm like, this better be a cutthroat, after all the work we've been doing,” Mellison recalled. “And of course, it was and I landed it, and it was just a beautiful fish.”

Mellison said he knew his day of fishing couldn’t get any better, so he packed up his rod and headed home.

This is a close-up image of a Lahontan Cutthroat Trout being held by hands.
Chad Mellison
The Lahontan cutthroat trout that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Chad Mellison caught on the North Fork of the Humboldt River in 2021.

“Seeing a native fish that you caught, admire it, and then watch it swim away back into his home. It was … whoo,” Mellison said as his eyes well with tears. “Yeah, that’s good stuff.”

Mellison and the others who helped return the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout to the Nork Fork are hopeful about the future of that population. Biologists are waiting on environmental DNA results to confirm that brook trout are no longer in the river.

And if you’re wondering if Mellison caught a cutthroat in the Truckee River on this cool, cloudy day outside of Reno?

“Here we go…Oh!” Mellison yelled after briefly hooking a trout before it slips away. “That was a big fish!”

As Mellison said, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.