Fish Species of the Eastern Sierra

This article provides information about significant fish species found in eastern Sierra waters, including fisheries within the Carson River, Truckee River, and Walker River basins.

How to identify native and wild trout? Check out the Native Trout Streamside Identification Guide produced by FlyFishingtheSierra.com and WildTroutStreams.com.

Please keep fish wet.

SalmonIDS

Salmonids are a fish of the salmon family (Salmonidae), which includes salmon, trout, char, graylings, and freshwater whitefish. Three salmonids are native to waters of the eastern Sierra: the Lahontan cutthroat trout, the Paiute cutthroat trout, and the mountain whitefish.

Brook Trout

The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), or simply brookie, is a char that is native to eastern North America. They were introduced to many of our high lakes and streams in the Sierra and flourish in most of these waters. Large brookies can be found at Kirman Lake.

We encourage fishers to legally take as many small (under 10") brook trout as they can eat to help keep their populations in check. California has a brook trout bonus daily bag limit of 10 under 10" in addition to the general trout daily bag limit! This applies statewide except in Red Lake in Alpine County and any water that has a special trout regulations (i.e., no-take, no barbs, etc.), like Kirman Lake.

Brown Trout

The brown trout (Salmo trutta) is native to Europe and neighboring areas. They were introduced to Americas, including the Sierra, in the late 19th century.

Brown trout were once more widely stocked in the eastern Sierra than they are now. Those stocked today are typically infertile. Wild brown trout can still be found in many of our fisheries. We encouraged fishers to release brown trout unharmed to preserve their populations.

The California state record brown trout was caught in Upper Twin Lake at 26 1/2 pounds!

A nice Brown trout caught and released on Rosaschi Ranch

Bowcutt and Cutbow Trout

Bowcutt trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss × oncorhynchus clarkii) are hybrids resulting from the crossing a male rainbow trout with a female cutthroat trout, while Cutbow trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii × oncorhynchus mykiss) are hybrids resulting from crossing a mail cutthroat trout with a female rainbow trout. Nevada Department of Wildlife raises bowcutts for stocking in Nevada fisheries such as the Hinkson Slough and Topaz Lake. In waters where both fertile rainbows and cutthrouts are present, such as Lake Tahoe, hybridization will occur. The terms bowcutt and cutbow are commonly used interchangingly.

The Nevada record bowcutt, weighting over 24 pounds, was caught on Lake Pyramid.

Golden Trout

Three subspecies of rainbow trout make up the golden trout complex:

All three are native to the Kern River basin in the southern Sierra. The California golden trout have been transplanted in various high elevation lakes and streams within the eastern Sierra.

The California state fish is the golden trout.

While golden trout qualify for California's Heritage Trout Challenge, those caught in the east slope drainages of Sierra do not count as they are not natives to these drainages.

The golden trout should not be confused with the palomino trout, also known as golden rainbow trout.

Sockeye Salmon (aka Kokanee)

Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka) are sockeye salmon that spend all of their life in freshwater. They are native to the Pacific Northwest from the Columbia River drainage north to southern Alaska and the Yukon. They have been transplanted into a number of lakes in the Sierra including Lake Tahoe and Twin Lakes. In the fall they can be seen spawning upstream in small streams such as Robinson Creek above Twin Lakes and Taylor Creek between Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe.

Kokanee are not typically targetted by fly fishers as they prefer the cold of deep waters.

The California and Nevada state record Kokanee, weighing over 5 and 4 pounds each, respectively, were caught on Lake Tahoe.

Kokanee on Robinson Creek
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout in stream form.

A wild, native Lahontan cutthroat trout in stream form.

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi), or LCT for short, are native to the Carson, Humboldt, Quinn, Susan, Truckee, and Walker river drainages. Large Lahontan cutthroat trout are routinely caught at Pyramid Lake. They can also be found in Fallen Leaf, Heenan, Independence, Kirman, Marlette, and various other lakes in our area. Additionally, they can be found in a number of local rivers and their tributaries, including the Truckee and Upper Truckee rivers and the forks of the Carson River. They are especially pretty in stream form (as shown in photo).

The Nevada state fish is the Lahontan cutthroat trout. The world and Nevada state record Lahontan cutthroat trout were caught on Pyramid Lake, weighting 41 and 24 pounds, respectively. The California state record Lahontan, weighting 31 pounds, was caught on Lake Tahoe.

Stockings of Lahontan cutthroat trout are typically of one of four strains of the (western) LCT: Pilot Peak, Independence, contemporary, and By-day. The Pilot Peak strain was discovered in a small out-of-basin stream in western Utah near Pilot Peak. Their presence in this steam is believed, based on genetic data, to be due to a transplanting of Lahontan cutthroat trout from Pyramid Lake or the lower Truckee River. This strain is commonly used in Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery programs in Pyramid Lake, Truckee River, and Lake Tahoe and its tributaries. Independence Lake, located on a tributary steam of the Little Truckee River, has a self-reproducing, extant population of Lahontan cutthroat trout that are genetically distinct from populations of Truckee River and Pyramid Lake. The contemporary strain is derived from Lahontan population at Summit Lake in northwestern Nevada. This strain was heavily stocked into Pyramid Lake. Today, Heenan Lake and Marlette Lake are used to provide contemporary strain brood stock for California and Nevada state stocking programs, respectively. The By-Day strain is from an extant population on a small creek in the Walker River drainage.

Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi) was one of the subspecies of cutthroat trout recognized by the American Fisheries Society in the 20th century. Based on more recent studies, it has been suggested that the Lahontan cutthroat trout be elevated to species status (Oncorhynchus henshawi). A number of uniquely identifiable evolutionary units have been identified: Alvord (Oncorhynchus henshawi alvordensis), Willow-Whitehorse Basin or Coyote Basin (Oncorhynchus henshawi ssp.), Humboldt or Eastern (Oncorhynchus henshawi humboldtensis), Paiute (Oncorhynchus henshawi seleniris), Quinn River (Oncorhynchus henshawi ssp.) or Northwestern, and Western (Oncorhynchus henshawi henshawi). The Alvord may be extinct. The western Lahontan cutthroat refers to the population of Lahontan cutthroat trout in the Truckee River, Walker River, and Carson River drainages (excepting the Silver King and its tributaries), as well as Summit Lake and its tributaries.

Any Lahontan cutthroat trout legally caught in the Carson, Truckee, or Walker river drainages qualifies for the California's Heritage Trout Challenge. Any Lahontan cutthroat trout legally caught in Nevada qualifies for the Nevada Fish Slam. NDOW regards all Lake Lahontan basin cutthroat trout as Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Lake Trout (aka Mackinaw)

Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), also known as mackinaw, are freshwater char that are native to northern portions of North America. They are present in a few local lakes, namely Caples, Donner, and Tahoe. Mackinaw, as they are locally called, live primarily in deep waters; hence they are generally not the target of fly fishers. However, when spawning (in the fall), one might find them cruising shallow waters.

Both the California and Nevada state record mackinaw, each weighting over 37 pounds, were caught on Lake Tahoe.

Mountain Whitefish

Mountain Whitefish

The mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) is a bottom feeder native to waters of the western North America, including the eastern Sierra. Their presence in the water is generally an indication of healthy water conditions for other salmonids. They are commonly caught on forks for the Walker and Truckee rivers and occasionally in the forks of the Carson River.

The Nevada state record mountain whitefish, weighting over 3 pounds, was caught on the Truckee River. The California state record mountain whitefish, also weighting over 3 pounds, was caught on Lake Tahoe.

Any mountain whitefish trout legally caught in Nevada qualifies for the Nevada Fish Slam.

Paiute Cutthroat Trout

The Paiute cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii seleniris) are native to Silver King Creek, a headwater tributary of East Fork of the Carson River. The Silver King is currently the subject of a recovery program and is closed to fishing.

A few out-of-basin self-sustaining populations exist, including a refuge population in White Mountains (also closed to fishing).

Paiute cutthroat trout was one of the subspecies of cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) recognized in the 1900s by the American Fisheries Society along side the Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi). Based on more recent studies, it has been suggested the Piaute cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus henshawi seleniris) be considered a uniquely identifiable evolutionary unit of the Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus henshawi) species, along side the western Lahonton cutthroat (Oncorhynchus henshawi henshawi) found elsewhere in the Carson River drainage, as well as in the Truckee and Walker river drainages and Summit Lake and its tributaries.

While the Paiute cutthroat trout is a qualifying trout for the California's Heritage Trout Challenge, all waters in which they are native to are currently closed to fishing.

A nice Rainbow caught at one of the club's community service events.

A nice rainbow trout caught during a club-hosted community service event.

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) can be found throughout the Sierra. The coastal rainbow trout is native to the western slope of the Sierra. While you certainly can find plenty of wild rainbows on the eastern slope of the Sierra, none are native.

Rainbows now stocked in the eastern Sierra are sterilized to prevent them from cross-breeding with any cutthroats that may be present in the fishery. Various kinds of rainbow trout have been stocked in local waters over the years, including coastal rainbow trout, Eagle Lake trout, and Kamloop rainbow trout. The Eagle Lake trout is native to Eagle Lake and Pine Creek on the Modoc Plateau. The Kamloop rainbow trout is native to British Columbia.

Rainbow trout are closely related to redband trout. While not present in eastern Sierra, various subspecies of redband trout can be found in northern California and northern Nevada.

While the coastal rainbow trout and Eagle Lake trout qualify for California's Heritage Trout Challenge, those caught in the east slope drainages of Sierra do not count as they are not native to these drainages.

Tiger Trout

Tiger trout (Salmo trutta × Salvelinus fontinalis) are a sterile, intergeneric hybrid trout produced by crossing a brown trout with a brook trout. They have been planted in a number of eastern Sierra waters, including Hobart Creek Reservoir, Spooner Lake, and Topaz Lake. As they are quite piscivorous, they are often planted to help manage populations of wild fish (namely brookies and chubs).

The tiger trout's name comes from the vermiculated pattern on its body, which suggests the striping of a tiger.

Dick will a nice Tiger at Knott Creek Reservoir

Dick B. at Knott Creek Reservoir with a nice tiger trout.

Other Species

Carp

Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) and grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) can be found in our local warmer waters such as Hinkson Slough. Common carp, also known as European or Euroasian carp, are targetted by fly fishers as they are known to be hard fighters. Grass carp are generally stocked to help maintain the health of the fishery and should be immediately returned to the water unharmed.

Catfish

Bullhead (Ameiurus) and channel (Ictalurus punctatus) are present in a number of warmer waters, such as the Carson River, Lahontan Reservoir, and Washoe Lake.

Centrarchidae (Sunfish family)

A wide range of sunfish can be found in local waters.

  • Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) can be found Lahontan Reservoir and various ponds in the Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area.

  • Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) can be found in the Carson River.

  • Crappie be found in Lahontan Reservoir and Washoe Lake.

  • Sacramento perch (Archoplites interruptus) can be found in Pyramid Lake and Washoe Lake.

  • Various species of bass (Micropterus) are present in warmer waters of western Nevada, such as Lahontan Reservoir and Washoe Lake.

Cui-ui

The Cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) is a large lake sucker; found only in Pyramid Lake and the lower part of the Truckee River during their spawn. They are endangered. They should be immediately returned to the water unharmed.

Tahoe Sucker

The Tahoe Sucker (Catostomus tahoensis) is a sucker native to Lahontan basin including the Truckee and Quinn river drainages. It is most commonly found in lakes, such as Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe, where it is known to grow to up to 24" in length.

Lahontan Tui chub

The Lahontan tui chub (Siphateles bicolor) is native to the Great Basin. They can be found in Pyramid Lake, Spooner Lake, and many other eastern Sierra waters.

Walleye

Walleye (Sander vitreus) can be found in some northern Nevada waters, such as Lahontan Reservoir.

This article was authored by Kurt Zeilenga, current President of the High Sierra Fly Casters.

If you have suggestions on how to improve this article, you may contact Kurt at education@hsfc.us.

Additional Reading