Author’s note: what follows is the first of a two-part story about a trip I took this spring to Pyramid Lake outside Sparks, Nevada.
The mood changed in an instant, from the usual smiles and light banter to horrified looks and stern warnings.
I was working at the Nevada Legislature, having lunch with two colleagues. It was a deadline week to remain alive, bills needed to be out of committee by midnight that Friday. Although the committees don’t always go to midnight, I needed to be available. The Legislature also had a full schedule of proceedings starting early the following Monday.
Jennifer and Shelly knew that it would be impracticable for me to go home and that I would be stuck in Nevada that weekend. We were at one of Jennifer’s favorite restaurants, smiles all around.
Jennifer asked: “What are you doing this weekend when you’re here by yourself?”
“I won’t be here by myself. My friend Dan is driving up and we’re going fishing at Pyramid Lake.”
The smile left Jennifer’s face, replaced by a look of genuine concern. “Don’t you know about Pyramid Lake?”
“Of course I do,” I said, most of my smile remaining. “It is world renowned for its Lahontan cutthroat trout. People routinely catch fish over fifteen pounds. I’m going after one with my ZEBCO.”
“No,” she said, looking both directly at me and through me. “There is something bad about that lake. People die out there every year, and they never find the bodies. Please don’t go.”
“That’s nonsense,” I said.
“No, really Mark. The lake is cursed.” Shelly had joined the conversation and she looked as concerned as Jennifer. “You shouldn’t go.”
“I’ve already paid the guide, so unless the weather turns bad, I’m going.”
In unison, the ladies said: “I hope the weather is bad.”
I thought about their warnings all afternoon. These are two highly educated professionals. Sure, they had both grown up in the area, and I had no doubt they knew about the lake. But a deadly curse? Come on.
I did some research that night and learned a number of things about Pyramid Lake:
• It’s in the heart of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. The Paiute tribe regulates all aspects of fishing and recreational activities on the lake.
• It has a surface area of approximately 112,000 acres and is 350 feet deep at its deepest point.
• It’s a terminal lake, meaning it has an inlet but no true outlet.
• There are a number of underwater shelves, caves and other structures that cannot be seen from the surface.
• Wind conditions on the lake can be harsh. Wind speed and direction often change suddenly and dramatically.
• Because of the wind, the underwater structures and the lack of an outlet, currents on the lake are varied and unpredictable.
That explained it. Pyramid Lake is big and deep, with tricky winds and currents. It’s home to a rare species of giant trout, so it attracts fishermen and women from around the world willing to do stupid things for a shot at catching one. No wonder the lake has more than its share of tragedies. I couldn’t wait to lecture Jennifer and Shelly.
Except…there is more.
The lake is apparently haunted by Water Babies. As the story goes, many years ago, the Paiutes would drown malformed and premature babies in the lake in order to weed out the weak and to keep the tribe strong. The ghosts of these babies can allegedly be heard crying and wailing throughout the lake, especially in the early morning and evening hours, and especially during the spring prime fishing times for Lahontan trout.
The Water Babies are a vengeful bunch, reportedly responsible for calamities ranging from equipment malfunctions to boating accidents to disappearances. Some accounts say that they target fisherman, lurking just below the surface waiting for the opportunity to seize and drown those that get too close to the water. Other accounts are less dramatic, saying that if you hear or see a Water Baby, you will be cursed with bad luck.
You might think that after learning all of this I called the guide and cancelled. You would be wrong. Giant trout AND mean-spirited ghosts? Are you kidding me? How could it get any better?
I was more excited than ever to fish the lake, but I felt compelled to learn more about the legend. Like all fishermen, I’m superstitious. The last thing I need is even a hint of bad luck. So if there was any truth to the legend, I needed to be knowledgeable. The first thing I wanted to know was whether the Paiutes give any credence to the idea that the lake is cursed. To me, the existence of a curse is far more plausible if the Paiutes believe it.
I had read conflicting reports on the Paiutes’ beliefs, so I set out the next day to talk to my friend Steve. Steve is the president and general counsel for a large land and water resource development company. He loves to fish, has extensive knowledge of the area and has negotiated with the Paiute tribe over water rights in the Pyramid Lake basin.
“Steve, is Pyramid Lake cursed?”
“I can’t say for sure one way or the other. Strange things happen out on the reservation.” Steve laughed a little as he told me this.
“Do the Paiutes believe in the curse?”
Steve’s expression changed and he said, seriously: “Look, be careful. The Paiutes believe in some crazy sh** [stuff]. Just stick close to your guide and do what he says.”
We left early the next morning to meet our guide at a store on the edge of the reservation. The store is a stopping point for most everyone who fishes the lake. It is one of the few places you can buy the required tribe-issued permit.
As I paid for my permit, I asked the clerk if she thought the lake was cursed by Water Babies. Without hesitation, she replied: “Absolutely. When I was a kid, I nearly drowned three separate times. You want some coffee with that permit?”
A fisherman in line behind me overheard this and pulled me aside. “I’ve fished the lake for years. Trust me, the Water Babies only get people who are drunk and/or stupid. Pay attention to the conditions, and don’t push it if the wind comes up.”
Dan and I walked into the parking lot to find our guide. Glenn was just as he had described over the phone: a big guy with a buzz haircut and a burly black beard. We learned later that Glenn was a retired Military Police officer who served a number of tours in Iraq. He told us he was a “door kicker”—the guy who “kicked in the door as we entered to clear buildings.”
He carried himself like a former door kicker, getting right to the point. “If you guys have your permits, let’s get going. We’re twenty minutes from the boat ramp.”
With as much confidence and nonchalance as I could muster, I said: “I have two questions to ask. First, I want to catch a Lahontan cutthroat on my ZEBCO. Can you make that happen? And second, how worried do we need to be about these Water Babies?”
Glenn’s eyes narrowed. He looked intently at me for what seemed like an uncomfortable amount of time. So long that I thought he might be contemplating faking engine problems so he didn’t have to fish with such a moron. But his expression lightened a little and he said: “You won’t have any problems with the Water Babies as long as you do good and respect the resources the lake has to offer.”
He studied me a little longer, then smiled. “What pound test do you have on that ZEBCO?”
I smiled in return. “Ten.”
He nodded. “That’ll work.”
And with that, we got in our vehicles and headed down the road to Pyramid Lake, the rising sun turning the desert floor a pale orange color. I thought to myself: “Do good and respect the resources. That should be easy enough.”
Little did I know…
Continued next month