Trout Species of North America: Ranges, Identification, & More

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Article Categories: Fishing | fishing tips
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When the average person hears “trout,” they probably think about a generic fish; but when an angler hears “trout,” they think “what kind!?” North America is home to many different types of trout, and it’s important to know where these species are found before you set out for a fishing trip. It’s also extremely important to be able to tell them apart because different species have different take limits throughout the year.

Here, we’ll go over the species and some of the major subspecies and hybrids found in North America. Knowing some basics about trout species, where they can be found, and what their life histories are like can help you become a better angler. The more you understand about the fish, the easier it will be to choose where and when to fish.

Quick Navigation:
Native Vs Invasive | Ecotypes | Native Trout | Hybrid Trout | Char

Trout Species Listed:
Cutthroat | Gila & Apache | Golden | Rainbow | Redband | Brown | Cutbow | Splake | Tiger | Brook | Bull | Dolly Varden | Lake

 

Native vs. Introduced vs. Invasive Species: What’s the Difference?

Most trout species present in North America are native species, but some are introduced or even invasive. An introduced species is any nonnative species that has been integrated into the native environment. An invasive species is an introduced species that has become detrimental to the local environment.

Rainbow trout are notorious for their role as an invasive species throughout the world. This includes parts of North America— rainbow trout can be found in nearly every state, but are only native to the western coast of the continent. In some locations, rainbow trout threaten other species populations.

That said, introduced and invasive species don’t just create problems; they can solve problems, depending on how people manage them. In the case of trout, introduced species can displace them in natural spawning situations, but they can also reduce human pressure on the native populations by providing another species to fish for.

Conservation can also be a reason to introduce a species. For example, the Eagle Lake trout was thought to be extinct until 1958, when a population was rediscovered. People immediately began to breed them and reintroduce them to Eagle Lake, as well as lakes in the surrounding watershed. This meant that if the main population suffered a crash or disease, the surrounding waters would still have healthy fish to help rebuild the population. Because of this introduction, the species persists to this day.

 

Trout Ecotypes

Trout are highly adaptable fish, and their populations fall into categorizations called ecotypes. An ecotype is a distinct form of a species that has adapted to local ecological conditions. For trout, the three possible ecotypes are lacustrine, riverine, and anadromous. Knowing what ecotype the local trout have will help you choose the best time for fishing.

    • Lacustrine trout live in lakes, but sometimes migrate to rivers to spawn
    • Riverine trout spend their whole lives in rivers and are often smaller than their lacustrine cousins, depending on the size of their stream
    • Anadromous trout are born in rivers, migrate to the ocean, and then return to the river to spawn during an annual “run”

 

Native Trout Species

These species are true North American trout (members of the genus Oncorhynchus). Salmo is another genus of true trout, but it isn’t native to North America. These species are also sometimes called Pacific trout, even though their distribution isn’t limited to the Pacific Coast.

 

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat Trout

The cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki) is a popular gamefish with a complicated taxonomy. There are as many as fifteen subspecies, primarily divided by geographic location. Here, we’ll be discussing the main species, since you’ll usually only find one kind of cutthroat in any particular stream or lake.

The cutthroat trout can be green, olive, brown, or golden in color with red, pink, or orange gill plates. Cutthroat trout have two slashes of red under their gills, which is what gives them their name. Their back and sides are lightly spotted, with heavier spotting on their fins.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Oncorhynchus clarki Cutthroat Trout Western North America; introduced in limited eastern and southeastern US locations Lacustrine, Riverine, Anadromous (rarely)
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
6-36 inches (depends on habitat, food availability, and subspecies) 39 inches December-June Cutthroat Trout

 

Gila/Apache Trout

The Gila (Oncorhynchus gilae) and Apache (Oncorhynchus apache) trout are a pair of related species native to the southwestern United States. Both of these trout are endangered and have only recently been reopened to sport fishing.

Gila trout range from yellow to copper-colored, with numerous small, dark spots above the lateral line. Apache trout are usually a brighter yellow with large body spots. They also typically have two dark spots in their eyes on each side of the pupil, resembling a stripe going through their eyes.

Gila Trout

Gila Trout

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Oncorhynchus gilae Gila Trout Arizona and New Mexico Riverine
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
10-12 inches 22 inches March-July Gila Trout

 

Apache Trout

Apache Trout

 

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Oncorhynchus apache Apache Trout Arizona Riverine
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
9-10 inches 23 inches March-June Apache Trout

 

Golden Trout

California Golden Trout

California Golden Trout

The golden trout (Oncorhynchus aguabonita) is considered a subspecies of rainbow trout by some scientists and a separate species by others. The state of California considers it the official state freshwater fish! This trout has golden flanks with a reddish band along the lateral lines. There are also usually 10 dark, oval parr marks on each side. The fins have white edges. This is a smaller species of trout, especially in its riverine form.

Oncorhynchus aguabonita is not to be confused with the golden rainbow trout, or palomino trout. That trout is a color morph of the regular rainbow trout with a yellow background instead of a silvery background.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Oncorhynchus aguabonita Golden Trout Native to the southern Sierra Madres; introduced in the western/southwestern US Lacustrine, Riverine
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season Sierra Forest Legacy Species Information
6-10 inches in native range; 12+ inches in introduced lakes 28 inches Late June-July Golden Trout

 

Rainbow Trout

Female Rainbow Trout

Female Rainbow Trout

The rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, is one of the most common trout in the world. It has been introduced nearly everywhere and has dozens of subspecies. To keep things simple, we’re going to talk about the most important subspecies (the redband trout) separately from this main overview of the rainbow trout.

The rainbow trout is usually olive green on the back, with silvery flanks and a pink or red stripe along the body. They have small black spots over most of their body, including their fins and tail, and their red color intensifies during spawning season.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Oncorhynchus mykiss Rainbow Trout, Steelhead Trout (coastal variants) Western North America, western Russia; introduced nearly everywhere where temperatures are suitable Lacustrine, Riverine, Anadromous
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
20-30 inches 45 inches February-May Rainbow Trout

 

Redband Trout

Redband Trout

Redband Trout

Redband trout are a complex of several rainbow trout subspecies. They include the Columbia River redband trout (O. m. gairdneri), the McCloud River redband trout (O. m. stonei), and the Great Basin redband trout (O. m. newberrii). These are the three main types of redband trout; however, there are some subspecies that are genetically distinct and have restricted ranges. One of these is the Eagle Lake trout (O. m. aquilarum), which is only indigenous to Eagle Lake in California. Another is the Kamloops trout (O. m. kamloops), which is found in several large British Columbia lakes, most notably Kamloops Lake and Kootenay Lake.

Redband trout generally look similar to rainbow trout, but have larger, rounded spots and parr marks that tend to remain into adulthood. They have a band of intense orange-red color around the lateral line and their fins have distinctive white tips. Redband trout that live in small streams are usually 6-10 inches long at maturity, but redband trout in bigger rivers will be on average 14-30 inches long.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Oncorhynchus mykiss spp. Redband Trout Western North America (California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, British Columbia) Lacustrine, Riverine, Anadromous
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
10-30 inches 41 inches December-August, based on temperature Redband Trout

 

Invasive Trout Species

There is only one invasive non-North American trout species, the brown trout. While some species of trout are locally invasive, these are species that have been translocated from other North American fisheries. Many of the non-scientific community would not consider brown trout an invasive species since it is so common across the U.S. and still heavily stocked in many locations.

 

Brown Trout

Brown Trout

Brown Trout

The brown trout, Salmo trutta, is a European species that has been stocked in virtually every US state. Brown trout have a background color ranging from olive green to brown which fades to a creamy off-white along the belly. They have black spots all over their sides, back, and dorsal fin, but not on their tails. The spots near their lateral lines are often red, and most of their body spots will have a halo of light pigment.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Salmo trutta Brown Trout All US states except Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Mississippi Lacustrine, Riverine, Anadromous
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season US FWS Species Information
12-14 inches 39 inches October-December Brown Trout

 

Hybrid Trout Species

Hybrid trout species are blends of two other trout species. They often exhibit traits of both parent species. Some are naturally occurring; others are only found bred by fisheries.

 

Cutbow Trout

Cutbow Trout

Cutbow Trout

The cutbow trout is a hybrid of the cutthroat and rainbow trout. This hybrid can be found in waters with both of the parent species, and identifying them can be difficult. We go into detail about how to tell them apart here, but generally what to look for is white-tipped fins (a rainbow trait) on a fish with a vivid red, orange, or pink gill plate (a cutthroat trait). If it’s not quite a cutthroat and not quite a rainbow, it’s probably a cutbow!

Cutbows are genetically stable and able to reproduce. They can occur naturally, or can be bred and stocked by fisheries. Usually it comes into existence when one of the parent species is stocked in waters containing the other.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
O. clarki x O. mykiss Cutbow Trout Western US and Canada, wherever cutthroats and rainbows overlap through stocking Lacustrine, Riverine, Anadromous
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USGS Species Information
15-20 inches 45 inches February-May Cutbow Trout

 

Splake

Splake Trout

Splake Trout Illustration By Joseph Tomelleri

Splake are a hybrid of a male brook trout and a female lake trout. Like cutbows, splake are genetically stable and could hypothetically reproduce; however, they don’t exhibit compatible breeding behavior and are only known to have limited reproduction in five lakes.

Splake look almost identical to brook trout when it comes to color. To tell them apart, look at the tails. Splake have a shallowly forked tail, while brook trout have squared tails with no fork.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
S. namaycush X S. fontinalis Splake Introduced throughout the US N/A; hatchery-grown only
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USGS Species Information
10-18 inches 35 inches None Splake

 

Tiger Trout

Tiger Trout

Tiger Trout

The tiger trout is a sterile hybrid of the brown trout and brook trout. This hybrid is vividly colored, with dark striations on a golden or orange background, giving it its name. While this hybrid can occasionally be produced naturally, it is considered entirely introduced because one of the parent species is a nonnative species.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
S. fontinalis X S. trutta Tiger trout Introduced to the Great Lakes region and western US None; introduced only
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USGS Species Information
10-16 inches 20 inches None Tiger Trout

 

Char (NOT Trout)

Some species are commonly called trout, but are actually not true trout! These fish all look similar to trout, but further study has shown that they’re a separate genus, Salvelinus.

 

Brook Trout

Brook Trout

Brook Trout

Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are a widely-distributed species of fish that are present throughout most of North America. Unlike other char and trout species, these fish do not have a forked tail. They are usually dark green or brown, and have a light marbled pattern on their sides and back. They have red spots with blue halos on their sides. Their bellies are reddish, and their lower fins are red with white edges.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Salvelinus fontinalis Brook Trout (sometimes Speckled Trout) Canada and the northern US; present in all US states except Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma Lacustrine, Riverine
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season US FWS Species Information
10-11 inches 34 inches September-October Brook Trout

 

Bull Trout

Bull Trout

Bull Trout

The bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) has a large head and mouth, from which its name derives. While this species will live in rivers and lakes, it has a strong migration drive and will spawn in rivers when they live in lakes. This species can be quickly identified by the lack of black pigmentation in or around its orange or yellow spots and the white leading edge of its lower fins. The dorsal fin is unspotted, which is useful for differentiation from brook trout.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Salvelinus confluentus Bull trout Northwestern US (California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington), northwestern Canada Lacustrine (always migratory), Riverine, Anadromous
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
19-20 inches 41 inches July-December Bull Trout

 

Dolly Varden Trout

Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden

The Dolly Varden trout (Salvelinus malma) got its name from a Dickens character known for her vibrant red dress. True to their namesake, these fish have brilliant red or orange spots on a dark grey, brown, or olive background. Native to Alaskan waters, the Dolly Varden trout has been introduced in a few locations in the western US, but none of these populations has been self-sustaining.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Salvelinus malma Dolly Varden Native to Alaska and northwestern Canada; introduced in the western US Lacustrine, Riverine, Anadromous
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USGS Species Information
15-22 inches 30 inches September-November Dolly Varden Trout

 

Lake Trout

Lake Trout

Lake Trout

Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are a large fish found primarily in cold, deep lakes, sometimes at depths of up to 200 feet. They are identifiable by their large, rounded heads, deeply forked tails, and light spots on a dark green to grey body.

Species Name Common Name Range Ecotypes
Salvelinus namaycush Lake Trout Widely distributed from northern Canada and Alaska to New England and the Great Lakes; introduced in Yellowstone National Park Lacustrine, rarely riverine
Average size Maximum size Spawning Season USFWS Species Information
18-20 inches 59 inches August-November Lake Trout

 

All of the North American trout species are fun, challenging quarries for the fly angler. So long as there’s cool, clear water, there’s likely to be trout nearby. While luring these piscine predators might be a challenge, knowing more about them can help you get the upper hand.

Max DesMarais
Max DesMarais

Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and sharing experiences with others. Max is a published author for various outdoor websites and digital marketing websites. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about