Updated on July 16th 2020
In this article we have created a catalog for all the North American trout species. It is designed to help inform the new angler and expert on some of the basic regions, physical characteristics, and habits of these magnificent fish.
The types of trout we discuss herein include:
- Rainbow trout
- Brown trout
- Brook trout
- Lake trout
- Bull trout
- Dolly Varden trout
- Arctic Char
- Golden trout
- Palomino trout
- Golden Rainbow Trout
- Gila trout
- Apache trout
- Hybrid trout
- Tiger trout
Lets get started!
Trout Species Of North America
We have outlined all of the major trout and char species of North America. We are aware of the numerous subspecies of each but felt that much information would not be necessary. Please let us know in the comments if you have questions or feedback on the species of trout we have listed or if you have questions about identifying trout.
Trout Vs. Char
Trout and char are two terms that are often synonymous with each other, but in fact are completely different species.
First off, both trout and char are a species of Salmonid, and a few of the fish we call “trout,” are actually chars. Chars tend to inhabit colder water temperatures in more northern regions. Another key difference between the two is that chars will be predominantly dark with lighter spots or markings. Trout on the other hand, will be lighter in color, with darker spots. Lastly, chars have strips of white on the tips of their pectoral and anal fins.
Of the North American species, the following are classified as char:
- Lake Trout
- Brook Trout
- Bull Trout
- Dolly Varden Trout
- Arctic Char
- Rainbow Trout
- Brown Trout
- Cutthroat Trout
- California Golden Trout
- Gila Trout
- Apache Trout
- Palomino and Golden Rainbow
- Cutbow Trout
- Tiger Trout
We thought it would be helpful to describe some basic features of a trout and char’s anatomy. Trout and char have a few defining features that separate them from other common freshwater fish.
- Adipose Fin — One of the main unique features of trout is their adipose fin. This is the very small fin on their back closest to the tail. It is absent of rays and is made up of fatty tissue. This is also the fin that will be clipped by hatcheries in order to track and manage non-native fish.
- Caudal Fin — The technical term for the tail fin. The majority of the time this fin will be square or slightly forked. The main exception is lake trout that have a very pronounced forked caudal fin.
- Caudal Peduncle — This is the thin section of a trout’s body that connects to the tail (caudal fin). Because of the narrow size, this is a helpful spot to hold when handling trout.
- Kype — A kype is the term used to describe the hooked jaw that becomes common in larger spawning trout, char, and salmon.
- Nuchal Hump — A pronounced hump that emerges in some larger spawning trout and salmon species.
- Dorsal Fin — The dorsal fin is the main fin on the back of a trout. They are used to keep fish swimming upright and straight.
- Lateral Line – This is an organ shared by almost all fish species. The lateral line allows fish to sense and feel minor vibrations and movements in the water.
- Parr Marks — Oval colarations that run horizontally along the sides of some juvenile trout and char species.
- Pectoral Fin — The pectoral fins are the pair of fins that are on both sides of the trout right below the gills. Their main purpose is to help the fish swim and change direction.
- Pelvic Fin — These are another pair of fins directly below the pectoral fins about halfway down the belly of the trout.
- Operculum — The operculum is a bony plate that covers the gills to protect them.
Trout Species Explained
One of the most common trout species in North America, rainbow trout are native to the northern Pacific and coastal states of the western United States. They have since been widely dispersed throughout most of the US and can be found in almost every state. There are several subspecies of rainbows with some minor coloration differences. Generally, these trout are greenish silver with a thick pink or red lateral line from tail to head. They also have black spots throughout their entire body.
Average size of rainbows depends on their region and subspecies, but most of the time they will be found between 1-5 pounds, with the North American record caught at 48 pounds in Canada. Rainbow trout like all trout, prefer cold clean water—ideally between 42 – 60 degrees, but can tolerate slightly warmer temperatures for a limited time.
Rainbows will start to spawn in the spring anywhere from February to June depending on their location. The optimal water temperatures for spawning is between 40 – 50 degrees. Rainbow trout are able to reproduce when they’re over 1 year old and will survive on average for 7 years.
Brown trout are native to Europe and western Asia. They were introduced to North America in 1889, and by the early 1900s there were self sustaining populations in more than two thirds of US states. There are anadromous brown trout species, often called sea trout in tributaries of both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.
Like their name suggests these mid sized trout are varying shades of golden brown, yellow, and tan. Their backs tend to be darker with black and brown spots and lighter orange and even red spots on their sides. The North American brown trout record is 41 pounds set in Michigan. These buttery trout can tolerate warmer water temperatures than most other trout species and prefer temps between 52 – 67 degrees — however they can withstand temps up to 78 degrees for short periods.
Brown trout will reproduce in the fall, generally between September and December depending on the region. These trout have a longer lifespan than rainbows with some fish being recorded at surviving over 20 years! Brown trout are opportunistic feeders, and more aggressive than other trout species. Older and more wary browns can be seldom caught as they take on more nocturnal characteristics, feeding only at night.
Probably the most popular native trout in North America, brookies originally inhabited Eastern United States and Canada. They have now been planted throughout the rest of the country and overseas. Brook trout are in the Char family, making them slightly different genetically.
Brook trout require cooler water temperatures than rainbows and browns—usually between 45 – 60 degrees, and often found in small and rocky streams. Physically, brook trout are dark green to brown throughout most of their bodies, but these colors slowly fade to tan and yellow closer to their belly. Brook trout have beautiful yellow, blue, and red spots and worm-like markings throughout their back and sides.
Brook trout usually grow smaller than most of the other trout/char species and have a shorter life span. Many yearling brook trout become prey for birds and other fish. On average brook trout live 4-5 years and can be found between 5-10 inches. In the great lakes and Atlantic Ocean, coaster brook trout can be found, which spend most of their time in the larger body of water before spawning in the tributaries. These coasters grow much larger—up to 8 pounds and more. They are recognized for their aggressive behaviors, especially in larger males. However, brookies spook easily and tend to be more active at dawn and dusk—retreating to deep holes and undercut banks during the day.
Cutthroat trout inhabit most of the rivers in North America’s Pacific west and Rocky Mountains. These trout now have 14 subspecies scattered throughout the states. They have also been planted in non native locations through the Midwest and eastern river systems. Cutthroats are primarily found in freshwater, except the coastal subspecies (also known as sea-run cutthroat) which will live exclusively in the ocean until it is time to spawn in the spring.
Cutthroats get their name by the distinctive reddish orange marking underneath their lower jaw. Depending on the subspecies, they will have some distinct physical characteristics, but will mainly exhibit a golden/green back, with golden to pale sides. Their bodies will also be accompanied by dark spots present on their backs and are lightly dispersed throughout their sides. They prefer cold, clean, and well oxygenated streams and will become active in water temps between 40 – 60 degrees. Depending on their location and subspecies, cutthroats can range from 8 – 40 inches—with sea-run and lake species often reaching several pounds.
Cutthroats have faced declining populations over the years. In part due to habitat loss from livestock, farming, and mines. There has also been competition with non-native trout species. Rainbow trout in particular have been problematic because of their ability to spawn with cutthroats, creating a cutbow hybrid, which decreases the genetic purity of cutthroats. These fish are a prized species among western anglers and are the state fish of Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado.
Although not a common fly fishing target, we felt it still necessary to include these deep dwelling trout. Lake trout are the largest of the char family and native to most of Canada, the Great Lakes Basin, and parts of northern New England. Lake trout have been introduced across the western United States, and in certain water systems are considered invasive, due to the threats they pose to native cutthroat and rainbow trout.
Lake trout are distinct from other trout/char species in their smokey dark body and light spots throughout. They also have a forked tail and grey mouth. Lake trout generally grow slow, but can reach giant sizes, up to 40-50 pounds. There are records of these fish reaching over 100 pounds, with the rod and reel record was caught at 72 pounds. Most often lake trout will be caught between 6 – 12 pounds.
Lake trout live in heavily oxygenated and cold lakes. Most of these trout live in deep water; sometimes over 100 feet deep. This characteristic makes it challenging for fly anglers to target them, however it is possible in the fall during spawning season as they migrate to shallower shores. Depending on the region, lake trout will spawn in September to November or when water temps drop below 50 degrees.
Another species in the char family are bull trout. These rare species are native to the northwestern United States and Canada. They are currently listed as a threatened species under the endangered animals act. Bull trout are a large fish and commonly mistaken for dolly varden trout. They look similar to both dollies and lake trout because of their pale greenish/brown bodies, along with light yellow and orange spots throughout their back and sides.
Bull trout are typically migratory fish, and will spend most of their time moving from one body of water or river to another. However, there are some bull trout that will stay in one river or lake their entire life. In the US bull trout are found in clear high mountain lakes and rivers of the pacific northwest, and northern rocky mountains of Idaho and Montana. They require very cold waters; below 55 degrees to thrive, as well as, deep pools for shelter. Along coastal rivers they are anadromous, spending time in both salt and freshwater.
Bull trout can grow very large and quite quickly, reaching up to 40 inches. Because of their designation on the endangered species list they are to be released immediately upon catching, and in most places it is illegal to intentionally target these fish.
Dolly Varden Trout
These salmonids fall into the char family with bull, lake, and brook trout, along with Arctic char. The name comes from a character in Charles Dickens’ book, Barnaby Rudge, and was further used to describe a fashionable dress worn over a petticoat, popular in the middle to late 1800’s. These fish adopted this name due to their unique and vibrant colors.
Dollys have greenish grey backs and sides, with yellow and pink colored spots along their bodies. They look very similar to Arctic char and bull trout, so much that many believe the three have been misidentified throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries due to their overlapping habitats.
Dollys are native to the coasts of western North America from California up through Alaska, and most prominently found along the coastal tributaries of Alaska. Dolly Varden are mainly semi-anadromous, meaning they will spend part of their time in the sea but primarily live in freshwater rivers or lakes.
The last of the char species in North America are aptly named the Arctic Char. Arctic char’s native habitat extends through Canada and Alaska down into southern British Columbia and New England. Today the range has diminished to primarily Alaska and northern Canada. They are the most northerly freshwater fish.
They look very similar to dolly vardens and have varying colors depending on their subspecies and habitat. Generally, they have silver to greenish blue backs and sides, with light colored spots throughout. They can also exhibit a pink to orange belly that becomes very vibrant in spawning males.
Arctic char spawn in the fall usually between September and November. These fish can grow fairly large and it is not uncommon to pull one in over 20 pounds from a deep lake. Because of their nature most fly fishing for these fish will come in the fall when they head to shallow waters or rivers to spawn.
This is one of the most unique and rarest trout species in North America. Golden trout are native to only high elevations above 7,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. They have since been transplanted in several locations across the country, and are still found at very high elevations in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.
Golden trout are small and usually caught around 6-10 inches. Anything over 12 is considered a trophy. The world record golden trout was caught in a Wyoming lake and measured at 28 inches and over 11 pounds. They are closely related to rainbow trout, and often get mistaken for a golden rainbow, but are in fact separate species. These little trout are gold, with a red vertical stripe along their sides, with intersecting horizontal ovals (parr marks).
Golden trout are truly rare and face concerns over their sustainability in California. They are currently classified as “at risk.”
Golden Rainbow Trout & Palomino Trout
Golden rainbow trout are a subspecies of rainbow trout that have been produced by a genetic mutation and thus subsequent selective breeding by biologists. These golden rainbow trout are not to be confused with the golden trout of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is a completely different species. Palomino trout on the other hand, are the hybrid between these genetically mutated golden rainbows and a regular rainbow trout. Both of these highly prized fish are gaining popularity among fly fishers due to their vibrant and unique colors.
Golden rainbow trout are quite striking, their bodies are a bright yellow to gold with a red horizontal band along their lateral line. Palomino trout look very similar but tend to be less bright, and are more pale in comparison to golden rainbows.
Golden rainbow trout originated in West Virginia in the mid 1900’s, and biologists have since been selectively breeding these bright trout. Both golden rainbows and palomino trout are most densely populated in the eastern states of West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. They have also been planted in other western states, but if you’re hoping to hook into one of the beautiful fish your best bet is out east.
The images above were taken from Wikipedia and Flickr and show how common it is to mistake these two species of trout. I believe that the image above is actually a Palomino trout and the larger more yellowish fish is actually a golden rainbow.
Gila trout are native to the American southwest of Arizona and New Mexico. These Salmonids are currently on the endangered species list, mainly due to over-fishing, drought, and wildfires. However, with conservation efforts in both states these fish are slowly recovering. They are closely related to rainbow trout with a copper body and black spots on their back and sides usually above the lateral line. They currently live in small mountain streams of the Gila national wilderness area.
These little fish grow small, only reaching a maximum size of 12 inches. They have recently been approved for catch and release fishing, but extreme care and practice should be involved when targeting and landing these delicate fish.
Another southwestern native trout, the Apache trout along with the Gila are the only native species in Arizona. They are very closely related to Gila trout with minor differences. Apache trout have a similar golden/yellow color but are more pale in comparison to the Gila. They also have black spots throughout their sides, and below the lateral line, unlike Gila trout.
Apache trout have also faced extreme concern and are currently listed as “critically endangered.” Since the 20th century their numbers have been declining and are now native to only 6% of their original territory. With recent conservation efforts these fish are slowly coming back, but they still have a long way to go. They are considered the rarest trout in the world with only a handful of cold mountain streams that hold these fish—even reaching them can be challenging. Although catch and release fishing is legal for them, it may be better to target other species if fishing in Arizona.
There are a few hybrid trout species that occur through unnatural spawning between species. Although these unique species can be thrilling to catch, they pose serious dangers to pure, native populations of fish.
A cutbow trout is a cross between a female cutthroat that spawns with a male rainbow trout. Cutbows are common in area waters where rainbow trout and cuttroats overlap. Most of these hybridization started in the late 1800’s when rainbows were stocked in western streams home to cutthoats. Cutbows can be tricky to identify as they exhibit both the pink lateral line of rainbows and the distinct red/orange jaw markings of cutthroats.
Splake; which are relatively rare is the combination of a male brook trout and female lake trout. These fast-growing trout look very similar to a lake trout, but exhibits more color on their belly and do not have a forked tail—a main characteristic of lake trout. Splake were discovered in the late 19th century and were eventually bred for many cold water lakes and ponds. They are cable of reproducing, but for reasons unknown there has never been much success at natural spawning. Splake can be found in cold deep lakes, common with lake trout; specifically Canada and the Great Lakes Basin.
Tiger trout is the cross between a female brown trout and male brook trout. Tiger trout were discovered in the mid 1900’s and have since been intentionally bred for sport fishing. Natural tiger trout hybrids are extremely rare as these ferocious fish are unable to reproduce. This is a big draw for many hatchery programs as it allows for fun sport fishing, and because of their infertility, are easy to maintain. Tiger trout grow quick and are useful in helping control populations of rough or invasive fish species.
as their name suggests they have dark green to brown sides and back, with beautiful swirls and striped patterns throughout their sides. Tiger trout can be found through much of the upper Midwest and west; with Utah, Michigan, and Wisconsin giving an angler the best chance at catching one of these unique fish.
Overall we hope this article on North American trout has helped you gain a better understanding of the vast trout species so many of us love to catch!
Leave us a comment and let us know what you think or share one of these trout species you’ve always wanted to catch.