Reading Time: 9 minutes
North America is a Trout fishing paradise. From remote mountain streams to great rushing rivers, the waterways of the US and Canada are perfect for many different types of Trout. So many, in fact, that it can get pretty confusing. The various Trout of North America all look similar and often live in the same place, so how do you know what you’re catching?
This guide will give you some easy tips on knowing your Trout. Learn what lives where and how to tell it apart from everything else. Find out a little about how the different Trout families fit together. You may be surprised to find that your favorite fish aren’t Trout at all!
The Natives: Pacific Trout
These guys are the undisputed kings of North American Trout fishing. They’re great to eat, even better to catch, and they have some real star appeal to boot. There are only two species of Pacific Trout in North America but each fish varies hugely depending on where you catch it.
Rainbow Trout are probably North America’s best-known species. They get their name from the signature pink stripe that runs along their side, but that’s not the only way to recognize them. Black spots on their body and dorsal fin and a wide, square tail are also giveaways.
Rainbow Trout are native to the Pacific coast, from Alaska all the way down to Mexico. They have been introduced far beyond this native range, though. You can find Rainbow Trout throughout much of southern Canada, in all the Great Lakes, and as far south as Georgia and Alabama. They have also been stocked all around the world.
There are a few different types of Rainbow Trout. Steelhead are the ones that first spring to mind for most people. These guys may look very different, but they’re actually just the anadromous (sea-run) form of Rainbow Trout. The other main subspecies are Golden Trout and Redband Trout, which only show up in specific rivers in Midwest and Pacific states of the US, although they’re stocked outside of that range.
Cutthroat Trout may not make the same headlines as their bigger, rainbowed cousins, but they do get a much cooler name. You only have to look at them to know why. The dramatic red behind their lower jaw makes Cutthroat Trout look like they’re constantly bleeding. If you want to be doubly sure, they should have small black spots mainly on the top half of their body.
Most Cutthroat Trout live in the western half of the US, from the Pacific Coast over to the Rocky Mountains. They also live in southwestern Canada, and ocean-going Cutthroat Trout can show up as far north as Alaska. Beyond their natural range, Cutthroats have been introduced in some parts of Quebec and the northeastern US.
Cutthroat Trout are the most varied of all North American Trout species, with a staggering 11 different subspecies alive today. Each subspecies looks a little different and lives in a specific river or drainage. In fact, many national parks have their own species of Cutthroat.
Gila and Apache Trout
Anglers could go their entire lives without seeing either of these fish. Unless you’re from Arizona or New Mexico, you may never have heard of them. Gila Trout only live in tributaries of the Gila River, mainly in the Gila National Forest and Aldo National Wilderness Area. Apache Trout are even rarer, limited to the upper Little Colorado and Salt Rivers and a few lakes where they were introduced more recently.
Even within their native range, Gilas and Apache are rare. Overfishing, loss of habitat, and introduction of Rainbow Trout into their waters devastated their numbers in the first half of the 20th century. Both species were among the first in the US to officially become endangered, and the IUCN still categorizes Apache Trout as Critically Endangered – one step from going extinct.
Gila and Apache Trout are both rare beauties. Averaging just under a foot long, they have golden yellow bodies and dark spots along their sides. The easiest way to tell them apart is that Apache Trout have spots either side of their pupil, giving them a rotated cat-eye look. Gilas also tend to have smaller spots than Apaches.
The Invaders: European Trout
It’s no secret that many top game fish come from abroad. Peacock Bass are Brazilian and Chinook Salmon aren’t supposed to be in the Great Lakes. People have taken Trout all over the world, including one species which is going from strength to strength in North America.
Despite their name, Brown Trout aren’t always brown. They can be golden or silver, depending on where they live. Whatever the color, they’re easy to recognize. Brown Trout have red-orange spots with silver rings around them. They also have more of a salmonish look to them than most species. There’s a good reason for that: They’re actually more closely related to Atlantic Salmon than other Trout.
Brown Trout were brought to North America from Germany. They took to their new home very well and these days you can catch them from Ontario to Georgia and throughout the Great Lakes. They also live all over the western half of America, from California to Colorado, and up into Alberta and British Columbia.
Brown Trout have a few subspecies back in Europe which sometimes cause confusion. Anadromous Brown Trout are called “Sea Trout,” while river and lake-dwelling fish are often called “River Trout” or “Lake Trout.” These have nothing to do with the Lake Trout of North America, though.
The Downright Confusing: Char
This is where things start to get complicated. There are several species of “Trout” in North America which aren’t actually Trout at all – they’re Char, a northern cousin of Trout and Salmon. Char all look very similar to each other. So much so, that people thought they were all one species for centuries.
Lake Trout are the big brother of the Char family. This large cold-water fish can grow to over 80 pounds. Their size is actually the easiest way to recognize them, but they also have creamy spots and a much more deeply-forked tail than other species.
Lake Trout are native to most of Alaska and Canada, as well as the Great Lakes and the Northeastern US. They have spread beyond this range over the years, and now show up all along the Rocky Mountains and sporadically in lakes around the US.
Lake Trout aren’t as varied as Pacific Trout species, but they make up for it with their wide collection of nicknames. Depending on where you catch them, they may be called Mackinaw, Namaycush, Grey Trout, Touladi, or Togue.
Our next “Trout but not Trout” is Brook Trout. These guys are much smaller than other Char species. They average around 1-2 pounds and rarely hit double digits. Other than size, the easiest way to spot them is by their worm-like markings along their back and head, and the white edges on their lower fins.
Brook Trout are native to the east of North America. They live in all the Great Lakes, south along the Appalachian Mountains, and north to the Arctic Sea. Today, you can find Brook Trout anywhere that’s cold enough – mountain streams throughout the Rockies and across the southern provinces of Canada.
Brook Trout have also been introduced all around the world. They have traveled as far as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Europe – think of them as the exchange buddy for all the Brown Trout coming over to America.
Dolly Varden Trout
Dolly Varden are one of the most northerly of all North American Trout species. Again, they’re technically a Char, not a Trout. In fact, it is only recently that people recognized that they were different to Arctic Char. They’re a species of Char that went unnoticed for a long time and then got called “Trout.” Awesome.
Dolly Varden Trout live all along the northwest, from the Arctic reaches of Alaska down to the northern half of Washington. Outside of North America, they have made their way across the sea and also populate rivers in Siberia and Japan. Dolly Varden are all naturally anadromous, and the few landlocked populations are the exception rather than the rule.
As you can imagine, Dolly Varden look pretty similar to other fish in their range. The best thing to go on is size – Dollies rarely top 10 pounds. They don’t have the worm-like marks of Brook Trout, either, and their tails are less forked than Lake Trout. Other than that, there’s not much to go on at a glance. You sometimes have to run the DNA to tell what fish you’re holding.
Bull Trout are one of the rarest Salmonids in North America. They only live in large, cold rivers and drainages in the Pacific Northwest. You’re unlikely to see a Bull Trout unless you really go looking for them. If you’re set on finding one, the best places to go are Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alberta.
Bull Trout look almost identical to Dolly Varden and Arctic Char. In fact, they used to be known as “Dolly Varden” until the late ‘70s. The easiest way to know you have a Bull Trout is by their limited distribution and larger size – if it’s 12 pounds or over and doesn’t have a super-forked tail, it’s probably a Bull Trout. If it’s smaller, anything goes.
The Crossovers: Hybrid Trout
As well as the natural Trout species, there are a couple of hybrids which you might find on the end of your line. The chances of hooking one in the wild are low but it’s always best to know about them, just in case.
Tiger Trout come from crossing a male Brook Trout with a female Brown Trout. They don’t look much like either parent – or any other fish for that matter. They have a dramatic worm-like pattern across most of their body. They’re also thicker-built than most Trout species and like to throw their weight around, making them a favorite for many sporting anglers.
Tiger Trout rarely occur in the wild. You can find them in Wisconsin and Michigan but your best bet of catching one would be in a stocked lake. Wherever you come across them, they’re not a fish you’re likely to forget!
Splake are a cross-breed of a male Brook Trout and female Lake Trout. They start eating other fish much earlier than natural Trout species and grow much more quickly as a result. Because of this, they have earned the sinister nickname “Wendigo Trout” after the ravenous beast of Algonquian folklore. They look similar to Brook Trout but with a Lake Trout’s forked tail.
Splake can theoretically reproduce in the wild. This has only happened a few times, though, and the vast majority of Splake are deliberately bred and stocked. The largest breeding program is in Ontario, where the government stocks them in the Georgian Bay and several small lakes as fast-growing sport fish.
To Sum Up: The Many Trout of North America
We haven’t gone into the nitty-gritty of identifying every species because it can vary a lot based on when and where you catch them. Even then, some species are so similar that they didn’t even count as being different until a few decades ago. Here’s a recap of what we’ve covered here.
All in all, there are 11 species of Trout in North America:
- Two Pacific Trouts: Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout.
- One European Trout: Brown Trout.
- Four Chars: Brook, Bull, Dolly Varden, and Lake Trout.
- Two known hybrids: Splake and Tiger Trout.
Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout are the most varied Trout species. They’re also the easiest to recognize thanks to their colorful throats and stripes.
Brown Trout isn’t closely related to any other Trout. It looks similar in shape to Atlantic Salmon and has red spots with silver rings. It isn’t always brown.
Brook, Bull, Dolly Varden, and Lake Trout live farther north and all look very similar. Lake Trout are the biggest. Brook Trout are generally the smallest and have unusual markings.
Splake and Tiger Trout only really exist in deliberately stocked populations, although they can show up in the wild. They’re more aggressive than most Trout species.
Has this helped you understand the various types of Trout in North America? What’s your go-to way to tell them apart? Let us know in the comments below. Otherwise, find a local guide and start catching them!