North America, and the United States, in particular, is home to a wide array of native trout species. From the ubiquitous rainbow to the elusive Apache, these fish inhabit equally diverse ecosystems from the east coast to the west. While some are common in nearly every freshwater stream, others have suffered at the hands of climate change and human activity. As anglers, we have a duty to understand, respect, and protect these species for future generations to admire and pursue. Thanks to groups like Trout Unlimited, we have seen innumerable conservation successes, all of which keep us happy, and the fish happier. Cheers to that. Below you will find 9 different native trout species in the United States.
1. Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Voracious eaters and hard fighters, rainbow trout have earned their place as one of North America’s most prolific gamefish. Numerous subspecies exist within the rainbow trout family, including the redband and coastal species. While the species can be found throughout the United States and beyond, rainbow trout are originally native to the North Pacific. Their abundance in cold water streams is due in part to the high volume of fish raised in hatchery environments, from where they are released into watersheds nationwide. Rainbow trout thrive in cold, clear freshwater and feed actively on a variety of crustaceans, insects, and larvae. While the majority of subspecies are freshwater fish, the steelhead is a coastal rainbow trout that migrates from the sea into rivers for their annual spawn.
Rainbow trout can most easily be identified by their red or pink lateral stripe, whiter underbelly, and black or green spots on their back, fins, and tail. Like other trout species, these distinguishing elements can vary significantly based on the fish’s diet, climate, and season.
2. Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii)
Beloved by dry fly enthusiasts, cutthroat trout epitomize the western fly fishing experience. From the Snake River and Westslope to the Lahontan and Rio Grande, cutthroats have a variety of subspecies each possessing their own unique characteristics. The species, despite its variations, is native to the Pacific Ocean tributaries and the Rocky Mountain region of North America and can be found in numerous aquatic ecosystems. With more than 14 subspecies, cutthroat habitats range from high-mountain streams and western rivers to saltwater tributaries and alpine lakes throughout the American west.
Cutthroats can be easily identified by their unique head shape and the vibrant slash of red on the lower jaw (hence the name, cutthroat). The head of a cutthroat is slightly more blunted than other trout species, and the jaw extends past the eyes – making these fish relatively easy to identify.
3. Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus aguabonita)
The highly sought after golden trout is the smallest of the trout species, and its limited geographical range also makes them one of the rarest. While originally native to California, the species has since been reintroduced to Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming, where they inhabit only the most pristine high-altitude water systems. Golden trout are considered an at-risk species, and have suffered greatly after decades of mismanagement, environmental exploitation, and competition from other species.
Like the other trout species, goldens feed on an assortment of larvae, crustaceans, and surface insects. However, as the smallest member of the trout family, golden trout rarely surpass 12 inches. As the name implies, these fish truly are golden in their coloration, and can be identified by their vibrant hues. Additionally, a red lateral line highlighted by distinct “parr marks” (usually 10 vertical ovals along the sides) helps to make this trout one of the most visually stunning species on the list.
4. Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)
A member of the char genus, lake trout (or “lakers”, as they’re commonly known), reside in deep water throughout the northern part of the United States. Lake trout are a common and popular sport fish, and are the largest fish in the char family. As the largest char, many fish reach a length of 30 inches and true monsters can pass the 40 inch mark. While most lakers live an average of 20 years, the occasional 50 year old fish has been found. Due to their longer lifespan, these fish mature at a much older age. Because it takes longer for these fish to mature and spawn, lake trout populations suffer a much greater risk of being overfished.
Like other species on this list, the lake trout has a few subspecies within it. However, despite slight variations in appearance, all can be identified by the pronounced forked tail. Similar to other char, lake trout have a dark body and spotting, ranging from dull to vibrant depending on the stage in the life cycle and time of year.
5. Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Brook trout are known for their insatiable appetites, making this species a favorite among fly casters. Native to the Northeastern region of the United States, “brookies” (as they’re commonly known), have been introduced to the western states as well. A member of the char genus of the salmonidae family, brook trout inhabit a variety of highly oxygenated waters but prefer spring fed habitats lush with vegetation and gravel bottoms. In the Northeast, habitat loss and competition with brown and rainbow trout has forced these fish to higher elevation environments. Out west, the fish has been attributed to the shrinking cutthroat trout populations and is occasionally targeted for kill offs to rebalance native fish populations.
Argued by many to be the prettiest trout of them all, brook trout are unique in their appearance thanks to a unique characteristic called vermiculation. This worm-like pattern adorns the back of many brookies, and is paired with red or yellow spots encircled in a blue ring found along the sides. Lastly, the pelvic fins have a distinct white line that help to round out the stunning aesthetic of this amazing fish.
6. Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma)
A close relative to both the bull trout and arctic char, Dolly Varden are originally native to the Pacific coast of the United States. These fish can be found in the coastal waterways of the North Pacific and are primarily fluvial and lacustrine (meaning they mostly live in rivers and lakes). This lifecycle differs from the Dolly Varden species found further north into Alaska, which migrates from the sea to freshwater rivers to spawn. While both species are native to North America, habitats and life cycles differ dramatically.
While once considered an undesirable catch, Dolly Vardens now account for a sizable percentage of the fishing yield when Salmon are unavailable. Often mistaken for bull trout, the Dolly Varden’s gray or olive green coloration is often devoid of any distinct markings other than faint yellowish spots running the length of the body.
7. Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus)
Another member of the char genus, bull trout are a rare and threatened species that exists in only the most pristine water systems of the Western United States. Currently found in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana, these trout are often used as an indicator species for determining the health of water systems. As many bull trout are migratory and thus dependent on unobstructed waterways, the species has suffered from the results of logging, mining, and development. As such, the fish is listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In its juvenile stage, bull trout feed primarily on chironomids before shifting their attention to bait fish. Their diet, spawning habits, and environmental demands allow these fish to reach sizes upwards of 41 inches long. However, while many bull trout are indeed anadromous, resident bulls are often significantly smaller. These fish, like brook trout, commonly have tailing white lines on their fins, but lack spots on their dorsal fins. Instead, bull trout often have yellow and orange spots that adorn their backs.
8. Gila Trout (Oncorhynchus gilae)
One of the rarest trout species, the Gila is native to the Gila River tributaries in Arizona and New Mexico. While their geographic range was once wider, the species has been severely impacted by a loss of habitat. Wildfires, water diversion, development, livestock overgrazing and various other ecologically harmful activities have greatly compromised the species, but thanks to USFWS efforts the fish are coming back. Conservation efforts have allowed the Gila to be down-listed from endangered to threatened, with a provision allowing for limited sportfishing access.
Closely related to the Apache trout, the Gila is characterized by a yellow body with black spots. As the fish primarily reside in small mountain streams, rarely do they exceed 21 inches in length. Gila trout are similar to other species in both their diet and spawning practices, feeding on subsurface insects and most often spawning in spring.
9. Apache Trout (Oncorhynchus apache)
The state fish of Arizona, the Apache trout is native to the upper Salt River and upper Little Colorado river watersheds of the Grand Canyon state. While it has since been reintroduced to remote Arizona streams, the species remains highly vulnerable to extinction. Federally classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, regional conservation groups claim the species is faring much worse. Cross breeding with cutthroat and rainbow trout has significantly weakened the gene pool, while ecological destruction continues to compromise the Apache’s limited habitat. Thankfully, conservation efforts have allowed for the fish to exist in large enough populations, so limited fishing access is permitted.
Like the Gila, Apache trout have a yellowish gold coloration but are highlighted with a concentration of dark spots spanning the length of their body. The distinguishing feature are the two black spots that appear on either side of the pupil, giving the fish the appearance of wearing a black mask around its eyes.
Article by Jake Lebsack, an angler based in Denver, Colorado.