Trout fishing is one of the most popular types of fishing in the U.S. but with so many species it's hard to know the difference. Some trout are char and some trout are hybrids and the difference between them isn’t always clear. We have created a quick breakdown of all the trout species below so that you can be more effective when targeting these beautiful fish.
Rainbow trout are one of the most well known trout species in the United States. The Rainbow trout is native to the western United States but has been introduced to almost every other state. The rainbow trout also goes by the name steelhead when they have access to marine resources. The rainbow trout that only live in freshwater rivers do not grow as large as their marine counterparts but generally have more vivid colors.
Cutthroat trout are smaller trout that prefer the cool, clear, clean, and well-oxygenated streams. Their crude name comes from the distinct red marking on their gills and behind their jaw. Their bodies are covered in vivid colors with red or orange bellies, copper sides, and an olive back. They are covered with dark spots and of course the identifiable red on the gills.
When a cutthroat and rainbow trout breed the hybrid offspring are called cutbow trout. These fish can vary in appearance and are hard to distinguish from the parent species.
Brook trout are colorful fish with a green to brown body covered in yellow spots. Their more distinct markings are a marbled pattern on their back and red dots with blue halos. Despite their name, brook trout are actually a species of char, not trout. The brook trout is native to the eastern U.S. but has been introduced to rivers and streams across the country.
Brown trout sometimes called “speckled trout” are a European species of trout introduced to the United States to increase angling opportunities. These fish grow fairly large and inhabit rivers and lakes. The problem with brown trout is that they can outcompete native trout species for food and spawning grounds
When a brook and brown trout breed the resulting hybrid is called a tiger trout. Unlike cutbow trout, tiger trout are sterile and cannot reproduce. These fish are known for their vivid colors and distinct markings.
Usually living in deep lakes in cold climates, lake trout are one of the largest trout species. These fish can grow over four feet in length and over 40 pounds but 20 inches and 7 pounds is more typical. Lake trout are commonly caught while trolling deep water with diving lures or jigging. They are easily identifiable by their silvery or light gold sides fading to black on their back.
When a Speckled (brook) trout breeds with a lake trout the hybrid offspring are called splake trout. Splake can be hard to distinguish from the brook trout because their coloration is so similar but their slightly forked tail is the best way to differentiate between the two. Splake are not commonly found in nature because the brook trout and lake trout do not share spawning grounds. Usually, splake are stocked by fish and game agencies to benefit anglers.
Gila and Apache trout are related trout species that slightly vary in appearance. Apache trout are yellow with large dark spots while Gila trout are gold to copper colored with small dark spots. The spots for both of these fish generally only fall on the top half of their bodies. These fish are native to the southwestern U.S. and are endangered with fishing opportunities only recently opening back up.
The golden trout is the official freshwater fish of the state of California but also happens to be one of the smaller trout species. The appearance of the golden trout looks like a mix of a cutthroat trout and a rainbow trout but with more vivid colors and markings. These fish have yellow bellies with greenbacks but are accented by a red horizontal stripe, dark spots on the tail half of the body, and several dark vertical bars.
Known for their big head and mouth, bull trout are large and easily identifiable with an orange-pink belly transitioning to an olive back. Although they are called bull trout they are actually a species of char and are known for being highly migratory. The bull trout will enter rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and even the ocean while some may just stay in the same stream their whole life. These fish have a yellow belly with silvery to green sides that get darker toward their back. The bull trout has orange spots on its back and white edges on its pectoral fins. This fish was thought to be the same as a Dolly Varden trout until the 1980s’ when they were reclassified.
The Dolly Varden Trout is a fish with vivid colors most notably the red stripe down its sides. Similar to the bull trout, Dolly Varden are a species of char. The Dolly Varden trout is native to Alaska and while it has been introduced to other areas populations have not been able to get established.
The speckled or spotted sea trout is a saltwater fish native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Specks have white to silvery bodies covered with black dots. These sea trout are aggressive predators that can grow well over 25 inches long and 20+ pounds. One of the more unique characteristics of this fish is that as they get older they lose spots but the inside of their mouth becomes more gold in color. The speckled sea trout commonly inhabits the inshore flats, bays, and inlets all along the coasts of its natural range.
Updated on December 6, 2022
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