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Trout Species of North America

How Many Species of Trout are There?

This question is far more difficult to answer than many would think. Differentiating between species and subspecies is a gray area for many scientists as definitions are not quite refined. What we recognize as a trout versus a close relative of a trout such as the char is another obstacle in arriving at a solid number. 

Officially there are 5 species of trout in North America which are members of the genus Salmo and Oncorhynchus. There are 3 or 4 More species of Char from the genus Salvelinus which we refer to as trout. The 5 major trout species are the Brown Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Gila Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Mexican Golden Trout. The char species we refer to as Trout are the Lake Trout, Bull Trout, Brook Trout, and Sunapee or Blueback Trout which is actually a subspecies of Arctic Char. We will discus each of the Salmonid Species of North America below. 

This question becomes even more difficult when expanding to the trout of the world. On the world stage it would be easiest to group the Trout, Char, Salmon, Taimen, and Lenok into their salmonid family. Conservatively there are just over 50 species. This number can easily double in conversations over unique subspecies and hybrids around the globe. You can learn more in our article on Trout, Char, and Salmon of the World.

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Trout, Salmon, and Char of North America

Being familiar with each of the species is critical when exploring new trout streams around the United States and the world. These fish share some habits but also carry uniqueness which makes them each a different puzzle to solve when trying to find them.

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Rainbow Trout

Oncorhynchus mykiss, or the Rainbow Trout are native to the streams and rivers of the west coast of North America. These bodies of water across the Pacific Northwest possess healthy populations of wild rainbow trout as well as a fair diversity of subspecies. The rainbow trout is not limited to this smaller region as it is the most commonly stocked trout, or fish for that matter, throughout the world and can be found on every continent except for Antarctica.

Anadromous rainbow trout are referred to as Steelhead which make their way to the ocean to take advantage of larger food resources and return to their rivers of birth to reproduce much like their salmon cousins. Unlike salmon, these steelhead can survive their spawning events and return to the sea and these streams each year. Of more contention is whether rainbow trout introduced to larger freshwater bodies such as the Great Lakes should be acknowledged as Steelhead. They share similar life patterns as the fish along the west coast but do not carry some of the vigor the sea run Steelhead do. 

Rainbow trout are pioneers of any cold water stream they find their way into. Taking full advantage of all water types from the most turbulent rivers or cascading creeks to slower, stagnant waters, they can outcompete many of their salmonid cousins. Their aggressive behavior allows the to be  easy targets for anglers looking to learn more about how and where to find trout.

Rainbow Trout Subspecies

North American Trout Species

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Steelhead

While not technically a subspecies, Steelhead are found from Central California and Pacific Northwest to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, and have gathered a cult following of devout anglers willing to spend dozens of fishless hours on the water in cold wet conditions each year to have the opportunity to encounter these hard fighting fish.

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Golden Trout

The Callifornia Golden Trout can be found throughout Cental California and is native the Kern River and its tributaries high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The state of California protects this unique subspecies which also happens to be the state fish. Goldens are also stocked in several alpine lakes which you can read about in this article on fly fishing California. They are also stocked in several alpine lakes in Colorado and Wyoming.

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Redband Trout

Redband Trout can be found in Northern California, Oregon, and  Washington State. This unique subspecies gets their name from the vivid lateral band that is much more apparent than what is present on typical rainbow trout. The McCloud River and Metolius River also possess notable subspecies of Redband trout and are also scenic rivers worthy of a visit from any fly angler.

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Cutthroat Trout

Oncorhynchus clarkii, the Cutthroat trout are the poster child of American Fly Fishing. The streams of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains host many subspecies of cutthroat trout. Distinguishing between what is and what isn't a subspecies can even be difficult as it seems scientist want to name a separate subspecies after each of the streams or rivers they inhabit. 

Behavior wise, the cutthroat act similar to their rainbow trout cousins. They have the propensity to be aggressive the warmer months of the year where these trout can be found feeding with abandon. Sea run varieties are found in the coastal streams and rivers of Oregon and Washington where they are quite willing to eat many offerings but don't quite reach the size of their Steelhead cousins.

The most prolific subspecies of cutthroat trout include the Lahontan Cutthroat, Greenback Cutthroat Trout, Paiute Trout, Yellowstone Cutthroat, Westslope Cutthroat, Colorado River Cutthroat, Rio Grande Cutthroat, Bonneville Cutthroat, and Coastal Cutthroat.

Cutthroat Trout Subspecies

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Greenback Cutthroat Trout

Found in the Rocky Mountain Streams of Colorado, the Greenback Cutthroat was a  subspecies that was at one point seriously threatened. Thanks to a handful of conservation projects, it can now be found in several headwater streams and many of the alpine lakes along the continental divide. Above 10,000 to 12,000 feet these trout often can have fiery red underbellies and are in the argument to be one of the most picturesque trout on the planet. The population is now back to health and a worthwhile target for visitors of Colorado.

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Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

The Lahontan Cutthroat are native to the drainages of ancient Lake Lahontan which extend from Eastern California into Northern Nevada. Best known as the giant cutthroat of Pyramid Lake, these are the largest growing subspecies of Cutthroat trout. They can also be found in a handful of alpine lakes around the Lake Tahoe area and Southward into the Sierras. Even in these smaller bodies of water, the Lahontans tend to grow fast.

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Rio Grande Cutthroat

With the southernmost range of all of the Cutthroat subspecies, the Rio Grande Cutthroat can be found throughout the upper tributary streams of the Rio Grande river in northern New Mexico and southern extent of southwest Colorado. Introduced trout species have negatively affected native populations in recent years and pushed Rio Grande populations to the uppermost extents of their home waters. Removal of these non native trout from streams has improved reproduction in recent years.

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Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout

Found in the streams of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout is one of the more prolific subspecies of cutthroat trout. Though this subspecies and it Fine Spotted Cutthroat cousin have lost over 50 percent of its habitat to hydroelectric dams, and poor land management practices, it is still likely the most targeted and iconic species of cutthroat trout in the United States. 

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Westslope Cutthroat Trout

Within the United States and the Southern Rockies of Canada, fly anglers can find the Westlope Cutthroat Trout. Along with the Yellowstone Cutthroat, the Westslope are common throughout their ranges.Notorius dry fly eaters and well known for the beautiful streams they call home, they are a bountiful target for beginning anglers in the warmer months during abundant insects hatches they trigger crazed feeding frenzies. 

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Paiute Cutthroat Trout

The Paiute Cutthroat has the smallest range of all of the major cutthroat subspecies which is limited to the uppermost tributaries of the Carson River. Silver King Creek holds the largest populations of the Paiutes and is where this subspecies  were originally thought to be isolated from the Lahontan Cutthroats as the ancient lake receded. Due to the smaller water creeks they inhabit, they do not reach the large sizes that the Lahontan's see and stay quite small. 

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Colorado Cutthroat Trout

Colorado River Cutthroats are native to streams and rivers such as the Gunnison River, Dolores River, and of course, the Colorado River of Western Colorado and southern Wyoming. This subspecies has also been frequently stocked in several rivers on the east coast including North Carolina and Tennessee as well as on the White River in Arkansas. 

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Bonneville Cutthroat Trout

Likethe Lahontan Cutthroat, the Bonneville Cutthroat's native range originated from an ancient lake known as Lake Bonneville. Now limited to the former tributary streams of what is left from the inland sea, which is now the Great Salt Lake. Their populations occur mostly within Utah and several border streams in Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada.

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Coastal Cutthroat Trout

From Oregon to southern Alaska fly anglers can find the Coastal Cutthroat Trout. Occupying the lower sections of small rivers, streams, and estuaries that make their way into the Pacific Ocean. These trout make annual migrations into the coastal bays and estuaries each year to feed and return to the rivers in the fall months, following the salmon runs, where they remain until their late winter early spring spawn.

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Gila Trout

Oncorhynchus gilae, the Gila Trout, and their close relatives the Apache Trout are found in a small region of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico. These once endangered and threatened trout were once tremendously affected by habitat loss. The populations are once again on the rise thanks to the efforts from the Arizona and New Mexico natural resource agencies.

 

Because populations are limited to a handful of creeks and streams throughout the area, hybridizing with introduced rainbow trout has been a major problem in the past. This is beginning to be remedied with the  extirpation of these rainbows above critical habitat barriers. This will ensure better genetic viability in the future.  The Apache trout still faces some of these issues throughout the streams of the White Mountains in Arizona. In this area it is much more difficult to find genetically pure trout compared to those in New Mexico. Learn more about the Gila Trout in this article on Fly Fishing the Gila Wilderness

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Brown Trout

One of the most popular gamefish in the world, Brown Trout, Salmo trutta, are known for their prowess as selective feeders and ravenous piscivores once they reach a certain size.  These trout present a worthy challenge for even the best fly anglers. Though brown trout are native to rivers and streams throughout Eurasia, populations from Germany and Ireland were brought North America in the 1800s and to much of the rest of the world in the 1900s. Nearly every state that possesses populations of trout today will stock brown trout.

 

While no subspecies are found within North America, many brown trout relatives can be found throughout Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. The Salmo Genus is unquestionably the most diverse of all of the Salmonids. Learn more about these species and subspecies in our Trout Species of Ireland, Trout Species of Turkey, and Trout Species of the World pages. 

 

For trophy hunters looking for the largest brown trout in America, the White River in Arkansas, the lake run brown trout of the Great Lakes, and larger tailwaters of Montana produce many browns of trophy sizes with ease. Here brown trout can quickly make the switch to a piscivorous diet and grow to large sizes thanks to abundant food resources. .

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Atlantic Salmon

Salmo salar, the Atlantic Salmon are much more closely related to the Brown Trout than their Pacific Salmon cousins. Native to the tributary rivers and streams of the North Atlantic, historic populations within the USA have dwindled. Today landlocked varieties can be found throughout the lakes and streams on inland Maine. These Atlantic Salmon do not grow as large as the anadromous varieties found further north in Iceland, Scandanavia, and Canada on more popular streams such as the Miramichi River. Attempts to reestablish sea run Atlantics have been made in Maine with limited success but introduced populations  to several Michigan streams and are showing positive results in recent years.

North American Salmon Species

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Mexican Golden Trout

Research on the Mexican Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus chrysogaster) of the Sierra Occidental Mountains in central/western Mexico has been quite limited. While these native trout can be found in a handful of Pacific drainages of western Mexico, they are limited to the high elevation headwaters found high in the interior of the Occidentals. Habitat loss, poor land/water management, and use as a food source for the indigenous locals have threatened this virtually unprotected species. Trout of each of the separate drainages have been characterized as unique. Though likely subspecies, more research is needed on each of these variants. Hybridization of introduced rainbow trout is a new problem needing to be addressed in the near future. 

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Chinook (King) Salmon

King Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are the true giants of the Pacific Salmon species. Historically documented to exceed 100 pounds they are force to be reckoned with on the water.  Their renown as a sportfish has led them to be stocked in the Great Lakes, South America, and New Zealand. Their native range runs similar to their Coho salmon cousins, but their migratory runs into freshwater occur much earlier in the season than the other salmon species. In coastal rivers of the the Pacific Northwest, both Spring and Fall runs can occur.

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Coho (Silver) Salmon

The most pursued salmon species is the  Silver or Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). Well known for their powerful fights and aerial acrobatics on the river as well as their affinity for flies and lures, they attract fly anglers from all over the world to their home streams.  Like the Chum Salmon, Coho runs begin later in the summer and into fall across their range. Populations of native Coho exist from northern California to Alaska while introduced populations can be found in several of the Great Lakes tributaries.

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Pink Salmon

Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) , the smallest of the Pacific Salmon, are found throughout the Pacific Northwest of North America. Often referred to as Humpy's , they are known for their prolific runs every 2 years. Along the southern extent of their range (Oregon, Washington, and southern Canada) pinks make strong runs in even numbered years while odd numbered years see more prolific numbers of fish in Alaska and northern Canada. Off year runs still occur in these regions.  Those foreign to these rivers, many would thing the numbers are still impressive on off years. Pink salmon feed very little once entering fresh water but can be agitated into nipping at smaller and bright streamers.

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Chum Salmon

Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) get the least amount of attention from local anglers as they are much less palatable than their cousins. A silver lining however, is they are one of the more aggressive salmon species once they hit the freshwater rivers when it comes to chasing flies and lures. The unique Calico pattern and gnarly look they display after reaching freshwater is unforgettable. The Chum have the largest range of all the Pacific Salmons which extends around the Pacific Ocean from Oregon to Northern Japan and China. Chum salmon runs coincide with Silver salmon runs much later in the season than many of the other species. 

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Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye or Red Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) are easily distinguish from their Pacific Salmon relatives once they hit fresh water with their fire engine red appearance and deep profiles. Landlocked varieties are known as Kokanee (picture to right) which use similar life history strategies though they grow to smaller sizes in many inland lakes of Oregon, Colorado, and Montana.  Much like the other salmon, many believe Sockeye will stop eating once reaching freshwater, but aggressive males will chase down flesh flies quite commonly after spending weeks in freshwater. 

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Brook Trout

Native to the east coast of North America the Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), can be found from the Southern Appalachians in North Georgia to Labrador and west to the Great Lakes. Brook trout will live in small lakes and large rivers throughout the northern extent of their range, while at the southern end of their range they often use the small pristine headwater streams. Brook trout have no notable subspecies, though many separate the brook trout into northern and southern strains that do possess a slight amount of variation. Their gorgeous colors during the spawn puts them amongst the most photogenic sportfish in the world alongside a handful of their char cousins. 

Brook trout are stocked in many of the high elevation lakes and streams of the western United States as well as in the European Alps, Patagonia, and New Zealand. These fish are also incredibly aggressive and willing to take many different flies. 

North American Char Species

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Bull Trout

Having a unique history with American anglers over the last two centuries, the Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus)  has faced severe habitat loss from the building of dams as well as poor land management uses which have restricted their ranges, forcing them into the high elevation areas of their native drainages. The decrease in salmon runs which have historically provided individual fish with the ample amount of protein to grow to tremendous sizes have also caused problems for the native Bull Trout.

 

These char have been seen as nuisance by locals as the preyed upon juvenile salmon and cutthroat trout in the streams they inhabit as well as the fact that they tend  not to be as palatable as the other salmonids in their native rivers. Over the past 20 years, many states adopted better management strategies once bull trout became listed as threatened and endangered. Today many fly anglers can enjoy hunting targeting larger bull trout on streamers where fisheries restrictions allow targeting of the bull trout.

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Lake Trout

Spanning much Northernmost waters of the western hemisphere, the Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are native to the lakes of Canada, the Great Lakes, and the very northern reaches of Maine and Minnesota. Other aliases such as the Togue, Greasers, Lakers, and Mackinaw are used in different areas of the country. Stocking projects in non native waters have occurred in the higher elevation reserviors of the Norther Rockies and Sierras.

 

Living in the deep, dark depths of lakes for the vast majority of the year, Lake trout will migrate shallow in the late fall and early winter months prior to their spawn. They will use rocky points and bluffs until their spawning periods finishes and ice begins to build on the lake. In the Spring months, as the  ice melts and lakes begin to turn over, Lake Trout will again move into the shallows and feed on whatever happens across their paths. This bite can be short lived as it doesn't take long for Lake Trout to seek deeper water once lakes begin to stratify as the waters warm. With the ability to grow to monstrous sizes in larger reserviors, Lake trout can be found feeding off a heavy diet of smaller fish and stocked trout. Juvenile lake trout will feed off invertebrates much like other predatory salmonids until they are able to transition to larger meals. 

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Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) are found in the coastal rivers of the north Pacific. The lower limits of their range begin in northern rivers of Washington state and the island of Hokkaido in Japan. They can be found as for north as the streams along the Aleutian Islands bordering the Arctic Ocean. Many of these char's lives revolve around the salmon runs with exception to the native Dollies of Japan. Anadromous Char will move out into the coastal estuaries to feed for several months in late winter and spring before returning to freshwater streams to follow the salmon runs inland to feed on roe (salmon eggs), and deteriorating salmon flesh in the rivers. Other individuals will remain in freshwater lakes and headwater streams year round while populations of smolt and other small fish are abundant. Their dynamic life history strategies have made them an incredibly successful species in their native ranges. Many fly anglers include Dolly Varden as a bucket list species due to their extravagant colors during the fall months.. 

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Arctic Char

Arctic Char are limited to the northernmost reaches of Canada and Alaska in Arctic Ocean Drainages. This is where they spend much of the winter and spring before returning to their rivers of origin to spawn. Much like the Dolly Varden, they are know for their brilliant patterns and coloration prior to the spawn. Wild and native  populations are typically anadromous while several stocked populations can be found in the large, deep reserviors in Colorado where they occupy a similar niche to their Lake Trout relatives.

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Sunapee (Blueback) Trout

The Blueback or Sunapee Trout can be found only in a handful (less than two dozen) of lakes and ponds between northern Maine and southeast Canada. They are one of the most unique ice age relics in the world. As subspecies of Arctic Char, they have lived in the depths of  glacial lakes and ponds since the last ice age maximum. Threatened by introduced species over the past few decades, populations have begun to rebound with proactive management strategies yielding positive results. You can learn more about these char in this article on Maine Fly Fishing.

Arctic Char Subspecies

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Tiger Trout

Tiger Trout are hybrids of Brook and Brown Trout. Wild tigers can be found by lucky anglers in the small streams of Appalachia but are much more common in the western United States. Colorado and Utah have well known tiger trout populations that can be found in the high elevation lakes and streams. They are known to be incredibly aggressive and grow quickly.

Hybrid Trout Species

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Splake

Splake are hybrids of Lake and Brook Trout. They can be found in lakes of Maine, Michigan, and the western United States. From a management perspective, they are used to control small fish populations but are not able reproduce so their population is kept in control. They also offer great sportfishing opportunities as the grow much quicker than normal brook trout.

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Cutbow

The Cutbow is a hybrid of the Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout. Unlike the splake and tiger trout, the cutbow is not typically intentional but occurs in streams and rivers where rainbow trout have been stocked alongside their cutthroat trout relatives. These are often seen as a nuisance in native cutthroat streams as they inhibit the genetic viability of the native trout. However, cutbows have been intentionally stocked in some rivers, such as the White River in Arkansas.

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