Types of Trout Species: Understanding Trout in North America

With an estimated 45% of the world's freshwater right here in North America, we’re lucky to have some of the best fishing opportunities anywhere. So many freshwater lakes, rivers and streams, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we also have the most diverse trout fishing in the world.

What is surprising is where trout rank in popularity. Depending on what survey you come across, trout always rank within the top five most popular sport fish, but never top those lists.

Trout anglers are a passionate bunch, just as any other angler that targets a specific species is, but when talking trout with the average angler, most tend to bunch them together in one or two groups.

The reality is, between the species, subspecies and hybrids, the trout family tree is too big to go over in a reasonable amount of time. But we’re going to try. Without getting too crazy, let's take a look at different types of trout in North America.

Related:

The Difference Between Native, Introduced, and Invasive Trout

Before we take a closer look at some of the types of trout here in North America, let’s talk briefly about the difference between native, introduced, and invasive trout. 

The reality is, there are trout that are supposed to be here and trout that aren’t. To complicate things further, there are trout, like the rainbow for example, that depending on the region they’re living in, can be considered any one of the above.

Native trout are just that, native to North America. Introduced trout can be trout that have been brought over from overseas, but can also be native trout that are living in areas of the continent where they are not native. Invasive trout can either be locally invasive, meaning they’re native to North America but introduced to a body of water in which they’re not native, and sometimes have a negative effect on that body of water. The term invasive is also used to describe trout that are not native to North America at all, but have been translocated from other parts of the world.

Different Types of Trout in North America

To help simplify things a little, we’ve placed the trout we’re going to talk about in four different categories: native, invasive, char, and hybrid. While each trout on this list has numerous subspecies, we’re going to talk about the major species, and hopefully placing them in these categories will simplify things even further.

Native Trout

Rainbow Trout

Species Name: Oncorhynchus mykiss
Common Names: Rainbow Trout, Steelhead

Let’s start with the most prevalent and well-known trout in North America. The rainbow trout is more than likely the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word “trout,” and it’s arguably the most sought-after of all trout on this list.

Rainbow trout are native to the west coast of North America, but they were introduced to lakes and rivers from coast to coast and are now found almost everywhere in the continent. If a body of water is suitable habitat for a rainbow, then they’re probably there.

Easily identified by the pink to bright red stripe running down their lateral line, rainbow trout also have cheeks the same color and are covered in black spots from head to tail, including their fins.

Steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout that are born in a freshwater river, spend their life in the ocean (or large lakes like the Great Lakes), and return back to that river to spawn.

Spending the majority of their life in larger bodies of water than river-dwelling rainbow trout, their color can be somewhat different, and ocean or lake steelhead have shiny silver sides with an olive back that’s covered in black spots. As a steelhead migrates up river during the spawn, that color will change to be more representative of their surroundings and similar to river-dwelling fish.

Check out our Rainbow Trout and Steelhead Fishing Tips

Cutthroat Trout

cutthroat trout

Species Name: Oncorhynchus clarki
Common Name: Cutthroat Trout

Perhaps one of the most complicated trout in North America, cutthroat trout have up to 15 uniquely different subspecies depending on location, many of which are specific to a single body of water.

Native to western North America with limited introduction to some eastern and southeastern states, cutthroats can be lake- and stream-dwelling, as well as anadromous, although anadromous cutthroat trout are rare.

The coloration of a cutthroat can be wildly different depending on the subspecies and where they are located. They can be brown, golden, green, or olive with lightly spotted sides and heavily spotted fins. Cutthroats can also have a pink or red stripe that runs down their lateral line, sometimes causing them to get mixed up with rainbow trout. But among the biggest identifying traits of the cutthroat are the bright red slashes under their gills - the coloring that gives them their name.

Golden Trout

golden trout

Species Name: Oncorhynchus aguabonita
Common Name: Golden Trout

The golden trout is native to only a few high-altitude, cold-running mountain streams in the Sierra Nevadas as well as the Sierra Madres, but it’s been introduced to other areas in the western United States and Canada. The range of golden trout is very limited as they require cold, clean lakes, rivers or streams to survive.

California’s official state freshwater fish, some scientists consider the golden trout a subspecies of the rainbow trout, while others consider it to be its own separate species.

The golden sides are where the name comes from, but despite that description, they’re not solid gold. Those sides will give way to a green or olive back and also have up to ten par marks (larger spots) that run down the lateral line. That lateral line also has a reddish stripe. Additionally, the fins on the golden trout are spotted with white edges. The complex color scheme of these fish make them some of the most breathtaking in the continent.

Apache Trout

apache trout

Species Name: Oncorhynchus apache
Common Name: Apache Trout

Depending on what you read or who you talk to, apache trout and gila trout are often grouped together but are in fact two separate species of trout.

The apache trout is one of only two trout species native to Arizona and can be found in the cold, clear streams of the White Mountains. The apache trout is considered the rarest trout in the world, and because of the introduction of non-native species of trout and hybridization, they are now listed as an endangered species. Only recently has fishing opened back up in certain areas.

Apache trout have golden yellow sides that are covered in black spots. Their dorsal fin is also larger than most other trout and features a white edge. A very distinct feature of the apache trout are the two black spots in their pupil, looking as if there is a line through the eye, resembling a cat’s eye.

Gila Trout

gila trout

Species Name: Oncorhynchus gilae
Common Name: Gila Trout

As mentioned above, gila trout are often grouped together with their close relative, the apache trout. The two fish have many similarities, from their geographical location to their coloring and, unfortunately, their spot on the endangered species list. Habitat loss and hybridization with non-native rainbow and brown trout have led to the gila trout’s steady decline, and they are second only to the apache trout in rarity.

Native to New Mexico and Arizona, the gila trout share much of the same cold, clear water as the apache trout.

The gila trout has a paler, more iridescent gold color than that of the apache trout, and while they do have spots, those spots run along their back and onto their head, not going below the lateral line. That lateral line can also feature a thin, sometimes faint pink stripe.

Invasive Trout

While native North American trout, most notably the rainbow trout, can be locally invasive, there is only one trout on this list that can be truly considered invasive to North America. Ironically, it’s also one of the most popular kinds of trout in the continent.

Brown Trout

brown trout

Species Name: Salmo trutta
Common Names: Brown Trout, Sea-Run Trout

Having been introduced from Europe, the brown trout can be found throughout Canada and the United States, with exceptions being Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Like the rainbow trout, brown trout can live in large and small lakes, rivers, and streams, and they’re also anadromous. As such, their appearance can change based on the body of water they are living in.

Most brown trout are going to have a golden brown or olive color and will be covered in spots across their entire body, including their head and fins. Many of those spots will have a halo of either white or red around them, and while many associate the red halo with brown trout, they don’t always have them.

Brown trout that spend their adult lives in large, open water like the ocean or the Great Lakes are often referred to as sea-run trout and will be much more silver in color, with their black spots located more along their backs and top of the head. Just like rainbow trout, as these sea-run browns return to rivers to spawn, they will begin to take on colors more comparable to their river-dwelling counterparts.

Char

 

To many people's surprise, char are not trout, even though we consider them to be. They are very similar to trout, and some of the most common species of char are actually known as trout. That’s why we’ve included the char family on this list.

Lake Trout

lake trout

Species Name: Salvelinus namaycush
Common Name: Lake Trout

Lake trout are native to the northernmost parts of Canada, as well as Alaska, but have also been introduced to many lakes in other Canadian provinces, New England, and Yellowstone Park. While in some lakes in Yellowstone, that introduction was intentional, in Yellowstone Lake it was not, and there, lake trout are considered an invasive species.

Lake trout are found in deep, cold, clear lakes and can be easily identified by their gray/green sides that are covered in light spots. They also have a very distinct, large rounded head and deep forked tail. Sometimes confused with splake (see below) the key difference is the much deeper forked tail on a lake trout.

Check out our Lake Trout fishing tips

Bull Trout

bull trout

Species Name: Salvelinus confluentus
Common Name: Bull Trout

Many trout are highly adaptable and can adjust to their surroundings quite easily. Bull trout, on the other hand, require very specific living conditions. Native to northwestern North America, bull trout will not tolerate water over 55 degrees for very long, which means they require cold-running rivers or deep, cold lakes. Because bull trout are migratory spawners, those lakes also need to have large river systems or interconnected waterways that they can travel to spawn. Typically not found any further east than western Montana, there’s a population of bull trout in Alberta, where it’s the provincial fish.

The bull trout is named such because of their unusually large head and mouth when compared to other trout or char. They’re a greenish-brown color and feature light spots that run down their back and sides.

Bull trout can be similar in appearance to brook trout, but they lack the spots on their dorsal fin that brook trout have. They are also very close to Dolly Varden, so much so that they were once considered to be the same fish, all being referred to as Dolly Varden.

Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden trout

Species Name: Salvelinus malma
Common Name: Dolly Varden

Very closely related to bull trout, Dolly Varden share similar looks as well as habitat. Native to the cold coastal rivers of Alaska and the northern west coast of Canada, Dolly Varden have also been introduced to the western United States.

These fish are considered to be semi-anadromous and spend most of their lives in freshwater rivers and lakes, but they also spend time in saltwater.

The coloration of a Dolly Varden is very close to that of a bull trout, with green/gray sides, light-colored spots, and white leading edges on their fins. When spawning season comes, however, the male Dolly Vardens see a drastic change in color, taking on a much darker green/gray color with their spots becoming a vibrant red/orange. That red/orange color also transfers to their fins and belly and is the reason they were named after the famous Dickens character.

Brook Trout

brook trout

Species Name: Salvelinus fontinalis
Common Names: Brook Trout, Speckled Trout, Brookies, Coasters

Native to eastern North America, brook trout have been introduced all over the continent, and the only states that don’t have a population of them are Hawaii, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida. There is also an anadromous population of brook trout off the coast of Maine, and a similar migratory population in Lake Superior. These migratory populations are often referred to as coasters.

Brook trout share many similarities with others in the char family, but their squared-off tail is what sets them apart. Typically, depending on their surroundings, brook trout will be dark green or brown in color, with red or yellow spots on their sides that give them a marbled look. Like other char, brook trout also have a white leading edge on their fins.

Hybrid Trout

Hybrid trout are the result of two different trout species mating. This can occur naturally in waters that have different types of trout co-existing or can be reared by fish hatcheries. Most of these trout are a rare catch but should be closely monitored, as they can pose a threat to native trout species, breeding with them and thinning out the pure bloodlines.

Tiger Trout

tiger trout

Species Name: Salmo trutta × Salvelinus fontinalis
Common Name: Tiger Trout

The tiger trout is the beautiful combination of a brown trout and a brook trout. Tiger trout are sterile and do not naturally reproduce. Instead, they’re reared in hatcheries and stocked in rivers and streams in the Great Lakes region as well as the western United States. While there have been records of naturally-occuring tiger trout, they’re still extremely rare.

Tiger trout could possibly be one of the prettiest of all trout and is the most unique as far as looks are concerned. The swirl of stripes that overlap their gold or orange sides are similar to stripes on a tiger, hence the name.

Splake

splake trout

Species Name: Salvelinus namaycush x Salvelinus fontinalis
Common Name: Splake

The splake is a hybrid of a male brook trout and a female lake trout and was originally reared by hatcheries in an effort to replace a lake trout population that was on the verge of collapse in the Great Lakes. They have since been introduced to several areas across the U.S. and Canada.

While the genetics of a splake are stable, and they could, in theory, reproduce, their spawning behavior is not compatible. Therefore, they have very little naturally occurring reproduction. 

Splake can very closely resemble either a brook trout or a lake trout. With the same colors and markings, they are often easily mixed up. The easiest way to distinguish between the three is the tail fin. The fork in the tail of a splake isn’t as defined as a lake trout but is more defined than the squared off tail of a brook trout.

Cutbow Trout

cutbow trout

Species Name: Oncorhynchus clarkii × mykiss
Common Name: Cutbow trout

The cutbow is a cross between a cutthroat trout and a rainbow trout. Unlike the other two hybrids we’ve talked about, these trout are not the result of hatchery rearing but instead occur naturally in rivers and streams where the two species coexist. 

Rainbow trout and cutthroat trout can look very similar on their own, but combine the two into a cutbow and it’s understandable that anglers can easily misidentify these hybrids. While there are a few subtle differences between the two, the quickest way to tell you’ve got a cutbow is if it has both the vibrant red slashes under the gill plate - a characteristic of the cutthroat - and the white-tipped fins of a rainbow trout.

Final Thoughts

With the amount of great trout water, and the abundance of trout species across North America, it’s understandable that this continent is considered the greatest place on earth to chase these amazing fish.

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or new to the trout game, we hope this list has helped you to understand more about the incredible diversity of this fish.

How many of the trout on this list have you caught? Are there some that may be a bucket list fish? Leave us a comment and let us know.

About The Author
Dan R
Dan was practically born with a fishing rod in his hand. Growing up in the Great Lakes Region fishing has been a major part of his life from a very young age. When not on the water you can find Dan enjoying time with his family.