Fish identification can be tricky and confusing especially in regards to trout. Breaking down the species into classes, families, subfamilies and genus can be overwhelming. But, we are here to help simplify things for you. This article will cover the different types of trout and each species habitat.
The best place to begin is with the top classification of the species Salmonidae. The subfamilies of Salmonidae are the Coregoninae (whitefish), Thymallinae (Grayling) and Salmoninae (Salmon, Trout and Char). Since we are focusing on Trout, let’s break down the Salmoninae family. There are three genera of the Salmoninae family and they are the Oncorhynchus, Salmo and Salvelinus. All Salmonidae species have an adipose fin, round scales and a lateral line.
The U.S. Oncorhynchus group includes the Rainbow, Steelhead, Cutthroat, Golden, Apache, Gila Trout and various types of Salmon. The Salmo group are mostly found in Europe. However, during the late 1800’s the Brown Trout was introduced into North America. Salvelinus, which are actually Char (more on that later), include the Lake, Brook, Dolly Varden and Bull Trout. Unfortunately, the Salvelinus group also included the Silver Trout which is now extinct.
Oncorhynchus Types Of Trout
The abundance of Rainbow Trout makes them one of the top 5 game fish in the United States. They can be found in most cold freshwater streams and lakes across America. This species of trout is native to the North Pacific Ocean but have also been introduced throughout North America. They are a popular stocking fish because they thrive in hatcheries and are easily stocked. They require a healthy gravel bottom in cold clear water with preferred temperatures between 54°F and 66°F. Rainbows tend to select open runs and will feed at the water’s surface. They are carnivores, eating just about anything they can wrap their jaws around. Although their main diet consist of insects, crustaceans and larvae.
Most Rainbow Trout have a red or pink stripe running down both sides with a silvery or white underside. As their name implies, they have multiple iridescent colors which will vary based on gender, habitat and age. Both the back and sides have dark green or black spots. Their pelvic fins typically have a white tip. Average size for Rainbow Trout ranges from 7 to 12 inches.
A subspecies of the Rainbow Trout is the Redband. They are able to tolerate higher temperatures and lower oxygen compared to the Rainbow. Redbands live in Montana, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California and Nevada. Partially due to poor water quality and habitat loss The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has deemed the Redband trout as a species of concern. Redband Trout have darker larger rounded spots and parr marks compared to the Rainbow Trout. They are often confused with Cutthroats because they have orange marks on their lower jaws resembling the red marks on the Cutthroat. Depending on the region, these types of trout will either have a rose or dark red colored stripe on their lateral line. Redbands will usually have white tips on their anal, dorsal, and pectoral fins.
The Steelhead Trout is the same species as Rainbow Trout but will behave more like Salmon and Sturgeons. They are anadromous. Meaning, they are born in freshwater but spend the majority of their lives in salt water. Several times during their lifespan they will return to freshwater to spawn. They are native to Alaska and California but also live in Oregon and Washington. When they are young, they will feed primarily on zooplankton. As they mature their diet will include crustaceans, mollusks and smaller fish.
Rainbow and Steelhead Trout are the same species with only a few physical differences. Their different lifestyles result in minor color, shape and size variations. Steelheads will become larger than their Rainbow counter part and their bodies are more streamlined with colors of silvery brass. The Steelhead Trout will average 24 inches and 10 pounds but can grow as large as 40 pounds.
The Cutthroat Trout lives in well oxygenated rocky bottom cold rivers, lakes and streams that provide plenty of cover. They are native to the tributaries of the Pacific Ocean, Rocky Mountains and Great Basin. Both fresh and saltwater subspecies are found from mountain streams to the ocean. They will hide from predators among vegetation, overhanging cover and boulders. Young Cutthroat Trout feed on insects and as adults primarily eat baitfish.
Easily identified by their red slashes on the lower jaw which resembles a throat that has been cut. There are more than 14 subspecies of the Cutthroat Trout. The adult sizes range from 6 to 40 inches, although the average is 14 inches. Their weights can exceed 35 pounds. However, most of these types of trout will average 4 pounds and large inland waterway fish will be 15 pounds. Cutthroat have roughly ten subspecies with coloration and spot differences.
The Golden Trout lives in the cold waters of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are native to California but have been introduced in Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Golden Trout require very clean water and live in high altitude rivers, lakes, and streams. They are the official state fish of California and mostly inhabit the Volcano Creek, Golden Trout Creek and South Fork River. They are a social fish and typically travel in small schools. Goldens are closely related to rainbow trout and often mistaken for the hybrid modified Golden Rainbow. The Golden Trout is truly rare and faces concerns over their sustainability in California. They are currently classified as at risk and is a species of concern. Golden Trout will feed on surface insects, larvae and small crustaceans.
Their adult size will range between 6 to 12 inches and weigh between 1 and 3 pounds. They have vivid colors of red, gold and orange with red lateral lines. Also, they have a distinctive olive green back color and 10 parr marks (oval markings) on each side. Golden trout are small and will usually be caught when they are between 6 and 10 inches. For these types of trout any catch over 12 inches is considered to be a trophy sized. The world record was caught in Wyoming and measured 28 inches weighing over 11 pounds.
The Apache Trout is native to the White Mountain region of Arizona. They are the rarest trout in the world and currently listed as critically endangered. Their demise is due to hybridization and introduction of non-native species. Apache Trout require clear, cold and gravel bottom streams. They feed mostly on invertebrates and aquatic insects. The Apache will do best in clear cold gravel bottomed streams.
Apaches have a golden yellow color with large black spots. They have similar colors as the Gila but are pale in comparison. However, unlike the Gila Trout, they have black spots on their sides and below the lateral line. Their dorsal fin is oversized and have whites edges. Two black spots on the pupil create a band through their eye that resembles a cat’s eye. The Apache Trout size ranges from 4 to 24 inches and weigh between 6 ounces to 6 pounds. However, the average size is under 12 inches because their diet is almost entirely small aquatic insects.
Gila Trout are one of the rarest of all the trout species. Their declining populations are mostly due to habitat loss and hybridization with both the Rainbow and Brown Trout. They live in New Mexico in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas and also in parts of Arizona. The Gila and Apache are the only two trout that are native to Arizona and they are closely related to the Rainbow Trout. You will find them living in high elevations between 5,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level in cold freshwater rivers and streams. They are generally sedentary, hiding beneath cover, but will emerge to feed on insects during the morning and early afternoon hours. Gila Trout are currently included on the endangered species list.
The Gila Trout has iridescent gold sides and their gill plates are the color copper. Their sides have a pink lateral band and they have spots above their lateral line that continue onto the head, dorsal and caudal fin. The average size of an adult Gila Trout is 12 inches.
Salmo Types Of Trout
The Brown Trout is native to Europe but is currently found on most continents around the globe. They have been stocked in 45 of the U.S. states. Their ideal habitat is in well oxygenated cold water rivers and streams that have a gravel bottom with ample cover. They can also thrive in larger lakes that are deep enough to maintain cool water temperatures. The optimum temperatures for Brown Trout range between 50 and 65 degrees. However, they can survive in temperatures near 77 degrees for short periods of time. A Brown Trout that travels into saltwater and then returns to fresh water is referred to as a Sea-Run Trout. Their diet of choice consist of aquatic insects, worms, crustaceans and smaller fish.
Brown Trout have golden brown backs with a yellowish white belly. Their backs and sides have black spots and there is a reddish orange adipose (connective tissue of fat cells) fin by the tail. Also, their heads and tails will sometimes be spotted. As Adults, the Brown Trout will grow between 8 and 20 inches and weigh between 1 and 9 pounds.
Salvelinus (Char) Types Of Trout
As mentioned earlier, there is a group of fish referred to as trout that are actually char. Both trout and char belong to the Salmonidae family and are closely related. However, char have darker bodies with lighter spots (versus black) and have a vomer on the roof of their mouth. Geographic location and physical appearance are the main differences between trout and char. The char species of trout only live in waters at extremely high latitudes. Trout and char are basically cousins but each has its own genus and species category. The names trout and char are synonymous with each other and for this reason we are including the following species of char in this trout species article.
The Lake Trout is native to Northern North America and is the largest fish in the char family. They live in well oxygenated cold water lakes in the Northern part of The United States with temperatures below 60 degrees. There are three subspecies of lake trout which are the Common Lake Trout, the Siscowet Lake Trout and the less known Rush Lake Trout. Common Lake Trout stay in shallow water while the Siscowet Lake Trout stay in deeper water.
Lake trout have a smoky dark body with light spots, a forked tail and a grey mouth. They usually have a white leading edge on their pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins. In Alaska, the Lake Trout has been known to live longer than 50 years but on average they typically live to be 20 years old. Their average length ranges between 24 and 36 inches with weights between 6 and 12 pounds. However, in North America, a Lake that was 41 inches long weighing 53 pounds caught in Utah has been recorded. For this type of trout their size will vary depending on specific diets, water temperatures and genetics. Lake Trout will eat zooplankton, crustaceans and smaller fish (particularly whitefish and graylings).
The Brook Trout (also referred to as Brookies) is native to the Northeast parts of America. However, Brook Trout have also been introduced into some Western parts of the United States. They inhabit lakes, rivers, streams, creeks and ponds with high oxygenation and clear water. However, their preference is spring fed streams and ponds with gravel bottoms and vegetation. Brook Trout thrive in water temperatures that are below 65 degrees. Bookies have a huge appetite and while they are young eat small aquatic terrestrial invertebrates. As adults they will add small fish to their diets.
Their tail fin is nearly straight and the pelvic fins have an orangish color with a white stripe on the edge. The Brookies have spots on their backs that have a wormlike appearance. Brook Trout will usually have a greenish gray back with red or yellow spots on both sides of the body. They grow to an average size between 6 and 10 inches.
The Dolly Varden (also known as Dollies) is native to the coasts of the Western United States. They are common along the coastal tributaries of Alaska. Closely related to the Arctic Char and Bull Trout, they spend a majority of their lives in freshwater rivers and lakes but also spend periods time in the sea. There are two subspecies of the Dolly Varden in North America. The Northern Dolly Varden subspecies lives in the Arctic drainages. And, the Southern Dolly Varden subspecies lives in the Pacific drainages.
Dollies are migratory fish so their habitats vary. During the winter months they will live in large lakes and then in springtime head for salt water. While living in lakes, these types of trout primarily eat zooplankton, insects and smaller fish. While living in the sea, Dolly Varden will follow salmon upstream to feast on the Salmon fry and their eggs.
Most adult Dolly Varden are between 12 and 24 inches weighing between 3 and 8 pounds but can grow much larger. For example, a 40 inch 20 pound Dolly was a recorded catch in Alaska. They can often be mistaken for Bulls because their bodies are also olive green or muddy gray. Dollies have reddish orange and pale yellow spots along their sides. The mature males will have a bright orange streak along their bellies when spawning.
The Bull Trout is native to clear high altitude mountain lakes and rivers of Northwestern United States and predominately found in Idaho and Montana. They are listed as a threatened species so, they must be released immediately after they are caught. They are a migratory fish that spends most of its time moving from one body of water to another. However, there are a few that will stay in one place their entire life. Bull Trout require water temperatures that are below 55 degrees and has deeper pools for shelter. Along coastal rivers they will spend time in both salt and freshwater. Young Bull Trout primarily eat insects and invertebrates but as adults they shift to eating other fish.
The Bulls have a pale greenish brown body similar to the Dolly Varden and Lake Trout. They have light yellowish orange spots on their back and sides. A common length for an adult Bull Trout is 24 inches.
Types Of Hybrid Trout
Hybrid trout is the result of spawning between two different trout species. They can be fun to catch however, they pose a real threat to pure native populations of fish. Hooking one of these types of trout in the wild is low. But in case you do, here is the information you need to know.
When a female Cutthroat breeds with a male Rainbow you get a Cutbow Trout. Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout are often released in the same bodies of water. This results in the hybrid Cutbow. Hybridization began in the late 1800’s, in Western streams of North America. Cutbows inherit the pink lateral line of the Rainbow. They also carry the distinct red / orange jaw markings of the Cutthroat.
Splake And Tiger Trout
A Splake is a rare combination of male Brook Trout and female Lake Trout. They are fast growing and look similar to Lake Trout. However, they have more color on their bellies and the tail isn’t forked. Their rarity is due to difficulty with natural spawning. Splake, like the Lake, live in cold deep lakes.
The quick growing hybrid of a female Brown Trout and a male Brook Trout is the Tiger Trout. A Tiger, that is naturally spawn, is very rare. However, hatchery programs release them for sports fishing. They have dark green / brownish sides and back. They have swirl and striped patterns along their sides. Your best chance to catch a Tiger Trout is in Utah, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Trout Habitat In Danger
Trout habitat is critical for a complete life cycle and spawning. The federal endangered species list includes numerous species of trout due to loss of quality habitat. Pollution, pesticides, habitat destruction (dams, roads and man made structures), invasive species, climate change and even wildfires (ash and soot) are responsible for the majority of their population decline. Mother Earth has a complex and fragile ecosystem and unfortunately some damage can not be repaired.
Following just a few simple steps can help the trout population thrive for future generations. Know your local fishing regulations including size limits, seasonal fishing bans and the protected species. While wade fishing, avoid walking on spawning beds and steer clear of targeting the spawning fish. Also, try not to disturb the stream banks (prevents erosion), fragile plants and wildlife nesting areas. When you move to a different fishing location be sure to wash off your equipment including wading boots, boats and gear. This will help reduce the spread of invasive species.
Conclusion: Types Of Trout Species And Their Habitats
Trout come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some are hardy while some are fragile. They all play an important role to our ecosystem. Trout is one of the most popular stocked fish in North America and a top cold water gamefish for anglers. They should be respected and protected.
Now you know what type of trout to catch, be sure to check out our article on How To Catch Trout: Trout Fishing 101. Tight Lines!