The Cutbow Trout: A Rainbow Trout and Cutthroat Trout Hybrid

The cutbow trout trout is a hybrid of a cutthroat trout and a rainbow trout. Read on to learn about the key differences between the species

A cutbow trout species is a fertile hybridization of a female cutthroat trout’s eggs and bigger male rainbow trout sperm. This fish, a favorite of anglers of all types, exhibits the combination of each parent species’ beauty and has the eagerness to take a fly like cutthroat and the aerial acrobatics typical in a hooked rainbow trout. In this post, we describe the characteristic of a cutbow hybrid and compare the fish to the parent species, the cutthroat and rainbow trout.

What is a Cutbow Trout?

Scientific name: Oncorhynchus clarkii × mykiss

Range: Hybridization of cutthroat trout and rainbow trout can occur naturally where the natural habitats overlap. The introduction of stocked rainbow trout into cutthroat trout native territory has also yielded crossbreeding of the two species.

Characteristics: Physical characteristics of the cutbow trout hybrid resemble both parent species. Cutbows will have the orange slash markings under the throat and reddish cheeks like the mother cutthroat trout, while a tan to silver body and pink lateral line along the cutbow’s sides are inherited from the rainbow trout father. Some cutbows display light to moderate spotting reminiscent of the mother cutthroat. However, coloration varies by cutthroat subspecies.

Cutbows exhibit their aggressive feeding of the cutthroat with the energy and aerial display of a rainbow trout. Cutbow will pursue a variety of aquatic insects, small fish, crayfish, and terrestrials.

Where Can You Catch Cut Bow Trout?

Although cutbow’s color can range between a golden tan or silver, the orange slashed with a pinkish strip of color along the fish’s sides can help you identify it.

Cutbows can be caught throughout the Western US that run cutbow stocking programs and the few places where the habitats of native rainbows and cutthroats overlap. These areas include rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds where cutbows fall for traditional fishing techniques, including lures and flies. 

Juvenile cutbows’ diet will consist of aquatic invertebrates making small nymphs like pheasant tails, hare’s ear, or copper johns effective, and a well-placed dry fly imitation. As they grow to 15 to 16 inches, cutbow hybrids will set their sights on larger prey like leeches, minnows, crayfish, grasshoppers, and even small mammals. This makes fishing for large cutbows with large spoons and stick baits an exhilarating experience, whereas fly anglers find stripping streamers just as delightful.

When approaching water known to hold cutbows, look for obvious trout holds such as pools, riffles, undercut banks, eddies, and downed trees. All trout prefer to have a safe place to escape as they look for food opportunities. In lakes, trout will often cruise the shallows in the spring as the water warms quickly in the shallows; there, you can intercept these fish with a well-led cast of a leech, slowly retrieved. 

Spring is also when cutbows spawn. While not all hybrids can reproduce, for example tiger trout, cutbows are fertile naturally. Hatchery raised cutbows, however, may not. As a general rule, if you discover any fish in the spring displaying spawning behavior, please do not disturb these fish and avoid crossing through areas that may be redds.

Throughout the rest of the year, cutbows can be found in typical trout habitats. Anglers can fool these eager fish with a spin rod or a fly rod. Cutbows fight hard, so once you hook up with these beautiful fish, hold on and enjoy the fight.

How to Identify Cutbow Trout

Cutbows share many visual indicators of the hybrid’s parent species. Thus, many fishermen get the identification of the cutbow confused. A cutbow can be differentiated from the father species, the rainbow trout, by its orange-red slashes under the fish’s gill plates. Ruling out the fish being a cutthroat trout can be trickier, but in most cases, the cutbow’s body will have the pink to a red lateral stripe of the rainbow. A cutbow’s color can range between a golden tan like many cutthroat species or silver like rainbows. However, the orange slashed combined with a pinkish strip of color along the fish’s sides should help you confidently identify a cutbow trout.

The Difference Between Cut Bow Trout & Rainbow Trout & Cutthroat Trout

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are among the most popular cold-freshwater sportfish. It has blue-green to olive with heavy spotting and often pink to red lateral marking.

Scientific name: Oncorhynchus mykiss

Range: Raised and stocked throughout the US and many parts of the world, native rainbow trout originated from the North Hemisphere between Eastern Russia and the Western portion of North America between Canada, the United States, and parts of Mexico.

Characteristics: Blue-green to olive with heavy spotting and often pink to red lateral marking, rainbow trout are among the most popular cold- freshwater sportfish in the world. Rainbow trout eat many aquatic insects, fish, leeches, crustaceans, and unfortunate terrestrials that get swept into feeding lanes.

Rainbows are prized for their sporting fight, often leaping into the air to free themselves from the angler’s control. A good rainbow trout can run between 15 and 20 inches with fish of a lifetime pushing 30 inches and beyond. 

Populations took a hit with the advent of whirling disease, which wiped out vast populations of rainbows. Today, whirling disease-resistant strains of trout have helped improve rainbow trout numbers.

Cutthroat Trout

Henry Winkler with a cutthroat trout celebrity fly fishing
Cutthroat patterns vary extensively between subspecies, ranging from gold to green with orange marking under their jaw, thus, the common name cutthroat.

Scientific name: Oncorhynchus clarkii

Range: Pacific Northwest: Coastal tributaries from Northern California to Alaska. Great Basin: California, Nevada, and Utah. Throughout the Rocky Mountains to Northern Mexico.

Characteristics: A cutthroat trout can be any of the 14 subspecies of trout native to the Western United States. These fish share an orange marking under their jaw, which gives this fish the common name cutthroat. Cutthroat patterns vary extensively between subspecies, ranging from gold to green. The largest subspecies of cutthroat is the Lahontan cutthroat found in Western Nevada. The world record for this species is over 40 pounds.

Cutthroat prefer to spawn in the spring in cold, shallow riffles of alluvial and freestone rivers and streams or large, cool, moderately deep lakes. 

Though many species are raised in hatcheries, as native trout, cutthroats are not well equipped to compete with non-native species of fish. They tend to suffer from the presence of brook trout and hatchery-raised rainbows and cutbows. Habitat loss also threatens these fish. Efforts have been made to protect native cutthroats from gene pollution by guarding pure strain species in areas like Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Creek in southern Colorado, and other locations throughout the west. 

Cutthroat trout are eager, opportunistic fish willing to take a variety of well-presented flies (of course you can catch them on lure fishing gear too). Since their native range often includes cold, high alpine lakes or streams off the beaten path, an angler ready to hike into the backcountry is often rewarded with beautiful cutthroats who live in geographic isolation and may have never seen an artificial fly.

Shop where we do: Bass Pro

Grab a Bass Pro special
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Photo of author
Andy is a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, he's fished it all. Andy enjoys helping other anglers catch more fish and sharing his passion for the sport.
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x