Cutthroat Trout vs Rainbow vs Cutbow Trout: Key Differences

Cutthroat vs Rainbow trout feature image

With so many different trout species making their home in North America, it is very common for anglers to misidentify trout the first time they catch a new species. While certain species are easy to identify, like brown and brook trout, there is a group of fish that are much tougher. The cutthroat, rainbow, and cutbow trout have a lot of similarities, and without knowing the common markings of each, they can be easily misidentified.

Throughout the article, we will break down the differences between cutthroat, rainbow, and cutbow and provide you with an easier time identifying each one.

Key Differences Between Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout and Cutbow Trout

Cutthroat trout 1
Although rainbow and cutthroat trout are members of the same family inhabiting the same streams, they are actually two distinctly different fish species with distinct anatomical differences.

Scientifically, there is not much difference between rainbow and cutthroat trout as they are a part of the same salmon family (salmonidae oncorhynchus). However, in terms of looks, habitat, and fishing methods, there are distinct differences. The cutbow trout, on the other hand, is actually a hybrid of the mating rainbow and cutthroat trout and, as a result, has obtained distinct qualities from each. We will dive into those differences below.

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Rainbow trout and cutthroat trout are two of the most iconic freshwater species, and both have unique markings that set them apart. The cutbow trout has a blend of both, and once anglers are able to identify these specific markings correctly, identifying their catch will become second nature.

Rainbow trout are bright silver and have a pink horizontal line that runs from behind the jaw to the base of the tail. They also have black spots speckled all over their bodies. One other detail to note when identifying rainbow trout is that certain coastal rainbow trout will have red markings on the throat area, similar to a cutthroat trout. Do not be fooled by these, however, as coastal rainbow trout will still have the same silver coloration as traditional rainbows.

Cutthroat trout, on the other hand, is not silver and, depending on where in the country they are located, will have more of a golden brown or olive green coloring. They will also have a distinctive red or orange gill plate just behind their jaw. The coloring of the gill plate is also dependent on geographical location. In terms of similarities to the rainbow trout, cutthroat trout also have scattered black spots all over their bodies.

Cutbow trout is one of the slightly trickier fish to identify as they have a variety of similarities to both rainbow and cutthroat trout. In most cases, cutbow will take on the darker coloration of cutthroat trout, usually light brown or gold. Where the confusion usually arises is due to the cutbow having both the pink horizontal line of the rainbow trout as well as the distinctive red or orange marking of the cutthroat. However, if an angler is able to identify the darker coloration mixed with both the lateral line and the colored gill plates behind the jaw, they will most likely be correct in identifying the fish as a cutbow trout.


Another area where these three species differ is their fins. Cutthroat trout have solid coloration on all of their fins, whereas both rainbow trout and cutbow trout have white-tipped fins. These differences will help the angler with identifying these two species, as the lack of white-tipped fins eliminates the cutthroat trout from consideration.


A different area to focus on when making the differentiation between cutthroat, rainbow, and cutbow trout is the tail. Rainbow trout almost always have a more squared tail (also known as the caudal fin) with a minimal fork. Both cutthroat and cutbow trout, on the other hand, have pointed tails with pronounced forks.


Another differentiation in the rainbow trout vs cutthroat trout identification game is their teeth. When looking into a rainbow trout’s mouth, you will not see teeth at the base of its tongue. Cutthroat trout, on the other hand, do have a small set of teeth (known as basibranchial teeth) at the base of their tongue.

What Is a Rainbow Trout?

rainbow trout
The rainbow trout is a native of the rivers and lakes of North America but has spread throughout the world due to its popularity as a hard-fighting game fish and delectable food source.

Rainbow trout are one of the most iconic freshwater species in the fishing world. They are a member of the salmon family and are mostly known by anglers throughout the world for their brute power and strength.

Scientific Name

Rainbow trout are known as oncorhynchus mykiss in the scientific community and are a member of the salmon family.


Rainbow trout have a very wide distribution range. They can be found all along the Pacific coast of Russia and Alaska and make their way all the way down the coast to Northern Mexico. They are also found as far inland as the Appalachian mountains and can even be found along the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

Habitats and Fishing Techniques

Rainbow trout often make their home in cold waters due to the high oxygen level they provide. They are found everywhere, from the ocean to small mountain streams. Fishing techniques will differ based on the habitat you are fishing, but the most common techniques with a spin fishing rod are using a bobber with a minnow or casting and retrieving a spin bait.

In terms of fly fishing, casting and stripping (retrieving) streamers through deep pockets of moving water or drifting nymphs just off the bottom of a stream or river is a fantastic way to land a rainbow.

How Big Do Rainbow Trout Get?

Rainbow trout have a large variation in size. On average, they tend to stay between the 8-20 inch range and weigh between 1-8 pounds. However, there are documented cases of much larger ones, and it is not uncommon to land one over 30 inches.

What Is a Cutthroat Trout?

Cutthroat trout
Cutthroat trout have an orange, red, or pink coloring that runs linear to their mandibles, hence the name “Cutthroat.” They are a popular game fish for anglers who enjoy fly fishing.

Cutthroat trout are another member of the salmon family, just like the rainbow trout.

Scientific Name

The scientific name for cutthroat trout is oncorhynchus clarkii, which is actually derived and named after William Clark from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


Cutthroat trout have a similar distribution to rainbow trout along the Pacific coast, ranging from Alaska down through California. They are also found throughout the Western United States and into the Rocky Mountains.

Habitats and Fishing Techniques

Cutthroat trout, similarly to Rainbow Trout, need cold, oxygenated water to survive. They can live in mountain lakes as well as cold rivers and streams. Fishing methods for cutthroat are similar to how an angler would catch both rainbow and cutbow trout.

With a fly rod, the main techniques are swinging nymphs through moving water or casting dry flies in the summer months. With a spin rod, bobbers with live bait and spinner baits with lots of flashes, are extremely successful.

How Big Do Cutthroat Trout Get?

On average, cutthroat trout range between 5-25 inches and weigh between .5-6 pounds. However, there are multiple records of 40in+ cutthroat being caught, so finding fish larger than the 25inch average is possible.

What Is a Cutbow Trout

Cutbow trout
A cut-bow trout is a hybrid fish between rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. They occur naturally in the wild, where the native range of rainbow trout and cutthroat trout overlap.

A cutbow trout is a hybrid trout that is created as the result of a mating rainbow and cutthroat trout .

Scientific Name

Like the fish itself, the scientific name is actually the combination of the scientific names of the rainbow and cutthroat trout. It is known in the science community as the Oncorhynchus mykiss x Oncorhynchus clarkii.


Cutbow trout are found in almost all the states in the Western United States. Wherever rainbow and cutthroat trout are located together, cutbow trout are likely present.

Habitats and Fishing Techniques

Cutbow trout, essentially by their definition, live in the same areas that rainbow and cutthroat do. Cold, moving water is necessary for their survival, and they can be found anywhere from high-altitude mountain lakes to small mountain runoff streams.

Fishing for them is as simple as the other two species. Spinner baits cast and retrieved through moving water or bobbers with live bait tossed into deeper pools via spinning rod is a great way to land cutbow.

If you are more of a fly angler, streamers sporadically retrieved through slow-moving water or dead drifted through riffles can lead to great success. They are also routinely caught through a variety of nymphing methods with both small and large size nymphs.

How Big Do Cutbow Trout Get?

Cutbow trout can be on the slightly larger side as their average size is usually between 15-30 inches with weights between .5-15 pounds.

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Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.
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