Most of us are familiar with the brown and rainbow trout that are the key targets for many fishermen and women around the world.
But there a range of species the make up the trout family is far wider than that and includes brook trout, various other types of char such as the artic char, dolly varden and lake trout, cutthroat trout and rare species such as the Apache trout and golden trout.
We go through the different types of trout present in North America and other parts of the world below with some thoughts on their qualities as sport fish. We’ve focused on wild trout species rather than stocked hybrids such as the tiger trout, palomino trout and other types of trout.
Scientific name: oncorhynchus mykiss
The rainbow trout gets its name from the bright pink stripe on the fish’s side that extends right up to its cheeks.
This beautiful fish can be found in much of the US and Southern Canada and established populations of rainbow trout can be found in many countries including Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Russia, Japan and Chile.
Rainbow trout are a popular target for fly and lure fishers and are renowned for holding in faster water than brown trout and attacking flies and lures with more aggression.
The sea-run, or anadromous, version of the rainbow trout is known as the steelhead and is a prestigious angling target in its own right.
Scientific name: Oncorhynchus clarkii
Cutthroat trout also get their name from their distinctive markings – in this case the red coloring under the fish’s lower jaw.
Cutthroat trout, or cutties, are found naturally in the western part of the US and Canada from the Rockies to the coast.
They are renowned for being aggressive feeders and fairly indiscriminate when it comes to dining, making them a popular target for fly fishers.
There are some notable different species of cutthroat trout including the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (found within the national part of the same name) and the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout (found only in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake), the Coastal Cutthroat Trout along with the dominant Westslope Cutthroat Trout.
Scientific name: Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita
The Golden Trout is a very special species that is native only to a few waterways at high altitude in California, although it has been introduced into many lakes in the United States and Canada.
They are a striking fish indeed resembling a rainbow but with the silver swapped out for gold with the red stripe down the flanks to the cheeks remaining.
My friend Greg French’s book The Last Wild Trout has a detailed chapter on Golden Trout along all the other species discussed here. It is highly recommended reading for those seeking more information on wild trout species.
Scientific name: Salmo trutta
Many fly fisherman’s favourite species, the brown trout species (under the genus salmo) are broadly distributed across the world from Europe, Scotland and Ireland, to the US and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Andean South America.
Brown trout occupy and range of habitats from small streams and rivers to lakes and ponds and major rivers and canals. Anadromous populations are known as sea-run trout or sea trout and form the basis for some amazing fisheries in Tierra Del Fuego, Tasmania and New Zealand. And of course brown trout can be found in the UK, where – along with Atlantic salmon – they were the key species for the beginning of modern fly fishing and the associated literary traditions that came with it.
Brown trout are a wily species that take much skill from the angler to bring them to the net and are a prized sportfish wherever they are to be found.
Brown trout differ significantly in coloration from the silver sea-run specimens to the dark colored residents in a particular river. The patterns and colors of the spots and marketing vary enormously.
The population of brown trout in North America – which can be found on both sides of the Rockies and into Canada – were introduced to North America from Germany.
Scientific name: Salvelinus namaycush
The biggest species of the char family is the Lake Trout – a large top order predator that dwells in the depths of lakes. Lake trout are native to Canada and Alaska, the Great Lakes, and the northeastern portion of the U.S. Their range has now extended beyond these territories and they can also be found in parts of the Rockies now. Lake trout tend to thrive in large nutrient poor lakes where they can grow to immense sizes of up to 80 pounds.
I have also heard of fishing for big lake trout in Japan, where I lived and fished for four years. I have never fished for lake trout there myself, but friends say there is a population in Lake Chuzenji, in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture. That’s an adventure for another day, although I must say I prefer chasing the trout species that feed off the surface – such as brown trout and rainbow trout – through sight fishing than those requiring sinking lines and blind fishing.
Scientific name: Salvelinus fontinalis
One of the most beautiful species, the brook trout is actually a type of char.
They can be distinguished by the worm-like markings on their back and head, and the white leading edges found on their lower fins.
Brook trout are native to the eastern portion of North America and can be found in all the Great Lakes except Erie, north to the Arctic Sea, and south through the Appalachian Mountains. They are also resident in several Canadian provinces and throughout the streams in the Rockies and sea run versions exist on the eastern side of North America.
Brook trout feed aggressively and are a relatively easy trout species to fool with a fly or lure.
Globally, they can be found in Europe, Argentina, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, and more. Most brook trout are three pounds or less, although in some remote streams and rivers in Patagonia and other select locales much larger specimens can be found.
Dolly Varden Trout
Scientific name: Salvelinus malma
The Dolly Varden can be found from the Arctic region, into Alaska, and down into the northern portion of Washington on the Pacific Coast of the US. Beyond North America, the Dolly Varden has made it across the sea and now populate rivers in Japan and Siberia. has light spots which are white, yellow or red on a dark body. The back and sides of dolly varden are often gray or a mud green in color and the fins are plain except for a few light spots that are present on the caudal fin.
Dolly varden love structure such as sunken timber and lake dwelling fish will migrate into rivers at various times of year. In rivers with salmon runs, dolly varden will follow the salmon dining on their eggs.
Japan is home to populations of dolly varden as is Korea!
Scientific name: Salvelinus confluentus
Bull Trout are found only in the Pacific Northwest of the United States: Alberta, Washington, British Columbia or Oregon are the key regions for fishing for these large, piscivorous trout.
Looks wise, they very similar to Arctic char and Dolly Varden, but behave very differently feeding extensively on westslopes cutthroat trout.
They can be caught by swinging large, heavily weighted streamers and are renowned for a dogged fight.
It is not uncommon for anglers to catch bull trout of more than 10lbs.
Scientific name: Oncorhynchus gilae
The Gila trout is one of the rarest trout species in the United States and its traditional home was in the sierras of New Mexico and Arizona.
By the 1950s, its range was reduced to only four streams in the Gila River headwaters in New Mexico and it became listed as endangered.
Strong conservation efforts have seen more durable populations established and its status was upgraded to threatened in 2006.
Today there are pure populations of Gila Trout in 21 streams in New Mexico and four streams in Arizona.
A sports fishery has been established in both states where anglers can catch (and release) these special trout, which are related to the rainbow trout and can grow to about 17-18 inches, in various mountain streams. Gila trout are yellowish-brown, gold or copper in color.
Scientific name: Oncorhynchus apache
Once nearing extinction, the Apache trout – closely related to the rainbow trout – has been restored to much of its historic range in the White Mountains of Arizona after decades of co-operative protection and recovery efforts. Apache Trout have an olive-yellow body, with a yellow or golden belly. They can grow up to 20 inches long, but most reach about half this size.
Unique trout species outside of the US
Scientific name: Salmo trutta marmoratus
Native to Slovenian rivers and a few other parts of the former Yugoslavia as well as parts of Italy. The marble trout is known for its distinctive marbled pattern and can grow to big sizes. The most famous marble trout fishery is probably in Slovenia’s Soca River, which flows though historic World War II battlefields that formed the backdrop for Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. It is a gorgeous part of the world with some exciting fishing.
Scientific name: Hucho Hucho Taimen and Hucho perryi
What an interesting fish the taimen are – the world’s largest trout species. We’ve all probably seen and read about the enormous taimen caught on fly in Mongolia’s remote rivers.
These apex predators gulp dry fly patterns design to look like rats and squirrels and can also be caught on big streamers.
Elsewhere, (China, Korea and in the Danube basin) related taimen species are very rare.
The other main taimen species of note is the Japanese taimen. I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing these wonderful fish in Hokkaido and can attest to their qualities as a sportfish.
These are a sea run species, although there is a population in a lake in Hokkaido too.
Japanese taimen, or itoh, grow to about 1.3 meters or around 4.5 feet in length and catches of above 90cm, or three feet, are very achievable. My personal best is 95cm, but I have been twice broken off by taimen of more than the magical 1m mark and I have friends who have caught several over this length. .
Scientifc name: Salvelinus alpinus
As the name suggests, Artic char thrive in the most northerly reaches of our planet – Canada, Iceland and Scandinavia. Artic char are a great sportfish and yo can fish for both resident fish and sea run versions which get to more than 10lb. Fishing for artic char is definitely on my bucket list!
White spotted char
Scientific name: Salvelinus leucomanis
Native only to Japan, this beautiful trout species is a key angling target in Hokkaido and is the quarry in one of that island’s glorious fishing traditions – the annual monkagerou hatch. For two weeks every June in Lake Akan, beneath the Akan Volcano, a large mayfly hatches on mass turning the lake surface to a boiling mass of rising fish. It makes for exciting fishing targeting these gorgeous fish – known as amemasu in Japan – with large (#6 or #8) mayfly patterns. You’ll find more info in this article on this hatch and fishing in Japan.
You can also fish for them in streams (where the smaller specimens are called iwana char) and the anadromous form in bigger rivers and even the surf!
More information on trout
The one constant with trout is their need for cool water (50–60 °F or 10–16 °C).
Trout populations therefore tend to thrive in very northerly or southerly latitudes, or in higher alpine areas in countries closer to the equator.
Usually a mountain range is the key to trout habitat and the Rockies and the various ranges in southern Canada offer some great fishing. Likewise the foothills of the Andes in Argentina and Chile and the Alps in the South Island of New Zealand.
Personally, I have seen trout in Peru and Ecuador (right on the Equator) that were able to survive on account of the high alpine environment in the Andes.
As you can see from the descriptions above, trout behaviour is very varied – they are great at adapting themselves to the circumstances – hence you have anadromous strains, bottom dwelling trout like lake trout and the more conventional rainbow trout family, and brown trout, which are comfortable feeding on hatching insects, terrestrial insects and other invertebrates most of the time, but still taking prey such as frogs, mice and other fish when the opportunity presents.
How to fish for trout
Fly fishing is the most effective and time honoured way to fish for trout and offers the angler the greatest chance of luring large fish. For those starting out, lure fishing is an option too. Check here for more information on trout fishing for beginners and you’ll find lots of information about fly fishing for trout right here on our site.
Stocked trout vs wild trout
The merits of trout stocking is a heated debate in the fly fishing world. Some river or lake systems don’t have enough good spawning terrain (usually gravel beds in a small stream) to support spawning, so the temptation is to stock these waterways. That’s not always appropriate as sometimes the reduced spawning makes for a good trophy fishery with a smaller population of large fish.
But in systems that are very accessible and heavily fished, this way of managing might not be appropriate and stocking may be a good choice.
In general, though, systems with self-sustaining populations of wild trout are more revered by discerning anglers as stocked fish, until they fully adapt to their new surrounds over the course of years, are easier to catch and don’t present as worthy a foe.
Final thoughts on trout species
There are many more species of trout than we’ve been able to cover here and much information we’ve had to leave out about the joys of fishing for those we have listed. Our suggested source for further reading is my friend Greg French’s landmark book, The Last Wild Trout, which details his fly fishing adventures pursuing many of these species around the world along with information about where they are found and their behaviour.