Trout, Salmon, and Char of America
One of the more exciting aspects of fly fishing is the adventure fly anglers can find while targeting the different salmonid species across the continent. Each species is it's own treasure hunt and can take anglers to very different regions and pieces of water. These species have different temperaments and require anglers to be versatile with their techniques and knowledge. Check in on our salmonid species of the world here.
Trout Species of America
Mexican Golden Trout
Char Species of America
Salmon Species of America
Chum Salmon (Dog)
King Salmon (Chinook)
Sockeye Salmon (Red/Kokanee)
Pink Salmon (Humpy)
Silver Salmon (Coho)
Trout Species of America
Rainbow Trout of North America
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are native to the west coast of North America. The Pacific Northwest possesses the largest numbers of wild fish as well as the most diversity of subspecies. The rainbow trout is the most commonly stocked fish throughout the world and can be found on every continent except for Antarctica.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that make their way to the ocean to take advantage of larger food resources and return to their streams of origin to reproduce much like salmon. Unlike salmon, these steelhead do survive these spawning runs and can return continuously. In the last century, a point of contention amongst anglers in the U.S. and Canada is whether to refer to the rainbow trout introduce within the Great Lakes as steelhead as they retain many of the same attributes as their sea-faring ancestors.
Rainbow trout are the true pioneers of cold water streams. They can take full advantage of all water types within the most turbulent rivers or cascading creeks. They also tend to outcompete other species for the most productive water on the stream. Their aggressive behavior makes them an easy target for anglers looking to learn more about how and where to find trout.
Rainbow Trout Subspecies
California Golden Trout
The Callifornia Golden Trout is native the Kern River and its tributaries high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central California. The state of California goes to great lengths to protect this unique subspecies which also happens to be the state fish. Goldens are stocked in several alpine lakes in California which you can read about in our article on fly fishing California. They are also stocked in several alpine lakes in Colorado and Wyoming.
Redband Trout can be found from Northern California to Washington State. These unique subspecies get their name from the intensely vivid lateral that is much more apparent than what is present on typical rainbow trout. The McCloud River and Metolius River have Notable subspecies of Redband trout and are must visit destination for fly fishing enthusiasts.
Not technically a subspecies, Steelhead can be found throughout the Northern Pacific Ocean and the larger rivers and streams that feed them. From the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, across to Alaska and south to the San Francisco Bay Area in California, Steelhead have gathered a cult following of devout anglers willing to spend dozens of fishless hours on the water in cold wet conditions each year to have the opportunity to encounter these hard fighting fish
Cutthroat Trout of North America
Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) are the true symbol of American Fly Fishing in the west. The streams of the Rocky Mountains host many subspecies of cutthroat trout. So many in fact, that distinguishing what is and what isn't a subspecies can be difficult as it seems scientist want to name on after each of the streams or rivers they inhabit.
Behavior wise the cutthroat act similar to their rainbow trout cousins. They tend to be a bit less aggressive for the most part, but the warmer months of the year often find these trout feeding with abandon. Sea run varieties can be found in the smaller streams and rivers of coastal Oregon and Washington.
Cutthroat Trout Subspecies
Greenback Cutthroat Trout
The Greenback Cutthroat calls the rocky mountain peaks of Colorado home. At one point this subspecies was seriously threatened, but can now be found in several headwater streams and many of the alpine lakes along the continental divide. Above 10,000 to 12,000 feet these trout often have fiery red undersides and are one of the most picturesque trout on the planet. The population is now back to healthy numbers and are a great target for visitors of Colorado.
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout
The Lahontan Cutthroat is known for reaching massive sizes and has made an infamous fishery of Pyramid Lake in Nevada. Lahontan's were once native to the the ancient Lake Lahontan with would have covered much of what is now western Nevada and parts of eastern California. The subspecies is now stocked by the state of California in several high alpine lakes within it's native drainage as well as several lakes around the Reno area.
Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout
The Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout is one of the more prolific subspecies of cutthroat trout. It and it's very close relative, the fine spotted cutthroat occupy the streams of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Though this subspecies has lost over 50 percent of its habitat to dams, and other poor land management practices, it is still likely the most targeted species of cutthroat trout in the United States.
Westslope Cutthroat Trout
Westlope Cutthroat Trout can be found in the headwater streams and rivers of the Northern Rocky Mountain within the United States and the Southern Rockies in Canada. Next to the Yellowstone Cutthroat, the Westslope are very common throughout their ranges. Known for their propensity to rise to many different dry fly options and the beautiful streams they call home, they are a great target for beginning anglers in the warmer months when plenty of insects find their way onto the water.
Coastal Cutthroat Trout
Coastal Cutthroat can be found from Oregon to southern Alaska. They occupy the lower portions of the small rivers and streams that make their way into the Pacific. These trout annually migrate into the coastal bays and estuaries each year to feed and return to the rivers following the salmon runs where they remain until their late winter early spring spawn.
Colorado River Cutthroat Trout
Colorado River Cutthroats are native to the streams and rivers of western Colorado such as the Gunnison River, Dolores River, and of course, the Colorado River. This subspecies has also been stocked in several rivers on the east coast in North Carolina and Tennessee as well as on the White River in Arkansas.
Bonneville Cutthroat Trout
Similar to the Lahontan Cutthroat, the Bonneville Cutthroat was once native to an ancient lake known as Lake Bonneville. The subspecies is now limited to the old tributary streams of what is left of the inland sea (Great Salt Lake). Most of their populations occur within Utah but several border streams in Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada still hold some trout.
Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout
The Rio Grande Cutthroat is found in the upper tributaries of the Rio Grande river in northern New Mexico and southern portions of southwest Colorado. This is the southernmost range of all of the cutthroat trout subspecies. The populations have improved in recent years as the removal of non native trout from streams has improved reproduction.
Paiute Cutthroat Trout
The Paiute Cutthroat has the smallest range of all of the major cutthroat subspecies. The Paiute can only be found in the uppermost tributaries of the Carson River. Silver King Creek holds the largest populations These Paiutes were thought to be isolated from the Lahontan Cutthroats as the ancient lake receded. Due to the smaller water they inhabit, they do not reach the sizes that the Lahontan's see in larger still water lakes.
Gila Trout of North America
The Gila Trout (Oncorhynchus gilae and their close relatives the Apache Trout can be found in a small region of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico. Once endangered and threatened by habitat loss the populations are once again on the rise thanks to the local natural resource agencies. The best populations are still limited to a handful of creeks in the area. Hybridizing with introduced rainbow trout had been a major problem in the
past but remedied with the extirpation of these rainbows above critical habitat barriers. This ensures better genetic viability for the future of the species. The Apache trout can be found throughout the streams of the White Mountains in Arizona. In this area it is much more difficult to find genetically pure trout compared to those in New Mexico. We discuss the Gila Trout of New Mexico further in our article on Fly Fishing the Gila Wilderness.
Mexican Golden Trout
Limited research has been done on the Mexican Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus chrysogaster) of the Sierra Occidental Mountains in central/western Mexico. While these native trout can be found within the different Pacific drainages of western Mexico, they are limited to the high elevation headwaters found closer to the interior. Habitat loss, poor land/water management, and use as a food source for the indigenous locals threaten the unprotected species. Some consider the trout of each drainage as a unique species rather than a subspecies but more research is needed on each of these variants.
Brown Trout of North America
The Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) is one of the most popular gamefish in the world. Known for their prowess as selective feeders early in their life and ravenous piscivores once they reach a certain size, they present a worthy challenge for even the best anglers. Brown trout are native to the cold water rivers and streams of Europe. Populations from Germany and Ireland were brought North America in the 1800s and can be found in just about every state that possesses populations of trout today. No subspecies are found within North America but many are found throughout Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. For anglers looking for the largest brown trout in America, the White River in Arkansas, the western rivers of Montana, and the lake run brown trout of the Great Lakes tributaries reach trophy sizes with ease. In these bodies of water brown trout will quickly make the switch to a piscivorous diet to get big.
Salmon Species of North America
Majority of the salmon species of North America are native to the west coast and Pacific drainages. These are known as the Pacific Salmon. The one outlier is the Atlantic Salmon which can still be found in Maine and eastern Canada. Attempts to reintroduce Atlantic Salmon to the streams of eastern Michigan have seen some success in recent years. The Pacific Salmon see more federal dollars than just any group of fish on the planet. Some stocks are healthy while the majority have incurred many obstacles and environmental issues over the past two centuries. These salmon are staples to their local economies and ecosystems. While sustainability has never been at the fore front when it has come to managing salmon stocks, recent efforts are strongly
Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) get the least attention from anglers as they are less palatable than the other salmon species. However, they are one of the more aggressive salmon species once they hit the freshwater rivers where they spawn and are known to chase flies and lures. The Calico pattern they display after reaching freshwater is very unique along with their gnarly look. They also have the largest range of all the Pacific Salmon which extends around the Pacific Ocean from Oregon to Northern Japan and China. Chum salmon runs occur later in the season than many of the other species.
The Silver or Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) along with the King Salmon are the most sought after salmon species. They are know for their strong fights and aerial acrobatics on the river as well as their affinity for flies and lures. Like the Chum Salmon, Coho runs begin later in the season than the other Pacific Salmons. Typically and earlier and a late run occur throughout their range. Population exist from northern California to Alaska as well as in many of the Great Lakes tributaries.
King Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are known to be the true trophies of all the Pacific Salmon species. Once documented to exceed 100 pounds they grow large and fight like freight trains. The renown as a sportfish has led them to be stocked in the Great Lakes, South America, and New Zealand. Their native range runs similar to their Coho salmon cousins, though their runs into freshwater often occur earlier in the season than the other species. In the Pacific Northwest, both Spring and Fall runs occur.
Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) are the smallest of the Pacific Salmon found in North America. They are also known as Humpy's and are known for their prolific runs every 2 years. In the southern extent of their range (Oregon, Washington, and southern Canada) pinks have strong runs in even numbered years while odd numbered years see more prolific numbers of fish in Alaska and northern Canada. Off year runs still occur, and to those foreign to these rivers, many would thing the numbers are still impressive. These salmon feed little once entering fresh water but can be agitated into nipping at smaller streamer patterns.
Sockeye or Red Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) are not difficult to distinguish from their Pacific Salmon relatives once they hit fresh water. Their firetruck red appearance and deep profiles are quite unique. Landlocked varieties known as Kokanee (picture to right) use similar life history strategies though they grow to smaller sizes. Many believe Sockeye will stop eating once reaching freshwater like the Pink Salmon but aggressive males will chase down flesh flies and eggs on certain occassions when fishing for other species nearby.
Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) are not as closely related to the Pacific Salmons as they are the Brown Trout. They are native to the tributary rivers and streams of the North Atlantic. In the United States, landlocked varieties can be found throughout the lakes and streams on inland Maine. These do not grow as large as their sea run varieties found further north into Canada on more popular streams such as the Miramichi River. Attempts to reestablish sea run Atlantics have been made in Maine with limited success. Populations have also been introduce to several Michigan streams and are showing positive results of late.
being pushed to restore these keystone species. Pink, King, and Silver salmon have established populations within the Great Lakes while Kokanee Sockeye are often stocked in west coast reserviors as an added source of protein for larger game fish.
Char Species of North America
Brook Trout of North America
Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are native to the east coast of North America. From the Southern Appalachians in North Georgia to Labrador and west to the Great Lakes, brook trout will live in small lakes and large rivers along the northern extent of their range and the small pristine headwater streams on the south end. While there are no notable subspecies, many separate the brook trout into northern and southern strains that do possess a slight amount of variation. Their gorgeous colors prior to the spawn put them amongst the most photogenic sportfish in the world.
Brook trout have also been stocked in many of the high elevation lakes and streams of the western United States and Canada. These fish are also incredibly aggressive and willing to take many different offerings.
Bull Trout of North America
Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus) have a unique history with American anglers over the last two centuries. Habitat loss from the building of dams and other poor land management uses has restricted the ranges of many bull trout, pushing them into high elevation areas of their native drainages. The decrease in salmon runs which they have historically relied upon in the Pacific Northwest have also caused problems for the native Bull Trout. These char were also seen as nuisance by locals as the preyed upon the juvenile salmon and cutthroat trout in the streams they inhabit and tended to not be as palatable. In the past decade or two, many states have adopted better management strategies as bull trout became threatened and endangered in areas. Today
many fly anglers enjoy the hunt of targeting larger bull trout on streamers but fisheries restrictions can be heavy in many states so be sure to look up local guidelines before hitting the river.
Lake Trout of North America
Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are native to the lakes of Canada, the Great Lakes, and the very northern reaches of Maine and Minnesota. Also known as Togue, Greasers, Lakers, and Mackinaw in different areas of the country, stocking projects have also occurred in the higher elevation reserviors of the Norther Rockies and Sierras. Lake trout tend to leave in the deep, dark depths of lakes for the vast majority of the year. Lake trout will migrate shallow in the late fall and early winter months prior to their spawn. The will remain of these rocky points and bluffs until their spawn has finished and ice begins to build on the lake. In spring, as the surface ice
melts and the lake begins to turn over, Lake Trout will again move into the shallows to feed. This bite can be short lived as these char will seek deeper water once the water begins to stratify within a week or two. Lake Trout can grow to monstrous sizes in larger reserviors feeding off a heavy diet of smaller fish and stocked trout. Juvenile lake trout will feed off invertebrates until they are able to transition to larger meals.
Dolly Varden of North America
Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) can be found in the coastal streams and rivers of the north Pacific. The lower limits of their range begin in norther Washington state and Hokkaido Japan. They can be found as for north as the streams along the Aleutian Islands. Much of these char's lives revolve around the salmon runs. Anadromous fish will move out into the coastal bays to feed for several months in late winter and spring before returning to follow the salmon runs inland to feed on roe, and salmon flesh in the rivers. Other Dolly Varden will stay in fresh water lakes and rivers year round when populations of smolt and other small fishes
are abundant. Their adaptive life history strategies have made them quite successful. Many anglers include the Dolly Varden on their bucket list as their extravagant colors in the fall are very impressive. Late September and early October are the best times to find these fish when visiting the popular rivers in Alaska.
Arctic Char of North America
Arctic Char are limited to the northernmost reaches of Canada and Alaska. The rivers the inhabit feed into the Arctic ocean where they spend much of the winter and spring before returning to their rivers of origin. Like the other members of the Char family, they are know for their brilliant patterns and coloration prior to the spawn. The wild and native populations are anadromous while several stocked populations can be found in the large, deep reserviors in Colorado where they behave similar to their Lake Trout relatives.
Arctic Char Subspecies
Sunapee Trout or Blueback Trout
Found only in a very small amount (less than two dozen) of lakes and ponds between northern Maine and southeast Canada, the Blueback or Sunapee Trout is one of the most unique ice age relics in the world. These subspecies of Arctic Char have lived in the depths of these glacial lakes and ponds since the last age. Though threatened by introduced species in recent decades, populations have begun to rebound as management strategies have improved. You can learn more about these char in our page on Maine Fly Fishing.
Hybrid Trout of North America
Several hybrid trout species have been introduce or stocked throughout North America for various purposes. Whether it be for sportfishing purposes or temporary wildlife control, these hybrids are quite unique and possess the hybrid vigor which makes them popular with anglers.
Hybrid Trout Species
Tiger Trout are hybrids of Brook and Brown Trout. Wild tigers can be found by lucky anglers in the small streams of Appalachia but are much more common in the western United States. Colorado and Utah have well known tiger trout populations that can be found in the high elevation lakes and streams. They are known to be incredibly aggressive and grow quickly.
Splake are hybrids of Lake and Brook Trout. They can be found in lakes of Maine, Michigan, and the western United States. From a management perspective, they are used to control small fish populations but are not able reproduce so their population is kept in control. They also offer great sportfishing opportunities as the grow much quicker than normal brook trout.
The Cutbow is a hybrid of the Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout. Unlike the splake and tiger trout, the cutbow is not typically intentional but occurs in streams and rivers where rainbow trout have been stocked alongside their cutthroat trout relatives. These are often seen as a nuisance in native cutthroat streams as they inhibit the genetic viability of the native trout. However, cutbows have been intentionally stocked in some rivers, such as the White River in Arkansas.