All About Trout: Rainbows, Browns, Brooks, and More

By Diana Rupp

Why do anglers love trout so much? Sure, they’re beautiful fish, they fight hard for their size, and they’re great to eat. But that’s true of many other fish, too. There’s just something about trout. Trout prefer cold-water environments—high mountain streams, deep lakes, and limestone creeks. These are the types of places we associate with wilderness and solitude, and I think that is part of the reason trout appeal to us.  On the other hand, trout are also one of the most commonly stocked fish species, raised in hatcheries all over the world and released in waters that many of us can fish with just a short drive from home, making them one of our most accessible fish to catch, whether we’re casting a hand-tied fly or drifting a worm or salmon egg.

Depending on how you count them, and whether you include subspecies and hybrids, there are as many as fourteen different types of trout. By far, though, the three most common and widely distributed trout are rainbows, brooks, and browns. If you’re just getting started with trout fishing and you’re lucky enough to hook a trout in a stream, river, pond, or small lake, it will most likely be one of the “big three.” But how do you tell the difference? There are wide variations in the colors of all species of trout, so identification is not always obvious. Wild trout tend to be much more brightly colored than hatchery-raised fish, and fish of the same species can vary in brightness and coloration from waterway to waterway, and even from the upper part of a stream to its lower reaches. Here are a few things to look for:

Rainbow trout: Rainbow trout are so named because of their coloration, most notably a distinctive pink stripe that runs along their sides from the gills to the base of the tail. However, the pink stripe isn’t always very noticeable, especially with hatchery fish. If you don’t see a pink stripe, look for lots of small black spots on the back, fins, and tail. The body of the rainbow trout is usually greenish, olive, or bluish-gray, with a silver or white underside.

This is classic coloration for a rainbow trout: an olive-colored back and body with a distinctive pink stripe down the flank, and small black spots.

Brown trout: Brown trout aren’t necessarily brown. Most of the browns I’ve caught were more of a yellowish color (okay, golden-brown), with an off-white underside. Any time you catch a trout, look carefully at its spots. A brown trout has large black spots on its sides that are surrounded by a light-colored ring, like the pupil of an eye, usually with some red spots mixed in. These light-ringed dark spots on a yellowish or light-colored body are the tip-offs that it’s a brown trout.

Brown trout can be identified by their golden-brown or yellow color, and their black and red spots have light-colored halos around them.

Brook trout: Brook trout have colorful reddish coloration on their lower body and fins that may make you think of a rainbow trout, but their spots are completely different. Look for red spots surrounded by bluish halos, as well as light-colored, usually yellow, spots on their dark-colored sides. Also look for squiggly, wormlike markings on the fish’s upper back and head, and white edges on the fins, which are telltale signs of a brook trout.

The lower fins on brook trout are reddish with white edges, and these fish have yellow spots as well as red spots surrounded by blue rings.

While the “big three” are by far the most common types of trout, there are a few other types you may catch, depending on where you’re fishing. 

Palomino trout: If you’re fishing in stocked waters, you might see a few of these bright-yellow trout cruising around; they can be easily spotted swimming in all but the murkiest waters. Palomino or golden rainbow trout are a color variation of rainbow trout that are bred in hatcheries. They are very popular with anglers because of their striking yellow hue.

Tiger trout: I once hooked a trout in my dad’s stocked pond that gave me the fight of my life on my lightweight fly rod. It tore across the pond, peeling line off my reel, then leaped and twisted as I frantically stripped line. When I finally got it in my net, I was puzzled. It had no spots like the trout I knew; instead it was covered with wormlike white stripes. I later learned it was a tiger trout, a cross between a brook and a brown trout. These hybrids are nonbreeding, so you’ll only find them in stocked waters, and they’re extremely aggressive and among the most fun to catch of all types of trout. And since they don’t reproduce, you don’t have to feel guilty about keeping a few for dinner.

Cutthroat trout: Several varieties of cutthroat trout are found in the streams, lakes, and rivers of the American West. Body coloration and markings vary widely among the subspecies, but cutthroats are usually easy to identify by the bright-red mark along the underside of their jaw, in the lower folds of the gill plates. Cutthroats also have small black spots over most of their body and head, and on all their fins. Cutthroats and rainbow trout are often found in the same waterways, and these two types of trout often interbreed, creating a trout called a “cuttbow,” which may have characteristics of both species: the pink side stripe of the rainbow and the red under-jaw markings of the cutthroat.

Cutthroat trout are easily identified by the red or pink “slash” along the gill line under the jaw.

Golden trout: Not to be confused with the palomino trout, this small, beautiful trout is native to California and is its state fish. It has golden flanks with red, horizontal stripes and dark vertical ovals on each side. Its fins have white tips. These fish are native to the southern Sierra Nevada mountains but have been stocked in other areas, mostly high-mountain streams and lakes. They may be the most beautiful of all the types of trout.

Which type of trout is the hardest to catch? It’s a question that trout anglers have argued around campfires for generations. It’s generally accepted that rainbow trout are more aggressive, while brown and brook trout tend to hold in deeper water and be pickier about what they eat. As trout get bigger and older, they become wary and highly selective through experience. This means a big old brown trout may be the most difficult of the three to catch. But trout of any type will challenge even the most experienced anglers, and that’s what makes them endlessly fascinating. To me, any trout is a trophy.

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