Trout Fishing 101

Here’s how to differentiate the 11 different species of trout with tips on targeting this ever-favored freshwater fish.

Trout fishing is one of the most popular activities in the country—for a reason. Actually, for many good reasons. To start, trout species are located nearly everywhere there’s cold freshwater throughout North America. And most of those waterways (and bodies) are open for trout fishing year-round. Pursuing them is open to everyone, regardless of age, skill or income level, requiring only a simple and inexpensive gear list to get started—whether you’re spincasting or fly fishing, all you need is a rod, reel and line, plus lure or bait (and a license). To top it off, trout are relatively simple to catch—not to mention nutrient-packed, if you’re inclined (and allowed) to keep and cook your catch— which makes fishing for them a perfect way to engage the whole family outdoors.

Once you’ve successfully landed your trout, enjoy the catch. But before you let it go (or keep it, up to regulation limits), honor its DNA by knowing what you caught. With 11 species of trout on the continent, a lot of them look pretty similar and they can be hard to differentiate. For the most part, there are two Pacific trout (cutthroat and rainbow); one European (brown); four chars (brook, bull, Dolly Varden, and lake); and two hybrids (splake and tiger). Refer to the following cheatsheet to identify your catch, including some added tips for distinguishing steelhead from salmon, and to maximize your opportunities to land this anglers’ favorite. 

Pacific (Native) Rainbow 

To ID rainbow trout, look for black spots on their body and dorsal fin, a signature pink stripe along their side, and a wide, square tail. While native to the Pacific coast, you’ll also find them throughout the Rocky Mountains, Canada, and even in the Southeast. Subspecies include steelhead, redband and golden trout. 


Cutthroats are identifiable by a blood-like red mark behind their lower jaw. Also look for small black spots on the top half of their body. Most live in the western U.S., though they’ve also been introduced in the Northeast. They also have 11 different subspecies, each of which looks slightly different, depending on where they live.  


Don’t necessarily look for “brown” when identifying a brown trout; they can also be gold or silver. Originally brought to North America from Germany, their most distinguishing feature is red/orange spots with silver rings (some say they resemble salmon). Subspecies include sea trout and lake trout.  


A cousin of trout and salmon, char all look relatively similar, with four main subspecies: lake, brook, and bull trout, and Dolly Varden, each with its own following key features. 

Lake trout

The biggest of the bunch, lake trout sometimes reach upward of 70 pounds. As well as their size, look for creamy spots and a deeply forked tail. They’re also called mackinaw, namaycush, gray trout, and togue. 

Brook trout

Brook trout are the smallest char, from just inches to a foot or longer. Look for white edges on their lower fins and worm-like markings on their back and head. You’ll find them anywhere where the water’s cold enough, from the Rocky Mountains to Appalachia.  

Bull trout

Similar looking to Dolly Varden and Arctic char, bull trout are large with a semi-forked tail. Look for them in the large, cold rivers of the Pacific Northwest.  

Dolly Varden

Also a char and not a trout, Dolly Varden, which are naturally anadromous (migrating or sea-run), live along the Northwest, from Alaska down to Washington. They rarely exceed 10 pounds and have less forked tails than lake trout.  


A few hybrid trout can also be found in our country’s waters, which are combinations of the above. 

Tiger trout

A strong sport fish, tiger trout are a cross between a male brook and female brown trout. Look for a thick body, harboring worm-like patterns. 


This crossbreed of a male brook and female lake trout grows quickly and looks similar to brook trout, but with the forked tail of a lake trout. The majority are bred and stocked. 


The anadromous version of rainbow trout (which are the landlocked, freshwater version), steelhead migrate from the ocean into freshwater to spawn. Reaching lengths of 45 inches, they differ from salmon in that they don’t die after spawning. Look for: a longer, skinnier body than salmon; a short jaw and white mouth; small spots on the body and tail, dark spots on the dorsal fin, and often a red stripe along the side; and a square-shaped tail with radiating spots. 

Trout Fishing Tips 


In most areas, you also will need to buy an angling license for trout fishing. Fishing licenses might be available for time periods, typically ranging from a day to a year. Some states offer free or reduced-price licenses for children, senior citizens, veterans, and anglers with disabilities. 


Using bait? Decide whether you’ll fish near the bottom or suspend your bait from a bobber. Bottom fishing is effective because trout often cruise lake bottoms in search of food. If trout are surfacing, suspend your bait beneath a float and wait for the bobber to move. Note: Fish often swallow bait deeply and may not survive being unhooked; because of this, it’s prohibited in many waters where catch-and-release fishing is required. Where it’s allowed, only use bait if you’re planning to keep your catch. 


Spinners and spoons are frequently used with spincasters and spinning combos in lakes, ponds, and rivers. A few hints: In lakes, let the lure sink different lengths of time before reeling it in to change its depth; vary your retrieval speed (for spoons, let it stop and start so it “flutters”); and take note of what types of retrieves get the most strikes. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.