Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
The most widely cultivated trout species in the world, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are bred for sport and food, and they inhabit lakes and streams on every continent except Antarctica. For many anglers, their first trout caught on a worm, lure, or fly was a hatchery-bred rainbow stocked by the state just days or weeks earlier. Yet wild rainbows, within their native range or in a foreign land, are revered for their tenacious fight, which often includes multiple leaps. The fact that they are considered less wary and easier to catch than brown trout has also helped to endear rainbows to anglers. But anyone who has sight-fished to big rainbows in a Montana spring creek or crystal-clear New Zealand river knows that the species can be maddeningly selective and easy to spook.
Range and Species History
The native range of the rainbow trout is a fairly narrow band along the western coast of North America, from the southern tributaries of Alaska’s Kuskokwim River in the north to the mountains of northern Mexico in the south. On the other side of the Pacific, the range includes the Kamchatka Peninsula and surrounding waters. Subspecies of O. mykiss in North America include steelhead (O. m. irideus), Columbia River redband trout (O. m. gairneri), Great Basin redband trout (O. m. gibbsi), three Kern River subspecies, and several Mexican subspecies. You can now catch rainbows in such exotic locations as the South Island of New Zealand, the Highlands of Lesotho in southern Africa, the mountains of Costa Rica in Central America, and the Himalayas of Bhutan in Asia. They are also found across Europe and South America.
Rainbow trout can thrive in a wide variety of waters, from coastal estuaries to freestone streams to coldwater lakes, but generally they prefer clear, cold water and complex habitat—a mix of riffles, runs, and pools. Because even resident fish tend to migrate widely within a stream system, from the lower river to headwaters and back, they can find suitable habitat in almost any conditions. Rainbows do not spawn in lakes, so self-sustaining populations require tributaries with gravelly bottoms for natural reproduction. Where they share a system with other migratory species, such as Pacific salmon, rainbows will often follow spawning fish upstream to feat on the eggs and/or flesh.
Brown Trout (Salmo Trutta)
The brown trout (Salmo trutta) has earned a reputation as the wariest and wiliest opponent a river angler can face. Whereas a brookie or a cutthroat will often attack flies with gullible abandon, browns are usually more discriminating. The larger specimens, especially, are often reclusive—hiding beneath a cutbank or hunkering near the bottom until darkness falls, and only then emerging to hunt baitfish. Because of these sporting qualities, the species has been stocked in waters well outside its range, a result of the recreation craze and empire-building of the 19th Century. In fact, the British were so determined to bring the brown trout to Tasmania that they made three attempts to ship trout eggs around the African continent, finally succeeding in 1864. Fly fishers can now test their wits against browns on six continents.
Range and Species History
The original range of the brown trout is much larger than most anglers realize, reaching from northern Norway and the White Sea tributaries of Russia south to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. The species ranged west as far as Iceland and as far east as the Aral Sea tributaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, there are now wild, self-sustaining populations of brown trout in places such as New Zealand, South America, and South Africa.
Brown trout are now found all across the U.S.
Photo via USGS
The species first came to the U.S. in 1883, when a New York fish farmer named Fred Mather imported brown-trout eggs from Baron Lucius von Behr, president of the German Fishing Society. (That’s why many folks refer to the fish as German browns.) Two years later, eggs from Scotland’s Loch Leven arrived and were sent to the same three hatcheries, and the prevailing theory is that the genetic stock were mixed to create what Robert Behnke calls the “American generic brown trout.” In 1884, the release of 4,900 brown-trout fry into Michigan’s Baldwin River, a tributary of the Pere Marquette River, represented the first time the species swam free in U.S. waters.
Although there are currently no recognized subspecies of brown trout, there are three basic morphs (distinct behavioral populations within a species): those that in habit freshwater rivers (Salmo trutta morpha fario), lake populations (Salmo trutta morpha lacustrine), and anadromous forms (Salmo trutta morpha trutta). Browns that spend their lives in the ocean before entering rivers to spawn are called sea trout. The species name means “salmon trout” and described the anadromous morph. Resident and anadromous browns that inhabit the same river are genetically identical, and biologists do not yet understand why some migrate to the salt and some stay in the river.
Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Although the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is not, in a fact, a trout at all, it is the most “troutlike” of the charrs. A sought-after game fish because it often lives in pristine waters and readily attacks flies of all kinds, it was the first “destination” fish in the Americas. Trains would transport anglers from New York and Boston to the mountains of Vermont and Maine just for the opportunity to lay into a big “squaretail.” While some cynics believe the brookie to be the dumbest of trout because it is supposedly easiest to fool, catching a trophy usually requires skill and patience. But anglers are known to marvel over the tiny, jewel-like brookies caught in headwater streams and dream of the monsters caught in Labrador’s lakes.
Range and Life History
The original range of the brook trout encompasses much of the northeastern corner of North America, including the streams of the high Appalachians as far south as Georgia, and extending west to the Hudson Bay and Great Lakes Basins. Biologists identify two genetically distinct strains of brook trout—a northern and southern strain—with the boundary being the New River drainage in southwestern Virginia. The southern strain, often called “speckled trout,” is less genetically diverse, making populations more fragile and susceptible to change and catastrophic events.
The only native trout species east of the Rockies, the brook trout was an important quarry for the original European settlers. Starting in about 1850, the species’ range was extended westward through stocking, at the behest of the American Acclimatization Society. Such organizations in other countries followed suit, and brook trout were introduced throughout Europe, in Argentina, and as far afield as New Zealand. Currently, there is just a handful of states in the South that don’t have introduced populations.
Brook trout can inhabit a wide range of waters—from large lakes to tiny mountain streams—but they require cold, clean water, and they are sensitive to poor oxygenation and acidity. The size, longevity, and feeding habits of the trout are dependent on such factors elevation, available forage, and water temperature. In small, Southern streams, individual fish rarely live longer than five years, are generally under 12 inches, and feed on aquatic insects. But those in large, northern lakes and rivers can grow to more than ten pounds; feed on insects and larger prey, such as minnows and mice; and can live for up to ten years.
Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri)
The names of many legendary fishing spots in Yellowstone National Park—Buffalo Ford, the Lamar Valley, the meadows of Slough Creek—are synonymous with big, native Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri) that will rise to a dry fly on a summer day. Anglers dream of such places because they combine much of what we love about the sport: that it takes us to where we can experience true wilderness and natural beauty and that it allows us to match wits with a game fish on its home turf, in the very waters where it evolved over tens of thousands of years. In truth, Yellowstone cutthroats are neither the wariest nor the hardest-fighting trout in the West, but they are beautiful, willingly eat flies of all kinds, and inhabit crystal-clear streams in the midst of some incredible landscapes. The YCT is also one of the four subspecies of cutthroats that make up the Wyoming Cutt-Slam, the Utah Cutthroat Slam, and the Nevada Native Fish Slam programs. They’re also part of the Western Native Trout Challenge.
Range and Species History
The original range of the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (YCT) includes the Yellowstone River drainage upstream of the Tongue River, the Snake River drainage upstream of Shoshone Falls. This includes sizeable swaths of southern Montana, northwestern Wyoming, southeaster Idaho, and extends just a bit into northern Utah and Nevada, as well. The introduction of nonnative trout species—resulting in increased competition and hybridization—and loss of habitat through development and fragmentation have reduced the number of river miles inhabited by YCT to less than 45 percent of historic norms (from approximately 17,400 river miles to just 7,500). Hatcheries in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho raise YCT to supplement wild stocks and to reintroduce the subspecies to waters where it has been extirpated.
Yellowstone cutthroats demonstrate three life-history patterns: resident, fluvial, and adfluvial. Resident fish spend their entire lives in on stretch of a stream, usually in headwater streams and those that have been isolated. Fluvial YCT spend most of their lives in the main stem of a river but migrate up tributaries to spawn, and adfluvial fish live in lakes and move to tributaries or outlet streams to spawn. These fluvial and adfluvial populations are most at risk from habitat fragmentation, in which the spawning waters are cut off by roads, culverts, and other obstacles.
YCT prefer cold, clear, oxygenated water with a gravel substrate and little sediment. Good YCT habitat also includes complex cover, such as undercut banks and in-stream woody debris. Spawning occurs in spring and early summer, usually after peak runoff, and the emerging fry may begin migrating immediately. At three years old, they are ready to spawn, and YCT can live up to eleven years.
Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides )
Among the more widely distributed game fish in North America, and now around the world, the largemouth bass is prized for its aggressive feeding habits and violent strikes. A big bass blowing up the water around a popper chugging across flat water is a thrilling sight, and the ensuing battle often includes several acrobatic leaps. Although fly-fishing for bass has always been popular in parts of the country, in recent years there’s been a resurgence of interest—as evidenced by new, high-tech tackle; the rise of fly-fishing-only bass tournaments; and even several films dedicated to chasing largemouths with the long rod.
Range and Habits
The original range of the largemouth bass was from the Mississippi basin east and stretched north to the Canadian border, but bass have been stocked in lakes and rivers in 49 states. (Only Alaska is without.) The trophy qualities of the Florida strain has led fisheries managers to introduce subspecies from coast-to-coast, and the giant fish regularly caught from impoundments in Texas, California, and Northern Mexico can trace their roots directly to the SunshineState. Largemouths have also been exported to countries such as South Africa, Europe, Guam, Japan, Lebanon, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
One of the things that makes largemouths easy to stock is that they can live in a wide array of habitats, including small creeks, swamps, and even estuaries. Because they prefer warm water—up to about 92 degrees—they generally stay near the surface, which makes them more available to anglers. Low levels of dissolved oxygen in very warm water can cause fish kills, and in the northern end of their range, bass can be stressed by a similar situation in frozen lakes.
Depending on the body of water, the fish can hug the shoreline, congregate around structure, or (less commonly) even school in open water. In general, you’ll find largemouths around weedbeds, structures or debris, or irregularities in a lake or river bottom. They prefer the shade of trees, docks, lily pads, and logs, from which they can ambush prey.
Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
The smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) goes by many nicknames—smallie, bronzeback, brownie, and brown bass, to name a few—which is a sign of its popularity in different parts of the country. It’s the most trout–like bass, in that it often lives in clean, cold rivers and feeds on insects, baitfish, and crayfish. For these reasons, even the most rigid trout snobs, who wouldn’t deign to cast to a largemouth or a panfish on a farm pond, will tie on a slider to tempt smallmouths to the surface. However, where the bass are encroaching on traditional trout water, often as a result of “bucket biology,” they are often viewed as an unwanted nuisance species.
Range and Life History
The original range of the smallmouth bass included the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway drainages—stretching from southern Quebec and New Hampshire to North Dakota—as well as the Mississippi River drainage as far south as Alabama. There were also native populations in the lower Hudson Bay basin. Smallmouths shared much of their range with largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides); the two can coexist, but smallmouths generally prefer clearer, cooler water.
The construction of the Erie Canal in 1825 allowed the species to spread into central New York, and throughout the 19th century, smallmouths were stocked across the country, all the way to California. On many traditional trout-and-salmon rivers dams had caused the water to warm, and smallmouths were often stocked to replaced extinct coldwater game fish.
Their reputation as a hardy game fish and decent table fare made smallmouths in demand around the globe. In 1873, they were introduced in Belgium, the first international stocking. Since then, populations have been established in South Africa, Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Germany, The Czech Republic, Mexico, Belize, Austria, Slovakia, Vietnam, Guam, Fiji, and Hawaii.
Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Most of us have an early memory of reeling in bluegills from a local pond, using just a worm or some equally homey bait. The fact that the species, Lepomis macrochirus, goes by many different names—bream, blue bream, sun perch, blue sunfish, copperhead, copperbelly, roach—is a testament to its popularity in many regions of the country. But any avid bluegill angler will tell you that the big ones, known as “bulls,” are as wary and hard to catch as any trout.
Range and Habitat
The original range of the bluegill covers most of the eastern half of the U.S.—stretching from Quebec to northeastern Mexico, but they did not inhabit the coastal states north of Virginia. Because they are so prized as both a sport fish and a source of food, they were introduced throughout the country and now swim in every state except Alaska. They have also been exported to other parts of the world, where it is sometimes seen as an invasive species and a pest. Bluegills given as a gift by Chicago mayor Richard Daley to the emperor of Japan escaped a containment pond and have wreaked havoc with native species.
Bluegills can thrive in a wide variety of habitats, and they are found in lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers—especially those with fertile water containing lots of microinvertebrates. They prefer the same weedy habitat where you’re likely to find bass, with the larger fish holding in deeper water. In fact, predation by bass is often seen as a vital component of a healthy population of bluegills, especially larger ones.
In the spring, they spawn in colonies, digging circular, crater-like redds in sand or gravel. Bluegills reproduce rapidly—females can spawn up to nine times a season—a characteristic that makes them a good food fish but which often leads to overpopulation and stunted adults when there is no harvest. However, overfishing will also lead to a reduction in the average size of the fish.
Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis)
A big striper on the fly will make you forget about trout streams for a while.
Photo by Sandy Hays
The striped bass is kind of like the rainbow trout of the sea in that, a native of the Atlantic coast, it has been transported and stocked successfully around the world. The original range of the striped bass stretches from Canada’s St. Lawrence River to the St. John’s River in northern Florida, as well as along the Gulf Coast to Louisiana.
The species was introduced to the West Coast in 1879, when 132 fingerling bass from the Navesink River in New Jersey were transported by rail to San Francisco Bay, and by the end of the century, there was a thriving population that supported both commercial and recreational fisheries. The West Coast striped-bass range now stretches from Los Angeles north to the Columbia River.
In 1941, stripers were accidentally landlocked during the construction of South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Reservoir, and both anglers and fisheries managers were thrilled to discover that the species could not only survive, but prosper in large impoundments. Although most freshwater striped-bass populations are maintained through stocking, some lakes are fed by rivers suitable for spawning. More than 30 states now have freshwater stripers, as well as hybrids—called wipers—created by crossing stripers with white bass. Wipers can tolerate higher water temperatures and are therefore better for southern climates.
In more recent times, stripers have been introduced in large lakes Ecuador, Iran, Latvia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, to name just a few. The species is prized for both its sporting qualities—including its willingness to take flies—as well as its value as a source of food. The species is now being commercially raised to service the demand from restaurants and fish markets. This could help with conservation in the oceans, where East Coast stocks are showing signs of trouble.
Redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus)
A species known as much for its light flavor as for its sporting qualities, the redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus) is the only species in its genus, which sets it apart from the other fish commonly known as “drums.” The combination of the redfish’s love for shallow-water flats and its willingness to pounce on almost any food-like morsel it see makes the species a favorite of fly fishers. But they’re no pushovers: casting to a school of tailing redfish requires a quick delivery, accuracy, and a delicate presentation. Once you hook a big redfish and feel its power, you’ll understand why anglers call them “bulls.”
Range and Habits
The full range of the redfish stretches from Massachusetts to Key West, and around the rim of the Gulf of Mexico to the Mexican city of Tuxpan, but they don’t exist in targetable numbers north of Chesapeake Bay and in extreme southern Florida. True world-class fishing for trophy redfish can be found in the marshes of the Southeast, Florida’s Indian River Lagoon system, along the Sunshine State’s western coast, in the marshes of Louisiana, and in the shallows off Texas.
In the 1980s, a marked decline in redfish populations was often blamed on famous chef Paul Prudhomme, who had popularized blackened redfish as table fare, but biologists believe that the species had been struggling since the late seventies due to overharvesting of young redfish in coastal waters by sport fishermen, declining water quality, and loss of habitat. Catch limits and bans on commercial fishing have allowed the species to recover. Hatchery programs helped rebuild stocks, and farm-raised redfish replaced commercial fishing. In 2007, President George W. Bush making permanent regulations that already banned the commercial harvesting of redfish in federal waters.
Redfish can withstand a wide range of salinities and temperatures and can often be found in tidal areas of rivers. The fish spend their early lives in estuaries, feeding on plankton and growing rapidly—up to 14 inches in the first year. Redfish grow throughout their entire life span, although once they hit about 36 inches, they add more girth than length. Juvenile fish spend as much as four years in the estuary before migrating into nearshore waters to join groups of other mature fish. Spawning takes place from midsummer through fall, depending on the location.