Are Brown Trout Native To North America? Origins And Impact

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Brown trout getting ready to lay eggs in a tiny creek.

Of North America’s various native trout species, brown trout is not one of them. Brown trout, or Salmo trutta, are native to Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t find brown trout in the United States. They populate such a vast region that if a trout stream is nearby, chances are it holds browns.

Brown Trout Native Range

Brown trout are a Eurasian species endemic to Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia. People may call them “German Browns,” which refers to a strain of brown trout – not their homeland.

Other countries with native brown trout include:

  • Europe: France, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Russia, and Sweden. 
  • Asia: Afghanistan, Armenia, Pakistan, and Turkey. 
  • Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

Why Are Brown Trout So Prevalent? 

New Zealand '98 Stamp: Cool Brown Trout in Gore!

Today, brown trout populate every continent except the Arctic and Antarctica. Some destinations, such as New Zealand and Argentina, have world-renowned brown trout despite their lack of native trout species. So, why are brown trout so prevalent?

Despite being a coldwater fish, brown trout can survive in warmer temperatures. This tolerance for cold temperatures allows for transportation to diverse habitats. Besides coldwater streams, brown trout live in lakes, reservoirs, ponds, and saltwater.

A perfect example of their stocking success includes New Zealand, which many anglers revere as the world’s capital for monster brown trout.

Brown Trout Stocking History

Brown trout are available in 45 U.S. states, making them a favorite for game and subsistence fishermen. But as a non-native fish to the U.S., their prevalence only came within the last century.

Michigan’s Pere Marquette River stocked the first German brown trout eggs in 1883. Since the arrival of these eggs, 45 U.S. states have stocked brown trout in their local fisheries.

States without sustainable cool water struggle to reproduce brown trout in the wild. In such conditions, brown trout populations sustain via periodic stocking. Meanwhile, states with cool mountain streams and spring-fed creeks have natural reproduction. After these stockers reproduce, their offspring are “wild” brown trout.

When I began trout fishing, “native,” “wild,” and “stocked” designations were very confusing. When it comes to brown trout, remember: If you’re fishing in North America, you can only catch wild or stocked brown trout. There are no native brown trout in North America.

Are Brown Trout Invasive? 

The Global Invasive Species Database lists brown trout as one of the world’s worst invasive species. Because of how fast they breed, brown trout displace native trout species.

No example is better than brook trout, which are often outsourced by browns. Larger brown trout outcompete brookies and can survive warmer temperatures. Some streams encourage harvesting brown trout from a brook trout stream to even the scales.

Impact of Brown Trout

Brown trout populations create benefits and setbacks for anglers and conservationists. This dilemma centers on the environmental and economic impacts of this coveted fish.

Environmental Impact

Brown trout populations survive in diverse habitats, so their growing numbers affect native populations. Often, these effects can decrease native numbers through competition, displacement, or limited resources.

But their environmental impact is complex. Though the population of native species may decline, brown trout inhabit rivers that would otherwise have no fish. As my friend once said, “People won’t care about a clean river if they never use it.”

At the cost of native numbers, a healthy brown trout population puts more people on the water, which creates more wildlife advocacy. My hometown in western Wisconsin is a perfect example. The advocacy for our local river is sky-high because of our world-class brown trout.

Of course, that same stream may hold native char, but at a rate that can only host a limited number of anglers. As a result, opportunities to catch brown trout elicit local policies and ordinances for clean water. These laws and policies ensure clean water. Call me a dreamer, but brook trout may return if the river remains clean and cold.

David releasing a brown trout caught in western Wisconsin.
David releasing a brown trout caught in western Wisconsin

Economic Impact

Brown trout benefit shops, hotels, and restaurants in areas with suitable fisheries. As a former fly shop employee, I was in awe of the distance people would drive to get their hands on a Wisconsin brown trout! 

The money raised from license and tackle sales benefits local economies. Some of it is invested in conservation and environmental efforts. Anglers need to buy a trout stamp with their license in some states. These trout stamps fund restoration and public easements for generational fishing. 

Because of brown trout’s mixed impact, many anglers continue debating brown trout’s net gain in non-native streams. 

Related Questions 

Who Brought Brown Trout To the U.S.? 

The first brown trout came from Germany by Fred Mather, a New York farmer, in 1883. 

Since the first American browns came from Germany, many call standard brown trout “German brown trout.” But not all brown trout strains are German.

What Trout Are Native To North America? 

North America is home to nine trout species: Dolly Varden, rainbow, cutthroat, golden, lake, brook, Gila, Apache, and bull trout. 

What Trout Are Invasive In The U.S.? 

Today, the U.S. has four major trout species: brown, brook, cutthroat, and rainbow trout. Only one of those species, the brown trout, is invasive.

But “invasive” or “nuisance” is also relative to where you fish. For example, people regard brook trout as native treasures. But in my experience fishing out west, brook trout can displace cutthroats. In fisheries holding precious cutties, anglers view brook trout as invasive.

Final Thoughts 

Brown trout are not native to North America and first came from Germany in 1883. Since then, their range has expanded to 45 states for anglers to enjoy. 

But their impact is mixed. They provide economic benefits and advocacy for clean water, but brown trout compete with native species that are often displaced. So where do you stand? Does the cost of brown trout outweigh the benefits?

David Linsmeyer Avatar


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