Are Rainbow Trout Native to North America? Origins Explained

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Rainbow trout came to Western NC rivers because Brook Trout numbers dropped.

Rainbow trout are one of America’s most popular game fish. So a common question is, where did they come from? Are they native to North America?

Yes, rainbow trout are native to North America and originate from two areas in the Pacific: Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and North America’s northwest coast.

Rainbow Trout Range

Rainbow trout’s home originally included a narrow band along the Pacific, but it has increased due to stocking success. Today, you can find rainbow trout in every U.S. state (from Florida to Montana). You can even find rainbow trout on every continent except Antarctica.

Antartica map.

Why are rainbow trout so prevalent?

Of all trout species, rainbow trout are one of the most durable in poor conditions, making them easy to ship and farm. They prefer cold, clear water in streams and creeks to spawn. But their hardiness also makes lakes and reservoirs potential homes.

Rainbow trout are also easy to raise in hatcheries and have been shipped worldwide since the 1890s. As a result, their original narrow range has spread. 

State wildlife agencies are careful about where they stock rainbows. Unfortunately, efforts are limited. In a favorite stream next to a trout farm, I’ve caught rainbows that were never planted. During spring run-off and flood time, these farmed fish escaped their hatchery and found the local river. 

Are Rainbow Trout Invasive?

We can consider any non-native trout in a stream to be invasive. I often catch sizable brown trout in a brook trout stream with disappointment. So “invasive” depends on your location and the original species of that area.

When it comes to rainbow trout, people consider them invasive in non-native areas. This includes areas where stocked rainbows threaten fragile cutthroat and brook trout streams.

Rainbow trout live in Sierra Nevada, CA.

Are Any Trout Native to North America?

There are four major trout species in North America, and only one of them, the brown trout, is non-native. Rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout are native to North America.

My favorite fish, the brook trout, is native to eastern North America. Their native range includes a boundary from Minnesota to New England and as far south as Georgia. These gems are an unbelievable natural sight. 

The cutthroat trout is native to western United States. Their native area occupies Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. Named after the red line under their jaw, their bronze and red color is a sight worth hiking miles for.

What Is a “Native Trout?”

A native trout refers to any endemic trout born in the wild. Basically, a native trout’s lineage includes naturally reproduced trout from the wild. 

Native trout, which are more common, are often confused with “wild trout.” A wild trout is any trout born in the wild but is not indigenous. Again in layman’s terms, a wild trout may be born in the stream, but its parents may have come from a hatchery.

For example, stocked rainbow trout enter streams each year. Any hold-over rainbows who make it to the following year will likely reproduce and spawn. Their offspring are considered wild rainbows.

In the hierarchy of trout, native trout are the most precious.

Are Native Trout Under Threat?

Stocked trout compromise the genetic integrity of native fish. This is due to various factors, including competition and hybridization from stocked fish.

But habitat plays an important role, too. Stocked fish are more susceptible to temperature changes and can withstand declining habitats.

As a result of genetic variation and decreasing habitat, native numbers are declining. Finding a native stream is the exception rather than the rule.

When was the Rainbow Trout Discovered

Europeans discovered rainbow trout in the 1790s along Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. A century later, they were shipped across the globe for stocking and recreational purposes. 

Are There Rainbow Trout in Other Countries?

Due to their international presence, rainbow trout are the most globally consumed and targeted trout species. Reports have shown that rainbow trout live in 87 different countries. You can find rainbow trout worldwide, from New Zealand and Costa Rica to Afghanistan and Iceland.

Final Thoughts

Rainbow trout are native to North America’s west coast, but they have expanded their region since the 1890s. You can find rainbow trout almost everywhere. Whether it’s giant rainbows of New Zealand or fingerlings of the Black Hills, you can find rainbow trout nearly everywhere.

Nataya Linsmeyer and Izzy with a hard-earned rainbow trout in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Nataya Linsmeyer and Izzy with a hard-earned rainbow trout in the Black Hills of South Dakota
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