Are Rainbow Trout Rare? A Species’ Complicated Question

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Rainbow trout swims up close.

Rainbow trout are one of the most recognized trout species worldwide, and for good reason. They are more dispersed than all trout species.

But assessing rainbow trout’s rarity is a two-part question. First, the answer depends on your definition of rainbow trout. Are we talking about native, wild, or stocked rainbow trout? 

Second, the answer depends on your location. For example, here in Wisconsin, inland rainbows are rare. But out west, you will find rivers and streams full of them. 

In short, wild and stocked rainbows thrive, while native rainbows are increasingly rare.

Stocked vs. Wild vs. Native Rainbows

Hatcheries raise stocked rainbows to introduce them to freshwater streams later in life. Often, this happens when rainbows reach their fingerling stage. But if you’re lucky, a nearby stream might also introduce brood-stocked rainbows. 

After many shifts in a fly shop, I find people TRY to keep these brood-stockers a secret. 

Newsflash: Over a dozen people told me the same “secret.” So, don’t count on available brood stockers for long. 

At Table Rock Dam, a worker feeds rainbow trout for Table Rock Lake.

Wild rainbows include those born in a river, lake, or pond but are not endemic. Though they were born in the wild, they hatched from stocked trout.

Native rainbows are indigenous to their home waters. This means if you made a family tree of trout (which we should all do), you’d find that all ancestors trace back to the same river or lake.

Why Are Rainbow Trout So Common?

Rainbow trout are common because of farming and stocking since the late 1800s.

Relative to other trout species, rainbows are hardier, tolerate adverse environments, and spawn easily. This encouraged outdoorsmen to introduce rainbows to rivers and lakes for recreational and subsistence use.

Today, stocked rainbows are available in 87 countries worldwide. New Zealand, home to arguably the world’s best trout fishing, is an excellent example of rainbow trout’s stocking success.

Where Do Rainbow Trout Live?

Rainbow trout prefer freshwater that is cool, clean, and oxygenated. You will find rainbow trout thriving in streams, creeks, and rivers.

But wildlife management prefers to plant rainbow trout in lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. Stocking rainbows into these resources increases recreational fishing, where trout can’t reproduce. More importantly, lake stocking decreases interbreeding and preserves the genetic integrity of native trout.

Where Can I Find Rainbow Trout (Location)?

If you search hard enough, you’ll find rainbow trout in every U.S. state and on six continents. Their distribution across those regions isn’t equal since some regions have better environments and, so, more trout.

Rainbow trout populations are dense in the western states. This includes Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington. High-altitude lakes and abundant rivers in this region make for rich trout habitats.

A Western Wyoming river filled with rainbow trout.
A Western Wyoming river filled with rainbow trout

In southern and eastern states, rainbow trout are available in rivers and streams. Expect stock rainbows in ponds and reservoirs if a state has few coldwater streams.

Related Questions

Can Rainbow Trout Live In Warm Water?

There are records of rainbow trout surviving in water temperatures close to 80 degrees. This is considered a warm habitat for trout and explains rainbow trout’s prevalence. If temperatures rise, they can outlast and displace competing species.

Though rainbows may survive at this temperature, I wouldn’t fish for them in warm water. You’ll likely stress them beyond recovery.

I’ve encountered this in tailwaters where a heating reservoir released warm water below. Though I thought the water was a safe temperature, the trout struggled to recover and swim in such warm waters. In these cases, it’s best to avoid fishing when the water approaches 70 degrees.

Can Rainbow Trout Live In Florida?

They can, and they do! Though Florida rainbow trout are rare, ponds with stocked rainbows allow anyone to hook a bow. Stocked ponds are the best way to introduce kids to trout fishing. There are high odds of success, and the terrain is age appropriate.

Are Rainbow Trout Endangered?

Yes, despite rainbow trout’s worldwide popularity, native rainbow trout are endangered in some U.S. regions. This is due to damming rivers, sediment runoff, and warming water temperatures.

Final Thoughts

The story and prevalence of rainbow trout is a complicated one. Though stocked and wild populations are widespread, native rainbow trout are rare. So if you stumble upon a native rainbow trout stream, SHHHH!

David Linsmeyer Avatar


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