Where Do Rainbow Trout Live? Finding Rainbow Trout 

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Fishing: Colorful trout leap, making big splashes in mountain lake!

As the world’s most famous trout, you can find rainbow trout in lakes, rivers, and ponds throughout all 50 states and in 87 countries.

But their vast region hasn’t always been the case. The spread of rainbow trout over the last 140 years makes it one of the most recognizable fish in the world. 

Where Do Rainbow Trout Live? 

Successful stocking efforts in the late 1800s expanded the region they live in. Whether you want rainbows for food or outdoor entertainment, you don’t have to look far for your next catch. 

Rivers & Streams 

Coldwater streams and rivers are the best habitat for rainbow trout. As a coldwater fish, these moving watersheds provide clean, cool water full of oxygen and invertebrates.

With such a healthy habitat, rivers are best for wild and native rainbow trout. But wild and native ‘bows aren’t the only residents of rivers, creeks, and streams. It’s common for state management to plant stockers into warm rivers every year.

David fishing a whitewater stream in Wyoming. Surprisingly, many rainbows found refuge in pocket-water throughout this raging river.
David fishing a whitewater stream in Wyoming. Surprisingly, many rainbows found refuge in pocket-water throughout this raging river


Rainbow trout live in lakes because of their resilience to warm temperatures and transportation. No matter where you call home, chances are a lake nearby has rainbow trout. 

Even in alpine lakes that are difficult to reach, planting bows occurs. In the past, stocking secluded mountain lakes was possible by hiking buckets of trout. Now, helicopters fly and drop gallons of rainbows into the water below. 

Fly fishing: Anglers nab fish.


Rainbow trout live in community ponds, hatchery ponds, and trout farms. Trout-filled ponds are only possible due to stocking or farming, but not all are fishable, so be careful before you wet your line. 

Ponds have aerators and fountains for extra oxygen and cooler temperatures for optimal habitat. Because of their limited and routine diet, catching rainbow trout in ponds is perfect for beginners. 


1-3 years after their freshwater birth, some rainbow trout migrate to saltwater. After migration, these trout become steelhead. For the remainder of their life, steelhead migrate between freshwater and saltwater for their annual spawn.

However, defining steelhead is a heated topic for some outdoor enthusiasts. While purists consider steelhead to only be those that migrate to and from saltwater, Midwesterners refer to their Great Lake rainbows as steelhead.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s a duck… right? 

Rainbow Trout Range

Native Range

Rainbow trout are native to Northeast Russia and the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest. Native rainbow trout states include California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska. 

Stocking Range 

Rainbow trout are prevalent in every U.S. state and across 87 countries because of stocking efforts since the late 1880s. Though successful stocking entertains anglers worldwide, rainbow trout prevalence comes with controversy. 

As wild and stock populations grow, the genetic integrity of natives dilutes. Today, conservationists and wildlife management advocate for stocking rainbows into secluded lakes where they cannot affect native populations.

Related Questions 

What State Has The Most Rainbow Trout? 

Western states such as Montana and Idaho are abundant with rainbow trout. But you can’t go wrong with Alaska, where these natives come in impressive numbers and sizes without controversy. 

How Rare Is It To Catch Rainbow Trout? 

If rainbow trout are in your fishery, chances are on your side for catching rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are more aggressive and careless compared to other trout species. 

For example, my home waters of Wisconsin have very few rivers with rainbow trout. But the ones with rainbow populations yield adequate catch rates for any angler. 

Do Rainbow Trout Live In The Ocean? 

Rainbow trout and steelhead are genetically similar but differ in lifestyles. Steelhead are anadromous; rainbow trout are not. So, steelhead, first born as rainbow trout, are ocean dwellers. 

How Big Can Rainbow Trout Get? 

Inland rainbow trout can grow to an impressive 25 inches. The U.S. record for a rainbow trout is an astounding 42 inches

Meanwhile, steelhead are larger, with an average size of 20-30 inches. A large steelhead is anything over 40 inches.

What Is The Rarest Trout In The U.S.? 

Paiute, Gila, and tiger trout are rare and considered lifetime catches. Thanks to conservation efforts, game management is attempting to preserve these populations. But some species, such as tiger trout, are rare because they are sterile and unable to spawn. 

Final Thoughts 

Finding rainbow trout is easy, as these fish are available worldwide. Rainbow trout live in rivers, lakes, ponds, and saltwater in all 50 U.S. states and 87 countries. 

The spread of rainbow trout over the last 140 years began in a narrow strip along the Pacific Northwest. Next time you catch a 10-inch rainbow, try not to scoff. That modest catch was only made possible by a lot of effort.

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