Trouts and Salmons
The trout and salmon family includes great game fish like trout, salmon, chars and grayling, as well as food and baitfishes like whitefish and ciscoes. The trout and salmon family is large. It is native to cool and cold streams and lakes throughout Europe, northern Asia and North America, and reaches as far south as northwest Mexico and extreme northern Africa. One family member, the Arctic Char, is the freshwater fish that occurs the farthest north. Because of their popularity for sport and commercial fishing, this family has been stocked in waters worldwide and is now found on nearly every continent. Many trout that anglers catch in Pennsylvania are the result of the stocking of hatchery-raised fish. However, where streams are cold and clean enough, with proper spawning habitat, Pennsylvania also has a wealth of reproducing populations of wild trout.
In Pennsylvania, the trout and salmon family includes three species of the genus Coregonus, all native and found in Lake Erie–the rare Longjaw Cisco, the Cisco or Lake Herring, and the Lake Whitefish–silvery well-scaled fishes with deeply forked tails. The Whitefish is currently an important commercial species. It has rebounded with reductions in the numbers of Sea Lampreys and Rainbow Smelt. Rainbow Smelt were believed to prey on whitefish eggs and young. Other members of the trout family native to Pennsylvania, not introduced, are Chars, of the genus Salvelinus, the Brook Trout and the Lake Trout.
The Brown Trout, native to Eurasia, is stocked in the state and has established itself in the wild here. The Atlantic Salmon, also of the genus Salmo, is native to the North Atlantic Ocean and its tributaries. It is anadromous–the Atlantic Salmon spends its adult life in salt water and returns to freshwater streams to spawn. A landlocked form of the Atlantic Salmon, which lives its entire life in fresh water, was stocked in Harvey’s Lake, Luzerne County, and in Raystown Lake, Huntingdon County.
Atlantic salmon Atlantic Salmon Salmo salar
Anadromous Pacific Salmon can use a large freshwater lake as adults. Pacific Salmon were widely introduced throughout the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, in the 1960s. Pennsylvania participated in the Coho and Chinook Salmon plantings, but today the Chinook is no longer stocked by the Fish & Boat Commission. Cohos are stocked only when available. Introduced Pink Salmon are self-sustaining and have spread through all the Great Lakes and are occasionally caught. The Kokanee, a nonmigratory form of the Sockeye Salmon, was introduced into a few lakes in northeastern Pennsylvania, most notably Upper Woods Pond. The Kokanee Salmon did not reproduce sufficiently to sustain a continuing fishery, and stockings have been discontinued. These West Coast Salmon are of the genus Oncorhynchus, as is the Rainbow Trout. The Rainbow’s migratory form is the steelhead. It has replaced Pacific Salmon, which die after spawning, in popularity with Lake Erie anglers.
Coho Salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch
In size, Pennsylvania’s trout and salmon range from wild fish that are less than six inches long at maturity to Lake Erie behemoths of nearly 30 pounds and three feet long. Trout and salmon have a fleshy lobe, called the adipose fin, between the dorsal fin and the tail. Their scales are small and cycloid, or smooth, and embedded in a slimy mucous that is most obvious in the salmons. Trout and salmon have an obvious lateral line, large mouth and teeth. In big specimens, the teeth are caninelike. The tail may be forked or squarish, depending on the species, and none of the fins has spines. Mature males look different from females because they develop a long, hooked lower jaw, called a “kype.” Mature males also deepen or gain in color at spawning time. Coloration in trout and salmon varies from dull to intense, according to the species, where the fish lives and the time of year. Trout and salmon that live in the sea or a large lake become silvery. Juvenile fish have a series of vertical, oval “parr marks” along each side from cheek to tail.
Chinook Salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
The trout and salmon family live either in fresh water all their lives, or migrate to the sea and return to fresh water to spawn. Salmon are especially noted for anadromous behavior. Through chemical cues and the sense of smell, they can home in on their birth streams when returning to spawn. Trout may also run to the ocean, or a large lake, when they have access. Trout and salmon spawn either in spring or fall, according to the species, over gravelly shoals, usually in small streams. The female digs a shallow dish nest in the gravel by lying on her side against the bottom and swimming forward energetically. Her body and fins flush out the stones. One or several males join her in the actual spawning. Afterward, the adults abandon the nest, called a redd. The eggs fall into the spaces between the gravel. They may be covered slightly with more gravel by the female before she leaves. Eggs hatch in four to 10 weeks, depending on water temperature. Silt, clogging the spaces between the stones, can reduce hatching success. Young trout stay in the gravel until the yolk sac is absorbed. Then they move out into the stream. The presence of reproducing populations of trout has been used as an indicator of high-quality, well-oxygenated, unpolluted water.
Trout and salmon are not school fish. Stream trout eat mostly adult and immature aquatic insects. They also eat terrestrial insects that fall onto the water, crayfish and other freshwater crustaceans. They also eat fish, especially as they grow larger. Trout feed most readily when water temperatures are in the 50s and 60s. They also feed in the winter and are popular with ice anglers.
In the early part of the 20th century and late 1800s, Pennsylvania streams were stocked extensively with trout, with varied success. Wild Brook and Brown Trout are now widespread. Reproducing populations of Rainbow Trout are in a few scattered streams in the state. In the hatchery, Trout strains were later developed that responded better to artificial culture. They were disease-resistant and spawned at times other than their natural times of the year. Manipulative fish culture also produced hybrids and genetic variations of trout as extras for anglers, including the splake (Lake Trout x Brook Trout), tiger trout (Brown Trout x Brook Trout), and the palomino trout (Golden Rainbow Trout x Rainbow Trout).
The Pink Salmon is one of several Pacific Salmon species successfully introduced into waters of the eastern U.S. Reports of Pink Salmon spawning in several Pennsylvania Lake Erie tributaries date from 1979. Today, they are rarely found in Pennsylvania tributaries. Pink Salmon spawn once in their lives and then die. It’s believed that Pink Salmon arrived in Lake Erie as a result of British Columbia stocks that were introduced into Lake Superior in the 1950s. In Russian, “gorbuscha,” part of the Pink Salmon’s scientific name, means “hump-backed.” Pink Salmon are also called “humpies” and “hump-backed” salmon.
The Pink Salmon may reach lengths of 24 inches in the ocean, but seldom more than 18 to 20 inches in fresh water. Large, dark, oval spots are found on the adipose fin, tail and the upper sides of the body. The upper surfaces are blue to blue-green. The sides are silvery and in breeding males become pale-reddish with greenish-brown blotches. Breeding males also develop elongated jaws, the upper one longer and hooked downward. In addition, a noticeable hump appears on the back between the head and dorsal fin. Counting the number of scales in the row just above the lateral line can be helpful in separating the Pink Salmon from other salmon species. The Pink Salmon has 169 or more scales in this row, compared to fewer than 155 on other species.
Pink Salmon are anadromous in the ocean. Pennsylvania’s Pink Salmon live in Lake Erie and ascend tributary streams to spawn in late summer or early fall. Plankton are the main food of young salmon entering Lake Erie. As they grow, they eat a variety of smaller fishes.
As do other salmon species, Pink Salmon build redds, or nests, after ascending Lake Erie’s tributary streams. The female fans out an area lying on her side, pushing the gravel aside. Some Pink Salmon redds can be as deep as a foot or more and three feet long. The female deposits about 1,500 to 1,900 eggs. Females guard their nests until they die, a few days after spawning. The eggs hatch from December through February, and the young feed on the yolk sac in the redd until the yolk sac is absorbed. In April or May, the newborn Pink Salmon swim downstream to Lake Erie. Pink Salmon spawn at about age 2.
Anglers catch Pink Salmon in Lake Erie by trolling a variety of crankbaits and spoons.
Rainbow Trout are a western North American species, native to the Pacific slope from California to Alaska. In a turn-ofthe- century effort to restore Pennsylvania’s degraded trout fishery, Rainbows were introduced throughout the state. But today, as wild fish, Rainbows sustain reproducing populations only in a handful of fast-falling creeks scattered around the state. As stocked, hatchery-reared fish, Rainbows are found throughout Pennsylvania’s watersheds.
For many years the Rainbow was considered a near relative of the Brown Trout, and it was given the scientific name Salmo gairdneri, which still appears in some reference books. Today, biologists consider the Rainbow more closely akin to the Pacific Salmons and the Cutthroat Trout of the West. Its scientific name was changed to reflect that link. Like those salmons, some Rainbows (steelhead) run to the ocean or a large sealike lake, like the Great Lakes, if they have access, returning upstream for spawning. Then they are called “steelhead” (they appear steel-colored, or more silvery, than stream rainbows). Rainbows are flashy fighters when hooked, jumping out of the water more than other trout. The genus name “Oncorhynchus” means “hooked snout,” referring to the hooked lower jaw of big, breeding males.
Rainbow Trout are silvery-gray to dark-green on the back and sides. They have a pinkish or reddish lateral stripe, sometimes with lavendar or orange overtones, from the gill cover running the length of the fish to the tail. The caudal fin has rows of small dark spots, and there are more small blackish spots sprinkled on the head and sides, and spotting on the dorsal and adipose fins. The belly is whitish. The lower fins are pale-pink without spots. At spawning time, males become deeply colored with an intensely red side stripe. Steelhead can be separated from similar-looking Coho and Chinook Salmon by looking at the inside of the mouth. The mouth is completely white in the steelhead. In the salmons, the mouth has some gray or black. Steelhead and other deepwater, big lake Rainbows are more silvery than stream fish, with less of a side stripe. Great Lakes steelhead can grow to 30 inches and larger. The state record is more than 20 pounds.
Rainbows are considered fastwater fish, preferring the swift runs and riffle areas of streams. They may live in small creeks, as well as suitable spots in large rivers, the tailwaters of dams, and in lakes and reservoirs. As trout, Rainbows live in cold, clean, well-oxygenated water. Their optimum water temperature is about 55 degrees. Although they do best when the water is under 70 degrees, they can withstand temperatures into the 70s if there is plenty of oxygen and a cool, shady place to which they can retreat. Rainbows are the trout least tolerant of acidity. They do best in slightly alkaline waters. As steelhead, Rainbows inhabit the cool waters of large lakes, especially Lake Erie and other Great Lakes, as well as oceans. Rainbow Trout respond well to hatchery culture and have been introduced for sport fishing throughout the world. In some places, especially the mountains of the southeastern United States, introduced Rainbows have encroached on native Brook Trout populations.
Rainbow Trout are considered spring spawners, but steelhead may enter streams to spawn from late fall through spring. Spawning takes place when the water temperature is about 50 degrees, over gravel beds with good water flow. Rainbow Trout move upstream to find the proper spawning area. Rainbows in lakes seek tributary streams. Like other trout, the female Rainbow prepares the nest depression by turning on her side and “kicking” against the bottom gravel with her body and fins. Male Rainbows are aggressive on the spawning grounds, driving other males away from the female’s nest. When the actual spawning takes place, several males may be beside the female. The females produce several hundred to over 12,000 eggs, depending on their size. After the eggs are deposited into the gravel and fertilized, no parental care is given. The eggs hatch in four to seven weeks. The fry take up to another week in the gravel to absorb the yolk sac. Then they become free-swimming. Most Rainbows are sexually mature when they reach about three to five years old.
Documentation of successful natural reproduction in Pennsylvania is rare. Self-sustaining populations of Rainbow Trout are found only in a few scattered streams. But mature Rainbows, especially steelhead that have run up Lake Erie tributaries, successfully spawn and produce young. However, adult returns are mostly comprised of hatchery-released fish. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning, steelhead can spawn again, returning to the ocean or large lake to grow even bigger before the next year’s spawning run. Steelhead also follow other spawning fish migrating upstream and prey on their eggs and young. Rainbows feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects, crayfish and other crustaceans. Rainbows also eat fish, as well as plankton, snails, leeches and fish eggs. They take a variety of anglers’ flies, lures and baits.
Rainbows have been intensively cultured in fish hatcheries. Strains have been developed that are of various colors, are tolerant of warm water, grow rapidly, resist disease and spawn at times different from the rainbow’s natural spawning time.
The lifespan of the steelhead in the Great Lakes is six to eight years. Small-stream Rainbows may live only to be three or four years old.
Golden Rainbow Trout
The Golden Rainbow Trout is a gold-orange Rainbow Trout raised under artificial fish culture conditions and stocked as a novelty for angling sport. The Golden Rainbow was developed from one fish, a single female trout with a genetic mutation that gave her a mixed golden and normal Rainbow Trout coloration. She was found in the West Virginia hatchery system in 1954. Through selective breeding with regularly marked Rainbow Trout, an all-gold, Golden Rainbow Trout was developed. In 1963, this fish strain was popularized as the “West Virginia Centennial Golden Trout.” Pennsylvania and other states hybridized the pure strain of West Virginia Golden Trout with normal Rainbows and produced palomino trout, which were true genetic palominos. Palomino trout were first stocked in Pennsylvania in 1967. Since then, the genetic strain in Pennsylvania has weakened, but in recent years the hybrid was selectively bred back closer to the stronger, better-colored Golden Rainbow Trout. Although Palominos were stocked as both average-sized and large trout, today’s Golden Rainbow is raised only to trophy size for anglers and stocked throughout the state.
The Golden Rainbow Trout is a different species than the Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus aguabonita) of some California streams. In fish hatcheries, the Rainbow Trout has occasionally produced other unusual genetic mutations, such as the Blue Rainbow Trout, whose body color is sky-blue.
Golden Rainbows are a deep golden-yellow in body color, with pinkish lower fins, pink or red tones on their cheeks and with the rainbow’s reddish lateral stripe. There is no spotting on the body or fins. The Pennsylvania record Golden Rainbow Trout is over 13 pounds.
The Golden Rainbow Trout’s habitat preferences are identical to those of the normally colored Rainbow Trout. It is stocked throughout the state in appropriate trout waters. No Rainbow Trout or Golden Rainbows are planted in the Lake Erie watershed.
The Golden Rainbow is reared in fish culture stations. Spawning in the wild is unlikely, because Golden Rainbows are highly visible in streams both to anglers and predators like blue herons and ospreys. Golden Rainbows and Palomino Rainbows grow larger and faster than regular Rainbows. They have “hybrid vigor,” a trait often seen in crossbred plants and animals. Their food preferences are similar to those of other trout.
The Brown Trout is not a native Pennsylvanian, although it is now naturalized and widespread here in the wild, even becoming the main trout species in streams previously dominated by Brook Trout. Brown Trout were originally found in Eurasia and were stocked in the late 1800s in the United States as strains from various locations, including Scotland and Germany. Pennsylvania received its first Brown Trout in 1886. Brown Trout are considered more difficult to catch than Brook Trout. The larger ones tend to feed at night. Brown Trout are closely related to Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar). The genus name “Salmo” is the Latin name for the Atlantic Salmon. The species name “trutta” is the Latin name for “trout.”
Brown Trout are brownish in overall tone. The back and upper sides are dark-brown to gray-brown, with yellow-brown to silvery lower sides. Large, dark spots are outlined with pale halos on the sides, the back and dorsal fin, with reddish-orange or yellow spots scattered on the sides. The fins are clear, yellow-brown, and unmarked. The belly is white-yellow. Like other trout and salmon, breeding males develop a long, hooked jaw and brighten in color. Wild Brown Trout in infertile streams may grow only slightly larger than the Brook Trout there. But in more fertile streams Brown Trout that weigh a pound are common. A Brown Trout over 10 pounds is a trophy. Brown Trout may exceed 30 inches in length. The state record is more than 19 pounds.
The Brown Trout lives in cold or cool streams, rivers, lakes and impoundments. It is more tolerant of siltation and higher water temperatures than Brook Trout. A Brown Trout’s optimum water temperature range is 50 to 60 degrees, although it can tolerate water temperatures in the low 70s. Like Brook Trout, they are also somewhat tolerant of acidity. Brown Trout may be found in all of the state’s watersheds, from limestone spring creeks, infertile headwaters and swampy outflows to suitable habitat in the larger rivers and reservoir tailwaters. Some Brown Trout can “hold over” after they are stocked. They can last a year or more in a stream, because they are adaptable to stream changes and are not that easy to catch.
Brown Trout spawn in the fall, a little later than Brook Trout, when water temperatures are in the mid-40s to high 40s. Eggs are deposited in a stream gravel depression that the female prepares with swimming actions of her fins and body. Large females produce 4,000 to 12,000 eggs. Several males may accompany the female during spawning. The eggs hatch the following spring, with no parental attention. Brown Trout eat aquatic and terrestrial insects, crayfish and other crustaceans, and especially fish. The big ones may also eat small mammals (like mice), salamanders, frogs and turtles. Large Browns feed mainly at night, especially during the summer. Their life span in the wild can be 10 to 12 years.
The Brook Trout is Pennsylvania’s official state fish. It is technically a char. It is related to the Arctic char of the Far North, the Dolly Varden and bull trouts of the West, and the Lake Trout. The chars live farther north than most other trout and salmon family members. The Brook Trout’s original home was northeastern North America, through the Great Lakes, and south along the Appalachian Mountains to Georgia. It is the only stream trout that is native to Pennsylvania. The genus name “Salvelinus” is derived from an old name for char. The species name “fontinalis” means “of springs.” Brook Trout are sometimes called speckled trout, squaretails or just “brookies.”
The Brook Trout’s general body color is dark-green. Looking closer, its back is dark olive-green or gray-green, mottled with dark, squiggly or wormlike markings from head to tail. The sides and belly shade lighter, sometimes with green, gray or even lavendar tones, and additional irregular marks. The sides also have scattered red dots, surrounded by bright-blue halos. The belly is usually pale yellow-orange, with a blackish or gray streak down the middle. The pectoral, pelvic and anal fins are pale to bright-orange with a white leading edge followed by a black stripe. There are dark blotches on the dorsal and caudal fins. The Brook Trout’s tail fin is less forked than that of most trout and salmon. It’s even squarish. In spawning males, colors become more intense and the belly becomes deeporange. At maturity, wild Brook Trout may be from five inches to 18 inches long, according to the availability of food in the home stream.
The Brook Trout lives naturally in small, cold, clean streams. It also adapts to ponds and lakes, as well as instream beaver ponds. Brook Trout are found in Pennsylvania as wild populations in the Ohio, Susquehanna, Genesee, Potomac and Delaware River watersheds. Brook Trout are also found throughout the state as hatchery-raised, stocked fish. The habitat of wild Brook Trout has been greatly reduced in Pennsylvania since European settlers arrived, with land-use changes, mining, and warming and silting of streams, and with other pollution and stream habitat degradation. Naturally self-sustaining populations can still be found in limestone spring-fed streams and cold, mountain creeks. Brook Trout can tolerate relatively acidic waters, but not temperatures much over 65 degrees.
Brook Trout spawn in the fall, from mid-September through November and may travel to upstream headwaters to find the right spawning spot. Similar to other trout, with violent motion of the body and tail, the female digs a shallow nest depression in the bottom gravel where there is good water flow to bring oxygen to the eggs. The males become aggressive on the spawning grounds, chasing one another, but several males may accompany the female in the spawning act. After fertilization, the eggs receive a small additional covering of gravel, often from females digging new areas just upstream. The eggs are given no further parental care. Eggs develop over the winter and hatch in late winter or early spring. In small streams, sexually mature fish may be only four or five inches long, and produce only a few hundred eggs. A Brook Trout over 18 inches might produce around 4,000 eggs. In headwater, infertile streams, few Brook Trout may reach “legal” keeping size for anglers. Large Brook Trout caught by anglers in Pennsylvania are mostly hatchery-stocked fish. But they may have spent some time in the stream since their planting, grown bigger, and become wary of anglers. Brook Trout feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects, both under and on the water’s surface, crustaceans and small fish. They can be caught on a variety of artificial flies, lures and natural baits. Brook Trout are relatively short-lived. Few survive in the wild longer than five years.
The Lake Trout is a char that lives mostly farther north than Pennsylvania. Besides the Brook Trout, the Lake Trout is the only trout and salmon family member that is native to the state. It is found naturally in Lake Erie and in Silver Lake, Susquehanna County. Elsewhere the limits of its original range follow the southern boundary of the glacial advances across North America. The genus name “Salvelinus” is an old name for “char,” and the species name “namaycush” is an American Indian name for the Lake Trout.
The Lake Trout’s body has a background gray color, often with an bronze-olive overtone. It shades to silvery-white on the belly. The back and sides have many large light-colored, irregularly shaped markings, some of which are wavy or wormlike, like the Brook Trout’s markings. There is also light speckling on the dorsal and adipose fins and on the deeply forked caudal fin, plus a white leading edge on the pectoral, pelvic and anal fins. The Pennsylvania record, from Lake Erie, is more than 27 pounds. Elsewhere, Lake Trout have been known to grow to more than 50 inches and reach over 100 pounds.
Lake Trout live in deep, cold, usually infertile lakes. Their numbers have been affected by pollution and the parasitic Sea Lamprey, which invaded and spread throughout the Great Lakes earlier in this century. Artificial culture in fish hatcheries and stocking have helped to return the Lake Trout to the Great Lakes, including the Pennsylvania portion of Lake Erie. In the state, Lake Trout have also been stocked in Harvey’s Lake, Luzerne County, Raystown Lake, Huntingdon County, and the Allegheny Reservoir, Warren County. Lake Trout are roamers and may move widely in their home lakes and go several hundred feet deep. Their preferred water temperature is about 50 degrees. In the summer they stay deep and can usually be caught by deep trolling. But as the water cools with the fall season and into spring, Lake Trout may be taken by artificial lures and flies fished shallower, near shore. Lake Trout are the least tolerant of salt water of all the chars.
Lake Trout are mature enough to reproduce when they are six or seven years old. Some Lake Trout respond to a homing instinct. They return to the same spawning grounds year after year, while others do not. Lake Trout do not normally make an upstream spawning run. They spawn in their home lakes at night during the fall. The eggs are deposited over a boulder-strewn or rubble bottom, or over artificial spawning structure, in depths from 40 feet to about one foot. Lake Trout may clean their spawning sites by rubbing against the rocks with the snout, body and fins, but they don’t prepare a nest as do other trout. After release, the eggs drift down to settle in the spaces between the rocks. The eggs are not guarded. They develop by themselves and hatch the following spring.
Lake Trout grow more slowly than other salmon and trout family members. They reach a large size because they live a long time, over 20 years. Lake Trout feed on smelt and other fish, as well as crustaceans, terrestrial and aquatic insects, and plankton.
Trout feature page
Steelhead feature page