America's Fish

The history and highlights of these natives and immigrants, and why they're our favorite trout.

Field & Stream Online Editors

** Brookie: The First Trout **
Hook an 8-inch brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) from the headwaters of a mountain stream, and you are connected to the beginnings of American trout fishing.

This is the trout the Pilgrims named, the trout that lured our first sport anglers, inspired our first fishing regulation, first fishing club, first fish hatchery-and made the reputations of many still-famous trout waters.

This trout, of course, is a char. But to the Pilgrims (who gave us the word brook), it looked enough like the "trout" (Salmo trutta) of their native East Anglia to share the name. In 1620, the brooks surrounding Plymouth brimmed with brookies, as did countless virgin waters from northeastern Canada to what is now northern Georgia.

Ironically, by the time brook trout fishing for sport reached its heyday in the mid-1800s, brook trout stocks were in steep decline from deforestation, water pollution, and overfishing (first with nets, then with hook and line). Still, the action was remarkable by today's standards. Anglers commonly creeled more than 100 trout a day. Most were small, but some were huge, like Daniel Webster's legendary 141/2-pound salter from Long Island and the 12-pound brookies that sent droves of anglers descending on Maine's Rangeley Lakes in the 1880s.

As anglers discovered the Rangeleys' riches, however, the famous fisheries of Long Island, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks had already deteriorated; and a fast-growing fish-hatchery movement had begun pumping short-lived domesticated brook trout into depleted waters of the East-as well as into new waters of the West. When Dr. William Cook landed the world-record 14-pound 8-ounce brookie from Ontario's Nipigon River in 1916, most of the continent's best native brook trout fishing was gone.

Brookies need cold, clean water, and today they inhabit the comparatively few such waters left. We find them in the shaded trickles of mountain brooks and the spring-fed flows and still waters of the eastern, western, and parts of the north-central United States, as well as in the often remote and frigid rivers and lakes of eastern Canada.

Brook trout remain in much of their original range, but their abundance and the extent to which they occupy most watersheds is vastly diminished. And many of the fish themselves are diminished, having mixed with hatchery stock to the point where pure native strains are rare.

Rare, too, are truly big brook trout. The fabled waters of northern Quebec and Labrador still hold the lure of 8- and perhaps even 10-pound fish, but most of the brookies we catch today measure less than 8 inches and only occasionally more than 10.

It is no small wonder, however, that through nearly four centuries of our meddling, this trout still survives. It continues to struggle from the effects of acid rain and competition from nonnative trout. Yet it continues to thrill anglers, compensating for its often gullible nature by being one of the prettiest fish on the planet.

To our great fortune, we can still hook an 8-inch brookie and see, as John Burroughs saw, the hues of all the precious metals and stones reflected from its sides. We can hold delicately in our hands the living connection to the beginning of American trout fishing.


**Brown: The Tough Trout **
Step carefully into a quiet pool where wild brown trout (Salmo trutta) coolly sip tiny mayflies. Unroll a cast, and you begin a process that often turns anticipation into frustration, then respect, and finally awe. The brown trout can be maddeningly-and marvelously-hard to catch. And our country's history with it mirrors the process above, stretched out over 119 years.

In 1877, after fishing for German browns in the Black Forest, Fred Mather excitedly wrote that "e brown trout¿¿¿is destined to become a favorite in America." He was right and is now celebrated for introducing the species here in 1883. But the average Yank of his day, accustomed to creeling gullible brookies, lacked the skill to catch many browns. Alas, the joys of being tortured by this fish were not widely appreciated by American anglers until well after Mather's death.

The brown trout is native to Europe, western Asia, and the northeastern corner of Africa, and has been introduced on every continent except Antarctica. It is the original and genuine trout. Rainbows, cutthroats, and brookies were dubbed trout only because of their superficial resemblance to this fish, and the brown's history of being caught with artificial flies predates that of native North American trout by at least 15 centuries. This is the fish for which flyfishing (and, largely, fishing for sport in general) was invented. In America, both Scottish Loch Leven and German brown trout were widely stocked before the turn of the last century, and a mostly homogenized mix of these and other brown trout strains are now caught in 44 states. Eventually, we warmed to them-partly because our skills improved and partly because this fast-growing species provided the chance to catch very large trout.

The average stream-dwelling brown measures less than a foot and might grow to 20 inches or more, but in lakes and large tailwaters, browns can reach enormous sizes. Anglers on Lake Ontario, for example, catch browns topping 30 pounds, and in 1992, Arkansas' Little Red River produced the current world-record brown of 40 pounds 4 ounces.

Despite its reputation, the brown trout is not always difficult to catch and doesn't exclusively eat small insects. In tumbling freestone streams, browns commonly clobber big, bushy dry flies skittered across slicks, and they greedily attack worms and nightcrawlers drifted in currents muddied by summer rainstorms. Most big browns, in fact, are taken with baitfish, because though browns can grow large by drift-feeding, most do so by hunting down baitfish, as well as small trout.

That said, the brown trout has perfected its legend as our fussiest fish on the calm currents of spring creeks and the slow pools of fertile rivers and tailwaters, where it pimples the surface selectively. Here, they say most browns know your fly is a fake, and some know the name of the pattern.

Ironically, the trout that we once maligned for being so hard to catch, we now revere for the same reason.


** Cutthroat: Mountain Trout **
Cutthroats (Oncorhynchus clarki) are the trout of adventurers. The earliest known European reference to cutthroat trout (or any New World trout) comes from Coronado's treasure-seeking Spaniards in 1541. The earliest formal description of cutthroat trout comes from Meriwether Lewis in 1805, written during his epic adventure with William Clark, who later wrote more detailed descriptions of the cutthroat, and for whom O. clarki is named. Certainly, the likes of Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith fueled their adventures in part with the flesh of cutthroat trout.

Before the West was settled, cutthroats crowded its waters; they inhabited much of the Pacific Coast and were the only trout present from the east slope of the Sierras to the east slope of the Rockies. But as European Americans moved West throughout the 19th century, the cutthroat's numbers and range dwindled. Like the brook trout of the East, the cutthroat-perhaps even more gullible-has been vastly reduced through loss of habitat, overfishing, and the introduction of nonnative trout beginning in the 1870s.

Introduced rainbows, brookies, and browns displace cutthroats, and rainbows interbreed with them-a coupling that creates cutbows and has left many Western waters devoid of true pure-strain cutthroats. The best-known, and perhaps best, native cutthroat fishing is now had in the fabled Yellowstone and Snake Rivers. But adventurous anglers can still find isolated rills running through remote canyons where original cutthroats have held on for more than 8,000 years.

Generally, cutthroats (both genetically mixed and pure) are found in cold mountain lakes, streams, and rivers. They exhibit a wonderful variety of forms throughout their range, including 14 subspecies (one extinct) lumped into four major groups: coastal cutthroats, found along the Pacific Coast from Northern California to Alaska and including anadromous populations; Westslope cutthroats, found in Idaho, Montana, and the southern Canadian Rockies; Snake River (Yellowstone) cutthroats, which inhabit mountain habitats from Montana to New Mexico, as well as the North Branch of the Potomac River in Maryland; and Lahontan cutthroats, found in the northern half of Nevada and slightly beyond the state's northern and western borders.

Every subspecies displays the namesake slash of red pigment under the lower jaw (although it can be very faint in sea-run fish), but they vary widely in background color and the size, number, and distribution of black spots. They also vary in size, from tiny brook-dwelling greenback cutthroats to the recent 7.9-pound Maryland state record and the 10- to 15-pounders of Nevada's Pyramid Lake. A 15-pounder is a huge cutthroat by today's standards, but not nearly as big as the giant Lahontan cutthroats that once lurked in Pyramid Lake, including the world-record 41-pounder, taken there in 1925.

Today, 461 years after Coronado's party wrote of these "excellent trout," cutthroats still hold an aura of adventure. Most of us have to travel to catch them, and many of us hike rugged trails to remote waters to do so. In a sense, we are still explorers, but instead of gold, or beaver pelts, or an overland passage to the Pacific, we're after glimpses of the old West¿¿¿found in jagged granite peaks, in the rounded stones of ancient streambeds, and in the fight of a cutthroat trout.


**Rainbow: People's Trout **
Until recently, the rainbow trout was classified as Salmo gairdneri and, as such, commonly upheld as the true American trout. Modern ichthyologists then determined that the rainbow is not a true trout (genus Salmo), but is more closely related to Pacific salmon (genus Oncorhynchus). In 1988, the American Fisheries Society renamed the rainbow Oncorhynchus mykiss. Technically, we no longer had a true American trout.

So what? If you forget Latin (like most of us have) and you leave the ichthyologists out of it, the rainbow is surely America's trout.

Native to North America's Pacific slope from southwesterrue pure-strain cutthroats. The best-known, and perhaps best, native cutthroat fishing is now had in the fabled Yellowstone and Snake Rivers. But adventurous anglers can still find isolated rills running through remote canyons where original cutthroats have held on for more than 8,000 years.

Generally, cutthroats (both genetically mixed and pure) are found in cold mountain lakes, streams, and rivers. They exhibit a wonderful variety of forms throughout their range, including 14 subspecies (one extinct) lumped into four major groups: coastal cutthroats, found along the Pacific Coast from Northern California to Alaska and including anadromous populations; Westslope cutthroats, found in Idaho, Montana, and the southern Canadian Rockies; Snake River (Yellowstone) cutthroats, which inhabit mountain habitats from Montana to New Mexico, as well as the North Branch of the Potomac River in Maryland; and Lahontan cutthroats, found in the northern half of Nevada and slightly beyond the state's northern and western borders.

Every subspecies displays the namesake slash of red pigment under the lower jaw (although it can be very faint in sea-run fish), but they vary widely in background color and the size, number, and distribution of black spots. They also vary in size, from tiny brook-dwelling greenback cutthroats to the recent 7.9-pound Maryland state record and the 10- to 15-pounders of Nevada's Pyramid Lake. A 15-pounder is a huge cutthroat by today's standards, but not nearly as big as the giant Lahontan cutthroats that once lurked in Pyramid Lake, including the world-record 41-pounder, taken there in 1925.

Today, 461 years after Coronado's party wrote of these "excellent trout," cutthroats still hold an aura of adventure. Most of us have to travel to catch them, and many of us hike rugged trails to remote waters to do so. In a sense, we are still explorers, but instead of gold, or beaver pelts, or an overland passage to the Pacific, we're after glimpses of the old West¿¿¿found in jagged granite peaks, in the rounded stones of ancient streambeds, and in the fight of a cutthroat trout.


**Rainbow: People's Trout **
Until recently, the rainbow trout was classified as Salmo gairdneri and, as such, commonly upheld as the true American trout. Modern ichthyologists then determined that the rainbow is not a true trout (genus Salmo), but is more closely related to Pacific salmon (genus Oncorhynchus). In 1988, the American Fisheries Society renamed the rainbow Oncorhynchus mykiss. Technically, we no longer had a true American trout.

So what? If you forget Latin (like most of us have) and you leave the ichthyologists out of it, the rainbow is surely America's trout.

Native to North America's Pacific slope from southwester