Steelhead in the
Great Lakes can live
for eight years and
have grown as large as
55 pounds. Rainbows in small streams
live only three to four years and average
about 12 inches in length.
Rainbow trout are more landlocked than
their steelhead brethren and do not have a
tendency to migrate from one body of water
to another. They were considered a near relative of the brown trout, but biologists now
see them more closely akin to Pacific salmon
and cutthroat trout of the west. In addition
to streams, rainbows have been found in tail
waters of dams, lakes and reservoirs, and
large rivers. Rainbow trout are native to the
western states from Alaska to California.
They were introduced to Pennsylvania rivers
in the late 1800s to restore the degraded
Like salmon, trout aren’t school fish, and
they eat mostly adult and immature aquatic
insects. They will also devour terrestrial
insects that have fallen onto the water and
crayfish and other freshwater crustaceans.
Rainbow trout readily fall prey to fly anglers
who are able to “match the hatch,” flipping
artificial flies and other insects that imitate
those that happen to be hatching or falling
onto the water at the time.
The rainbow is just as popular with anglers
who have more basic preferences for the bait
they offer. Feeding rainbows have been
known to take just about any artificial bait or
lure, live bait, or human foodstuff that will fit
into their mouths. Corn, salmon eggs, mealworms, nightcrawlers, even marshmallows
can entice a rainbow trout to bite.
That’s not to suggest that rainbows are easy
catches. They can be as tight-lipped as any
species and elusive, seeking the cover of deep
holes and tree and rock structures.
Among trout that anglers might find is the
gold-orange rainbow trout, developed from
a single female trout found in a West Virginia
hatchery in 1954. Selective breeding with a
regular rainbow trout produced a golden
rainbow trout. This “West Virginia
Centennial Golden Trout” strain was
hybridized with normal rainbows to pro-
duce true genetic palomino trout, first
stocked in Pennsylvania in 1967. The
palomino has since been bred back closer to
the stronger, better-colored golden rainbow
trout, and is stocked only when it reaches
trophy size. Another genetic mutation pro-
duced the blue rainbow trout, with a body
color that is sky-blue.
Rainbow trout prefer well-oxygenated, fast
water; swift runs; and riffle, or highly turbulent, areas of streams. Their optimum water
temperature is 55 degrees, but they can withstand higher temperatures if there is cooling
While brook and brown trout populations
can hold their own in some watery pockets, rainbow trout aren’t as lucky. Where
Pennsylvania streams are cold and clean
enough, and suitable habitat prevails,
only a few populations of wild trout are
able to reproduce.
About 19,000 miles of rivers and streams
throughout the Keystone State are impaired.
Pollution compromises water temperature
and quality and suitable habitat, which affects
rainbow trout reproduction. That the health
of waterways is reflected in the fish and
wildlife they support, emphasizes the importance of the Commonwealth getting back on
track toward its clean-water commitments.
In Pennsylvania, the state Department of
Environmental Protection is considering
whether to declare the lower Susquehanna
River impaired. Since 2005, first-year bass
have been found with sores and lesions.
Intersex fish, adult males with female eggs in
their testes, have also been found in the river.
If the Susquehanna is declared impaired, the
timeline for its recovery can begin.
Here’s to the rainbow trout, one of fishing’s
flashiest, colorful, and most popular fighters,
continuing to provide happy memories for
anglers of all ages.
B.J. Small—CBF’s Pennsylvania
Media and Communications
colorful memories of his own
catching rainbow trout.
Trout at a
n APPEARANCE: Rainbow trout are
silvery-gray to dark-green on the
back and sides, with a pinkish or
reddish lateral stripe, sometimes
with lavender or orange overtones,
from the gill cover 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. A group of rainbow
trout is called a hover. At spawning
time, males become deeply colored
with an intensely red side stripe. The
average size of a hatchery-raised
trout is about seven inches.
n WEIGHT: Pennsylvania’s state
record-holding rainbow trout was
n RANGE: Rainbow trout are native to
the west coast. Around 1900, they
were introduced to Pennsylvania
waters. Self-sustaining populations
are rare in the state. Most are raised
n LIFESPAN: Small-stream rainbow
trout may live only three to four
years, while those living in the Great
Lakes may live for up to eight years.
SOURCE: PENNSYLVANIA FISH AND BOAT COMMISSION