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Trout

Note: This article first appeared in the March/April 1991 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Authors- Russell McCullough and Eileen C. Stegemann. Sixth in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

The Trout Of New York

For anglers and non-anglers alike, the word "fish" often brings to mind the simple, robust form of the trout. For many years, these strong, streamlined, colorful fish have been among the most popular game fish in New York State. Their beauty and fighting ability attracts the skilled, as well as the novice, angler.

Trout are held in high regard by people from all walks of life. Both public and private interest in trout have led to many efforts to ensure there will be trout for future generations to enjoy. What other fish can boast its own fan club? Trout Unlimited, a private, nonprofit organization, is dedicated to improving and protecting trout habitat. In addition, DEC annually stocks millions of these fish into waters across New York State to provide anglers with additional trout fishing opportunity. Several private groups have been formed by citizens committed to protecting trout habitat.

Trout live in a variety of habitats, ranging from small mountain streams to the enormous Great Lakes. They require cool, clean water to survive and are often the first species to disappear from polluted waters. Similar to salmon, trout are fairly primitive fish, with small scales and soft-rayed fins. Their lower (ventral or pelvic) fins are set well back on the body and a small lobe-shaped fin (the adipose) sits behind the single dorsal (back) fin.

Trout are highly variable in color. In streams, they have spots or wavy lines over backgrounds ranging from dark olive to light brown. In large lakes, they are often silvery. Trout also vary a great deal in size. While two pounds would be large for a stream brook trout, 15 pounds is not uncommon for a Great Lakes steelhead.

Feeding

Trout eat a wide variety of organisms. Young trout eat small items, such as plankton, crustaceans and insects. Older trout eat snails, salamanders, frogs, snakes, small mammals and fish, as well as smaller food items.

Although trout will not grow to record size in waters where larger prey is not available, they still survive and grow quite well. The ability to live on smaller prey allows them to provide fishing in some waters too small to support other game fish.

Spawning

Rainbow trout spawn or reproduce in the spring, while New York's other trout spawn in the fall. Like salmon, most trout species build nests, called redds. Using their tails to fan the bottom, female trout create a depression in clean gravel or cobble sites in streams and, occasionally, in seepage areas in ponds. The males remain nearby and drive off rivals. When the nest is ready, the eggs are deposited, quickly fertilized, and covered under a layer of gravel. Both adults then move on, leaving the eggs and young to develop on their own.

Lake trout, however, do not follow this spawning habit. Rather than build a nest, they simply scatter their eggs over the lake bottom.

Trout eggs are larger and fewer in number than those of many other fish species. For example, while a mature female walleye may have 50,000 to 100,000 eggs, a mature female trout may only have 1,000 to 3,000 eggs. After the trout eggs hatch, the young fish (called alevins) remain in the gravel for about one week before emerging to feed.

An interesting fact is that although rainbow trout spawn later than other New York trout species, their eggs still hatch at about the same time in the spring. This is because the amount of time required for fish eggs to develop depends on the water temperature. Eggs develop faster in warm water than in cool water. Therefore, the eggs deposited in the fall take longer to hatch - as they develop over the winter - than those deposited in the early spring, allowing the eggs of each species to hatch at a similar time.

Fishing

Trout provide some of the most widespread and varied fishing of any freshwater game fish. They can be fished from large boats on the Great Lakes and from canoes on small Adirondack ponds. Generations of anglers have enjoyed trout fishing by wading in or from the shores of Catskill streams. Trout can be caught on just about any kind of artificial lure, including dry flies, wet flies, spinners, and spoons, as well as on live bait such as minnows and worms.

So much has been written about trout fishing that one could get the idea it is a very difficult and complicated activity. While some types of trout fishing, such as fly fishing on a stream or deepwater trolling in the Great Lakes, do require specialized techniques and equipment, simply fishing in a small stream using a worm or a minnow on a hook can be very productive and enjoyable.

Four species of trout are found in New York's waters: brook trout, lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. A brief description of each is provided in the chart. Persons interested in finding more detailed descriptions for any member of the trout family can refer to the book, "The Inland Fishes of New York State," by C. Lavett Smith.

Brook Trout

picture of brook trout
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The brook or speckled trout is New York's official State fish. A native of the State, it is the smallest, and to many people, the most attractive trout occurring in the State. It has a dark olive green background with light wavy markings on the back, and tan or red spots on the sides. Its lower fins are striking, with bright white edging separated from the mostly red fin by a black line.

Once widespread throughout the state, brook trout were found in remote wilderness settings in the Adirondacks and in small streams on Long Island. Over the years, many populations have been lost due to habitat destruction and introduction of competing fish species. DEC and Cornell University scientists have identified strains of brook trout that have not been genetically altered by interbreeding with hatchery-reared fish. These rare, or heritage, strains are a priceless link to New York State's original fauna and DEC is working to preserve them.

Brook trout generally live in small- to moderate-sized streams, lakes, and ponds, wherever cool (below 72 degrees Fahrenheit), clean water is available. They are relatively short lived, seldom living longer than five years. Although some brook trout can weight more than eight pounds, fish weighing more than two pounds are uncommon.

Brookies are highly popular game fish. Often associated with an Adirondack wilderness experience, anglers enjoy the pristine surroundings of brook trout water almost as much as catching these delicious fish. Speckled trout are relatively easy to catch and are frequently taken on flies, small artificial lures, and worms.

Lake Trout

picture of lake trout
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Like the brook trout, the lake trout is a native of New York State waters. This silvery or dark grey fish inhabits deep, cold, well-oxygenated lakes. In New York State, it is found mostly in the Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes and the Great Lakes.

Lake trout are long-lived, with some adults reaching more than 20 years old in certain waters. These older fish can reach large sizes. Great Lake's lake trout often reach weights of 15 pounds or more. The current New York State record lake trout weighed more than 39 pounds.

Lake trout have different spawning habits than other New York State trout. Instead of building nests, they scatter their eggs over rocky shoals. In addition, lake trout spawn in lakes, not streams. Lake trout eggs have been found at depths of up to 200 feet in some of the Finger Lakes.

Fishing for lake trout can be quite specialized. In the spring, they can be caught by casting or trolling near the lake surface just after ice-out. Most of the year, they must be pursued in deep water using downriggers or wire line.

Through the 1800s and early 1900s, the lake trout helped support an important Great Lakes commercial fishery. Populations collapsed, however, due to the combined effects of overfishing and sea lamprey predation. Commercial fishing for lake trout is no longer permitted and the effects of sea lamprey predation have been reduced. It is hoped that the lake trout stocking programs currently under way in the Great Lakes will lead to restoration of self-sustaining lake trout populations.

Brown Trout

picture of brown trout
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The brown trout has long been a popular game fish all over the world. Brought over from Europe in the 1880s, brown trout can be found in waters all across New York State. Its ability to tolerate warmer water than either of New York State's native trout has allowed this species to do well in waters otherwise not able to support trout.

Brown trout are primarily found in streams, but also live in ponds and lakes. As the name implies, brown trout are brown in color with black and often red spots on the sides. However, in large bodies of water, fish tend to be silvery with scattered black spots.

Brown trout are generally faster growing and longer lived than brook trout. Fish more than ten pounds are fairly common, but in streams they seldom grow larger than two pounds. Many anglers enjoy fishing for brown trout because they are relatively wary and a challenge to catch. Brown trout can withstand heavy fishing pressure better than other New York trout.

Rainbow Trout

picture of rainbow trout
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Natives of the Pacific Coast, rainbow trout were introduced into New York waters in the 1870s. Like brown trout, rainbows are more tolerant of warm water than the native trout and are found throughout the State.

In New York, there are two types of rainbows. The first, simply called rainbow, is found mostly in medium to large streams or small to medium size lakes. The second, called steelhead, is only found in lakes Champlain, Ontario and Erie and their tributaries. This anadromous (spawn in streams but live most of life at sea) fish uses these large lakes as their sea.

Rainbow trout are often very colorful fish. They have gray-blue to greenish backs and light colored sides with dark spots. Rainbows get their name from the pink or red band often present on their sides. During spawning, this band turns a deep red. Like other trout, adult rainbows tend to be more silvery when living in large lakes like the Great Lakes.

Quite variable in size, mature rainbow trout may weigh one or two pounds in streams and more than 15 pounds in the Great Lakes. Whether the fish is small or large, fishing for rainbow trout is a popular pastime for many New York anglers. Not quite as wary as brown trout, rainbows often put up spectacular fights when hooked, frequently making a series of acrobatic jumps.

Trout and People

Few, if any, freshwater fish have received as much attention from biologists and anglers alike, as trout. Throughout their long common history, trout and people have had a very mixed relationship. People have long appreciated their beauty, fighting abilities, and delicious taste. Anxious to have these desirable fish readily available, people have brought trout far from their native ranges. Carefully planned management systems have been introduced to provide the largest number of people the greatest benefit from these fish. Techniques have been developed to raise trout in captivity so they can be stocked in areas where natural populations are not present or exist at low levels. In some cases, strains of trout have even been domesticated, living their entire life cycle in the care of people.

While much effort has been expended at rearing and keeping trout healthy, few other fish have suffered as much from human activity. Even the most adaptable trout cannot survive much human interference with its environment. All trout require cool, clean water and it is very easy for human activity to eliminate this condition. Activities such as clearing forests for farming, housing, or commercial purposes can convert cool, fast-flowing gravelly streams into still, warm, silty waterways incapable of supporting trout. Various industrial, agricultural, or domestic sources can pollute the water, reducing the high levels of oxygen that trout need to survive. In some cases, toxic chemicals, which can kill trout or make them less desirable for anglers to catch, have been released into our water. Today, even high mountain streams and ponds are affected by acid rain caused by our industrial society.

Great strides have been made in reducing obvious pollution from sources such as industrial processes and domestic sewage. The presence of trout is, and has been for many years, used as a measure of water and habitat quality by DEC when making decisions regarding permitted land or water use. Today, national and international attention is being focused on the problems of toxic contamination and acid rain. With continued public concern and government vigilance, it should be possible for people to fulfill their own needs while maintaining a high quality environment that benefits trout and humans alike.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from the Latin language and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is first and is capitalized. The species is second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same "family" share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York's trout.

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
lake trout Salvelinus namaycush
brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis
brown trout Salmo trutta
rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss

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