Cutbow vs. Rainbow vs. Cutthroat Trout: What’s the Difference?

Cutbow rainbow and cutthroat trout in the river

Trout fishing has long been a favorite pastime for many anglers, but the differences between cutbow, rainbow, and cutthroat trout have always been a tricky subject, especially for beginners. 

These three trout species are iconic freshwater species, each with its own unique characteristics. While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences that set them apart. 

This article aims to shed light on these differences, helping anglers and enthusiasts identify each species with ease.

Summary of Cutbow vs. Rainbow vs. Cutthroat Trout

Cutbow TroutRainbow TroutCutthroat Trout
Scientific Name:No official scientific nameOncorhynchus mykissOncorhynchus clarkii
Distribution:Western United States (areas with both species)Western North AmericaWestern North America
Habitat:Rivers and lakesCool, clear streams and lakesFreshwater streams and lakes
Size:15–30 inches8–20 inches5–25 inches
Weight:0.5–15 pounds1–8 pounds, but some individuals can be exceptionally heavier0.5–6 pounds
Unique Identifiers:White fins & mixed gill platesBlack spots & pink stripeRed or pink linear markings
Colors:A mix of rainbow and cutthroat colorsGreen with pink stripeGray, green, gold

Physical Differences

The appearance of a trout is often the first clue to what species it is. Rainbow trout are known for their vibrant colors, ranging from golden to gray to green, depending on the subspecies. 

Cutthroat trout, on the other hand, are recognized by the distinctive red or pink stripe along their lateral line. 

Meanwhile, cutbows, being a hybrid, exhibit a mix of features from both the rainbow and cutthroat trout, making them a unique sight in the water.

Let’s examine further the appearance of the cutbow, rainbow, and cutthroat trout:

Cutbow Trout 

Cutbow trout

The cutbow trout, sometimes spelled “cut-bow trout,” a hybrid offspring resulting from the interbreeding of rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, boasts a unique blend of physical features from both parent species. 

Its body exhibits a mix of the golden to green shades of the rainbow trout, as well as the distinctive red or pink stripe of the cutthroat trout. 

This combination of colors and markings makes the cutbow trout a unique sight in the water, capable of producing a sense of wonder in any angler.

Rainbow Trout

Two rainbow trouts

The rainbow trout, especially the coastal rainbow trout subspecies, is a spectacle of nature with its shimmering hues. 

Its body predominantly ranges from gold to gray or green, depending on the subspecies and the environment it inhabits. 

A hallmark of the rainbow trout is the wide pink-to-red stripe along their lateral line, which can sometimes appear pink in certain lights. This trait is most noticeable in the so-called redband trout — a subspecies of the rainbow trout.

Additionally, the presence of white-tipped fins and common markings like black spots scattered across its body further distinguishes this trout from the cutbow and cutthroat. 

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat trout caught in the pond

Named after the distinctive red or orange slash found beneath their jaw, cutthroat trout are members of the same family as the rainbow trout but belong to a different fish species. 

The cutthroat trout’s appearance is marked by a golden-to-gray body adorned with a red stripe along its lateral line. This stripe can vary in intensity depending on the subspecies. 

One unique feature of the cutthroat trout is the presence of teeth at the base of their tongue, known as basibranchial teeth. 

Historically, the Lewis and Clark expedition was one of the first known ventures that documented the physical appearance of these fish.

Size and Weight

Group of trout swimming in a lake

Rainbow trout exhibit a broad size range, typically spanning 8 to 20 inches. However, in certain habitats, these trout can grow considerably larger.

Some individuals even surpass the average size, especially when they occur naturally in saltwater environments. 

According to the National Wildlife Federation, adult rainbow trout can sometimes exceed 45 inches, although such giants are rare. 

Meanwhile, their weight is generally between 1 and 8 pounds, but certain environments can nurture heavier specimens.

The cutthroat trout, on the other hand, average between 5 and 25 inches in length. However, it’s worth noting that there are various subspecies of cutthroat trout, and each might slightly differ in size. 

Their weight, though, is more consistent, ranging from 0.5 to 6 pounds, but can also skyrocket in the case of giant fish.

The cutbow trout, a natural hybrid offspring of the cutthroat and rainbow trout, bridges the gap between these two distinctly different fish species. 

Their size typically falls between 15 and 30 inches, and they weigh between 0.5 and 15 pounds


Rainbow trout isolated in the water

Rainbow trout are a vibrant mix of golden, gray, and green shades, depending on subspecies. Their bodies are further accentuated by scattered black spots, further setting them apart. 

The cutthroat trout, in contrast, displays a muted gold-to-gray base. Their defining feature is the distinctive red or pink stripe along their lateral line, unique to their species.

Meanwhile, the cutbow, a hybrid trout resulting from the spawn of the rainbow and cutthroat trout, combines the best of both.

They exhibit a blend of the rainbow’s spectrum and the cutthroat’s red markings, making them a colorful presence in any waterway.

Distribution and Habitat

Cutbow trout on a net

Rainbow trout are widespread across Western North America, extending from Alaska down through California to the Rocky Mountains.

These fish thrive in a variety of water types, including brackish, saltwater, and freshwater environments. Their adaptability allows them to live and feed in both bottom and midwater regions.

On the other hand, cutthroat trout are native to the Western United States and along the Pacific coast, ranging from Alaska down through California. 

They have a strong preference for freshwater streams and lakes, similar to other trout species, such as the brook trout. Cutthroat trout are typically found living on or near the bottom, feeding on benthic organisms.

Meanwhile, the cutbow trout, a hybrid between the cutthroat and rainbow trout, is found especially in areas of the Western United States where its parent species naturally coexist.

Unique Identifiers

Cutbow trout caught in a river

When you’re looking to distinguish between trout species, understanding their unique identifiers is essential.

Rainbow trout are known for their black spots spread across their bodies. They also have a distinctive wide pink-to-red stripe that runs along their lateral sides, setting them apart from other trout species.

Cutthroat trout, in contrast, can be identified by their red or pink stripe along the lateral line and the iconic red markings on their gill plates.

While rainbow and cutthroat trout may appear similar at first, they are two distinctly different fish species, each with its own set of unique anatomical features.

The hybrid cutbow trout, a blend of the rainbow and cutthroat, showcases features from both parent species. They possess a mix of the rainbow’s spots and the cutthroat’s red markings. 

Additionally, cutbows have a green back separated by a thick, pink, or red lateral stripe and often display red or orange markings under the jaw.

Speaking from personal experience, my coastal hometown offered many chances to observe these trout in their natural habitats. 

Back when I was young, I found it challenging to distinguish between these three fish species. However, as I observed them closely, I found a simple way to remember.

Rainbow trout have characteristic black spots and a shimmering hue reminiscent of a vibrant palette. The cutbow, with its blend of features, often appears as a unique combination of its parent species. 

And whenever I see that distinctive red or pink stripe along the lateral line paired with the iconic red markings on the gill plates, I know it’s a cutthroat trout.

Fishing Techniques

Trout lying on the grass

When it comes to trout identification and fishing, the technique matters. For rainbow trout, nymphs, like the perdigon fly, and dry flies, are the ideal baits, especially considering their diverse habitats.

In contrast, cutthroat trout, predominantly found in freshwater, are more receptive to dry flies, particularly in streams. 

The cutbow, a blend between the two, can be lured using techniques suitable for both the rainbow and cutthroat, given its hybrid nature. 

Understanding these nuances is crucial for those keen on distinguishing the difference between a rainbow and other trout species while on their fishing endeavors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Freshly caught cutthroat trout

Are Cutthroat Trout and Rainbow Trout the Same?

Cutthroat and rainbow trout are different species despite both being part of the Salmonidae family in the Oncorhynchus genus. They are distinct species with different anatomical features.

A key distinction is the red or pink stripe on the cutthroat trout, a feature not present in the rainbow trout. 

What Is the Difference Between a Cutbow and a Rainbow?

Genetics is the primary factor. Cutbows are the hybrid offspring resulting from the union of a rainbow and cutthroat trout. 

While they inherit traits from both parent species, they also possess unique characteristics, setting them apart from full-blooded rainbow trout.

How Can You Tell Cutbow From Cutthroat?

Differentiating between cutbows and cutthroat trout can be intricate due to overlapping features. Cutbows, however, often display a blend of coloration from both parents. 

Recognizing the red stripe characteristic of the cutthroat, combined with the black spots typical of the rainbow, can hint that you are observing a cutbow.

So, what are your thoughts on these trouts? Share with us your take on the differences between the rainbow, cutbow, and cutthroat trout by leaving a comment below!

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