Types of Eastern Sierra Trout and Where to Find Them

Jul 14, 2021

The Eastern Sierra is home to 5 species of trout, and each one is unique and special in its own way.

One of the great things about trout is that, just like those of us who love to cast for them, every one is different. The differences can be as easy to tell as comparing a golden trout to a cutthroat, or intricate as the subtle markings that separate a German brown from one of Scottish descent.

That’s why a big part of the excitement of hooking into a trout around Mammoth is that you never know exactly what you’ve got at the other end of the line.

To help you figure out what you hooked, or just to get you fired up about angling around Mammoth Lakes and trying to catch at least four of the species for a   “Sierra Grand Slam,” here’s a rundown of the types of trout found in the Eastern Sierra.

Where to Catch Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are the bread-and-butter of trout fishing. They are the most commonly found species in the Eastern Sierra and are famous for being good fighters.

As the most widely stocked species in the region, rainbows can be found from big lakes like Crowley and Convict to more quant places like Mammoth Creek and Lake George as well as in most backcountry lakes, where they have long been stocked by being dropped from airplanes.

Rainbows are adaptable, tough, and can be downright gorgeous—they don’t name ugly things after rainbows. They’re most well known marking is a streak of red that runs along their sides. The colors above and below the stripe can vary from silver to green and they’re all dotted with dark spots like sprinkles on an ice cream cone.

Besides being pretty—and pretty good eating when they’re fresh—rainbows are popular game fish for their feisty natures. Rainbows are known for being aggressive, allowing for a variety of methods from bait to lures to flies to entice them into biting. Rainbows also tend to jump when hooked.

In general, rainbows caught in the Eastern Sierra can be as small as fingerlings and as large as 18” or so . The state record rainbow trout is 27 pounds.

Where to Catch Brown Trout

Brown trout (Salmo Trutta) are calledGod’s fish” by many local anglers. Known for being big, burly and bright, it’s easy to understand why so many people worship them.

Originally brought to America in the late-1880s, the Von Behr strain from Germany was soon followed by the Lock Lavens from Scotland. Browns are considered to be an ideal freshwater sport fish for several reasons. The first reason is that browns are considered smart, by fishing standards. Browns tend to be much more discriminating about what they eat than brookies, cutties or rainbows. That’s why browns tend to grow old and large and become the alphas of the fishery. They usually claim the best lies in the river the premiere spots under the banks and do most of their feeding during the darker hours.

The challenge of catching browns at places like Hot Creek, the Lower Owens and Crowley Lake, where they grow to massive proportions, is part of the appeal.

Besides being wily, browns are also very adaptable and can be found in warmer waters than most trout prefer. Once they’ve been planted, browns will eventually breed and create future generations of truly wild trout, which can now be found in lots of local waters.

True to their name, these fish are brown with hues of yellow, and have dark spots rimmed in red. In general, most brown trout caught in the Eastern Sierra are anywhere from 9” to 2-feet long, with bigger fish landed at the larger, lower elevation lakes like Crowley, Grant, Mary and the Bridgeport Reservoir each summer. The state record brown trout is 26 lbs, 8 ounces.

Where to Catch Brook Trout

Brook “trout” (Salvelinus fontinalis) are technically in the char family, but they can breed with other trout species. Native to the Northeast, brookies are known for their beautiful coloring and extremely aggressive natures.

Brook trout thrive in colder water and can be found in higher elevations fisheries throughout the High Sierra. They are fairly easy to distinguish, for while they may have coloring similar to rainbows, brookies have brightly colored spots and orange and white-lined fins. While they can compete and breed with other species, brookies tend to excel in the more challenging terrain of the backcountry. Most lakes and streams above 8,000’ in the Sierra are home to healthy brook populations that are more than willing to eat just about anything an angler throws at them.

In general, brook trout in the Eastern Sierra run from 6 to 12” with the occasional bigger one landed by a skilled—and/or lucky fisherman. The state record is 9 lbs 12 ounces.

Where to Catch Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkia) are perhaps the easiest to recognize because of the distinctive slashes of color (orange or red) that run underneath their lower jaws.  

While the region’s only native species, Lahontan cutthroats, can be caught in select waters (like the catch-and-release-only McLeod Lake or the West Walker River), cuttie-rainbow hybrids can be found in many local fisheries. Cutties are still a somewhat rare catch for the region, but can still be counted as part of a “Sierra Grand Slam.”

Nowhere near as large as their siblings in places like Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, in general, cutthroats caught in the Eastern Sierra run from 9 – 16”. The state record cutthroat is 31lbs 8 oz.

Where to Catch Golden Trout

Golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is considered by many to be the most beautiful of them all. They are also a truly native species with home waters along the southern tail of the Sierra Nevada. That’s why it’s only fitting that goldens are California’s state fish.

Miners are credited with first spreading goldens throughout the High Sierra. Goldens and many of their hybrid off-spring can be found in lakes and streams above 9,000’.  Their mountainous homes make them hard to access, but they reward hard-working anglers with rather aggressive dispositions and flanks that glimmer like precious metal. Short feeding seasons at such elevations make goldens a bit easier to hook. Red stripes and par marks that look like fingerprints along their flanks usually break up oblong bodies colored like sunshine.

Goldens can be found in high elevation waters in the Eastern Sierra and usually caught in the 6-14” range. The state record is 9lbs 8oz.



Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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