Trout holds a special place in any angler’s heart. They are beautiful, playful, and require a lot of skill to fish well. You can use just about any method to catch them, from flies to lures to live bait. Best of all, they can grow to be huge under the right conditions.
Ohio’s waterways are full of bass and bass anglers. But you may not have realized that you can also go trout fishing in several places around the state. Here is everything you need to know to get out there and start catching them.
A Brief History of Trout Angling in Ohio
All trout species (except for the brook trout) found in Ohio’s rivers are non-native. Trout have a long history of being introduced as sport fish. For example, the brown trout is not even native to the US. In Ohio, rainbow trout were introduced to the Mad River in 1884. They are now managed and stocked by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).
The ODNR has since stocked brown and brook trout in other waterways. In addition to this, you can find steelhead and lake trout in Lake Erie. These lake trout are the only fish on this list that occur here natively. If you count the steelhead separately, it’s five species of trout we can fish for in Ohio!
Trout belong to the family Salmonidae (the salmon). This makes them all cousins and they fill a similar role in nature. That role varies depending on where you are. But in general, trout exist somewhere in the middle of the food chain.
Some trout spend their entire lives in rivers, whereas others migrate. The classic example of this is the steelhead trout, which lives in the ocean and swims upriver when it is time to spawn. The steelhead in the Great Lakes (which are non-native) mimic this process, spending most of their time in the lakes.
The Best Methods for Trout Fishing
How you fish for trout depends about as much on how you like to fish as where you are. Because trout have such variable diets, you can use just about anything to catch them.
Fly fishermen will probably tell you that everything else is not as good of a sport. Deepwater spin fisherman will say you catch big fish on big lures. And the kid sitting on your local dock hauling up “lakeys” with cheese on a treble hook will say it does not matter how you do it. To some extent, they are right.
Because most trout in Ohio live in rivers, you will likely have the most success on flies. Caddisfly, stonefly, mayfly nymphs, and crickets all do well. And do not forget the old silver bullet in your tackle box, the wooly bugger.
You can still be successful trolling live bait in slower water. Nightcrawlers, crayfish, leeches, and minnows all do well. For lake trout and steelhead in Lake Erie, it is a good idea to try deep water crankbaits and spoon lures. Steelheads are also quite fond of salmon eggs. As far as timing goes, fall to spring is the best. Summer mornings also tend to be productive for trout.
Alright, that is about all you need to know about trout in general. Now let us get into the species themselves.
Trout Species of Ohio
Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss
The rainbow is the star of the show. They are stunningly beautiful and a joy to reel in.
As we have already mentioned, rainbows are found in the Mad River. They prefer cold, shallow water over a substrate of gravel or cobblestones. Look for well-oxygenated (clear) water free of debris.
Description and Behavior
The rainbow trout can grow to huge proportions when they are well-fed. The state record steelhead was 38” long and weighed 21 pounds! Rainbows found in rivers average closer to 12” in length and two to eight pounds.
Rainbows are usually distinguished by their coloration. They have whitish mouths and gums, as well as a band of shiny “rainbow,” often purplish scales on their sides. The pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins often have white tips. Their anal fins will have 10-12 rays. The tail is fairly square and maybe even a little rounded.
Steelhead Trout O. Mykiss Irideus
Steelhead trout is a bucket list item for most dedicated anglers. Being able to catch one without having to go all the way to the west coast is a huge bonus.
Steelhead trout can be found in the Erie River and its tributaries when fish swim upriver to spawn, which includes the Chagrin, Cuyahoga, and La Grande Rivers. Their likes are similar to their river-dwelling cousins. Look for them in clear water running over gravel.
The steelhead differs from the rainbow trout in a few ways. For one, they grow much larger on average. Searching for record rainbows will always show you a steelhead over a freshwater rainbow trout. Secondly, they have two major “phases” during their life cycle.
In the first phase, where they typically live in the ocean, their scales are much more silvery, with a whitish belly and mouth. But when they travel upstream, the males transform, similar to salmon. This process is called smoltification.
After they “smoltify,” steelhead will appear much darker, with brilliant red sides. There will be almost no white left on the fish’s body. The fish’s lower jaw will also become longer and hooked, forming a so-called “kype”. If you catch a spawning steelhead, you may think you’re looking at a salmon at first.
Lake Trout Salvelinus Namaycush
It’s all in the name. Lake trout are the perfect target for easy hours spent trolling on the shore or rocking peacefully in a boat.
Like the steelhead, lake trout can only be found in Lake Erie in Ohio. Typically, they stay closer to shore in the spring and summer, gobbling up bugs. As the water warms they’ll disperse, going further out and deeper. Large lake trout generally only eat other fish and spend most of their time in deep water.
As you might expect, lake trout are also quite large. As their diets transition to consist mainly of other fish, they grow almost exponentially. The state record, pulled from Lake Erie, was 26.6 pounds. Now that is a lunker by any standard. But it is a far cry from the champion.
The sportfishing world record, caught in the Great Bear Lake in Canada, weighed 72 pounds and measured 59 inches snout to tail. On average, lake trout run between 24 to 36 inches in adulthood. When reeling them in, you will be able to tell immediately. They are not big fighters, like brown trout, but the drag of a big lake trout is unmistakable.
They are not half bad to look at, either. Their scales feature gray or white spots on a background of green or gray. They have rounded heads and deeply forked tails. Their dorsal and anal fins project far away from the body. Your main tell will be the white spots, which are the same regardless of the surrounding color.
Brown Trout Salmo Trutta
Perhaps the world’s favorite sport fish. You will figure out why the second you hook one.
Brown trout were introduced to Ohio in 1980. Today the Ohio DNR stocks a few rivers around the state. You will find brown trout in the Clear Fork River and a few of its tributaries: Cedar Fork and Pine Run, as well as Clear Creek. If you are around Loudonville or Lancaster, it is your lucky day.
Similar to rainbow trout, browns like cold, clear water. The main difference is that they prefer to have a little cover and more diversity in the river. Water with rocks, root bundles, and logs with some cover overhead is prime time for brown trout fishing.
An adult brown trout will usually be around a foot in length and weigh a few pounds. They can become quite large, though. The Ohio state record was 14 and a half pounds and 27” long. And when you hook into one, you will feel it instantly start thrashing with all its weight. Brown trout are big fighters and usually require lots of time and energy to wear down.
As far as coloration goes, browns are usually true to their name. The body is brown to yellow with a whitish or cream-colored belly. Their sides and backs are covered in multicolored spots: black, gray, yellow, even red, with a lighter halo around them. Their “adipose” fin (the one between the dorsal fin and tail) is prominent and covered in spots. The tail, which is usually squarish, has no spots.
Brook Trout Salvelinus Fontinalis
If there were a fish beauty contest, the brook trout would win every year. And all the other fish would be jealous. But they would also probably understand because the brook trout is the clear winner.
The brook trout is the only trout native to Ohio’s inland waterways. It originally lived in all the rivers and streams connected to Lake Erie. However, because brook trout have a low tolerance for pollution, their populations were reduced by human activity.
The Chagrin and Rocky Rivers are the only places where they survived. However, the good news is that Ohio DNR has plans to keep them going. They can persist in small lakes, rivers, and ponds. They’re picky about the conditions of the water and like clean water with high oxygen content.
Brook trout are not the most impressive fish size-wise. They range from 10 inches to two feet in length. The world record was 14.5 pounds and 31.5 inches long.
What makes them stand out is their coloration. Brook trout scales are usually dark green to brownish and covered in a fantastic speckling of spots. Their spots are typically red, ringed with blue. Along their backs, you’ll notice a unique “marbled” pattern, called vermiculation. Their colors can be very vibrant, almost neon.
Their tails are more square, unlike their cousins, the lake trout. However, these two hybridize and become “splake.” Brook trout can also hybridize with brown trout to create tiger trout and arctic char, producing “sparctic char.” These hybrids each have a distinct coloration but usually look more like brook trout than lake or brown trout.
So, do you scout for trout? Drop us a line with your picture and story.
Conrad Lucas is a biologist, naturalist, and writer from Salt Lake City, UT. He specializes in bat ecology, and loves skiing, caving, canyoneering, climbing and fishing. You can follow him on IG @drinkfluoride and find his creative work at www.jconradlucas.com