Over the weekend I guided a trip for a new fly angler. He’s been in the sport for about a year, and he asked tons of the right questions throughout our day on the water.
One question caught me off guard, though. We were talking about brook trout, and I mentioned that they’re not really a trout, but a char.
“What’s a char?” He asked.
I fumbled for an answer. “A cousin of the trout,” was the best I came up with.
So that got me thinking – what really is the difference between a trout and a char?
What Is A Trout?
Trout belong to the Salmonidae family in the animal kingdom. The most common genera (plural for genus) of trout that we fly anglers encounter is the Oncorhynchus and Salmo. Within those genera are the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki) and brown trout (Salmo trutta).
Now, here’s a quick refresher course for those of us who didn’t pay much attention in high school biology (I’m sorry, Mrs. Ethridge).
All living organisms on this planet are scientifically classified using the Linnaeus system – Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
Think of it like the various family houses in Game of Throne or the class houses in Harry Potter. All trout belong to the Hogwarts family, to continue the Harry Potter reference. However, trout differ from one another based on behavior and geographic distribution, which requires their sorting into a specific genus. At Hogwarts, students are sorted into various houses based on similar criteria. Although all the students at Hogwarts are witches and wizards, and they’re all human, they’re not all the same.
So, trout all belong to the Salmonidae family, but based on where they evolved in the world, they belong to a different genus. Salmo trutta – the brown trout – evolved in Europe, while the Oncorhynchus genus evolved in the Pacific Ocean region.
The Salmo genus contains the trutta species (brown trout) that we all know and love so much, in addition to Adriatic, marble, Ohrid, Sevan, and flathead trout. These species are all endemic to Europe.
The Oncorhynchus genus contains Pacific salmon, rainbow trout and steelhead, golden trout, redband trout, and cutthroat. These species evolved in the Pacific Ocean or its drainages.
So What’s A Char?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
Char belong to the genus Salvelinus, which is in the Salmonidae family. The Salvelinus genus has tons of different species, a lot of them native to tiny drainages in Arctic regions.
The species we’re familiar with as anglers are the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), Arctic char (Salvelinus aplinus) and the dolly varden (Salvelinus malma).
The Arctic char is considered the most widely-distributed fish in the Salvelinus genus, and the northernmost of all freshwater fish in the world.
What’s The Difference?
So, if trout and char both belong to the Salmonidae family, what’s the real difference between them?
It really boils down to two things – geographic distribution and physical appearance.
Char have a circumpolar distribution, which means that they occur only in waters at extremely high latitudes. Since they’re native to the entire Arctic region, however, they’re found at all longitudes in the Arctic.
With how tough life is in the Arctic, and the limited growing season in most of the freshwater, char don’t have near the native geographic distribution that trout do.
On the appearance front – trout have light bodies with dark spots. Char have dark bodies with light spots. It’s a characteristic consistent across the genera in the Salmonidae family, and next to geographic distribution, is what really distinguishes a trout from a char.
Trout and char are basically cousins. They’re all in the Salmonidae family, but each has its own unique genus and species. The names “trout” and “char” are common names we’ve given these fish over the centuries, and for whatever reason, they’ve stuck.
What’s your favorite trout or char to catch? Share that (and some fish pics) in the comments below.
Spencer Durrant is a fishing writer and guide from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide at the Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.