Steelhead vs Rainbow Trout: Differences Explained

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The Oncorhynchus Mykiss has been a favorite target for anglers for years. They’re more commonly known as steelhead or rainbow trout. While they’re the same species, they have key differences that separate the two. Steelheads are known as the fish of 10,000 casts and traditional rainbow trout are far easier to land! They’re cold-water fish that can live upwards of five or six years.

Same Species, Different Life Cycles

Rainbow trout and steelhead essentially begin their lives in the exact same way. They hatch from eggs that were laid in freshwater streams, lakes, or rivers. What happens after they hatch is where the main differences arise. A rainbow trout can stay in that exact stream, lake, or river for its entire life. After two years, they’ll begin spawning and creating their own offspring. Rainbow trout are generally somewhere between one and fifteen pounds.

A wild steelhead, however, will migrate to the sea after a year or two in freshwater and live there until it’s time to spawn. They’ll live in the sea for upwards of five years, and during spawning season, they’ll migrate back to the freshwater streams, lakes or rivers where they were born. They’ll complete the spawning process and some will even head back to the sea. Unlike salmon, they do not die when they spawn. Wild Steelhead can grow upwards of 20 pounds.

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout eat aquatic insects as well as small prey like crayfish, leeches, and small baitfish and you’ll find them in cool water streams, lakes, and rivers.

Distribution

Oncorhynchus Mykiss can be found all over the world. However, these fish need water that’s somewhere between 32 and 65 degrees to survive! As a result, you’ll find them in high elevation areas or spring-fed streams. The Western United States, Upper Midwest and Northeast are hot spots for these fish. States like Michigan, Idaho, Montana, and Washington all have extremely healthy populations of wild and native rainbow trout.

You can also find massive rainbow trout in New Zealand as well as Argentina.

Size

Oncorhynchus Mykiss can greatly vary in size. Much of their size is dependent on the environment in which they live. In most Western United States streams and rivers, most rainbow trout weigh around three pounds and are 18 inches long. However, they can grow upwards of 40 inches and 50 pounds! New Zealand continues to produce world-record rainbow trout.

Spawning

Oncorhynchus Mykiss spawning begins in the spring. Somewhere between February and April, you’ll see fish on Redds in the midst of their spawn. Make sure you are extremely careful around Redds. We need to protect them to keep fish populations healthy!

Characteristics

Looking at rainbow trout is almost like you’re looking at a stained glass window. You’ll find a silver, shiny body with a light red/purple stripe running along their side. Below the stripe, the silver is more prominent. Above the stripe, you’ll see a dark green color. Surrounding this stripe are small black black spots.

Habits

Rainbow trout eat aquatic insects as well as small prey like crayfish, leeches and small baitfish. You’ll find them in cool water streams, lakes and rivers. Often, they’re hiding near structure or feeding in the shallow water. They don’t want to overexert themselves, so they’re fans of easy meals that float right past their faces.

Fishing For Rainbow Trout

Fly anglers can use a variety of fly fishing techniques to land rainbow trout. Nymphs, dry flies and streamers are all useful flies that can help you catch rainbow trout. Spend time fishing pools, cut banks, eddies and riffles. All of these areas of the water are going to hold fish. Drift streamers through the pools and high stick nymphs in riffles and under the cut banks. It’s important that you also understand when trout are hoping to feed! If you start seeing them break the surface, you know that flies are hatching, so it’s time to use a dry. If you aren’t seeing surface action, go ahead and fish nymphs and streamers. Streamers and dry flies are the name of the game in lakes! Focus on fishing near structure. Most rainbow trout can be targeted with a 9′ 5-weight fly rod (get one here). Use floating line and pair it with 3x leader. You may need to use some 4x tippet if you’re hoping to fish with dries.

If you’re spin fishing, traditional trout lures are going to work well. Mepps Spinners and Panther Martins can help you land them. Cast your lure near structure, in pools and through seams and reel towards yourself. Fish holding in these areas will pursue your lures! You can use a light or medium 6′ or 7′ rod to target rainbow trout. Use 4 to 6 pound test to make sure any of the ones you find aren’t going to break you.

Steelhead Trout

Steelhead trout generally look more weathered and have a brighter look compared with rainbow trout.

Distribution

Steelhead trout are not as easy to find as rainbow trout. They’re usually found on the coasts in the cold Pacific Ocean or in the Great Lakes Region. Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California all have nice populations of these fish! Also, Michigan, New York, Wisconsin and Minnesota have nice populations of these fish as well.

Worldwide, you’ll find nice populations of these fish in Norway and Argentina!

Size

Steelhead are generally going to larger than rainbow trout. On average, they’re going to be around 24 inches and four or five pounds. However, you easily have the potential of catching a double digit fish given the proper conditions.

Spawning

The spawning process for Steelhead is one of the most amazing things in the animal kingdom. Most steelhead trout spawn sometime between late fall and early spring. It’s somewhat dependent on the part of the world you’re fishing! When it comes time to spawn, Steelhead will begin heading toward the waters where they were born. Here, they will spawn. They do not die after they spawn, so many will return to the sea! Idaho has a population of Steelhead that travel upwards of 700 miles through rivers to spawn. It’s amazing that rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species, but one can be so different than the other.

Characteristics

Steelhead trout have a similar appearance to rainbow trout, but they generally look more weathered. They’ll have scars from their travels and from the rugged conditions in which they live for most of their lives. In terms of colors, steelhead trout usually have a brighter look to them than rainbow trout. The silver is almost breathtaking! They red/purple stripe isn’t usually as smooth on steelhead as it is on a rainbow.

Habits

Steelhead will eat insect larvae, fish, fish eggs, baitfish and even small mammals like mice. The larger the fish, the larger the diet! You’ll have the best chance of catching these fish as they return to the rivers and streams to spawn. These fish aren’t necessarily interested in eating while they’re spawning, they strike more out of reaction. However, if you find a post-spawn steelhead, they’ll eat a massive amount! Steelhead primarily eat eggs after they’re done spawning.

Fishing For Steelhead

The ideal fly fishing technique for Steelhead is drifting egg patterns. Since they eat so many after they’re done spawning, they’re going to lead to the most success. Look for slow-moving and deep water when targeting steelhead. Drift your egg patterns through these portions of water and wait for one to hit. This technique looks a lot like nymphing for trout. You can also swing flies for Steelhead. Cast up and across the river and let the current take your fly. It’ll take your fly and swing it back across the water towards you. You’re going to want to use a 9′ 7 or 8-weight fly rod for Steelhead. A weight-forward floating or sink tip line paired with 0x leader is your best bet in terms of power and sensitivity.

If you’re spin fishing for steelhead, you have a few different options. You can lure fish like you would for many other types of fish. Also, jig fishing is a popular method! Put a jig underneath afloat and see if it gets hit. Bottom bouncing is a popular method if you’re interested in using centerline reels and it’s great for shallow portions of water that are holding fish. Float fishing, however, is generally considered to be the most effective method. Floats are similar to bobbers and they allow you to drift bait right off of the bottom and hold it in the strike zone. Most anglers will use egg sacks to entice these fish! Use an 8-foot medium heavy rod with 12 to 20 pound test when you’re spin fishing for steelhead. Also, make sure your reel is smooth and filled with line! These fish can swim upwards of 35 mph.

How to Distinguish Between Steelhead and Rainbow Trout

The easiest way to distinguish between rainbow trout and steelhead is by the size. Generally, you’re going to find that steelhead are quite a bit larger than rainbow trout. For example, if you land a rainbow trout that’s 25 inches, it’s likely a steelhead.

They’re a unique fish species that has the same colors and body style, but they’re a bit different. Steelhead have more spots and are brighter than rainbow trout. Also, a spawning male steelhead is going to have a large hook jaw. Spawning females with have soft bellies filled with eggs.

Finally, be sure to pay attention to the time of year you’re fishing. If you’re fishing in the winter months and happen to land a large rainbow trout, odds are, you’re in steelhead waters!

Lake-Going “Steelhead” Trout

Most anglers are familiar with the steelhead as saltwater fish. However, there are Great Lakes steelhead that live in the Great Lakes and return to their birth place in local streams and rivers to complete the spawning process. These fish are able to exist due to generous stocking programs and care from local game and fish department employees!

Steelhead vs Rainbow Trout Taste

Sea-run Steelhead taste very similar to a wild salmon. They have essentially the same diet and their meat even looks similar to one another. For a smaller saltwater fish, Steelhead taste amazing! If you’re hoping to eat Great Lakes steelhead, you’ll find that they taste more similar to trout since they’re not getting the saltwater diet.

Rainbow trout taste similar to most other freshwater trout that you’ll find. It’s a soft, white, flaky meat that is fairly easy to prepare!

Steelhead vs Rainbow: Conservation and Protection

Few fish are more exciting than Steelhead and rainbow trout. As the years have progressed, the steelhead populations across the world have been dwindling. Anglers can do their part to educate themselves on the lifespan of these fish and how to properly care for them if you happen to catch one. Each fish is vital to the repopulation efforts!

For rainbow trout, it’s important to stay away from their spawning grounds and handle them with care. While they’re easily stocked, we want to create as many wild populations as we possibly can!

Enjoy pursuing these fish. They’re going to test your skills, but they’re extremely rewarding to catch. Do your part to stay educated and handle them with care, and we’ll have fish to enjoy for generations to come.

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AUTHOR
Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.