Rainbow Trout vs. Steelhead: What Is The Difference?

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Big fish found in Boise River, Idaho!

If you trout fish long enough, the temptation of steelhead fishing will creep into your veins and force you to target “steel.” But knowing whether you’ve caught a rainbow trout or steelhead can be as tricky as catching the fish.

Rainbow trout and steelhead, or Oncorhynchus mykiss, are the same fish, but their lifecycle creates different traits and competing common names. While rainbow trout are freshwater fish for their entire life, steelhead are anadromous.

In short, steelhead migrate, but rainbow trout do not.

Defining Steelhead

Bored at a bar and want to start a fight? Ask a Midwesterner and Pacific Northwesterner to debate what qualifies as a “steelhead.” 

Technically, steelhead are west coast trout that migrate between the Pacific Ocean and freshwater rivers. In my opinion, trout migrating to and from saltwater should be the standard for “steelhead.” 

But if you’re from the Midwest (like me), you’ve heard of local steelhead runs out of the Great Lakes. This “steelhead” vernacular results from stocked rainbow trout in the 1890s. After stocking, these Great Lake rainbow trout journeyed to tributaries and are now called “steelhead” by locals.

But purists think of them as giant inland rainbow trout who happen to migrate. For this article, steelhead include trout that migrate from the Pacific Ocean or the Great Lakes.

How To Tell A Rainbow Trout From A Steelhead

The quickest way to tell a rainbow trout from a steelhead is by the size of the fish. Because of the steelhead’s habitat and robust diet, they can grow to much larger sizes (up to 50 pounds!). But that shouldn’t be your only way to identify a steelhead from a rainbow trout. 

CharacteristicRainbow TroutSteelhead
SizeAverage rainbow trout grow to 10-15 inches long (depending on location). A large rainbow trout is anything over 20 inches.The average size of a steelhead is much larger than the average rainbow trout. It is likely a steelhead if you have caught a fish over 26 inches.
ColorBody color can range from yellowish to light silver.Have a more “silvery” body (hence: “steel,” “chrome”) with heavier black spots.
MarksTypically have a more pronounced pink stripe down the side of their body compared to steelhead.Will develop their vibrant pink stripe after they have migrated back upriver.
FeaturesHave a more rounded, snubbed nose.
The caudal fin appears forked compared to a steelhead.
Torpedo-shaped compared to a rainbow trout.
The back of a steelhead’s caudal fin is flat rather than forked.

When Is A Rainbow Trout a Steelhead?

There are rainbow trout who migrate after 1-3 years in their freshwater birthplace. After this migration, they are considered steelhead. Before this migration, they are commonly referred to as “residents.” 

Where to Find Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are present in all 50 U.S. states. Depending on the water available in your state, you can fish for rainbow trout in lakes, ponds, small creeks, or rivers.

All trout need cool, clean water, but rainbow trout appear to be among the hardiest of trout. Records of rainbow trout surviving 80-degree water demonstrate their survivability.

Many conservationists worry about rainbow trout’s impact on competing trout species. Once introduced, rainbow trout are not rare and have the potential to take over rivers and streams from native trout. 

Rainbow Trout: A Fun Catch!

Where to Find Steelhead

Steelhead trout are native to the west coast and as far inland as the Rockies, but thrive throughout the Great Lakes and their tributaries. 

Both regions of steelhead offer their own bi-annual steelhead runs where trout migrate to freshwater rivers. For Pacific steelhead, these runs are in the summer and winter. For Great Lake steelhead, these runs are in the fall and spring.

Experienced angler in cold water with fly gear, casting for fish.

Fishing For Rainbow Trout

The most common methods for fishing for rainbow trout are conventional spinning gear or fly tackle. The method is your choice, but in my experience, nothing beats hooking into rainbow trout on a foam hopper or cricket.

Whatever the method, here is what rainbow trout love to eat

  • Common Rainbow Trout Lures for Conventional Tackle: worms, nightcrawlers, spinners, and corn.
  • Common Flies for Rainbow Trout: dry flies (hoppers, mayflies, stoneflies), nymphs (pheasant tails, caddis, prince nymphs, hare’s ear, midge), and streamers.

Fishing for Steelhead

There are two primary options for fishing for steelhead. First, charter a boat to the ocean or a Great Lake. Second, wait for the steelhead run and wade a river. 

Your preference might depend on available time, your group’s physical ability, and funds. In my experience, chartering a boat is relaxing and fun for the whole family, whereas wading a river can be intense and best for the bold. 

Fishing TechniqueProsCons
Chartered Boat– Typically uses trolling, a relaxing, low-key technique for novices.
– Perfect for groups
– More expensive compared to wading a river.
– Less hands-on for the angler wanting to learn how to catch steelhead.
River Wading– Active style of fishing for those wanting an adventure.
– Water access: you don’t need a boat, just your two feet!
– Can be a steep learning curve for first-timers.
– Includes an upfront cost to supply the gear.
– Depending on the area, this may include “combat fishing,” where you fish shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow anglers.

Rainbow Trout vs. Steelhead Taste

Rainbow trout and steelhead may have the same genetics, but that doesn’t mean they taste the same. While steelhead have a flavor like salmon, rainbow trout are delicate and known to have a nut-like flavor.

Obviously, steelhead have a much larger filet than rainbow trout. Remember, steelhead bought from the grocery store are farmed fish, so it will taste different compared to steelhead caught in the river. 

Related Questions

Which is harder to catch? Rainbow trout or steelhead?

Steelhead are much harder to catch. They are known as “fish of a thousand casts” because it’s common to return from the river empty-handed. Rolling, hooking, and especially catching a steelhead is an achievement. Believe me, even seeing one is a trip!

Do steelhead die after spawning?

Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning. Instead, they can return to the Great Lakes or the Pacific Ocean, where they live until their next trip inland.

When do steelhead and rainbow trout spawn?

Steelhead and rainbow trout both spawn in the spring.

Final Thoughts

Wherever you land in the steelhead or rainbow trout debate, remember this: steelhead are bigger, badder, and harder to catch! More importantly, steelhead migrate while rainbow trout do not. 

If you’re looking for steelhead, start in the Pacific Ocean or a Great Lake and wait for the local run. If you’re looking for rainbow trout, check your local rivers, ponds, or creeks.

David Linsmeyer Avatar


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