American Oceans

The #1 Way to Tell the Difference Between Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout

a rendering of a rainbow trout leaping from the water

Steelhead and rainbow trout are two different forms of the same species, Oncorhynchus mykiss. These trout exhibit differences in their life histories and habitat preferences, leading to a debate on how to best differentiate the two. The primary distinction between steelhead and rainbow trout is their migration patterns and behavior; however, they also differ in appearance and physiological traits.

This article will delve into the variations between steelhead and rainbow trout, examining their habitat differences, appearance, reproductive strategies, and ecological implications. Understanding the nuances between these two forms of Oncorhynchus mykiss can aid in species conservation efforts and provide valuable insights into trout ecology and behavior.

Steelhead Trout vs Rainbow Trout

a rainbow trout leaping out of the water

Steelhead trout and rainbow trout are two forms of the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, closely related yet differing in life history and some physical characteristics. The primary difference between the two lies in their life history, with steelhead being anadromous (migrating to the sea and returning to freshwater to spawn) and rainbow trout remaining in freshwater throughout their lives.

In terms of appearance, both steelhead and rainbow trout display a variety of colors, with a general blue-green or olive-green hue along the back, fading to a silvery white on the belly. They also share the distinct pinkish-red lateral stripe, which gives rise to their common name “rainbow” trout. Adult steelhead, however, often exhibit a more silvery coloration in contrast to freshwater rainbow trout, likely a result of their marine life.

The size of these trout can differ considerably depending on their environment. Steelhead are typically larger, with adults measuring up to 45 inches (114 cm) long and weighing up to 55 pounds (25 kg), while rainbow trout usually reach lengths of up to 30 inches (76 cm) and weigh up to 8 pounds (3.6 kg) ^(1).

Geographic Range

Rainbow trout are native to the cool, clear waters of North America’s Pacific Coast, from southern Alaska down to Mexico, as well as tributaries of the Pacific Ocean and a few landlocked systems ^(2). The steelhead trout’s distribution overlaps with that of their freshwater counterpart, but due to their anadromous nature, steelhead can be found in the ocean and coastal areas during certain life stages.

Since their first introduction to other regions in the 19th century, both rainbow and steelhead trout have been widely stocked in freshwater habitats across North America and other continents for sport fishing and conservation purposes. As a result, the geographic range of these fish has expanded far beyond their native range, with populations now established in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs around the world ^(3).

Habitat and Lifecycle Patterns

a steelhead trout swimming in the water

Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and rainbow trout both belong to the same species but exhibit different migration and lifecycle patterns. These characteristics have significant effects on their habitat preferences. Like most other salmonids, steelhead and rainbow trout choose freshwater streams for spawning. They build depressions called redds in the streambed gravel to lay their eggs. Ensuring adequate oxygen flow is vital during spawning; hence, they select areas with clean gravel and moderate to fast-moving water.

Both steelhead and rainbow trout are anadromous, meaning they migrate between their natal freshwater habitat and the ocean during their life cycle. Anadromous fish such as steelhead trout undergo marine migrations and reside in freshwater habitats to a varying extent. However, some rainbow trout remain in the freshwater habitat throughout their entire life and are referred to as resident trout.

Migration and Lifecycle

Steelhead trout have a complex migration pattern, moving between ocean and freshwater habitats. After hatching, they spend one to three years in freshwater before moving downstream to estuaries. Once in estuaries, they undergo physiological changes to adapt to the saltwater environment. Steelhead trout then spend one to four years in the ocean, eventually returning to their birthplace in freshwater streams to spawn.

Rainbow trout, on the other hand, can exhibit both ocean-going (anadromous) and freshwater resident life histories. Research on the distribution and abundance of steelhead spawning reveals that factors such as site access, spawning habitat quality, and water temperature influence their lifecycle. Some rainbow trout remain in freshwater throughout their lives, resembling the life cycle of other salmonids, such as coastal cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki).

Notably, factors like sex, migration distance, and latitude have a significant influence on the life history expression of steelhead and rainbow trout. In terms of appearance, rainbow trout typically boast a prominent reddish stripe running along their lateral line, which is more pronounced in freshwater residents than their ocean-going counterparts.

Differences in Behavior and Diet

a steelhead trout underwater

Steelhead trout and rainbow trout, though similar in appearance, have distinct differences in their feeding preferences. Steelhead trout are known to feed on a variety of aquatic organisms, including insects, small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. In contrast, rainbow trout mainly consume aquatic insects, mollusks, and zooplankton.

It’s important to note that both species may also consume aquatic vegetation as a supplement to their primary food sources.

Environmental Adaptations

Apart from their feeding preferences, steelhead and rainbow trout also exhibit differences in environmental adaptations. Steelhead trout are anadromous, meaning they are born in freshwater but migrate to saltwater environments to grow and mature. This adaptation allows them to cover a wider range of habitats and utilize various prey sources during their lifetime. On the other hand, rainbow trout remain mostly in freshwater environments throughout their lives.

The lifestyle of steelhead trout in both freshwater and saltwater habitats requires them to adapt their behavior according to the specific conditions. For instance, they may adjust their feeding behavior depending on the available prey in each habitat. In contrast, rainbow trout are generally more specialized in their feeding preferences due to their largely freshwater lifestyle.

Conservation and Fishing

a school of rainbow trout swimming in a creek

Conservation efforts for both steelhead and rainbow trout are vital, considering the various threats they face. The extinction risk for these species in some locations is due to habitat loss, overfishing, and hybridization with other species.

Fishing for Steelhead and Fishing for Rainbow Trout are popular activities among anglers. However, it’s essential to follow responsible techniques and regulations to ensure the sustainability of these species.


  • Reductions in freshwater flows through increased water diversions from rivers and streams for agriculture and human consumption have dramatically reduced habitat for steelhead and rainbow trout. Additionally, water diversions remove juvenile steelhead and rainbow trout from rivers and cause unacceptable exposure to predators at the fish screens.

  • It seems that this statement is controversial “However, they have also been introduced to other regions, including the Great Lakes, where they are now established populations.” But are these Great Lakes Steelheads really Steelhead? If Steelhead are anadromous, much like salmon, which means that they spend most of their life in the ocean (salt water) but return to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. What is their access to the ocean from the Great Lakes so that they are anadromous as a steelhead should be? With no access to an ocean wouldn’t they just be fresh water rainbows. I could be either but not both.
    Maybe a truer name for a Great Lakes land-locked Steelhead should be Steelbow or some other name other than steelhead? Granted that these Great Lakes fish have Steelhead DNA they lack the ocean anadromous life. No different than a land-locked sockeye salmon that is a kokanee or silver. If fishers want to catch a true Steelhead they must fish in the Pacific NW. Lets not mix apples and oranges. You may post my comment and your answer on your Website since I don’t have one, or just email me.

  • Here in Michigan, Steelhead trout spend their entire lives in the freshwater of the Great Lakes, along with Lake Trout and various species of salmon.