Steelhead salmon (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are commonly known as trout, but in fact they are a species of salmon native to the Pacific region. Land locked steelheads are also known as rainbow trout; in fact that is their common name. The term steelhead is used to differentiate between those rainbows that stay in fresh water permanently and those that go out to the ocean. Both rainbow and steelhead trout will return to the place where they hatched in order to spawn; therefore, steelheads are an anadromous species. Unlike their Pacific salmon cousins, steelheads and rainbows can spawn numerous times before dying.

Below are examples of a male and female Steelhead: Females are usually less colorful and have mouths that closely resemble a trout where males or bucks have a hook like a coho or a longer “snout” with bright red streaks during spawning periods.

Left = Female, Right = Male

Doe, Hen, Female Steelhead
Male or Buck Steelhead

While rainbow trout are called so because of the bright red stripe found down their sides, the steelhead variety loses this luminescent marking when going out to sea. The journey to sea and the lifestyle requirements there also allow the steelhead to grow quite a bit bigger than the rainbow; while trout that spend all of their lives in fresh water typically grow anywhere from 12 to 36 inches long, steelheads will be between 20 and 40 inches long. The largest steelhead caught was landed in Alaska, and weighed in at 42 pounds.

This diagram can help you look for “landmarks” on a steelhead! Most importantly though, look for very large scales and less bright rainbow-like colors on its body.

steelhead salmon identification chart

Steelhead salmon are actually considered the normal occurrence among rainbow trout; it is the rainbow which remains in fresh water that is the anomaly. Both steelheads and rainbows are prized by anglers as big fighters when hooked; they begin to jump almost immediately after feeling a barb, and landing one is quite a feat.

Because of their value, and because of their unique taste, steelheads have been introduced to more water systems than any other fish; their habitat now extends east to the Great Lakes regions of North America and to several countries where the rainbow was never before known, including Australia. Like many other species brought to Australia, steelheads have done considerable damage to the natural marine ecosystems in which they were introduced.

Steelheads can be caught almost year round; they may spawn in the winter of in the summer. Winter run Steelhead is the most popular time to catch these fish on a fly; summer and early fall is more given to the casual troller. These fish can be caught as they return to their spawning grounds, or of course you can try a lake that has a resident population of rainbows.

Fly casting remains the most popular way to catch these fish; they are often caught on nymphs and can be landed using fairly light tackle. You’ll want to go out prepared if you are after winter runs; the cold conditions mean that you will be standing in cold water for a long time, maybe hours, waiting for a strike. You will also want to be sure the steelheads are present when you go on your trip; their seasonal patterns mean that they are constantly on the move and will not stay in a region for very long.

Steelhead salmon are one of the ultimate prizes for fresh water anglers. Their fight and the planning it takes to ensure a successful trip mean that this is one of the harder fish to take, widespread though it may be.

Identification Characteristics:

  • Head blunt, jaw short – does not extend past the eye.
  • Distinct dark spots on dorsal fin.
  • Square-shaped tail fin with radiating pattern of spots.
  • Often has reddish stripe along sides, gill cover reddish.
  • Length up to 45 inches.

Spawning Timing for the Salmon River:

  • Late October through Mid to Late April.
  • Hot spawning time is usually December through March.

Darrens nice chromer buck. Note that there isn’t alot of bright reds and the snout is longer!
Male, buck, Steelhead

If you would like to learn more about each species such as Cutthroat trout, click on the hypertext or go to the top of the page to find out more about the species you’re interested in.