What Is The Difference Between Rainbow Trout And Steelhead Trout?

You may know that rainbow trout and steelhead trout are the same species, or maybe you’re just learning about them! Since they are the same species, you may wonder how they could be different. In this article we’ll cover the differences between rainbow trout and steelhead trout.

Rainbow trout and steelhead trout, both forms of Oncorhynchus mykiss, have significant differences. While rainbow trout are typically freshwater fish, steelhead are anadromous, meaning they migrate from freshwater to saltwater and back to complete their life cycle. While spending between one and three years in the ocean, steelhead undergo physiological changes upon returning to freshwater for spawning, and they may spend time in freshwater to recover before returning to the ocean. In contrast, rainbow trout remain in freshwater throughout their lives.

Rainbow trout live in a variety of freshwater habitats throughout the United States, including lakes, streams, and rivers. They are found in both wild and stocked populations in many states and are a popular game fish for anglers. Some of the states with significant populations of rainbow trout include California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico. Steelhead trout, on the other hand, thrive in coastal rivers and streams in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in the Great Lakes region. States with significant steelhead populations include Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Physical appearance is another key difference between the two. Steelhead are generally larger and more silvery, with a streamlined shape for navigating their oceanic habitat. Rainbow trout are typically smaller and more colorful, with a distinguishing pink or red stripe along their sides.

Both rainbows and steelhead are opportunistic predators, preying on a wide range of aquatic insects, small fish, and crustaceans. However, anadromous steelhead stop feeding once they enter freshwater to spawn, relying on stored energy reserves for sustenance.

rainbow trout flyfishing at jurassic lake in argentina

In summary, while rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species, there are significant differences between the two, including their life cycle stages, physical appearance, and feeding habits. These differences should be considered when selecting fishing equipment, choosing fishing spots, and planning fishing trips.


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