Steelhead vs Rainbow Trout

In short, Steelhead and Rainbow Trout are the same species. The main difference is where they live their adult lives. Steelhead are anadromous. This means they leave the rivers they were born in and move out to sea. Rainbow trout, on the other hand, stay in the rivers throughout their lives.

An exception to this is Great Lakes Steelhead. These fish also migrate out of the rivers. But in this case, instead of going out to sea, they migrate out into one of the large great lakes such as Lake Michigan. 

Rainbow Trout and Steelhead are both species of Oncorhynchus mykiss. 

How To Tell The Difference Between Steelhead And Rainbow Trout

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. Two main keys are coloration and size. 

How To Identify A Steelhead

Steelhead will normally be much larger than Rainbow Trout. They will also usually have distinctive coloration. In the ocean, Steelhead will take on a much more silvery look. This helps camouflage them from their prey.  

Steelhead will often have a reddish stripe that runs the length of their body.

But rainbow trout will also have this coloration. So, a key to determining the difference is where the fish is. In the ocean or great lakes, Steelhead will have a more silver coloration and streamlined shape.

But once the Steelhead move back upstream to spawn, they change.  Their coloration becomes much darker. They can develop a more olive color along with the red pinkish stripe. They also develop a kype. This is a hooking of the jaws that happens to Salmon too.

How To Identify Rainbow Trout

Rainbow Trout spend their lives in freshwater streams, rivers and lakes. They grow to about 20 inches in length. But a 20 inch rainbow would be considered a trophy in many places. Most Rainbow trout will average at about 12 inches long.

They will have a very spotted appearance and a reddish pinkish stripe along the center of the body.  The nose of a Rainbow Trout is also more rounded and blunt in appearance.

Steelhead Vs Trout Lifecycle

Both of them start out the same way. They’re hatched in a creek, river or lake. Then something triggers some rainbow trout to leave and head out to open water. These are what we refer to as Steelhead.  This change can happen at 1 to 2 years of age. 

They will follow the river out to open water. In the Pacific ocean variety, the juvenile trout may spend some time in estuaries as before going out to sea.

Once a Steelhead is at sea, they start feeding on the vast new saltwater prey opportunities. 

The other Rainbow Trout that stayed behind in the river, will lead a normal river life feeding on freshwater prey.

After spending time out at sea, Steelhead will then return for the spawn. They’ll make a long arduous journey back to the same river in which they were hatched. As they make this journey, their body will transform. 

They change color and become much darker and their jaw will also become hooked. 

Now you may know that Salmon experience the same spawning behavior. 

However, there is a big difference. Salmon die after spawning and Steelhead do not. 

After they’re done with the spawn, Steelhead can swim right back out to see and do it all over again.

What Do Steelhead Eat?

When they get to the ocean, Steelhead can really start packing on the pounds.

This is because the ocean offers a very rich ecosystem for them to feed on.

Like their freshwater versions, Steelhead definitely feed on other smaller saltwater fish. Sardines, herring can make up a larger part of their diet. 

But squid, shrimp, crabs and other crustaceans can supplement their diets. 

As a result, Steelhead can reach weights of 30 pounds and more on a regular basis.

What Do Rainbow Trout Eat?

As a result of staying in their smaller rivers, streams, and lakes, Rainbow Trout will mainly focus on aquatic insects. This includes mayflies, caddisflies, midges and many others. 

They’ll eat them on the surface of the water and also prey on nymphs.

Larval stage aquatic insects start their lives underwater. This provides an abundant food source for Trout. 

As Rainbow Trout grow their diet will become more varied. 

Freshwater baitfish including minnows, shiners, gobies, and sunfish will be added. Crustaceans, worms and mollusks can also be added to their diet. 

Steelhead Vs Rainbow Trout Taste

What Does Steelhead Taste Like?

Steelhead that go out to sea live a life very similar to that of Salmon.  Wild Steelhead that feed on pacific ocean batifish will pick up the orange red hue in their meat. This is caused by the krill in the food chain.

The baitfish eat the krill, then the Steelhead eat the baitfish. 

This food chain results in the super food properties of wild Steelhead and Salmon. 

The bottom line, wild Steelhead will have that mild Salmon like flavor that has a Pacific ocean style.

Of course, farm raised or Great Lakes Steelhead will be different.

The flavor will be milder and the nutritional profile will be different. 

Also, some great lakes fish can be contaminated so use caution. As for farm raised Steelhead, I’d recommend trying to find out what they’re fed and the water quality they’re raised in. If you can assure yourself that these all check out then I would definitely eat it.

What Do Rainbow Trout Taste Like?

When you see Rainbow Trout in the store it’s usually a whole fish, fish fillet or smoked trout. 

You’ll notice that the flesh has a white meat look to it. 

Rainbow Trout have a very mild flavor. The meat is soft and flaky. It is not as firm as saltwater fish. It also has almost no fishy flavor at all. There are usually no significant bloodlines in the meat. 

This makes them ideal for people who cannot stand fishy flavor. 

Whole Rainbow Trout is ideal for baking or grilling. You can season them in many different ways. Putting lemon slices and herbs such as thyme is a popular option for baking.

The fillets can be prepared as you would most other fish fillets.

And if you like smoked fish, then smoked trout can be a treat.


Yes, Steelhead and Rainbow Trout are the same species. But they live vastly different lifestyles. This difference leads to Steelhead being much larger than a similar aged Rainbow Trout.

Coloration, and flavor can vary significantly as well.

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