Rainbow trout vs steelhead: The best way to tell the difference

There has always been a discussion about the differences between Steelhead trout and Rainbow trout. Even though the fish are the same species, Oncorhynchus mykiss, they lead very different lives. Let’s take a look at the differences, similarities, and how to identify the trout. 

Difference between steelhead and rainbow trout 

When it comes to rainbow trout vs steelhead trout, the main difference is the life cycle both fish have. Both steelhead trout and the rainbow trout hatch out of their eggs in freshwater rivers, streams or lakes. Rainbow trout will spend their whole adult lives in freshwater. Steelhead, on the other hand, are anadromous. Which means that when they reach adulthood, they leave the rivers and streams they were born in and move out to sea. 

To this day it remains unsure why this happens, scientists think it has to do with either genetics or environmental influences. Steelhead trout will spend about five years of their adult life in saltwater, after which they return to freshwater rivers or streams to spawn. Rainbow trout will start breeding after only two years. 

Simply said, steelhead are the migrating version of the rainbow trout.

comparison between rainbow and steelhead trout


The easiest and fastest way to tell the difference between the two fish is their size. Rainbow trout can grow up to 16 inches and weigh between 2 and 9 pounds. 

Comparison between rainbow trout vs steelhead trout

Steelhead trout grow to be much larger than rainbow trout. The longer the trout have been in salt water, the larger they become. Steelhead trout that live in salt water for up to 3 years range from 6 pounds to 15 pounds. Fish that stay in the ocean for 4 or 5 years can weigh up to 20 pounds or more. Occasionally, a steelhead trout that weighs 30 to 40 pounds gets caught. 

How to identify a steelhead or rainbow trout

If it’s still unclear whether you have caught a rainbow trout or a steelhead trout, there are several ways of identifying by the looks of the fish. 


First of all, the rainbow trout is much more colorful than the steelhead trout, that is why identifying rainbow trout is easier. Oftentimes rainbow trout will have a bright red or pink stripe along the middle of its sides. The green and black spots that characterize a rainbow trout can often be found on the dorsal fin, contrary to the steelhead trout. Steelhead trout will sometimes show remains of the red or pink stripe on the side of the body, but it is much less prominent. 

the shape of the fish 

Another way to tell the difference between a rainbow trout and a steelhead trout is the shape of the fish. Steelhead trout have a blunt head and a shorter jaw that does not extend past the eye. The tail fin is square-shaped and does not have that many spots on it, contrary to the rainbow trout. 

Rainbow trout taste 

One of the most significant differences between the two fish is the taste, the main reason for this is that the rainbow trout spends most of its life in freshwater and the steelhead spends most of its life in saltwater. Which one is better, you ask? 

Because steelhead trout spends most of its adult life in saltwater, the taste is less fishy. The meat of a wild steelhead trout looks a lot like salmon, and the taste is not that much different either. The fish contains a lot of fat and is often smoked or cooked just like salmon. Farmed steelhead trout, however, does not look or taste like salmon. 

Rainbow trout meat in a fish store and a woman pointing to fish

Rainbow trout are freshwater fish and thus have a different taste. The meat is white-ish, and most people choose to either bake the fish or put it in the oven with lemon, salt, and pepper. For the best trout recipes, please visit this page. 


While rainbow trout and steelhead trout are practically the same fish, they lead a very different life. Rainbow trout stay in the freshwater where they were born while steelhead trout spend most of their adult life in the ocean. Both fish eventually spawn in fresh water.

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