The Primary Differences Between Steelhead And Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout vs steelhead different

What is your top favorite to cast? Is it the same as your fellow anglers or different? 

Do you know that the most favored game fish is trout? In this article, two common trouts to fishermen will be distinguished clearly so you can easily differentiate them if you go sportfishing with other anglers.

Both require a pool of fishing experience, which poses an exciting challenge to both experienced and inexperienced as well. Being the favorite of fly fishermen, steelhead and rainbow trout share some similarities but mainly differ in the living habitat during the spawning process. 

Rainbow Trout Overview

Rainbow trout have a stunning look
Rainbow trout have a stunning look

As freshwater trout, rainbow trout is one of the fisherman’s favorites for its tasty flavor among other varieties like steelhead trout (which will be compared later), Kamloops trout from the interior of British Columbia, and hatchery.

Life Cycle

Rainbow trout are freshwater residents which spend the whole cycle in shallow rivers or deep lakes. Anglers can easily find them in stretches of the swift-flowing body of water with an abundant cover or relatively deep, chilly lakes with enough food sources for higher fertility.

The preferred temperature ranges from 55 ° to 64 °F but they still can suffer the highest temperature up to 70 ° F and as low as 42°F. 

From early to spring, which is different between the Northern (January to June) and Southern Hemisphere (September to November), rainbow trout undergo a spawning process usually under a bed of fine gravel. In general, female rainbow trout lay 2000–3000 0.16–0.20 eggs per kg of weight.

Then, the female buries the eggs under displaced gravel near the upstream edge of the nest. The males follow and scatter milt (sperm) on the eggs to fertilize them, which later takes four to seven weeks for hatching.


At 2 weeks old, newly hatched trout generally feed on zooplankton. Then, the major sources of food for adult rainbows are insects, crustaceans, snails, leeches, and other fish, if any are present. 

In bodies of water supplied with aquatic vegetation, rainbow trout can also consume arthropods. Compared to brown trout, they feed on the surface less frequently, according to certain research.


The taste largely depends on the living environment. Small lake and stream populations might leave a muddy taste in your mouth or slight sweetness if the freshwater is clear. 

Large lake and river populations, on the other hand, with a piscivorous diet, have a much tastier flavor. The flesh color varies accordingly, from bright red to pink and white in larger rivers.


Do you know why rainbow trout are called rainbow? 

Yes, I think you can easily guess the answer as rainbow trout has multi-hued skin colors which can be blue, green, or yellowish. Normally, the combination of the blue-green and reddish-pink band features the back of rainbow trout while the lower sides are silver and fade to pure white. 

Small black spots cover the upper fins and tail and are more present and dense near the tail. If you can take a closer look, some striking features of rainbow trout are eight to twelve rays in the anal fin, and no teeth at the base of the tongue.

You may wonder, among all features, what should anglers pay attention to the most to distinguish between stream dwellers, lake residents’ rainbow trouts, and steelhead trout.

The answer lies in coloration. The most vivid color, intense pink stripe, and heaviest spotting are in stream residents, followed by their lake counterparts, and least radiant in steelhead.


Based on the living habitat, rainbow becomes attractive to many anglers. But beware, these fighters often leap and fight hard regardless of their size. It really depends on the fishing environment to decide on the right angling methods, which are Weighted spinners, wobbling spoons, streamer flies, Muddler Minnows, and eggs.

Steelhead Overview

The coloration of steelhead depends on their habitat
The coloration of steelhead depends on their habitat

So, are rainbow trout and steelhead the same fish?

Well, interestingly, they share the same scientific name: Oncorhynchus mykiss, but steelhead is another form of rainbow trout. Actually, the name derives from being anadromous: migrating to the sea as a juvenile and coming back to freshwater for reproduction. 

Can you think of any species undergoing the same anadromy process?

It’s Pacific salmon which dies right after spawning. This sets it apart from steelhead/rainbow trout which spawns more than once.

Life cycle

The spawning process of steelhead is quite similar to that of rainbow trout when a female lays up to 1000 eggs under the gravel to avoid being washed away or eaten by predators. It takes around one month to finish hatching eggs. The food source for these eggs comes from inside the eggs so they haven’t migrated at this stage yet. 

So when does the migration begin?

Well, after the newly hatched eggs turn into alevin (5-week old), and then fry (up to 1 year old), and then smolt (up to 2 years old), these teenage trout now swim to the estuary for more food. Ocean adults spend another five years migrating, which is a good portion of their lives if not being eaten by many big predators like sharks, and sea lions. 

When it’s the right time for reproducing, the spawners now migrate up small tributaries to lay eggs. 


When steelhead trout are just a few weeks old, they live mainly on the food from their big belly – part of the egg. While fry prefers tiny bugs, smolt now can consume more like big bugs, shrimp, sand crabs, and tiny fish. In the ocean, their main food sources are squid, crustaceans, and small fish whereas pelagic baitfish such as alewives and smelt are what they feed on in large lakes. 


The flesh is bright orange or red but steelhead’s texture is quite similar to their rainbow counterparts – being flaky. However, steelhead is less fishy, and leaner for being an acrobatic and strong battler. 

It is also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, just like salmon, which endears itself to many anglers. 


Compared to rainbow trout, steelhead is more slender and streamlined. Silvery coloration is a typical feature of ocean steelhead. However, when they approach the spawning period, the difference is more difficult to recognize as the dominant silvery sheen fades. Steelhead spawners acquire a distinctive pink to the red striped pattern that runs above and below the lateral line.


Ocean adult steelhead has two main predators (sea lions and sharks) but is rarely caught by anglers. Spawning-run steelhead is regularly pursued by anglers during winter or spring. Some popular fishing methods include using flies, spinners, spoons, diving plugs, and natural baits, especially salmon or trout roe and crayfish tails.

You can find them swimming in deep holes, and fast whitewater areas, behind rocks and logjams. As for lake dwellers in the Great Lakes, the primary angling technique is trolling – similar to salmon and brown trout.

Comparison Table 

This comparison table will help you picture more about how the fish are different from each other.

SteelheadRainbow Trout
Egg-to-Harvest16 months36 months
Stocking Density 30 to 40 kg/m320 kg/m3
Spawning and growth temperature12- 21 degrees6 - 16 degrees
Flesh ColorReddishOrange
Taste profile More subtleSaltier


How long the incubation lasts depends on the right temperature. It takes steelhead longer and lowers temperatures for hatching eggs. At a lower temperature, the eggs will take more time to hatch after fertilization. 

If the temperature goes higher, the alevin is smaller and has a lower survival rate. Or even worse, the hatching process won’t happen with too high a temperature. 

Stocking density 

Stocking density means the number of fry per unit of water area. The right stocking density number can guarantee the ideal size and quality of fish.

Taste profile

Steelhead has a much bigger size than rainbow trout as they initially spend two to five years in the ocean.

Rainbow Trout Vs Steelhead Growth Curve
Rainbow Trout Vs Steelhead Growth Curve

The taste of steelhead is more similar to salmon than rainbow trout, which contributes to its higher preference among anglers and cooks. Although high in fat, it is not as fatty as salmon, easier to cook in a shorter time, and flaky enough without breaking apart.

On the other hand, rainbow trout has a different flavor due to living in freshwater and especially tastes muddy if living in muddy water.

Which Is Better, Steelhead Or Rainbow Trout? 

  • Which One Has Higher Nutrition: Rainbow or Steelhead Trout?

With a portion of 100 grams, rainbow trout contains 119 kcal, 812 mg of Omega-3, 239 mg of Omega-6, and 20.5 grams of protein. The primary minerals contained in rainbow trout are phosphorus, selenium, and potassium. It is obvious from these numbers that rainbow eaters can enjoy a rich source of Omega-3 and protein without consuming too many calories. 

The nutrition facts in 100 grams of steelhead trout are quite similar to that of rainbow trout. However, while rainbows are rich in vitamins D and A, steelhead provides a great source of vitamin C. 

Due to their higher concentration of minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, steelhead fish are healthier. They also offer more iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and selenium.

On the other hand, rainbow trout contains similar minerals and vitamins. Compared to their competitors, these fish provide more calcium and potassium while having less fat and calories. 

This table will help you compare the nutritional value of the two fish easier. They are nutrients that you have when consuming four ounces of raw fish.

SteelheadRainbow trout
Fat7.0 g3.9 g
Cholesterol65 mg67 mg
Protein22 g23 g
Sodium60 mg 35 mg
Iron0.8 mg0.7 mg
Phosphorus317 mg307 mg
Magnesium37 mg 35 mg
Zinc 1.4 mg1.2 mg
Calcium 25.7 mg75.9 mg
Selenium 26.0 mcg14.3 mcg
Potassium 422 mg545 mg
Omega-31.09 g0.79 g
  • Which One Tastes Better?

Regarding the flesh color, steelhead trout is more attractive to diners for its bright orange or red coloration. Steelheads are also considered as having a better taste than  rainbow. They have a much cleaner flavor, which is closer to the taste of salmon, and less fishy and muddy than their rainbow counterparts.

Steelheads excel at absorbing the flavors of various foods like herbs, lemon, and black pepper, which is a wonderful option for sashimi and sushi as well. Both rainbow and steelhead have a light, flaky feel. Additionally, each of them has a little bone that must be removed before eating.

Steelhead and rainbow trout are among the most well-known fish to anglers. Moreover, steelhead makes excellent table fare for its similar taste to salmon.

Rainbow trout makes a delicacy and wonderful table cuisine. There are several methods to prepare this fish, thanks to its subtle flavor.

On the other hand, the flavor of steelhead is quite similar to that of salmon, but without the fats and fishy odor when cooked. Their flesh has a firm texture and the same bright pink-to-red hue as salmon.

You may easily find the difference in the taste
You may easily find the difference in the taste

See also: how to catch steelhead from the bank

Final Thoughts 

The differences between steelhead vs rainbow trout are numerous.

For example: 

  • Rainbow trout live in freshwater, while steelheads spend their lives in both freshwater and saltwater.
  • Steelhead trout offer a higher economic value than rainbow because they can grow faster and have a higher stocking density. 
  • Rainbow trout have a saltier taste and orange flesh, whereas steelheads are famous for their reddish meat with a subtle taste.  

Hopefully, our comparison will help you learn some interesting facts about the two popular species. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Thank you for reading! 

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