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Steelhead trout identification

Steelhead trout identification

Oncorhynchus mykiss

Steelhead are the anadromous (migrating) version of rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are the "land locked" version, and remain in freshwater throughout their life. Steelhead migrate from the ocean into freshwater to spawn, and then can swim back out to the ocean again if they wish. Because steelhead are not semelparous (meaning they do not die after spawning) they are not an "official" Pacific Salmon. Puget Sound steelhead are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Steelhead are often a favorite of fisherpeople for their large size and feisty attitude, but only hatchery steelhead can be caught and kept. If you see a salmon, here's some tips to use to determine whether or not it's a steelhead trout...

Photos from Inland Fishes of Washington by Whitney and Wydoski, © 1979 University of Washington Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Washington Press.

Male Steelhead
Adult Male Steelhead.
Female Steelhead
Adult Female Steelhead.

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

Spawn timing:

  • Late March through early June

Now that you know all about identifying salmon in streams, test yourself! Click on the mystery fish page to find out more!