Rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species, but steelhead are anadromous, migrating to the ocean, while rainbow trout remain in freshwater.

TL;DR Rainbow trout Vs. Steelhead

Rainbow trout are primarily freshwater fish that live in rivers, lakes, and ponds. They have vibrant colors with a characteristic pink or red stripe along their sides. On the other hand, steelhead are anadromous fish that spend part of their lives in freshwater and then migrate to the ocean before returning to spawn.

Rainbow Trout

picture of a rainbow trout

Found in both freshwater rivers and lakes, rainbow trout are a popular species among anglers for their vibrant colors and spirited fighting abilities. These fish have a distinctive pinkish-red stripe running along their sides, which is where they get their name from. The rest of their body is adorned with speckles that range in color from dark brown to black.

These beautiful creatures thrive in cool water temperatures and prefer clear streams or lakes with plenty of oxygen-rich currents. They are known for being adaptable when it comes to feeding habits since they consume a wide variety of prey including insects, crustaceans, small fish, and even plant matter.

One interesting aspect about rainbow trout is that they can display different coloration depending on environmental factors such as water clarity and substrate type. In some cases, these variations allow them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings as a form of camouflage against predators.


picture of steelheads

Steelhead, also known as the ocean-run rainbow trout, is a fascinating fish that captivates the attention of both anglers and nature enthusiasts alike. These incredible creatures possess unique characteristics that set them apart from their freshwater counterparts.

One distinctive feature of steelhead is their migratory behavior. Unlike rainbow trout, which spend their entire lives in freshwater streams and lakes, steelhead have an innate instinct to journey into the open ocean. This migration allows them to access more abundant food sources and experience different ecological conditions.

The life cycle of a steelhead is truly remarkable. After spending several years at sea growing stronger and adapting to saltwater environments, these mighty fish return to their natal rivers or streams to spawn. This arduous upstream journey often involves navigating treacherous rapids and leaping over obstacles with impressive agility.

Steelheads are not your typical rainbow trout; they possess an adventurous spirit that drives them on epic migrations from freshwater streams to the vastness of the ocean. Their size, shape, adaptability, and awe-inspiring life cycle make them a captivating species deserving of admiration from all who encounter them in nature’s realm

Rainbow trout Vs. Steelhead – Key differences

AspectRainbow TroutSteelhead
Life StagePrimarily freshwater species.Anadromous, migrates between freshwater and saltwater.
MigrationTypically do not migrate to the ocean.Migrate to the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn.
SizeSmaller in size, typically 12-20 inches.Larger in size, often exceeding 20 inches.
ColorationBrightly colored with a pinkish stripe.Silvery appearance in the ocean, more colorful during spawning.
DietFeeds on aquatic insects, small fish, and crustaceans in freshwater.Diet shifts to marine organisms when in the ocean.
HabitatFound in rivers, streams, and lakes.Occurs in both freshwater and saltwater environments.
SpawningSpawns in freshwater streams or lakes.Spawns in freshwater after returning from the ocean.
Geographic RangeWidely distributed in North America.Found along the Pacific coast of North America.

Rainbow trout Vs. Steelhead – Physical Characteristics

Rainbow Trout

  • Coloration: Rainbow trout have a distinctive pink, red, or orange stripe that runs along their sides, giving them their name. Their back is usually olive-green, and their belly is silver or white.
  • Size: In freshwater environments, rainbow trout typically range from 12 to 20 inches in length, although they can grow larger under optimal conditions.
  • Body Shape: They have a streamlined body shape, which is well-suited for life in rivers and lakes.
  • Fins: Their fins are generally small and rounded, with no significant differences in fin shape.
  • Spawning Coloration: During spawning, their coloration can become more vibrant, with males developing a more intense red or pink coloration on their sides and underbelly.


  • Coloration: Steelhead have a similar coloration to rainbow trout but tend to be more silvery when in the ocean. As they return to freshwater for spawning, their coloration can become more vibrant and resemble that of rainbow trout.
  • Size: Steelhead are often larger than rainbow trout, especially those that have spent time in the ocean. They can exceed 20 inches and even grow much larger.
  • Body Shape: Like rainbow trout, steelhead have a streamlined body shape that is well-suited for swimming in both freshwater and saltwater environments.
  • Fins: The fins of steelhead are similar in shape to those of rainbow trout, with no significant differences.
  • Spawning Coloration: During spawning, steelhead can display more intense colors, with males developing pink, red, or orange hues.

While there are some subtle differences in coloration and size, the physical characteristics of rainbow trout and steelhead are quite similar.

The key distinction lies in their behavior and life history, with steelhead being anadromous and migrating between freshwater and saltwater, while rainbow trout typically remain in freshwater.


Image Credits

Featured Image By – Holger Grybsch from Pixabay

Image 1 By – Tobin John, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2 By – Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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