Despite similar tastes, appearances, and wild popularity among anglers, trout and salmon do possess some key differences—and learning those can help you better understand how to catch salmon or fish for trout with ease.
In this guide, learn the ways in which these fish differ, how they’re alike, the best ways to identify and catch steelhead trout vs. salmon, and the answers to other frequently asked questions.
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Steelhead Trout Identification
Steelhead trout, also known as migratory rainbow or redband trout, belong to the Salmonidae family. Other salmonid species include char, whitefish, other rainbow trout subspecies, and of course, salmon.
Although steelhead trout are native to North America, you can find them almost anywhere on earth (save for Antarctic waters). They migrate twice a year, during their summer and winter spawning seasons, between saltwater oceans and freshwater areas. An important distinction between steelhead trout and the fish most anglers know as a common rainbow trout is that the latter doesn’t migrate into saltwater areas. Their colors are also more muted, and their size is greater.
When it comes to identifying steelhead trout vs salmon, there are some key characteristics to look for. One is its head shape, which is blunt with a short jaw. You’ll notice a squared-off, relatively straight-edged tail fin as well.
Coloring is the best indication, however. The steelhead is named for its deep silver coloring at its head and back, fading into a lighter silver along the body, a color similar to steel itself. Dark spots will mark its body on the back and sides, as well as its dorsal fin.
Females are more silver, while sexually mature male steelheads will look brassier (a kind of gold color) with red markings on the flanks and gill covers. Before they migrate to saltwater, young steelheads look identical to immature freshwater rainbow trout because that's essentially what they are.
Steelhead trout can grow to 45 inches in length, weigh as much as 55 pounds, and live for 11 years—but take note, this isn’t typical. Most steelheads live about 5 or 6 years, and their more average lengths of 24 inches (with weights around 27 pounds) align with that lifespan.
Admittedly, some species of salmon look a lot like steelhead trout. While a few are easy to identify due to different colors and shapes, like the sockeye, others are easy to mistake as steelhead trout. The Atlantic salmon is one such species, as are the Chinook and pink salmon.
If you have trouble telling the difference between steelhead trout vs. salmon, don’t worry: it’s a common error many people make.
Coloration is a good differentiating factor to look for. Salmon are typically lighter and more colorful, with red, orange, bluish, or white bodies, depending on the species and its diet. Steelhead trout, however, are predominantly silver, sometimes with brassy or reddish tones.
Unlike the blunt head shape of steelhead trout, salmon have more pointed heads. They’re also an anadromous (migratory) species, which means they return to their freshwater birth location to spawn, then migrate back to the ocean when spawning season ends.
Salmon often don’t grow as large as steelhead trout, partly because they leave their birthplace very early (whereas steelheads don’t migrate to saltwater areas until a year or more after birth). This makes them more vulnerable to predators, which lowers the average size an angler will catch due to lower population numbers overall.
What’s more, salmon often die after spawning; steelhead trout can spawn multiple times during their lifespans. It's important to note that recreational and commercial fishing of Atlantic salmon is prohibited in the United States due to overfishing and declining population numbers over the last several decades.
When fishing for other types of salmon, such as Chinook or coho, you’ll notice differences in its color and head that will help you decide if you’ve caught salmon or steelhead. For example, coho and Chinook tend to be more of a greenish color rather than silver and reddish, although coho can have dark reddish flanks in adulthood.
The coloration of your catch’s mouth is another clue. Coho and Chinook salmon have dark mouths, while steelhead trout have white ones. You might notice a hooked nose on these salmon species, as well (typically on adult males), a feature known as a kype. These sometimes appear on male steelhead trout in the pre-spawn season, but only on the lower jaw.
Steelhead Trout Vs Salmon – Key Differences Compared
Fast currents in rivers and streams; gravel bottoms
Varies by species; fast currents, cool temperatures, and gravel bottoms (when spawning)
Freshwater rivers, streams, and other tributaries connecting to the Pacific Ocean
Atlantic Ocean (northern areas) and Pacific Ocean; freshwater connective tributaries during spawning for migratory species
Ease Of Catch
Moderate to difficult
Moderate to difficult
Best Time To Catch
Late fall and early winter, midday to early afternoon
Varies by species; early morning or late afternoon in most seasons, particularly summer and fall in very northern regions (such as Alaska)
Taste and Texture
Milder and less fatty than salmon; flakier texture
Mild taste with a “fresh” fish flavor; oilier than steelhead
Low in calories and fat, higher in nutrients than salmon and sometimes higher in Omega-3s
Low in calories and fat, high in Omega-3s and protein
You’ll often hear that steelheads stay in freshwater while salmon migrate, but that’s a common misconception—likely due to the fact steelhead trout are simply coastal rainbow trout who do, in fact, migrate, while common rainbow trout do not leave freshwater.
Both steelhead trout and salmon are anadromous. This means they migrate from the ocean to freshwater tributaries to spawn. Steelhead trout live in the Pacific Ocean and its connecting freshwater rivers or streams. In contrast, salmon can live in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, along with the waterways connected to those bodies.
Cooler waters and fast-moving currents appeal to both species. They prefer clean gravel-bottomed areas for mating. Salmon famously return to the stream of their birth to build their nests, but so do steelhead trout. A major difference between these fish is that salmon die after spawning; steelhead trout return to the ocean, then migrate again for multiple spawns throughout their lives.
Rainbow trout in general are much more populous than salmon. Some of this is attributed to their ability to spawn multiple times, and the fact they’ve been introduced into so many habitats. Conversely, some species of salmon are considered vulnerable or endangered due to under-spawning, overfishing, or habitat pollution.
In America, the best places to fish for steelhead trout are northern Pacific tributaries during spawning runs. Alaska, particularly the Kenai Peninsula Waterways and Washington's Cowlitz River, are notable steelhead trout fishing locations.
Alaska and Washington are also popular for salmon fishing, although many anglers venture into Canadian waters to better their chances. Nova Scotia and Quebec are common salmon fishing destinations.
Colder climates like Iceland—including the aptly named Nordura Salmon River—boast abundant populations and amazingly clean waters.
3. When To Fish (Best Season To Catch Them)
Salmon fishing in North America is best done in the summer and fall, from mid-to-late July until October. That said, when you fish for salmon largely depends on which run you’re trying to catch, which can vary by location and species.
Chinook salmon is the most popular species to target. You can catch their fall runs in lower areas of certain rivers, and spring runs in the upper portions. Try to time your trip with salmon runs (especially if fishing from the shore) based on the area and species you’re targeting.
You can also fish for salmon in the ocean, especially Chinook and coho. Summer months in Canadian and northwest-U.S. waters prove fruitful for many anglers.
For steelhead trout, fishing in the pre-spawn season is best. Steelhead spawn between January and April, although some areas see this season start earlier or end later. As is also the case with many species of salmon, steelhead populations can have two runs: spring/summer and winter. For this reason, some anglers say late fall and early winter are ideal; others say you can hit the water as early as mid-fall, all the way through early spring.
Midday to early afternoon is the ideal time of day to catch steelhead trout, but the fish remain relatively active all day in the right season. For salmon, less light is best: try to cast very early in the morning or late in the evening.
4. Ease of Catching Them
Both steelhead trout and salmon are moderately difficult to catch, whether you’re a beginner or a more experienced angler. Some of the challenge comes from timing: if you’ve missed a migration, your fishing spot might not have any steelhead or salmon left.
Another factor is knowing where and how to cast when you do find a good fishing location. Drift fishing is a much-loved technique for catching salmon and steelhead, as is fly fishing. Both of these methods require some practice to get the correct process down.
Finally, there’s the matter of actually landing the fish. Steelhead can be quite strong and put up a good fight—and salmon put up an even tougher one. These fish pull hard once they're on your line and flail when they leave the water. This is especially true of Chinook or king salmon, which are typically large and very strong.
With all that in mind, beginners can still catch salmon or steelhead trout, even if you don’t know how to fly fish yet. You’ll need a medium- to heavy-weight fly fishing rod and some flies (use larger, more colorful ones if you’re targeting steelhead), along with the appropriate weight of fishing line for what you hope to catch. While pink salmon can be reeled in with 10 to 15-pound lines, a Chinook could very well snap that.
5. Which Tastes Better?
It’s difficult to tell steelhead trout apart from most salmon species when it’s cooked and on your plate since they taste so much alike. Even the meat of both fish looks similar: it’s typically red or pink.
Many people agree that steelhead trout and salmon taste virtually identical, with a fresh flavor that lends itself well to a wide variety of dishes and preparation methods.
Others argue that salmon is the “fishier” fish, even though that flavor is less bitter and fresher-tasting than, say, herring, tuna, or certain kinds of bass. This is due to its fat content, which is higher than steelhead. The more fat a fish has, the more flavor its meat provides. Whether or not that flavor is appealing usually comes down to two factors: the freshness of the fish and personal preference.
Steelhead trout aren’t as fishy as many trout varieties (another reason, besides appearance, for it being frequently mistaken as a type of salmon). It also has a better texture than salmon for a lot of people. Its lower fat content means its meat is flakier, with a much less oily texture overall.
Generally, steelhead trout is milder and thus might appeal to more people. Because their flavors are so similar, however, your preference might come down to those differences in texture.
Salmon is typically pan-fried, grilled, or baked. While crusting isn’t uncommon, you’ll almost never see it batter-fried. Not only does the high heat break down Omega-3s (reducing health benefits), but the result is also too heavy and oily for most people to enjoy.
Steelhead trout is similar in that regard, even though it’s flakier and less oily. Baking with lemon, garlic, or other spices is a common way of preparing it, or simply grilling it with some savory herbs.
6. Which Is More Nutritious?
Both salmon and steelhead trout can be wise additions to a heart-healthy diet. They're low in calories, high in protein, and rich in Omega-3 oils. Steelhead trout has less fat overall, with more nutrients than salmon.
In a typical serving (about 100 grams) of steelhead, you’ll get 20 grams of protein and only 2 grams of fat for roughly 120 calories. Salmon has 50% more fat in the same size serving, 25% more calories, but only 10% more protein by comparison.
Although both fish are healthy and nutritious, steelhead trout wins by a small amount, thanks to its lower calorie count and fat content. Additionally, some steelhead trout will also boast more nutrients than salmon, particularly farm-raised varieties you’d find in supermarkets.
People also Ask (FAQs)
Are steelhead a kind of trout, or salmon?
Steelheads are rainbow trout that migrate into the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn. They're often confused as a type of salmon due to their similar appearance and taste. Both salmon and steelhead trout come from the Salmonidae family, which may add to the confusion.
Why is it called steelhead trout?
While common inland rainbow trout are colorful when mature, coastal varieties—which migrate into the ocean a year or so after birth—are exposed to a different habitat and diet. This affects their coloring, giving them a metallic silver or brassy color in adulthood, hence the name.
Why do salmon die after spawning?
First, it’s important to address the misconception that all salmon die after their first spawning season. Atlantic salmon can survive and spawn a second or third time, although this is rare.
Pacific salmon die after their first spawn for multiple reasons. One is that the migration itself—swimming upriver against the current and over many obstacles—is very taxing. Salmon use all their energy and fat reserves to return to their birthplaces, then lay or fertilize their eggs.
Scientists have also found that salmon release a great deal of cortisol migrating and spawning. On the one hand, this enables them to make the journey and, according to one study, might even help them remember how to get home. On the other hand, it causes rapid degeneration and a very swift death when the spawning season ends.
What is the biggest steelhead ever caught?
Currently, the largest steelhead trout on record weighed 36 pounds. It was caught in 1954 by Chuck Etwart, in the Kispiox River in Canada.
What is the largest salmon ever caught?
In 1949, a Chinook salmon (also known as a king salmon) caught commercially weighed in at 126 pounds. It was nearly 5 feet long.
Is it better to bake or pan fry salmon?
While either preparation method will yield delicious results, frying salmon can reduce its Omega-3 and vitamin D content by up to 50% and usually requires less cooking oil.
Are salmon or steelhead trout more expensive to buy?
Steelhead is usually a bit cheaper than salmon due to its higher population numbers. There are also fewer restrictions on fishing for steelhead trout.
Steelhead trout and salmon are often confused as being the same fish. Although they look and taste alike, come from the same family, and migrate between saltwater and freshwater habitats, they are distinct species with differences every angler should learn before casting their lines.