Steelhead vs Salmon – Differences And Where To Catch Them?

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If you’re a freshwater fisherman who likes to spin fish with lures or cast a line with a fly rod, there is no doubt that both Steelhead and Salmon are high on your bucket list to catch. After all,  you will find them in similar environments and the fishing techniques used to catch them are quite similar too. 

But what’s the difference when it comes to Steelhead vs Salmon? While they share similarities they are actually very different creatures. 

Join me as I unwind all the details about Steelhead Vs Salmon and showcase the differences so that you can target these awesome species as best as you can. 

What Is A Steelhead?  

A Steelhead female fish, note the eyes will be set further up the face compared to a salmon

A steelhead (Oncorhynchus m. irideus) is a sea-run rainbow trout. This means that the fish was born in a freshwater river and chose to leave the river and head to the sea in search of food. 

This kind of fish, one that lives in both freshwater and saltwater, is called an anadromous fish. They benefit greatly from heading to the ocean as they find a lot more food and grow to much larger sizes than a rainbow trout that simply stayed in the river. 

Every year or few years, this same fish will return to the river they were born in to spawn and create the next generation and either choose to return to the sea, stay in the river, or die after spawning. 

All the steelhead smolts born from spawning season also have the option to stay in the river as rainbow trout or have the choice to head to the ocean and become steelhead. 

Where Can You Find Steelhead? 

Steelheads are native to the cold freshwater rivers that flow out of the Pacific Basin in both North America and Northeast Asia. 

They are most prolific from the state of Oregon in the USA and all the way up the coast to Alaska, and then around to the east coast of Russia, around Kamchatka. 

Some fishermen refer to the rainbow trout that migrate from the Great Lakes of the eastern United States into the tributaries that feed them to spawn, as a steelhead. 

There is a huge debate as to whether these are actually steelhead, as they have never actually traveled to the ocean, and therefore are not anadromous. It’s my opinion that these “Great Lakes Steelhead” are nothing more than rainbow trout moving from a lake to a river to spawn, as all trout do. 

What Do Steelhead Look Like? 

A steelhead looks like an oversized rainbow trout but with some key differences that should help you tell if you have indeed caught a steelhead or just a rainbow trout, and the first difference is size.  

Steelhead trout, steelhead salmon, and steelhead references can get interchanged, for this article we will stay with the steelhead term.

Size

Steelhead can grow up to 36 lbs since they get access to a lot more food for elevated growth in the ocean. Not all steelheads reach this size and the average is around 8 lbs as it depends on how many times they go to the ocean and back after spawning. 

If you were to catch a rainbow trout looking fish in a steelhead river that is over 28 inches, chances are it could be a steelhead. 

Looks

Being in the ocean causes steelhead to look a bit different from a rainbow trout. They usually return from the sea with a silvery sheen that makes them a lot more silver than a standard rainbow. 

The classic pink/red band along the length of a steelhead will still be there but the colors will be much brighter when compared to a rainbow trout that has simply stayed in the river. 

Best Places To Fish For Steelhead?

The Bulkley River, British Columbia – Not only a beautiful area but one of the best steelhead fishing in the North America

Bulkley River, in British Columbia, Canada is probably the best steelhead river fishing location. Flowing into the Skeena this area is known for its steelheads in excess of 30lbs.

Alaska also has its fair share of large steelheads, mixed in with salmon Alaska remains the number one state in the USA for both kinds of fish. Head for the Situk river for the best opportunities.

Oregon has several great rivers holding big steelhead, such as the Deschutes River, and the River Umpqua, with the best times to catch some larger specimens being during the June to October period.

In Idaho, one of the best rivers is the Clearwater (a tributary of the Snake River). Holding plenty of 10lb+ fish it is known as one of the best “runs” waters. 

In the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario has probably the biggest steelhead population out of all the Great Lakes.

What Is A Salmon? 

Salmon, note the eyes will be level with the jawline compared to a steelhead

Salmon is a common name used to describe a lot of different species that include the Atlantic Salmon and six species of Pacific salmon including King Salmon aka Chinook, Chum, Coho, Sockeye, Masu, and Pink salmon. 

Like steelhead, salmon are also anadromous fish that live both in freshwater and saltwater. The key difference here is that salmon, unlike steelhead, do not get to make a decision as to whether to live in the river they are born in or to head to the ocean. They go to the sea every time as it is built into their nature. 

Every few years, the adult salmon will return to the river they were born in to spawn and thus create the next generation. The salmon smolts will then feed in the river and always head to sea. 

Where Can You Find Salmon? 

Atlantic Salmon, of the genus Salmo, are found in the northern Atlantic all the way from the coast of Spain and around to the northern coast of Russia and then over to the east coast of Canada and down to the northeast coast of the United States. 

Pacific Salmon live along the northwest coast of the United States from Oregon, up through Canada, into Alaska, and around into the east coast of Russia. You can also only find the Masu salmon in the waters around Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Russia.

King Salmon, aka, Chinook was also introduced to the rivers of Chile in the 1970s and are now actively breeding and returning to spawn each year, this also happened in New Zealand also. 

What Do Salmon Look Like? 

Unfortunately, we can not go into too much detail here as describing each of the 6 species of salmon and their looks would take a long time. Each one has some unique differences. You can however check this page out for more details. 

Weight

Generally though, compared to steelhead, salmon are a lot bigger and both Atlantic and King Salmon can grow to over 50 lbs in weight, and push 80lbs sometimes too. But this doesn’t mean you won’t catch salmon around the same size as steelhead. 

Looks

A major differentiator when trying to identify between Steelhead and Salmon is the position of the eye in relation to the scissors of the jaw. 

A steelhead’s eyes will be set further up the face and not be in line with the scissors of the jaw whereas a salmon’s eyes are more or less in line with the scissors of the jaw. 

Also, there aren’t any salmon out there that resembles a rainbow trout in any way, so telling the difference should not be difficult. 

Best Places To Fish For Salmon In The USA?

The Katmai National park, Alaska has an abundance of lakes and rivers for salmon fishing – however,
beware of the bears – you may need a guide

Salmon can be caught in several places in the US, the best place for catching salmon in the US is Alaska. The salmon in Alaska are from the rivers and streams and move to the same lakes to breed every year. Head for the Naknek Lake at Katmai National Park and Preserve. The river Kenai is the most well-known for some awesome salmon fishing.

Salmon fishing in Colorado is best on the Columbia River in northern Oregon on the border of Washington State.

The Mid-Western Great Lakes around the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are where the bigger salmon can be caught. Head for the Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior which are where Pacific coastal salmon are best targetted rather than Lake Ontario or Lake Erie.

Many other states hold salmon including Maine and the Eastern Great Lakes in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Best Places To Fish For Salmon In The World?

Outside the US there are many places to catch Salmon. Here are a few of the most well-known ones:

  • Norway – The River Guala, Namsen, and Orkla are well known for their salmon fishing. You can read more on fishing for salmon in Norway here!
  • Iceland – The River Laxa I Kos, Langa, Ranga, and Breiddalsa are a few of the prolific salmon rivers. You can read more on fishing in Iceland here!
  • Canada – The areas on the islands of Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island in British Columbia are known salmon hotspots. The Central Coast area is also very popular.
  • Scotland – The River Tweed, Dee, and Tay are the famous Scottish salmon rivers. You can read more on fishing in Scotland here!
  • New Zealand’s South Island – The Rakaia River is the number one salmon fishery, with the River Rangitata and Waitaki following closely as the best salmon fishing options.

How To Catch Steelhead Or A Salmon? 

Dean River, British Columbia – A 20lbs steelhead caught using a fly fishing spey rod

To catch steelhead and salmon, you have to wait for when the fish run into the river from the ocean and this differs depending on the river you are fishing in. 

Some rivers might even experience multiple runs of steelhead and salmon, like a winter run, spring run, summer, and even fall run. 

Once the fish are in the river, you have a good chance of swinging a fly or lure past them as they hold up in deep pools slowly making their way up to the spawning grounds. 

But, these fish, particularly steelhead and Atlantic salmon are known as the fish of a thousand casts, meaning you might have to cast a thousand times to hook one fish. This is because the fish are not actively feeding when they are in the river, their mind is on one thing, spawning. 

The best tactics for catching steelhead and salmon involve putting your lure or fly across those deeper slower moving deeper waters. The more fish in the pool, the better the chance you have but there is never any guarantee. 

Winding Up 

Thanks very much for reading my article. I hope you enjoyed it and now you have a better plan of everything to go out and target these two species. 

Salmon and steelhead are species that are fast dwindling in numbers so please treat them with care, and release every fish you catch. 

If you are new to fly fishing, please check out our in-depth article on Fly Fishing Basics here! 

Jamie Melvin