Great Lakes Steelhead (Rainbow) Trout
Common name(s): Steelheads, steelhead trout, coast rainbow trout, silver trout
Scientific name: Oncorhynchus mykiss
Description: Steelheads are the migratory form of the rainbow trout that is more streamlined with
fewer markings below lateral line. Fresh-run stealhead are silvery, but their coloration soon changes to resemble
non-migratory rainbows. The longer a steelhead is in a river before and during spawning,
the more it resembles the nonmigratory rainbow. Black (speckles) spots on tail, back and sides; bright pink or red stripe
which is absent on newly stocked hatchery rainbow trout. Spots all over tail remain, but rest of body is silver.
9 - 12 anal rays. White mouth identifies rainbow (steelhead) from the salmon.
Part of the Slamo group of trout, steelheads can grow up to 48 lb. In forage-rich Lake Michigan, they grow 30-32 inches long and may reach 16 pounds
by the time they are five years old.
- Length: up to 45 inches
- Avg. Weight: 4.8 lb. - 11.2 lb. (world record: 42 lbs - 2 oz.)
- Coloring: steel-blue, blue-brown to almost brown on back; silvery sides; silvery white below.
Spawning: Steelhead are rainbow trout that migrate to sea before returning to rivers to spawn, or live in lakes and
move into rivers or streams to spawn. Steelhead undergo a process called smolting during which they change physiologically to adapt for life at sea where it
lives for 2-4 years before returning to spawn. Great Lakes steelhead live a life similar to their ocean going relatives. The Great Lakes serve as a subsitute
for the ocean and they return to spawn in the tributary streams where they were hatched or released. Rainbow trout reproduce naturally in Lake Superior's tributaries and in some Lake Michigan
tributaries as well. Unlike coho or chinook slamon, the steelhead doesn't die after spawning.
The rainbow may spawn two or three times during its life. They spawn from early spring to early summer in clean gravel with swift water flowing through it.
Angling: These attractive game fish strike aggressively and fight valiantly.
The first rainbow trout planted in the Great Lakes were probably "steelheads." Again, this
is a strain of rainbow trout that migrates into the ocean before returning to spawn in their
freshwater home streams. Rainbows have adapted well in the Great Lakes, moving in and out of the
lakes much as they would the ocean.
Steelhead are found in numerous streams and rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean, from northern California to Alaska, as well as in the Great Lakes
and its tributaries (and some other freshwater lakes and rivers) where they provide good sport
for inland anglers. Although steelhead may enter rivers to spawn at any time of the year, their
runs are generally separated into two categories: the summer run, which might start as early as
April or as late as August; and the winter run wich might begin in October and last Until March
or later. Summer runs occur on fewer rivers and streams and the fish thereof average
between 3 and 7 pounds. Winter-run fish are more common and are bigger, often weighing
between 15 and 20.
In the Great Lakes, rainbow trout seldom swim deeper than 35 feet along the shores and are easily
The rainbow trout is slightly hardier than brown trout and can withstand higher water temperatures and
poorer water quality. Steelhead prefer water that is between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Coho and chinook
(king) salmon look for water temperatures of 53 to 57 degrees, and lake trout want it even colder than that.
An excellent fighter and highly regarded gamefish, the steelhead trout eats crustaceans and insect larve,
mayflies, caddis flies and black flies, worms and are attracted to small spinners, spoons and plugs when spinning and live/dead fish when trolling.