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Steelhead vs Salmon: What are the Differences?

Did you know that 81 percent of all fish caught in the United States is consumed as food?

If you’re a newcomer to fishing, you’re probably finding it hard to understand all the terminology used to describe fish. Head vs tail and steelhead vs salmon aren’t all that different when it comes to knowing what you’re going to catch.

Salmon is one of the most talked about and sought-after fish and when you know the difference between steelhead and salmon, it’s easier to understand what to search for.

So, if you want to know the differences between steelhead and salmon – let’s dive into it.

Physical Differences

Before we proceed, let us first define what is salmon. It is a common name for several species of ray-finned fish in the Salmonidae family.

According to the National Audubon Society, steelhead trout also have more black spots on its body and fins than salmon.

One of the most noticeable differences is the size of the fish. Salmon are much larger than steelhead, with some Chinook salmon weighing over 100 pounds!

Steelheads are also more streamlined than salmon, with a body shape that helps them swim faster and further. Another difference is that salmon have a more oily flesh than steelhead, which gives them a richer flavor.

Finally, their life cycle is the most significant difference between these two fish. Salmon live for just a few years before returning to their spawning grounds to die, while steelhead can live for up to 10 years and return to spawn multiple times.


Steelhead vs salmon is anadromous fish.

Salmon are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to feed and grow, and then return to freshwater to spawn. Steelhead, on the other hand, spend their entire life in freshwater except when they are ready to spawn, at which point they migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs.

Due to these different life histories, salmon are better adapted to living in saltwater than steelhead. Steelhead, however, is better adapted to living in freshwater. This is reflected in the fact that salmon can tolerate a broader range of salinities than steelhead.

Eating Habits

Steelheads are more particular about what they eat, while salmon will consume just about anything. This diet difference is one reason steelhead is usually considered a more prized catch.

Salmon are more opportunistic feeders, while steelhead tends to be more selective. This difference in the diet means that steelhead usually has a higher quality of flesh, while salmon may be more likely to contain parasites.


There are several predators of steelhead and salmon, but the main difference between the two is that steelhead is more aggressive. This is because steelhead is larger and has more muscles than salmon.

Steelheads also have more prominent teeth and a more robust jaw, which allows them to defend themselves against predators better. Because of their size and strength, steelhead is more difficult for predators to catch and eat.

Salmon, on the other hand, are smaller and have fewer defenses. As a result, salmon are more likely to eat by predators.

Difference in Taste

One of the most notable differences is the taste. Steelhead is often described as having a more delicate flavor, while salmon has a more robust, richer flavor.

spicy fish

Another difference is that steelhead is typically smaller than salmon. When it comes to preparation, steelhead is often best when baked or grilled, while salmon can be cooked in a variety of ways.

How to Cook

When preparing these fish, there are a few key differences to keep in mind. First, salmon is oilier than steelhead, so it doesn’t need to cook as long. Salmon needed to cook skin-side down to prevent it from drying out.

On the other hand, they are leaner than salmon and benefit from being cooked skin-side up. It also requires longer cooking time to ensure it’s cooked through.

When it comes to seasoning, both salmon and steelhead must be similarly treated. A simple seasoning of salt and pepper is all you need to let the natural flavor of the fish shine through.

Nutritional Value

Salmon contains more omega-3 fatty acids than steelhead. This means that salmon is a better choice for those looking to improve their heart health, such as omega-3s, to lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels.

Additionally, salmon is a richer source of vitamins and minerals like vitamin D and selenium. However, steelhead contains more of the antioxidant astaxanthin, which was linked to several health benefits, including improved eye and brain health.

So, regarding nutrition, salmon and steelhead are excellent choices, but salmon may be the better option to improve your heart health. In contrast, steelhead is a better choice if you want to boost your antioxidant intake.

Best Way to Fish

The best way to fish for salmon is by using a spinning reel and casting it out into the water, then retrieving the fish once it bites. The best way to fish for steelhead is by using a fly rod and reel and casting upstream, then letting the fish drift downstream to you.

With the help of a fishing guide, you’ll find year-round fishing opportunities for a once-in-a-lifetime sport fishing experience.

Dietary Differences

In the wild, steelheads feed primarily on fish, while the salmon diet consists mainly of smaller fish, insects, and crustaceans. The different diet leads to some other physical characteristics between the two fish.

The steelhead’s diet of other fish leads to a mostly muscle fish, with an average size of around three pounds. The diet of salmon, with its higher insect content, leads to a fish with a higher fat content, with an average size of around five pounds.

Understanding the Differences Between Steelhead vs Salmon

You’re not alone if you’re wondering what the difference is between steelhead vs salmon. While they may look similar, these two fish are quite different.

Steelheads are rainbow trout that have migrated to the ocean, while salmon are born in freshwater and spend their entire lives in saltwater. Steelheads are also typically larger than salmon.

So, next time you’re at the fish counter, make sure you know which one you’re after.

Steelhead vs Salmon: What are the Differences?

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