They are usually dark-olive in color, shading to silvery-white on the underside with a heavily speckled body and a pink to red stripe running along their sides.
They are a unique species; individuals develop differently depending on their environment. While all O. mykiss hatch in gravel-bottomed, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated rivers and streams, some stay in fresh water all their lives. These fish are called rainbow trout. The steelhead that migrate to the ocean develop a slimmer profile, become more silvery in color, and typically grow much larger than the rainbow trout that remain in fresh water.
More about steelhead
Adults migrate from a marine environment into the freshwater streams and rivers of their birth in order to mate (called anadromy). Unlike other Pacific salmonids, they can spawn more than one time (called iteroparity). Migrations can be hundreds of miles.
Young animals feed primarily on zooplankton. Adults feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects, mollusks, crustaceans, fish eggs, minnows, and other small fishes (including other trout).
Maximum age is about 11 years. Males mature generally at 2 years and females at 3 years. Juvenile steelhead may spend up to 7 years in freshwater before migrating to estuarine areas as smolts and then into the ocean to feed and mature. They can then remain at sea for up to 3 years before returning to freshwater to spawn. Some populations actually return to freshwater after their first season in the ocean, but do not spawn, and then return to the sea after one winter season in freshwater. Timing of return to the ocean can vary, and even within a stream system there can be different seasonal runs.
Steelhead can be divided into two basic reproductive types, based on the state of sexual maturity at the time of river entry and duration of spawning migration:
The stream-maturing type (summer-run steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and northern California) enters freshwater in a sexually immature condition between May and October and requires several months to mature and spawn.
The ocean-maturing type (winter-run steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and northern California) enters freshwater between November and April, with well-developed gonads, and spawns shortly thereafter. Coastal streams are dominated by winter-run steelhead, whereas inland steelhead of the Columbia River basin are almost exclusively summer-run steelhead.
Adult female steelhead will prepare a redd (or nest) in a stream area with suitable gravel type composition, water depth, and velocity. The adult female may deposit eggs in 4 to 5 “nesting pockets” within a single redd. The eggs hatch in 3 to 4 weeks.
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