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Species Management Plan

Summer Steelhead Fish in Water An icon of the Pacific Northwest, wild steelhead have provided important cultural and economic benefits throughout the region's history. To help conserve and restore this important resource, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a Statewide Steelhead Management Plan that provides a framework for rebuilding wild steelhead runs throughout the state.

The statewide plan, approved in March 2008, is designed to guide state fish managers as they work with tribal co-managers and local fish-recovery groups to develop management strategies for steelhead populations in seven specific areas of the state. One of those areas is the Puget Sound region, where NOAA Fisheries listed 44 stocks for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in May 2007.

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Steelhead (Rainbow Trout)
Oncorhynchus mykiss

Other names: Steelhead trout, Sea-run Rainbow Trout
Average size: 8-11 lbs, up to 40 lbs

Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species; rainbow trout live in freshwater only and Steelhead are anadromous, or live most of their lives in saltwater and return to freshwater to spawn. Unlike most salmon, Steelhead can survive spawning and can spawn in multiple years.


Steelhead spawn in the spring. They generally prefer fast water in small-to-large mainstem rivers and medium-to-large tributaries. In streams with steep gradient and large substrate, they spawn between these steep areas where the water is flatter and the substrate is small enough to dig into. The steeper areas then make excellent rearing habitats for juveniles.

Like chinook, steelhead have two runs, a summer run and a winter run. Most summer runs are east of the Cascades, and enter streams in summer to reach the spawning grounds by the following spring. A few western Washington rivers also have established runs of summer steelhead. Winter runs spawn closer to the ocean and require less travel time.


Steelhead fry emerge from the gravel in summer and generally rear for two or three years in freshwater; occasionally one or four years depending on the productivity of the stream. Streams high in the mountains and those in northern climates are generally less productive. Hatchery Steelhead grow faster and smolt at one year of age..

Fry use areas of fast water and large substrate for rearing. They wait in eddies behind large rocks and allow the river to bring them food in the form of insects, salmon eggs, and smaller fish.


Steelhead Picture


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Alevin - The lifestage of a salmonid between egg and fry. An alevin looks like a fish with a huge pot belly, which is the remaining egg sac. Alevin remain protected in the gravel riverbed, obtaining nutrition from the egg sac until they are large enough to fend for themselves in the stream.

Anadromous - Fish that live part or the majority of their lives in saltwater, but return to freshwater to spawn.

Emergence - The act of salmon fry leaving the gravel nest.

Fry - A juvenile salmonid that has absorbed its egg sac and is rearing in the stream; the stage of development between an alevin and a parr.

Kype - The hooked jaw many male salmon develop during spawning.

Parr - Also known as fingerling. A large juvenile salmonid, one between a fry and a smolt.

Smolt - A juvenile salmonid which has reared in-stream and is preparing to enter the ocean. Smolts exchange the spotted camouflage of the stream for the chrome of the ocean.

Substrate - The material which comprises a stream bottom.

Steelhead Populations List
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Fun Facts
Did you know?
Coho and sockeye are found in freshwater year-round; coho in small coastal streams and sockeye in lakes. These fish are very susceptible to poor water quality, such as high temperatures and pollution.

Fun Facts
Did you know?
Salmon species have adapted to use virtually every part of every stream in the northwest.

Fun Facts
Did you know?
Big rivers are used by pink salmon in the lower reaches, chinook in the mainstem and larger tributaries, coho in small tribs, and steelhead in the uppermost tributaries.

Fun Facts
Did you know?
Small streams are used by chum in the lower reaches, coho next, and cutthroat in the headwaters.

Fun Facts
Did you know?
A moving fry is much easier to see than a motionless one. This is why salmon tend to spawn in parts of the stream that their offspring use for rearing; the emerging fry do not have to travel far to find rearing areas.
Fun Facts
Did you know?
The size of a salmon is usually related to its age. Pink salmon are the smallest fall-spawning salmon and are also the youngest, at two years. Chinook can live up to nine years, the longest, which is why some chinook can grow to over 100 pounds. Cutthroat, which live longer than pinks, are typically smaller because they spend less or no time feeding in productive marine waters of the north Pacific.
Fun Facts
Did you know?
There is a sixth fall-spawning salmon, the masu, or cherry salmon, which is found only in Asia. This fish occupies the same niche that the sea-run cutthroat trout occupies in North America.
Fun Facts
Did you know?
Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species of fish; rainbow are the freshwater form, and steelhead the anadromous form.
Fun Facts
Did you know?
Steelhead and cutthroat trout were recently added to the salmon genus, Oncorhynchus, from the trout genus, Salmo. Also, the scientific name of steelhead changed from Salmo gairdneri to Oncorhynchus mykiss.