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The Difference between a Steelhead and a Rainbow Trout

by Doc Trout


     While most avid fly fishermen are aware that there is a difference between Steelhead and Rainbow Trout, not all fly fishermen are able to define the difference between the two beyond stating their behavioral differences and noting their distinct difference in size. Thus, while Rainbow Trout are always thought of as freshwater species, Steelhead are generally thought of as a saltwater species that only migrates to freshwater to spawn. However, while this is an accurate description of their behavior, it does not really do much to define the differences between the two.


     Thus, perhaps the best way to describe the difference between a Steelhead and a Rainbow Trout is to say that they are both sub-species of Oncorhynchus mykiss which indicates that while they are both members of the same genus and species, they each also display distinct anatomical, physiological, and/or behavioral differences that enable them to be classified as different sub-species. But, while that is the answer that a biologist would give you when asked what the difference is between a Steelhead and Rainbow Trout, the way that most fly fishermen distinguish them is that, although both sub-species are born in freshwater, Rainbow Trout remain in freshwater throughout their lives whereas, Steelhead only spend the first several months of their lives maturing in freshwater.


     Then, when they reach a particular stage of growth, their genes trigger a physical metamorphosis in the cells of their body that both causes them to migrate downstream where they enter the sea, and which also enables them to survive in their new saltwater environment which a Rainbow Trout simply cannot do. Then, once again at a particular stage in their growth cycle, their genes trigger a second metamorphosis in the cells of their body that causes them to return to the particular stream where they were born and then travel upstream to the very place where they were born where they then spawn; thus creating the next generation.


     Furthermore, there is often a very distinct difference in size between the two sub-species. Thus, while it is theoretically possible that a Rainbow Trout living in a particularly rich freshwater environment could reach the average size of Steelhead Trout since a fish never stops growing, the fact is that the saltwater environment enables Steelhead to grow much faster than most Rainbow Trout and thus, most Steelhead Trout are distinctly larger than most Rainbow Trout. In fact, most fly fishermen would consider a 21 or 22 inch Rainbow Trout to be a magnificent trophy whereas a Steelhead Trout would not achieve the same status unless it was at least 36 inches since the present world record Steelhead measures 44 inches and weighs 29 ½ lbs.


  So, as you can see, there are actually several different ways to define the difference between a Steelhead and Rainbow Trout raging from the biologist’s perspective to the fly fisherman’s perspective and each of them are correct in at least one aspect. However, now that you understand both points of view, the next time someone asks you what the difference between the two sub-species is, you can choose the answer or answers that you like best from among the ones presented above and be able to explain them precisely what the difference is.


Dissolved Oxygen: the breath of life

by Doc Trout


     When I was a kid, although I was aware that trout breathed oxygen just like humans do, I just assumed that since water was composed of two parts Hydrogen and one part Oxygen, that trout somehow used their gills to extract the oxygen they needed by breaking down the water molecule. However, as I got older and gained a better understanding of the trout's environment, I discovered that trout can actually suffocate from lack of oxygen even though they live in water  but I didn't understand how this could happen. So, I did some research and discovered that instead of breaking apart the water molecule to extract the oxygen they need, trout actually breathe  something called "dissolved oxygen". So, I then got to wondering what the heck is dissolved oxygen? So, after some further research, I discovered that dissolved oxygen is actually a free roaming oxygen atom that is not bonded to any hydrogen atoms and that it enters the water via turbulence such as waterfalls and rapids. In addition, I discovered that the colder the water is, the more dissolve oxygen it can hold and the warmer the water is, the less dissolved oxygen it can hold. Thus, when the water temperature rises to its peak in the summer months, the water can be rapidly depleted of its dissolved oxygen content and this explains how a trout can suffocate in a medium that is partly composed of oxygen.


Humans, and Birds, and Bears! Oh, No!

by Doc Trout

     Why do trout run every time they catch even a glimpse of a human? Is it because somewhere in that tiny little pea sized brain of theirs, they somehow know that humans carry fishing rods and fake food with those pointy metal things in them? Somehow, I don't think so. Or, is it because they are genetically predisposed to run from anything that moves? Well, maybe. But, I suspect that the real reason that trout run from humans is because we look suspiciously like another predator that they are very familiar with: a bear. In fact, it is a common tactic for a bear to wade into the water and then stand on its hind legs while looking for fish to seize and, since trout do have pea sized brains, I don't believe that they have enough sense to realize that there is a difference between a human and a bear. So, as far as the trout are concerned, if it moves, run! If in doesn't move, run anyway!


Do Trout Get Cranky?

by Doc Trout


     Before you laugh, think about the question a minute. Then, imagine living in a house with a living room that you can only inhabit for a few days each month because the ceiling descends between periods of rainfall. Or, imagine having a constant, 30 mph. wind blowing through your house that accelerates to the speed of a tornado whenever it rains. Or, imagine your air conditioner breaking down and the air in your house becoming so hot and humid that you literally suffocate to death! Now, imagine that in addition to all of these environmental problems, there are various creatures out there such as Otters and Herons that would really like to catch you and eat you for dinner. So, you can never, ever, let your guard down even for a moment!!! Then, ask yourself if being under that much stress wouldn't make you cranky? So, maybe it makes trout cranky too.