For trout anglers, there’s probably no greater prize than a big Rainbow or a massive Steelhead. Armed with sharp senses, but not as aggressive as browns or brookies, these trout subspecies are a real test of your fishing skills.
But the better you understand trout, the easier they are to catch.
We’d like to help, and we’ll get you up to speed on their keen vision and feeding behaviors before offering a few tips and techniques guaranteed to tilt the odds in your favor.
The secret to catching more fish of any species is understanding what makes them tick.
Rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, come in a nearly bewildering variety of subspecies. From Kern River Goldens to Steelheads, one thing they share in common is that they’re among the most beautiful fish any angler has ever landed.
Solarmovie We’ll be focusing on the Redband forms–what you probably think of when you hear “rainbow trout,” as well as the associated Steelhead variation, a coastal variety of Rainbow that spends much of its life at sea.
Rainbows and Steelheads: Trout 101
Rainbow trout are named for the pink to red stripe that runs the length of their sleek, speckled bodies, though this marking is most visible in breeding males. Native to the North West, they’ve been introduced broadly into cooler climates, and are regularly stocked in some places to preserve fishable numbers.
Rainbows inhabit clear streams with fast water and gravel bottoms, as well as cool-water lakes. Generally a cool-climate fish, some strains thrive in warmer water, too, allowing rainbows to live further south than brooks and browns.
Wherever you find them, stream rainbows usually run between 1 and 5 pounds, with lake dwellers growing much larger. For instance, in Minnesota, just one place where rainbows have been introduced, expect stream trout to average roughly 1 to 5 pounds and about 15 inches. But in Lake Superior, they grow to a whopping average of 3 to 8 pounds and 26 inches.
Steelhead are the anadromous form of rainbow trout, meaning that they spend much of their lives out to sea, starting and ending their life cycle in rocky streams. Hatched in freshwater, they spend the first few years of their life there before moving out to sea to feed and grow to maturity.
One notable fact about steelhead is their ability to hone in on the stream from which they came, despite spending years in the ocean. They return to spawn by smell, and as many as 10 percent survive to do so more than once. That spawning cycle takes two forms: the summer run (May to October) and the winter run (November to April). Both bring them into freshwater where they can more easily be targeted by waiting anglers, and they’ll return to their native streams several months before the spawn. But winter run steelhead are generally a bit bigger.
Steelhead are particularly prized because they tend to grow larger and stronger than their freshwater cousins, growing to a line-breaking 55 pounds and 45 inches. Expect more average steelheads to weigh in at about 7 pounds, which is still a monster trout by any standard!
Rainbows sport outstanding vision and excellent color perception. While somewhat nearsighted, they see very well in the shallow water of streams, especially when searching the surface for an easy meal. Trout vision even extends into the ultraviolet range.
With eyes placed to provide nearly 360-degree vision, it’s tough to sneak up on them. And even the shadow cast by fly line has been known to spook them.
That outstanding color perception places a premium on realistic colors and presentations, helping to explain the success of expertly tied flies for all species of trout.
But as Mike Depew, a fisheries biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, explains, fluorescent, day-glo colors can still help attract rainbows. “Small bits of fluorescent color don’t imitate anything natural, but they can create a hot spot. A bit of fluorescent orange, yellow or pink absorbs UV rays and projects that back into the visible spectrum. It’s not really visible to them on the surface or just under the water, but it gets more visible the deeper you get.”
Rainbows and Steelheads also feature tiny scent organs called “nares” that guide them to their native streams and help them find prey. Scent is an important component of the trout’s feeding behavior, and especially for spinning tackle enthusiasts, a potent weapon to elicit a bite.
Of course, like all predatory fish, Rainbows and Steelheads have a sensitive lateral line, allowing them to detect the minute vibrations of shrimp, fish, and insects from quite a distance away.