4+ Key Differences Between Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon

Discover How Habitat, Life Cycle, Physical Traits, and Taste Set These Fish Apart

Beautiful steelhead trout caught in Boise, Idaho

The general term people use for most fish in the Salmonidae family is Salmon. Most people get confused between species and classes, thus finding it difficult to differentiate between fish like Steelheads and Atlantic Salmon.

The striking similarities between Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon are undeniable. Experienced anglers can pinpoint subtle differences, but only a few can confidently tell the two apart.

Studies show Salmon is one of the world’s most highly consumed fish. But did you know that what you could be eating or looking at might be a Steelhead trout?

Below are four significant differences you should know about to help you differentiate between Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon like a pro.

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Steelhead vs. Atlantic Salmon Differences

People often use the title Salmon to refer to the Steelhead and vice versa. However, Steelhead vs Atlantic salmon have key differences that could hint at what you’re looking at, either on display at the fish market or outdoors when fishing.

While Steelheads and Atlantic Salmon both belong to the same Salmonidae family, they are entirely two different species. Distinctive traits found in each include:

Length and Weight

Steelheads are relatively smaller than Atlantic Salmons. An adult Steelhead can measure around 36 inches long and weigh about 6 to 7 pounds. On the other hand, an adult Atlantic Salmon is much larger, can measure about 30 to 32 inches, and weigh between 7 and 12 pounds.

However, how big the Steelhead vs Atlantic Salmon gets relies heavily on their habitat. Some farm-grown steelheads can grow beyond 50 pounds if they have a constant food supply and live well beyond their average life span.

If you happen to catch a particularly long and heavy Salmonid, there’s a good chance that what you have is an Atlantic Salmon and not a Steelhead.

General Color and Appearance

Steelheads have a shiny, brassy-white/silvery coat, while the Atlantic Salmon has a broader color spectrum ranging from orange, green/brown, and white hues. Both fish have relatively dark/black backs.

Living in the Northern Atlantic ocean the Atlantic salmon fish live in schools and mate in rivers.
Atlantic Salmon

The easiest difference to note, especially if the Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon are side by side, is the head’s shape. While intriguingly similar, a steelhead has a rounder head, whereas the Atlantic salmon has a sharper one.

Meat Color and Taste

Depending on where the fish was sourced, meat from Steelheads can be pink, dark red, or orange. Atlantic Salmon, on the other hand, has white, red, or gray-colored flesh.

Steelheads and Atlantic salmon may be born in freshwater but spend much of their lives in salty water. Therefore, they are both saltwater fish. Filet from both fish is super delicious and tastes almost the same. Chefs in restaurants or people at home use the same recipes interchangeably to prepare steelheads and Atlantic salmon.

However, the meat texture of both fish is slightly different. Meat from a steelhead is significantly tender and less fatty than meat from Atlantic salmon. You may also notice that steelhead meat has a mild fishy scent compared to salmon’s fishy smell and flavor.

Spawning Seasons

Steelheads are trout fish that commonly spawns between January and April. They monitor the water temperature of the river or sea and determine when the conditions are right for them to start migrating to freshwater.  Note that most Steelheads are saltwater fish but must move to where the freshwater is to spawn.

Steelheads migrate through fall and winter and gather along tributaries and rivers, feeding and gathering energy and waiting for the spawning season to start.

Alternatively, the Atlantic Salmon’s spawning season is between September and December. This fish also monitors conditions like the water level and temperature before commencing their journey upstream toward the spawning spot.

You can already find Atlantic Salmon in rivers during summer as they also feed and pile up on energy that they’ll need to get to their spawning spot when fall arrives.

Which is better, Steelhead or Atlantic Salmon?

The Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon are incredibly delicious, provided the fish is prepared well according to the recipe.

Nutritionally, Steelheads are considered healthier and better because their meat has less fat, hence fewer calories. Steelhead meat has less cholesterol, less sodium, and more omega-3 fatty acids.

Is Atlantic Salmon the same as Steelhead?

Atlantic Salmon is not the same type of fish as Steelhead. The two fish come from the same Salmonidae family but are different species.

Steelhead and Atlantic salmon can be found in saltwater and freshwater. The Steelhead is categorized as a rainbow trout, while the Atlantic Salmon is considered, well, Salmon.

The two types of fish have different spawning seasons, colors, lengths and weights, head shapes, and more.

Do Steelhead and Salmon taste the same? 

Steelhead and Salmon meat taste almost the same. However, most people prefer Steelhead meat for its softer texture, less fishy scent, and more flavorful taste.

Atlantic salmon filet is more expensive than Steelhead filet. It explains why most fish recipes incorporate Steelhead trout more than salmon.

How is Steelhead different from Salmon?

A fish expert would point out that a Steelhead differs from Salmon because it has less fat content, is more affordable, and has lower mercury levels.

However, the main difference between the two fish is that they come from different lineages. Steelheads are trout, while Salmon is a different species/class.

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