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Rainbow Trout & Steelheads

Other common names: bow, steelhead trout, Kamloops trout, silver trout

Steelhead and rainbow trout are really the same species of fish. Steelhead is the name given to the silver or steel-blue headed ocean-going form of the species. It is native to the Pacific coast of North America from northern Mexico north to the Bering Sea and inland to the Rocky Mountains. Rainbow trout are the inland form and have been "stocked" or released around the world. They now thrive in the waters of many states in the United States, including Wisconsin.

How to Identify

Inland Rainbow trout

Inland: There are many small spots on body and 10 -12 anal rays. Look for a square tail with spots over the entire tail in radiating rows. The mouth and gums are white.

Great Lakes Rainbow trout

Great Lakes: You'll find spots all over the tail, but the rest of body is silver. The white mouth identifies steelhead from salmon.

The habitat of the fish will determine its coloration and markings. They can vary quite a bit from lake to lake.

Rainbow trout range in weight from 2 to 16 pounds and in length from 16-30 inches. They like water that is between 53-57 degrees Fahrenheit (12-14 degrees Celsius). Steelheads in Lake Michigan eat small fish, insects, and crayfish. The major predators of adult fish are sea lamprey and humans. The juveniles have to look out for larger carnivorous (eats meat) fish and merganser ducks looking for a meal.

Stocking and Migration

In Wisconsin, three kinds of steelhead (listed below) are stocked in Lake Michigan because they do not reproduce completely on their own. Rainbow trout and brown trout reproduce naturally in many, but not all inland streams. Steelhead reproduce naturally in Wisconsin rivers that flow into Lake Superior, but not in Wisconsin rivers that lead to Lake Michigan. When you buy a fishing license and the great Lakes Salmon and Trout Stamp, you are helping pay for stocking of this fish. These trout now live along the entire shore of Lake Michigan between Marinette and Kenosha and migrate upstream in rivers along the shoreline. Each one migrates to spawn at different times (see below). Unlike the coho or chinook salmon, this fish doesn't die after spawining, but returns to the lake.

Types of Steelhead

  • Skamania summer-run; migrates in July and August, spawns the following January and February
  • Chambers Creek winter-run; migrates in October and March, spawns in March
  • Ganaraska River winter-run; migrates in late March and early April, spawns in late April

Watching fish migrate is fun in the spring as the steelhead move upstream. Check out these fish watching locations.

Fishing for Rainbows

Be sure to check the fishing regulations each year to find out the exact trout seasons dates for different streams and lakes. Below is a sample of approximate season times.

  • Early catch and release trout season on many inland streams is from March through April.
  • Lake trout season in Lake Michigan, Green Bay, and Lake Michigan tributaries runs from March through October.
  • Regular trout season and Lake Superior trout and salmon can be caught May through September.

The most popular bait for stream fishing is a "spawn bag," which is fish eggs tied in a small ball using fine mesh. Other baits include spoons, spinners, flatfish, and flies fished close to the bottom. Fly fishing is a fun way to catch these fish.

Pier and shore fishing on Lake Michigan are also good. Bait including spawn, night crawlers, spoons, and flies often work well here. During mid-summer, some steelhead are caught while trolling.

In the colder months, fishing is great in the cool water discharges of power plants. Spawn, spoons, spinners, jigs, and minnows work well here.

State record: 27 pounds, 2 ounces, 42.5 inches long, caught on July 26, 1997 in Lake Michigan at Kewaunee.



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