The legendary steelhead, a fish of controversy and mystery

Steelhead open on the Thompson River, a history of the species

Tight Lines

By Jeff Weltz


With the opening of steelhead on the Thompson River once again, I want to dwell on these highly prized fish.

The question is often asked, what is a steelhead? Let’s begin by looking at James Stanley’s description in his book, Guide To Becoming A Rainbow Master.

“Salmo gairdneri, the rainbow’s first name, was penned in 1836 by J. Richardson, an early biologist-explorer,” Stanley writes. “Salmo is the Latin name for the salmon of the Atlantic, while the rainbow’s surname gairdneri, is an attribute to Dr. Meredith Gairdneri, an early naturalist employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The rainbow’s color varies with habitat, size, and sexual condition. Over the years, anglers have distinguished these differing color patterns with different names. Darker steam fish are often called rainbow, brighter fish in small lakes are termed Kamloops, and the large, silvery migratory fish are referred to as steelhead.”

Originally, steelhead were believed to be of the Salmo (Atlantic salmon) genus because their ability to survive spawning and return to spawn again up to three times. To the best of my knowledge, the name change to Oncorhynchus (Pacific salmon) was made by the American Fisheries Society’s Committee on Names of Fish in 1989.

This change was not without controversy, which continues to this day.

“My steelhead, Salmo gairdneri, a name fixed in Northwest history, became the incomprehensible and largely unpronounceable Oncorhynchus mykiss,” says revered sport fishing and steelhead authority Trey Combs. “I greeted this with disbelief and consternation. To link a Golden trout with a Chinook salmon seemed hopelessly misguided. Of course, none of this mattered to the taxonomists.”

Steelhead are simply a strain of large sea-going rainbow trout that have the same characteristics of all rainbows. Some would argue that they are distinctly different, but time and science have proven this untrue.

The steelhead; it is a fish of controversy and a fish of legend. The mystery and the politics that surround this fish are astounding.