Is it a Steelhead or a Rainbow Trout?

Angler with wild Klamath River Steelhead (released).

Angler with a wild Klamath River Steelhead that was soon released. (DFG Photo)

Question: I have been trying to decipher the wild steelhead regulations and the definition of anadromous waters. Based on what I’ve read, I believe a rainbow trout is considered to be a wild steelhead if it meets the following criteria: 1) is 16 inches in length or greater, 2) has an intact adipose fin, and 3) resides in anadromous waters (waters that somehow connect to the ocean). Is this accurate? Are there wild steelhead trout in non-anadromous waters?

Also, if I’m fishing in a body of water known to have wild trout, do I need to have a Steelhead Report Card in case I catch a rainbow that fits the steelhead description listed above? Thank you. (Larry G.)

Answer: Steelhead are rainbow trout that migrated out of fresh water as juveniles and spent some portion of their life in the ocean before returning to fresh water to spawn. According to Steelhead Program Coordinator Terry Jackson, adult California steelhead are usually at least 16 inches in length. It is not possible to be sure, however, if a large rainbow trout (16 inches or larger) in anadromous waters has been to the ocean without examining a scale (fish scales can be “read” like tree rings) or an otolith (a bone in its head, which unfortunately requires sacrificing the fish), so this regulation reflects probabilities based on years of data.

Your basic wild steelhead definition is correct, and in most cases any wild steelhead caught must be immediately released. One exception is the Smith River, where some harvest is legal (current limits are one wild steelhead per day and five annually). In addition, harvest of hatchery steelhead (adipose fin-clipped) is allowed in many streams in the state, so check your freshwater fishing regulations for specific waters (CCR Title 14, Section 7.50).

As to whether wild steelhead live in non-anadromous waters, for the purposes of the regulations and the Steelhead Report Card, the answer is no. Technically, some rainbow trout that originate in non-anadromous waters (such as above a dam without a ladder or falls) will occasionally escape and migrate downstream to the ocean. But when they return as adult steelhead, they remain in the anadromous portion of the stream.

Because the rainbow trout/steelhead matrix of potential life history from generation to generation is so complex, DFG designed Steelhead Report Cards to better understand and track steelhead. If an angler is fishing for steelhead or keeps an incidentally caught steelhead where harvest is allowed, then they must have a Steelhead Report Card and fill it out per the instructions. If the angler is not fishing for steelhead and responsibly releases any incidentally caught steelhead, or if they are fishing in non-anadromous waters, a Steelhead Report Card is not required. Additional information regarding the steelhead regulations and the Steelhead Report Card program is available at:

Legal to Watch Wildlife by Spotlight?
Question: I know that it is not legal to spotlight hunt, but what if I’m just out looking around in the dark with my vehicle’s headlights on and I happen to have a rifle, shotgun or bow with me? Can I get in trouble for just looking around if I’m not even hunting?

Answer: Yes! It doesn’t matter if you say you are not hunting; you can still be cited if the following are true:

1) You are throwing or casting the rays of any spotlight, headlight or other artificial light on any highway or in any field, woodland or forest where game mammals, fur-bearing mammals or nongame mammals are commonly found; and

2) You have in your possession or under your control any firearm or weapon with which those mammals can be killed, even if no mammals are killed, injured, shot at, or otherwise pursued (FGC Section 2005).

According to Game Warden DeWayne Little, it is not the game warden’s responsibility to determine the intent of the person spotlighting. Unfortunately, too many deer are poached at night with the aid of artificial lights so this regulation is strictly enforced statewide. Game warden pilots even fly night patrols specifically to locate spotlighters who are poaching wildlife at night.

If you want to view wildlife at night with lights, leave your guns and bows (or anything that can be used to take game) at home and be aware that if you are observed shining a light, you will be stopped by law enforcement and questioned about your activity. You should realize too that this stop may be done at gunpoint and your vehicle will be searched for weapons, as spotlighting is considered a high-risk crime.

Are Pulsator Decoys Legal for Waterfowl Hunting?
With waterfowl season fast approaching, I’d like to know if the Higdon Pulsator decoy is legal to use throughout the season, or does it fall under the same category as the mechanically operated spinning wing decoys? This decoy sprays a surge of water every 1.5 seconds to simulate feeding ducks and create ripples on the water. (Greg)

Answer: Yes, they are legal to use throughout the waterfowl season.

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Carrie Wilson is a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. She cannot personally answer everyone’s questions but  will select a few to answer in this column each week. Please contact her at

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