Discover the Official State Fish of Washington State (And Where You Might Spot It This Summer)

Steelhead trout swimming
© David A Litman/Shutterstock.com

Written by Kathryn Dueck

Updated: September 8, 2023

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With its numerous lakes and rivers, Washington State is a great place to do some summer fishing. While casting their lines, keen-eyed fishermen might have the good fortune to spot – or catch – the state’s official fish. To do that, it’s helpful to know a few key facts first. Read on to discover the official state fish of Washington State and where you can find it!

Since 1969, the steelhead trout has been the official state fish of Washington.

What Is the Official State Fish of Washington State?

The official Washington State fish is the steelhead trout. The steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus) is an oceangoing subspecies of rainbow trout in the family Salmonidae. Washington adopted it as the state fish in 1969. In addition to being a state symbol, it remains a valuable game fish in Washington’s lakes and rivers.

Steelhead Trout Characteristics

Steelhead trout on white background

Steelhead trout have long, silvery bodies with a pink or red stripe running along their sides and black speckles.

©Edvard Ellric/Shutterstock.com

Although the steelhead trout is a subspecies of rainbow trout, there are marked differences between the two. These differences include size, color, and habitat.

Steelhead Trout Appearance and Size

Closeup of steelhead salmon skin

Instead of the rainbow trout’s prominent rainbow hue, the steelhead trout has pink or red stripes.

©tab62/Shutterstock.com

As an oceangoing fish, the steelhead trout is generally larger than the freshwater rainbow trout. It weighs up to 55 pounds, though it more typically falls between eight and 11 pounds. Streamlined in shape, it grows to lengths of up to 45 inches (3.75 feet). Although it is generally silvery or brassy in color with a white belly, it may have a subtle rainbow hue. It also has a pink or red stripe running along its sides and black dots on its sides and back.

Steelhead Trout Habitat

Steelhead spend most of the year in estuaries or marine environments. They only return to rivers and streams to spawn. In the ocean, they swim at depths as great as 660 feet. As benthopelagic fish, they roam both along the seabed and near the surface of open waters. They prefer cool, well-oxygenated environments.

Steelhead Trout Diet and Predators

Closeup of a steelhead trout

Steelhead trout eat a variety of animals including small fish, cephalopods, and even mice.

©Sean Lema/Shutterstock.com

The carnivorous steelhead preys on a variety of other animals including smaller fish like anchovies and sardines. It also eats cephalopods, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and fish eggs. It has even been known to consume mice. Juveniles eat zooplankton until they mature enough to go after larger prey.

Steelhead also provide a valuable food source for other predators. They frequently fall prey to other fish like sharks and freshwater lampreys as well as marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and orcas. They are also the targets of birds like ospreys and eagles as well as animals like bears, raccoons, and river otters. In addition to all this, humans hunt them as highly esteemed game fish.

Steelhead Trout Life Cycle

Steelhead are anadromous, meaning they return to fresh water to spawn. Making their way up rivers from the ocean, they use their remarkable homing ability to find their prior spawning grounds. For this reason, genetically unique populations may develop according to different river systems. Generally, steelhead have two runs: a summer run and a winter run. The majority of summer runs occur east of the Cascades.

Steelhead eggs hatch in well-oxygenated rivers with gravel bottoms and swift currents. Prior to laying her eggs, a mature female will dig a hole in the riverbed called a “redd.” A single female can lay up to 9,000 eggs at a time depending on her size. After she lays her eggs, a mature male releases his sperm to fertilize them. The female then covers the eggs with gravel. They remain buried until they hatch.

Unlike salmon, which do not survive spawning, steelhead trout often live to spawn several times. Although most wild steelhead live to be four to six years of age, the oldest individual on record lived to be 11 years old.

Where Can You Catch Steelhead Trout in Washington State?

Fresh-caught steelhead trout on stones with lure in its mouth

Steelhead trout are highly prized game fish.

©AleksKey/Shutterstock.com

Steelhead trout can be caught in a number of lakes in Washington State. These include the following:

  • Lake Wallula (Benton County)
  • Wenatchee Lake (Chelan County)
  • Horseshoe Lake (Cowlitz County)
  • Kress Lake (Cowlitz County)
  • Silver Lake (Cowlitz County)
  • Lake Entiat (Douglas County)
  • Lake Pateros (Douglas County)
  • Quigg Lake (Grays Harbor County)
  • Hanson – Lower Pond (Kittitas County)
  • Lake Easton (Kittitas County)
  • Lake Umatilla (Klickitat County)
  • Osoyoos Lake (Okanogan County)

Steelhead Conservation

Despite having a number of predators, including humans, steelhead are not currently endangered. Because of this, the IUCN does not include them on its Red List of Threatened Species. The main reason steelhead continue to prosper is their worldwide distribution. Unlike some species endemic to specific areas, these fish are able to thrive virtually anywhere. In some areas, they are even an invasive species that threatens the existence of native species.

Despite this, steelhead may face various threats and barriers depending on their location. Potential threats include overfishing, climate change, habitat loss, habitat impediments like dams, and habitat degradation. According to NOAA, the US government protects steelhead trout along the West Coast under the Endangered Species Act. In addition to this, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) has designated it a Priority Species under its Priority Habitat and Species Program. The steelhead is also a Species of Greatest Conservation Need under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP).

Conclusion

As the official state fish of Washington, the steelhead trout is an iconic and valuable game fish. It is common in Washington’s many lakes during spawning season. To spot it, be sure to be on the lookout for its silvery scales, pink or red stripes, and spotted back and sides.


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About the Author

Kathryn Dueck is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on wildlife, dogs, and geography. Kathryn holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Biblical and Theological Studies, which she earned in 2023. In addition to volunteering at an animal shelter, Kathryn has worked for several months as a trainee dog groomer. A resident of Manitoba, Canada, Kathryn loves playing with her dog, writing fiction, and hiking.

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