Surveillance and genetic typing of field isolates of a fish rhabdovirus, infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus (IHNV), has identified four dominant viral genotypes that were involved in serial viral emergence and displacement events in steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in western North America. To investigate drivers of these landscape-scale events, IHNV isolates designated 007, 111, 110, and 139, representing the four relevant genotypes, were compared for virulence and infectivity in controlled laboratory challenge studies in five relevant steelhead trout populations. Viral virulence was assessed as mortality using lethal dose estimates (LD50), survival kinetics, and proportional hazards analysis. A pattern of increasing virulence for isolates 007, 111, and 110 was consistent in all five host populations tested, and correlated with serial emergence and displacements in the virus-endemic lower Columbia River source region during 1980-2013. The fourth isolate, 139, did not have higher virulence than the previous isolate 110. However, the mG139M genotype displayed a conditional displacement phenotype in that it displaced type mG110M in coastal Washington, but not in the lower Columbia River region, indicating that factors other than evolution of higher viral virulence were involved in some displacement events. Viral infectivity, measured as infectious dose (ID50), did not correlate consistently with virulence or with viral emergence, and showed a narrow range of variation relative to the variation observed in virulence. Comparison among the five steelhead trout populations confirmed variation in resistance to IHNV, but correlations with previous history of virus exposure or with sites of viral emergence varied between IHNV source and sink regions. Overall, this study indicated increasing viral virulence over time as a potential driver for emergence and displacement events in the endemic Lower Columbia River source region where these IHNV genotypes originated, but not in adjacent sink regions.