Rainbow trout fry syndrome and cold-water disease, caused by Flavobacterium psychrophilum, are important diseases in farmed salmonids. Some of the presently available techniques for the detection of Fl. psychrophilum are either time consuming or lack sufficient sensitivity. In the present investigation, the possible detection of Fl. psychrophilum from fish tissue and water samples was examined using nested PCR with DNA probes against a sequence of the 16S rRNA genes. The DNA was extracted using Chelex® 100 chelating resin. The primers, which were tested against strains isolated from diseased fish, healthy fish, fish farm environments and reference strains, proved to be specific for Fl. psychrophilum. The obtained detection limit of Fl. psychrophilum seeded into rainbow trout brain tissue was 0·4 cfu in the PCR tube, corresponding to 17 cfu mg−1 brain tissue. The PCR-assay proved to be more sensitive than agar cultivation of tissue samples from the brain of rainbow trout injected with Fl. psychrophilum. In non-sterile fresh water seeded with Fl. psychrophilum the detection limit of the PCR-assay was 1·7 cfu in the PCR tube, corresponding to 110 cfu ml−1 water. The PCR-assay detected Fl. psychrophilum in water samples taken from a rainbow trout farm, but Fl. psychrophilum could not be isolated using inoculation on selective agar. The method presented here has the potential to detect low levels of Fl. psychrophilum in fish tissue and in water samples, and the technique can be a useful tool for understanding the epidemiology of Fl. psychrophilum.