Identifying walleye, sauger, pickerel, and pike

by Lonnie King | June 13, 2019
walleye sauger pickerel and pike - walleye
Walleye

If you find yourself tripping over the terms walleye, sauger, pickerel, and pike, you’re not alone. For starters, here in Ontario we interchange the terms walleye and pickerel as seamlessly as we utter the word “eh.”

It’s a unique aspect of our Ontario fishing dialect that works in most of the province, but starts to be troublesome when you’re talking about areas where walleye and pickerel could actually refer to different species of fish.

Confusion over fish names is an even bigger deal if you’re a fisheries scientist looking to compare results or share data. To address this issue, every 10 years or so, a small group of North American fish scientists produce a book entitled, Common and Scientific Names of Fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Walleye

Walleye top, sauger bottom.

Walleye (Sander vitreus) are the largest members of the perch family, widespread throughout the province. They are, arguably, the province’s top sport fish for table fare. Walleye are closely related to the European zander (Sander lucioperca), which, by the way, is often referred to as a pikeperch.

Pike

walleye sauger pickerel and pike - pike

Pike (Esox lucius), northern pike, or just plain northerns are so common throughout the province that most Ontario anglers have no problem differentiating a pike from a walleye. However, the average person could not easily differentiate a pickerel from a small pike. In Ontario, for instance, grass pickerel have a very similar body shape and colouration to juvenile pike, and they only reach about 30 centimetres long fully grown. The patterning on the side of an adult chain pickerel is distinct enough for most anglers to differentiate it from an adult pike.

Sauger

sauger

Sauger (Sander canadensis) closely resemble walleye, though are generally smaller, less common throughout the province, darker, and do not have a white patch on the caudal fin. And to make things even more interesting, sauger can produce hybrids with walleye, called saugeye (Stizostedion vitreum x Stizostedion canadense).

Pickerel

The term pickerel is reserved for small fishes in the pike family. In Ontario, this includes the grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus) and the chain pickerel (Esox niger), which are both rare catches in our province, but can be found in parts of southern Ontario, around the St. Lawrence River, eastern Lake Ontario, and the Bay of Quinte. Also, hybrids of pike and grass and chain pickerel are possible.

Of course, there will always be those among us who don’t care about scientific convention and will continue calling their walleye, pickerel. At least if they’re talking with Ontario anglers, we’ll know what they mean, “eh?”

Grass pickerel: Photo courtesy of Jason Barnucz, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
chain pickerel
Chain pickerel

Click here to learn how to catch walleye with swing jigs

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