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  • Writer's pictureNew Wave Fishing Academy

Walleye Vs Pickerel: Truth & History

Updated: Dec 26, 2023


walleye or pickerel big georgian bay walleye yellow pickerel

We recently made a "controversial" post that had some people up in arms. Posting a video titled "Morning Fish For Monster Pickerel" we were met with numerous comments saying that's not a pickerel that's a walleye! Now, these are both common names for the same species (sander vitreus) but walleye has become the most prevalent use. However, growing up in northern Ontario we know these fish as yellow pickerel, or pickerel for short. Personally, we use the names interchangeably to mean the same thing; but there has always been debate over which is the correct name in the community. There isn't really a correct answer to this question though, any "thing" can have more than one name and neither is more right than the other! Take a hoodie for example; in Canada it's a hoodie, in United States it's a pullover, and in Ireland it's called a jumper. All of these names are talking about the same thing in the same language but have a different regional or common name. This isn't an isolated case I'm using to support what I grew up learning either, there are examples all around us. Take into consideration country names for instance something extremely important for trading and travel. In Canada we use the names Germany, Japan, Spain, Thailand, South Korea, and Hungary. But what do people in these countries call themselves? Deutschland (Germany), Nippon or Nihon (Japan), España (Spain), Muang Thai (Thailand), Hanguk (South Korea), Magyarország (Hungary). The reasons for these occurrences have a number of reasons (usually bad or terrible) but most political and the point is the same "thing" can have very different names depending where you are located.


So, back to the important bit, why do some folks call sander vitreus "Walleye" and others "Pickerel"? To answer this question we need to take a look into the history books but before we do this we should outline the pain points so we can work towards one solution. Where conflict tends to arise in the use of "pickerel" is that there are other species called chain, grass, & red pickerel that are actually members of the pike family. These fish look nothing like a "yellow pickerel" or "walleye" but a northern pike! Nobody is arguing that a yellow pickerel is part of this group of fish just that walleye are also called by the name yellow pickerel. With the new age of the internet people from all over the world can easily argue with each other over what fish they are holding in the picture. Now that we have this common understanding we can jump in to how this conflict came to be.


Yellow Pickerel or Walleye are natural in some parts of Canada & the United States but have been introduced elsewhere across North America. As you can see from the figure below the natural fish population is primarily located in Canada.

walleye range yellow pickerel range

walleye range yellow pickerel range sander vitreus range






















Of the chain, grass, & red pickerel the chain is most common. The chain pickerel is native along the east coast of the United States and Canada as shown by the figure below.

chain pickerel range









Have you picked up on the disconnect yet? If you haven't, take a look at the area where natural populations of "yellow pickerel" and "chain pickerel" exist. You should notice that there is minimal overlap in the United States and virtually none in Canada. Here is the first key to understanding this conflict. Those in Canada, except for the ones along the United States border east of the great lakes, don't even have this other "pickerel" species being referred to. In fact the first chain pickerel to be documented in Ontario was not until 2008! From this it is easy to see that regional naming could have developed over time especially given the segregation of most fisheries in Canada from the United States until air travel and highways were developed. With a prevalent population of "chain pickerel" in the United States and only select areas where "Yellow Pickerel" can be found it makes logical sense to change the name or start with a different name entirely to avoid confusion.


Enough about what could have happened let's take a trip down history lane to see what really happened and how we got here. Following the collapse of the Lake Trout and Walleye/Pickerel population in the great lakes the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was formed in 1972 with the purpose or protecting fish habitat. In 1985 the Federal Fisheries Act was passed imposing "residential sport fishing licenses", as well as the ability to create rules and regulations for the betterment of fish populations & habitat. The Ontario Fishery Regulations passed in 1989 outlining the species harvest seasons and limits for the first time. In 1997 the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Act was passed and the Ontario Fishery Regulations were updated 2007 clarifying species harvest seasons and limits being imposed. As part of these regulations species have to be clearly identified so that they can be accurately managed. In the regulations section Common and Scientific Names of Species of Fish sander vitreus is listed by the common names of Walleye & Yellow Pickerel. So in a legal sense these fish are one in the same but this still does not answer the question of where the two names came from.


yellow pickerel and walleye are same fish

Given that sander vitreus spawn in the spring in shallow gravelly areas under damns, waterfalls, and rapids they made for easy harvesting. As a result the indigenous people of Canada have harvested these fish as a food and trading source since the dawn of time. In Quebec sander vitreus go by the name dore jaune or losely translated "golden yellow" for their obvious appearance. The term pickerel first appears in literature by John Franklin in 1857 as he described the different sources of fish encountered on his arctic journey through Hudson Bay and down the Saskatchewan river. His crew interacted with the indigenous Cree and refers to the occuw, piccarel, or dore as one of the plentiful food supplies in the area. Whether this was a common name brought from Britain, had arisen in the indigenous community, or was a mix match of languages from all explorers at the time it appears to have been well established and so much so that he could record it as another common name for the species "dore" which is still used to this day. around for hundreds of years and common place in the northern reaches of Canada. In Ontario yellow pickerel, and even blue pickerel, were the name designated by the Ministry for these species until the late 1980's as shown in the image above. Commercial fishing operations in and around the Georgian Bay area that have been in the industry for several generation also identify their catch as pickerel. This doesn't extend just to this operation but also in grocery retailers across the province which sell fish fillets under the name pickerel including: Metro, Sobeys, Fortinos, and Real Canadian Superstore.

commercial yellow pickerel harvest

Walleye on the other hand is a name given to Sander Vitreus by Samuel Mitchell in 1818 when he published "Memoir on ichthyology. The fishes of New York, described and arranged." In a supplement to the Memoir... American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review v. 2 (no. 4) (art. 1): 241-248 although I was unable to obtain a copy to verify. Mitchell taught chemistry, botany, and natural history at Columbia College from 1792 to 1801 and was a founding editor of The Medical Repository, the first medical journal in the United States.

big georgian bay yellow pickerel or walleye

But why do the Ontario fishing regulations now use walleye?


Although there is no recorded reasoning for this the naming was changed in the late 1960's or early 1970's at the same time as the recreational fishing industry boom in Canada. As transportation became easier and fishing lodge's began to open across the province a huge influx of American anglers started to venture into Canada. With the difference in naming convention Ministry officials had difficulty enforcing the rules and having american anglers understand them since Walleye was not mentioned. Unofficial reports from past Ministry employees have stated this conflict lead to the name change as the number of american anglers visiting Ontario was greater than the number of residents. For a period both names were listed but now only the most popular name of Walleye is listed.


So there it is; the entire history of Walleye / Pickerel debate. Walleye, Pickerel, it's the same fish. While "Walleye" is the first scholastically documented name for the species the name "pickerel" was established in the northern reaches of Canada as a common name for the same species and appears in literature around the same time period. As could have been inferred from the distribution of these fish the two different names are simply the result of regional language development when information could not travel as quickly as it does today. While walleye may be the most popular common name this does not make yellow pickerel wrong and it is still used in the commercial harvesting industry today. If you want to be specific because it means that much to you use the term Sander Vitreus exclusively! In reality doesn't matter what you or anyone else calls them as long as you're following the right harvesting limits. Get out on the water and enjoy fishing for walleye, I'll meet you there but I'll be chasing pickerel!


Be sure to check out the hyperlinked sources for all the details we have presented here today!


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