So, what are the differences between Pike and Walleye? Or how does Pike taste compared to Walleye? Having lived most of my life in a fishing camp in Northern Ontario these are some of the many common questions I’m asked by novice anglers.
There are many differences between the two species from their appearance, hunting strategies and of course taste. Whether you are looking for a delicious meal or a fun challenge, you will find out which fish suits your needs and tastes better below!
Differences in Appearance
Before discussing further, we must be able to identify the differences in appearances between Pike and Walleye. We need to understand how they adapted to their environment. Learning how they changed their physical traits to match their hunting techniques will give us an understanding of where to fish and what their meat tastes like.
The key differences in their appearance are:
- Muscle Structure
Sizes of Pike and Walleye
Northern Pike often grow larger than Walleye and are among some of the largest freshwater fish species in Ontario. Pike are capable of growing to more than 36 in (over 90 cm) long and weigh over 20 lbs (over 9 kg). Some of the other fish species that grow larger than Pike in Ontario are Muskie and Sturgeon.
That’s not to say Walleye cannot challenge Pike. The largest Walleye caught according to the Fresh Water Fishing Hall is 41 in (104 cm) and 25 lbs (11.34 kg). Yet, Ontario’s largest Walleye is 36.5 in (92.71 cm) and 22.25 lbs (10.9 kg) according to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.
Northern Pike have adapted as ambush predators and often hunt from cover and vegetation. Their scales are greenish hues with lighter whitish spots on their body’s sides. Their bellies are creamy-white with brownish-red fins with a few dark stripes in the fins.
Walleyes adopted a different approach hunting in schools, feeding in deeper water actively hunting structures. Their scales are darker than Pike’s. Walleye have olive or golden body colour with dark brown or black backs. This colour pattern follows through to their fins. Their bellies are also whitish.
Visually, Pikes have normal clear-looking eyes for daytime hunting while Walleye have “ghostly” cloudy whitish eyes that help them hunt in darker environments. Walleye have a special tissue layer called tapetum lucidum. This acts like a mirror enhancing the brightness for the Walleye.
Walleye also have a wider field of view than Pike allowing them to detect movement and threats from different angles. Meanwhile, Pike’s eyes are more forward-facing to help them focus on what they’re hunting.
Mouths and Teeth
While Pike and Walleye share some similarities as predatory fish with both having pointy teeth, they are also uniquely distinct for their hunting strategies.
Pike Mouths & Teeth
Northern Pike and Muskie teeth, as well as their gill covers and gill rakers, are razor sharp and slice while walleye teeth are simply pointy. Pike have a characteristic “duck-billed” snout with a large mouth, tongue, and palate lined with hundreds of backwards-slanting teeth to grip, while its lower jaw has long teeth to pierce its prey. An adult Pike can have up to 700 teeth in their mouth.
Despite the rumours of them shedding their teeth during summer, they do not grow replacement teeth like sharks. Instead, young pike develop more rows of teeth throughout their life to match their body size. Yet, its teeth will naturally chip and break off from age and fights the fish has.
A Northern Pike that was 32 inches long (81.28 cm) was recorded with a max bite force of 44 Newtons according to a joint student study between Ph.D. Lisa B. Whitenack (Allegheny College), Assistant Professor Maria Laura Habegger (University of Northern Florida), and Ph.D. Solomon David (Nicholls State University). This means that Pike’s bite force was equivalent to about 9.9 pounds of force. This may not seem like a lot, but it is enough to inflict serious damage on a small prey.
For comparison’s sake, a handshake for humans can range from 20 to 120 pounds of force, depending on the person and the situation. Additionally, the average millennial male grip strength is 98 pounds of force according to a 2016 study by the Journal of Hand Therapy.
Walleye Mouths & Teeth
Walleye as previously stated have pointy teeth along the top and bottom of their jawline. They can have 30 to 40 teeth, many of which look like canines. Some of these teeth can grow up to half an inch long and are spaced out and sharp like needles.
Currently, there’s less research available on Walleyes outside of an educated guess. Walleye have relatively smaller jaws and teeth than Northern Pike. They feed mostly on smaller prey like minnows, leeches, and insects. From personal experience, they bite about as hard as a Largemouth or Smallmouth Bass, but nowhere as pleasant…
Pike and walleye have different muscle shapes and densities that affect their swimming and hunting abilities. Also because of their different lifestyles, it affects their meat’s flavour and texture.
Pike have long, slender bodies with a single dorsal fin near their tail giving them a streamlined shape. They have adapted fast-twitch muscle fibers which enable them to accelerate quickly and reach high speeds for short bursts. Normally, they curl into an “S”-like pattern before striking their prey like snakes.
However, they also fatigue quickly and cannot sustain their speed for long periods. Because of this, Pikes prefer to hunt in water with low currents to ambush their prey. Also, the larger they become the more solitary they act, hunting over larger territories like Muskie.
Walleye have shorter, thicker bodies with two dorsal fins: a spiny one and a soft-rayed one. The spiny dorsal fin helps them stabilize their body and manoeuvre in turbulent water. While the soft-rayed dorsal fin helps them adjust their buoyancy and depth.
Walleye have slow-twitch muscle fibres that enable them to swim at a moderate speed for long periods. They can also tolerate higher levels of lactic acid in their muscles, which helps them recover from fatigue. Walleye prefer to hunt in groups in deeper water with moderate currents, taking advantage of their superior eyesight.
Taste Differences of Pike and Walleye
The differences in muscle shape and density for Pike and Walleye are noticeable in cooking but not a bad situation either. On a positive note, they’re both “clean” fish in terms of their diets.
Pike have a firm, white meat that is low in fat and high in protein. Yet, they also have many small bones, called Y-bones, that are embedded in their flesh. These bones make it difficult to fillet and eat pike without encountering them. Some anglers avoid Pike for this reason. Others use special techniques to remove the bones, making Pike more popular for fish fries.
Walleyes, however, are the gold standard of Canadian shore lunches. They have flaky, white meat that is high in fat and omega-3 fatty acids. They have fewer and larger bones than Pike, which makes them easier to fillet and eat. Walleye are regarded as one of the best-tasting freshwater fish and are highly sought after by anglers and consumers. For some, walleye meat is better suited for long-term freezing, since it retains its flavor and texture better than Pike meat.
In short, they are both clean white flaky meat that’s neither “fishy” nor “gamey” tasting if handled properly. For example, don’t let them bake at the bottom of the boat all day! Regardless, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommend at most 6 to 8 months of storage in a home freezer for lean fish.
The differences between Pike and Walleye are many, including the families of each species. However, most of the confusion comes from the nicknames for Walleye, as they’re sometimes referred to as “Pickerel” in Canada or sometimes the borrowed European nickname “Pike Perch” from Zander, their cousins.
I have already discussed the naming issue previously, Pike vs Pickerel. The short answer is that the names come from European explorers using words derived from their weapons to describe the elongated “Pike” shape of fish.
In this article, you will have a better understanding of how to identify each fish and how their appearances are adapted to their hunting strategies. Therefore, understanding where they hunt and how is an important part of fishing to locate them.
Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B., Outdoor Writer and Nationally Published Author & Photographer
- Walleye vs Bass: Which Fish is the Catch of the Day?
- Spring Opening Walleye Season
- How to Catch Summer Walleye: A Guide to French River Fishing
- Fall Walleye Fishing on the French River
- Comparison of bite force in the spotted gar Lepisosteous oculatus, northern pike Esox lucius, gar, and great barracuda Sphyraena barracuda: Rosie Sheppard (’20) and Ryan Sherry (’15) in collaboration with M. Laura Habegger (University of North Florida) and Solomon David (Nicholls State University)
- Schriefer, J. E., & Hale, M. E. (2004). Strikes and startles of northern pike (Esox lucius): a comparison of muscle activity and kinematics between S-start behaviors. The Journal of experimental biology, 207(Pt 3), 535–544. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.00789
- The integration of locomotion and prey capture in divergent cottid fishes: functional disparity despite morphological similarity | Journal of Experimental Biology | The Company of Biologists
- Prey Capture and the Fast-Start Performance of Northern Pike Esox Lucius | Journal of Experimental Biology | The Company of Biologists
- A digital dissection of two teleost fishes: comparative functional anatomy of the cranial musculoskeletal system in pike (Esox lucius) and eel (Anguilla anguilla) – Brocklehurst – 2019 – Journal of Anatomy – Wiley Online Library