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We call the fish pickerel, not walleye
May 16, 2013

 

I’m certainly glad that Manitobans are being given a chance to select our province’s official fish.
“Selecting a provincial fish recognizes the important role of fishing to our province, culturally and economically,” said Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh.  “Manitobans have some of the best fishing opportunities in the world, with access to more than 30 species of sport fish in diverse habitats across the province and the opportunity to see more than 60 other species in their native habitats.  I want Manitobans to consider the value of our conservation efforts by providing them an opportunity to make a case for the fish they believe best represents our fishing heritage.”
But I’m somewhat skeptical that if one species favoured by anglers, commercial fishers and consumers becomes Manitoba’s official fish, its name will not reflect “our fishing heritage.” 
As a child growing up along the shore of Lake Winnipeg, if a visitor bothered to ask me where to fish for walleye, I would have had a blank look on my face. 
“What’s a walleye?” I would have queried.
After some explanation of the specific markings of the fish by the visitor, my comment would have been, “Oh, you mean pickerel.”
“Pickerel?”
“Yeah, pickerel. We don’t have any of those wall-eyed things around here!”
Like most Manitobans, I grew up using the name pickerel to describe the firm white-fleshed tasty fish that is commonly caught throughout the province. To have it named anything else was akin to blasphemy. 
Drawing upon years of tradition (heritage), everyone called the fish, pickerel — that was that. I never heard a commercial fisherman, who fished the lake for decades, ever refer to it as walleye. Even when they heard the name used, it was greeted with a bemused grin. They were fishing commercially for pickerel — not walleye.
They’d wink at us children when the unfamiliar word was mentioned, and say: “Don’t worry, we’re not going to call our fish by any other name. Pickerel is pickerel.”
By way of further explanation, they would tell us pickerel is called walleye in the United States.
“Is it the same fish?” we’d ask.
“Yes, but we’ve been calling it pickerel for longer than they’ve been calling it walleye,” came the answer, affirming their belief that they had the name right in the first place.
Actually, as it turns out, the fishermen of my youth weren’t too far from the truth, as pickerel — however, incorrectly used — has been the name used to refer to the fish from the earliest days of European explorers and settlers coming to this province. And it was a name that stuck.
The province’s early newspapers advertised pickerel for sale, rather than walleye, in order not to confuse their customers. For example, Lowman’s on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg was advertising pickerel fillets in the March 12, 1903, Winnipeg Telegram. In a January 22, 1985, Daily Nor’Wester ad, pickerel was selling for three-cents per pound. No mention was made of walleye. 
According to an article in the June 4, 1943, Winnipeg Tribune, “Fresh pickerel fillets are swimming into the higher price brackets, ... and the reason for the high price is that brisk demand for this fish from the United States has sent the price soaring.” Ironically, the article uses the name pickerel when commenting on sales to the U.S., as it’s the Americans who use the name walleye for our pickerel. Most Manitoba newspaper articles still consistently use the name pickerel. 
Even today, the fish marketed in Manitoba stores and appearing on local restaurant menus is called pickerel, rather than walleye. 
Early newspaper advertisements also announced they were selling “jackfish or pike.” Jackfish was another of those local names that I grew up with, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned that the fish was more appropriately called northern pike.
Another name of fish from my youth is maria, which is now known as freshwater burbot. Somehow it’s hard to associate the slimy, eel-like fish with the benign name burbot. I have never heard a local commercial fisher referred to it by any other name than maria. 
Then there’s freshwater drum, which was another unfamiliar name during my youth. When I was growing up, the fish was called only sunfish, a name derived from its shiny, silvery scales that glimmered in the sun when pulled out of the water.
I can understand, but not condone, the Manitoba government and lodge owners renaming local fish species in order to attract anglers from the U.S., who are willing to empty their wallets in pursuit of the province’s many fish species. But there’s nothing either culturally or heritage related to calling what we know as pickerel by the name walleye.
Sure, pickerel is actually a species of pike caught in the East, and walleye is the commonly used American name for our fish, which is really a member of the perch family of fishes. But so what! Why dump overboard decades of local tradition.
Keep that in mind when voting for the official provincial fish at www.manitobafisheries.com 
According to the provincial government announcement, the nomination process allows Manitobans to select a fish species and share personal stories to explain why their fish of choice should be the provincial fish. Nominations will be reviewed by a committee of volunteers, which will recommend the top two species to government for a final decision. The deadline for nominations is February 1, 2014.
The committee will also award 20 complimentary fishing licences for next year’s season to those who submit the most compelling personal stories, and the top three will also be posted online and in Manitoba’s angling guide.
Among the other jurisdictions with official fish are British Columbia (pacific salmon), Alberta (bull trout), Saskatchewan (walleye), Northwest Territories (arctic grayling), Minnesota (walleye) and North Dakota (northern pike).
Once selected, the provincial fish will be proposed for official adoption as an amendment to the Coat of Arms, Emblems and the Manitoba Tartan Act, said Mackintosh.  The minister added that the new official fish will also become prominent in tourism advertising and fishing publications.                                                
Since it’s unlikely that the provincial government will use the name pickerel in ads, I think we should nominate sauger, as no other jurisdiction to my knowledge has a claim on that fish, and Americans aren’t confused its name. Sauger also tastes identical to our “pickerel,” since they’re a closely-related, although smaller-sized, species. Or maybe it should be jackfish — oops, northern pike.