One of the major questions that often comes up for beginning fishermen heading up north is whether walleye is the better tasting fish, or is it northern pike? The northern pike vs. walleye taste test debate is actually really a heated one.
Don’t be surprised if this question starts a major argument between anglers at their favorite bar near the old watering hole!
Generally speaking walleye is always a safe bet for being one of the tastiest freshwater sports fish out there. Northern pike can also taste absolutely delicious, however cooking pike correctly takes a lot more preparation and work to do it right!
So if you’re lazy, walleye is definitely the way to go for a great tasting fish that holds up in the freezer. However, as an avid pike fan myself, I can say you are missing out BIG TIME if you don’t give properly prepared and cooked pike a chance!
Walleye & Pike: Similarities in Taste & Texture
There are some similarities in the taste of these two fish. This shouldn’t be overly surprising in that both tend to thrive in northern freshwater climates where there are cold winters. And colder water.
Note: If you find what I’m saying about the taste of pike odd or counter to your experience, keep reading there’s probably a very good reason for that unfortunate experience.
Both tend to be a very clean meat. The flesh is very white, it looks good, it looks clean, and when properly made both taste great.
Pike and walleye meat both tend to take seasoning very well. A bit of salt, pepper, and butter can go a really long way on both these fish. If you prefer steamed with some lemon pepper, citrus, or dill, both of these fish fillets are excellent to prepare that way, as well.
Neither of these fish are super greasy or super fishy. Most anglers I’ve talked to prefer eating fish that aren’t too greasy or fishy, and both northern pike and walleye hit the mark on that one.
Up north there were plenty of fish fries where we just intermingled chunks of both in the same pan, same oil. As long as you properly cleaned and filleted both this actually worked out great without issue.
How Do Pike and Walleye Taste Similar?
- Both offer very clean fillets (clean meat)
- Both take seasoning extremely well (use seasons with a light touch for best results in cooking!)
- Neither are super greasy
- Neither are super “fishy” in taste
Walleye & Pike: Major Differences in Taste & Texture
While I like the taste of both walleye and pike, there’s no denying that there are some major differences in how these two fish taste. A lot comes in the form of texture because one thing that’s undeniable: pike has a very unique texture.
The texture of pike flesh is WAY different than walleye. Big pike and other big Esox like muskie have thick, sometimes referred to as “chewy” (but not in a bad way) flesh.
These aren’t the traditional fillets with flaky slices of white meat that just slide off center after being baked, the way that walleye is. Pike isn’t a light bit of fish, it’s a meal, and a good one at that!
Pike is bony if improperly filleted. Pike have the infamous and widely hated “Y-Bone” which makes filleting them a challenge. If you go about filleting a pike like any other fish the Y-Bone will give you a bony set of fillets that forces you to pick bones out of your teeth with every single bite.
In that situation, walleye will taste better than pike.
No matter how well prepared, it’s hard to appreciate amazing fish if you are dealing with bones with every mouthful.
Pike can taste muddy is improperly stored. This is a bad experience when it happens. One is to remove all the skin from a pike fillet. Sometimes that isn’t possible, especially if you’re doing international travel, like from Canada to the United States while returning from a trip.
If you can’t avoid that there are a couple of workarounds that might be able to work (see further below in the section on preparation).
The other major issue with the skin staying on, along with throwing it on ice, is that it can turn pike flesh mushy. This also damages the taste, as well as one of the best features of pike: the thick texture.
If you make any of those mistakes, pike will taste worse than walleye. The fish needs to be properly prepared to compete.
But when it is…oh man that’s some great stuff!
How Do Pike and Walleye Taste Different?
- Walleye has a conventional fish “profile” while pike is much thicker – more like animal flesh than fish in many ways
- Pike is bony if improperly prepared. It also tends to be a touch bonier than walleye anyway, but this isn’t overly noticeable most of the time
- Pike can taste “muddy” if improperly prepared
- Walleye tastes “light” like normal fish, while pike tastes thicker and fuller
- Pike can take on a “mushy” texture if improperly stored
How to Prepare the Pike Fillets (Step by Step Guide)
Preparation begins well before the fire if you’re going to have a good experience with cooking pike. There’s no question that walleye is pretty simple and straight forward when it comes to making fillets.
The same can’t be said with the northern pike. And a poorly prepared pike can actually create a really bad eating experience.
Step 1: Don’t put pike on ice in the cooler!
Either use a live well, have them very tightly secured on a heavy duty stringer off the side of a boat, or be on your way in. Do NOT toss it into a cooler on ice.
This is the mistake that causes pike flesh to become “mushy” and is one of two major mistakes that can lead to a “muddy or dirty” taste.
While I get the instinct, it’s the wrong move in this case.
Step 2: Thoroughly wash off the slime
A simple one time rinse usually isn’t enough. They’re called “snot rockets” for a reason and you don’t want any of that on the meat.
The most common time this happens after an outer rinse is not being careful when removing the skin. Peel that skin out like a surgeon, outer section away from the cutting board on the counter!
You don’t want the pike slime on the flesh. That’s how you ruin a good delicious fish.
Step 3: Beware of the Y-Bone
Learn to remove the Y-bone from a pro. This is one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with northern pike, and a necessity for a far comparison between the taste of walleye versus the taste of pike.
One of the major benefits of the online era is being able to find multiple videos that show this, but nothing beats hands-on experience from a pro. My dad was one of the best I’ve ever seen for filleting a pike, and being able to see how he handled the dreaded Y-bone made a huge difference.
It also meant I was drafted A LOT since many of the other adults on the trip would pay him in free beer to fillet their pike. Someone had to do the washing and bagging at that point.
It’s not always easy being the oldest son 🙂
Step 4: Remove as Much Skin as Possible
Ideally you should be able to remove all the skin, but there are some situations where that isn’t possible. Usually do to travel post trip.
But leaving skin on the pike can lead to a dirty or muddy flavor that is unpleasant. Remove all the skin if you can, or as much as legally possible if you can’t.
So a couple of potential solutions, after this important disclaimer:
Important: I’ve been fishing closer to home in recent years and am not up to date on the laws, rules, and regulations for taking fish across the international border between Canada and the United States. Do NOT assume my advice, stories, or mentions of previous tricks are legally viable or any of this is legal advice.
Do your own homework and get up to date information from an expert!
Alright with that out of the way, doing a thin cut of the flesh underneath the main part of the fillet with the skin on it, to keep a little connected but sort of like a loose scrap of flesh with the skin that was still attached but minimized contact, this worked for some of the guys or seemed to anyway.
There’s also the trick, if allowed, of having a small ziploc bag with a small piece of flesh and skin on it placed on top of the larger fillet that is in the bigger (full-sized Ziploc bag) before the deep freeze.
This keeps the skin in the bag for identification and separate from the rest of the fillet. FULL DISCLOSURE: there’s a good chance depending on where you’re fishing this was one of those tricks that worked before certain rules and regulations changed and might not work now.
But if that’s allowed by the local DNR (or DNR-equivalent) then that is a great solution for identifying the fillets without any concerns of contamination.
Step 5: Deep Freeze Fast
The quicker the deep freeze, the better. You don’t want time for that thick fish flesh to mush, you don’t want a muddy taste.
When you’re getting ready to unthaw it, the moment you can cut away the skin, do it.
When done right, many of us believe that frozen pike actually often tastes better than frozen walleye.
How to Properly Cook Pike
There isn’t a specific way you need to cook pike to get the most out of it. The biggest steps are by far with preparation in order to make sure the flesh isn’t mushy or the taste isn’t contaminated.
- You don’t want mushiness
- You don’t want muddiness
As long as you followed the steps outlined above, northern pike is a tasty fish that can be fried, deep fried, baked, or prepared however you like it. It holds up with or without the tartar sauce.
Personally I think most fish is better fried than baked, and to me pike and walleye both fall in this category.
But eat it the way you enjoy it!
In this case the work is in the preparation and even if you are a big walleye fan, pike’s taste can compete if you get a good fillet that was treated and prepared correctly.
Other Underrated Options for Delicious Pike
Personally I think it’s hard to argue with either pike or walleye during a fish fry. These are fish that also mix in awesome ways. However, pike can also be seasoned and baked quite well, be the backbone to a pretty impressive fish chowder, or you can even pickle pike.
You could argue that if you go the rare fish chowder route, that pike is the clear winner over walleye because the thicker, fleshier “meatiness” of the pike really works in a soup/chowder.
So What’s the Final Verdict?
I actually love walleye. It’s one of the tastiest fish out there, and a freezer full of frozen walleye is a beautiful sight to behold. There’s a reason during normal travel years the family comes together for walleye fishing at Lake Erie.
However, when properly prepared pike tastes as good as any freshwater fish out there, IMO. Many times in Canada people raved about how great the walleye tasted, not knowing out of the two types of fish being fried it was actually the pike they were raving about and the walleye that was “Very good, but doesn’t hold a candle to this other one.”
If you’re a beginner, lazy (no judgement), or don’t have anyone who knows how to handle a Y-bone then you should go with walleye.
If you love the thicker, fleshier taste that gives you a bit more to bite into and know how to properly clean, fillet, and prep them, then it sure is hard to beat what pike brings to the table!
From personal experience of where most of us fished in Canada back during the Scouting days:
Walleye are the easy choice as one of the best tasting fish out there and might be better than pike fresh out of the lake while northern pike properly prepared is almost as good as walleye.
After a freeze, walleye loses some of its flavor. But often times pike seems to actually taste as good or even a touch better.
There’s your complete guide on comparing the taste of northern pike vs walleye. When both are done right, there is no loser in this competition!