Author: Jeff Z. Klein
Every year around this time, we get bombarded by ads, articles and talk touting “traditional Buffalo fish fry.”
There’s only problem. They’re all wrong.
All the fish frys you hear about nowadays involve haddock — an ocean fish, caught in the far-off North Atlantic. Haddock has nothing to do with a traditional Buffalo fish fry.
Back in the day, fish frys here and throughout the Great Lakes region consisted of a freshwater fish, walleye — or yellow pike, as they’re called in Buffalo. (In Ontario they’re called pickerel.)
That’s a traditional Buffalo fish fry: yellow pike.
It used to be the ubiquitous fish of choice here. Caught from the Great Lakes, its flaky, firm, mild white meat is perfect for frying, and Buffalonians enjoyed it not just during Lent but year round.
But 60 years ago the U.S. Great Lakes commercial fisheries, particularly the Lake Erie fishery, collapsed, and yellow pike became harder to find. Still, local bars and restaurants kept stocking yellow pike to make authentic Buffalo fish fry.
Over time, however, memory faded, the numbers dwindled and it got harder and harder to find yellow pike on the menu of local restaurants. In the last five years, at least three that served the fish have closed — Scharf’s Schiller Park, Ray’s Lounge in Kaisertown and Del & Herb’s on Grand Island. Eckl’s used to serve it in Orchard Park, but it came off the menu when the restaurant moved to Larkinville. Duke’s Bohemian Grove also used to carry yellow pike, but no more.
Today, out of the hundreds of Western New York restaurants that serve fish fry, I can find yellow pike on the menu of just nine:
- Happy Swallow on Sycamore St.
- Bailey Seafood on Bailey Ave.
- Hoak’s Lakeshore in Hamburg
- Schwabl’s in W. Seneca
- Jades in Depew
- Squire’s Tap Room in the City of Tonawanda
- Remington Tavern in N. Tonawanda
- The Beach House on Grand Island
- GDI Countryside Inn in Alden
So given all this, I must admit it’s become sort of a personal mission of mine to proselytize for yellow pike. Down with haddock! Bring back the authentic Buffalo yellow pike fish fry!
But wait … maybe that’s not such a good idea?
Buffalo’s Yellow Pike vs. Everywhere Else’s Haddock
The reason the commercial yellow pike fishery in Lake Erie collapsed was not pollution, some experts say. Rather, it was overfishing.
Until the mid-20th century, Lake Erie was home to a huge fishing fleet that caught roughly 40 million pounds of fish annually. The lake’s shallow depths and mild water temperatures are ideal for supporting freshwater life, and roughly half the Great Lakes’ fish live in it.
This chart from a 1970 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report shows how great was the commercial catch of blue pike (a variety of yellow pike that was wildly popular for fish frys) — and how sudden the collapse:
From 19 million pounds of blue pike in 1956 to zero in 1960 — in four years they were wiped out forever.
It was almost as bad for yellow pike, called walleye on this chart:
In the ’70s and ’80s Ohio and Michigan banned commercial fishing for walleye/yellow pike in Lake Erie; New York and Pennsylvania curtailed it sharply and Ontario reduced it. That saved the fish. Today, Ohio sport fishers catch more than a million walleye in the lake each year.
There is also enough walleye/yellow pike to maintain a viable commercial fishery nearby in Ontario. Minor Fisheries in Port Colborne operates a fleet of three or four boats (when the border’s open, their market alongside the Welland Canal is a great place to visit). On the north shore of the lake, Port Dover supports a fleet of about 10 boats. That’s why it’s so easy to find locally caught pickerel (yellow pike) at almost any bar or restaurant in Crystal Beach.
But since the late ’50s, there hasn’t been enough Lake Erie yellow pike to supply Buffalo’s fish frys. So, over the years, Buffalo bars and restaurants went for a cheaper alternative: haddock. It’s similar to yellow pike and tastes almost as good … but not as good, and, being from the ocean, it’s certainly not Buffalo.
This substitution has gone on for so long that most Buffalonians now have no idea what yellow pike is. Even occasional newspaper articles recalling the glory days of authentic local fish frys — like this one from 2019 by Sean Kirst in the Buffalo News, in which old-timers extol the locally caught blue and yellow pike once served in Dunkirk and on the West Side — seem unable to jog our collective memory.
Those nine restaurants that keep the traditional Buffalo fish-fry torch burning must get their yellow pike from elsewhere. They can import them from the Canadian side of Lake Erie or from commercial outfits on Lakes Huron, Michigan or Superior. Or they can get them from suppliers on three large lakes in Manitoba: Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Manitoba.
There’s the rub. The Manitoba walleye fishery is endangered — those lakes are being overfished just like Lake Erie once was. The provincial government imposed limits on the catch last year, but Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program still rates walleye/yellow pike caught in Manitoba as “avoid.” Seafood Watch also recommends avoiding walleye/yellow pike from Wisconsin, where overfishing is also occurring.
The other large-scale sources of the fish, in Ontario, Minnesota and Michigan, are fine, according to Seafood Watch. But how do I know where my yellow pike comes from?
(A recent call to a local fish market to ask that question yielded an impossible answer: “Ohio.” When I expressed doubt, the man replied: “What city you want it to be from? We’ll get it for you.”)
Then there’s haddock. While some yellow pike is plentiful and ethical to eat, and some is overfished and wrong to eat, Seafood Watch says all haddock is abundant. That fishery is totally sustainable.
No one need have any qualms about a plate of haddock.
So here I am, on the horns of a dilemma.
Do I uphold the fine old Buffalo tradition of yellow pike fish fry and take a 50-50 risk of harming the fish I love to eat? Or do I go the guaranteed sustainable route and order a fake Buffalo fish fry, made of haddock?
What should I do?
Lead image: Yellow pike fish fry. Photo courtesy Remington Tavern