Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) embryos incubated at low temperatures have a longer incubation period and hatch at a significantly greater size than those incubated at warmer temperatures. We examined hatch timing and morphological characteristics for whitefish embryos reared under different constant and varying temperatures to determine whether the thermal dependence of hatching size reflects differences in their development stage. Our results show that lake whitefish embryos hatch at different temperature-dependent developmental stages, and this is the dominant factor affecting size-at-hatch. The term “heterograde” is proposed for the thermal dependence of hatching stage to differentiate it from hatching that occurs at a fixed developmental stage. A method to quantify this effect is given using a ratio that describes the difference in relative development at hatching between different viable constant incubation temperatures. Heterograde hatching is proposed as a possible mechanism to synchronize the timing of hatch to the break-up of winter ice cover despite variability in the date of spawning and in the onset of spring break-up.