Species Profile: Crappie

Facts About the Life and Behavior of Crappie

Photo © Ken Schultz

Both the black crappie, Pomoxis nigromaculatus, and the white crappie, Pomoxis annularus, are the most distinctive and largest members of the Centrarchidae family of sunfish. They are considered excellent food fish and sportfish, and have white flaky meat that makes for sweet fillets. In many places crappie are plentiful, and creel limits are liberal, so it does no harm to keep a batch of these fish for the table.

ID. The black crappie and the white crappie are similar in color, a silvery olive to bronze with dark spots, although on the black crappie the spots are irregularly arranged instead of appearing in seven or eight vertical bands as they do on the white crappie. Both species are laterally compressed and deep-bodied, although the black crappie is somewhat deeper in body, and it has a large mouth that resembles the mouth of a largemouth bass. It also has distinct depressions in its forehead, and large dorsal and anal fins of almost identical size. The gill cover also comes to a sharp point, instead of ending in an earlike flap.

The best way to differentiate the two species is by counting the dorsal fin spines, as the black crappie usually has seven or eight, and the white crappie six. The breeding male black crappie does not change color noticeably, as it does in the white crappie species. The white crappie is the only sunfish with the same number of spines in both the dorsal and anal fins. The breeding white crappie male grows darker in color and is often mistaken for the black crappie.

Habitat. Black crappie prefer cooler, deeper, clearer waters with more abundant aquatic vegetation than do white crappie. This includes still backwater lakes, sloughs, creeks, streams, lakes, and ponds. White crappie occur in creek backwaters, slow-flowing streams, sand- and mud-bottomed pools, small to large rivers, and lakes and ponds. They prefer shallower water and can tolerate warmer, more turbid, and slightly alkaline habitat. They are usually found near dropoffs, standing timber, brushy cover, or other artificial cover.

Food. These fish tend to feed early in the morning on zooplankton, crustaceans, insects, fish, insect larvae, young shad, minnows, and small sunfish. Small minnows form a large part of their diet, and they consume the fry of many species of gamefish; in southern reservoirs, gizzard or threadfin shad are major forage, and in northern states, insects are dominant. They continue to feed during the winter and are very active under the ice.

Angling Summary. When you set out in search of crappie, think brush or the nearest thing resembling brush. Crappie are mostly minnow eaters, and minnows hide around any kind of brush, or weeds, to avoid being eaten. So crappie go where minnows hide. Other hideouts are fallen trees, bushes, old piers, flooded weeds, or shoals covered with coontail or sphagnum moss, plus wrecked boats, docks, building blocks or brushpiles that have been planted to attract minnows, and undercut banks. Also try drifting with the wind or slow-trolling across a lake, plying a minnow at different depths until you cross paths with a school of roving crappie.

Because both species form schools, an angler who comes across one fish is likely to find others nearby. They are especially active in the evening and early morning, and remain active throughout the winter.

Although crappie are caught from time to time on various lures (occasionally on a surface lure or a diving plug), one artificial that pays off regularly is a small leadhead jig with a soft-plastic body resembling a minnow, fished slowly. Jigs weighing from 1/64- to 1/16-ounce are often better than heavier ones, and require the use of light (thin diameter) line.

Crappie anglers primarily use ultralight spinning or spincasting reels equipped with 4- or 6-pound-test line and 5- to 5 ½-foot-long rods. Fly rods, telescoping fiberglass rods, and cane poles are popular as well.