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Getting to Know Crappie: The Black and White of Identification

Whether you call them crappie, sac-a-lait, papermouths, or silver perch, one thing’s for sure: the excitement of dropping dozens of these bad boys into a cooler is hard to beat. And as any crappie fanatic can attest, they’re more than just fun to catch--they make a fine meal, too!

That makes it easy to understand why in many parts of America, angling for these speckled predators is a rite of spring and a tradition shared through generations.

If you’ve earned your stripes chasing crappie, you probably know a good bit about them and their behavior. But do you know how to tell the two primary species apart at a glance?

Want to see for your self? Catch some white and black crappie with our favorite crappie fishing techniques!

Crappie Basics

Crappie are predatory fish of the genus Pomoxis. Two species are common: P. annularis, commonly called the white crappie, and P. nigromaculatus, also known as the black crappie.

black and white crappie

Many anglers think that the way to tell them apart is by color, pattern, and shape. They’ll tell you that white crappie are paler and that they sport stripes of dark color running down their sides. They’ll also say that their noses are longer.

By contrast, the conventional wisdom says that black crappie are darker and more speckled than their striped relatives, and that their faces are stubbier, too.

To be fair, it’s often easy to distinguish them in this way, as in the picture above. The white crappie is at the top; the black is beneath it. You can see the difference in coloration, pattern, and facial shape.

And even at a glance, you can tell which is which in this angler’s hands.

But the truth is that both species change color throughout the season, and by pattern alone, they can be tough to tell apart. During the spawn, for instance, males of both species can take on a blue coloration or darken to the point that they’re nearly black. And in muddy water, both species can be very light, even to the point of lacking clear markings.

Which species is this? Can you tell?

black crappie

This pale little guy is a black crappie! Don’t let his nearly vertical pattern fool you...

Take a close look. The easiest way to be sure is by counting spines on the dorsal fin. White crappie will have six spines; black crappie sport seven or eight. You can be 100% certain that way.

There are other methods used by marine biologists, too. On a black crappie, the distance between the center of the eye to the dorsal fin is identical to the length of the dorsal fin itself. For white crappie, their longer faces throw this ratio off.

You’ll see that this black crappie, though light-colored and sporting a pattern that looks more like its white brothers and sisters, has the perfect ratio you’d expect.

Hybrid and Unusual Crappie

Black and white crappie are what you’ll most often catch, but there are a few other possibilities.

Blacknosed Crappie

In nature, P. annularis and P. nigromaculatus sometimes fertilize one another’s eggs, resulting in hybrid crappie called “blacknosed.” Blacknosed crappie aren’t a distinct species, but rather hybrids that have a few recessive genes that give them that pronounced racing stripe.

Some of those genetic issues also mean that blacknosed crappie don’t reproduce quite as well as their parent species, and this allows them to grow quickly. As a result, they’ll often be a bit larger than whites or blacks, making them a tempting target for anglers.

Magnolia Crappie

Crappie are usually pretty aggressive breeders, and in small ponds, they can quickly overpopulate. Wildlife managers in Mississippi tried to do something about this, engineering a crappie that’s reliably sterile and fast-growing.

They were able to develop just such a hybrid, the Magnolia crappie, by taking a hand in its reproduction. According to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, “The eggs and milt are stripped, hand mixed, and the eggs are placed in a pressure chamber causing triploidy - the development of 3 sets of chromosomes. The resulting fish is sterile because it has 3 sets of chromosomes. Because they can't reproduce, they have been stocked into some smaller water bodies like Lake Charlie Capps where fertile crappie would overproduce and few would grow to a harvestable size due to a lack of enough food.”

As reported by the Times Daily, they’ve been stocked in locations such as “Lake Mike Conner, Lake Claude Bennett, Prentiss Walker Lake, Simpson County Lake and Lake Jeff Davis.”

Like other hybrids, these crappie can be identified by the racing stripe running from their nose to their dorsal fin. And like naturally occurring hybrids, they tend to be fast growing and a bit bigger.

Golden Crappie

While not mythical, the golden crappie is so rare that you can count the number of people who’ve caught one on your fingers.

In fact, even wildlife biologists know very little about what causes this color variation. After Steve Volkman, pictured below, brought his catch to them for answers, they admitted defeat. “We were as stumped as the angler when it came in,” explains Ryan Koenigs, the senior biologist at Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources.

If you catch one of these, first, consider yourself very, very lucky. Second, be sure to bring it to your local wildlife management agency so they can check it out!

The Black and White on Crappie Behavior

Species matters for crappie, and you’ll find that they rarely have the same habitat preferences, even in the same lake.

What are the behavioral similarities?

Crappie are low-light, ambush predators, and both species (and hybrids) are morning and night feeders. The best time to catch crappie is in the 90 minutes surrounding dawn as well as midnight to 2 a.m.

Crappie have an unusual, energy-conserving feeding pattern. They stop to hunt, locating prey by sight. This avoids wasting energy cruising for food, and it’s something the knowledgeable angler will use to his or her advantage. Once you find a school that’s still, they’ll be looking for prey, and you can keep hitting them, catching fish after fish.

Both species are attracted to cover like submerged brush piles, treetops, logs, and stumps. And you’ll find that all crappie are drawn to vertical structure.

What are the behavioral differences?

The young of both crappie species feed on zooplankton and tiny invertebrates, moving on to predate on small fish like shad. As they mature toward adulthood, however, black crappie tend to keep a larger portion of their meals sourced from insects and other invertebrates, while white crappie prey almost exclusively on minnows.

Black crappie are also more likely to make their homes in clear water near weed beds and other vegetation. They’ll rarely school in open water, and they tend to hug cover more closely.

By contrast, white crappie like muddy or strained water and are not adverse to schooling in the open.

Final Thoughts

Crappie are probably second only to bass in their popularity among anglers, and a few weekends catching them will tell you why. They’re fun to catch, aggressive, and great tasting--a winning combination for most fishermen!

Were you familiar with these identification tips? Or did you learn something new?

Be sure to leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

About The Author
John Baltes
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.