Identifying White and Black Crappie

By Josh Gowan

     The two species of America’s favorite panfish, black and white crappie, are easily distinguishable, but with new anglers taking up the sport every day, there is still a moderate amount of confusion, with the names themselves causing most of it. A newbie angler might (understandably) assume that a black crappie would be blacker in color and a white crappie would be whiter – given their titles it makes sense; however, this isn’t true. Water clarity, time of year, and gender actually determine the color of crappie. Extremely muddy water produces white, colorless fish, except during the spawn, when the males of both species darken considerably. Clear water produces colorful, greenish-black patterns in both species, and, during the spawn, the males become extremely black. Green and tannic water also affect a fish’s color. There are, however, a few foolproof ways to discern the difference between the two species.

White Crappie
(promoxis annularis)
  • Vertical stripes visible
  • 5-6 dorsal spines
  • Larger mouth
  • Distance from eye to front of dorsal fin greater than length of the base of the dorsal fin
Black Crappie
(promoxis nigromaculatus)
  • No stripes; random speckled pattern (thus sometimes referred to as specks)
  • 7-8 dorsal spines
  • More compact frame, smaller mouth, and stubbed nose
  • Distance from eye to front of dorsal fin equal to length of the base of the dorsal fin

     Being able to identify which species you are catching (or which you want to target) can be helpful beyond simple recognition and not sounding like a fool when talking about your stringer. White and black crappie each have their own unique tendencies that can help you hone in on your catch.
     White crappie tolerate dirtier water and often feed on larger prey and eat primarily other fish. When fishing for white crappie, live minnows and larger profile plastics are recommended.
     Black crappie, on the other hand, prefer cleaner water, thick cover, and heavy vegetation, and feed more on invertebrates and smaller prey. For that reason, small feather or hair jigs and smaller minnows are recommended for catching specks.