Black Crappie vs. White Crappie: How to Tell the Difference

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Black Crappie vs. White Crappie: How to Tell the Difference

When it comes to crappie, many anglers tend to believe that they are all the same species. For the most part, crappie tend to look similar.

That said, there are two primary species of crappie found across the United States that most people catch.

For convenience’s sake, we will refer to these are “black crappie” and “white crappie” for now. Later, we will dig deeper into the biological differences between the two, but there are several key indicators that will help you identify which species you have caught.

Physical Differences Between Black Crappie and White Crappie

To begin, let’s consider how black crappie and white crappie differ in appearance.

Despite what would seem like an obvious difference, the color of the fish is not the indicator for the species’ name. In other words, a “bright” crappie is not necessarily going to be a “white” crappie.

Likewise, a fish with a darker pigmentation will not necessarily be a “black” crappie.

Instead, the biggest physical indicator between the two species is the way the markings lie on the fish.

As a general rule, a black crappie will have scattered, inconsistent (or “irregular”) markings all across its body. These markings will often range from very dark to moderately dark and run horizontally. There is not necessarily going to be a distinct “pattern” that remains consistent across multiple black crappie. It is common for the entire body, from the dorsal fin down, to be covered in some type of dark markings.

White crappie, on the other hand, will have a series of thin vertical bars that run along the fish’s torso. While the density and number of bars (or “lines”) many vary, it is common for the sections of the body directly above the anal, pelvic, and pectoral fins to have no dark markings.

For visual examples of these marks, consider the images below:

Looking at the Markings on a Black Crappie

How to Identify a Black Crappie
Photo via Aaron Schultz/Premier Angler

In the photo above, the two crappie shown are black crappie.

Notice how the coloration is inconsistent throughout the body. There are some spots that are thicker than others, it is difficult to point out any discernible pattern.

Likewise, the markings tend to run from the top of the body (near to dorsal fin) all the way down to the bottom (right above the anal, pelvic, and pectoral fins).

Black Crappie Patterns
Photo via Aaron Schultz/Premier Angler

In the close-up photo, notice how the lines tend to run horizontally. While this is not necessarily a sure-fire indicator of a “black” crappie, the lack of identifiable vertical lines is a probably a good sign that this is not a white crappie.

Also, remember that the presence of dark or black dots, squares, or other markings is not what we are looking for here. As you will see below, white crappie also have dark markings.

Looking at the Markings on a White Crappie

How to Identify a White Crappie
Photo via Mark Wilson/Premier Angler

Now, consider Mark Wilson’s massive Truman Lake, Missouri crappie above.

Yes, this fish is noticeably lighter than the black crappie featured, but again, we are not necessarily speaking of the fish’s color when determining the difference between black and white crappie.

Instead, pay attention to the coloration. As you can see, the fish has a few thin, vertical bands (or “lines”) that run down the length of the body.

The top of the fish’s body (near the dorsal fin) is almost completely black, but as you look further down the body, there are more open spaces. Near the lower fins, there are almost no markings at all.

White Crappie Patterns
Photo via Mark WIlson/Premier Angler

In this close-up image, you can clearly see where the vertical lines are on this fish.

For white crappie in general, the size and number of lines will vary. They may also be very thin or faint, making it hard to tell if what you are looking at are, in fact, vertical lines.

While this is normally my first “go-to” when determining if I have a black or a white crappie, relying solely on the line can be challenging. This becomes especially true when the coloration of the fish appears that it could possibly be either species.

Counting Dorsal Spines to Determine the Difference Between Black and White Crappie

Aaron Schultz Premier Angler Profile
Is this a Black Crappie or a White Crappie? (Photo via Aaron Schultz/Premier Angler)

In the photo above, we have a fish that, at fish glance, looks like it may meet the physical description on both a black crappie and a white crappie.

The fish has markings that appears that they could be running vertically down the body, but also what could be considered inconsistent markings, some of which look to be running horizontally.

So, when you catch a crappie like this, what is the best way to determine whether it is black or white?

If you are able, you can count the dorsal spines.

Keep in mind that we are only focusing on the “spikey” sections near the anterior (or front) of the fin. The soft section that splays out like a shan (or a “Chinese folding fan) are not factored into the count.

How to Count the Dorsal Spines

Since a glance at the scales of the fish’s body do not immediately indicate whether this is a black crappie or a white crappie, we can take a look at the fish’s dorsal spines.

As a general rule, black crappie tend to have more “spines” than their white crappie counterparts.

Here’s the breakdown that is generally followed when counting spines goes as follows:

Black Crappie: 7-8 dorsal spines

White Crappie: 5-6 dorsal spines

Counting Dorsal Spines on Black and White Crappie to Tell the Difference
Photo via Aaron Schultz/Premier Angler

As you can see above, there are eight distinct dorsal spines on this fish. Since it was difficult to tell whether this crappie was black or white solely from the markings on its body, the spines are able to help confirm the identity as a black crappie.

A Quick Note on “Shape”

Often, you will find information that suggests that black crappie are “shorter and more round,” whereas white crappie are “longer and thinner.”

While this may be the case in some situations, it is not, by nature, a hard-and-fast rule. I have caught thousands of crappie over the years and plenty have taken on the proposed dimensions of the other.

While this may be a helpful biological rule-of-thumb, it would be the last physical indicator worth considering to determine the difference between black crappie and white crappie.

Black Crappie and White Crappie: A Brief Biology Lesson

When considering the genus known as crappie, there are two distinct species:

  • Black Crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
  • White Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Biological Classifications List
Biological Classifications Chart (photo via Peter Halasz/Pengo/Wikimedia Commons)

As you can see the in the chart above, both species fall under the genus Pomoxis. While crappie do experience hybridization, the offspring are not considered a unique species. Likewise, the rare “golden crappie” are also not classified differently.

What some anglers might not realize, however, is that both black and white crappie reside in the same family (Centrarchidae) as largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, and many common forms of sunfish.

Diets, Size, and Fishing Tips

Fortunately, if you can catch one species of crappie, you can catch the other.

Black and white crappie generally have the same diets and feeding patterns. That means you can throw a minnow and slip bobber on your line and catch a slew of crappie on a good day.

You can also tie on a jig or other light artificial lures and try your luck that way.

Since white and black crappie also tend to be roughly the same size, you can use any variety of panfish rods and reels when hitting the water.

For even more tips and techniques for catching crappie, be sure to check out our complete beginner’s guide below.

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