Mar/Apr 2010For Wildlife Watchers: Crappie by Rob Simbeck, photography by Phillip Jones
Among the naturalists who catalogued the plant and animal riches of North America two centuries ago, few could match C.S. Rafinesque for sheer brilliance. He had wide-ranging interests, a restless energy and was accomplished in anthropology, botany, zoology, geology and linguistics, among other fields. Raised in Marseilles and mostly self-educated, he began a lifetime of collecting plants at the age of twelve after learning botanical Latin.
In 1819, during Rafinesque's second extended trip to America, he became professor of botany at Kentucky's Transylvania University. A year earlier, he had begun observing, collecting and describing the fish native to the Ohio River system at a time when probably not more than a dozen had been named. One of them he placed in a new genus, Pomoxis, a name that referred to its pointed gill covering. He gave it the species name annularis, referring to a golden ring at the base of the tail. Amid a long, detailed description, he referred to it as "good to eat," demonstrating to posterity that his taste buds were as finely honed as his intellect.
Rafinesque listed the common names of Pomoxis annularis in that part of Kentucky as gold-ring and silver-perch. Today, we call it the white crappie, a word thought to derive from the French crapet - pronounced in South Carolina as both CROP-ee and CRAP-ee. Travel elsewhere in the Southeast and you may hear them referred to as specks, white perch, sac-a-lait, paper mouths, speckled perch or slabs. But whatever you choose to call them, the white crappie and its cousin, the black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus - its species name means black-spotted), are both hugely important gamefish species.
They are part of the sunfish family, a group of twenty-seven species native only to North America that also includes rock and largemouth bass, bluegill and shellcrackers. Crappies are thin - "laterally compressed" is the two-dollar term - with arched backs and large dorsal and anal fins. Spines within those dorsal fins help in identification, since whites have five or six, and blacks have seven or eight. Both have silvery bodies, blacks with sides marked with irregular dark spots, whites with seven to nine vertical bands of spots on each side.
Black Crappie - Pomoxis nigromaculatus
White Crappie - Pomoxis annularis
Description: Thin arched back, silvery with black markings.
Range and Habitat: Originally eastern and midwestern U.S. Now throughout Lower 48.
Reproduction: Male clears and guards nest. Spawns when water temperatures reach the 60s.
Viewing Tips: Most larger bodies of water in South Carolina contain some crappies.
On average, crappies taken by anglers will be in the one-half to one pound range, but they can reach twenty inches in length and five pounds in weight. Crappies aren't known as fighters, but nonetheless, their popularity as game fish has helped them expand their range impressively. Blacks were originally found through much of the eastern U.S. (including South Carolina), and whites were traditionally found throughout much of the Mississippi drainage. Stocking has now introduced both varieties to all of the 48 contiguous states.
"Black crappies are much more abundant in South Carolina waters," says Dan Rankin, coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' region I fisheries programs, "although some recent studies have found that white crappies comprise as much as twenty-five percent of the total crappie numbers in Lake Thurmond."
"Black crappies tend to predominate in clearer water," adds Scott Lamprecht, coordinator for the DNR's region IV fisheries programs, "while whites tend to do better in more turbid reservoirs. White crappies have a significant presence in the Savannah River lakes and a minor presence in the Catawba chain, but when you get down to the Santee Cooper [which offers prime conditions for both species], they can make up fifty percent or more of the harvest in Lake Marion in some years."
Both black and white crappies prefer weedy pockets and structure such as stumps, brush or logs. Feeding primarily by day and traveling in small, loose schools, they will eat minnows, zooplankton, aquatic insects and crustaceans and can be taken with artificial lures or live bait. They are in turn eaten by larger fish, by ospreys and other birds, and by otters, turtles and of course, by people.
According to Rankin, in South Carolina crappies spawn anywhere from late February until early May as water temperatures reach the 60s. "They tend to concentrate around structure during the spring, which can make for high catch/success rates for anglers," he says.
The male excavates a nest on sand, gravel or mud close to shoreline vegetation, before the females move in from deeper water.
White crappie females lay from 3,000 to more than 20,000 eggs; blacks between 11,000 and 190,000. Both may spawn several times in nests prepared by several males. They are sexually mature at two years, and fecundity, according to Lamprecht, "depends on age, size and weight, with nature providing feedback mechanisms indicating, through food abundance, when there is room for more youngsters."
The eggs measure about a millimeter in diameter, and during the two or three days it takes them to hatch and for several days afterward, the male will guard them, keeping the nest clear of debris and fighting off predators. After developing for a few days, the hatchlings will move into nearby vegetation to take shelter.
While this is a fish that reproduces very well and can overpopulate small bodies of water, normal pressure from predators means crappie mortality is generally high. Growth is slow the first year.
"Fish that make it through the first winter in Santee-Cooper grow like wildfire after that point," says Lamprecht. "Diet has everything to do with it. They can spend their whole life eating insects and get to be five or six inches long, but when they can transition to eating fish, they grow very rapidly."
Whatever their size, the popularity of crappies provides tangible economic benefits for the state. A 2001 Southwick and Associates survey of the economic impact of freshwater fishing cited by Rankin reported expenditures approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars.
"Thirty-three percent of all anglers reported that they fished for crappie," says Rankin. "These statistics illustrate the importance of that fishery."
The crappie's importance as a gamefish species, nearly two hundred years after Rafinesque first catalogued it, is truly impressive.