America’s Favorite Panfish
When the dogwoods start blooming, the crappie start biting.
This bit of accurate outdoor knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation of fishermen, and in the Lake Martin area, it is so widely known that the first white dogwood blooms of the year can start a fishing frenzy.
For good reason.
Crappie are easy to catch during the spring, by the cooler-full. And when cooked up, crappie are arguably the best tasting fish in our lake with white, flakey, clean-tasting flesh.
Crappie – pronounced “crop-pee” or “crap-pee” by area fishermen – are one of our states’ most popular game fish. Its common name, which unfortunately sounds a bit like the famous bathroom fixture invented by British plumber Thomas Crapper, is actually a derivative of the French word “crapet” which means panfish. Other common names for this fish include papermouth, speckled perch, strawberry bass, speckled bass, calico bass and, in Cajun Louisiana, sac-a-lait.
Two species of crappie are native to Alabama, the white crappie and the black crappie. They both share the scientific genus name Pomoxis; the white crappie is Pomoxis annularis and the black crappie is Pomoxis nigromaculatus.
The two cousins are easy to tell apart.
As you might guess, the white crappie is white, and it has faint vertical stripes. It usually has six dorsal spines.
The black crappie has distinct black speckles on its side and usually has seven or eight dorsal spines.
Crappie are native to the Eastern United States, from the Mississippi Valley east, but they have been introduced all across the country and into Canada.
These panfish live primarily in lakes, reservoirs and rivers, but they sometimes venture up into smaller creeks and streams.
According to state biologists, the Tallapoosa River, which feeds Lake Martin, has more white crappie than black crappie, but both are common in our area.
Crappie have big, rounded dorsal, anal and tail fins. Their dorsal fins start high on their backs. Both fish can reach 18 inches long, with white crappie topping out at 20 inches.
The Alabama state record is 4 pounds, 5 ounces for black crappie and 4 pounds, 9 ounces for white crappie. Interestingly, the state record white crappie was caught 17 years ago in Lake Martin by Jeremy S. White, who landed the trophy fish on May 8, 2000.
The reason that spring is the best time to fish for crappie is that’s the time of year that these fish come together in large schools to spawn in depressions or nests, usually fanned out on the lake bottom by the males. Spawning takes place in the shallows, usually in 1 to 5 feet of water. Spawning begins in April and can last until early June. During the remainder of the year, crappie tend to hold in deeper water.
A female crappie lays between 5,000 to 60,000 eggs that hatch in less than a week.
Crappie primarily eat smaller fish, including bass, bream, minnows and smaller crappie; however, they will also dine on insects, crawfish and zooplankton.
They usually are found around structure like sunken trees, boulders and weed beds. Crappie feed mostly at night, so the best time to catch them during daylight hours are around dawn and dusk. Because they form large schools in the spring, if you catch one crappie you will most likely catch many more in the same spot.
Most fishermen use minnows, small plastic jigs or even hand-tied flies to catch crappie. They tend to bite on a slow retrieve. They’re called papermouths because they have a delicate mouth. Bass fishermen who set the hook too hard will often come away empty-handed. Instead, when you feel a crappie strike, simply reel him in gently, making sure to keep your line tight. Larger crappie are good filleted, while smaller fish can be scaled and cooked whole. Most people in this part of the world like crappie fried, but they are also good baked and sautéed.
In Lake Martin, it is legal to catch up to 30 crappie a day, as long as the fish are at least 9 inches long.