Image of a Black Crappie on the French River caught by Jake Confer

Black vs White Crappie: Simplifying the Differences

What do you get when you cross a Black Crappie and a White Crappie? A Gray Crappie? No, that’s a silly joke. But seriously, what are the differences between these two fish, and why should you care?

Well, if you’re a fan of fishing or eating crappie, you should definitely care. Knowing the differences can help you catch more fish and enjoy them more. In this article, we’ll learn how to identify and compare Black and White Crappie.

Don’t worry, you won’t receive any ‘crappie’ advice.

Important Differences Between Black & White Crappie

Black and White Crappie are currently the only two members of the Pomoxis genus within the Centrarchidae (Sunfish) family. Because of this, they share many similarities which can be confusing at first.

However, the five important differences between them can be listed as:

Differences Black Crappie White Crappie
Markings: Random Black Splotches Vertical Black Bars
Body Shape: Rounded Pan-like Body Longer Football-like Body
Dorsal Spine: 7 to 8 5 to 6
Mouth Shape: Turns Upward Straighter and Larger
Preferred Habitat: Clear Water & Dense Vegetation Clear or Murky & Open Water


You might be asking yourself, “Shouldn’t I be able to tell by colour? One’s black and the other is white?” You would be mostly correct, but Crappies like other fish will adapt to their environment and stress conditions.

Man holding a light coloured French River Black Crappie.
White Crappie? Nope just a light coloured French River Black Crappie. Photo Credit: Parker Endress

As you can see in the above image, both can lighten or darken and sometimes mimic the other’s appearance. So, let’s dive into the specifics to clarify the physical differences between Black Crappies and White Crappies before understanding their habitats!

Identifying Black Crappie from White Crappie  

Now, not everything is black and white but the easiest two identifiers that separate the crappies are their markings and spines. Black Crappies have irregular black splotches all over their dark silvery-grey to green bodies. The colour pattern follows into more uniform rows of dark spots on their fins. The anal and dorsal fins also resemble each other’s shape.

Infographic displaying the differences between Black and White Crappie

Meanwhile, White Crappies have five to ten dark vertical bars covering their lighter silvery-olive bodies. Their bodies also shade into an olive-green colour on their backs. Their paired fins are plain, while the median fins are mottled.

Next, Black Crappies have seven or eight dorsal spines while White Crappies have five or six dorsal spines. Interestingly, while both crappies have 6 anal spins, White Crappies are the only member of the Sunfish family to have six spines each for their dorsal and anal fins.

Body Shape, Length, & Weight

As previously mentioned, Black Crappies are more rounded like a frying pan compared to White Crappies which are more elongated and football-shaped. White Crappies also have a higher arched back than Black Crappies and are typically the larger one of the two species.

In Ontario, however, they can grow to similar sizes. According to the Government and Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters websites:

  • Black Crappie average:
    • length: 18 to 25 cm (7 to 10 in.)
    • weight: 0.23 to 0.45 kg (0.5 to 1.0 lbs.)
    • Ontario Record: 43.18 cm at 1.715 kg (17 in. at 3.78 lbs.)
  • White Crappie average:
    • length: 20 to 30 cm (8-12 in.)
    • weight: 0.11 to 0.45 kg (0.25 to 1.0 lbs.)
    • Ontario Record: 41.275 cm at 1.261 kg (16.25 in. at 2.78 lbs.)


Both have thin mouths with jaws that extend below their eyes, but that’s where the similarities end. Black and White Crappies have different mouth shapes like their Largemouth and Smallmouth cousins.

For Black Crappies, they have smaller mouths that are more upturned which seems to be better adapted for surface feeding on amphibians, insects, and zooplankton. White Crappies have larger and more horizontal mouths for feeding on crustaceans and small fish.

Regardless, both are opportunists and their diets are incredibly similar with their territories overlapping at times.

Black Crappie vs White Crappie Habitats

As discussed, both crappies share many traits. White and Black Crappies eat the same kinds of food which are primarily insects when they’re younger and baitfish when they’re older.

Yet, they differ in their water preferences:

  • Black Crappies favour clear water and avoid muddy areas.
  • White Crappies are more adaptable, living in both clear and turbid water.

Another difference is their preferred habitats:

  • Black Crappies love cover like Largemouth, primarily weed beds. Yet, they can also be found near downfall, rock piles, and around docks.
  • White Crappies are more comfortable hunting in open water like Smallmouth. They swim freely in the water column moving from cover to cover targeting structures holding baitfish and crustaceans.

Despite their differences, crappies can be found in a variety of water bodies. They inhabit lakes, ponds, backwater pools, and slow-moving rivers and streams throughout Ontario and most of North America. In larger water bodies, both species stay near shore, usually in less than 3.7 metres (12 feet) of water.

Final Thoughts

After everything we went through together in this article, you may be asking yourself, “How did this tasty panfish get such a ‘Crappie’ name?” Surprisingly, the name ‘Crappie’ is derived from the Canadian French name ‘Carpet’ which refers to many different members of the sunfish family.

Image of a Black Crappie on the French River caught by Jake Confer
French River Black Crappie. Photo Credit: Selina Confer

Yes, that’s right! Crappies originated from Canada and Northeastern parts of the U.S. before spreading. Yet, despite the two being native to Canada, most anglers will commonly catch Black Crappies since White Crappies are rarer to find according to W.B. Scott and E.J. Crossman in their book, Freshwater Fishes of Canada. From their research, the most northerly record for White Crappie is Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Ontario.

Whether you prefer the darker or the lighter side of crappie, one thing is clear: they are not simply just, black and white.

Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B., Outdoor Writer and Nationally Published Author & Photographer. A member of Professional Outdoor Media Association of Canada