Fresh Catch: Crappie
The name of this tasty fish just doesn’t do it justice
Story by Bailey Gilliam
While the name isn’t very appealing, crappie is a delicious local freshwater catch worth going after. The crappie is one of the most popular sport fish in South Carolina and is relatively easy to locate and catch. Crappie isn’t just fun to catch, it’s one of the best-tasting fish you’ll ever hook. Offering fine, almost crab-like flesh, its fantastic flavor is perfect for your regular rotation and it’s a great source of protein and healthy fats to boot.
Black and white
There are two species of crappie: white and black. The black crappie is very similar to the white crappie, differing slightly in body characteristics, color patterns and habitat preference. In most impoundments one species or the other will predominate. White crappie are more tolerant of turbid conditions, while black crappie prefer clearer lakes. The two species are often mistaken for one another, so don’t get hung up on the details – just know it’s a crappie. But if you are so inclined to guess the difference, the black crappie is gray-green to bluish on the back and fades to a silvery side and belly. Black mottling is present on the sides of the body as well as the anal, dorsal and caudal fins. The white crappie’s overall body color is gray-green with a silver side and white belly. The dark spots on the side tend to form wavy vertical bars. Both species have a large mouth that extends rearward to beneath the eye. As far as size goes, both species are between 6.7-20.9 inches long and weigh between 1/2-5 pounds.
Where to find them
Both species of crappie are found in almost all fresh waters. They are more abundant in large impoundments, natural lakes and backwaters. Crappie are often found in large numbers around piers and brush. These loose aggregations are not really schools of fish, but they can appear to come and go as they are fished out of a small area. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources constructs and marks brush piles designed to attract crappie as a service to anglers. These fish attractors do a good job of attracting crappie, but fishing pressure can reduce the number of fish at the site for short periods of time. Unfortunately, there are no attractors near us; the closest is Lake Moultrie.
How to catch them
Grant Kaple, general manager of The Boathouse, recommends using bream busters and a bucket of minnow to catch crappie. For the perfect kick-off to spring fishing, when the dogwoods are in bloom, it’s spawning time for these fish, and Kaple suggests heading to local area freshwater ponds, Lake Moultrie or Lake Marion where you can find crappie on the bed. “Other great tactics are bream busters or ultra light spinning gear with mini-jigs or small jigs tipped with a live minnow,” he says. “And for the sophisticated, spider rigging is the way to cover a lot of water in a short time.”
State and world record
The white crappie state record is a 5-pound, 1-ounce crappie caught by H. P. Owens of Colombia. The fish was caught in 1949 while Owens was fishing in Lake Murray. The black crappie state record is a 5-pound crappie caught by P. E. Foust of High Point, North Carolina. This fish was caught in Lake Moultrie in 1957.
Thawing is everything
Like any fish, fresh is always best, but carefully frozen and slowly defrosted crappie can still make a delicious meal. Thawing via microwave or warm water will slightly cook the fish and change its texture, so instead let your crappie defrost safely in a sealed Ziploc bag in cool water.
The best way to prepare crappie is to cook it whole with the head and everything. It may not seem as appetizing in the prep process, but the more intact the fish, the better it can retain its moisture during cooking. To prepare your fresh catch this way, be sure to clean them well. Remove all the scales, and search the ventral cavity for any lingering bits, especially dark patches along the spine. Then pluck their gills out, and the fish are ready to go.
Simple is better
To really enjoy the subtleties of fresh fish, simple recipes are best. “The best preparation is dredging it in your favorite flour/cornmeal mixture and deep frying it in shortening or lard,” Kaple said. “Serve with yellow grits and a fresh slice of tomato for a Lowcountry twist.”
- Crappie have two rows of numerous small, conical teeth, which are called cardiform, due to their resemblance to a wool carding tool.
- Black crappie eat more insects and crustaceans than white crappie.
- Crappie have an average maximum life span of seven years. The oldest recorded age was a black crappie that was 15 years old.
- After egg laying is finished, the female leaves the nest, and the male crappie aggressively guards the nest. Crappie eggs usually hatch within five days, and the juvenile crappie will initially feed on tiny zoo plankton.
- Male crappie build a spawning nest for the female, fanning with their fins and body to carve out a bowl-shaped depression on the bottom, usually in water 2- to 5-feet deep.
- Black female crappies can lay up to 140,000 eggs within the nest. White female crappies can lay up to 200,000.
Ways to cook Crappie:
Grill at 350 degrees wrapped in foil for 5 minutes, open up and finish until flaky.
Sauté in butter on medium heat for 3-4 minutes, flip and cook additional 2 minutes.
Bake in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
Deep fry in batter at 350 degrees until it floats.
Crappie fish fry
1 pound crappie fillets, cut into fingerlike strips
12 ounces ale, or any full-bodied beer
1 1⁄2 cups corn flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Peanut oil or canola oil
 Empty beer into a large bowl. Add the corn flour, salt, paprika and cayenne to the bowl, and whisk until you have light and frothy batter. Refrigerate for at least an hour but up to five days.  In a deep fryer or deep skillet, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Dredge fillets in flour, shaking off any excess; then dip them in the beer batter, coating them well. Fry in oil until perfectly golden and drain on paper towels.  Serve with lemon wedges, tartar sauce and hot sauce.
Sautéed crappie with butter sauce
8 3-ounce crappie filets, skin removed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
5 tablespoons butter, chilled
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 lemon, juice only
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves
8 slices tomato, about 1/4-inch thick
1 avocado, sliced into 8 thin slices
 Combine flour, salt, white pepper and garlic powder in a small bowl. Dust fish with flour mixture.  Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add fish and brown on one side, about 3-4 minutes. Flip fish over and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove fish and keep warm.  Add wine and lemon juice and stir to loosen bits stuck to pan. Reduce liquid to just a few tablespoons. Stir in basil and remaining chilled butter, stirring until butter is melted. Remove from heat.  For each serving, arrange 1 slice of tomato on a plate. Top with one piece of fish and then avocado slices. Place tomato over avocado, then fish and then two mores slices avocado. Drizzle butter sauce over and serve.
Garlic Parmesan crappie
2 pounds crappie filets
2 teaspoons lemon pepper
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
Spray butter or olive oil
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
 Mix all breading ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
 Season both sides of the crappie with lemon pepper. Use a grill brush to apply a light coating of mayo to the top of the crappie fillets.  Arrange the fillets on a parchment-lined cookie sheet sprayed with a thin layer of olive oil or butter. Spoon some of the breading mixture over each fillet, pressing it down with the back of the spoon so that it sticks. Spray the coated fish with a light layer of olive oil or spray butter.  Arrange the oven rack so that it is about 6 inches below the broiler. Once the oven is hot, place the pan under the broiler. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the breading is crisp and golden and the fish is just cooked through.