Two closely related species are commonly referred to as Crappie throughout the U.S. The White Crappie, Pomoxis annularis, was originally found in the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins, as far north as Hudson Bay, and in Gulf Coast drainages from Alabama to Texas. It has been widely introduced and is now established in almost all U.S. states and much of southern Canada. The Black Crappie, Pomoxis nigromaculatus, originally occurred throughout the eastern half of the continental U.S., and it has also been widely introduced throughout most of the lower 48 states.
Both species thrive in a variety of conditions and habitats, and both prefer low-velocity areas of rivers and streams or still waters in lakes, reservoirs and ponds. Both species can adapt to turbid conditions (although black crappie prefer clearer water), and both tolerate a wide range of temperatures. The black crappie appears to prefer slightly warmer waters than the white crappie, with optimal growth at 28o-30o C and 24o C, respectively. Both species consume fish, insects and crustaceans, but white crappie are reported to be slightly more piscivorous than black crappie.
Crappie have been propagated in captivity for more than a century. Although they can cause problems with overpopulation in small impoundments (<5 acres), for many years crappie fingerlings have been widely produced in public and private hatcheries for stocking in both public and private waters. By some estimates, roughly one-third of the sportfish caught in the southeastern U.S. are crappies. In 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that crappie were the target species for 23% of all freshwater recreational fishing at the time.
In terms of food-size fish production for commercial sales, the hybrid produced by crossing female black crappie with male white crappie appears to hold the most promise. These fish grow rapidly, can be trained to consume artificial diets, and are easily produced in a hatchery setting. However, regulatory issues complicate the potential for culture of food-size crappie, since safeguards must be in place to prevent the mislabeling and sale of wild-caught fish
While spawning may take place at temperatures as low as 57o F, the preferred spawning temperature for both species is 64 o – 70o F. White crappie females can produce between 3,000 and 150,000 eggs per spawn, while black crappie females can produce between 10,000 and 200,000. Males dig shallow nests on hard bottoms (clay or sand if available) and females deposit their eggs in several or many nests over the course of the spawning season. Preferred nesting/spawning depth is 5 feet or less. Males will guard their nests until newly hatched fry are strong enough to swim and feed, typically some ten days after egg-laying.
While induced spawning through the use of hormone injections and photoperiod and temperature manipulation has been reported, as has strip-spawning of ripe broodstock, most fingerling production is based on pond spawning. Throughout most of the year, crappie broodstock are held in ponds and provided with small fish for forage, typically fingerling carp, koi or goldfish. Spring spawning of pure species for stocking is fairly straightforward. Broodstock are stocked in spawning ponds at one male for every female and 100 to 150 fish (total) per acre. For hybrid crappie production in ponds, 50 to 100 fish (total) per acre are recommended, with a 1:1 sex ratio of female black crappie and male white crappie. The reciprocal cross is also viable, but it exhibits inferior growth and survival. It takes some skill to identify crappie by species and sex, but this practice is absolutely necessary for successful hybrid production. Natural spawning takes place in fertilized ponds with no forage fish present, followed by collection of fingerlings using fine-mesh knotless netting.
Fingerlings can be seined at roughly 1.5 inches and sold for stocking purposes or brought indoors for feed training. If stocking in public and private waters is the goal, the final product is usually 1 to 3 inches long. Best results will be obtained when crappie fingerlings are harvested after dark, and if possible once water temperatures have cooled significantly in the autumn months.
RAS facilities are preferable for feed training due to improved disease and temperature control. Brine shrimp, ground krill and carp eggs have all been utilized to initiate the training process, with a gradual shift to a starter feed mixture and ultimately to pure starter feed. The process normally takes two to three weeks, with typical success rates of 60% or more. If left in ponds beyond a length of 1.5 inches, larger fingerlings will be more difficult to train on artificial diets, with significantly reduced success and survival.
No grow-out of food-size crappie takes place in outdoor ponds. RAS facilities hold more potential to raise these fish economically. Slow sinking feeds are used because crappie normally refuse to eat floating pellets. Also, if returned to ponds, feed-trained crappie may revert back to natural foods. In general, recommended culture methods for food-size crappie are very similar to those of largemouth bass.
The USDA’s 2018 Census of Aquaculture reported a total of 65 crappie farms in the U.S. Of these, 30 reported sales of fingerlings or fry, 24 reported sales of stockers (advanced fingerlings), 1 reported sales of broodfish and 10 operations sold food-size fish. Total reported sales were $869,000 which was up significantly from the 2013 total of $559,000. Minnesota and Ohio led the nation with seven farms each, followed by Illinois and Arkansas with five each. Iowa, Oregon and Texas each reported 4 farms producing crappie, and altogether some 22 states reported at least one aquaculture operation with crappie sales.
When producing fingerlings for stocking there is no lack of demand, but establishing visibility to potential customers will be crucial. Many state resource management agencies maintain lists of businesses that are licensed and permitted to sell game fish for stocking, so this can greatly improve a fingerling producer’s access to potential clientele. Internet-based marketing can open the door for promoting a fingerling business, resulting in many more contacts and sales. Crappie aquaculturists will need to distinguish their product as premium, regulatory compliant, traceable, contaminant free and extremely healthy.
Fingerling harvests for stocking are highly seasonal, so marketing activities must be carefully planned and executed. Fingerling producers may determine that sales and distribution activities are more profitable when done in-house, but additional labor and specialized equipment will be required. A well designed website can improve efficiency and response time for fingerling transport and delivery.
When raised to food-size, crappie require high protein diets, which can be costly. Additionally, slow sinking feed will typically be a special order item from most aquafeed suppliers. When planning a crappie farming facility, whether for fingerling, stocker or food fish production, it will be necessary to calculate the carrying capacity of the system in order to estimate capital costs, projected production, revenues and input requirements (especially fingerlings and feed). At this point, an evaluation can begin in order to determine if the operation will be large enough to generate profits and if so, a market analysis can be undertaken. Markets must be available to accommodate production when it is ready for harvest because maintaining fingerlings beyond their first winter or food-size fish beyond a harvestable size will require excessive feed, labor and energy costs as well as unproductive use of facilities and capital.
Producers focused on food-size crappie face only limited competition from wild-caught product originating in Canada. However, a number of regulatory issues must be addressed before undertaking this form of aquaculture. Most states have strict licensing and permitting requirements for culture and sale of crappie fingerlings, and few if any have provisions for the sale of food size fish. Transport of fish to live markets in distant states may also require special permits for every state that will be crossed along the way.
Live markets, especially in Asian communities, are a potentially lucrative outlet for live food-size crappie. Unfortunately, problems with handling and transport mortality make this marketing strategy particularly problematic for crappie. Perhaps a more practical approach will be selling whole fish on ice. On-line sales of fillets can be very profitable, but a number of regulatory questions must be addressed prior to interstate commerce of processed fish and any sale of a game fish such as crappie.
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center