Crappie, sac-a-lait, papermouth, white perch, specks or calico bass - call them what you will, the Magnolia State can rightfully boast some of the best crappie fishing in the U.S., and the best time for crappie fishing is nearly upon us.

Mississippi waters provide a home for both black and white crappie, but white crappie are much more abundant in most waters.

Let me fill you in on the similarities and differences between these two members of the sunfish family.

Which is which?

White crappie are distinguished from black crappie not by their coloration, but by the number of hard spines in the dorsal fin. The dorsal fin on the back of the crappie has sharp, stiff spines to the front and softer fin rays to the back. White crappie have five to six dorsal fin spines, and black crappie have seven to eight dorsal fin spines. Be careful not to overlook the first dorsal spine when counting - it often is very short.

Many anglers are misled in identifying black and white crappies by their coloration. If both fish were caught from clear water, the black crappie may tend to have more black markings on its flanks than the white crappie, but color is very unreliable. In turbid water, both fish will be pale with few dark markings.

Both species, particularly the males, get very dark during the spawn. More than a few crappie anglers have commented about how abundant black crappie are during the spawn, but they catch mostly white crappie the rest of the year.

What's different

Both crappies grow fast in Mississippi waters, but the white reaches larger size, as evidenced by the 5-pound, 3-ounce state-record white crappie and the 4-pound, 4-ounce state-record black crappie. The greater size of white crappie is consistent in the record fish in other states that have both black and white crappie.

Both species thrive in rivers, lakes and reservoirs in the eastern half of the United States. White crappie range from New York to North Dakota in the north and from Georgia to Texas in the south. They are not native in Florida or the low country of Georgia and South Carolina.

Black crappie have a broader distribution, ranging from southern Canada to Florida, and tend to outnumber white crappie in the northern tier of states.

Some biologists suggest black crappie tend to be more abundant in clearer water or systems with abundant aquatic vegetation or inundated terrestrial vegetation.

What's the same

Both species begin spawning when water temperatures reach about 60 degrees. Males build and guard nests in shallow, shoreline waters. Preferred nesting areas tend to be near cover of some kind, especially emergent aquatic vegetation or inundated terrestrial vegetation, when available. Despite the similarity in spawning habits, hybridization is rare in waters where both species occur.

The eggs hatch in two to four days, depending on water temperature. The young fish leave the nest several days after hatching, and feed on zooplankton. Growth is rapid, and the young crappie quickly switch to aquatic insect larvae.

Invertebrates remain a component of crappie diet throughout their lives, but forage fish are needed for the crappie to continue rapid growth after they reach 4 to 5 inches. Important forage fish include minnows and young sunfish and shad.

Growth varies in Mississippi waters, largely as a result of fluctuations in abundance. Typical growth rate is 4 to 5 inches by age 1, 6 to 7 inches by age 2, about 8 to 9 inches by age 3, and 10 inches by age 4.

Management challenges

Both species present significant challenges to fishery managers due to wide fluctuation in their abundance, and these cycles of abundance cascade into the quality of the fish caught. It's an axiom of fisheries management that growth is slow when population density is high, and vice versa. So crappie fisheries fluctuate between populations of abundant but small fish interrupted by periods of lower catch but large fish.

Crappie studies have attributed weak year-classes of crappie to both environmental factors, such as water-level fluctuations and high flow-through in reservoirs, and biological factors, such as competition among dense crappie populations that reduces fecundity and cannibalism by an abundant year-class on several following year-classes.

Research by Mike Allen at the University of Florida and Steve Miranda at Mississippi State University found that fluctuations in crappie year-classes could be explained by an interaction of environmental factors and crappie population density. Recruitment was always low when crappie density was high. At low to moderate crappie density, recruitment fluctuated in 2- to 4-year cycles, and environmental conditions affected the magnitude of the cycles.

Environmental factors, such as rainfall and temperature, cannot be controlled. Manipulating crappie density will not eliminate population fluctuations, but may hold promise for reducing the number of weak year-classes. Whether crappie density can be manipulated by angler harvest remains to be determined.