Most important, they are delicious when deep fried in peanut oil - which, more than any other factor, probably accounts for their widespread popularity.
While that's all true, two species of crappie exist, and when you get right down to it, they are almost as different as night and day. Most fishermen would shake their heads, but they need to look at bass. White crappie and black crappie are easily as different as largemouth bass and smallmouth bass.
Contributing to anglers' confusion is the fact that, like smallmouth bass, only a handful of white crappie populations exist in South Carolina waters.
If you want to know anything about crappie at Santee Cooper, you ask Whitey Outlaw, who was born and raised on the shores of Lake Marion, aka "the upper lake," where his grandparents, parents and now he lives. Outlaw is a formidable angler in crappie tournaments across the country, designs tackle for a handful of manufacturers and is a pro-staff member for several others. He certainly understands the difference between whites and blacks and can catch either.
"As a kid, 90 percent of what (I) caught was black crappie," Outlaw said. "The white crappie took hold in here in the late 60s. We caught a lot of white crappie, especially in the summertime. The numbers evened out through the 1980s and 1990s, then we went through a tough period because of the big catfish - there were more catfish than there were crappie. It really hurt us but Mother Nature takes care of herself. Nothing runs slam out. Last year, the white crappie came back real good, and I expect this year to be even better."
Steve English, who guides for crappie on the Santee Cooper lakes, agrees that both segments of the crappie population have bounced back, but he said the mixing of species only takes place on the upper lake.
"I don't know that I've ever seen more than a couple of white crappie come out of Lake Moultrie in my 30 years of guiding," English said. "On the other hand, the upper lake, Marion has a pretty good mix of the two species."
More specifically, English finds black and white crappie in two different stages when time the calendar rolls over from March to April on Lake Marion. That lake's topographic features are substantially different from Lake Moultrie, and that may account for why white crappie prefer the upper lake to the lower.
"Most people don't consider this about the two lakes," he said. "This water was diverted. Lake Moultrie was actually not a lake, didn't even have a river channel running through it; it was just a low area that was flooded. It is much easier to pattern fish on a lake where you have a river like Marion. The river channels, the creek channels; it's easier to pattern fish."
"During ... April and May, you've got black crappie in shallow water spawning," he said. "White crappie are out in deep water spawning. White crappie school up more; there's more of them. Normally, when you find one, you find more than you do the black crappie. They tend to stay out in deeper water. They like dingier water."
Outlaw makes the case for Lake Marion because of it's vast amount of standing timber, which he says creates a more homebound fish, and he likes that about white crappie.
"One thing about white crappie; they love wood," said Outlaw. "That makes them a lot easier to pattern. A black crappie, he loves vegetation, and he'll move on you in a heartbeat. I hate to be fishing a two-day tournament and catching only black crappie the first day, because the next day, you might go right back to where you caught them yesterday, and they're gone. White crappie pretty much stay where they are - or at least in the same vicinity - and they don't move a whole lot."
When it comes time to actually put baits in front of the fish, there are a few subtle differences that may help you turn a so-so day into a good day - or a good day into a great day - but the choices still boil down to minnows on the right side of the boat and jigs on the left. Occasionally, there may be a special of the day.
"One thing I might do with white crappie that I don't do as much with black, is use a curlytail grub," English said. "I will use some softer colors other than just chartreuse, which is my go-to color on the lower lake. In the upper lake where you have dingier water, more color, I'm using some whites, some pinks, some blues more often than just a straight chartreuse."
"Another thing about catching white crappie is they prefer a bigger bait, and they like louder colors," said Outlaw. "I'm going to use a big tube jig in bright neon orange or pink or chartreuse when I'm out to catch white crappie. For a black crappie, you need to use something smaller in a natural color, and you'll have to finesse him out of heavy cover."
Fishing both jigs and minnows from the front of his pontoon boat, English pinpoints brush piles and isolated standing timber on his depth finder to find white crappie, then hovers close to the top of the structure to present baits vertically.
"We're going to be in deeper water for white crappie," he said. "We're going to be out in 20 to 35 foot of water, either fishing over brush or at the base of standing timber. Lake Marion is obviously not a new lake. A lot of the standing timber is already broken off. Over time, the historical places that we have caught the bigger numbers of white crappie are the base of these trees.
"This is one of the few times of the year that I will actually use a double rig and use rod holders. Let it down to the bottom, bring one right off the bottom, another one maybe six foot up and kind of vary the depth around and maybe even tie up. If you do have some standing timber left, you can tie in between the trees and just fish straight down."
"If you're going to target the white crappie, you need to target the white crappie from the upper end of Persanti Island, all the way down toward the dam," said Outlaw. "You want to target brush piles, stake beds, standing timber - and do not ever overlook big, shady cypress trees. Big, shady cypress trees are best from 10 in the morning to about 2:30 in the afternoon."
HOW TO GET THERE: The Santee Cooper lakes are convenient to fishermen from most areas of the state via I-95, which crosses Lake Marion, or I-26, which skirts the southern edges of both lakes. Public access to Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie is readily available through a number of both public and private pay launch sites. Public launch sites can be found at www.santeecooper.com/portal/page/portal/SanteeCooper/Environment/Recreation; click on the public boat ramps list to open a pdf map.
BEST TACTICS: While few anglers specifically prefer and target white crappie, Lake Marion is the better of the two lakes for that sub-species. Likely places to target white crappie over their black crappie cousins include the array of standing and submerged timber, particularly areas bordered by a creek channel of ditch that provides access to deeper water. Minnows and crappie jigs get the nod; because white crappie tend to suspend more in the water column, fishing them nearer the middle of the water column than toward the bottom may result in more white crappie. White crappie also show a preference for larger baits and jigs in brighter colors, including orange, pink and chartreuse over natural colored bait preferences commonly exhibited by black crappie.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO: Steve English, 843-729-4044, www.fishingwithsteveenglish.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Santee Cooper Country, 800-227-8510, www.santeecoopercountry.org.