By Nick Simonson
With the first green leaves starting the spring canopy above the lake shore, our boat glided over the shallow stretch of mud bottom along a backwater lobe just off of the main lake. Through the glare-cutting view provided by a pair of polarized sunglasses, it was tough to miss the schools of bluegills milling about around the just-emerging stalks of lily pads, their leaves beginning to unfurl in greens and reds about a foot below the surface. The real surprise at the edge of the school of sunnies were the flitting fins of a set of crappies, a dozen or so that we could see, which quickly elicited a change from bass gear to something smaller and a subsequent spiral of line from our microspin reels, zipping out after our casted jigs.
Lifting the rod and giving it a slight jiggle to set off the shimmer of the krystal flash skirt of my 1/16-ounce offering, it wasn’t long until I detected the inhale of one of the edge fish following my lure in the water. Sparkling light green and gold, the ten-inch crappie came to hand, and quickly was back in the water. It was easy to pick the following fish out, as their light coloration allowed them to be seen against the darker mud bottom of the bay in the few feet of clear water where they were staging. After a couple more came up and were sent back down to continue on with their spring rituals, it seemed as if all the willing crappies had been caught.
With none in sight, I reeled up and was met with a slight tap from an unseen fish, which I set the hook on, expecting perhaps one of the darker nearby bluegills had sneaked in among the crappies, and was tougher to see behind the lure. Instead, the swirling fish came up to the surface and it was indeed a crappie, but unlike the first few, it was one of the darkest black crappies I had ever caught. The deep ebony color ran from the front of its mouth, along the gill plates and up the back. Only the bottom half of the crappie’s sides exhibited the more common calico green mottling the species is known for.
Knowing that many fish don deeper or more vibrant colors for the spawning season, I guessed this was a male in full mating garb, snapped a picture and let it go, but the deep darkness of the fish stuck with me well after the weekend trip had ended. Upon returning home, to confirm my theory, I reached out to Casey Williams, Associate Professor of Fisheries & Biology at Valley City State University.
“You’re right, it was a male,” he stated, “the males get darker during reproduction; you don’t see them that black all the time,” he continued, explaining that hormone release in springtime triggers the color change.
Williams relayed that members of the sunfish family and darter family have some of the more noticeable and vibrant color displays of all area fishes during the spawning season, but while darters may keep their brighter patterns for many months, crappie colors fade soon after spring.
“For crappies [the darker pattern] goes away quickly after they spawn; it’s pretty hard on the males, because they make the nest,” Williams explained, that the darker males do the work of clearing out spawning beds in the shallows and guard them, “the females spawn and leave not long after, some hang around for a while, but for the most part it’s the male on the nest,” he concluded.
Additionally, water clarity can influence how dark male crappies get around spawning time. In clear waters, the fish are easily seen, and their darker hue resonates biologically with other crappies, but in turbid lakes male crappies often don’t get as dark, because the coloration is less visible to competing fish. As the spawn approaches, males get more aggressive, even defending their nests from female crappies until the latter give off sub-dominant cues that let the male fish know they’re ready to lay their eggs.
With the blackness of the male crappie explained, and a little scientific illumination provided on the topic of spawning colors to round out the angling experience, I felt less in the dark about these popular panfish.