What Food Should You Feed Crappie in Ponds? (Crappie Food Guide)
Highly regarded for the quality of their meat and for their eagerness to take the bait of recreational fishers, crappies are moderately-sized fish under the Centrarchidae family of sunfishes. The term “crappie” may officially refer to two different species: white crappie (Pomoxis annularis) and black crappie (P. nigromaculatus). Both native to North America, these fish play an intermediate role in the food chain of natural freshwater systems.
Crappies are increasingly cultivated in artificial and naturalized pond systems as ornamental fish, as forage fish for larger species, for their meat, and to meet the annual demands of anglers. Although they have been cultured for dozens of years, popular knowledge about their ambient requirements and dietary needs in ponds remains to be lacking. Fortunately, they are remarkably hardy fish with a knack for surviving in imperfect conditions.
Outdoor pond systems are not considered the most economical facilities for growing food-size crappie. This is partly why farms are rarely able to provide their meat for general consumption. Those raised for their flavorful meat are mostly restricted to recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) that make use of artificial feeds. Those raised in ponds are usually part of a multi-species complex, which allows them to feed in ways that are similar to how they would hunt in the wild.
Natural Crappie Habitat & Sources of Food
To fully comprehend the types of food that would best suit crappies, it is advisable to look into their natural habitats and where they congregate to feed. Crappies favor relatively pristine lakes, ponds, streams, pools, and sloughs with ample marginal and submerged vegetation. They tend to gather in schools around fallen logs and hide within stands of vertical shoots.
Clear water above a natural substrate of mud or sand, in areas with mild to warm temperatures, is favored by these avid feeders. Their natural diet is quite diverse and is largely influenced by the dominant species that share a habitat with them. When they are located in shallow areas, they are able to source their food from virtually all sections of their environment.
The most diligent of crappies are able to find a wealth of prey from the benthos, all throughout the water column, the water’s surface, and along densely planted margins where amphibians or the occasional terrestrial visitor may be found. Of course, the food types that they are able to consume are dictated by their size, the presence of competitors, and the availability of prey.
Feeding Habits of Crappie
The feeding habits of crappies change as they go through stages of their life cycle. They are known for being voracious eaters that tend to overcrowd ponds and deplete food stores, especially if their natural predators or competitors are absent. Once their fry hatch from their eggs, they immediately search for microscopic types of food. These include tiny insects, zooplankton, and small crustaceans (e.g. grass shrimp).
In just the first year of life, crappies can grow up to four inches (10 cm) long on a diet of live, protein-rich prey. In optimal environments, their diet naturally shifts from one that is chiefly planktivorous to one that is piscivorous. Once their mouths are large enough, they begin to consume insect larvae, tadpoles and small amphibians, fish eggs and fry, and practically any living thing that they are quick enough to catch. Fully grown adults are undoubtedly carnivorous and may occasionally be cannibalistic as well. Below is a list of their favorite treats in natural ponds.
- Insects of various sizes and their larvae
- Crawfish and shelled organisms (mostly in food scarcities)
- Small amphibians
- Young walleye and pike
- Juvenile bluegills and crappies
- Fish fry
In winter, when living sources of high-quality proteins may be hard to come by, adult crappies may shift their diet to whatever crustaceans and aquatic insects they are able to find. Presumably, they would be searching for these food items close to the benthos, where the water is considerably warmer. In spring and summer, once smaller fish increase in abundance, they may shift their diet in favor of minnows and shad once more.
A Forage Base for Crappie in Naturalized Ponds
Outdoor ponds that are stocked with crappie need to be thoroughly naturalized as their forage base requires vegetation to self-replenish. A forage base is the bulk of smaller fish on which the crappies rely on to survive. It should provide them with their basic dietary needs for good growth. The base can be composed of a single species or include a diverse group of fish, more effectively mimicking scenarios in the wild.
As you would likely be obtaining crappies as fingerlings (and not as fry, which are fed with a specialized diet in hatcheries), a forage base of small fish should be enough to support their needs. Fertile ponds with established and self-sustaining populations of fathead minnows, shiners, or threadfin shad can support small populations of fingerling to adult crappies. Note that the forage base should already be established, otherwise their populations can rapidly be depleted by the crappies.
The forage base may need to be restocked in crappie-only ponds, especially if crappie numbers are not occasionally brought down by harvesting. Usually, a crappie predator is introduced to establish balance and to increase the sustainability of the forage base. This is due to the high reproduction rate of crappies (including fertile hybrids).
Feeding Crappie in Grow-Out Systems
Fingerlings that are obtained from commercial hatcheries are usually feed-trained and are thus ready to be fed with a diet of commercial feeds. In grow-out systems, which are developed for the culture of semi-intensive to intensive stocking densities, the use of commercial feeds may be more economical compared to using natural food types. Providing a live food source in large-scale productions of crappie is simply impractical as it would be too costly.
Commercial feeds, which ensure that all nutrient requirements for rapid growth are provided, can be fed to crappies on a regular schedule using an automatic feed extruder. The grow-out setup would need to be a fairly sterile and enclosed system. It should mimic conditions in the hatchery where the fish were sourced to prevent them from reverting back to a natural diet. Note that, once fingerlings are introduced into outdoor ponds, they may re-develop a taste for live food. This is why RAS (recirculating aquaculture system) facilities are preferable for intensive production.
Slow sinking feeds are the preferred type of commercial fish feed as floating ones are rarely accepted by crappies. Those grown on a diet of these feeds should be harvested before they can reproduce. Keep in mind that they are likely to consume their young and, once they have tasted live meat, may no longer accept artificial feeds.
Commercial Feeds for Crappie
Most commercial feed types that have been used for crappie in large-scale production are sinking feeds. There have yet to be general recommendations for intensively growing crappie in ponds or in recirculating systems, so an element of experimentation is frequently associated with feed selection.
Based on published reports, grower diets that are formulated for a wide range of carnivorous fish may be accepted by feed-trained crappies. These include mass-produced feeds such as Purina Aquamax, which consists of a high percentage of crude protein, and Silver Cup 2.0. Both types are high-energy and nutrient-rich. The use of feeds that are specifically formulated for trout species may also be acceptable.
Note that you should not be purchasing these feeds for crappies grown in naturalized outdoor ponds, especially if you are uncertain about their acceptance of a commercial diet. Trial-and-error will likely be necessary to determine exactly which feed types are best for your desired rate of crappie growth.
Food for Crappie in Ornamental or Wildlife Ponds
Crappies are not usually stocked in ornamental ponds due to their rapid growth rate, competition with other carnivores, and reproductive potential. This is why experts recommend that ponds be at least 20 acres and be fairly naturalized if they are to be stocked with crappie. Nonetheless, some pond owners, particularly those with relatively large ornamental or wildlife ponds inhabited by a few bass specimens, stock crappie and other panfish.
If your multi-species pond does have a few mature crappies, minnows should be able to sustain their populations. Your bass will ideally consume some of the crappies, preventing them from overcrowding the pond. Do not stock threadfin shad if you intend for your bass to feed on crappies as they may go for this species instead. In fully naturalized wildlife ponds, it is unlikely that you will have to feed crappies (given they are present in very small numbers), as a wealth of natural food sources should be available.
If you notice that your crappies have begun to exhibit stunted growth, a good portion of their population may need to be removed from the pond. Otherwise, new predators will have to be introduced into the system to relieve feeding pressures within the crappie population.
If, with any luck, you have yet to stock crappies into your small pond, know that it would be best to abandon the idea entirely. Simply put, populations of this type of fish are perhaps some of the most complicated and troublesome to maintain in artificial pond systems. Their cultivation is best left to experienced fish farmers.
Feeding Crappie Ponds in Winter
In winter, crappies may continue feeding in adequately deep ponds. Though they are able to tolerate fairly cool temperatures, they are likely to remain in warmer parts of the pond. They’ll adjust their winter diet to smaller animals that are found in these areas, which may be situated close to the benthos.
Forage fish may likewise retreat to deeper, warmer parts of the pond. Thus, it is unlikely that crappie ponds with a well-established forage base will need supplementary food through winter. Crappie can be expected to feed at reduced rates during this time, so available food sources in a mature and fertilized pond should suffice.
Is It Possible to Overfeed Crappie?
Just about any type of fish can be overfed when it is raised in captive conditions. Overfeeding occurs when fish are unable to control their food consumption, ingesting a surplus of feeds or live fish, or when excess feeds sink to the pond bottom and decay there. Overfeeding unnecessarily uses up resources and can destroy pond water conditions.
If you’ve provided crappies with a forage base, trust the process. Avoid adding supplementary feeds or restocking forage fish unless it is absolutely necessary. For crappies grown in specialized, grow-out ponds, restrict feeding frequencies and doses to those which are recommended by feed guides or by experts who are familiar with your setup. Keep in mind that feeding more than the recommended amounts does not translate to larger or healthier fish.