The black crappie is silvery with a color pattern that is mainly irregularly arranged speckles and blotches (not vertical bars). The dorsal fin has 7 or 8 spines. Crappies, as a group, are popular panfish that are deep bodied and strongly compressed laterally (slab sided). The upper jaw is long, reaching well past the middle of eye. The two sections of the dorsal fin (spiny forepart and soft-rayed rear part) are broadly connected, without a notch between. The anal fin is nearly as long and large as the dorsal fin, and it has 6 spines. The upper surface of the head and forward part of the back are strongly concave.
Similar species: White crappie have faint vertical bars instead of irregularly arranged speckles and blotches as the color pattern. They also have 6 dorsal fin spines instead of 7 or 8.