The Oft-Ignored Freshwater Drum

It has one of the widest distributions of any fish found in North America, a continent home to millions of freshwater anglers. It’s abundant in nearly all waters it inhabits and can grow quite large. It readily strikes still-fished live bait, fast moving lures and even flies. And it fights hard, never giving up until it’s finally in hand. So why is this fish so ignored?

I’m talking here about the Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens), known in different regions by names like sheepshead, Gasper goo, Gaspergou, grunter, and a host of others (where it’s known at all – I’ve come across many fishers seeking to identify the fish after accidentally catching one).

Along with carp and suckers, it’s often considered a rough fish, a coarse fish, or a “trash fish.” This comes out of a culture that put the highest value on game fish: trout and salmon (champions of the fly fishing “lifestyle” and the accompanying industry, with all its high-priced wares) and the largemouth bass (focal point of a multi-million dollar tournament-based industry that resembles NASCAR racing more and more each day).  I enjoy catching those fish too—especially trout and salmon. But there’s no reason freshwater drum have to be overlooked.

Thankfully things change. None of this is set in stone and no angler is forced to “go with the flow,” so to speak. In Europe, the common carp is one of the most popular fish. That’s starting to spread to the States. In addition there are people like Jean-Paul Lipton at who are popularizing the pursuit of what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources calls “underused fish.” Perhaps most important of all are the countless men, women and children who simply go out to the local fishing hole and toss a worm out in hope of catching whatever will bite.

Education is an important tool for opening doors. With that in mind, I’m going to tell you what I know about the sheephead.

Kentucky Ohio River sheepheadThe only member of the Sciaenidae family to swim in freshwater (hence the name), its range stretches from Canada through the United States and well into Central America. A very tolerant fish, it can be found in still and moving water. Muddy brown, crystal clear or somewhere in between, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, though they do seem to prefer clearer water. Freshwater drum are a very hardy fish. They aren’t known to be endangered anywhere in their historic range, which is this day and age says a lot (though there was a massive fish kill in Arkansas in 2010 resulting in the deaths of 100,000 sheephead).

They’re called drum because of the noise they are capable of making. Males can produce a croaking sound vibrating a set of muscles inside their body against their swim bladder. This is thought to have something to do with the spawning process.

On average, the fish grow to anywhere from 2 to 10 pounds, with females being a bit larger than males. But they can get a lot bigger than that. My personal biggest, pictured at the top of the page, was a 28 inch fish caught and released in a Pennsylvania stream a few days ago.  The PA state record, caught in the Monongahela River, weighed 19 pounds 14 ounces. The Virginia record was set just this year, when a woman caught a 26 pound 8 ounce fish in Buggs Island Lake. The world record, caught in Tennessee’s Nickajack Lake in 1972, weighed a whopping 54 pounds 8 ounces.

Not only can they get big, freshwater drum can also live quite a long time. There’s evidence of these fish surviving into their 70’s. And they fight. Hard, moving erratically in the water and making strong, short runs. The bigger ones are especially bullish.

Pennsylvania Ten Mile Creek freshwater drumIn the summer, drum can often be spotted cruising shorelines in search of food. This, or a more likely incidental catch, can clue you in to their presence. Once you know they’re there, the next thing to do is catch them. And it’s not tough.

I’ll never forget when my dad hooked a nice freshwater drum in Ten Mile Creek years ago. The excitement felt when, after a very brief underwater flash, we thought he had hooked a record slab crappie dissipated only slightly when instead a big old sheephead emerged from the water.

Freshwater drum are opportunistic feeders, taking whatever is available to them. A study in the Ohio Journal of Science found that specimens in Lake Erie focused on insects in the spring and young forage fish in the summer and fall. They will take all sorts of baits, but seem especially keen on worms and minnows fished on the bottom, crankbaits and twister tail grubs, and walleye spinner rigs tipped with nightcrawlers. They are caught on fly rods with Clouser minnows and nymphs of various sizes. As the positioning of their mouth indicates, these fish are oriented toward the bottom, and that’s where they tend to feed.

Freshwater drum have soft fleshy mouths, so you don’t have to use very heavy line. Anything from 6 to 12 pound test would do fine, depending on the conditions. For example, 12 pound test line might spook fish in a clear shallow stream. But 6 pound test would be difficult to fish with a heavy sinker in a muddy river. A bass or carp rod will work fine in most cases.

There you have it, enough info on this underappreciated fish to get you started. Even if you don’t purposely target them, you’ll at least have some background when you catch one incidentally. In a lot of places if you fish enough it’ll only be a matter of time before that happens. Don’t scoff. When Plan A fails, a nice sheephead can easily save the day.