Fishing tournament focuses on freshwater drum

Some anglers giving ‘sheephead’ due respect.

Anglers line up on the Pentwater pier to target the overlooked and under-appreciated freshwater drum.
Anglers line up on the Pentwater pier to target the overlooked and under-appreciated freshwater drum.

The twelfth annual Sheephead Tournament was held on the north pier at Pentwater on June 26, 2015. The event began in 2004 as a way to highlight a fish that many anglers scoff at. The freshwater drum is commonly called “sheephead” or other less flattering names by anglers who catch them accidentally while fishing for walleye, bass, salmon, and other more popular gamefish. Oddly enough, their saltwater cousins (red drum, black drum, and sea trout) are some of the most popular inshore species.

So why does the only freshwater member of the drum family get ignored?  A few misconceptions may be at work.

Myth #1: They are invasive pests.

Because of the low position of the mouth many people assume that sheephead are strict bottom feeders, and some people confuse native bottom-feeding fish with invasive common carp. In fact, freshwater drum are native fish and they will chase prey in open water in addition to feeding on bottom-dwelling creatures.

Myth #2: They eat gamefish eggs.

While most fish (even trout) will eat fish eggs when the opportunity presents itself, there is no evidence that freshwater drum prey heavily on gamefish eggs. They typically avoid shallow weedy areas where pike, bluegill, and bass spawn and are not found in cool- to coldwater river habitats that attract spawning salmon. One study found that Lake Erie drum fed heavily on mayfly larvae and scuds prior to zebra mussel invasion. By the early 1990s, adult drum diet shifted to two-thirds zebra mussels in western Lake Erie. 

Myth #3: They compete with gamefish.

Although drum may compete with other gamefish for food in some environments, they show a preference for mussels, clams, and crayfish when these foods are available. This preference is probably related to the drum’s unique throat molars (pharyngeal teeth), which enable them to crush thick shells. 

Many Great Lakes habitats are now teeming with invasive zebra mussels, quagga mussels, Asian clams, rusty crayfish, and round gobies. All of these abundant invaders are probably high on the menu for freshwater drum. Although science has yet to document gobies in the diet of freshwater drum, anglers have no doubt that drum love to snack on this invasive pest. 

In fact, the biggest drum caught during the 2015 Sheephead Tournament was a six-pounder that fell for a tube jig. Four- to five-inch tube jigs in brown, olive, or smoke colors are hopped along the bottom of rocky areas to imitate gobies. Goby imitations work best when open water baitfish (alewife) are scarce. When schools of alewife are present off of Lake Michigan piers and waters are relatively warm (over 60˚F) drum will aggressively chase spoons and crankbaits. Live alewife also work well for bait when available. 

Freshwater drum are a fascinating native species that is uniquely suited to feeding on some of our most troublesome exotic invaders. If that is not reason enough to appreciate them, drum also put up quite a battle on the end of the line. Many an angler has been disappointed when a trophy walleye or bass turns out to be sheephead once it is in the net. Maybe the drum’s image problem comes down to a matter of expectations. Anglers typically value fish that fight hard, strike aggressively, and are good to eat (even if they wind up releasing their catch).

Drum are certainly fun to catch, but conventional wisdom holds that freshwater drum do not make good table fare. According to Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension the truth is more nuanced. In fact, small drum can make an excellent meal and large drum from some waters can also be surprisingly tasty when properly prepared.

So next time you catch a sheephead, remember that it is a valuable native fish even if it is not the fish you hoped to catch.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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