Freshwater drum: A fun fish for kids of all ages

They are not the most glamorous fish in the Great Lakes, but “sheephead” offer some pleasant surprises to open-minded anglers.

Big fish and a big smile! This freshwater drum weighed seven and a half pounds and was aged at 25 years old. Courtesy photo

Big fish and a big smile! This freshwater drum weighed seven and a half pounds and was aged at 25 years old. Courtesy photo

One of the biggest challenges facing the future of recreational fishing is the lack of interest among youth. Urbanization, electronic devices, and a fast-paced modern world all pull children away from the natural world and traditional outdoor pastimes like fishing, hunting, and camping. 

When it comes to fishing, children often are not willing to put up with the same challenges that die-hard anglers are. Getting up at 4 a.m. to brave three-foot seas in pursuit of walleye or salmon might sound like a thrill to you, but it is easy for an overzealous adult to give kids the impression that fishing is full of hardship and boredom. 

Fortunately, there are some fish that bite willingly even in the middle of a summer day. Fish that are found in sheltered bays and river channels that are never too far from the launch site if a storm rolls in. Fish that grow to ten pounds or more and can be caught on simple tackle from shore or small boat. Fish that strike aggressively, fight hard, and can put a smile on the face of any child. 

The freshwater drum (aka sheephead) is one of those fish, but all they get from some experienced anglers is scorn (see related article on drum myths). The drum’s underslung mouth gives it a reputation as a bottom feeder, although drum are just as likely to chase baitfish in open water. Some anglers confuse drum with the invasive common carp, although the drum is actually a native species that preys on invasives like zebra mussel, quagga mussel, and round goby. Other anglers assume drum aren’t good to eat despite never trying. As it turns out, small drum can be good table fare when properly prepared and medium sized drum make a surprisingly good substitute for shrimp in many recipes.

When and where

One of the great things about freshwater drum is that they are very abundant along much of the Great Lakes coast and connected waters of the Lower Peninsula. Drum love large rivers and shallow bays or lakes connected to the Great Lakes, so metro Detroit, Bay City, Muskegon, Grand Haven, Holland, Saugatuck, St. Joseph, and Benton Harbor all offer easy access to fantastic fishing. 

Drum tend to congregate around piers in areas of moderate current or roam mid-depth flats 12 to 20 feet deep. Piers provide the best shore access for anglers, and the drum’s tendency to roam on open flats away from snags makes it easy to target without sophisticated electronics.

Troll slow

There is always an exception to the rule, but drum usually prefer to hit lures trolled at 0.5 to 1.3 mph. A deep-diving crankbait usually works well, and the steady thump-thump of the lure’s action provides a point of interest for children waiting for the big one to bite. Rod holders work fine, but holding the rod is even better. A slow pull of the rod or drop-back action to pause the lure will often trigger a strike because drum will typically follow a lure for a long time before biting (see video).

Imitate gobies

Trolling or casting spoons are good techniques when drum are chasing baitfish, but thanks to the invasion of zebra mussels, quagga mussels, and round gobies there is often more food on the bottom of the lake nowadays. Like smallmouth bass, drum love to eat gobies. The same olive, brown, or purple-fleck tube jigs that catch bass will also tempt big drum.

Try it for yourself!

Ottawa County Parks and Michigan State University Extension are offering a hands-on program focused on shore fishing for freshwater drum at Black Lake Boardwalk West in Holland from 8:00-10:00 a.m. June 18, 2016. The morning will start with an introduction to drum fishing techniques. Participants will then have the chance to try their hand at catching drum, followed by an optional discussion of cleaning and preparation techniques.

The program is free, but you must register to participate. Bring a valid fishing license (youth under 17 years of age do not need a license) and your own fishing tackle if you have it. A limited number of loaner rods will be available for those who do not have their own.

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 and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.