By John Tertuliani
The freshwater drum is the only North American member of the drum family living in freshwater. Widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains, locals often call it sheepshead, white perch, or silver bass. The name is derived for the drumming sound believed to occur when males use the muscles along their swim bladder to attract females. The swim bladder being an air chamber, it may resonate the vibrations through the water to announce the presence of a male.
A high shoulder gives the drum a unique shape as the body tapers toward the tail. The dorsal fin extends from the top of the shoulder nearly down to the tail, a spiny dorsal first, followed by a shallow notch and then a longer length of soft dorsal. A rounded tail makes the drum easy to identify from other species. As the fish grows, the body depth may even out a bit, becoming less humped at the shoulder. The tail fills out, appearing less rounded, more squared off at the corners.
Metallic gray in color with a milky white belly, large adults can give off a golden hue, or a lavender hue; it depends on the body of water. Anglers believe the drum resembles the saltwater sheepshead, and a few believe the rounded snout resembles the face of domestic sheep. The exact source of the common name “sheepshead” is not known.
The mouth located low on the head, the jaws tilted down slightly with small teeth, provide textbook traits of a bottom feeder. The diet of a bottom feeder includes insect larvae, mollusks (snails and mussels), crayfish, and fish. A drum will eat what is readily available.
Adults range from 12 to 30 inches and weigh 1 to 17 pounds, but they grow much larger. A 12-inch fish may be 4 or 5 years old. A state record fish may measure upward of 36 inches in length and weigh 25 to 38 pounds.
Anglers called them lucky stones, and kept them in their tackle boxes a few generations ago. Located behind the brain, the drum has three pair of otoliths; only one pair is enlarged. Otolith is Greek for “ear stone.” Made from layers of calcium carbonate formed like tree rings, darker lines represent periods of slower growth in the winter. The age of a fish can be determined in the same manner as counting tree rings.
Otoliths aid with balance and hearing. Balance is maintained as a fish moves, the otoliths detect gravitational force, and transmit the signals to sensory receptors. Hearing is aided as an otolith converts sound waves to electrical signals. An “L” shaped groove, called a sulcus, is an attachment point for an auditory nerve.
Abundant in lakes and rivers, dam construction may have restricted their original distribution. A schooling fish, the drum likes a hard bottom. Typical habitat is a reef or rocky area in 5 to 30 feet of water. Zebra mussels thrive in this type of habitat. Drum feed heavily on mussels. In warm water, drum may be found in less than 5 feet.
Look for them in runs and pools on larger rivers, not far downstream from a riffle. The tail-water area of a dam can concentrate fish, as can the mouth of a tributary flowing into a lake or river. Both offer deep water and a clean, hard bottom. Current seams are ideal places to catch drum, or any edge where the water velocity decreases.
Current seams can form in several ways. An obstruction altering the direction of flow, a current break being the most common. A tributary pouring into a lake or river is another seam worth checking. A gravel bar or shoal creates a subtle seam that may or may not attract fish. Ultimately the drum will be found where food is available.
In the early spring, as the water temperature rises above 45 degrees, they move out of their deep-water winter areas, spending the next month or so feeding in preparation to spawn, which tends to occur in June. Eggs hatch quickly in the warm water that may have reached 70 degrees by then. The females broadcast spawn, laying 200,000 to 400,000 small eggs. Adult drum do not care for the eggs or hatched fry.
A medium weight rod and a favorite type of reel spooled with 8- to 10-pound test mono should be strong enough for the average drum. They are powerful, so maybe use 12-pound test or heavier line. With braid, 15- to 30-pound test is sufficient; a monofilament leader is optional. Line preference is not as important as having the drag adjusted. A properly adjusted reel goes a long way toward protecting the line. Freshening the line after being scraped on rocks and mussel shells is equally important in getting the most from lighter line.
Live bait presented on the bottom is ideal. A hook and sinker are all you need for worms, minnows, and crayfish used whole or as tails.
Deep running lures work, too. A well-developed lateral line extending to the tail may explain why the drum is so aggressive in striking artificials. Smaller lures are appropriate. Artificial lures tipped with live bait can make a difference on some days.
Drum properly prepared is delicious. Keeping them alive or on ice until cleaned is paramount to preserving flavor and texture. They die easily on a stringer. If left in warm water, fatty tissue oxidizes, imparting a dreaded “fishy” taste.
Smaller fish taste better. What they have been eating may affect the taste. Older fish have stronger taste, the meat less delicate. Taste should not be an issue if you keep fish less than 3 pounds. Fishing regulations vary by state, but in general, drum are not restricted by a size limit; a check of the fishing regulations will verify.
Filleting and skinning brings out the best in taste. Try to remove the heavy red lateral line muscle and silver tissue. This can improve taste further, as will removing the fat along the belly. Keep fillets refrigerated or on ice until cooked. The meat tastes best when cooked fresh. Fish that have been frozen do not taste the same. Fillets can be fried or broiled. A crab boil is also popular, which involves fillets cut into chunks and boiled with crab seasoning, served with cocktail sauce or melted butter.