Paul (Amanda Too) and Jerry A:
The Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus Rafinesque), is a member of the family Sciaenidae.
Composed of 160 different species, only one, the Frshwater Drum, is found in freshwater. It is commonly referred to in Lake Erie as Sheepshead or Silver Bass, with other non-official names including Catawba dolphin, groaners, grunters, and farm animals.
O.K., and although I don't like to admit it, I've heard them called 'Kelch-Bass', due to the promotion of drum made to the sportfishery during the 1980's by Ohio Sea Grant, of which I had the lead.
The freshwater drum is a native species to the Great Lakes and much of the United States. It is NOT an invading species, such as the round goby.
Although the drum is considered good to excellent tablefare in many areas of the United States (especially in the south and Mississippi River, where it is called the Gaspargou) it is considered a rough fish in Lake Erie, where it composes a portion of the 'other species' catch in the commercial fishery.
Young drum consume mostly zooplankton, followed by larger aquatic insects (mayfly larvae, amphipods) as they grow. Zebra mussels and quagga mussels are also consumed by the Drum. This is accomplished by a set of tooth-like pads inside the throat, called pharyngeal arches, with which they can easily crush the shells of zebra/quagga mussels. The next time you catch a sheepshead, stick your finger down the throat and you will be able to feel these rough, hard pads; and they are not sharp, so no need to worry about being cut or bit (unlike sticking your finger in the mouth of a walleye). Although adopted to bottom feeding (considering the mouth position), drum will readily feed upon fish and crayfish in Lake Erie as they reach adults.
Most anglers know to look for baitfish schools to find important gamefish species, such as walleye and yellow perch. Hence, where you find the baitfish, you will more than likely find sheepshead along with walleye and perch.
Drum, like other species, have their up and down shifts in population numbers. Therefore, an angler may experience few drum caught one year, and more than desired the next.
Depending upon where you are fishing, you may or may not experience significant catches of drum while pursuing other species.
Also keep in mind that drum begin their spawning habits in June,which continue into July and often August, resulting in larger concentrations or schools. This is probably why you both experience a massive increase in the number of drum you catch during the summer months, along with the fact that they also pursue schools of baitfish.
Regarding 'cutting drum' upon catching, and I assume you mean cutting the belly open and throwing them back inot the water------this will NOT make any difference in the drum population in Lake Erie. You may think you are doing the lake a favor by killing a sheepshead and throwing it back, yet all you are really accomplishing is adding more organic matter to decompose on the bottom. Unlike saltwater environments, Lake Erie does not have the 'critters' that make immediate use of dead fish and fish parts. You willl also be setting a bad example for younger anglers you may have on board.
In addition, this practice may very well be considered illegal if observed, as it is illegal to clean fish and throw the remains back into the lake.
Again, killing sheepshead and throwing them back can be related to bouncing round gobies and white perch off the gunnel of your boat----it will never make a difference to the overall big picture of the lake (other than smaller goby and white perch are generally picked up immediately by gulls, if you like to feed the birds).
And now for the promotion-----have you ever tried consuming freshwater drum? Yes, I realize we have a lake full of prime tablefare, walleye and yellow perch, yet sheepshead can be excellent IF handled properly after catching.
First, try keeping a few 1-2 lb, sheepshead, and make SURE you have them well iced; just like you would ice down walleye and yellow perch. When cleaning, take a skinless, boneless fillet, and trim off the dorsal and belly fat areas, along with 'zipping' out the lateral line and slicing off any large visible areas of red connective tissue (just like you would do for a walleye). The skin, belly and dorsal areas, in addition to the lateral line and red connective tissue, tend to hold more fats and oils, hence can give any fish a stronger flavor.
Now bread the fillet as you do for walleye or perch, and deep fry or pan fry. I DOUBT if you notice the difference, other than the fact that you will know what you are consuming (sort of like eating rattlesnake---tastes good, but you know what it is). Try inviting a few friends over for a fish fry, and slip in a few sheepshead fillets (don't tell them!!) if you really want to see if the difference can be tasted.
Sheepshead do NOT seem to freeze well, probably due to a higher fat and oil content than yellow perch and walleye, so use freshly caught sheepshead for the best consumption.
There are other recipes that can be used for sheepshead, which can be found in Ohio Sea Grant's Lake Erie Cookbook, and the Guide To Freshwater Drum. Go to: http://www.sg.ohio-state.edu/PUBLICATIONS/INDEX.HTM
and click on the guide section.
Hope this helps answer your questions, and provide you with some information about one of Lake Erie's underutilized species.
Dave Kelch, Ohio Sea Grant Program