freshwater drum in a net

Fishing for freshwater drum

The freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) is a common fish found across much of the United States as well as parts of Canada and Central America. Also known as “sheephead,” this fish is unfortunately derided as a “rough” or even “trash fish” by some. Yet the freshwater drum is an eager biter that can put up a good fight when caught on rod and reel.

Drum get their name from the croaking or drumming sound they make. Drum species that dwell in saltwater like the red drum are very popular fish. Red drum are widely sought after for both sport and table fare. While those drum are popular game fish, the freshwater drum is mostly ignored. Since the fish are similar in so many ways, I don’t really have an explanation for that.

freshwater drum sheepsheadAn average freshwater drum

In the early stages of life, immature freshwater drum are a food fish for many predators. As they grow they can take on enough size to put them out of range for all but the largest of predators. In most of their range freshwater drum commonly reach weights of 1 to 5 pounds (0.5-2.26kg). They can also get much larger than that. The world record freshwater drum weighing 54 pounds 8 ounces (24.7 kg) was caught in Tennessee’s Nickajack Lake back in 1972. Freshwater drum can live quite a while too. Some drum in the upper midwest have made it passed 70 years of age.

I’ve caught a lot of freshwater drum from Pennsylvania to Kentucky. Most were under five pounds, though a select few were much bigger than that. They were usually incidental catches that come when I am fishing for another species or no species in particular. I’m never disappointed to catch a freshwater drum in any case. Some of the larger drum I’ve hooked into were actually quite memorable.

How to find and identify the Freshwater Drum

Freshwater drum are deep bodied fish. They vary in color from a bright silver to a deep bronze reminiscent of smallmouth bass. They have a rounded snout and a long dorsal fin that stretches almost all the way back to the tail. The freshwater drum resembles the red drum in some ways, but the freshwater drum has a much deeper body and lacks spots.

The freshwater drum has a wide range that may not have been accurately defined yet. For example, the state record freshwater drum in Virginia was caught in Buggs Island Lake (also known as John H Kerr Reservoir) in 2018. That body of water down on the North Carolina border is well out of the range shown on most of the freshwater drum range maps I’ve been able to find.

freshwater drum range map

Freshwater drum can be found from Canada down to Guatemala. The fish live at least as far east as Vermont and as far west as Montana. They’re common throughout much of the Mississippi River watershed and several great lakes including Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan. They’re abundant in rivers like the Green, Ohio, Monongahela and Wabash. They are also common in a lot of smaller streams like Redstone Creek, Ten Mile Creek, and Pike Run in Pennsylvania.

Sheepshead will often come in shallow to feed and reveal themselves. You can also see them in some slower moving clear rivers and streams. So freshwater drum are usually not difficult to locate; and you can even sight fish for them at times. Yet they can also be present yet out of view. It’s pretty common to catch these fish when going for other species like catfish in muddy waters.

How to catch Freshwater Drum

Freshwater drum are opportunist feeders. They will eat everything from small aquatic nymphs to minnows and crayfish. They can be caught on everything from flies like the San Juan Worm to lures like the Original Floating Rapala.

That said, live bait is undoubtedly the most effective if you are looking to catch freshwater drum specifically. Most of the freshwater drum I’ve caught over the years took red worms or nightcrawlers. The bait was either drifting naturally with the current or held on the bottom with a sinker. Based on my experience with these fish, I am doubtful that anything would work better. Minnows can work, but drum seem to key in more on easily available worms.

big freshwater drum in pennsylvaniaThis big drum took a nightcrawler

Of course other things do catch freshwater drum. When it comes to flies they seem to be especially partial to the Clouser Minnow which they likely mistake for a crayfish. I’ve also seen them go after small nymphs tied competition style on jig hooks.

Freshwater drum will also attack small jigs like Lindy Little Nippers and Road Runners fished on spinning gear. Especially if they are tipped with maggots or wax worms. As any carp angler can tell you, freshwater drum will also eat doughball too.

Lures that look like Freshwater Drum

As I mentioned above, a lot of fish dine on young freshwater drum. Some very large predators may even attack larger drum later in life. Where legal, some anglers cut freshwater drums into strips and fish the meat as cutbait. This can work well for blue catfish and large channel cats. For most other predator species a lure that looks like a freshwater drum would be more effective.

I don’t know of any lures that are made to look exactly like a young drum. Yet there are many lures available that resemble small freshwater drum in one way or another. Lures with deep bodies, silver or bronze colors, and rattles come close to the real thing. Those are the lures I would look to if I found predator fish keyed in on immature drum.

jackall gantarel jr swimbaitThe Carp RT Jackall Gantarel Jr resembles a freshwater drum

Both the Silver Rapala Rap-V and Chartreuse Olive Spro Little John Crankbait look enough like young drum to fool predator fish. They both put off sounds too, which could resemble the croaking noises that freshwater drum actually make. In any case both of these lures catch fish. Of course there’s no way to be sure what the fish think these lures are when they grab them. It may very well be that they are simply acting out of predatory instinct, though some colors absolutely outfish others at times.

If you’re looking to really replicate a freshwater drum you might want to consider the Jackall Gantarel Jr swimbait in “Carp RT” color. I haven’t fished with this lure yet, but it looks more like a freshwater drum than any other I have ever seen. I don’t think they were meant to resemble drum at all, but in terms of overall shape and even shade these things are right on the money. I wouldn’t hesitate to try one out anywhere I knew that fish were feasting on young freshwater drum.

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