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Beating the drum: Why freshwater drum (sheepshead) deserve some respect in southern Lake Michigan

Freshwater drum (sheepshead) deserve respect in southern Lake Michigan.

Some anglers, such as Bobby Bergren, even enjoy wading southern Lake Michigan, to fish for freshwater drum. Provided photo Provided

Lloyd DeGrane grew righteously riled in late March at the Montrose Horseshoe.

“I witnessed someone catching a sheepshead and then promptly killing it and tossing the dead body back into the lake,” he messaged. “It saddened me that this senseless act was brought about by a flawed history concerning the sheepshead.”

Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) are often called sheepshead.

“For decades it’s been viewed as a ‘garbage fish’ and treated as such,” he continued. “People have no idea that the sheepshead is probably the king of zebra mussel predation in the Great Lakes ecosystem. I wish fishermen in the Great Lakes would become enlightened about this beneficial fish. If you catch them, release them so that they can do a job that most any other fish won’t.”

DeGrane is my favorite Chicago photographer and a conservationist with a heart.

The angler’s behavior seemed odd because drum have become specifically targeted in recent years as a source of food at the Horseshoe.

“I don’t know what the motivation of the angler at Montrose was when he killed the drum that he caught and tossed it back in the lake, but I do know that the practice is illegal in Illinois and covered by the wanton waste section of IDNR Administrative Rules (Part 810.14 and see page 6 of the Fishing Digest),” noted Vic Santucci, Illinois’ Lake Michigan fisheries manager.

I had not thought of that angle. Even if not interested in drum as a food source, it’s utterly stupid not to respect them from the sporting side.

“Along with bowfin, freshwater drum are high on my list of misunderstood, hard-fighting native species that don’t get the appreciation they deserve,” emailed Ben Dickinson, Indiana’s Lake Michigan fisheries biologist.

I would suggest that applies to some other “non-game” species, too.

Freshwater drum grow huge. The Indiana record is 30 pounds, caught from the White River in 1963. The Illinois record was upgraded on May 24, 2018 when Johnathan Inman caught one of 38 pounds, 4 ounces from Clinton Lake.

Jeff Mucksavage with a big drum last fall at Montrose Harbor. Provided photo
Jeff Mucksavage with a big drum last fall at Montrose Harbor.
Provided

“Freshwater drum (aka sheepshead, croaker and gaspergou) are native to Illinois and Lake Michigan,” Santucci said. “A pretty good shore fishery has developed along the Illinois shoreline in recent years and I know of people that now targeting drum from shore in Chicago and up the north shore at certain times of the year. We do not actively manage this species in Lake Michigan and you are correct that there are no size or bag limit restrictions for drum in the State.”

Indiana also has no bag or size limits on drum.

“In terms of Lake Michigan, freshwater drum are a native nearshore species,” Dickinson emailed. “They inhabit the shallow nearshore waters, harbors, drowned river mouths, and so forth, although occasionally you’ll catch one a mile or two offshore while salmon fishing. They’re omnivorous and eat a lot of mussels (mainly zebra/quagga mussels in Lake Michigan) along with invertebrates and baitfish like shad, shiners, gobies, and alewife. So I would say they certainly have a beneficial role in terms of eating invasive mussels, and in general being a native fish to the lake.”

That’s the main point.

“I think it goes without saying that all native fish species have inherent ecological value, even if we don’t yet know exactly what their precise role in the ecosystem may be,” Santucci noted. “In Lake Michigan, I would classify freshwater Drum as a nearshore omnivore. They are known to feed on the bottom on insects, clams, snails and crayfish but also feed up in the water column taking fish, especially when they get larger. They also readily will hit live baits and artificial lures.”

In other words, even if you don’t give a damn about their ecological or food value, respect drum as a sporting fish.

Ryan Whitacre with a big drum caught downtown. Provided photo
Ryan Whitacre with a big drum caught downtown.
Provided