Blackening, boiling and grilling are all tasty options with this fish
By Dan O’Keefe
Late June and early July can be a slow time on the calendar for Michigan anglers. Inland lakes have settled into summer patterns after post-spawn fishing for bass, walleye, pike, and panfish. Rivers and streams have yet to settle into summer lows that are ideal for wading or bank fishing in the predictable spots fish congregate in low water. The freshwater drum (a.k.a. sheephead) provides a nice way to fill the weeks before salmon start congregating near river mouths for their annual spawning run.
Drum activity peaks in early summer in west Michigan. The lower section of large rivers like the St. Joseph and Grand, drowned rivermouth lakes like Muskegon Lake and Lake Macatawa, and any pier along the coast of Lake Michigan can be very productive for fish ranging from 2 to over 12 pounds. Although some anglers have caught on the sporting qualities of this unique native fish, very few are aware that freshwater drum can make a surprisingly good meal. Sometimes.
A quick Internet search reveals a lot of conflicting information on the merits of drum as table fare. Some people report regularly eating and enjoying freshwater drum, and others report trying it once and never again due to a bad experience. Both ends of the spectrum make sense based on my own experience and the limited science-based literature available on the subject.
Not bony, but not meaty either
Freshwater drum can be filleted in the same way as any other fish. As with most gamefish, the fillets will contain nothing more than a few “pin” bones – small secondary ribs that can be eaten, removed after cooking, or removed before cooking with a V-cut depending on your preference. Although the fillets are mostly bone free, they are also thin relative to the size of the fish. As with other gamefish, the dark red meat near the skin (sometimes called a mud line) should be removed along with the skin to improve flavor and reduce contaminants.
Don’t expect flaky
The texture of small to mid-sized drum (12 to 17 inches) can be described as firm or somewhat meaty in comparison to the more flaky texture of walleye and bass of a comparable size. Larger drum vary from firm to decidedly tough in texture, which is very unusual for fish. In fact, traditional methods of frying or baking do not work well for large drum because of their odd texture. However, cutting the meat into smaller shrimp-sized bites before boiling or grilling can make for a great shrimp substitute. Ohio Sea Grant offers a Guide to Utilizing the Freshwater Drum and includes instructions for preparation. Blackening is another way to take advantage of firm fish, which also stands up well in fish tacos or fish kebabs (teriyaki or shrimp-on-the-barbie recipes are my personal favorites).
Drum fillets are not bony and the firm texture can be an asset if prepared correctly, but one bad-tasting bite is enough to make most fish-eaters swear off a species for life. Wild fish live in a variety of lakes and rivers and eat a variety of food items that can influence the flavor of their meat. Some fish species are consistently tasty, while others tend to vary from one body of water to another or even one season to the next. I have had terrible-tasting smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish and walleye fillets as well as excellent meals of the same species.
Freshwater drum, particularly large individuals, also vary in flavor from one area to another. One study documented that the flavor of drum declined in areas close to a polluted tributary of the Mississippi River. Reports from Ohio in the late 1800s indicated that Ohio River drum tasted much better than Lake Erie drum, and even suggested that river fish should be transplanted to Lake Erie. Although rivers may look dirtier than Great Lakes waters, my own experience suggests that drum caught from upstream areas of the Grand River taste better than fish caught off the mouth at Lake Michigan. Off-flavored drum from the mouth of the Grand River had been feeding heavily on alewife.
What about contaminants?
This may come as surprise, but “Eat Safe Fish” guidelines from Michigan Department of Community Health show that freshwater drum in a given body of water are more comparable to gamefish like bass, walleye, and pike than bottom-feeding carp and channel catfish. For example, MDCH lists one meal per month of drum from Saginaw Bay as “safe” for all Michigan residents while Saginaw Bay carp and catfish are placed in the “Do Not Eat” category. Recommendations for the popular walleye limit “safe” consumption to six meals per year. Guidelines for eating drum have not been published for many west Michigan water bodies due to lack of sampling, but do not automatically assume that freshwater drum are less wholesome than other large gamefish.
In short, Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension recommend checking the Eat Safe Fish guide before trying a drum or two from your local fishing hole. As with any species, smaller individuals are generally safer to eat and taste better. With a little ingenuity you might find that the early-summer drum bite can provide some good meals in addition to fast fishing action!