I love trash. It’s as simple as that. I remember the point in which I discovered this. I had a weighted fly and was hitting holes in cover along the bank hoping for a fat largemouth bass when something sucked in the fly and ran. It dug and ran like a walleye but with much more authority. After a moderate-length fight I netted the freshwater drum and it wasn’t until after it was released that I realized what had just happened; I was going to seek out trash. Those few minutes un-did 34 years of being told freshwater drum (commonly called sheepshead) were trash fish.
I have one very clear memory of being somewhere between the ages of 1 and 10 on a charted perch excursion when someone on the boat caught a drum and the captain hit it in the head with a hammer and tossed it overboard.
Undoubtedly I’d learn later in life it was because Saginaw Bay’s perch population was being impacted by over-harvesting and the fish not being able to reach maturity because of predators such as walleye and drum consuming “young of the year” perch fingerlings. At the risk of getting too “conservational” the majority of the drum’s diet are mollusks including the invasive zebra mussels which were introduced to the fishery right around this same time. Sometimes trash pays off.
Aside from this ignorance, the drum is a very close relative to brackish and saltwater redfish. Anyone who has hooked into one of these fish know that they are a bulldog. They are both found in similar areas and feed in much of the same way. I’ve developed specific fly patterns for these fish, in fact. Crayfish and crab-like fly patterns fished on an 8 weight fly rod will send your fly line into its backing when a 20+ inch drum is hooked. If carp are the “golden bones” of freshwater, then drum are the “white fish” of the freshwater. Or….wait….that nickname is already taken. Anyway, you get my point.
As with any fish, they have their seasonal patterns but the majority of the time, there is such an abundance of drum that all you have to do is look for them. Some stay on the flats to spawn while some make their way up the rivers. It’s cliche, but, if you find their food, you’ll find the fish. Their diet consists of zebra mussels, snails, crayfish, and later in the summer/fall, shad and small fish. The key areas to look for them are roughly 2-4’ of water and have some sand, gravel, and rock. On some cases, wading may work but the majority of my fishing is done from a kayak because they’re not very spooky, it’s best to cover a lot of water, and you can sight fish for them just as you would redfish. Staying back 30 to 40 feet provides the best percentage of putting a fly down in their path.
All it took was one fish to change my mind. Sight-fishing, easy to cast flies, easy-to-find quarry, willingness to eat a fly, and a hard fighting fish is a perfect recipe for a solid gamefish. Now, if I can only get over the stigma that carp are junk…