You Can’t Beat This Drum
OK, I’ll admit it – they’re not the prettiest fish Mother Nature ever came up with, but the Freshwater Drum, a.k.a. “Sheephead”, is one of the most underrated, hardest-fighting, best-eating fish to ever ply the Mississippi River watershed. They’re often categorized with other less desirable fish like carp and suckers. What’s not to love? Drum are prolific, tenacious, easy to catch, seemingly immune to seasonal and weather changes on the water, and delicious table fare.
For those not familiar, drum are common inhabitants of river systems throughout much of the country. I’ve caught them trolling crankbaits for walleyes on the Fox River near the mouth of Green Bay, jigging for early spring walleyes on the middle section of the Wisconsin River, and now on the Mississippi where we were actually targeting them. Drum are voracious feeders that have no problem pouncing on a fast-retrieved artificial or delicately slurping a crawler or minnow right off your jig hook. A great size for eating would be in the 10″ to 16″ range, but these disc-shaped powerhouses can grow to over 30 lbs. The day before we fished with Ted he was pre-fishing the same stretch of the river and said he caught and released a “Mongo” (with apologies to “Blazing Saddles” fans) sized drum that was pushing 25 lbs. He caught it on a baitcasting reel spooled with 20 lb. test Fireline and said it was a 10 minute battle that wore him out. The biggest we boated was around a 10 pounder, followed by a couple in the 5 – 7 lb. range. They were all classic fights with plenty of give and take, clicking drags, and rainbow shaped rods. As Ted pointed out, “If you come to this river with a catch and release ethic and want to hook into a big powerful fish that’ll stretch your string, why would you NOT consider going after a sheephead.
Our shepherd, err… guide, was Captain Ted Peck of Lancaster, Iowa. Ted is an outdoor writer and licensed guide who constantly reminded us of how cool it is to make one’s living in the outdoors. He’s also an amateur comedian who has more jokes and one liners than Carter has pills. With his red hair and mischievous smile, you get the feeling you’re out on the water with a little kid who’s made a career out of playing hooky. A day on the river with Cap’n Ted isn’t something you’ll soon forget.
I suppose you’re wondering just how those fish got in the cooler? Well, it couldn’t have been much easier. We used 1/4 to 1/2 ounce lead jigs in a variety of patterns (some even bare) that were tipped with about a third of a night crawler and a small treble stinger hook. We followed the bubble line and drifted with the current while vertical jigging in 15 – 25 feet of water, just touching the bottom before raking the rod tip up about 3 feet and then letting it settle back to the bottom. The most common scenario is that the drum would take it on the drop with a quick tap-tap-tap motion that reminded me of a slow motion version of a yellow perch bite. Our rods had a variety of line types ranging from 8 lb. mono to 20 lb. Fireline. Lighter tackle is plenty for the smaller, keeper-sized fish but on the chance that you tie into a hog, it’s good to go towards a stouter rig.
OK, Ted proved drum were easy to find, easy to catch, and they could put a tight bend in the rod. Now it was time for him to prove his final claim – that drum are as good or better on the table as anything else that swims in the river. He demonstrated the fillet technique that takes only the back straps, which he calls “fish sticks” while ignoring the belly meat commonly saved on a walleye or catfish. While we didn’t keep any walleyes, we did boat one small catfish that went in the pan as a taste comparison. The fillets were rolled in a seasoned breading and fried in a cast iron skillet on a camp stove. And yes, they were delicious! I’d eat another meal of batter fried sheephead any day!
So, you walleye, perch, and bluegill snobs – stop looking down your nose at a “rough” fish like freshwater drum. Whether you’re fighting them or eating them, it’s time to march to the beat of a different drummer.
Many outdoors people who want to get away from the commercialized and often crowded campsites look to large tracts of federal land that are designated as “Wilderness Areas” for solitude. The only catch is that there is often a limited first-come, first-served permit quota system that was put in place to keep user numbers low and user satisfaction high. If you happen to be in the front of the line, that system will ensure a limited chance of running into other campers as you hike, fish, canoe, or berry pick your way through the property. But what about those who are denied permits – where can they go? Buck up little campers, there’s good news and these wilderness areas may literally be “right next door”.
Land that is set aside as wilderness areas usually need a fairly predictable border that can be figured out by reading a map, signs, and landmarks such as roads or waterways. It’s a way of making the borders user-friendly for campers, surrounding private land owners, and administrators who take care of the land, and it’s simply a matter of convenience to locate and place borders where they’ll be most easily identified and enforced. Now, just because wilderness areas have nice, clean, easy to read borders doesn’t necessarily mean the land on the other side of the road is any less wild. Even if the jurisdiction may change to state or county land ownership, there are still some beautiful and very wild places that require no special permits to use. A recent trip to the wilderness areas of northern Minnesota is a perfect example.
Located just outside Ely, MN, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (www.bwca.com) is one of the most popular and most heavily used wilderness areas in the entire country. It’s sprawling million plus acres that are dotted with lakes and rivers offer campers and canoeists the chance for a true wilderness experience. There’s unmatched fishing, bird watching, and sight seeing that may include a quick glimpse of a moose, bear, or even a timber wolf. With the high demand for permits (over 200,000 users per year) there are bound to be some folks left out in the cold if they don’t have flexible scheduling or advance planning.
A great alternative is to camp in the Superior National Forest, which actually surrounds the BWCA. Our group wasn’t able to secure a permit for the BWCA, but as we canoed towards our campsite located on a granite point jutting out into the lake, there was no doubt that we were in a very, very wild place. Loons ducked under the surface as we paddled past them, wild flowers grew out of the rocky crags, and there was a quiet and calm about the place that reminded us we were far from city life and responsible for our own well being while in these wilderness areas.
I’d like to tell you that we caught so many walleyes we had to ice down our arms right along with the fish, but the truth is that a cold front came blowing in from the north and finding places to fish out of the wind became our priority. We picked up a few fish here and there, but not enough for lunch. Even so, the scenery of the wilderness areas was incredible and we enjoyed the steak dinner our guide, Dean Bushey grilled for us on the wood fireplace he made from native stones lying around camp.
The good news is that the next morning the wind had laid down and we were treated to a great walleye bite with many fish returned to the cold clear water and enough “eating size” fish were kept to be filleted for an outstanding shore lunch.
If we had been dead-set on camping in the BWCA or nothing we would’ve gotten just that – nothing. Thanks to our willingness to try a camping and canoeing trip just outside those hallowed borders, we were able to enjoy the same quality wilderness areas experience without applying for a permit. The next time you’re planning your dream vacation into the back county, a little flexibility may go a long way toward enjoying a satisfying wilderness visit.