We are lucky here in Ontario to have the ability to target a variety of types of game fish throughout the seasons. In addition to opportunities for popular sought-after species, we also have access to alternate types of fish that are open to be targeted without any seasonal closures. One of these alternate species that I enjoy catching is the freshwater drum, also known as a sheepshead. To some the "sheep" may not be the prettiest of fish, but they are certainly one of the strongest fighters I have experienced in freshwater. Your arms will be sore after a good day of drum (or heck, even after just one big one) and that’s nothing at all to complain about!
Sheepshead can grow quite large, especially when they reside in the Great Lakes and the connecting waters. They vary in colour from silvery-white to bronze or even brown depending on the water clarity. Mature males make a drumming/grunting sound, which is where their name originates. Their features and size attribute to the powerful fight they put up when on the end of your line. Fairly flat but thick-bodied, their large tails and fins allow them to motor through the water quite quickly. If you haven’t caught one yet, you’ll learn just how powerful when you do get the chance to reel one in. At the moment, my arms are recovering from a couple days of catching several sheepshead and even a potential personal best.
For most anglers, sheepshead are an incidental catch while targeting other species such as walleye. I’d be lying if I didn’t include myself in that statement, but I have set out to target them on occasion (typically in the spring in a river setting). I have witnessed enormous schools of them during the spring and summer months, which is quite a sight to see. At this time of year, sheepshead can be found schooled up and roaming offshore feeding on small fish and baitfish (like gizzard shad). They’re said to feed heavily on small fish and bait throughout the fall months, whereas during the spring they feed more on aquatic insects.
On a recent outing on the Bay of Quinte, walleye was the desired targeted species but as the bite dropped right off, the sheepshead got fired up and were biting throughout the day. It’s hard to complain about that type of action, especially with the size of some of these fish. I had a blast aboard my boat with my boyfriend Eric and our friend Barna, who traveled from Toronto to spend the day on the water with us.
A few years ago, I was out with a group of friends and landed the biggest sheepshead any of us had seen, which we thought to be around 20 pounds. We unfortunately didn’t weigh it before releasing it. On my most recent outing, I landed a sheepshead weighing in at a whopping 19 pounds. It could very well be my new personal best. It was quite a thrill bringing this fish in, and I had my work cut out for me as it was tearing off more line each time I gained on it and had it closer to the boat.
During recent outings, I have been fishing in various water depths and running crankbaits between 18 to 30 feet down targeting the actively feeding suspended fish. The hottest bait over the past few trips has been a Berkley Flicker Minnow in Purple Bengal (size 11). A Rapala Deep Tail Dancer (size 11) in Purpledescent was also an effective lure. As for trolling speed, I've been sticking with around 1.5 miles per hour up to 1.8 miles per hour. I’ll look for schools of bait and schooling fish on my sonar, and then cruise through the area following the contour lines on the map as they create a funnel which fish travel along.
If you haven’t had the chance to chase some sheep, it’s a great time of year to get into them. Just like it is a great time for big walleye, you could also be in store for some big sheep action! The Ontario freshwater drum record is currently 21.53 pounds, caught on the Bay of Quinte. Perhaps the next record will come out of there as well? Time will tell. There are certainly giants roaming, and I look forward to catching some more of them!