Should you eat sheephead? The short answer is: you owe it to yourself to give them a try.
But it may not be for the reasons you think.
If you want to jump right into my thinking, feel free to skip a couple sections ahead.
But first, I’d like to present some background information.
How we got here
It is amazing what a label can do.
Giving a fish species a certain nickname or designation can completely alter its perception.
This is the case with freshwater drum, also known as sheephead.
Sheephead are classified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a “rough fish.” To many anglers, this immediately puts these fish in the realm of less-than-desirable species.
But this classification simply means they can be legally harvested year-round, sometimes through a variety of methods including netting and spearing, and there is no limit to the number you can keep or possess.
Many anglers who cut their teeth on the Lake Winnebago system were taught from a young age that sheephead are “garbage” fish that should be left for dead because they have a negative impact on walleye production. Some were even taught they are invasive.
None of these things are true.
First of all, freshwater drum are native to Wisconsin. These fish have an impressive natural range that spans across the United States.
Furthermore, when prepared correctly, sheephead can be delicious table fare.
And the data on the correlation between walleye numbers and sheephead numbers in this annual survey is, by my estimates, inconclusive at best.
While it is true that DNR surveys of Lake Winnebago indicate that, since 1986, your average odds of encountering a sheephead on that body of water are 94 times greater than finding a walleye, that doesn’t necessarily mean they alone are responsible for the recent decline in walleye population within the system.
Since 2012, the total adult walleye catch in the annual trawling survey was above the long-term average seven times. In those seven years, the freshwater drum population was under the long-term average in five of them.
In that timeframe, the walleye population increased from the previous year five times. The sheephead population also went up in four of those five years.
And, in 2014, when the adult walleye population was at its highest, so were the estimated sheephead totals.
I’m no mathematician but, in my book, it’s tough to draw any firm conclusions that sheephead play a dramatic role in walleye numbers.
According to the 2021 DNR report, “Although Freshwater Drum are often viewed negatively, they are a native species and serve multiple ecological functions. In the early life stages, Freshwater Drum serve as a forage base for important gamefish species, particularly Walleye on the system. Additionally, Freshwater Drum are a common target of avian predation and could reduce the predation impact on more sought-after gamefish species.”
So why should we eat them?
So if fewer sheephead doesn’t necessarily mean higher numbers of walleye, why should we be eating them?
Because they are abundant and can be delicious!
The next time you are at the boat launch and someone is running their mouth about the taste of sheephead or you’re on the water with a person who turns their nose up at the site of a drum, ask the person if they’ve ever actually eaten one.
I’ve started doing this recently and you’d be shocked by how many people are forced to concede they’ve never actually eaten one of these fish.
Consider this a piece of life advice: don’t take anyone else’s bold statements at face value until you’ve confirmed they are speaking from firsthand experience.
Besides, taste is subjective. Even if someone has tried their hand at eating freshwater drum and didn’t care for them, it doesn’t mean you will feel the same way.
Hell, maybe that person is just bad at cooking.
If you’ve been persuaded to give sheephead a try, the next step is cooking them right way. Here’s what you need to know.
The first step to the correct preparation of sheephead comes long before you start cleaning them.
First and foremost, you need to be harvesting these fish at the right time of year. Sheephead have firm, meaty flesh that is best enjoyed when the fish are taken out of cold water. Spring and fall are the best time to add some freshwater drum to your spread.
Next, the cleaning. Sheephead have a bloodline that runs down the middle of the fillet. This must be removed before cooking.
Then comes the meat itself. It reminds me a lot of tilapia.
The best cuts will be opaque in color. If they are pink or rosy, soak them in a bowl of cold water with a pinch or two of salt. This will draw the blood out of the meat and leave you with a clean fillet. Otherwise, cut around the darker-colored meat.
Now, the cooking. The easiest way to make sheephead is to fry it. Pat the fillets dry, put them in your favorite breading, using only enough to cover the fish, and fry in oil. Cook until golden brown on the first side, flip once, and cook until the other side is the same color.
Serve with seasoning salt, Old Bay, lemon pepper, tartar sauce, or a combination of the four. When fried, sheephead taste just as good as panfish with a milder flavor.
Their sturdiness also makes freshwater drum a great option for fish sandwiches.
Another way to take advantage of how robust the meat is by including sheephead in chowder or soup.
Am I going to tell you that you should forgo walleye and perch altogether and simply target sheephead? Not a chance.
But Sheephead can be a great way to fill out a meal for a large crowd or salvage a slow day on the water and still come home with a meal you’ll enjoy.
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