How Old Is That Goat?

By Ted Peck - October 1, 2012
With the catch-and-release ethic so much a part of sport fishing in the 21st century you would think the freshwater drum would be King instead of "The Goat".

Drum, a.k.a. sheephead and many less glorious terms, is the Rodney Dangerfield of rough fish. This designation in itself is little more than piscatory racism. The drum is a hard fighter, willing biter and exceptional table fare.

I believe sheephead should be elevated at least to "sport fish" status like white bass, although gamefish designation is certainly deserved. Drum fight better than walleye and taste better than bass.

If these credentials aren't enough, drum should at least gain respect for their longevity. Becker's frequently cited reference book indicates the maximum age of fish in Wisconsin is about 17 years.

Two fish are notable exceptions: sturgeon and drum. Sturgeon can live to be centenarians. Drum ? Wisconsin's oldest goat was sampled by fisheries personnel in Lake Winnebago in the 1980's. It was 70 years old.

The oldest sheephead ever sampled was just a year older, living in Red Lake, Mn. which is essentially at the same latitude as Lake Winnebago. Data from other fisheries sources indicates drum in Alabama only live to be about 30.

Wisconsin is clearly in contention for Goat Capitol of North America. Tourism wonks in the Fox River Valley are missing a golden opportunity. Lake Winnebago is arguably the epicenter of Sheepasaurus residency in America's Dairyland.

For over 55 years commercial fishermen have done their best to remove drum from Lake Winnebago. They have failed miserably.

Drum frequently live into their 30's and 40's, producing viable eggs on an almost annual basis throughout their lifetime.

Dr. Ronald Bruch's expansive study on freshwater drum in Lake Winnebago indicates a female sturgeon living to age 80 will likely spawn 15 times. But a 50-year-old drum will successfully deposit eggs 45 times.

The oldest recorded drum in Bruch's multi-year study was 58 years old. A dominant year class entered the fishery in 1983. There is a good chance that the "monster walleye" which pulls your planer board almost under water will morph into a drum from the class of '83. Fully 35% of drum sampled in a 2008 survey were from this year class.

These fish are now 29 and doin' fine.

DNR fisheries manager Ryan Koenigs says sheephead in the Lake Winnebago biomass outnumber walleyes "at least 10 to 1".

Predicting a walleye's age is easy by merely looking at length. This is not true with drum.

"A 13 inch long drum is somewhere between six and 40 years old," Koenigs said "growth rate in adult drum is like that in female sturgeon-it varies greatly among individuals of the same age."

Dr. Bruch used carbon dating to determine age in his study which was published last year. Sheephead have "lucky stones" in their heads, which can be almost half-dollar size in a big drum.

The technical term for lucky stones is saggital otoliths. These bony, oval shaped growths have a core and develop growth rings similar to a tree. Carbon dating provides accurate insight into the age of goats which have given their lives to further scientific research.

How noble is that? Drum fight hard, bite willingly, taste great and can be older than the folks who catch them. These traits deserve respect.

Do not disdain the lowly drum. He is a King and not a bum. He will respond when the bite is tough: a gamefish, not a fish that's rough.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.