Sheepshead Are Not That Baaaaaad

By Scott Stankowski - August 1, 2013
When someone or something gets a bad reputation, it is hard to shake. I realize that this article will change none of that when it comes to the freshwater drum. That is fine with me, because first and foremost, we need to realize everyone marches to the beat to his own drum.

The boys and I took my brother Dan fishing recently on Lake Winnebago. The weather was extremely warm that day and the walleye fishing had slowed. The water temperature had jumped ten degrees in less than a week pushing the walleyes deeper.

That water temperature variant made little difference to the sheepshead, who’s numbers seemingly are high just about anywhere you fish in this system. When I first started fishing the Winnebago chain years ago, I was told that the sheepshead was a garbage fish and that they should be killed off. Use them for fertilizer or feed them to the pelicans is what they would tell me.

For a while I believed them, always getting frustrated when we would have one on. The fish are notorious for getting hooked in the mouth on one treble and then on the gill with the front treble while trolling. This causes them to ‘spin’ when you are reeling them in, making it feel like you either have a big fish on or a stump. When targeting walleyes, it seems as though you are wasting your time tending to these fish.

I began to realize that there had to be more to the sheepshead than what people were saying so I did a little research on them. Sheepshead, also commonly called the freshwater drum or goats, are found in a variety of waterways in Wisconsin. The males make a grunting noise, which researchers are not quite sure the reasoning is, but must have something to do with spawning and territory.

They have specialized stones in their heads that they use for hearing. These calcium stones are sought after by some, they are nearly ivory white and increase in size as the fish ages. People consider them a source of good luck. The sheepshead eat a variety of foods and would be considered opportunistic feeders. The larger ones eat a lot of mussels and actually help the Winnebago system by eating zebra mussels. I have noticed that the larger sheepshead that I catch are usually near the reefs where there is a greater chance of finding zebra mussels in the rocks.

They are a relative of the saltwater drum or redfish. Down south, those fish are considered excellent table fare, so why wouldn’t the ones up here be any different?

We set out in attempt to harvest a few smaller sheepies to see what they would taste like. Crazy? Do not knock it until you try it.

We caught several sheepshead that day and put them in the livewell. When we got done fishing, we drained the livewell according to law and put the fish on immediate ice. This helped cool them down and firm the meat up. Filleting them seemed to be about the same as a white bass and the coloration of the meat was similar especially along the skin side of the fillet. We did nothing more but put them in a light batter and deep fry them that day.

They tasted good. I am a fairly firm believer that no one in a blind taste test could tell the difference between that and walleye or a large perch in a fish fry. Keep in mind that these goats that we ate were fresh, I am not sure what they would do if we froze some of them or if we were to prepared them in a different way. Maybe someday I will take that plunge. First I might try pickling some or putting a few up in the smoker.

The whole point is that this fish is an underrated fish and gets a worse rap than it should. I will eat them again, but only if the walleyes are not biting and that is all that I am catching. I will always throw the fish back and keep them away from pelicans. There are too many pelicans out there as it is, and I do not need to contribute to making them healthier. Plus the sheepshead keep the zebra mussels at bay and the water a little less clear and more normal.

Take the challenge yourself, try one or a couple and you might find yourself saying, “These sheepshead really do not taste all that ‘baaaad’”

Author Scott Stankowski
Scott Stankowski
Scott Stankowski is the senior outdoor writer for centralwisconsinsports.net and produces weekly articles, typically highlighting getting kids active in the outdoors. His family prides itself on living off of the land. Scott also takes the mantra into the classroom where he teaches environmental science at Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School. Scott and his sons have won numerous titles in turkey and deer calling at the state level. Scott and his sons have a national outdoor television show titled Growin' Up Wild and can be found on Facebook.