Young man holding a Freshwater Drum caught in the Flat Rapids area of the French River Delta, Northeastern Ontario, Canada.

Catch the Beat: Fishing for Freshwater Drums

In the heart of Ontario’s waters, where ancient rhythms echo through time, swims a fish that knows how to make waves—both in folklore and on the end of an angler’s line. Meet the Freshwater Drum, affectionately known as the ‘Sheepshead.’ Its drumming beats resonate through the ages, connecting us to Canada’s Indigenous heritage and the pulse of our rivers and lakes. So, grab your rod, listen closely and let’s dance to the rhythm of the Sheepshead!

Freshwater Drum Background and Range

Freshwater Drums (Aplodinotus grunniens) are fascinating fish and are considered one of the most widespread and endemic freshwater fish in North and Central America. They are the only members of about 300 species of Sciaenidae (commonly called Drums or Croakers) to live in freshwater according to Eschmeyer’s Catalog of Fishes, hosted by the California Academy of Sciences.

Infographic Map for the habitat range of Freshwater Drums provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Reported Range of Freshwater Drums recorded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services as of July 6, 2024.

They range as far North as the Hudson Bay drainage of Manitoba in Northern Ontario inhabiting all the Great Lakes except Superior. These fish prefer warmer waters and are more prevalent in rivers and lakes with silty or muddy bottoms. Unlike steelhead, which thrive in Lake Superior’s deeper waters, Freshwater Drum seek shallower river waters for spawning.

They can also be found throughout most of the Eastern Atlantic U.S. following the Missouri River extending as far as Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas as their western boundary. Freshwater Drums are found as far South as Guatemala.

Drum’s Appearance and Two Unique Traits

While they are sometimes confused with Bass, Perch, or Walleye because of their odd body shape, Freshwater Drums are uniquely their own species of freshwater fish even if they also look like distant cousins of Carps or Suckers.

Young man holding a Freshwater Drum caught in the Flat Rapids area of the French River Delta, Northeastern Ontario, Canada.
Adrian with a beautiful French River Freshwater Drum. Photo Credit: Matthew W.

Freshwater Drums have rather oblong bodies with their backs somewhat humped or elevated. The tail is rounded, the snout blunt, and the long dorsal fin extends from the peak of the humped back almost to the tail. Their mouths are subterminal (turned downward) and horizontal with small comb-like teeth on their jaws, deeper in their mouth they have a molar-like structure. Normally, fish with subterminal mouths are bottom feeders. The Freshwater Drum’s lateral line extends into its tail fin.

However, the dorsal fin is nearly separated with the forward part composed of 8–9 spiny rays with the rear portion containing 25–31 soft rays. Their anal fin has 2 spines, the second of which is long and very stout. The upper portion of their body is pearl-grey and sometimes gives off bronze, blue, and silver reflections. Their sides are lighter and silvery; with a milk-white belly.

First Unique Trait

The first unique physical feature of Freshwater Drums is their ability to make grunting or drumming noises which the fish gets its namesake. During calm days and evenings when the fish are near the surface of the water their unique chorus of “drumming” can be heard while fishing. They rapidly contract their uniquely shaped abdominal muscles which beats their swollen swim bladders like drums.

Interestingly, only the males can make these drumming noises which they use as a mating call during their spawning season. This normally lasts from May to July in Ontario with water temperatures of 18°C to 26°C (64.4°F to 78.8°F) according to the Ontario Freshwater Fishes Database.

First Nations’ Indigenous Heritage with Freshwater Drums

The second trait of Sheepshead holds a special place in the cultural heritage of Ontario’s Indigenous Peoples. For centuries, native communities in the Great Lakes region have interacted with this fish, relying on it for sustenance and incorporating it into their traditions. Specifically, the Sheepshead’s otolith (ear bone) became a cherished item that the tribes often transformed into jewelry known as a “lucky stone”.

Infographic of Otoliths from six different fish species and measurements in millimetres: Freshwater Drum, Red Grouper, Northern Pike, Atlantic Cod, Goldeye, Walleye
Upper Left to Right: Freshwater Drum, Red Grouper, and Northern Pike. Bottom Left to Right: Walleye, Goldeye, and Atlantic Cod. Otolith Infographic credit:

The Freshwater Drum’s ear bone is hard like a stone and has a pearl-like sheen. The bone often has either an L-shaped or J-shaped groove. The Freshwater Drum’s otolith is one of the largest in body size compared to other freshwater fish that can be the size of a dime or slightly smaller than a penny.

The Indigenous People would fashion these ear bones into wampums and pendant necklaces as a good luck talisman similar to a “lucky rabbit’s foot” to ward off storms and other types of “Bad Luck”. Because of how durable the Freshwater Drum’s otoliths are, their bones have been found in the remains of 155-million-year-old fish fossils.  According to McClane’s New Fishing Encyclopedia, “[…] excavated [First Nation] village sites indicate that [Freshwater Drums] may have attained sizes as large as 200 pounds.”

Life History and Habitat

Understanding the Freshwater Drum’s life history is crucial to appreciating its role in Ontario’s ecosystems and a deeper understanding of where you can catch them.

Sheepshead Spawning Habits

Freshwater Drums are broadcast spawners, spawning between May to July over large areas in Ontario’s waters. Females will reach sexual maturity by six years old whereas males typically reach maturity at four years old.

According to some sources like the American Fisheries Society, the average female Freshwater Drum can lay between 34,000 to 66,500 eggs between the ages of six to nine years old. Their eggs are buoyant and fertilized randomly in the upper water columns (normally within 10 metres or 33 feet deep) before floating to the water’s surface in Ontario’s many lakes and rivers. Like many other broadcast spawners, Freshwater Drums do not provide any parental care which leaves many of their eggs and spawn vulnerable to predators.

Size and Age

Freshwater Drums can grow quite large, reaching lengths of up to 76 cm (30 inches) and normally weighing 0.91–4.54 kg (2–10 lbs.), but they can grow well over 16 kg (36 lbs.). The record Freshwater Drum, according to the IGFA, was caught in Nickajack Lake in Tennessee weighing 54.5lb (24.72 kg).

They are also a long-lived fish. While the average Freshwater Drum can live between 6 – 13 years in the wild. Despite a 60% loss of the population annually, the oldest record Freshwater Drum was 72 years old and found in Red Lakes, Minnesota according to the American Fisheries Society.

Diet & Conservation Status

Ontario’s freshwater fish fauna has evolved significantly over the years. Invasive species, habitat alterations, and other factors have also caused native fish populations to decline, while others have thrived. The Sheepshead, too, has experienced fluctuations in its abundance and distribution.

Freshwater Drums are largely bottom feeders who developed impressively strong jaws and molar-like teeth that allow them to crush and shuck the shells around freshwater mussels which is their primary diet. They will also consume the likes of baitfish, crayfish, fish eggs, and various insects.

Because of their unusual diet from many other freshwater fish, Freshwater Drums have played a small part in the Great Lakes conservation efforts in destroying and eating invasive Zebra Mussels and invasive Rusty Crayfish in Ontario that compete with native mussels and crayfish.

As a by-product of the Drum’s diet, the remains of broken mussel shells help create a natural artificial structure called “mussel beds”. Many species of nest-building fish like Bass will reinforce their gravel beds or make entire shell beds from the mussel shells. Other species of broadcast spawners like Walleye will also spawn over mussel beds for their eggs to adhere to. The mussel beds also accumulate algae growth attracting crayfish and other algae eaters to an easy food source.

How to Catch Freshwater Drum in Ontario?

Depending on the weather and time of the season, fishing Freshwater Drums can be just like Bass or Walleye fishing in Ontario. Many anglers’ first Drum tends to be caught when targeting either of the other mentioned fish species with very similar rod and reel combinations for Walleye.

Recommended Gear and Bait:

  • Rod and Reel: Use a medium-heavy-power spinning or casting rod and reel combo.
  • Bait: Natural baits like baitfish and nightcrawlers are effective with jigs or finesse lures like dropshots or ned rigs typically in 12 to 18 metres (40 to 60 feet) of water during Summer.
  • Lures: Plastic and rubber Bass lures mimicking crayfish and minnow baits will work in the Spring and Fall season. Spinners, spoons, crankbaits, bladebaits, and jerkbaits that can catch Smallmouth will also work for Freshwater Drums.


In summary, the Freshwater Drum embodies a rich tapestry of Indigenous Heritage, ecological significance, and recreational value. As we explore its past and present, we uncover a remarkable fish that bridges tradition and modern angling pursuits. This unique species continues the rhythm and flow of Ontario’s fishery and circle of life.

So, gear up to catch the beat with the Freshwater Drum!

Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B., Outdoor Writer and Nationally Published Author & Photographer. A member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association of Canada


Eschmeyer, William N.; Fricke, Ron & van der Laan, Richard (eds.). “Genera in the family Sciaenidae”. Catalog of Fishes. California Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 7 July 2024

Ruminski, J. (2016, April 19). The Sheepshead: A true great lakes underdog. NCC: Land Lines.

The Ohio State University & Ohio Sea Grant. (2010, December 9). What is an Otolith? Web Archive. (n.d.). Freshwater Drum (sheepshead). Ontario Freshwater Fishes Database.

McClane, A. J., Younger, R. E., & Watkins, F. (1974). McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide (pp. 407-408). Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Swedberg, Donald V. and C.H. Walburg. Spawning and Early Life History of the Freshwater Drum in Lewis and Clark Lake, Missouri River. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society. Volume 99, Issue 3, 1970.

Rypel, A.L., D.R. Bayne, and J.B. Mitchell. 2006. Growth of freshwater drum from lotic and lentic habitats in Alabama. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 135: 987-997.