Drum or Sheepshead?

Drum or Sheepshead?
Big black drum caught while using blue crab for bait.

There are still a few people out there who can’t tell the difference between a black drum and a sheepshead, but not many. One belongs to the drum family, and the other to the porgy family. Both provide serious action in March, because they’re spawning and hungry. With rare exceptions, both feed almost exclusively on shellfish. That means shrimp, oysters, crabs, or barnacles. And sometimes, even freshwater crawfish.

First, the big drum spawners, growing to 50 pounds or so in Texas waters, are happy to chew on half of a blue crab. These monster drum bunch up in deeper holes with good tidal flow, like any of the jetties or Texas City Dike. Or deep harbors, like Galveston’s. For shore-bound anglers, these are the biggest fish they’re likely to encounter during the year.

These all-important blue crab as drum bait may be hard to find in March; the water might still be too cold and crabs sluggish, still buried in the mud. Crab traps soaking in the bays might take two days to catch a few. It’s better to find a seafood dealer and determine which days a trapper will return with a basket of crabs. If you have a choice, pick the biggest, angriest male crabs still alive. Skip the limp, smaller crabs, though any crab is better than none when targeting spawning drum on the coast. It’s much less time-consuming to just buy a dozen crabs. They can be kept alive clicking and irritable, in your refrigerator the night before a trip, if you cover the container with a wet cloth.

As I showed a small group on a bridge one day, pop the crab’s shell off and toss it overboard for chum. Then, cut the crab down the middle, creating two baits. Ease your big circle hook through the crab’s short paddle leg, right at the base when the joint is rubbery. Leave the hook entirely exposed. You want that hook to sink into drum lip, not get wadded up in hard crab shell.

Toss that half-crab out into deeper water from 15 to 30 feet, using 30- to 50-pound line, with ample lead to hold bottom in a current. I’ve always done best on an incoming tide. Get hooked up to a giant drum, and it will be “just you and him,” as my Cajun neighbor used to say.

These big brutes have to be released; they’re the spawners and rather inedible, anyway. Smaller, more tasty drum up to 28 inches are more scattered but can be targeted at the base of jetty rocks. That means they’re on sand bottom, seldom higher up in the rocks. One of the guides in POC has caught countless slot-sized black drum by using a depth finder and anchoring above where the sand meets rocks some 20-30 feet down. He uses an egg weight on the sand with only four inches of 30-40 pound leader, to keep that shrimp  anchored on bottom. When Mr. Drum samples the shrimp, the hollow egg weight telegraphs the nibble up the line. These drum put up an obstinate fight and are usually welcome during a long day of jetty fishing, with only a 3-redfish bag limit. Add five legal drum to the box, and you’ve got a pile of fillets.

What can you say about sheepshead? Texas has more of these structure-loving fish than any other state. Structure includes eight rock jetties, Galveston’s rock groins on the beach, platforms both inshore and offshore, shrimpboat wrecks undiscovered, and deep commercial harbors offering complete protection from fishing pressure. And a 5-fish bag limit established decades before other states. These fish aren’t frequently targeted in Texas, except for jetty walkers found aplenty at South Padre and Port Aransas. The favorite fish of winter Texans. More isolated jetties, available only to boaters, obviously carry more sheepshead. These would include Sabine jetties, most of the Galveston jetties, and Port O’Connor’s Matagorda Ship Channel jetties. Those are the three venues where we used to easily fill the box before bag limits arrived.

Catching sheepies during their winter and early spring feeding frenzy is almost a no-brainer, unless you lack sufficient bait. Or the bite is slow because of muddy water, outgoing tide and a north wind. Anchor at the jetty on a warm or even foggy day, drop down a live shrimp in 10-20 feet of water, and see what happens. Or use a float near the rocks. That first nibble won’t take long.

Since these fish favor hard structures like pilings or rocks, where they spend their days tugging on barnacles and young oysters, it’s best to use a hard line, like 20-pound Ande. Or braided line, which telegraphs the subtle bite these fish are famous for. Forget the circle hooks, use a sharp J-hook in the 2/0 size. Even so, the hook will bounce right out of their hard mouths that are reinforced with flat, sheep-like teeth. (Thus the name). We always used baitcasting tackle, to horse these fish away from structure; spin tackle seemed inadequate. We also used bare jigheads, which eliminated using a leader and lead weight that might also snag a rock.

 My standard sheepshead trip was to anchor in 20 feet of water near the jetty, and drop down 2-ounce bank sinkers on homemade, 40-pound mono leaders. These weights could often be jiggled loose from rocky snags. Pyramid and eggs sinkers were useless, snagging repeatedly with many breakoffs. We caught lots of sheepshead and lost some tackle, too. I had people releasing anything under four pounds because with these fish, the fillets are small compared to overall body weight. Plus, I had to clean them. A dozen bigger fish was ample work on the fillet table, using an electric fillet knife. It all yielded a tasty pile of fillets that some people have described as tasting like crab.

Those two-ounce bank sinkers worked so well, I bought a mold to make them, melting down used wheel weights. Unfortunately that mold made different sizes, which slowed the process of filling a coffee can with 2-ounce weights kept in my boat. Another captain in POC, Joe Surovik, had a rare mold that made four or five two-ounce bank sinkers at a time, the only one I’ve ever seen. With it, we could make a pile of weights on a windy day (that carried away the fumes). A can could last several years, depending on how many trips we made to the jetties. Two ounces of lead might sound like a lot, but I wanted something that would zip that bait down 20 feet, without wasting time. It didn’t take long for sheepshead to find it and latch on.  

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