Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, are one of the most widely distributed fish in North America. They range from northern Canada to the southern United States and are found in both warm water lakes and rivers. Although related to redfish, they are certainly overlooked as fly rod targets. With their downward-pointing mouth, they look like they would be far more interested in picking up a dead minnow off the bottom.
Surprisingly, they take flies with enthusiasm – even abandon! With bodies shaped like the large plates on an Olympic weightlifter’s barbell, they fight stubbornly. They understand the effect of surface area on drag forces and have a real knack for getting broadside to strong currents. In the hand, drum sport a refined, monochromatic suit of silver and some even take on bronze hues.
Where I live in southern Manitoba, the drum go on a rampage in May and June, especially in larger rivers. Although they can be caught at any time of the year, in the spring they seem hyper-aggressive and I always plan a trip or two to chase them. They are not glamorous but I cannot pass up an almost sure-fire connection with these hard pulling fish.
Below a large dam is one of my favorite drum holes. Another is the concrete structure where a flood diversion channel pours into the river. The best flies are weighted representations of minnows, crayfish, or large Hex nymphs. Because of their bulky profile, I also have a lot of confidence in Whistlers with some lead on their shank. Discolored water means that bright colors are very prominent in my fly box. Perhaps my favorite fly – largely because it is so easy to tie – is a white Woolly Bugger with lead eyes and a crystal chenille body but without the palmered hackle.
As far as presentation is concerned, I do whatever it takes to keep the fly on the bottom. Lead eyes, a 9 foot mono leader, and a floating line – combined with a slightly upstream cast – find the bottom in most situations. Imparting a jigging action to the fly as it drifts downstream and swings is deadly. The muscle of a single-handed 9 weight is great for casting heavy flies and dealing with drum that can reach 2 feet in diameter. (Notice that I said diameter and not length!) A 9 weight also helps subdue any large catfish and carp that might be lurking alongside the drum. If water depth or current speed make it necessary, I switch to a 15 foot sink tip or a Streamer Express line and shorten the leader to about 4 feet. Whatever the leader length, I never go below a 15 pound test due to the abundance of rocks and snags.
Lately, I have been using a 7 weight switch rod for a lot of my drum fishing. The water is often high and fast in the spring and the drum are in tight to the bank. My spey casting is not very polished but with 30 feet of line outside the rod tip I can efficiently cover all the water I want. A 9 weight Wulff Ambush line and a 10 foot Rio VersaLeader work well for this. A spey casting purist might argue that what I’m doing is a glorified version of high stick nymphing but it gets me fish.
As mentioned earlier, I am a bit paranoid about my flies not being on the bottom so they are almost always weighted. Although the weighted flies make long distance spey casts difficult (for me, anyways!), an overhand cast can shoot out the needed line if the riverbank isn’t too close. Again, if water depth or current speed increases beyond a certain point, I switch back to my 9 weight and the Streamer Express line.
Tactics aside, if you want to have some fun and catch drum in the spring, simply get out there and start fishing for’em! If there is a large, warm water river close by, there is a good chance it contains drum. You can even use your spey rod! In the future, I hope to strengthen my spey game and maybe even trade the switch rod for a full-on spey outfit.
(P.S. Type “life history of freshwater drum” into Google if you want to learn more about these interesting fish.)