Dear Straight Dope:
I'm from St. Louis, MO. And I've grown up in a big fishing family. Now I've been around a lot of lakes, but one thing always amazes me. In the Lake of the Ozarks there is a fish called a drum. It is the most useless and depressing fish in the world. The thing never dies, you can stand there with a club and whack it for a long time, it'll live. You can't eat 'em, so all they do is get huge. I've caught my fair share, and you think you have a great bass or something that's useful. You're all excited and stuff and you reel it in, bring out the net and you see the ugliest thing you can ever imagine. A useless DRUM. Tell me, WHAT DOES THIS THING DO!!!
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
Let’s say the freshwater drum isn’t an attractive, interesting, tasty fish (ignoring for the moment that there are folks who say it is all those things). A forty-pounder that puts up a good fight on your line is NOT a useless fish. Some people would be happy to catch a forty-pound ANYTHING, assuming it isn’t, say, an inner tube. Get with the program, Tony … you call yourself a fisherman?
Drums belong to the family Sciaenidae and there are several kinds. The Pogonias cromis is the saltwater drum, the red drum (popularly prepared in Cajun country as “blackened redfish”) is classified as Sciaenops ocellatus and your “never say die” boy is the freshwater drum, Aplodinotus grunniens. “Grunniens” means grunting; the mature males have a special set of muscles that vibrate against the swim bladder making a noise underwater that resembles the sound of a distant drum. The purpose of this drumming is unknown, but is probably related to why a lot of men drum and why gorillas beat their chests — it’s all about reproduction and being more butch than the other guy. When you take them out of the water they also croak like bullfrogs. The drum has an earbone called an “otolith” which has white enameled surfaces almost like ivory. These otoliths are sometimes made into jewelry and were kept by early people as lucky, protective amulets (presumably after they ate the fish).
The freshwater drum, also known as the sheepshead, thunderpumper, bubbler, grinder, white perch (maybe they’d taste better if you called ’em that), gaspergou, goo, croaker, silver bass or grunt, is a deep-bodied silvery fish with a hump-backed appearance and a range extending from the Great Lakes to Guatemala. It is a bottom-feeding species with a diet of immature insects, crayfish, minnows and mollusks. They even eat live mussels and snails, crushing the shells in the gizzard.
Most fishermen use earthworms or crayfish as bait, but you can also catch them using other natural or artificial baits or even wet flies. The freshwater drum is an important commercial and sport fish in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, so apparently a lot of people do eat them. Commercial harvest in the Mississippi has been over 300,000 pounds each year in the past decade.
The problem may be that you don’t know how to cook drums. They lose their flavor quickly if they aren’t filleted and put on ice promptly, but putting the live fish on ice is another way to preserve them until you get home. So stop with the clubbing — apart from prematurely killing the fish, it’s not going to make for the ideal table presentation.
I mentioned that the red drum is often blackened in Cajun cuisine, and you can prepare the freshwater drum this way, too. It is a low oil fish, so you have to be careful not to dry them out when you cook them. Pan or deep frying them is recommended, as is smoking as long as you don’t heat them for too long. Some people say they are as good, or better, than the walleye as an eating fish. For a variety of freshwater drum recipes, including drum au gratin with mushrooms, drum jambalaya, Italian baked freshwater drum and oven-barbecued freshwater drum, go here.
Maybe it’s not the fish that’s depressing but the fact that you’re fishing in a lake in Missouri. For some real fishing, bring a fly rod out to New Mexico and try the Rio Brazos. Mmm, cutthroat trout!
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