eating freshwater drum


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I am here to tell you that freshwater drum, also called gaspergou, are good to eat. They are not overly different from their saltwater cousins, and, when treated right, are great table fare. Here are some tips on cooking freshwater drum, along with some freshwater drum recipes at the end.

Two freshwater drum, gaspergou, ready to be cleaned.

Aplodinotus grunniens, called sheephead by many, is the only freshwater member of the drum family in America, and is widespread and abundant. I’ve caught them as far apart as Manitoba and Louisiana, and in the Great Lakes as well as rivers.

No one ever told me that eating freshwater drum wasn’t a thing, so when I first started catching them in Minnesota back in about 2002, I simply cooked them like what they looked like to me — kinda like a really big porgy, or an oddly shaped croaker.

Turns out they are cousins to croakers, as well as redfish and black drum, among other species. When I learned that all those years ago, I simply treated them like other drum in the kitchen.

freshwater drum diet

Diet affects flavor, so it’s worth knowing. Gaspergou love shellfish when they can get them, especially zebra mussels and other small, freshwater bivalves. They also eat a lot of crawfish when they’re around.

Early in their development, freshwater drum primarily eat insects; this is also a big-ticket item in springtime for all sized fish. Once the summer hits, they often switch to fish, notably gizzard shad. This can make sheephead noticeably oily — great for smoking.

Catching a freshwater drum.

Prepping Gaspergou

Over the years, I’ve noticed that eating freshwater drum has become more popular, and I suspect that’s because more anglers are prepping them with care. First and foremost, gaspergou can get mushy if they’re allowed to heat up after the catch: So bring ice!

But if you forgot ice, keep them alive in your boat’s live well, or on a stringer, until you get ready to go home.

The next step is to bleed the fish. This is important, because bleeding keeps the meat white and clean, and helps prevent it from getting soft. Simply use your fingers, a knife or shears to cut the fish’s gills, then put them in a bucket of water or over the side on a stringer to bleed out for about 15 to 20 minutes. Then ice them.

Cooking freshwater drum depends on their size. Large ones can be filleted like any other drum, porgy, or bass-like fish; gaspergou have large, heavy ribs so you might want to use shears to get through them; otherwise you will dull your knife. They do not have any “extra” bones like pike or carp.

Smallish sheephead are best cooked whole, scaled and gutted, with the gills cut out.

Large freshwater drum fillets can be kept scales-on for a version of the classic Louisiana dish redfish on the halfshell, which is normally done with the saltwater red drum. The scales offer protection from the heat of the grill, and since you never flip the fish in this recipe, it comes out perfect.

A freshwater drum recipe: drum on the halfshell.

freshwater drum texture

If you’ve prepped them correctly, the texture of freshwater drum can be very firm, firmer than most other freshwater fish. I liken it to grouper or even sturgeon.

This has lead some cooks to cut the fillets into strips and simmer them — sometimes in 7-Up, like burbot — and serve them as “poor man’s shrimp.” I don’t love this recipe, because while the fish is OK, it’s really not very shrimp-like. I prefer other methods, detailed below.

You can cook freshwater drum like any other fish, but keep in mind it won’t be as tender and flaky as, say, a walleye. Think firm and meaty.

freshwater drum recipes

My favorite ways of eating freshwater drum are grilling and smoking. While you can fry sheephead, they are often so firm it can weird some people out if they’re expecting, say, the texture of fried catfish.

If you do fry gaspergou, use the method I use for fried flounder, which is a pretty standard flour-egg wash-breadcrumb dredge. This helps the breading stick to the fish.

Simmered and stewed dishes take advantage of drum’s firmness, however, so use freshwater drum in any fish stew you want, and especially in place of catfish in my catfish courtbuillon recipe.

The following are all recipes that will work well for freshwater drum:

catfish courtbuillon recipe


This is a lighter, slightly more refined version of the traditional Cajun dish. See above for fish substitutions if you don't have catfish. The sauce reheats well, but the fish needs to be eaten as soon as it's been sauced. Served with simple steamed rice.
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fish on the half shell recipe

Grilled Fish on the ‘Half Shell’

Classic Louisiana redfish on the half shell, which can be made with a variety of fish species.
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A grilled pompano recipe, Mexican style.

Mexican Grilled Whole Fish

Grilled whole drum or pompano or other fish, marinated in an annatto-based sauce from southern Mexico, then grilled.
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Southern Fish stew recipe

Southern Fish Stew

I made this with sheepshead, but you can use any fish that is firm, freshwater or saltwater. If you can’t find Conecuh, use whatever smoked sausage you like. 
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A Cajun seafood gumbo recipe

Seafood Gumbo

This is a rich seafood gumbo that can be made with whatever combination of seafood suits you. I'd choose shrimp and/or crab, plus some fish. Smoked fish or smoked oysters is a good choice. too. You need to make a broth for this recipe. Use this crab broth recipe, adding fish bones or shrimp shells to it if you have them. 
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A bowl of perch chowder.

Lake Erie Chowder

A great chowder focusing on the flavors of the Lake Erie region. Perch, walleye and freshwater drum are all great candidates here. Be sure to use smoked sausage.
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Italian glutton's style fish in a bowl

Calabrian Fish, ‘Glutton’s Style’

This is not quite a sauce, not quite a stew. It's a piece of fish, floured and seared in olive oil, briefly stewed with seared onions, tomatoes, capers and green olives. Damn good. Have lots of good crusty bread around when you serve to get all that sauce.
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Goan fish curry in a serving bowl

Goan Fish Curry

You can use any firm fish here. There are a few unusual ingredients here, like the fenugreek and the tamarind. Fenugreek will be in most spice sections of larger supermarkets. It adds a lot and I recommend you look for it at least, although you can leave it out.
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Closeup of albondigas de pescado, Mexican fish balls

Mexican Fish Balls

These fish balls can be made with most fish, and can either be deep fried at 350°F until golden brown, or poached in salted water and then served in a light chile-tomato broth.
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A plate of Spanish green sauce over fish

Fish with Spanish Green Sauce

Hake is traditional for this recipe, but any firm fish works with this fresh, herby sauce, including freshwater drum.
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If you liked and of these recipes, please leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating and a comment below; I’d love to hear how everything went. If you’re on Instagram, share a picture and tag me at @huntgathercook.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Interesting. I’m sure they are good but they aren’t the fish I know as sheepshead. On the Alabama Gulf Coast where I grew up and here in NC, sheepshead is a salt or maybe also brackish water fish with stripes, also called convict fish. They are fun to catch and taste great because they eat barnacles and other shellfish.

    I find fish names and their multiple uses fascinating. I don’t recall ever catching freshwater drum but it sounds like I missed out.

  2. We enjoy drum! Courtbouillon is my favorite. I’ve had fried, fillets. it was firmer, but good. I also can other fish and thought canning drum for croquettes would be like the German carp, which I love. It’s not. Don’t even try. LoL The poor cats didn’t care for it either.

  3. Thanks for giving some love to the Freshwater Drum. Here in Iowa I get into a few every year. I have used the fish on the half shell recipe on the pellet grill and it always comes out great. Last drum I did that with, I used for the meat in your “My Tunafish Sandwich” recipe from “Hook Line and Supper” it was fantastic. What is your take on freezing freshwater drum? I have heard that it doesn’t freeze well.

    1. Michael: I’ve frozen it, vacuum sealed, and it keeps pretty well for a few months. It can be oily, though, which will limit its freezing time.

  4. I’ve also found freshwater drum to be an excellent fish for pickling. It’s a nice firm fish.

  5. My Dad used to poach fillets of a fish he called ‘sheephead’ in Mom’s home canned stewed tomatoes. Think this might be the freshwater drum you’re talking about here. All I know is that the fish was firm and great tasting. And my brother hated catching them–claimed they tasted muddy. Don’t laugh but Dad archery fished carp and pressure canned them for making fish cakes in the winter. The game wardens on the lakes in our area loved it that Dad caught the limit every day and took them home; he really thinned out the numbers that were forcing out other fish. Other fishermen caught carp too but they usually threw them away.

  6. Never understood the prejudices against this fish. I do a lot of spearfishing in the great lakes and we eat a lot of drum in many of the ways listed here. I will add that although the whole fillets may not be ideal for frying, I cut them in to strips and fry them for fish tacos and they are mouthwatering good. Hank’s fish taco recipe here would be a good start!

  7. Greetings Mr. Hank, Joseph from lakes in Hill country Texas formed by Colorado river, lots of silver and Black Drum , folks here on lake LBJ fish mainly largemouth and release, very under fished lake most folks fish lake Buchanan , Stripers , I like Buffalo my largest 60 pounds , so hot here 106 yesterday surface temp 85 , any tips for Drum in this hot weather ??

    1. Joseph: Oof. That’s hot! I’d bleed them then get them in an ice water slurry ASAP. That should help.

  8. Perfect timing Hank. My walleye fishing friends trolling out of Rocky River in Cleveland hate catching them. I kept one the other day. Filleted and fried it and was telling everyone how firm the flesh was. Will definitely keep more and try some of your recipes.