Bringing in the Sheepshead

Tasting proves this ‘trash fish’ isn’t half bad

It started with a text message to the local fishmonger:

Hey, can u get me sheepshead for Fri or Sat pickup?

What?

Sheepshead, aka freshwater drum, from the lake.

I know what it is.

I need sum. Don’t want to have to go to docks. Can you get for this weekend?

I got 3 pieces coming tomorrow.

My guy says they’re free.

Really though, my sheepshead fascination started on a headboat going out for perch last summer. The perch weren’t biting, but the sheepshead most definitely were. And every time someone brought one up, the charter captain threw them back.

Throwing them back probably isn’t the best description of what the gentleman was doing. More accurately, he would melodically sing “bringing in the sheep, bringing in the sheep,” while attempting to hurl the fish from starboard to port over the shade cloth protecting us from the sun. Each time I asked if he minded if I kept one. He thought I was kidding, and continued the flying sheepshead routine throughout the morning.

Such is the public opinion of Aplodinotus grunniens Rafinesque, colloquially sheepshead, the freshwater drum caught in Lake Erie. Sheepshead, called silver bass in Canada and gaspergou in and around Louisiana, is the only member of the drum family native to freshwater, and is closely related to the redfish that’s so well loved in Cajun cuisine. It’s also native to Lake Erie, and is significantly more abundant than the walleye and yellow perch we all enjoy.

Every region has its so-called “trash fish.” Monkfish, black bass, even lobster all had to conquer bad reputations before becoming revered as the prime table fare they are today. And they didn’t gain acceptance overnight. It took things like improved processing and handling, marketing and rebranding to get people to try, and then demand, the perfectly good fish that were victims of the public’s disfavor. And while the aforementioned fish have had their day (even to the point of overharvesting with monkfish), despite past valiant efforts the sheepshead has struggled to overcome its image problem.

So to get a better understanding of what people need to do to get the most out of sheepshead, I spoke with David Kelch, the Ohio Sea Grant Extension Specialist who literally wrote the book (OK, the pamphlet) on the subject, “A Guide to Utilizing the Freshwater Drum,” first published by Ohio State University in 1982 and available online. Kelch was kind enough to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the underutilized sheepshead, and provided us with some ground rules for making sure we get the most out of this overlooked resource.

  • Ice the fish right after it’s caught. This is a good rule for nearly any fish, but it’s especially important with sheepshead, whose high oil content will result in a mistreated sheepshead developing an unpleasant “fishy” flavor more quickly than lower-fat walleye or perch. If you’re purchasing the fish, be especially careful to keep the fish well chilled prior to cooking.
  • Filet and skin the fish as soon as you’re back at the dock or at home. Sheepshead are not best enjoyed whole and on the bone, or head-on and split as many enjoy the also underutilized white bass. Unless you’re looking for strong flavor, you want them skinless and boneless, with the belly meat and lateral line (it’s red) removed. Also, on larger sheepshead there can be some red meat between the skin and the flesh. Remove that too. Basically, trim off all skin, bones and red meat. This is especially important with larger sheepshead.
  • Eat them fresh. Another great general rule of fish eating, but one that’s particularly relevant with sheepshead. Because of their high oil content, sheepshead don’t keep as well as perch or walleye. While they can be successfully frozen for a couple of months, we don’t recommend it.
  • Use the right recipe for the right fish. For smaller fish (12 to 15 inches) Kelch suggests treating them just as you would walleye: dredge or batter and fry, being careful not to overcook them. Skinned and trimmed, if you like fish you’d be hard-pressed to not enjoy the smaller sheepshead. Kelch’s pamphlet has suggestions for how to use the bigger fish (20+ inches), including creating mock lobster and shrimp dishes. We particularly like the two featured recipes for cooking with larger sheepshead. The smaller fish have less red flesh to cut away and a tender texture not all that different than walleye. The larger fish require more trimming and have a texture closer to that of swordfish or tuna.

Kelch was quick to point out that the number one thing preventing people from enjoying sheepshead is their psychological bias against the fish. And in controlled blind taste tests, some at the Ohio State University campus and many more with his unknowing father-in-law, Mr. Kelch concluded that it’s not the fish itself that is the obstacle. Instead, it’s simply how the fish is handled, processed and prepared. If you doubt Kelch’s wisdom, next time you’re talking to a lake fisherman ask him or her for an opinion on eating sheepshead—we can just about guarantee the response will be something along the lines of “They’re gross.” Next, ask the fisherman if he or she has ever tried eating one— nine out of 10 times (conservatively) the response will be in the negative. Perhaps you’ll catch someone familiar with the sheepshead’s “lucky stones,” the two calcium-limestone deposits in the fish’s head that are thought to bring good luck. But it’s unlikely you’ll meet someone who has actually tasted the filets. I have, and they can be quite good.

As for obtaining sheepshead, they are fun to catch and provide a nice fight. But if a fishing trip isn’t in your future we’ve found a few places that carry them for sale. Kate’s Fish, at the West Side Market (call ahead on a Monday or Tuesday to secure a Friday or Saturday delivery), and Port Clinton Fish, in Port Clinton, which is a great source for any Lake Erie fish needs (again, we suggest calling first). Expect to be shocked with how little this local protein costs. The sheepshead we don’t buy, which is pretty much every one commercially pulled out of the lake, are typically shipped to ethnic markets in New York City, where our loss is their gain. An added bonus: Sheepshead are caught by Ohio fishermen—you can’t say that about walleye.

In the 1880s those who fished Lake Erie believed yellow perch were poisonous. Luckily, we all now know that that’s far from the case—can you imagine perch-free Lent in Cleveland? Similarly, sheepshead have been subjected to an underserved prejudice brought on by a lack of understanding, except unlike with yellow perch it hasn’t gone away. We can change that. So let’s stop calling the sheepshead trash fish and start eating it. We know better now.