June 30, 2012
By Matt Straw
The freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens to you Latin-speaking folks out there) has more aliases than a room full of criminals. Up north we call them sheepshead, but that's just confusing to anglers in the South, who may pursue an entirely different species in the Gulf of Mexico also called sheepshead. Those animals aren't even drum. Freshwater drum, in the south, are called gasper goo.
Gasper is from the same family of fish as the saltwater redfish (scianidae). Both are officially drum. That's Ron Perrine, owner of Bass'N Bait Company, showing you what freshwater drum look like on Lake Erie. And who better? He playfully calls himself the King of Sheepshead. I call him the Monarch of Gasper Goo.
Gasper himself may turn out to be the monarch. He's been slowly taking Erie over for the past decade or more. The good news is, Gasper the friendly goo eats mussels. The bad news is only bad if you don't like hard-fighting fish that come into the boat by the dozens some days: And that is, Gasper hangs out with smallmouth bass a lot. Or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, we like them. Unfortunately, I can't sell many magazine articles about Gasper, since most people consider him a nuisance.
I think smallmouths hang around with Gasper, not the other way around. To them, he's a cool dude. Bass follow goo for the same reason they follow carp in clear-water fisheries. Carp and goo are excellent truffle hogs, able to find forage under or attached to the bottom. The process of rooting out those truffles (muscles and invertebrates, mostly) causes crawfish and gobies to scatter in panic. Carp and goo both eat craws, but some get away, and the smallies are there waiting. In the clear-as-air waters of northern Lake Michigan, fishing with my good friend, the late George (The Baron) Von Schrader, I've watched smallmouths following carp around. (We were fishing for the carp, by the way.) A solitary carp is often followed by a squad of 4 to 6 smallies. I've seen a dozen or more bronzebacks following groups of carp. Perfect. The guy in the front can fly cast to carp without the bass geting in the way and vice-versa.
Take advantage of the situation. That "string" needs as many tons of pull as you can put it through. And Gasper pulls. "This is a smallmouth," one of us would say last week, setting the hook. Then the rod would double, the tip would submerge, and you could feel the line stretch to its breaking point before the drag on our Shimano spinning reels could engage, forcing us to retract with a sullen or excited, "sheepshead," depending on how well the smallmouths were biting.
When Jerry Myers sits in the front of the boat and pulls in a four-pound smallmouth, you know a six pounder is around here somewhere. That's when Gasper gets annoying. But when the bass aren't biting, Gasper is way cool. Especially when he gets up there in the 12-pound-plus category. Gasper proves something's always biting on Erie, though it may have to surrender its title as the best smallmouth fishery on earth. "Eastern Erie is in its hey day right now," Myers said. "Western Erie has seen far better bass fishing in the past than at present, I think."
In an upcoming post, I'll rank the current top 10 smallmouth fisheries and we'll see what we see.