Big Red and Black Drum

How To Catch Big Red and Black Drum - Lower Chesapeake Bay

Spring is here in the Chesapeake Bay and anglers anxiously await the first reports of drum, both big bull reds and huge black drum.  After our long, cold, hard winter and few fishing opportunities from January – April the arrival of reds and black drum is a welcome relief.  This article will provide anglers tips on catching these big drum in the spring and summer months.  We are talking about the big drum, not what are often called puppy drum or the smaller drum.  There are few fish more exciting or harder fighting fish than these big drum.  When these fish reach 35, 40, 45, to over 50 inches in length they have such power and can give anglers the fight of lifetime.  When these fish get hooked they scream off your line with rod bent over hard.

Red Drum  The red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), also known as channel bass, redfish, spottail bass or simply reds, is a game fish that is found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Northern Mexico. The red drum is a cousin to the black drum (Pogonias cromis).  Red drum are a dark red color on the back, which fades into white on the belly.  The red drum have a characteristic eyespot near the tail and are somewhat streamlined. Three-year-old red drum typically weigh six to eight pounds. When they are near or over twenty-seven inches, they are called “bull reds”.  Red drum are relatives of the black drum and both make a croaking or drumming sound when distressed. The most distinguishing mark on the red drum is one large black spot on the upper part of the tail base. Having multiple spots is not uncommon for this fish but having no spots is extremely rare. As the fish with multiple spots grow older they seem to lose their excess spots. Scientists believe that the black spot near their tail helps fool predators into attacking the red drum’s tail instead of their head, allowing the red drum to escape.  The red drum uses its senses of sight and touch, and its downturned mouth, to locate forage on the bottom through vacuuming or biting.  On the top and middle of the water column, it uses changes in the light that might look like food.  In the summer and fall, adult red drum feed on crabs, shrimp, and mullet; in the spring and winter, adults primarily feed on menhaden, mullet, pinfish, sea robin, lizardfish, spot, Atlantic croaker, and mud minnows.

Black Drum The black drum (Pogonias cromis) is a saltwater fish similar to its cousin, the red drum.  They are often black and/or gray in color with juvenile fish having distinctive dark stripes over a gray body.  Their teeth are rounded and they have powerful jaws capable of crushing oysters and other shellfish.   Black drum are capable of producing tones between 100 Hz and 500 Hz when performing mating calls.  The black drum is usually found in or near brackish waters. Larger, older fish are more commonly found in the saltier areas of an estuary (closer to the ocean) near oyster beds or other plentiful food sources.  Juvenile fish have 4 to 5 bold vertical black bars on a light background and can be mistaken for Sheepshead at first glance, but are distinguished on closer inspection because sheepshead have teeth and black drum have chin barbells. These stripes usually fade to dull grey as the fish grow from 12″ to 24″ in length.  They are common between the Delaware Bay and Florida coasts, and most abundant along the Texas coast. After reaching maturity by the end of their second year, black drum spawn in and around estuarine waters.   Black drum are mostly bottom feeders, with adults eating mostly mollusks and crabs. In shallow water, they have been reported to feed with their heads down so that their tails show above the water surface. Their sensitive chin barbels help locate food, and strong pharyngeal teeth crush the shells of these preferred foods.  A group of black drum can do great damage to an oyster bed in a single day.

When  Spring, summer, and fall.  When the spring water temps hit around 60, sometimes even lower, there will be reports of black drum being caught on the seaside of the Eastern Shore.  In the weeks preceding, big reds will be caught along the coast of NC at Ocracoke, Hatteras, and OBX and sometimes even Sandbridge, VA.  Then seemingly overnight, they appear in the breakers between Fisherman and Smith Island off the Eastern Shore.  Even though the black drum migrate east and west while the red drum migrate mostly north and south, they often arrive along the Eastern Shore about the same time in mid to later April.  Once they start to arrive, each day the water temps warm, more and more pile in the water in the lower Chesapeake Bay.  By Mother’s Day each year it is usually game on for both species.  This is my favorite time of year when the reds and blacks often mix together in the same areas and you can catch both in a single location.  And they are hungry and mean with lots of fight.  The entire month of May is usually game on for both big reds and blacks.  Once the water temps hit 70, and June approaches, the reds and blacks are still here but are often more spread out as they enter the bay.  You can catch them all summer but not normally in the same numbers as in May.  Then in Sept or early Oct as they leave the bay you can catch in greater numbers as they stop to feed along the islands of the CBBT or see huge schools in open water.  The first full moon of May is usually game on.

Where  The first reports out of Virginia are often seaside of the Eastern Shore and in the breakers between Smith and Fisherman’s Island.  Boats will enter this skinny water, often only 2 or 3 feet dangerously close to breaking waves.  Shallow waters warm faster then deep water so both reds and blacks take advantage and hang out in the skinny waters for weeks from mid April on.  If you do decide to fish these skinny waters, just be extra careful.  Boaters sometimes enter these shoals in daylight then as the sun sets and the tide falls find themselves with almost no water and the dark of the night causes dangerous situations not knowing how to get out of the shoals and breaking waters.  But this can be some of the best fishing.

Here is Captain Rick Wineman on Get Anet fishing the breakers between Fisherman’s and Smith Island.

Once you hear about reports from the breakers, usually within 2 weeks, it’s game on in other safer, deeper waters.  A good place to start is Nautilus Shoals just south of Fisherman’s Island.  Look for lumpy, bumpy structure or even areas with good fish marks.  These fish sometimes mark well as they feed on the bottom.  Once you have a spot picked out, drop anchor.  Don’t get too discouraged if others in the area are catching fish as these fish move around a lot looking for something to eat.  They are often traveling in schools so multiple bites at the same time is possible.

Other areas to try are the 9 Foot Shoals, Latimer Shoals, and buoy 13 area for blacks.  Don’t hesitate to move around some if not getting bites.  Sometimes even small moves can make a big difference.  But give each spot a fair chance.

Tackle and Rigs  These are big powerful fish so you want to use medium to heavy tackle.  I recommend against using very light tackle which prolongs the fight endangering the fish which might not survive once released.  A TLD 15, Torium 20,  GTI 320, or heavy spinning gear is about right.  50-65 lb line is about right.  Most of my reels have 65 lb braided line but you can use mono too.   A fish finder rig with beads on both sides on the main line tied to a barrel swivel connected to a short 80 mono leader with a snelled circle hook is the rig I like.   The fish finder rig allows the line to be pulled through the fish finder rig leaving the weight in place so the fish does not feel the weight.  Short leaders of only 2 foot are best so you can cast farther.  A bank, pyramid, or pancake sinker is attached to the fish finder rig to hold the bait to the bottom.  You want a sinker that has flat sides so it does not roll in the current.  You will have to adjust your weight as the current increases or decreases.  Always make sure your baits on the on the bottom.  The current out there can rip so check your lines often making sure they are on the bottom.  The big reds is strictly a catch and release fishery and most anglers release the big blacks too.  For this reason I highly recommend circle hooks.  At least an 8/0 circle hook.  I have had problems in recent years with Gamakatsu circle hooks breaking so have switched to owner, eagle claw or VMC.  Circle hooks will most often set in the corner of the mouths for a clean release.  For these fish there is no need to set the drags light or free spool and let then run before setting the hook.  You will get a much higher hookup ratio by setting the drag at strike so the hook sets as soon as the fish runs.  Your rod will be bent over hard with drags screaming.   Don’t let others convince you to use J hooks.  J hooks will cause more gut hooked fish with higher mortality.  Be a responsible angler and use circle hooks to protect this fishery.  The hookup ratio is excellent with circle hooks.

Bait  In the spring there is no better bait than live blue crab and/or clam.   If you can find big, smelly sea clams that is ideal but chowder clams work too.  If the blacks and reds are feeding the same area I do some clam and some crab.  Some baits get both.  Some baits get a half a crab and big clam.  Some baits get the whole crab or whole clam.  Sometimes I pop the top off the crab to expose the meat and the black inhale that.  I don’t usually put out just one type of bait.  I mix them up and do combinations of the two.  You just never know what they might be interested in any given day.  Check your baits often and replace them often.  Fresh and smelly are best.

Spread and Fight  Fishing from anchor can be challenging at times.  If the wind and current are reasonably aligned everything is good as the lines all go towards the back of the boat.  If the wind and current are opposite then things get more challenging.  You want to fish as many lines as your crew and boat can manage.  I like to use the spinning reels and cast out as far as I can.  Often the lines farthest from the boat get whacked first as the school approaches your boat.  Then I will put conventional reels that don’t cast well closer to the boat.  As mentioned, with circle hooks, set your drag at strike letting the hook set as soon as the fish runs.   Then clear only the lines that are in the way or risk crossing.  Keeping lines out increases the odds of double or triple hookups as there are usually more fish around when the school moves in.  Enjoy the fight but don’t prolong it.  Once the fish is along side the boat, land the fish with a large landing net.  Don’t try to gaff or even lip gaff these fish.  A gaff will still leave a large hole in the mouth.  Once the fish is inside the net, point the net handle straight up in the air and lift using the loop of the net.  If you try to lift using the net’s handle, odds are you will break your handle as these are heavy fish.  Quickly get the hook out and measure nose to tail with a tape measure.  Lift the fish by supporting the body of the fish, take a quick photo and release the fish as fast as possible.  Don’t hold the fish by the gills or lift the whole fish by just the mouth.  Support the fish and body with both hands/arms.  You want these fish to survive and reproduce.   If you think the fish is distressed, you can lay the fish gently in the water holding by the mouth (still supporting the body as you lower it) while the current runs over the gills until the fish is revived.  Most often if the fight and release was fast there is no need to revive them.

Other methods  The methods described above will let you be most successful in the springtime.  Summer and Fall fishing you will likely use a variety of other methods.  Trolling using spoons or buck tails can produce.  Casting buck tails to structure or jigging along the CBBT islands work.  Live bait with croaker or spot or mullet and cut bait work in summer and fall.  These fish can be targeted in a variety of ways from anchor, trolling or drifting.   

Virginia Regulations  Red Drum limits are minimum 18 inches to maximum 26 inches at 3 per person.  These fish are often called puppy drum.  All the big reds is a catch and release fishery only.  46 inches will earn you a release citation from the state.  Black drum must be at least 16 inches to keep and the limit is 1 per person.  Some like to eat black drum but I usually release them all.  80 lbs will earn a weight citation and 46 inches will earn a release citation.  The state record is 111 lbs.  Now get out there and catch em up.  If anyone wants to target them and learn first hand how we catch them on Seaduction, give me a call 757-329-5137.  The best bite is usually late afternoon or evening making these perfect after work trips during the week.  If you want to get on the list for walk on trips, fill out this form. 

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Big Game Fishing Journal Drum Article

A digital copy of the article published in the May / June 2017 issue of Big Game Fishing Journal.