SHOAL’N for BIG REDS
Red Drum, Channel Bass, Red Fish- no matter what you call them, if you choose the shoals at the mouth of Chesapeake as your springboard, just call them BIG!
Reds are found in ALL sizes EVERYWHERE along the Eastern and Gulf coasts. Case in point, I have caught red drum in the Chesapeake Bay; the surf off Cape Hatteras; jetties of Jacksonville, Florida; Pensacola’s Perdido Bay; and the barrier islands of Biloxi, Mississippi. These fish are distinctive beauties, strutting a copper-colored dorsal area overshadowing a silver and white belly with a distinguishing telltale spot marking its tail.
My drum shoal’n methods are basically a collective combination of techniques and tips I have emulated from some of the best red drum experts in the area. While anglers entice reds of all makes with a multitude of baits, and countless techniques, my favorite red drum haunts mirror those targeted by the big drum hunters of the lower Chesapeake and North Carolina-the abundant coastal shoals. To find these drum-producing shoals, ask any native angler, local tackle shop or if all else fails, pull out the old chart and look for areas labeled “shoals.” They are easy to recognize situated around the northern portion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the inner and outer shorelines of the Eastern Shore of Cape Charles and their inlets, as well as the major inlets of North Carolina. Although movement of these fish is largely dependent upon fluctuation in water temperature, the big reds typically frequent these shoals from around mid-April through the end of August.
Shoal’n for reds requires little preparation, but accurate timing is ultimately the prevailing factor for a successful trip. Typically, the drum become more active upon the changing of the moon cycles, especially the full moon, so watch the calendar for the weeks approaching and following the full moon phase to plan your shoal-bound endeavor. Time of day can also be of significance, and though I have boated a few red drum mid-day, reds tend to be more predictable from late afternoon through the nighttime hours.
Pack at least four medium to heavy live-bait rods ranging anywhere from 6-7 feet in length. Select a reel with a drag system capable of handling fish spanning from 30 to 60 pounds, each strung with 30-pound monofilament or braided line. Since big reds are strictly catch-and-release targets, circle hooks in the 7/0 to 9/0 range are always an excellent choice. For your efforts, the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament offers an attractive citation plaque to proud anglers who release red drum stretching to 46 inches or more. Many will top 50 inches!
The most effective terminal tackle for big reds consists of a typical fish-finder rig holding 3 to 8 ounces of weight. Simply position a sinker-slide with your choice of weight on your main line above a sturdy 60 to 80-pound snap or barrel-swivel. Ensure the quality of your tackle is premium, losing a trophy drum at the expense of a cheap, bent snap-swivel is a tough lesson (been there). Utilize a 3 to 4 foot segment of 50-pound monofilament leader tied between the swivel and the circle hook.
Once you reach the shoals, drive slowly searching the bottom for any variations, and a water depth ranging between 12 to 18 feet for anchoring. Red Drum enjoy scavenging the sandy bottom for disoriented baitfish, scurrying crabs and any other snacks swept along the shoals, so any slew or hole is a good bet for ambushing cruising schools of big reds.
All the experts agree the top choice red drum bait is divided equally between fresh menhaden and peeler crabs, so as a rule I take along both just to be safe. To prepare the bunker, cut off the head and about 2/3 of the tail, dividing the remaining body into 3-inch segments, guts and all. Thread the 3-inch segments onto the hook by first piercing the top portion of the bait, pushing the hook only 2/3 of the way through. Next, flip the hook over to face the lower portion of the bunker, and again push the barb through the bait, as you turn the hook in an upward direction so that the shank lays flat against the back of the bait, without pulling the eye of the hook through the body. This technique will encourage your bait to lay flat on the bottom, instead of twisting in the current. You can discard the tail, but use the head with about ½ inch of remaining body attached, hooked up through the chin if bait-stealers are out-in-force.
To prepare a peeler crab as an offering, carefully pull off its back shell by gently lifting the edge of the shell with your thumb. Next, pull off the apron from the underside of the crab, and cut off the legs up to the second knuckle. Once bait-worthy, you can usually cut the crab into two pieces depending on its size. Feed the hook through a leg or knuckle opening, and continue to feed the hook through the crab, until it pops out of the body exposing the barb. Peelers are a treat for red drum, but because they tend to become soft and mushy, they are challenging to secure to a hook. The best trick to overcome this obstacle is to supplement by wrapping a rubber band around the portion of the bait overlying the shank, which consists mostly of leg halves. Drum don’t mind the extra paraphernalia, and the rubber band will prevent legs from flailing everywhere causing the bait to spin.
Once baited, set-up your rods by casting two of the baits out away from the boat, and drop the other two baits on the bottom, right behind the boat. Place the rods in the rod-holders, engage the clickers and back the drag off of each reel to the point where the current will not pull the line. This gives the fish the opportunity to pick up the bait, resituate the food to his liking and begin to swallow before he feels any resistance. Once the clicker sounds for a few seconds, pick up the rod and point the rod-tip at the fish, engage the drag and lift the rod-tip until you feel resistance-there is no need to set the hook when using a circle hook. Be sure to verify your drag, and hold on! You will probably get plenty of practice since giant cow-nosed rays and gluttonous, greedy sharks also cruise the shoals looking for handouts. Fighting and landing a giant ray is no cakewalk, so by the time a drum comes along, you will be warmed up!
While fighting a big red, clear the other lines out of the way, but try to leave as many baits in the water as possible without hindering the efforts of the angler. Red drum are a schooling fish and multiple hook-ups are common, so once the fish is in the boat, be prepared to promptly return the lines to the water.
A very large net is an absolute necessity for boating these big drum-never use a gaff. Work quickly to measure and photograph the fish to ensure a quick turnover back into the water. Always handle these giants with care, and gently place the fish over the side and attempt to revive them for a minute to ensure they can swim on their own before releasing them-some of these reds have cruised the shoals for over thirty years and are worthy of that respect.