Spring Black Drum Debut
The most anticipated large fish of the Virginia springtime fishery is without a doubt the docile, and somewhat leisurely black drum. After a long winter, the debut of these massive drumming beasts in late April or early May provokes an enthusiastic reception from anglers, bringing the promise of more to come and jumpstarting the spring fishing season.
The black drum is certainly not the flashiest or the swiftest of the drum family, but they are undeniably the largest, and hold a majestic and steady charm, nonetheless. These creatures can mature to well over 80 pounds, with the heaviest on record exceeding one hundred pounds. The Virginia Saltwater fishing Tournament issues citations for impressive catches of 80 pounds or more, and will grant a release citation for blacks reaching at least 46 inches. Although their massive size and portly build tends to slow them a bit in the water, big black drum are known as bulldogs, demonstrating a respectable, steady tug-of-war, certainly a welcome experience for any stir-crazed angler.
Presenting an almost odd appearance, black drum portray a solid grayish sheen encompassing a highly arched backside and stout, cumbersome body, with a distinctive set of whisker-like barbells covering their chins. The young black drum are easily identified with up to 6 dark vertical stripes, which fade and disappear as they approach a mature15 pounds. These juveniles are found primarily in the surf and back water estuaries, often becoming a nuisance for surf anglers with their aggressive, annoying persistence. Be sure not to confuse the juveniles with the similarly appearing sheepshead, which do not sport the characteristic chin barbells.
Black drum are a well-known species, spanning from New England to the Atlantic Coast of Florida, as well as making strong appearances in the Gulf of Mexico-especially along the Texas and Louisiana coasts, where the largest concentrations of Black Drum thrive.
The first mature Black Drum entering Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay head straight for the shallower waters just north of the mouth of the bay, off the Eastern Shore area. Favorite spring drum spots include the Inner Middle Grounds, Latimer Shoals, the Cabbage Patch, and the range from Buoy 13 to Buoy 16. But don’t delay your spring Drum trip, these big fish will forage and spawn in large schools in these areas for a short-lived 2 to 6 weeks, before dispersing and spreading out to other parts of the bay, heading for shallow inshore wrecks, shoals along the span of the Bay Bridge Tunnel, and concentrating around it’s four artificial islands.
To intercept these giants during their spawning assembly off the Eastern Shore, timeliness is of paramount importance. Many anglers have missed this opportunity due to unpredictable factors, cutting this already brief shoal-gathering interlude even shorter. Captain Jim Jenrette, of Buccaneer Charters out of Cape Charles, suggests looking for scattered Black Drum appearances as early as mid-April, when the water temperature begins to push 52 degrees. The fish will begin to concentrate in large numbers around the first of May, with the last two weeks of the month normally producing the best numbers. Captain Jim maintains that this short-lived fishery is not generally dependant on tide direction, current speed, or weather. And although Drum can be caught anytime of the day, he prefers fishing in the late afternoon and late evening when the fish tend to become more active, as opposed to the early morning hours. But plan your Drum trip accordingly; once water temperatures hit 69 degrees, the fish are gone, so look for them elsewhere.
TACKLE and EQUIPMENT
Tackle for Black Drum should be sturdy, merely due to the substantial size of these fish alone. 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 80 pounds, each strung with 30-pound monofilament or braided line. Circle hooks in the 7/0 to 9/0 range are always an excellent choice, especially if you are planning to release your fish.
The most effective terminal tackle for big blacks consists of a typical fish-finder rig holding anywhere from 3 to 8 ounces of weight, lying on the bottom. Simply position a sinker-slide with your choice of weight on your main line above a sturdy snap or barrel-swivel. Then utilize a 3 to 4 foot segment of 80-pound monofilament leader tied between the swivel and the circle hook. Although losing rigs is not a common problem with this fishery, it never hurts to have a few made in advance just in case.
Once reaching the drum-gathering region, drive slowly, searching for large fish marks on your bottom machine. These marks can present singly or in groups, and will often appear as vertical lines, as opposed to the typical horizontal presentation, due to the angle of the fish when its head is lowered during feeding. Sometimes large plumes of muddy water can indicate concentrations of actively feeding fish, as they kick up mud and silt from dredging on the bottom. Once the fish are located, deploy your anchor and place your chum bag filled with clam chum over the side, to help hold the fish near your boat.
The feeding practices of these fish is one of the most interesting aspects of the breed. A Black Drum’s diet consists mostly of mollusks, such as clams, barnacles, oysters, mussels, and an occasional crab. The Drum locate these food items by sweeping and feeling the floor of the bay with their chin barbells. Once found, the drum inhales the food into his mouth, crushing it with his throat-located crushing plates, and then ejecting the shells while slowly moving forward into the current. This is why Black Drum are known for their extremely light bites…because they don’t bite, they inhale! And they do a lot of it, because a Black Drum will eat up to one mollusk per pound of his own body weight each day! Its no wonder a 49-inch, 60-pound fish can be as young as 10 years old.
Without question, the best Black Drum bait is the offensively potent sea clam. Chowder clams can also work, and offering a peeler crab or two in the mix for the occasional red drum passing through, is also a good plan. Be sure to tote along about a dozen sea clams per person, but if you have never handled sea clams, be advised, they are not only messy, but they also smell terrible!
Access the body of the sea clam by cracking two clams together over the side of the boat. Depending on their size, either a half or a whole sea clam can be threaded onto your circle hook, while burying the barb into the foot. Discard the shells over the side to assist your chumming efforts, and be sure to check the baits often, since Black Drum “bites” are nonexistent.
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, 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.
Don’t anticipate long runs or quick maneuvering from these big boys, but do expect a strong, unyielding pull and a continuous taut line, surely capable of straining a healthy back. Although the fight can sometimes drag on, these fish tire quickly, and are always exhausted from the battle, so reviving them is an absolute must. To do this, gently hold the fish over the side by his lower jaw if possible, with the fish facing into the current. Once the drum regains his strength and begins to swim on his own, gently release the fish, allowing him to reorient himself and be on his way.
To net these giants, use a very large net, and have an extra person to help with the hoisting, if possible. These fish are purely dead weight, and can be a heavy haul, but will offer little resistance. Once in the floor of the boat, you will notice the Black Drum resonating a deep, drumming sound from his bladder, indicating he is distressed. A rapid turnover by working quickly and gently to return the fish to the water will help its recovery. These Drum can live to be over 60 years old, quite a feat for such a seemingly care-free, unhurried creature.
Although some anglers will eat Black Drum, claiming they taste like pork chops, the flesh of these fish is course, and most are infested with long parasitic tapeworms called “spaghetti worms,” which encourages most anglers to release them. I think I’ll pass on the worms, thank you.
A Special Thanks to Captain Jim Jenrette with Buccaneer Charters (800-756-4401) for his insight and helpful information.