Huffing and puffing, our designated poler kept us within casting range of a large school of big black drum moving along the edge of the flat. They milled at the surface, making them quite conspicuous. And quite frustrating. So far, they wouldn’t take a thing, but not one to throw in the towel, I kept changing flies and casting.
My son Stephen had the bow of the skiff the first half hour and now I was up to bat trying in vain to draw a strike as Frank Steele dutifully kept us in the game. Finally, using a weighted chartreuse-and-grizzly Sea-Ducer, of all things, I hooked a fish. After a slow but powerful run, it stopped and spit the fly–a common occurrence with black drum given the toughness of their mouth.
Encouraged nonetheless, I touched up the hook with my file and kept casting, placing my fly smack in front of individual fish rather than casting into the school. As my frustration mounted, I hooked another fish. It powered away against my relatively light 8-weight rod, and Steele poled to keep pace. After a half hour or so, the fish was ours.
Steele and Stephen said he looked to be close to 40 pounds. I thought he was larger. But you know how that goes. Either way, it was my largest black drum to date–after many years of trying for them. My second largest? Twelve pounds, and they get smaller from there. So I was pleased.
Black drum are not easy to take on fly due to their feeding habits. They prefer their meals in a shell, and big ones often feed on oysters wherever available. But they do like crabs and shrimp, so we fly fishers can dupe them just often enough with fur and feathers. As challenging as they are at times, they’re plentiful enough in enough areas, so if you target them, you’ll certainly get your shots. And they do grow quite large.
The black drum Pogonias cromis is a member of the croaker family, and closely related to the red drum or redfish. It has a shorter, deeper body and a more arched back than a redfish, so you’re more likely to spot one feeding on flats where the water is just deep enough to conceal a redfish of similar size. This fact does not seem to bother the black drum at all.
Like other members of the croaker family, through rapid and repeated contractions of their swim bladder, they make a loud drum-like sound, much louder than any of their relatives. Oftentimes when a school is nearby you can hear them. They have to be the most vocal fish you’ll find.
A young fish under eight pounds or so tends to have dark vertical bars and is often confused with the sheepshead, also found on the flats. Mature individuals vary in color. Depending on where you find them, a black drum’s coloration will range from silvery gray to brassy black. The tail and body has no spot or spots like a redfish.
They’re often confused with redfish while tailing, since they sometimes share the same flats. Just remember that black drum have a more translucent tail, and you’ll eventually be able to tell the difference. I know an angler who cast poppers and surface muddlers for two days in a row, supposedly to the same large school of reds without even a follow. He left Flamingo grinding his teeth, only to find out later at his local fly club he had been casting to black drum. He didn’t have a chance in a million that those drum would take his poppers. I won’t mention his name.
They have whisker-like barbels under the lower jaw that perform a dual function in taste and feel, helping the black drum find its prey on the bottom. Its diet is varied, but largely consists of crustaceans and mollusks. They lean towards shrimp when young, and crabs and oysters as adults. They grow slowly, just a few inches a year. A 30-inch fish is about 10 years old, and old fish can reach 50. Sometimes topping 100 pounds, the largest taken on a fly rod was a 57-pounder. That’s a lot of drum. A few of my fellow fly fishers claim to have hooked them over 70 pounds. They are widespread in Florida coastal waters, although the biggest specimens are in the northern part of the state.
Best time of year? I’m not sure. I like to think that I can depend on my own experience to narrow down the best season for most species but not this time. After taking a survey of a handful of anglers and guides that give black drum a whirl, I ended up right where I started. Everyone had a different “best” time of year, even in the same waters!
For instance, Chris Dean fishes them at Flamingo in the summer, while Rick Murphy targets them there mostly during winter and feels that the cool water puts them in the feeding mood, making them more receptive of flies. And Marty Arostegui, whom I consider a bit of a black drum specialist, mostly fishes them in winter, both at Flamingo and Chokoloskee in the Ten Thousand Islands. I find them in the spring and fall at Flamingo.
Mike Rehr fishes them in Pine Island Sound, mostly in the fall, and Scott Nickels lands lots of big drum on fly in the upper Indian River from October until March. Radar Orth takes most of his fish on fly in the lower Indian River Lagoon in the fall, and well, you get the idea.
How realistic are your chances? Pretty good. The drum can be really unresponsive at times, but many anglers have taken multiple fish on fly in a day’s fishing. Of course certain situations tend to produce many more strikes than others. A school of fish just off the flat, in a few feet of water, will probably never even look at your fly. Unless the fish are very big, and a few feet may still be relatively shallow to them.
But if you can find them feeding on shallow flats or oyster bars, then a well-presented fly stands a chance of drawing a strike. During lower stages of the tide, drum also root around in the roots of mangroves and will more readily eat.
As a general rule, a solitary fish, or a few fish in a loose school, will take a fly better than a large school of fish in deeper water. Even if you can see the fish in the deeper water easily, and can readily put a fly to them, it’s a long shot. If a fish is tailing, you stand your best chance. Many anglers, including myself, have found that bigger fish seem to be much easier to fool with a fly. Maybe it has to do with their diet when they are young, but when you consider their food preference when young–shrimp for the most part–it’s puzzling to say the least.
I just accept the fact that this is a moody and unpredictable fish, especially when fished with a fly, but not to the point that it isn’t worth the effort to fish for them. You just have to present your fly the right way, and be prepared to change it often. And right under the chin seems to be the best advice. Remember, they use those barbels to feel and smell. A drum seldom goes too far out of its way to chase a fly. So try to keep it close to him as long as possible while still giving it some motion. That is, move it just a little bit, just enough to keep contact with it and feel the strike. If you don’t get a response, stick with it. Cast and cast until the fish e
ats or spooks. This is not the time to be timid. If you are, the fish may never even know you are there.
After all, quite often you’ll be casting to drum feeding in off-color water or in water muddied by their rooting, so keep putting the fly on the fish until you’re convinced it has seen it. Once the fish eats, remember that their mouth is tough and rubbery. So keep your hook honed and flatten the barb with your pliers. Use the strip-strike method, and hold on as tight as you dare until the fish takes off and it’s time to clear your fly line to the reel. Also, keep a tight line during the fight. Your fly may drop out if you allow slack to form.
With its chunky body, black drum are built more for endurance than speed. Most anglers I’ve talked to agree that black drum don’t tire as quickly as redfish. Others claim that during the heat of summer they fight poorly, especially specimens under eight pounds. However, if a big one reaches deep water, you may think it will never give up. It will be like a heavyweight fight after the fifth round–powerful but not too flashy.
When selecting fly tackle, always pick a rod that will effectively cast the flies you are using. A 6- to 8-weight rod is perfect for the smaller flies and smaller fish, and a 9- or 10-weight will better handle weighted patterns and the real brutes. With few exceptions, you’ll be fighting your fish in open quarters, so in time, you’ll wear down even the biggest black drum–even if you’re a bit undergunned.
Floating lines are the choice for the flats but occasionally, a slow sinking line will come in handy should you find your fish in slightly deeper water around edges of flats. I often use a slow-sinking line for the big fish milling off the flats in the Indian River Lagoon region so that I can get the fly down to them quickly, as I did with my biggest fish. But I mostly use a floater for them.
Black drum aren’t too leader shy. Half the time they probably do not see the tippet anyway in the feeding muds they create around them, and usually they only see the fly right under their chin, so the standard 8- to 9-foot leader you use for reds is fine. Tippet strength is up to you. How sporting do you want to be? I mainly use 10-pound-test tippet, and go to 16-pound if I am trying for large fish.
I don’t bother with shock tippet for fish under 15 pounds or so, but do add a trace of 25- to 30-pound mono for the big boys. Now here again, Capt. Scott Nickels, whose customers have taken many black drum up to 50 pounds, has a different approach. He skips the shock tippet when using tippet of 12 pounds or more, and adds a 25-pound shock when using class tippets of 10-pound test or less.
Most flies tied especially for black drum are designed to be retrieved very slowly. And the most effective ones are dark, often black, and are often “over-dressed” so that they push water.
My favorites include Clouser Minnows in black, orange-and-black or gray; Bendbacks in black, olive and dark brown; dark, weighted Woolly Buggers; black Crystal Shrimp; and crab flies. Depending on the size of the fish and their preferences, best hook sizes range from No. 2 down to a No. 6. Occasionally, a single tailing fish will gulp a lead-eyed red-and-white or all chartreuse streamer. Go figure!
If these hook sizes sound too small for fish that can top 50 pounds, remember that it’s easier get a hookset in their tough mouth this way.
I have never eaten a black drum, but I often hear that fish under six pounds or so are good table fare. Most of the best fly fishers I know have at one time or another have taken a shot at almost everything that swims. And that includes black drum. So don’t get snobby on me. Give ’em a try.