Big ones are a blast. Little ones are a place and good to eat.
by Peter Sils
Weird chin whiskers, faded stripes, utter disregard for topwater baits.For anglers in search of redfish,black drum are often regardedas a lowly consolation prize. An oddity, at best, compared to the sleek reds.
Then again, on a blustery, cool day, open-minded anglers like Capt. Al Bermitz are quick to praise black drum.
Bermitz, who guides and fishes for sport on the IndianRiver Lagoon near Palm Bay, knows that a little bait-dunking in the right spot can be just plain fun. Especially when there’s a school of feisty, good-eating drum passing through. So here’s a basic primer on black drum fishing in Florida.
Is there a pattern to the fishery? Bermitz thinks there is, and he was happy to reveal his approach.
First things first. About those photos of giant, breeding-size drum you begin to see this time of year in magazines and newspapers: Starting in February and running through April, there are anglers who target spawning drum in deep ocean or Gulf passes, usually far north Florida, but sometimes Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Prespawn aggregations of black drum at nearby bridges also stoke fires. Big chunks of blue crab, clam and shrimp soaked on bottom attract humongous drum, some weighing close to 100 pounds.
Exciting sport, but if a midwinter fish dinner is what you want, these are not the fish you want.
The big drum are generally coarse and wormy, while the smaller fish have light, succulent fillets comparable to redfish.
Bermitz is fortunate to spend most of his days on a prototypical drum nursery, the northern Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon has everything drum need to mature from larvae to adult: some, but not too much, freshwater input; populations of oysters, clams and shrimp; a mix of shallow and deep water; and proximity to tidal flow, via an outlet to the ocean. Put those things together, anywhere in Florida, and you’ve got drum.
In Al’s experience, there’s a rhythm to the bite. Schools of juvenile black drum will feed in an area for around an hour, at which time they can be caught in numbers.
“We caught 9 in 45 minutes yesterday,” he told me, “All of them were legal, ranging from 16 to 24 inches, but we kept only six.” Having only caught the occasional keeper drum, I was skeptical until he showed me the picture to prove it.
Bermitz likes to find a dropoff near an oyster bar when targeting black drum. Experience has shown him that schools of keeper-sized fish seem to favor those areas. You know those stakes and white PVC pipes that warn of shoals? It might be worth your while meandering around them (safely, of course) while watching the depthfinder.
He found a spot where an oyster bar dropped off sharply to 10 feet on one side. The other side of the bar was a mere three feet. He instructed me not to even cast to that side. To do so was to lose the rig immediately, and to no avail since the fish fed on the deeper side anyway.
He anchored us upcurrent of the dropoff. I asked if the tide affected the drum in this scenario, and he shook his head. Since the spot we fished was in a bay area, far from the main river channel, the only real effect tide had was a slight variation in water depth.
Using just enough weight to get the live shrimp down to the bottom, we cast into the hole. We didn’t have to wait long. I immediately lost a fish when I reared back on the rod after a bite.
“When you get a strike, let the fish run about ten feet or so,” Al explained. “The drum don’t get it fully into their mouth right away, they just sort of move off with it as they eat it.”
This method of fishing brought all kinds of fish to the party. While it’s true you will likely catch some catfish, Bermitz has caught many other desirable species while targeting drum this way: mangrove snapper, sheepshead, redfish, grouper (yes, grouper), trout and even snook. In fact, on this particular trip I landed the biggest lookdown I have ever caught.
Twice, big fish hit my bait and went on their merry way. Drag squealed, line stretched and then eventually snapped. As I said, sometimes a little bait-dunking in the right spot is just plain fun.
A day later, Bermitz called to inform me that he’d caught two large catch-and-release fish at the same place we had fished—a 38-inch snook and a hefty goliath grouper! Talk about great bycatch! Oh yeah, a 26-inch black drum came aboard as well.
Docks, Banks and Inlets
Bermitz also catches black drum around Intracoastal Waterway docks. He cuts the motor at least 100 yards away, then rigs his lines. Using a trolling motor to get near the target dock, he quietly jams a manual pushpole into the soft bottom, giving it a twist. A rope secures it to a boat cleat. This stealthy approach is advisable, as using an anchor is simply too noisy in shallow water with little or no current.
In Bermitz’s experience, the docks normally hold pairs and smaller groups of black drum.
We used basically the same rig as at the oyster bar dropoff. Again, snapper and sheepies are a likely bycatch as you pursue drum in these areas.
Another friend of mine, Tammy Burgess, has had success with black drum fishing along mangrove banks with quick dropoffs. The areas are near channels, so the trick is to go when boat traffic is light. It can be hard to entice a bite when there is a steady stream of boat noise.
Tammy often uses a bobber for this fishing, set around four feet, with a live shrimp or fiddler crab. “They really seem to like the fiddlers,” she said. As with the ICW docks, it seems that areas like this will hold pairs of drum or small groups. One morning I happened to see her and her husband fishing this way, and they had just caught 6- and 8-pounders, back to back.
If you are currently without a vessel, you can still clean up on black drum at your local inlet, if there is suitable access. Many anglers enjoy pulling drum up over the rails of the jetties.
Mike Ricciardi, a Sebastian Inlet regular who has caught numerous black drum there, prefers the outgoing tide for black drum. “I fish the surf side, and also at the end of the jetty sometimes. The incoming tide is okay, but it rips around the end of the jetty so strong you really can’t keep a weight on bottom,” he said.
Ricciardi usually reads up on the maDrummer jor and minor feed times, and tries to be fishing when those occur. “They seem to be about 80 percent correct, in my experience.
Ricciardi’s jetty rig consists of 20-pound test main line, with a 40-pound-test mono leader. He uses a sinker slide with a clip for the 4-ounce weight, and it’s the first thing onto the main line. Below that he ties a swivel, which stops the weight from going any farther. A 2- to 3-foot leader is tied to the swivel. Finally, a single 3/0 circle hook (of the sturdy variety) is tied onto the leader.
Live or dead shrimp are primarily used. Anglers using sandfleas and fresh clams catch drum and pompano. Black drum have a habit of picking up the bait and running toward you, producing slack in the line. “That’s when you know you have a drum on,” says Ricciardi.
Black drum aren’t sleek, beautiful fish, and they’ll probably never have the kind of following of the bronzed, spot-tail redfish. But they have mystique, and they pull hard when hooked. Add great tablefare
to their list of attributes and you’ve got a fine catch. – FS
Here’s how Capt. Al Bermitz fishes those black drum spots:
• Tie an Albright line-to-line knot. Bermitz likes the strength this knot provides, and its low profile slides easily through rod guides. The uni-to-uni is a good substitute.
• 2 ½ to 3-foot leader, 30-pound-test (not fluoro, unless water is extremely clear)
• 1/0 thin wire hook, octopus style
• Use small splitshots for weight, the lightest you can to reach bottom, placed about a foot above the hook
• Bermitz hooks the shrimp a particular way, since mangrove snapper and sheepshead are a likely bycatch:
Near the tail, push tip of hook down from the top through to the underside, coming out toward the tail.
Turn hook away from tail and insert back up into the lower body so hook barely breaks through top.
“Gives you another shot if a mangrove snapper or sheepshead rips off the shrimp’s head,” he explained.
A Different Drum, Indeed…
Some marine life experts weigh in on black drum:
1) Out of all the species in the drum/croaker family—red drum, spotted seatrout, weakfish, whiting, spot, croaker—the black drum is the only species where females and males both produce calls. The other major difference recently determined by a USF grad student, now Ph.D., Jim Locasio, is that the volume and intensity of sound coming from a group of black drum does not necessarily mean more eggs in the water column, as it does for species like spotted seatrout and weakfish. Black drum are more complex, or…um…either she or he has a headache more often, wanting to put off spawning until another evening!
The black drum also has the honor of being the most highly evolved, recently evolved species in our local group (of Sciaenids) based on a variety of independent analyses, DNA analyses, air bladder
configurations, ear stone morphology and osteology (skeletal characters). Black drum live long, and carry on very loud conversations at night mostly in late fall, winter and early spring.
Paraphrased from R. Grant Gilmore, Jr., Ph.D., Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc., Vero Beach
2) Both sexes of black drum emit a disturbance call, but advertisement calls are emitted only by males. The disturbance call is a series of short pulses, typical of many Sciaenid species. The long-duration advertisement call is unique among known Sciaenids and is relatively rare among sonic fishes in general.
Although similar in fundamental frequency and waveform, the advertisement calls of male black drum in Uruguay have shorter durations than calls from the same species in the Northern Hemisphere. The Florida black drum population has durations that are over three fold longer. To our knowledge, the history of separation between these two groups is unknown. If shorter calls evolved first, the ability to produce longer calls in Florida may have been selected by females as an index of male quality.
Paraphrased from the following work, provided by Dr. Michaeul Fine: Tellechea JS, Norbis W, Olsson D, Fine ML, 2010. Calls of the Black Drum (Pogonias cromis: Sciaenidae): geographical differences in sound production between northern and southern hemisphere populations. J. Exp. Zool, 313A [pg.1-7].
First Published Florida Sportsman Jan. 2012