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Stick it to a Drum

Want an easy sight-fishing target which grows to 40 pounds or more? You can’t miss black drum.

A big black drum noses down a chunk of crab, marked with a balloon float.

Cedar Key residents seem resigned to having so many big black drum in their backyards, waggling their tails in broad daylight during summer months. These big fish pick at local oyster reefs almost 24-7. Residents claim you can even hear these fish drumming in their backyards on quiet nights. That is, when the drum are not offshore in five feet of water, damaging the commercial clam farms.

It seems that these fish have an affinity for young littleneck clams; they’ll suck the corner of a commercial clam bag into their throats, using pharyngeal grinder teeth to pulverize the shell. The clam meat is wafted through the mesh bags and down the throat. The result is near-empty clam bags that once held young “cherry” size clams, the extensive farming of which makes Cedar Key a leading national producer of market clams. The pilfering drum are everywhere at this corner of Florida’s Gulf Coast, and the local habitat (lots of deep mud and oyster reefs) certainly helps.

Shoving off our kayak while armed with medium spin tackle, we were startled to see a 30-pound drum after only two paddle strokes. We coasted by the big fish, our rods still stowed, wondering aloud whether to keep going. A long, thin oyster reef that was a known drum hangout beckoned only 100 yards ahead. We shrugged and paddled on, but within minutes saw glistening tails ahead. Some were huge; compared to a slender, furtive bonefish, a drum’s tail up to 12 inches looks vaguely obscene in shallow water. The biggest were pale white, others pinkish or smoky gray. We had been advised to launch when the tide was halfway back in, offering a three-hour window for spotting these fish. High tides hide the fish, and a brisk outgoing tide causes them to vacate the flat. Timed just right, we had fish directly ahead of us.

You know the program: Ease in close and lob half a blue crab or jumbo shrimp to the correct side of the tail where the fish is pointing. Our baits were tagged with a small balloon, to mark the spot and fish more vertically, since jagged oyster shell was everywhere. The first drum was actually lost by our horsing a little too hard, compounded by an oyster nick in 20-pound line. That red balloon cruised away and I just missed grabbing it, later that day. Gripping six feet of leader with a rested, 30-pound drum attached would have been brutal in a tippy kayak loaded with equipment. Since we rigged each balloon only 30 inches above the hook, that balloon and drum finally disappeared in deeper water.

Ironically, I had speculated earlier that day about tagging a big drum with a balloon, just to see where they go when the tide drops. They obviously vacate shallow reefs that jut from the water. But where? Perhaps they a take a nap in the nearest pothole or flat until the tide returns.

Many times that day we had drum close to our balloons, sometimes only one or two feet away. Why they couldn’t find half a fresh blue crab remains a mystery. (A subsequent trip the following week revealed that big, fresh shrimp worked just as well.) Fresh clam or oyster meat threaded on the hook might have worked, as well. A crab freshly snapped in half worked better than a waterlogged bait.

As the afternoon progressed, we began casting more aggressively at every tail. A ¼- or ½-ounce egg weight against the hook provided more accurate casting. You could throw past the tail, and reel the balloon right to it. We never spooked a single fish, except when paddling home at a brisk pace, accidentally running over them. The last drum I caught was practically hit on the head—but he grabbed the crab and took off, the balloon half submerged, cutting the water. Normally a drum will thoughtfully munch a blue crab, pulverize it before moving off, but not this fish. Hooking him was easy enough; just count to 10, reel the line tight, hang on, and that thin 9/0 red Eagle Claw circle hook dug into rubbery lip.

Catching big drum with 20-pound line was fairly sporty. When one took off, you had to give line in a timely manner. Using lighter tackle would have made it even more so, but oyster shell reached 12 inches above bottom, making wispy line a sketchy proposition. A hard monofilament line is preferable here, such as Ande.

This was no country for fiberglass boats. The water here is fairly murky, full of nutrients for growing oysters and clams, but that doesn’t help boat navigation. Run a 20-foot boat onto a jagged reef here, and you’ve got a problem. Several times oyster reef crunched under our plastic kayak, which draws little water. A canoe would be useful, and would carry more tackle and cargo without drawing much water. Light craft are fine at Cedar Key; there is a myriad of reef and sheltered water to fish. The only real hazard is flipping over into oysters or deep mud during a careless moment. Or getting marooned by a falling tide.

I anticipated rough bottom and wore high-top Keds, favorite footwear for wading hazardous water and shoreline. Amy wore thick new zip-up dive booties. We both eventually bailed out of the kayak at a small patch of flooded grass, because drum were all around and I wanted to fire casts 360 degrees without becoming a contortionist. The bottom there was rough enough with shell to confine us to within 10 feet of the kayak. All it takes is one stumble and a fall on cruel oysters, and you’re off to the nearest Doc-in-the-Box for stitches and Keflex antibiotic—standard treatment for oyster wounds.

So far, we haven’t been able to get one of these drum to tow our large, two-man Ocean Kayak. These gentle giants make shorts runs but kick up large splashes, one of which flew 10 feet, almost striking my camera.

Our kayak wasn’t tricked out with fancy rod holders and numerous rods, which certainly would have helped. Set out three or four rods toward feeding fish, each bait marked with colorful balloons or other floats, and you’re almost assured of hookups. We used a small anchor astern without chain for stealthiness, and twice had tails pop up within six feet of the kayak. One of those fish was caught at point blank range without casting, although it took 10 minutes to subdue it.

Our technique was to ease upwind of tailing fish and coast down on them, dropping anchor, leaving the bow angler (either wife Amy or friend Mike Meisenburg) in the catbird seat in front. A small balloon was best; the wind didn’t interfere while casting. The aforementioned small egg sinker next to the hook allowed for more accurate casting in a crosswind. We hung up a few times on oysters, but never lost a rig because of the balloons, circle hooks, 50-pound leader and the fact we could just paddle over and retrieve the hook. Very low-cost fishing, though we dunked two rods in two trips.

Big drum have it easy here in Cedar Key. Pier fishermen at the deep harbor catch them in October, and may even keep them, but many miles of flats and oysters reefs are seldom fished. Clam farmers take their losses from predation, finding their heavy mesh bags almost empty. After a big drum damages the bag, stone crabs cut their way in and finish off the remaining clams. That’s why clam farmers here might welcome if Cedar Key lay claim as the drum capital of Florida. They should hold canoe and kayak drum tournaments here, offer up prizes, help the clam farmers. How about the Farm Aid Drum Tournament?

Finding Bait Crabs Not Easy

Blue crabs are assumed to be the ultimate drum bait. However, don’t count on finding them in small coastal towns, even with crab trap buoys dotting the water. Where blue crabs once were plentiful, easily caught with handlines off the side of the road, or sold in coastal fish markets, they’re now hard to acquire.

We tried setting out our own crab lines in Cedar Key during June, but had no luck. That would be very efficient, netting crabs into the boat and pitching them back out at nearby drum.

Even high-end city fish markets don’t carry blue crabs like they used to—perhaps the smell intimidates people. The best bet today is to inquire with the nearest Asian market. A Chinese market I use in Gainesville only carries crabs on Thursdays and Fridays, though sometimes not at all. I grab a half dozen big blues, take them home and dip them for a few minutes in a rain barrel until they become lively, then leave them in a small bucket in our refrigerator, covered with a damp cloth. So far, we’ve had no escapees. The next day, six blue crabs will make 12 baits when split in half. And they stay on the hook very well, when hooked through the rubbery joint where the paddle fin joins the crab’s body.

When the market had no crabs that week, we switched to fresh shrimp that were at least five inches long, and caught more big drum in shallow water—but also keeper redfish, a tasty 26-inch black drum, and occasional stingrays and catfish. FS