March 23, 2023
The enormous school of black drum moved slowly in a clockwise pattern a few hundred yards off Cocoa Beach. Positioning the vessel to intercept the school, Capt. Jamie Glasner instructed his angler to cast the heavy yellow bullet head bucktail jig in front of the approaching school.
“It was one of the most epic fishing days I have ever witnessed on the water,” Glasner remembered. “We were sight-fishing for drum in the 40- to 60-pound range along the beach. The beach migration can occur any time between January and April. Unfortunately, I only witness this behavior one or two days a year.” Glasner said 2017 was a memorable year, when the schools posted up for several weeks.
“The beach migration can occur anytime between January and April. Be ready at a moment’s notice in case they show.”
I had watched some of this footage and called Glasner about setting up a trip. He said it’s tough to predict, not something easy to pin down on a particular day. “All I can say is, be ready at a moment’s notice in case they show up this spring,” he advised.
Another guide in Glasner’s part of the state, Capt. Kade Knuutila told me certain areas are better than others in the Titusville region depending on the water temperature. In winter (January and February), he finds black drum on the flats, but in late-winter and early spring they prefer the Haulover Canal.
Black drum, Pogonia cromis, are statewide in distribution. On my home waters of Tampa Bay, drum are known to spawn primarily in March and April, but the month likely varies somewhat throughout Florida. Based on findings from Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission researchers Kevin Peters and Bob McMichael, Jr., peak spawning occurs along the nearshore Gulf waters and lower Tampa Bay, and it’s usually associated with moon phase (full and new moon), water temperature, and tide.
Black drum are the taxonomic cousin of red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), which are among the most popular inshore target species in Florida. Black drum don’t hold the same appeal as reds in Florida, but they are a favorite of inshore anglers from Texas to Virginia. Black drum can live longer, grow heavier, and attain larger sizes. Mike Murphey and Bob Muller, FWC researchers, reported maximum age is 43 years in the Gulf and 58 years in the Atlantic, which corresponds to around 67 inches and 115 pounds.
"You can target black drum at any of the large bridges that cross Tampa Bay," says Brent Schirmer, a local Tampa Bay expert who produces "See Ya Dude" instructional fishing content on YouTube. "What's nice about targeting black drum is you don't need a boat. Although I have a boat, I like to use my kayak to fish the bridge pilings close to shore."
I asked Brent about his rigging.
"My go-to setup is a 7-foot medium heavy action rod with a conventional reel spooled with 40-pound braid," he answered. "The 40-pound fluorocarbon leader is around 6 feet long and the circle hook is 5/0 to 7/0 depending on the bait size. I use a ½-ounce egg weight in front of the hook, a typical bottom knocker rig setup. My favorite bait is blue crab that I cut in half or quarters… you can even just use the claws."
"Try to use live instead of frozen blue crabs because they will fall apart fairly quickly," Brent advised. "Fish a moving tide, like the outgoing and don’t worry about the time of day… they seem to feed all day. If you don’t get a strike in 15 or 20 minutes, move on to the next set of pilings."
Most everyone I spoke with uses a similar heavy-duty setup for battling these brutes under bridges. Shrimp and fiddler crabs are often used. Captain Glasner, on the Space Coast, says black drum love blue crabs, but will also take clams and sandfleas. When black drum are cruising the mud flats and oyster bars, they will strike artificial lures, like the scented Berkley Gulp! on a 1⁄8-ounce jighead or a gold spoon.
Determined to hook one of the bridge beasts, I continued to call around to find someone that specializes in catching this species. Captain Brock Horner, a Charlotte Harbor tarpon expert, told me he was seeing and incidentally catching many black drum during last year’s tarpon season, but he never targets them. “The black drum are schooling with the tarpon,” Horner said when we spoke early last summer. “It has been crazy; we are unintentionally hooking large drum on D.O.A Bait Busters.”
A few inshore guides told me they sometimes catch drum when targeting snook or reds, but they never target them. It seems most Florida guides don’t mess with black drum… that is until I found Capt. Eli Rico who runs HotShot Guide Service (www.tampabayfishingguide.net) out of Tampa.
“I have been running black drum trips for almost a decade. If black drum are around, I can definitely put you on fish. I have a tactic that always generates strikes,” stated Eli.
Later that day I got an unexpected text from Capt. Eli. “I have a cancellation for tomorrow so if you’re available we can scout for black drum. I can’t promise you anything because haven’t seen them in a few days, but we can try if you’re interested.”
I instantly responded and made a plan to meet him around 0800 hours. Stepping onto his vessel, I immediately noticed it was not your typical Florida flats boat. In fact, it was a 27-foot custom aluminum hull Wooldridge Super Sport Drifter boat out of Washington State. The boat was powered by a 150 Evinrude with a tiller steering handle. The vessel was also equipped with a small kicker motor instead of a trolling motor, which was obviously unique; the amount of deck space was impressive. As we made our way to Gandy Bridge, the southernmost bridge in Tampa Bay, I picked Eli’s brain.
He told me drum generally migrate into Tampa Bay in May and migrate out in July with peak fishing in June. He said, “The schools move around quite a bit so it’s not an automatic home run.”
Eli said the largest school he had targeted in years was last week, but he hadn’t seen them in days, which he suspected was related to the bottlenose dolphins moving into the area and feeding on the fish. Making our way to the bridge, I studied the sonar screen of Eli’s Humminbird, pinging high-frequency beams out to 150 feet. The detail was crisp enough to distinguish species.
Drum generally migrate into Tampa Bay in May and migrate out in July with peak fishing in June.
“If the school is around, we will spot them; they can’t hide,” said Eli. “The black drum schools patrol the pilings so the sonar image will be apparent. My fishfinder cuts down on search time and gives my clients more time hooking fish.”
After searching for a few minutes, covering a lot of area, we only spotted jacks and mackerel on the plotter. “Let’s run to the next bridge and see if the drum are there,” said Eli.
Approaching the Howard Frankland, he indicated the tide was starting to come in so they should be on the down current side of the bridge piling. “Black drum are always on the down current of structure or along structure waiting to ambush bottom swimming prey like small crabs.”
Navigating our way along the piling, the fishfinder revealed a large school on the backside, just like Eli predicted.
I was surprised Eli doesn’t use natural bait, often favored for drum fishing. He explained his tactics.
“I use a 3- to 4-inch inch D.O.A. C.A.L. shad tail in a dark color, like rootbeer or gold glitter, with either a ¼- or 3 ⁄8-ounce jig head. The black drum hit darker colors rather than lighter bright colors that don’t necessarily look like a crab. The technique is to cast up current of the school and begin making small quick upward jerks with your wrist. The drum will typically make one or two strikes as the jig falls after an upward jerk. Just watch me to get hang of the technique.”
The guide made a perfect cast up current a few feet off the pilings, and it didn’t take long for a drum to strike. Because Eli uses a light setup (4000 series reel and 7 ½-foot light/medium rod), fighting these stocky fish requires a fast and deliberate technique of applying side to side rod pressure combined with short fast pumps to gain line on the reel or the fish will quickly break you off in the structure. His Okuma reels are spooled with 30-pound Sufix 832 green-colored braid and he prefers to use a green-tinted monofilament leader to match the water color rather than a clear fluorocarbon leader. Albright and loop knots are used to tie the leader to the braid and jig, respectively.
After catching and releasing the 25-pound drum, it was my turn on the school. Just like Eli, I worked the jig along the bottom, but made some rookie mistakes missing a few hits. Determined to master the technique, I continued casting into the sweet spot until I finally timed the strike perfectly. Fish on!
The drum immediately attempted to escape into the structure, but I was able to turn its head and gain some line. After some back and forth, we landed the fish, snapped a few pictures, and released it. As always, hooking fish is an addictive rush that makes you want more so we continued fishing for the next few hours… landing and losing some nice fish.
Much to my surprise, I learned black drum don’t stay in the same spot. Once you hook or lose a few fish in a particular spot, they will move to the other side of the structure or another area along the structure. Interestingly, it seemed they preferred the shadow line caused by the sun shining on the bridge structure.
Again using the Humminbird fishfinder as our guide, I waited for Eli to navigate the vessel up current of the school and give the go ahead sign. I never made a blind cast, which is much different than I am used to on my own personal vessel. Without the technology, it would have taken a lot of work to locate drum… that is assuming they were at that particular bridge.
Next time you want to pursue a new species, consider targeting black drum at your local pier or bridge for a day of rod-bending fun. If you don’t have a fancy bottom machine, simply make various blind casts along the structure or soak a bottom rig until you find the fish.
They’re down there! FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine February 2023