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How to Fish for Black Drum: Best Bait, Rigs & Lures

Looking for a fun fight with one of the most underrated fish out there? Chasing big black drum is where it's at. Here are the best baits for black drum.

How to Fish for Black Drum: Best Bait, Rigs & Lures

Big uglies, crab crunchers, slime balls. Although these nicknames may not sound very flattering, black drum are one of the best sportfish for inshore and nearshore anglers on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. They may not receive the same attention that their red brothers do, but they are often just as fun to catch and can be targeted using many of the same techniques.

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At first glance, you’ll notice immediately black drum have a face only a mother could love. They possess two massive sets of nostrils located just beneath bulging eyes on either side of their head. They have a downward protruding mouth surrounded by thick fleshy lips and grow large barbels on the bottom of their chin. They lack teeth, equipped instead with bony plates in the bottom and top of their mouth towards their throat. Although these characteristics may seem odd they allow the drum to forage efficiently in a range of environments and conditions. They can be found along oyster bars, sandbars, mudflats, grass flats, docks, pilings, rock piles, jetties, deep channels, shallow creeks or in the surf along the beaches.

So, how do you catch a black drum when they can be found just about anywhere? Proper bait and proper technique. Below I will outline the 8 best baits, lures and rigs to fish for black drum.

1. Crabs

Remember the downward-facing mouth, the whiskers, the nostrils and the crusher plates? Those physical features are designed for one purpose: find crabs on the bottom and crush them to bits. Crabs are often referred to as “drum candy” because they simply cannot resist the urge to eat them. Their protruding lips allow them to easily scoop crustaceans off the bottom while their barbels and nostrils allow them to feel around muddy surfaces and smell out any prey that may be hiding. This is often why you see black drum tailing in shallow water. They scavenge around in grass flats, mud flats and sandbars seeking out bottom-dwelling crustaceans. When they find one they will push their face downward causing their tail to rise and break the surface of the water.

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Crabs can be rigged in several ways depending on their size and presentation. The most popular and often most effective method is halved or quartered blue crab chunks soaked on the bottom. Crabs have lots of oils in their meat, so cracking one open and allowing the scent to drift through the water is a surefire way to entice a drum. If you’ve never prepped a crab for drum the video above perfectly explains how to do so. As far as rigging that will often depend on the depth and current in your waterway. Deep waterways with moving water will require heavy rigs whereas shallow flats will not. A great all-around method for presenting chunked crab is an egg weight “knocker” rig tied with a circle hook. Most bait shops will carry dead or live blue crab depending on availability. If not you can always harvest your own with a crab trap or net, but be sure to check FWC rules and regulations before you harvest for yourself.

2. Shrimp

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What a terrible fate it is to be a shrimp. Everything eats them, including black drum. They can be found in the same estuaries as crabs and are often cohabitating in the same structure and cover. If crabs don’t seem to be working your next best bet is to hook a live shrimp on a jig head or knocker rig and bump it along the bottom. As I stated earlier black drum forage primarily in the lower column of water. For this reason, avoid putting shrimp under popping corks. The float is designed to keep the shrimp in the mid to upper column of water, which reduces the likelihood black drum will pick up on it.  For a little extra scent in the water, you can clip the shrimp’s tail before you rig it. This allows the bloodline inside the shrimp to seep into the water and lure lurking drum. Cut shrimp or dead shrimp are also reliable for targeting drum of smaller sizes, but if you’re targeting the big boys you will most likely need a whole live shrimp.

3. Mullet

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These silver-sided baits are obviously not crustaceans, but drum are opportunistic predators and if given the chance will eat baitfish without hesitation. They are not known for crashing schools of mullet like redfish, but if they find a wandering bait with their guard down or a wounded straggler they will take their best shot. Presenting these mullet to a drum is much like the previously discussed methods. You can cut them into chunks and soak them on a knocker rig or a jig head, allowing the blood and juices to fill the water. Or, if the drum are behaving aggressively and are actively feeding, you can also fish a live mullet. Your typical “Carolina" rig with an egg weight and a short section of leader will allow the mullet to swim around a bit while still focusing your efforts on the bottom column of water.

Please remember to always use circle hooks when possible while fishing live bait and cut bait. With the exception of jig heads, every rig I’ve described can be used with a circle hook. These are specifically designed to cut down on fish mortality by reticulating the hook point inward, therefore preventing the dreaded gut hook. When used correctly circle hooks will not only allow for the healthy catch and release of undersized fish, but they will also ensure solid hook sets to the corner of the mouth with larger fish. This allows you to turn the drum more effectively during the fight and eliminates leader chaffing. Just be sure to reel before you set the hook. Circle hooks are designed to slide to the edges of the mouth and catch. If you go for a big hook set instead of reeling into the contact there is a good chance you will pull the hook completely out of the fish.

4. Mollusks

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This may seem a little farfetched at first, but I assure you black drum are capable of crushing the shells of oysters, clams and snails when properly motivated. The plates in the back of their throats are rock solid and can smash nearly anything. As humans, we can’t fathom chewing on something so hard and rigid. But, if you’ve ever eaten a freshly shucked oyster or had some escargot you are aware of the delicacy they provide. These shellfish are an excellent source of protein, fat and vitamins for black drum. They are also readily available in most waters. Drum that spend a lot of time in mud flats are often found with crushed-up snail shells and clam shells in their gut. Conversely, drum that spend their days cruising oyster bars or schooling around docks and pilings are much more likely to pick off oysters protruding from the structure.




However, when rigging a mollusk for use it's best to go ahead and remove the shell from the mussel. This allows for scent to enter the water and provides a soft morsel of meat for a mealy-mouthed drum to chew on. Again, knocker rigs, jig heads and Carolina rigs are my preferred method of presentation. Clams and oysters can be found in most bait shops, but snails will be tough to come by. Keep in mind mollusks are also notoriously hard to keep on a hook. You may have to double or triple over the meat on the hook in order to prevent it from sliding off.

5. Berkley Gulp! Soft Plastics

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You’re probably starting to notice a trend here: scent matters. Any fish that possesses nostrils the size of pennies is clearly doing a lot of sniffing around. And if you’re a lure fisherman like myself scent can be a little hard to come by when you’re throwing a piece of plastic. I’m not saying drum can’t see anything because they definitely can, they do have visual acuity in clean waters. But the majority of a black drum’s lifecycle is spent in murky, muddy conditions sniffing around on the bottom. They rely heavily on their sense of smell so presenting artificial lures as opposed to live or cut bait can prove to be a bit more difficult.

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Most often when I opt for lures over bait I am fishing black drum in the shallows. Mudflats, grass flats and shallow oyster bars are ideal for this method. It’s much easier to accurately present an artificial lure when the water column is only a few feet deep as opposed to thirty feet deep. They can easily settle onto the lure or spot it as you twitch it across the bottom. My go-to soft plastic for black drum is Gulp! Shrimp. Gulp! soft plastics are infused with scent and packaged in a smelly liquid that soaks into the body of the lure. I can attest firsthand that these stinky lures attract drum and can be just as effective as live or cut bait when presented correctly. An 1/8 oz to 1/4 oz jig head pairs perfectly with these plastics and allows for a subtle twitching and jigging action along the bottom. They also make your typical swim baits like paddle tails as well as jerk baits such as the shad or fluke tail. Which style of plastic you opt for will depend on what the black drum are feeding on and how they are behaving. If drum are tailing in the flats or slowly prowling the bank a shrimp lure would often be your best choice. On the flip side, if they are corralling baitfish or are aggressively busting minnows swim baits and jerk shads would be a better bet. You have to pay attention to the fish and the ecosystem and be analytical with your choices.

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6. Fishbites Shrimp

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Carr Specialty Baits is a family-owned North Florida tackle company based in St. Augustine. They have become very popular in my region due to their new line of scented baits called Fishbites. Like Gulp!, these plastic lures are made with scent infused into their bodies. Instead of soaking in a liquid to maintain their stench they are made with a gel material in the plastic itself that contains the scent. They have several different styles of plastic, including paddle tails and jerk shads, but my go-to is again a shrimp pattern. I rig it exactly the same with small jig heads and achieve the same action as with other plastic lures. They also make scented strips of material that you can tip your hooks with or add to dead bait rigs. A lot of surf fisherman use the strips to help keep cut bait on their hooks while also adding a little extra funk to the water. This makes Fishbites a very versatile option capable of multiple applications.

7. Pro-Cure Scent Gel

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If the above two options are not available do not fret, Pro-Cure is here to save the day. Pro-Cure Super Gel is a bottled scent applicator that can be slathered onto any soft plastic or hard plastic lure of your choice. I like to call it the “special sauce” because you can smear it all over just about anything. It comes in a variety of scents ranging from mullet and shrimp to a few more obscure “flavors” like ladyfish or crawfish. This allows you to custom-tailor your scent to your target species and make adjustments to a range of artificial lures. Of course, my favorite scents for black drum are blue crab and shrimp, both of which are available in their inventory.

8. Crab Fly

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There’s a reason we call it “fly or die”. Flies are without a doubt the most difficult thing to trick a black drum into eating. They are small, have absolutely zero scent and give off very little vibration in the water. Fly fishermen rely almost solely on the fish’s ability to see the fly. We’ve already established these drum lurk in the murk, so you can imagine it’s pretty hard for a drum to find a fly. They can’t smell it, they can barely feel it and often cannot see it depending on water conditions. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And if there’s anything a fly fisherman enjoys it's a challenge. On the rare occasions I do find drum in shallow, clean water my fly of choice is a small blue crab pattern. Black drum love small, bite-sized crabs. They are easy to throw to the back of their throat and put up much less struggle than larger blue crabs. Crab flies come equipped with two “horns” or claws attached to a small section of fibers that compose the body. As the fly falls through the water column and comes to rest on the bottom, the horns will often face upward, giving the fly the appearance of a defensive crab. If you’ve ever seen a crab under duress, they typically throw up their claws above them to pinch any would-be attackers. We call this “putting up their dukes”. Ideally, your crab fly will land in front of a drum as it approaches, the claws will float upward achieving a natural presentation and the drum will fall for your well-laid trap. All that’s left is a strip set and a fun fight.  

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