Although I consider myself more of an offshore fisherman at heart, the chance to hunt down a 30- to 70-pound fish in skinny, crystal-clear water definitely gets my heart pumping.
The size of the fish you can chase offshore is typically of a bigger class, but you can’t always get offshore and sometimes I just don’t have the time to put in a full day. So when I need a quick fix for something of size and another sea trout or redfish just won’t cut it, I like to go out and stalk a true giant and the black drum fits the bill nicely.
Black drum are a very under-rated game fish, even though they can reach huge proportions and are more difficult to catch than their red counterparts.
The black drum (Pogonias cromis) is similar to the red drum but is known to reach a much larger size. Juvenile black drum feature a distinctive black-and-white striped pattern resembling an Atlantic sheepshead until they reach 15 to 20 pounds. At this point the black drum’s color pattern greys out and depending on the fish, its appearance will become a brownish black or sometimes a light grey to a dark-copper color.
As they get older, black drum start to look all beat up and tattered, and anglers have given them an appropriate nickname — the Big Nasty. They really become quite ugly in their old age, and almost appear like they’re molting. The drum spend much of their life foraging in shallows and oyster beds so their skin can become bruised and flaky.
Black drum use their powerful jaws and crushers in their throat to consume their prey. The majority of their diet consists of crushed oysters, clams, crustaceans and barnacles. They are bottom feeders true and true, with sensitive barbels under their chin to help them locate food.
It’s said that black drum have very poor eyesight, which in my experience makes it easier for anglers to get close to these fish while stalking them on the flats. Unfortunately, it makes hooking a nice black drum on an ill-placed fly or artificial lure damn near impossible. Fishing for black drum with artificials is another story entirely. For the sake of this article, however, lets focus on using crabs to entice these nearly blind game fish to eat.
Many times you will hear black drum as you search the flats or when fishing near piers, pilings and structure. They are capable of producing drumming tones between 100 and 500 mHz! To this day I’m still amused by the sound they make when you land one.
There are many ways to fish for large black drum in the western Atlantic, since they cover a wide range and diverse habitat. Black drum can be found from Florida to Nova Scotia and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The species is most common along the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to the southern portions of Florida but I’m told they are abundant along the Texas coast and Louisiana.
Spawning usually takes place in the early spring after the fish reach sexual maturity around 4 to 5 years old. Black drum can live more than 40 years and the current world record weighed in at more than 110 pounds!
I really enjoy pitching blue crabs to black drum on the flats or any waters less than 4 feet deep. Most of my black drum fishing occurs in east central Florida around the Banana River and the Indian River, as well as Mosquito Lagoon.
My wife and I run recreational blue crab traps in the river and we often find large black drum cruising by themselves or sometimes in schools where we put out our traps. This often makes it easier for us to gather bait to throw at them.
Catching your own bait isn’t too hard and blue crabs can be found year-round off the side of causeways and jetties. Traps are an efficient way to land the crabs, but can be costly if you’re just focusing on bait. We like to cook up blue crabs so we’re mostly thinking of our own bellies, but there are plenty to use for bait as well. In most cases, you will only need six medium- to large-sized crabs to make 12 baits.
Some people will dip-net crabs the night before with a shrimp net made out of chicken wire. Another good way to catch them is with a chicken neck tied to a string. Just throw the chicken out 10 to 20 feet from a dock or jetty. When you see the line moving, just slowly pull it in until you see the crab. The crab will hang onto the chicken as you pull them in, but have a landing net nearby to scoop up the crab as soon as they get close. Be aware of the recreational fishing regulations for blue crab. If you’re using too many traps or the wrong type and you get busted, it could be a painful and expensive day. Also, make sure to release all of the female crabs that have eggs.
If you don’t catch your own blue crabs many tackle shops carry them, just call ahead. If you find yourself in a pinch, there are quite a few seafood stores who also sell live crabs.
I like to put the crabs on ice so they’ll chill out (literally) and you can easily pull the carapace off and then split the crab in half. I will then hook the crab through the swimmer fin or the hardest part of the body. I like to let the drum eat the bait for at least 10 seconds or more and reel slowly to come tight with just a small jab to set the hook.
I use a Penn Legion rod with a Penn Sargus SG3000 spinning reel spooled with 12-pound braided line such as SpiderWire or Fireline. I like the stoutness of the Legion rod and the fast action makes it easier to pitch the crab without throwing the bait off the hook. We mostly use 30-pound leader unless I’m fishing real close to pilings or big structure.
We typically fight these large fish on the flats but their skin is so rough and sometimes we are fishing near oyster bars and crab traps, so I like the heavier leader to put some pressure on them. In the summer when the water in the lagoon gets really hot, I don’t like to prolong the battle. It’s better to put the heat on them, get them to the boat quick and not beat the life out of them.
Black drum do not fight particularly hard per say but their sheer size will make the fight last. Redfish, in my opinion, fight harder pound for pound.
I like a small but strong hook for black drum. I like one that is thin and will leave a small hole when penetrating through the blue crab’s shell. I also think they don’t detect and spit out a small hook as quickly.
I prefer to sight-cast to these fish but some people will steak out on the edge of the flats where the water rolls off or near oyster bars and throw out blue crabs on a dead stick and wait. This can also be very effective if you know you are in the right area but I like to hunt them, hoping to watch the fish eat. This is much more rewarding to me.
On windy days hunting schools of black drum can be challenging. If I know where a school has been and the water is clean enough I have had pretty good luck by watching for dark areas on the water and keeping an eye on whether or not the spots are slowly moving. This does not always work because sometimes the school or singles will sit motionless while grazing on barnacles over hard bottom.
When we spot a single fish I like to cast past and in front of the fish’s head a few feet then carefully reel my bait into the fish’s strike zone. This works much better than trying to cast your crab in front of the fish’s face in a big splat where you risk spooking him.
We sometimes harvest black drum for the table, the smaller fish under 12 pounds have firm, white, flaky fillets. Large black drum have a lot of blood lines and coarse fillets. Match that with a very small yield in comparison to the size of the fish and it’s really not worth killing the big fish over 20 pounds.
No matter how you do it, catching big black drum is fun for the entire family and few things are better than landing a big beast in skinny water.