June 2006

Expert Drum Fishing
By Lee Kelly

At right: Chad Bryant with his monster "citation" bull red drum.

The rod tip bent over slightly, flexed back, and then began to dance ever so slowly. I would not have even noticed it if it hadn't been for the keen attention paid to it by our captain, Justin Hurst. His gaze intuitively became focused on that tip and I knew that was my signal to pay attention and learn! Nonetheless, the four of us languished in guarded anticipation as we all wondered the same thing, was this just another pesky shark or large ray? Pests these are, stealing our excitement for a monster fish only to be disappointed when it becomes evident some "critter" has wound up on the business end of our equipment and stolen our bait.

Eric Hall reached for his fishing rod and slowly eased it up out of the rod holder. He leaned back slightly against the tension of the line. He felt something. The tally so far had been 4 sharks, two big rays and one sea turtle; certainly enough to keep us busy but not what we were looking for. After 5 trips last year targeting red drum, and scoring a big zero, the idea that I was somehow jinxing these trips was more than just a fleeting thought. This was so unfair for such an accomplished crew. This jinx theory was further confirmed when a wave lifted our stable catamaran, snapping the anchor line in two. I knew it! Another trip was in the making where I would not get to see a single red drum, not to mention catch one.

Eric took a couple of turns on his reel, his concentration sharpened as the line tightened as we stood by hoping someone would catch the first bull red. He held steady though. I watched in amazement as he resisted the urge to slam the hook home for what seemed like eternity. If fate would honor us this day with a trophy fish, he was ready!

Everything up to this point was perfect and in our favor. Justin, who already has boated and released literally dozens of monster red drum this year, graciously invited me to accompany him and his crew in preparation for this article. It was also the first full moon in May! Anyone with even a little salt in their blood knows THIS is the time to go. Even the ominous weather from the night before transitioned the sea into unbelievably calm fishing conditions.

With frustration we attempted to set anchor with a wreck anchor…in sand! As we slowed, Justin turned to me and said "This is the spot I was looking for earlier." The look in his eye was one of confidence, brought on through years of experience and success, of paying dues and putting the time in on the water and from learning from others who passed down their craft. He wasn't about to be beaten, not today! With renewed excitement I believed there was a chance, this could truly be the day!

It HELD! That blasted wreck anchor held in the sand! Before I knew it four baits were hurled up onto the shallow part of the shoal. Chad Bryant, the fourth member of the crew, was optimistic that today was the day he would catch a red drum larger than 34 inches, which was his previous personal best. Me? I would have been thoroughly content just to see one in person outside of the Virginia Beach Aquarium.

Eric wound hard against the tension at the same time the rod came up fast as he drove home the steel. Not much weight…probably not a…zz z z zzz drum, it isn't pulling very…zzzzzzzz.. zzzzz.. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Uh Oh, this might be a decent sized shark! He couldn't hold the fish; the drag was now singing, piercing the afternoon air as we watched in amazement while the line peeled from his reel. "I can't stop it!" he yelled, as he told us he was about too be spooled and was already down to the backing. Just then the fish stopped, turned, and with a mighty splash of its tail began heading directly at us.

The fish came within a few feet of the surface off the stern and through the murky water we were able to see it for the first time. It was a monster! And yes, it was a red drum! The size of this fish was enough to make a grown man tremble! Under normal circumstances we would have felt entirely secure in the knowledge that this magnificent beast was being brought alongside by a sturdy rod with ample backbone, but no!

Above: Justin Hurst proudly shows off his 50-inch contribution to the 8 "citation" red drum trip he led, where the fish were handled carefully, tagged and released quickly.

This rod was the smallest on board. The rod being used to subdue this fish was an unbelievable 7 ft cork handled medium action Ugly Stik bait casting rod! Amazingly, a few short minutes and several more runs later, Justin was able to net the fish and bring it aboard. It measured 53 inches long! Whew, the jinx was finally broken!

It is not uncommon while drum fishing to endure long periods of boredom. For some anglers, this means hours; for others, it could mean days. Persistence and patience pays off, however, as boredom is eventually followed by total chaos when a school of drum move through your area making it likely to have multiple hookups. On this day we didn't catch multiple fish simultaneously, however, Justin (above at left) shows how it's done consistently with a nice 50-inch specimen.

Above: Author Lee Kelly with the "jinx breaking" 48-inch red drum.

Twenty minutes after Chad landed his fish, an aggressive 48-inch red engulfed my bait, providing me with an exciting fight on light tackle. As the fish neared the boat it had not even realized it had been hooked. When it did though, it took off with mighty thrusts of its tail in a manner one would expect from a cobia, and then repeated this maneuver several times.

The following information will provide you with the tools to become successful at drum fishing. You will find that these are easy species to prepare for and a wide range of tackle will work in catching these great fish.

Preparation: It is good practice to construct your own drum before you leave the dock. When drum begin to bite there can be dozens to literally hundreds of them in the vicinity. Pre-made rigs will allow you to have a fresh rig attached to your main line in seconds.

Location: Red drum enter our area typically in late April or when the water reaches temperatures of 58 to 59 degrees. Catches become consistent around the first week in May. Good early season locations include the 9 ft shoal and Eastern Shore near Fisherman's Island. Usually by the third week in May catches increase at the 9 ft shoal and around buoy numbers 13 and 16 inside the Bay. Also, at the Inner Middle Ground and Latimer shoal. Black drum can be found at similar shoal areas, especially around deeper water edges nearing 20 to 30 feet at buoy numbers 13 and 16. As the water temperature rises in the early part of June black drum can be found schooling around the islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and other structure consisting of a flat or shoal with deeper water nearby. I've seen schools of drum in the 60 to 100 lb class way up the Bay in Maryland several miles north of the Patuxant River.

Tackle: The most common fishing rods used vary from stand up type rods to heavy trolling rods in the 20-50 pound line class. These are paired with reels such as Penn 320's with a level wind or a similar reel. Seeing is believing. When we caught the 48-incher and 53-inch drum on the medium weight bait casting rod coupled with a Penn 12lb class reel, it was evident that lighter tackle can be used. However, for the health of the fish, especially since the vast majority of the black drum and all the big red drum are released, I'd recommend staying with heavier tackle. Spinning rods are favorable to cast your bait away from the boat and up on shallow channel edges.

Illustration 1: Two types of fish finder rigs. The leaders depicted are shorter than usual for the picture.

Rigs/ Leaders: Rigs for drum fishing are fairly simple fish finder rigs. See illustration 1. These consist of a slip sinker above a heavy 60 to 80 pound leader. There are two ways to do this. First, by using an egg sinker on the main line from the reel held in place with a snap swivel, with the heavy leader connected to the swivel. The second method has a slip sinker, to which a weight can be attached, again held in place by a snap swivel, and followed by the leader.

Leaders can be two to 3 feet long. You will likely be casting the bait away from the boat so; the shorter the leader, the easier it is to cast and your baits will usually travel farther. Tying your own leader can be done easily and this Chesapeake Angler link will demonstrate the knots used on the leaders.

Weights: Weights can vary between 3 and 10 ounces typically. Some anglers prefer using pyramid weights, which hold the bottom more securely in stronger currents. The top weight in illustration 1 is a 4-ounce egg sinker where the main line passes through the weight. The lower weight is a 6-ounce bank sinker connected to a slider rig where the main line passes through the plastic sleeve.

Hooks can be either standard J-type hooks, Octopus style hooks or full circle hooks. Most people prefer at least an 8/0 hook while some are moving up to even a 12/0 hook. Mouths on red or black drum will readily accept these and larger hooks. The hooks shown above are 8/0 Eagle Claw lazer sharp octopus hooks.

Bait: When fishing for red drum use either a half or whole blue crab depicted in illustration 2.
• Remove the upper shell from the crab and throw it into the water where you will be placing your baits. This may help attract fish to your area.
• Next, cut the crab in half by either using a knife or a pair of kitchen shears. The latter works well when on the shoals when the water gets choppy.

• Insert the hook into the back fin joint of the crab (red arrow) then up through the bottom shell of the crab. This will ensure the bait will be held securely while casting.
• The crab in illustration 2 is the actual rig we used just as it is shown. Personal preference comes into play here. Many anglers like to hold the crab legs against the leader, and then secure the legs in place with a rubber band. Either method works fine. If the current is running particularly swiftly it might keep the bait from spinning when a rubber band is used.

For Black Drum, the preferred baits include peeler crabs and sea clams. They will also take hard crabs and chowder clams but not as readily. They will occasionally hit artificial baits particularly bucktails.

So there you have it. There is no real mystique to catching two of the Chesapeake Bay's largest species. Use a fish finder rig consisting of strong line with stout equipment, and bait up a crab or clam and hang on. These fish are exciting to catch and will lead to a lifetime of memories with their amazing size and strength. Please take care of these slow growing fish by catching them quickly and handling them carefully. Surprisingly, the next black drum you catch might be over 80-years old! I wish you good luck and…don't catch em' all!



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