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Black Drum, Beauty or Brute?

By Joe Richard | March 1, 2012

Black Drum, Beauty or Brute? image
Black drum dearly love blue crab, ideally cracked in half for easier chomping.

Black drum have earned a few monikers over the years, some of them plainly ungenerous. They were born without the cavalier persona of their coppery cousins, the redfish. They're a bit drab, and slower. However, what they lack in beauty, they make up for in size. They're often the biggest fish many coastal anglers will ever catch. With a state record of 81 pounds, the black drum isn't threatened by its smaller cousin. And with a penchant for spawning in deeper, protected water each spring, these guys can be fought from dry land or small boats. As for their beauty status, that depends on whom you talk to. A shore-bound angler hooked up with a 50-pounder may consider Mr. Drum the best thing since the Internet.

March is spawning month for these brutes, and a few Texas hotspots are listed below. First, here's a little advice on tackle and technique.

Water depth: Black drum stay deep during their spawning rituals, but there's no need to fish in a ship lane. It's best to keep out of serious boat traffic and avoid the 50-foot depths. Also avoid the flats; these fish are now geared for spawning in their favorite depths, which is 20-30 feet. Watch the depth finder, but also other boats sitting anchored with the same intentions. Safely "on the hook," rig up tackle with a range of lead weights, depending on the current's speed. We like to use four to eight ounces. You want a proper spread of baits both astern and on each side on the boat, without your rigs migrating in the current. Only lead will keep those baits set in a fixed pattern. Heavier lead to the sides, lighter lead astern.

Big drum, both black and red, seem to feed best during an incoming tide; there's just something about spawning rituals that gives them a big appetite. (We also know they want their drifting eggs to settle far back in the bays and marsh where the hatched fry can hide while growing. Schedule your trip ideally around healthy water movement; an anemic tide makes for slow action. Green water helps, but drum have small chin barbells and in muddy water can certainly sniff out a juicy cracked crab laid on the bottom for their benefit.

Bait: Serious drum fishermen with regular exposure to the bay, or who live nearby, should consider setting out a few crab traps for a steady supply of fresh bait. Back before the crab trap cleanups there was an ample supply of discarded traps, half full of sand, on bayside beaches. We would clean up four or five, dropped a redfish head in each one, and soak them in a local bayou where a cold front wouldn't blow them away. A redfish head lasted a full week, but these days you're not supposed to use gamefish scraps in crab traps. However a puppy (small) black drum's head would serve as well, if it fits. If nothing else, fill the bait compartment with leftover chicken scraps. Discarded traps aren't so easy to find these days, thanks to CCA crab trap cleanups each February, but they can be borrowed from coastal friends or even bought.

Anglers in a hurry or living further inland may have to buy their bait. Only Asian groceries and fish markets seem to sell crabs these days---they've become a rarity in bait stores. Hit the nearest grocery or market on Friday evening before heading for the coast, pick the meanest crabs, and they'll stay alive in a cooler overnight. Some say crawfish work just as well, and they don't have nearly the attitude of crabs. Just don't let either reach ice water, which kills them quickly. They're happy enough sitting on a towel over a sealed ice bag.

Next day, once the boat is anchored, pop a crab's shell off (a technique called cracked crab), and also the claws, and toss them overboard for chum. Then, break the crab in half. That leaves four legs on each piece. Pin the hook through the rubbery joint of each bait's rear paddle flipper, an appendage that allows the crab to swim in better times. You don't want the hook buried in hard crab shell. Leave plenty of hook exposed; the goal here is to bury the hook in drum lip, instead of getting balled up in crab shell while the drum thoughtfully munches his meal.

Give these bigger drum the time to chew, before setting a J-hook. For long casts from shore, the J-hook is best. Avoid stainless steel hooks---the hook may get swallowed and this is a release fishery for spawner-class fish.

If fishing within 20 feet around the boat, go with the circle hook. With the circle, these fish have to move off and pull a sturdy rod down, before the hook sets itself. Big circle hooks easily hook big drum, but you need that heavier 30- to 40-pound gear to set the hook. Unhooking circle hooks and releasing these fish is a no-brainer, since big drum are patient during such a procedure. For lighter tackle, rearing back with a J-hook offers better insurance. Drum brought up from 30 feet or more can have their air bladders deflated like bull redfish, by inserting a thin, sharp instrument where the tip of the pectoral fin touches its side. Those that aren't deflated and float away may still recover in 10 minutes or so and dive back down. I've seen it happen many times.

Use at least four rods: There's no use messing around out here. This is a waiting game, and a spread of baits gets more drum attention. Tackle can range from 20 to 40 pounds, the lighter gear giving far more sport. Back in high school a friend of mine fought a 35-pounder from the south levy in Port Arthur with a Zebco 33 outfit, an epic fight that took a long time and 100 yards of footwork. On the flip side, in later years, we set out four 40-pound outfits with Penn Senator reels, a little heavy for these gentle giants. Today I prefer seven-foot medium spin outfits with 20-pound line. The only problem we have is setting a circle hook with this tackle; the J-hook works better.

The winds of March should not affect drum fishermen; 20-knot gusts should be no hindrance at all. They often spawn in protected water, but still prefer depth and current this time of year. Often you're within 30 yards of land, or even on the shore itself. You can even jam a kayak against the bank in protected waters, if water depths are 20 feet, and get busy. The only problem for yakkers is a short spread of rod holders. That's why I prefer to fish from my 15-foot jonboat, that has four PVC holders evenly mounted from bow to stern for summer tarpon drifts, and delivers a broadside of four baits all at once to starboard. It's easy to park the boat and fire off four crab baits. Bull redfish may favor churning surf and jetty chops, but cousin drum plainly prefers gentle waters easily fished from aluminum boats or other small craft.

Historic drum spots include Galveston's Seawolf Park on the deep harbor side, where many a drum has wrapped his lips around juicy crab bait. Only to be waylaid by someone in a crowd of long-rod (as in 12-foot) anglers deadly serious on wrestling big drum. The same goes for the Texas City Dike, scene of big drum tournaments in years past, finally curtailed when large drum became protected in 1988. Galveston's jetties, the biggest in the country, also attract a host of drum from February to April.

Further south in Port O'Connor, the calmer bay side of the big jetties are a favorite of mine, protected from offshore winds. A green, incoming tide is always best here. And Saluria Bayou---with near-vertical dropoffs, reliably calm and deep even in a norther---is another favorite for giant spawning drum. Park against the shore, set out a spread of rods, sit back and do a little texting before the action starts…As in "OMG! I'm bowed up! BRB!"

Down at Port Aransas, Lydia Ann Channel offers reliable drum action during spring in depths of 20-25 feet.

At the southern end of South Padre Island, Queen Isabella Pier reaches out into prime drum water. On the pier, use a lead and sound out the depths, looking for 25 feet or so. The pier is open even after dusk, for those contemplating a night-bite of big bruiser drum without worrying about boating in darkness.

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