The black drum, Pogonias cromis, is a chunky, high-backed fish of the croaker family. The undersides of adults are white, but coloration of the backs and sides can vary depending on habitat or age. In Gulf waters, black drum are frequently light gray or silver with a brassy sheen. Those inhabiting bays and lagoons tend to be darker, typically with dark gray or bronze dorsal surfaces and gray sides. Some are even jet black. Juvenile fish up to about fifteen pounds have four or five dark vertical bars on their sides and are often mistaken for sheepshead. The bars disappear with age. Small black drum, under a pound in weight, are sometimes referred to as butterfly drum; those less than eight pounds are called puppy drum; and large adults over thirty pounds are known as bull drum, though these large specimens can be either male or female. The largest black drum on record weighed 146 pounds, though they are more commonly encountered around thirty or forty pounds. The Texas record, listed on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department State Records website, is 36.63 pounds (2009). However, other sources list it from 78 pounds to 81 pounds. Regardless, there are some sizable black drum in Texas waters. All sizes can be identified by the whisker-like barbels under the lower jaw, which give them their genus name, Pogonias, meaning “bearded.” As a member of the croaker family, the black drum is related to Atlantic croaker, red drum, and spotted seatrout. A characteristic of this family of fish is the ability to produce croaking or drumming sounds with the swim bladder, resulting in both the common names of drum and croaker, and also the black drum species name, cromis, meaning “to croak.” This ability is most developed in the black drum, and passing schools can sometimes be heard from boats or even waterfront homes.
The black drum ranges along the Atlantic coast from New York south through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to Argentina. They are especially abundant in Florida and along the Gulf coast to Texas. In Texas, the area of greatest abundance is from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. This species can adapt to a wide range of habitats, from the clearest water of sand flats to the muddiest waters of a flooding slough. They can live in water so shallow their backs are exposed, and in Gulf waters more than 100 feet deep. Though commonly found over oyster reefs, shell hash, and sand/mud bottoms in high runoff areas, they can also survive in waters twice as salty as the Gulf. When food is plentiful and water conditions acceptable, movements are small, but long migrations in search of food and more desirable habitats have been recorded. Sudden temperature drops in the winter can cause them to migrate to deeper waters. Movements toward freshwater flow are also notable. Though tagging studies have recorded migrations of 245 miles in less than a year, most distances covered were less than 10 miles. Tagged black drum in Texas generally move less than 5 miles from where they are tagged.
Black drum are primarily bottom feeders, using their sensitive chin barbels and electroreceptors to detect prey buried in the substrate. As adults, their diet consists primarily of mollusks and crustaceans, such as clams, oysters, crabs, and shrimp. Some greens are also included. Black drum have no canine teeth like the spotted seatrout, but they do have highly developed pharyngeal teeth (in the pharynx, or throat) used for crushing the hard shells of their prey. They likely compete with other drums, especially the red drum, for benthic food resources, but their large, strong pharyngeal teeth probably give them an edge in the competition for mollusks. Feeding black drums swim in a head-down position, called tailing. Some feed in this vertical position in waters so shallow, their tails stick out of the water. When a drum’s barbels drift over a food item, the drum stops swimming and inhales the unlucky creature. This creates small craters in the bottom, called “drum noodles.” Experienced anglers can track the recent passage of a drum school by the presence of many noodles. After crushing the prey’s shell, the drum spits out the larger shell bits from its mouth, the smaller having already fallen out through the gills during the crushing and eating. On average, black drum can eat one oyster per pound of body weight per day. Larval black drum subsist primarily on zooplankton. Young drums less than eight inches feed mostly on maritime worms, small crustaceans, and small fish. After eight inches, they switch to the adult diet. Large black drum have very few predators, mainly sharks. However, young drum are targeted by seatrouts, jack, and a variety of other large fish.
Black drum are a prolific species that form large schools before the beginning of the spawning season. Offshore, often 20,000 to 60,000 pounds of drum will be in a single school, frequently mixed with cownose rays, and occasionally jack crevalle and red drum. Courtship is accompanied by fervent drumming. Special muscles, called sonic muscle fibers, run horizontally along both sides of the drum’s body and are connected to a central tendon that surrounds the swim bladder. When the sonic muscle fibers are contracted against the swim bladder, the amorous namesake croaks are produced. Black drum will spawn in the bay, Gulf, or connecting passes, in depths between 10 and 165 feet. Spawning periods are dependent upon geographic location. Sites are closely tied to the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, the more oxygen the better. In Texas, most spawning occurs from February through March, with some residual attempts continuing into June and July. Peaks seem to occur at new and full moon phases in the early evening, one to two hours after sunset. Black drum are multiple spawners, capable of spawning every three days. It is estimated that an average-sized female of around thirteen pounds can produce 32 million eggs per year.
Eggs hatch within 24 hours, and larval drum are carried into estuaries on the tides where they settle into seagrass beds to grow. Older larvae cluster in the nutrient-rich, somewhat muddy, waters of tidal creeks and channels. After a few weeks, the young look like small adults. Small juvenile black drum occur over a wide variety of temperatures and salinities, but most are often collected in low to moderate salinities over mud bottoms. Based on length-frequency analyses and tagging data, growth rates in Texas indicate that juvenile drums reach six inches in their first year, twelve inches in their second, and sixteen in their third. After that, they only grow about two inches per year. There doesn’t seem to be any difference in growth rates between the sexes. Depending on the location, black drum reach sexual maturity between 12 to 27 inches, anywhere from two to six years old, males maturing at a somewhat smaller size and younger age than females. They are a long-lived species, reaching over forty years on the Gulf coast and almost sixty on the Atlantic coast.
Some compare landing a large black drum to raising a sunken log, but for many people, black drum represent the best chance to land a 30- to 40-pound fish. Recreational landings are significantly larger than commercial landings in all states within this drum’s range. Fishing for this species can be enjoyed by anyone at almost any time. It doesn’t take expensive tackle or boats, or even much experience. However, if you don’t want to catch your own, or keep catching hardheads instead, drum meat can be purchased in stores and fish markets for about half the cost of “choice” fish. Black drum less than five pounds, cleaned and prepared properly, can rival the more glamorous flounder, red drum, and snapper. Drum over five pounds tend to have coarse flesh, and the larger the fish, the coarser the flesh. Those are good candidates for catch and release. Larger drum also tend to have infestations of a larval tapeworm in their flesh, colloquially referred to as “spaghetti worms.” They are actually a parasitic tapeworm of sharks, using the drum as an intermediate host. While unappetizing, they are harmless to humans, even if eaten raw (though I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a Klingon’s stomach).
Though their population trend is decreasing, the black drum is not considered overfished and is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Prior to 1988 – when size and bag limits, as well as a seine net ban, were implemented – fishing pressure on the black drum was becoming a potential problem for the fish. Luckily (for the black drum), the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission had witnessed what purse seines could do to red drum, wiping out numerous year classes of breeders, and had learned how to prevent the same from happening to black drum. Only Texas, Louisiana, and Florida have enacted black drum bag and size limits, but even this small amount of protection has made a difference, though it hasn’t stopped the decline of oversized drum everywhere. Black drum are a fairly data-poor species. State surveys and fisheries have highly variable numbers of encounters, and limited size composition data makes age-structured models unreliable. Assessments estimate reference points based on historical catch data and life history information. As such, regulations probably won’t become looser in the near future.
Where I learned about black drum, and you can too!
Smithsonian Marine Station
Ocean Conservation Research
IUCN Red List
Chesapeake Bay Program
Atlantic City Aquarium
The Marine Scene Plus!