If you're new to the world of saltwater fishing, or could simply use a skills tune-up, consider enrolling in the Boaters University course Angler's Bootcamp: The Basics Of Saltwater Fishing.
Ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. That’s the deep, repetitive drumming noise coming from inside the 60-pound black drum we just tricked into eating half a peeler crab skewered onto a circle hook. Only minutes earlier the leviathan had shown up on our fishfinder with a few friends, the screen displaying them as if a posse of Volkswagen Beetles were roaming like nomads across the bottom of Chesapeake Bay.
While black drum might be challenged in the looks department, getting one hooked and playing it can be a true thrill. In fact, the black drum is one of the largest fish — weighing upward of 100 pounds — that Bay anglers get the chance to battle. As luck would have it, May and June are the perfect time to target these fish on the Chesapeake.
Less well known than its cousin, the red drum (red fish, channel bass), black drum can be found up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from the Gulf of Mexico to New England. Weighing 90 to 100 pounds or more, a typical black drum spends most of its time feeling around the bottom for mollusks and shellfish with its barbells — tentacle-like whiskers that sprout from its lower jaw. Once a victim is found, the black drum inhales it before smashing it up with plate-like crushers in the back of its mouth. What black drum lack in brute strength they make up for in sheer size.
Though black drum between 30 and 80 pounds can be found from May through October, sporadically schooling up from the Lower Chesapeake, Middle Bay anglers typically only get a shot at the truly big ones from May through mid-June, when they swim up the Bay to spawn. During this time, they feed over such structure as oyster bars and artificial reefs all around the Bay, though most seem to prefer Eastern Shore waters from Cape Charles up to the Choptank River — sometimes even farther north. Hot spots include Tangier Sound, the waters off Hoopers Island and a lump of rocks off the Choptank River aptly named Stone Rock. You can also look for them on oyster beds, artificial reefs and other structure where oysters, clams and crabs are found.
You can certainly catch black drum without a fishfinder, but your success rate will be much higher with electronics. As you slowly and quietly motor or drift over structure, look for rounded humps that resemble the outline of a large tortoise, or those Volkswagen Beetles. These fish also can show up as triangle shapes, and no matter which shape they take on your finder they’ll be solid red on most bottom machines. Once you’ve spotted them you can drop your offerings overboard. Being quiet is a key ingredient of black drum success, and that means turning off the stereo, keeping voices muted, avoiding slamming locker lids and not putting your engine in and out of gear frequently.
Most of the black drum you’ll find schooling up in the Bay during the spring run will be in the 30- to 40-pound class, but there’s a real chance of hooking up with 60- to 80-pound fish — and there are 100-pounders swimming around. That means stout tackle is in order. Thirty- to 40-pound-class conventional rigs will do the trick, as will beefed-up spinning outfits spooled with 40-pound braid. Tie off a fishfinder rig tipped with a large circle hook (6/0 to 7/0) to finish off your black drum setup.
For bait, there’s nothing as good as half of a peeler crab hooked through one leg socket and out the other. Soft crabs can also be used, though they tend not to stand up as well to repeated mouthing by curious fish. Other anglers use clams. I’ve unintentionally caught black drum on jig heads dressed with soft plastics, and on Clouser Deep Minnows when fly-fishing, but most folks wouldn’t recommend either as a primary tactic in the spring.
Finding black drum and then getting your bait down to them is one thing. Hooking one is a different ballgame entirely. Despite the reputation the fish has for poor eyesight and being less than intelligent — probably because of its appearance — black drum have an insanely good sense of smell and extremely sensitive mouths. They’ve been known to mouth and play around with a bait for quite a long time. That’s what makes fishing for them so much fun.
When you feel a thump on your line it’s important not to strike immediately, especially if you’re using circle hooks. That being said, I’ve found that when fishing peeler or soft crabs you should wait no longer than a few seconds to purposely, but not too vigorously, set the hook. The likelihood is that you’ll miss a half-dozen or more fish until you get a feel for the timing. If you feel as if your overall hook-setting skills could use a tune-up, consider enrolling in Boaters University’s Anglers Bootcamp: The Basics of Saltwater Fishing. Use the coupon code: SOUNDINGS for 15 percent off tuition.
You can keep black drum to eat (check bag limits and slot lengths for Maryland and Virginia waters), though you will have to check the meat carefully for a parasitic worm that is often present in black drum flesh. The worms are easy to spot and pick out, but, you know … they’re worms. I’m not a fan, but plenty of folks take home black drum for the grill, at least occasionally. The smaller ones taste better, in my experience, and are generally worm-free. However, you’ll be doing the black drum fishery a favor — and upping your fishing karma — by gently releasing your catch after snapping a few photos.
Black drum may not be in line to win any beauty contests, but they’re a worthy piscatorial adversary for anglers interested in catching a unique fish that requires a deft touch to hook and land. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one of these true behemoths lurking on the Bay’s bottom this late spring.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.