Fishing for Black Drum
Redfish are arguably the most popular saltwater gamefish in Texas. But, it hasn't always been that way. In fact, as recently as the 1970s, redfish weren't even classified as gamefish in the Lone Star State. Sure, they were popular among sport fishermen, but they were more popular among commercial fishermen. At the time, speckled trout were considered a more desirable light tackle target.
Following the formation of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (now the Coastal Conservation Association) and a lot of hard lobbying by the core group of saltwater anglers who revered redfish, redfish were granted the much desired designation of gamefish. Not only did this make redfish off-limits to commercial fishermen, it enhanced their value in the minds of thousands of fishermen who had previously shrugged them off as another non-game species.
Today, the same attitude that once plagued the red drum is directed toward its cousin, the black drum. Although the two species are very similar, anglers' view of them are much different. Red drum are seen as a shallow water glamour species. Black drum have often been referred to as 'saltwater javelina.'
Except for the difference in color and the deeper body inherent to the black drum, the two species are remarkably similar in appearance. And, they most often inhabit the same areas. In fact, Texas inshore fishermen are much more likely to encounter an over 30-inch black drum on a shallow flat than a redfish of similar proportions. So, why does one species overshadow the other so dramatically?
Primarily the discrimination can be related to three things: 1. black drum are still considered a non-game species; 2. while black drum will make fairly long, determined runs, they are a tad slower than redfish; 3. redfish are much more aggressive feeders, readily gobbling natural and artificial baits, while black drum are tough to tempt with artificials, although it is possible. But, despite having three strikes against them, black drum can provide plenty of fun on the flats for anglers who know how to target them.
WHERE TO LOOK
Black drum can be found in a variety of habitats, including the surf, along jetties and in Gulf passes. For the purpose of this article, we'll focus on bay habitat that black drum find desirable.
In general, black drum don't differ much from red drum when it comes to choosing feeding spots. Typically, black drum will be found in channels that bisect shallow flats during low tide or cool weather periods. They will move up to the edges of the adjacent flats during high tide.
When found on the flats, the primary difference between the two drum species is black drum rarely wander far from the deeper channels, whereas redfish are well-known for traversing great distances in water barely deep enough to cover their backs. Otherwise, like reds, black drum routinely feed in large schools and will muddy the water in a rather large area while 'grubbing' for food along the bottom.
Another key difference is, although they will occasionally wander over a sand flat, black drum prefer a muddy, mucky bottom year around. This bottom is all the more attractive if it is covered with oysters, mussels or other shell structure. Black drum will spend the majority of their time either scavenging or siphoning crabs, shrimp and marine worms from soft-bottom flats, although they will take a swipe an unsuspecting baitfish from time to time.
WHAT TO THROW
Black drum are notorious for turning their nose up at artificial lures and flies. This belligerent behavior toward non-natural baits is often what attracts fly fishermen to black drum. In fact, saltwater fly fishermen from Florida to Texas often find the challenge of tempting a black drum with fur and feathers irresistible.
Most seasoned black drum chasing long rodders are quick to point out the best patterns for this duty are understated, to put it politely. Unlike speckled trout and redfish, which are much more aggressive predators and like lots of flash and movement, black drum tend to more often mouth patterns that have subdued color pattern, are small in profile and offer little in the way of 'action.' Black, brown and olive are the most consistent colors. Clouser Minnows in size 4 or 6, small shrimp patterns and a host of small crab patterns tied in these colors offer the best odds for success.
Conventional tackle fishermen hoping to tempt black drum on artificials should also look to baits in natural colors - and scents. DOA Shrimp and Softshell Crabs, GULP! Peeler Crabs, and Bass Assassin BLURP! Shrimp are some of the best bets. Glow, New Penny, Motor Oil and Brown Crab are among the best color patterns. These baits are most effective when free-lined or used to sight-cast to individual fish.
Although crab and shrimp-shaped lures are the most effective for black drum, soft-plastic and bucktail jigs will dupe fish from time to time. Again, a small profile and natural color pattern are the key elements. The retrieve is equally important, not so much for what you should do, but for what you shouldn't. When tossing jigs at black drum, a s-l-o-w, steady retrieve is the best bet.
While fly fishermen and artificial lure anglers will take some fish, those serious about getting into fast action with black drum should 'go natural.' Cracked crab tops the list of natural baits, with shrimp coming in a close second and cut baitfish coming in third.
When it comes to shrimp, there are two distinct schools of thought. One camp swears live is the way to go. On the other side of the argument are anglers who believe dead shrimp are best. In fact, a great number of these fishermen take the dead bait belief a step further, insisting that 'long dead' is better than 'fresh dead' due to the scent it emits. These 'dead baiters' will often leave a bag a shrimp on the deck of their boat under a midday sun to 'ripen' them.
Regardless of which natural bait you choose, they are each fished in similar manners. Light-tackle flats fishermen often sight-cast with unweighted baits. Using just a hook, these fishermen are able to land a cracked crab or a shrimp within inches of a fish without spooking it. If, however, the fish is busy 'rooting,' the bait will need to sink lower in the water column in order to get its attention. Usually, adding a split shot or two will provide plenty of ballast to get the job done.
At other times, anglers prefer to anchor or stake their boats near known feeding areas, plant their baits on the bottom and wait for 'herds' of black drum to come by. When bottom fishing over shallow flats or during periods of minimal tidal movement, a Carolina rig is the preferred presentation. This rig, which utilizes an egg sinker, barrel swivel and short length of leader allows the fish to feel minimal resistance as it picks up a bait and moves off.
However, when fishing channels during times of strong current movement, a Carolina rig will usually 'roll away' and can become difficult to manage. At times such as this, a traditional 'three-way' rig using a pyramid sinker to keep the bait pinned in place is the preferred method. Since black drum can be sensitive to pressure and will often drop a bait if it doesn't move freely, use the lightest sinker possible given the prevailing current strength.
Anytime you're using natural baits, it pays to use 'self-setting' hooks such as Kahle-style and circle hooks. Light-wire circle bait hooks such as those offered by Daiichi and other manufacturers are ideal. These hooks not only hold live and dead baits securely, they take the guesswork out of hooksetting and, more often than not, hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. The self-setting function of these hooks can be a big advantage, as black drum often employ a deft touch when they pick up a bait and move away. The corner-of-the-mouth hook placement is always advantageous when dealing with slot-regulated species such as black and red drum, as any 'oversize' fish can be safely returned to the water.
WHAT YOU CAN KEEP
One of the advantages of catching a cooler of black drum is enjoying an evening of tasty fried fish afterward. Although anglers can often find black drum taping 3 feet or more on the flats, smaller samples are much better eating. Currently, the State of Texas allows anglers to take 5 fish between 14 and 30 inches. Most experienced black drum fishermen agree fish in the lower half of the slot are provide the best tasting fillets.
Regardless of whether you're fishing for food or fun, you should try beating the 'other' drum from time to time. Although they're not held in as high of regard as their bronze cousin, they provide a surprisingly spirited fight and, should you so choose, a tasty dinner as a reward.