Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Catching Black Drum in the Fall and Winter

Written by TOF Pro Staff 

Some of the fish we catch in Florida waters are seasonal – they show up when the water reaches (or falls to) certain temperatures, and you pretty-much do not expect to catch them in the 'off' seasons. Tarpon are a good example. Even though we know where to catch them all year, and can target them in the middle of the Christmas season, they're a summer fish, appearing en masse when the water temps hit 78F. Not so with another very popular and often ignored species: the black drum. Black drum are an outstanding species, they're around all year long (in different places) and range from a few pounds of delicious and protein-packed meat -- remarkably like redfish (their cousins) -- to fifty pound beasts that are an AWESOME fight, but better released than grilled due to a preponderance of crawling worms that make their home in the fish's tails.

Catching Black Drum in the Fall

Two things happen in the fall. The first thing is that the big fish that lived near the pilings move out to deeper water offshore, and they move across the flats they were being caught from in the Springtime. The circle continues, and the fish are caught on the same flats using the same lures and baits they caught them on in March and April. Stay on our forums (which you should be doing anyway) and you will know when the first few fish are caught. The migration takes less time in the fall than it does in the winter (four weeks in the spring but as quick as 10 days in the fall). The rate at which the water temps fall are less predictable and can happen faster, it seems.
When black drum school up, you can literally feed them by hand with a good chum mix. They're shrimp and crustaceoun eaters, so bringing an extra couple of dozen shrimp along for the ride, and breaking them into small chunks to toss into the flow of the water will often get them balled up and very active. Great time for a flyrod or light tackle rod for a memorable battle. They can get big; thirty pounders in big schools in the spring and fall are not uncommon, and you can see a dozen boats on the flats working the schools.
The second thing that happens is that the "Puppy" drum show up. Puppy drums are the name we've used in the bay area for as long as any of us remember for the young black drum that begin to show up in the fall. They're clearly marked with big vertical stripes that disappear when they get older (and do not exist on the clown fish you catch at the big pilings in the summer time) and make the fish particularly beautiful. They're strong and they taste exactly – exactly – like their cousin the redfish. In the fall you can start to catch them near the edges of the flats near the residential docks and mangrove backcountry. It's there that they live in the cold months before moving out, maybe (?) going into deep water and growing into forty pound fish.

Dock Fishing for Black Drum in the Wintertime

We just love to fish in residential docks in Florida – anywhere in Florida – in the wintertime. There are biologists that claim we should not catch and release the thirty and forty pound snook we catch there, and that pulling a redfish out once in a while is also a bad thing because it stresses the poor things.
We eat fish, and we teach people to catch them and eat them as well. We release 99% of the fish we catch, because we catch a lot of them. We are protective of the species, and fishing in residential canals in the winter not only produces a lot of fish, but it gets you out of the wind and keeps you so near population centers you can walk into somebody's kitchen to get a band-aid if you really needed one. Those canals are a favorite haunt – the living room, really – of beautiful, abundant, tasty, and challenging puppy drum.
Puppy drum will eat live shrimp on a freelined bait, but putting a small split shot on the leader will be more likely to draw a strike. They're inferior fish (their lower jaw is shorter than their upper jaw) so they're built to eat stuff from the bottom. That means that a jig or artificial lure will work well too, but not as well as a live shrimp kept near the bottom.
One other thing about puppy drum, and that is where they are in the canals. While the snook (and often redfish) tend to stay near the docks, big trout and the puppy drum we're talking about tend to move in the deeper – and relatively open – centers of the canals. If you're fishing inshore in those canals, try fishing baits as far under those docks as you can. They're roofs that protect fish from the hotter sun but stay warm because of the dark mud they cover. That's where you'll find the big snooksters, but put a bait on the bottom in the middle of the canal and a school of winter puppies might just make your day.

Catching Black Drum in the Springtime

These are a great fish to target, because they're really challenging, fight the same – better in some cases than a redfish, can be found if you know where to look for them at different times of the year, and will eat both live baits and artificials. The places you find them in different seasons are filled with other species, too, so a day's trip plan can include drum, redfish, snook, speckled trout, small permit and their pompano family members, and the occasional cobia. We are among the anglers that target them; they're that good to catch.

Clowns on the Flats...

We sometimes joke that big black drum are like fish from a cartoon. Black drum are movers. Like just about all the species we target, you will consistently catch them at one place in the springtime, another place in the summer, and yet another in late November, January and February. In the springtime the fish come in from deeper water, and the fish that appear are mature breeders. They range from 20lbs to above fifty, and when they first appear it's on the grass and sandy flats near the mouths of big bays. You will also see them showing up on the flats inside intercoastal waters. They're big and can be taken on light tackle because the water were you will catch them is wide open and without much sharp structure.
From tiny to the fifty pounders we sometime refer to as "Cartoon Fish", black drum are a reliable, challenging hard fighter that can make winter days turn out wonderful and put an outstanding food on your dining room table or grill. They taste much like their cousin the redfish.
Flyrods come to play and light tackle provides an incredible fight. The fish are strong and robust, and seem to have a very high post-release survival rate. They eat shrimp, crabs, dead bait, and anything they can put in their mouth, but in the springtime the best way to catch them is with live shrimp. We suggest you put one on a float and another freelined maybe with a small split shot to control the flow of the baits relative to the tides and the wind. Make the bait look natural. They're not the most brilliant fish in the water but they're not stupid.
This image (courtesy FloridaInshoreFishingCharters.com) shows the tasty species in the hands of a master fly angler. They're great to catch on crabs and small shrimp flies, and the schools of fifties will hit them as quickly as this nice six pounder.
Small crab flies work well, and so do small jigs. You can catch them on cheap bucktail jigs, you can catch them on white or black lead heads without a soft tail, and you can catch them on Gulp! or any of the scented soft tails designed to be connected to a lead jig head.
As we say and experience proves, these big fish begin showing up around March or April, depending on water temperatures, and local anglers know when they do. Watch the forums or simply start putting in at one of the marinas near the south bay (The ramps at Fort De Soto are great, as is O'Neils) There can be twenty boats on a single flat in the early mornings, and you can certainly be among them. Just watch the drift, and make sure you get into it with other boats. Don't bump into them, run across their lines, or run your engine. Watch the wind, drift and use a trolling motor. Have a stick anchor like the PowerPole and connect the boat to the bottom as soon as you catch the first fish. They're traveling in pods just like redfish do, and like redfish if you watch the schools you can synchronize your drift with the movement of the school. Or at the very least connect with the school once or twice each drift, moving back to the start when the school's out of reach. There are guides working here to make a living; respect them.

Catching Black Drum in the Summertime

As we said earlier in the article, if you know where the black drum live at different times of the year, you can always catch them. Knowing when the drum show up and where they go once they're in the bays will put you on them fairly regularly. If you're somebody that just loves to show newbies how fish-conscious you are, understanding drum will make you quite impressive.

Working the Pilings in the summer months

You can catch those huge 30lb-50lb fish all summer long. They need to stay fairly cool and they eat crustaceans as a regular part of their diet. They are "inferior" feeders – that is their lower jaws are shorter then their upper jaw. That simply means they were built to look down (for the most part) and to eat stuff that's underneath them. They're basically bottom feeders, and that is where you fill find them.
The place to fish for big black drum in the summer is near the big bridges. They populate the pilings both big and small, although for some reason there are pilings that produce more than others year after year. You only have to drop a bait – a blue crab cut into quarters works very well, perhaps better than anything else you can use – near the pilings on a lead heavy enough to keep it there, or even let it bounce slightly (only slightly) in the current. The fish bump the baits, and if you fish with a circle hook – which you should for these fish – all you have to do is lift the rod and hang on. The fish are there and will always produce if the water is moving.
Black drum are catch and release if they're over five pounds or so. They develop worms and while you might consider them living protein, they're gross and thick and numerous. The bigger the fish the bigger the worms are. The worms seem attracted to drum in general, as you will find them in big redfish and even big speckled trout, but not so much in other species.

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