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The period of time between the summer doldrums and the quick-action fishing of the fall can be a confusing one for anglers. Uncertainty dominates, as both the weather and the annual migrations of fish are notoriously unpredictable.
Everyone knows a variety of factors—including water temperatures, fall storms and the inevitable movement of large schools of fish—mean great fishing is just around the corner. But what do you do in the meantime?
Fall fishing for favorites like spot, speckled trout and red drum will be fast and furious once it gets started. The much-less revered black drum is providing action right now, however, and will bite throughout the late summer and fall and will still be here long after the seasonal action heats up and cools off. In all seasons and all kinds of weather, black drum are one of our most dependable fish, even if they remain somewhat unappreciated compared to their more famous brethren.
A poor cousin in a family of fish that contains all of those mentioned above, black drum are decent fighters and good to eat, and they hit in local waters virtually year-round. Tolerant to extremes in temperature, even the coldest or hottest water doesn’t put them off the bite.
Black drum are not really a panfish and they can get huge. Giants up into the 100-pound range roam deep areas of structure in our coastal rivers. Most of them caught by casual anglers, however, are smaller fish of a few pounds that can put a real bend in a spot rod.
Black drum this size look something like sheepshead, with which they are often confused because of the black vertical bands on their white bodies. The marks fade as the fish ages. Black drum big enough to have lost their stripes are not good to eat and tend to have parasites (which look like white worms) in their flesh.
Fish more than about 5 pounds are best released, and the same goes for very small black drum sometimes caught on piers. Black drum of a few pounds yield fillets of delicious white meat that are great breaded and fried and fit perfectly into many soup, stew and casserole recipes.
Unlike the more free-roaming spot or trout, black drum are exclusively a fish of structure, and won’t be found on sandy stretches unless there is something to hold them there. They eat shellfish and don’t stray far from this food supply. Black drum are fish of bridges, pier pilings, docks and oyster beds and use the barbells on their chin to find food. They are hooked almost exclusively by bottom-fishing with a few ounces of weight on the bottom.
Many anglers catch the occasional black drum because they love to hit cut shrimp. They tend to ignore some other popular baits, including worms, cut fish or live minnows, though a hungry black drum will occasionally bite anything.
Experienced anglers targeting these fish will vary their baits by the season. This time of the year pinfish tend to take the cut shrimp off your hook quickly in inshore waters, so some folks catch black drum by using sand fleas or fiddler crabs. You can also use the shellfish-flavored synthetic strips like those made by Fishbites. The slow-moving black drum are rarely caught on lures.
Although they are a powerful, chunky fish black drum often bite very softly. This is because their crushing teeth are actually in their throats, and they will take your bait into their mouths tuning it over before grinding it up. This produces a slight vibration on your line that is something like someone plucking a guitar string. At other times a black drum will nail your bait and you won’t have to worry about setting the hook.
Black drum are comparable to freshwater catfish when it comes to nocturnal activity. They usually feed better after dark, because they operate more by smell and touch than sight. Some folks fishing for black drum wait until sunset to start, taking advantage of the cooler weather, less-crowded conditions and decreased presence of the bait-stealing pinfish.
If you are looking for something to do while waiting for your favorite fall fish to go on a run, then checking out a bridge or pier at night and fishing around a piling for black drum is a great way to spend your time. They are a lot of fun and you may come away with something to eat while you are waiting on the more glamorous species to arrive.
Lowcountry Black Drum Casserole
6 black drum fillets (from fish around 2 pounds)
3 medium potatoes, cut into chunks
2 small yellow onions, chopped
1 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter
paprika and black pepper
Put potatoes, onions and butter in a covered casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and place fish on top of potatoes and onions. Sprinkle lemon juice, paprika and pepper on fish. Cover casserole with bread crumbs. Return to heat and continue baking for 10 minutes or until fish is done (when it flakes easily with a fork). Serves four.
JEFFREY WEEKS is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.