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Black Drum Beats

When capricious winter weather makes it hard to catch bragging-size fish, the black drum finds new fans.

By Larry Bozka

As game fish go, black drum are about as romantic as dump trucks.

A dump truck has rubber tires. So does a Maserati, but the comparison pretty much ends right there. It doesn’t require a poll to determine which vehicle most people would rather ride around in.

That might change, of course, if the pretty red sports car hopelessly broke down a long way from home and the driver needed a ride. A rusty but reliable dump truck slowly chugging down the road suddenly starts looking very attractive.

That’s the way it is with black drum. The charcoal-colored bruisers get next to no respect for much of the year. Come January through March, however, saltwater fishermen generally take what they can get. They know, if nothing else, they can get big black drum.

The key word here is “big.”

Deep in the soul of every angler is the inherent desire to simply catch a big fish. Speckled trout and tarpon snobs may deny it, but a month or so of back-to-back cold fronts can significantly impact a fisherman’s priorities. Just about the time that cabin fever starts feeling like a terminal disease, news of the drum run hits the hotline and weather-weary anglers with readjusted attitudes happily head for the coast.

There’s nothing quite like a 50-pound drum to knock the cobwebs off a dusty boat rod.

Fish of that caliber are not uncommon. The state record for black drum stands at a whopping 81 pounds. By comparison, the record red drum (“redfish,” to most anglers) weighs in at a comparatively meager 59.5 pounds.

There’s nothing quite like a 50-pound drum to knock the cobwebs off a dusty boat rod.

It’s undeniable that, pound-for-pound, the redfish is a much tougher opponent. Reds take the bait and run like punt return specialists. Black drum, even really big ones, shuffle along like overweight offensive linemen.

A black drum’s surges are slow but deliberate. Bigger fish methodically shake their thick, humped heads with telltale zig-zags and capture line in short, uninspired spurts that belie their surprising size.

The annual migration kicks off in January. All along the Texas Coast, heavyweight drum course through deep-water channels in sizable schools. Fishermen are restricted to a “slot” limit that allows for the retention of five fish per day, none less than 14 inches long and none over 30 inches. Unlike red drum, there is no “trophy tag” on an angler’s license that allows the fisherman to retain one oversized fish per year.

It’s that restriction, however, enacted in 1988, that makes it possible for coastal fishermen to predictably catch — and release — so many goliath black drum year after year.

“That same year, in addition to the size and bag limits, a seine net ban was implemented,” says biologist Karen Meador, Aransas Bay Ecosystem Leader at TPWD’s Rockport Marine Lab. “Commer-cial black drum landings initially decreased, as fishermen made the transition to trotlines.”

Prior to the change, pressure on black drum had progressively increased to problematic proportions. “Black drum became a substitute for red drum after the red drum purse seine fishery was shut down in the Gulf of Mexico,” Meador recalls. “The fish were in big demand because of the ‘blackened fish’ craze occurring at the time.”

Meador and other biologists working with the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission witnessed firsthand what purse seines could do to redfish in the open Gulf. “With the purse seine fishery in full swing, numerous year classes of breeding-sized redfish were disappearing,” Meador says. “We weren’t going to wait for that to occur with black drum.”

Florida and Louisiana remain the only other Gulf states that also have enacted black drum bag and size limits. Yet, the three states’ collective efforts showed almost immediate results.

“The regulations went into effect Sept. 1, 1988, and the 1990 class of black drum was very strong,” Meador says. “This ‘cohort’ was estimated to be five times that of the last strong class, in 1979. Peak catches by recreational anglers also occurred in 1994 and 2001.”

According to Meador, black drum spawn between January and June, with peak activity from January through March. “Both males and females run in large schools,” she says, “which is one reason we are not willing to relax the regulations to allow fishermen to retain over-30-inch fish. If we allowed those fish to be kept, the spawning population could be adversely impacted.”

Surprisingly, 80 percent of Texas commercial black drum landings occur in Upper and Lower Laguna Madre and Corpus Christi Bay. Meador points out that black drum populations are sustained by peaks of good recruitment, cautioning that such peaks generally occur only once every decade.

Furthermore, despite a general increase in the number of fish, the numbers of 30-inch and bigger black drum in Texas waters have not increased since the regulations change. Some bays have even witnessed declines in oversized fish. As such, regulations aren’t likely to be liberalized anytime soon.

The Texas Coast is a long and varied crescent. It’s nonetheless a bit surprising that black drum life cycles are so remarkably dissimilar from Brownsville to Beaumont. “Females in South Texas, from Corpus Christi Bay on south, reach maturity at the end of their second year, or 11 1/2 inches,” Meador explains. “Black drum from Aransas Bay and north generally are not sexually mature until 4 or 5 years old. And,” she adds, “Northern Gulf studies have determined that few males or females in that area reach maturity before they are 5 years old and around 23 inches long.”

The annual drum run has become a ritual of sorts for me and my friend Ray Keeling. A licensed fishing guide, Keeling operates Shutterbug’s Guide Service out of Houston, writes the occasional fishing story and (as you might have guessed from the name of his business) is an avid photographer. That skill comes in very handy during the run, when Keeling’s clients have to release most of the fish they catch from the Galveston Ship Channel, where oversized drum are the norm.

For fulfilling the fantasy of catching a very large fish, it's impossible to beat the black drum.

Small “puppy” drum can be taken from bay shores, rock groins and reefs, often on live shrimp or fiddler crabs, and make for fine eating (see recipe below). Unlike big drum, they lack the harmless but distasteful “spaghetti worms” that, along with coarse flesh, make big drum less-than-desirable table fare. The small fish are also elusive targets for shallow-water fly-casters.

But for Keeling and me, it’s all about catching and releasing heavyweight fish from deep water in the midst of the low-odds stretch of the bayfishing season. Last year, it was the first week of March before Ray and I finally made our annual pilgrimage. His father, Ray Sr., joined us.

Our first two jetty fishing attempts were scrubbed due to unanticipated northers (nothing unusual there), so when the anchor finally touched down some 40 feet below, we were all more than ready for action.

It’s always great at this point in a fish story to say, “We didn’t have to wait long.”

Problem is that would be lying.

Truth is, it was more than three hours before the first channel-cruising drum smelled and crushed one of our freshly rigged blue crab halves.

Shelled, broken in half and hooked through the body and a leg chamber so that the barb is fully exposed, there is no more effective big drum offering than fresh blue crab.

Live crabs can be difficult to find. Usually, select bait houses and seafood shops carry sufficient inventories for fishermen who are willing to do some searching.

Keeling and I use large, red-plated Daiichi “circle” hooks tied on with loop knots to enhance the free-swinging presentation. The metallic crimson plating of a “bleeding hook” isn’t an imperative. To Keeling and me, it’s another “confidence” element, just like some fishermen prefer chartreuse lures over silver or painted weights over bare lead sinkers.

Hook selection is another matter altogether. The distinctive circle-hook design and exaggerated size are both, in our estimation, absolutely essential.

Circle hooks (a.k.a. “tuna hooks”) were initially developed for commercial fishermen who needed a hook that would virtually set itself, which is exactly what circle hooks do.

“Setting the hook” with one of these is a no-no. Hook-sets only take the bait away from the fish.

The circle hook’s “gap” — the distance between its sharp, curled-in barb and thick, sturdy shank — must be wide enough to accommodate the wide, rubbery lip of a large black drum. (Circle hooks are also perfectly suited to catch-and-release redfishing.) If the fish is allowed to pick up the bait, chew on it briefly and then move a short distance, the tightened line will pull the barb into the fish’s jaw for a firm — and almost invariably harmless — hook-set.

As a conservation tool for catching precious breeding-sized fish and releasing them uninjured, the circle hook is without equal.

So, when the first drum of the day finally picked up the bait on the rear port-side rod, we gave the fish time. The Keelings graciously allowed me the honors.

I pulled the boat rod, a long-handled, 6-foot offshore stick actually designed for king mackerel fishing, out of the rod holder. Thirty-pound-test monofilament stretched tight and sang in the wind as the big drum chugged up-current.

On the fringe of a deep-water jetty, the first few feet of a big drum fight are tentative at best. Inside that narrow zone, a really big drum can pull a hook and leader down inside a barnacle-encrusted rock crevice and sever even heavy fluorocarbon leader like dime store sewing thread. With a good dose of pressure and a rod to match the task, the danger zone is usually avoided.

Big black drum are strong, but again, they aren’t fast. They also don’t possess a lot of endurance. With time, the fish succumb to steady pressure. At boatside, they often roll over on their backs like puppy dogs wanting a belly scratch.

Keeling corralled the tired-out 40-pounder inside the metal rim of his wide-mouthed landing net and lifted it from the water just long enough for me to shoot a few photos.

Its eyes were the size of quarters, liquid amber with jet-black pupils. The ivory white of its sagging, egg-stuffed belly blended into large, deep-brown scales on white-and-silver skin. The dorsal fin was opaque with heavy spines, the tail broad and sturdy. Its pectoral fins were long and white; their tips tapered thin like the wings of a bird. On the cusp of its rounded chin drooped a cluster of short, pinkish-white whiskers.

We caught eight fish that day, all in the span of six hours. We will no doubt get a sense of déjà vu in repeating the process again this year. January, February and March can offer the occasional day of spectacular fishing for speckled trout and redfish. All the same, even if conditions are prime, I’m not really sure I’ll bet on the chancy proposition of catching big trout when the odds of taking 30- to 50-pound black drum are always so much higher.

No, it isn’t the Ferrari of saltwater sportfish.

But the fact remains: for fulfilling the fisherman’s ever-present fantasy of catching a very large fish for a very impressive photo, and doing it at a very unlikely time of year, it’s virtually impossible to beat the black drum.

The Surprisingly Delectable “Puppy” Drum

Despite the poor eating qualities of big black drum, many an unsuspecting diner has been fooled into thinking that properly cooked “puppy drum” are actually redfish. For 14- to 20-inch drum, the quality is in the cooking.

Basic, batter-fried fillets are always a good option. But to procure the ultimate puppy drum recipe, I turned to longtime cooking pro and avid outdoorsman Don Netek of Pasadena.

Netek runs a catering service and specializes in cooking wild game. The personable chef is also author of The Sportsman’s Cookbook and Then Some, and he agreed to share a special, non-published recipe with Texas Parks & Wildlife readers that will transform fresh puppy drum fillets into mouth-watering culinary delights.

He calls it “Black Drum Fillets on a Blanket of Stuffing.”

Black Drum Fillets on a Blanket of Stuffing

Ingredients:
  • 4 to 6 drum fillets
  • 1/2 cup chopped onions
  • Salt, to taste
  • White pepper, to taste
  • 1 stick butter or margarine
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Lemon juice
  • 1/2 pound cleaned, boiled shrimp (chopped)
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 clove minced garlic
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cup Stove Top Stuffing Mix (Home-style Herb), moistened
  • 1/2 pound crabmeat
  • Parmesan cheese, grated, to taste
Directions:

Using one stick of butter or margarine, sauté onions, celery and minced garlic on medium to high heat in frying pan. Add crabmeat and shrimp. Continue to stir. Add moistened Stove-Top Stuffing Mix, beaten eggs and (optional) white wine. Stir the mixture for 2 minutes, take it off the burner and set it aside.

To prepare black drum fillets, first brush each fillet with lemon juice and then brush with melted butter or margarine. Do this to each side of each drum fillet. Use white pepper and salt to season both sides of each fillet.

Take a covered baking pan (glass or metal) with 1-inch sides and spray bottom of baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Cover the bottom of the baking pan with moistened stuffing mix. Take each drum fillet and lay it on the blanket of stuffing.

Cover the baking pan. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with a dash of parmesan cheese.

Serves 3 to 4 adults.

For more information on Don Netek’s colorful and tasteful collection of wild game recipes, check the Web at <www.sportcookbook.com>, e-mail him at donnetek@sportcookbook.com or call (800) 494-0098.

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