“Barry, there’s a tail! And there’s another one, at about one o’clock!” Barry Kent’s demeanor changed instantly when he spotted the two broom-sized tails waving, reflecting the early morning sunlight. They were the only sign of life on a large, otherwise empty flat.
“John, look at the size of them! How deep is it here?” Barry’s questions carried his feeling of excitement. “Almost three feet,” I replied. “They look like big ones. Tell me when you’re in casting range and I’ll try to hold us at that distance.” The fish were tailing intermittently. The tails would disappear, then pop up again 15 or 20 feet away. We chased the fish for at least ten minutes, Barry repeatedly presenting a small brown Clouser minnow to them. Finally, Barry’s line tightened and a large fish began towing the canoe around the flat.
“In the zone” in the no-motor-zone…
Black drum don’t usually jump to mind when fly fishers think about saltwater gamefish. But when the situation is right, drum will take flies, and sometimes they get downright reckless about it. This piece will discuss fly fishing for black drum- times, tackle, techniques, and a little about locations.
My own black drum fishing occurs in Florida’s Banana River, up in the manatee refuge north of State Road 528. Since no motors have been allowed in this area for several years, the drum have been able to grow to incredible sizes and they freely school up and feed on shallow flats. I had always considered fishing for them a winter activity. I thought the drum I caught last summer was a fluke. But this past summer I’ve seen them on several different outings, and I got one of about thirty five pounds on a chartreuse Clouser minnow under a blazing midday July sun. So perhaps I need to pursue the summer drum fishery more diligently. There’s no doubt among the manatee refuge regulars that the drum tail much more freely in the winter though. The best kind of day on which to find them is warm and sunny, with a light northwest wind. Under these conditions the water on the flats warms throughout the day, sometimes rising in temperature by as much as three or four degrees. The drum, both black and red, move into the shallows to feed under these conditions. They will tail vigorously. Sometimes literally hundreds of fish will be found tailing, and they give great opportunities to experiment with different flies and fish fighting techniques.
I own a seven-weight fly rod of which I’m not very fond. This particular piece of equipment is sold with a replacement guarantee against breakage. I was using this rod one day when I ran into a large school of big tailing black drum. Since I was using a 15 pound test tippet, I decided to see just how much the rod could take. When I hooked a fish I locked up the reel to see if the fish could break the rod. The fish put so much pressure on the rod that I was afraid I’d get a face full of graphite splinters when it blew up, so I tried to let go. I repeated this sequence with four different fish. This whole episode was a very valuable learning experience. I learned that you cannot get your fingers out of the way of the reel handle under these circumstances. Bruised and bloody digits are guaranteed. I learned that I cannot break that rod no matter how much pressure I put on it. The hook bends or the tippet will give before the rod will break. And I learned that in order to beat the drum quickly you must apply some serious pressure right from the hookup.
Flies and presentations…for bulldozers
Hooking a black drum is a lot like hooking a bulldozer. While the occasional drum will behave as though it finished bonefish training school, most drum are slow but powerful creatures. Their morphology appears to be designed for power and stamina. So fighting drum can easily become a long, drawn out affair unless you quickly apply the maximum pressure your tackle will stand. You have to be prepared to go toe to toe with a fish that can easily weigh 30 or 40 pounds, or face a fight which could certainly last for over an hour.
Days like the one just described give one a lot of chances to play with fly selection too. Flies that sink rapidly are preferred, and as a general rule dark colored flies perform better than light colored ones. My own two favorites for black drum are my Fuzzy Crab and a modification of the Clouser minnow that I call the Son of Clouser, which has a squirrel hair wing topped with brown marabou, and a brown chenille head wrapped around the lead eyes. I also usually tie in some copper crystal flash. My favorite sizes are #4 and #2 for both of these flies.
I prefer a chartreuse Clouser minnow for redfish though, and often encounter black drum while searching for reds. If this should happen to you, throw the chartreuse fly. The black drum will sometimes take it. You must cast accurately to catch drum on flies. They feed primarily by smell, using their barbels to locate foods like clams, crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans, various marine worms, or small minnows in or along the bottom. The fly must settle within a few inches of the beast’s head or it will never see it.
Knowing where the head is when its tail is in the air and the water depth is three feet is difficult. You often must cast repeatedly in order to capture the drum’s attention. Fortunately, the very poor eyesight which makes the repeated casting necessary also keeps the fish from spooking too easily. As long as you don’t line it you can keep working the fish for fifteen minutes or more, until it finally sees your offering and decides to take.
Your retrieve should be slow. I’ve heard some people say you should just cast the fly out and let it sit there until the fish eats it. I never feel like I have enough contact with the fly to identify a take when I try this. Consequently I use a slow retrieve, just crawling the fly along the bottom until I think it is too far from the fish. Then I just false cast once and drop the fly on the fish again.
When you hook up the fish often appears unaware at first that there’s a problem. When it does figure it out though, it will try to make a run. My drum fighting technique, already alluded to, is to palm the reel with as much force as I dare to keep the drum from swimming far. If it gets a head of steam up it will be a protracted battle.
My good friend Joe Mulson hooked a drum of about 60 pounds out of a tightly massed school of fish travelling along the edge of a flat two winters ago. That drum took off against only his reel drag and literally never stopped. When the end of the backing was reached Joe’s tippet broke. Fortunately for Joe he uses lighter tippets than I prefer or he would have lost the fish, fly, leader, line, and backing. As it was he was only out the fish and the fly. It took about ten minutes for him to stop shaking enough to tie a new tippet and fly on, though!
Most anglers should use eight- or nine-weight rods for this fishing. The drum get big and some serious pulling will be going on. Although I use a six- or seven-weight Redington, the fish have trained me well in how to maximize my pulling. As mentioned earlier, I also use fairly heavy tippets, 15 pound test.
These fish are generally found in about two feet of water. A weight-forward floating line works best here. Leaders can range from nine to twelve feet, depending on wind speed, casting skill, and spookiness of the fish. I usually use a loop knot to tie the leader to the fly, hoping to give it more action than it would have if snugged up tight to the stout tippet. The fish won’t always be tailing, either. Sometimes they’ll be swimming around in what I can only assume is a mating ritual, splashing and pushing up big wakes and drumming like crazy. Sometimes you can actually hear them before you can see them- a very bizarre experience. The drumming sound comes right through the hull of the boat.
Other times they appear to be laid up, just resting on the flat with very little movement going on. Under these circumstances seeing them before you run them over is quite difficult. Sadly, one spooked fish can blow out the entire school, too.
Garden of Eden
Drum have big crushing teeth way down in their throats. If you look down into a drum’s mouth you’ll see them down there. They look like half BB’s attached to the surface of the pharynx. Called pharangeal teeth, these grinders allow them to crush the shellfish which they prefer to eat. They also grind them together to make the familiar drumming sound, using their air bladders as resonance chambers to amplify the sound.
Shallow water drum can be found in other Florida locations besides the Banana River. I’ve seen them tailing over oyster bars at the northern end of Everglades National Park, although I’ve never gotten one to take a fly there. Captain Mike Locklear tells me there’s a big school of black drum that tails near the mouth of the Suwanee River. These fish will take flies. Captain Jim Dupre tells me there are tailing black drum that can be successfully fished on flies around the oyster bars in the backcountry areas around Cedar Key. No doubt as the effects of the net ban kick in and the increase in the numbers of fly fishers expand the sport’s horizons, more fly fishable black drum will be found by anglers here in the Sunshine State and elsewhere throughout the southeast.
To keep the drum from towing us around for an hour or more, I had Barry hop out of the canoe into the hip deep water and fight the drum on foot. After only twenty minutes or so of hard pulling action I tailed his drum, the biggest fish he’d ever caught on a fly. After he finished whooping and hollering we got some photos, then released the fish to fight again another day.
Black drum. Short of hooking a bulldozer, there’s nothing else like them.