Black Drum, Monsters Of The Georgia Coast
Test your mettle against huge black drum.
March is the month saltwater anglers look forward to with anticipation. The colder weather is starting to be behind us, and while the wind may blow a bit, the water is warming, and the saltwater fishing will be really hot very soon.
The first fish we look forward to tackling as the weather begins to warm is a big black drum. March is the time the really big breeders begin to come inshore to do their biological duty. After spending the winter on and around offshore wrecks and reefs, these monsters will congregate in the same locations year after year to spawn.
When we say monster, how about 80 to 90 pounds? Not all of them are that big, but all of them are some of the biggest fish you will ever catch. All of them will be heavier than 20 pounds, with an average of maybe 30 to 40 pounds.
Our fishing team took off in February to several locations on the Georgia coast in search of some early fish. The plan was to fish the locations where we normally find the drum in March in order to show you just how easy it can be to catch one. Our hope was to catch at least one big drum.
The Georgia state-record fish weighed 92 pounds and came from the end of the jetties at the mouth of the St. Marys River. We know we can catch them there, so we decided to move north and locate some fish in the several inlets between the barrier islands to the north.
The first place we put in and fished was in the St. Simons Sound area. After launching at the public ramp on US 17 in Brunswick, we eased out toward the big bridge and positioned the boat on the west side of the northern bridge piling rocks. The tide was incoming, and as the current moved around the bridge, it created a big eddy on the west side. There are remnants of the old bridge pilings on the west side that you need to be aware of when anchoring. But it is this structure and the deeper water that attract fish. In our case, it’s huge drum.
Don’t plan on moving any farther into the Brunswick River than this bridge. Biologists tell us that the bigger black drum prefer very salty water, and as such will not venture very far up any of the estuary rivers. Smaller drum can be found in the estuaries because the eggs and fry are taken there by the tides. But, after they grow large, it seems they prefer the real salt.
Not a lot of information is known about the black drum, mainly because no agency or person has made an effort to gather that information. We know these drum spend the winter offshore, and we know they come into spawn in March and April. After that, the pages are pretty much blank on the black drum. But we do know enough about them to catch them.
Black drum are bottom feeders. As a cousin to the redfish, their mouths are tucked under their chin, and there are several barbels on their bottom chin. These are sensing devices that apparently detect food along the bottom.
We rigged our rods and put two baits on the bottom in the eddy. This is really simple fishing. We put the rods in the rod holders, turned the clickers on and waited for a bite,
Our tackle consisted of Penn rods, an older Penn Peerless No 9 reel and a Shimano Tekota reel, both spooled with 60-lb. test braid. We prefer braided line in this instance because of its no-stretch quality, and because it is so much thinner than monofilament. The thinner the line, the less weight required to get a bait to the bottom in tidal current.
Our bait on this trip was blue crabs and clams. These are essentially the bait of choice for black drum. We have hooked a big drum occasionally on a live shrimp when fishing for redfish on a set of jetties, but by far you will catch more fish on crabs or clams than anything else.
Clams are tricky and not always available. You will need to open the clam, cut out the whole clam, and then literally tie it onto the hook. We use old bread bag twist ties just for this purpose. Unless you have some really giant clams, it may take several of them to make the bait large enough to be of interest to a big drum.
The fact that they are difficult to use and keep on the hook makes us prefer the old reliable blue crab. If the crab is big, we will usually cut it in half for two baits. If it is small, we use the whole thing. Either way, we cut off all the legs and claws and remove the back of the crab. Opening the crab allows the scent of the bait to permeate the surrounding water—much like the clam baits.
The clicker on the reel began slowly clicking as the fish moved with the current away from the boat. We use big circle hooks (10/0) and put them in the corner of the crab piece. Then when the fish takes the bait, we allow it to move off with the current. After the fish has moved a short distance, we turn the locking lever on the reel, and the rod begins to double over. Circle hooks work to pull the bait out of the fish’s mouth as it moves away. When the hook gets to the corner of the mouth it embeds itself, and the fight is on. We never have to set the hook with this method, and the fish is seldom if ever gut-hooked, which allows for a healthy release after the catch. We fished for about an hour under the bridge and along the shipping channel, and while we caught fish here in past years, we had no success on this day.
We pulled anchor and looked for another spot to fish. We use NOAA Chart number 11506 when we fish for drum in the St. Simons area. While our GPS fish finder has the chart loaded, we can see the overall picture better with the big chart.
We look for deep water in the sound and even just on the ocean side of the sound. We look for places where the deeper water is close to a shelf or bar that comes up fairly steeply. The thinking is that the fish move along these shelves in the deeper water. Previous years’ catches bear this out.
We also prefer to fish the incoming tide. These big drum move with the tide and are coming inshore to spawn. On an outgoing tide, not many fish fight the current to come inshore. So we plan our drum trips to take advantage of that incoming tide.
On the chart we located an area just to the east of the St. Simons Fishing Pier. The deep water runs quite close to the south shore of St. Simons Island there and shelves up very quickly.
Actually a number of big black drum are caught each year in March and April off the St. Simons Pier. The end of the pier is in deep water that is ideal for drum fishing.
Don’t discount the Jekyll Island Fishing Pier. It, too, is located adjacent to the deeper shelving water that these big drum will traverse.
We anchored in the current after several attempts. We had to add another 6-foot length of anchor chain to help keep the anchor on the bottom. The current also required us to change to a heavier sinker to get our baits to the bottom. We were using an 8-oz. weight in this current.
There are quite a number of locations in and around the St. Simons Sound that offer deep water close to shallower water. Just study the NOAA chart, and plan your trip ahead of time. On a weekend day when the weather is good, you can usually find several boats all anchored in the same general area in the sound. Pay heed. If they have larger rods set out, they are probably fishing for drum.
Our next stop required a run to St. Andrews Sound. Ordinarily we would not make this run, instead putting in at the public ramp on Jekyll Island. But we were trying to locate the drum for you in this article. So, we ran south down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) past Jekyll Island and into the sound. We changed charts for this part of the trip. Here we used chart number 11504, St. Andrews Sound.
We ran out of the sound and headed for can buoy No. 31. The channel here sits just to the east of a large sandbar. At low tide, the sand is showing. This narrow cut is a part of the entrance channel to the sound, and it restricts the area through which the fish move. It is an ideal place to ambush the drum as they move into the sound.
We anchored up, still on the incoming tide and put our baits to the bottom close to the buoy. This location is really only fishable on a good, calm day, because breakers roll in with the surf and can cause havoc if you do not take proper precautions. But, today was calm, and the area was fishable.
We soaked our baits here and in several other locations in the sound where we caught drum in previous years. The deeper water coming into the sound runs around the north end of Cumberland Island. It shelves up to shallower water and is another location to try.
We suggest using the two NOAA charts and locating the places you want to fish the night before you go. Then fish those locations in some order. If you sit in a location and have good baits on the bottom, you need to move if you have not gotten bit over the period of an hour.
One interesting thing about these drum is that they do what their name implies—they “drum.” A low, guttural sound almost like a growl or grunt is emitted via their air bladder. In an aluminum jonboat, you can actually hear and feel the drumming coming up through the boat on a calm day when the fish are on the bottom. Some anglers actually listen for the sound, and if they don’t hear it, they move to another location.
As far as table fare goes, these big black drum are best let go to fight another day. The bigger a drum gets, the coarser his muscle meat becomes. It is also interlaced with lines of fat, and it is one fish that we avoid keeping. Cleaning one of these big boys is akin to slaughtering a hog. A good hacksaw and perhaps a small hatchet are needed to cut through or break the large bones.
There are some folks who rave about the eating qualities of these big fish, and we say to them, bon appétit. Some folks even have an elaborate pickling process using cheesecloth and canning jars to store the fish. We’ve never tried it, so we can’t say it isn’t good.
Our trip was a long one, and we ran many miles searching for an early run of black drum. But, the water temperature was around 53 degrees, and the fish had simply not begun their migration in any of the areas we fished. On a side note, we also fished the St. Marys River entrance the next day to no avail.
However, these big boys will be there in full force in March, and the methods I have written about here will work to catch one for yourself. We will definitely be right there with you.
Remember, if you are new to this fishing, look for the deep water in the sound; look for an area where several boats are anchored in or next to the deeper water; and, then just observe what the boats are doing. If you see big rods and conventional reels, the chances are good you will have found a drum hole.
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