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The Black Drum March

This is the month to catch a huge black drum along the Atlantic coast

By

Photo © and used with permission from Captain Kirk Waltz

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jesse Smith with a Black Drum Weighing over 100 pounds. His guide was Captain Kirk Waltz

Photo © and used with permission from Captain Kirk Waltz
Catching a big fish necessarily means a long trip offshore on a big boat, right? Some would argue that this is the case, but this time of year, there are a lot of small boaters who will argue in another direction. You can catch some big fish this month – we’re talking over 20 and 30 pounds – and you can catch them in calm water and small boats.

I’m talking about drum – black drum. March and April are the months that the big spawning drum migrate to the inlets and passes along the coast. Some of these fish can be 90 pounds or more. And, although a fish that big will approach a record, fish to 50 pounds are common.

Record Book Sized Fish

The recently released, potential Florida record-breaking fish told me that we have some awfully big fish this year. This fish, caught at the mouth of the St Johns River bottomed out a 100 pound scale and would certainly have broken the Florida record of 93 pounds. It could possibly have been a world record fish, but the wise angler who caught him released him to spawn and “make more fish.”

The Georgia state record for black drum was set in 2010 just off the north jetty at the entrance to the St Marys River. Weighing in at 92 pounds, it is just under the world record of 113 pounds. So, knowing the big fish would be “Marching” in soon I made a trip to the St Marys River on the southern Georgia coast to find some of these big boys and to show you how easy it is to catch a trophy fish this month.

In Pursuit of Black Drum

Like other members of the drum family – red drum specifically – the mouth is under their jaw, and there are some remnants of almost catfish-like barbels under their chin. This is a classic sign for a bottom feeding fish. And, bottom fishing is exactly what we were planning as we headed out from the public dock at St Marys.

A short run out the river and across the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) put me in the shipping channel that is protected for a mile out into the Atlantic by the jetties on either side. These jetties provide the channel protection from tidal currents and prevent it from silting or sanding in. The channel is dredged regularly and the edges remain steep and deep. That’s what makes this such a great place to find some of these monsters – a good deep channel with steep edges.

The Migration

Every year in the March and April time frame, these monsters come into the inlet. Like lots of other fish they run the edge of the channels and the edge of the jetties to avoid being in the heaviest part of the tidal current. One big difference with the black drum is that they run right on the bottom. Surface baits simply won’t catch them. Sometimes a bait fished deep under a slip float will pick one up, but bottom fishing is far and away the best method for bringing a monster to the boat.

Jetty Structure

The first spot I headed out to try was the area where the state record was caught at the end of the north jetty. The end of the jetty that you see above the water line is not really the end of the jetty. As you round the north jetty, you need to be aware that the jetty structure continues under the surface for at least 100 yards or more. You need to pay particular attention to the water depth and swing very wide if you plan to go around the end of the jetty. Every year, a number of boats try to take a short cut and end up punching a hole in the bottom of their boat. The huge jetty rocks are just under the surface and the depth of water over them gradually increases as you move out from the visible tip. This jetty structure is important to know, because it will determine exactly where you fish.

I made my way around the end of the north jetty and began to idle around watching the depth finder. I was looking for the edge of the underwater portion of the jetty rocks. That edge is where I planned to fish. ,H3>Tide and Boat PositionOrdinarily I prefer the last of the outgoing tide when fishing these jetties. I catch reds, seatrout and sheepshead out here all the way down to low tide. But with these big drum, I needed to be there as they move in on the incoming tide.

The tide was half high and still coming in. I wanted to position the boat so that when anchored, I would be fishing down to the inside edge of the jetty rocks – the edge that borders the channel. The water on the surface was coming in from the north, across the rocks and into the channel. The water on the bottom was generally moving in the same direction, but it was being broken up by the rocks. When it flows over those rocks, it changes direction up and down, and creates small pockets of protected water and bottom eddies. The way the water moves on the bottom is important, because that movement – or lack of movement – creates hides and pathways for the fish to use. Getting a bait down in the right place will insure that the fish will be coming by your bait. In swift water like these tidal currents, being off by even ten feet can be the difference between fish and no fish.

I moved up current and slightly over the jetty rocks. The depth over the rocks was about 18 feet. Dropping the jetty anchor and chain, I allowed the current to sweep us back until the anchor hung. The stern of the boat was in deep water, so I took in some anchor rope until the boat was just on the edge of the channel where the rocks stopped. Perfect.

Tackle Preference

The tackle I was using consisted of Penn 330GT reels spooled with 30 pound test monofilament line. I would not advise using anything smaller than this. The rods were 7 foot Penn Slammer rods, the same ones we use for kingfish. They have a good backbone but a lighter tip.

I used an 8 ounce bank sinker to begin with just to see if it was big enough to keep the bait on the bottom. The sinker was attached to a sliding clip above the swivel. Below the swivel we used 60 pound test fluorocarbon leader and a 10/0 circle hook. The circle hook is a good choice for these fish, because they will literally hook themselves and 99 percent of the time they will be hooked in the corner of the mouth. Standard hooks will gut-hook these fish every time. The sliding sinker clip allows the fish to pull line without dragging the sinker with him. Moving a sinker or hook along the bottom out here is a sure way of hanging up on a rock and losing a bottom rig.

Bait

The bait of choice on this trip was blue crabs. Some anglers use a whole crab; some cut them in half; and, others quarter them. I prefer to modify the crab before I hook it up. First, I peel the top shell off the crab. Then I use some shears and cut the legs and claws away. If it’s a big crab, I will halve it or quarter it. The old adage that big baits mean big fish can be taken too far with these drum. I need just a mouth sized piece.

I hook the bait with the circle hook going through one time, and I’m ready to fish. Because I anchored right over the edge, there was no need to cast the bait anywhere. I simply allowed it to go down to the bottom, right where the boat was. The current swept it back and along the edge of the rocks, and the 8 ounce weight kept it on the bottom. If I was positioned right, the drum would be moving in close proximity to my bait.

A Variety of Fish

I think at this point you need to be aware that a black drum is not the only fish to hug the bottom and move with the current on an incoming tide. Sting rays, sharks, and red drum are among the fish you are liable to catch while waiting for the black drum to arrive.

Having spent the winter over offshore reefs, huge red drum make their way back inshore in the spring, and as happened to me – you are liable to hook up with one of these bruisers. The ones you catch will be way over Georgia’s 23 inch slot limit and will have to be released. But hey, they’re fun to catch!

Fishing

It did not take long for one of the rods in the rod holder to slowly bend down. A fish had picked up the bait and was moving off with the current. I reached for the rod, and the circle hook had done its job. The fish was hooked and began fighting.

While black drum and redfish are cousins, they fight differently. Reds will run and twist and shake their heads back and forth during the fight. Black drum will just hug the bottom and let the current help them move away from you. This fish was fighting like a big red, and as it turns out it was.

Of all the bad luck to have, we had cornered the market on a school of big reds, and caught and released one after another right where we were anchored. But black drum is what we were after, so we pulled anchor and moved.

Move to Find Fish

The next stop was around marker 22, just inside the sound on the south end of Cumberland Island. Markers 22, 24, and 26 mark the north edge of the shipping channel that heads to Kings Bay. The water around marker 22 has some good holes and drops. Along the channel edge, which is dredged on a regular basis, the water drops to almost 60 feet in depth.

Location, Location, Location

The wind was coming out of the north, so we eased north of the shipping channel edge and dropped anchor. I backed the boat down to hang the anchor and then adjusted the boat position so that I would be fishing along the edge of the channel.

Another boat with a lone angler was fishing just north and west of us along the same channel edge close to marker 26. I had no sooner finished positioning the boat when he shouted. He had hooked a good fish!

He fought the fish for about 20 minutes and brought it alongside the boat. With a rod in one hand, and a gaff in the other, he hooked the fish in the mouth and brought him aboard. I estimated the fish to be in the 40 pound range. He put small rope through the hole in its lip and tied the fish to the side of the boat.

I fished for another hour on the incoming tide, and my fishing partner (aka my grandson!) caught some smaller drum and a few smaller reds, but nothing to compare with the fish caught 40 miles south of us in Florida.

Plan Your Trip Early

Prime months for these big black drum are March and April. We fished in February hoping the warmer water would bring them in early. As you can see, they are beginning to show up. That means March should be red hot in the river entrance and on the jetties.

To plan your trip, make sure you take two anchors. One needs to be a jetty anchor, made from a pipe and rebar, and one needs to be a Danforth type anchor for digging into a sand or mud bottom.

Anchor Warning

When you fish on the jetties, use the rebar anchor. The tines will bend out when hung, allowing you to free the anchor from the rocks on the bottom. Every year, hundreds of standard anchors are lost to jetty rocks. This specialized anchor, available at most local tackle and bait shops, will prevent that loss.

If you are fishing inside the inlet mouth along the river channel, use the Danforth anchor. It is designed to dig in and hold the bottom. A rebar anchor used here will not hold your boat in the tidal current. I like to have an 8 foot chain on my Danforth. It keeps the anchor flat on the bottom as you move back to set it. In a tidal current this is extremely important – or you may never be able to hold your boat.

Bottom Line

Black drum are great to eat when they are small. The larger the fish, the coarser the meat, and many anglers dislike the meat from the larger fish. Others swear by it, even pickling it with some secret family recipes. For my part, I will keep a fish to eat if he is less than ten pounds. Anything larger than that gets released unharmed because we use circle hooks. This is easy fishing that even the small boater can accomplish. Give these monsters a try this month!

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