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Avery Leadin

    Spring is here in the Chesapeake Bay and anglers anxiously await the first reports of drum, both big bull reds and huge black drum. After our long, cold, hard winter and few fishing opportunities from January to April, the arrival of red and black drum is a welcome relief. We are not talking little ones, the ones often called puppy drum. We are talking about massive fish that, as they reach 35, 40, or even more than 50 inches have such power and fight they can give anglers the battle of a lifetime. When these fish get hooked, they zoom off, your line screaming and your rod bent over hard.
    Red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, also known as channel bass, redfish, spottail bass or simply reds, is a gamefish that is found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to northern Mexico. The red drum is a cousin to the black drum, Pogonias cromis. Red drum have streamlined bodies with a dark red color on the back, which fades into white on the belly. Red drum are relatives of the black drum and both make a croaking noise that sounds like a drumbeat.
    The most distinguishing mark on the red drum is one large black spot on the upper part of the tail base. Having multiple spots is not uncommon for this fish but having no spots is extremely rare. As the fish with multiple spots grow older, they seem to lose their excess spots. Scientists believe the black spot near their tail helps fool predators into attacking the red drum’s tail instead of its head, allowing the red drum to escape. The red drum uses its senses of sight and touch and its downturned mouth to locate forage on the bottom through vacuuming or biting. On the top and middle of the water column, it uses changes in the light that might look like food. In the summer and fall, adult red drum feed on crabs, shrimp, and mullet; in the spring and winter, adults primarily feed on menhaden, mullet, pinfish, sea robin, lizardfish, spot, Atlantic croaker, and mud minnows.
    Black drum, Pogonias cromis, are usually black and/or gray in color with juvenile fish having distinctive dark stripes over a gray body. Their teeth are rounded and they have powerful jaws capable of crushing oysters and other shellfish. Black drum are capable of producing tones between 100 Hz and 500 Hz when performing mating calls. The black drum is usually found in or near brackish waters. Larger, older fish are more commonly found in the saltier areas of an estuary (closer to the ocean) near oyster beds or other plentiful food sources. Juvenile fish have four to five bold vertical black bars on a light background and can be mistaken for sheepshead at first glance, but are distinguished on closer inspection because sheepshead have teeth and black drum have chin barbells. These stripes usually fade to dull grey as the fish grow.
    Black drum are common between the Delaware Bay and Florida coasts, and most abundant along the Texas coast. After reaching maturity by the end of their second year, black drum spawn in and around estuarine waters. Black drum are mostly bottom feeders, with adults eating mostly mollusks and crabs. In shallow water, they have been reported to feed with their heads down so that their tails show above the water surface. Their sensitive chin barbels help locate food, and strong pharyngeal teeth crush the shells of these preferred foods. A group of black drum can do great damage to an oyster bed in a single day.

    When the spring water temperatures hit around 60, sometimes even lower, there will be reports of black drum being caught on the seaside of the Eastern Shore. In the weeks preceding, big reds will be caught along the coast of North Carolina at Ocracoke, Hatteras, and the Outer Banks, and sometimes even Sandbridge, Virginia. Then seemingly overnight, they appear in the breakers between Fisherman and Smith Island off the Eastern Shore. Even though the black drum migrate east and west while the red drum migrate mostly north and south, they often arrive along the Eastern Shore about the same time in mid- to later April. Once they start to arrive, each day the water temps warm, more and more pile in the water in the lower Chesapeake Bay. By Mother’s Day each year it is usually game on for both species.
    This is my favorite time of year, when the reds and blacks often mix together in the same areas and you can catch both in a single location. And they are hungry and mean with lots of fight. The entire month of May is usually solid fishing for both big reds and blacks with the full moon making it just spectacular. Once the water temperature hits 70, and June approaches, the reds and blacks are still here but are often more spread out as they enter the bay. You can catch them all summer but not normally in the same numbers as in May. Then in September or early October as they leave the bay you can catch in greater numbers as they stop to feed along the islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel or see huge schools in open water.

    The first reports out of Virginia are often seaside of the Eastern Shore and in the breakers between Smith and Fisherman’s Island. Boats will enter this skinny water, often only 2 or 3 feet deep, dangerously close to breaking waves. Shallow waters warm faster than deep water, so both reds and blacks take advantage and hang out in the skinny waters for weeks from mid-April on. If you decide to fish these skinny waters, just be extra careful. Boaters sometimes enter these shoals in daylight then as the sun sets and the tide falls, find themselves with almost no water to move through, and the dark of the night causes dangerous situations when folks do not know how to get out of the shoals and breaking waters. But this can be some of the best fishing.
    Capt. Rick Wineman on Get Anet said reports of drum caught from the breakers are a good sign of the developing fishery.



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