Sight-Casting for Black Drum

Sight-Casting for Black Drum

They're big, they tail and, furthermore, they're cool.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
  • Photography by: Chico Fernandez
Black Drum

Black drum get no respect. And I really don’t know why: They tail while feeding on the flats, you can sight-cast to them in shallow water, they are plentiful, they grow to more than 100 pounds (that’s not a typo), they can fight hard and they are not easy. If you haven’t cast to a big, tailing black drum, I recommend you give it a try. You may become a better angler for it. I have always thought that when you go after a new species, you can’t help but learn more about the fish’s environment and the different foods in their habitat, while improving your casting accuracy, fly manipulation and fish-fighting.

Pogonias cromis is a member of the croaker family, and is closely related to the red drum or redfish. It has a shorter and deeper body than the redfish; as a consequence, a black drum shows its back when a slimmer redfish would not show at all. Not a bad trait, from the angler’s perspective.

Like other members of the croaker family, black drum use an air bladder to make a drum-like sound. Actually, they’re louder than any of their family members. Often when a school passes your boat, you can hear them. They have to be the most vocal fish in the Everglades.

When young—until they reach about eight pounds or so—black drum exhibit vertical bars. Mature individuals vary in color (probably depending on environment and color of the bottom they frequent) from a silvery gray to a very dark gray that is almost black. Underneath the chin, they have whisker-like forms called barbels. These perform a dual function in taste and feel, helping the black drum find its prey. Diet consists primarily of crustaceans and mollusks. This makes a dark, weighted fly a good choice.

Black drum grow slowly; a 30-inch fish is about 10 years old, and they can live for 50 years. Fish of five to 25 pounds are quite common on many flats but, as mentioned, they can grow to more than 100 pounds. I’ve taken a few over 40 pounds on a fly and have seen 70-pounders on the flats. I have fished for them from the Carolinas all the way to the south of Texas. I’ve seen them on the flats in every month of the year.

It’s easy to confuse black drum with redfish when they’re tailing, since they may feed in the same places. But keep in mind that the black drum has a more translucent tail, and if you look closely, you’ll be able to tell the difference. It’s not unusual for a beginning angler to cast surface flies to what he thinks are tailing redfish and not garner a strike, only to find out, after a couple hours, that he has been casting to black drum (they rarely come up for a fly).

I’m usually not looking for black drum; they find me while I’m targeting redfish, snook or baby tarpon. If a school of fish is moving fast or steady through water deeper than they can tail in, it may be hard to get a strike, with the possible exception of large fish. Then a big, bright fly and a sinking line may do the job.

A good situation is when you can find them feeding on the flats, around oyster bars, preferably tailing or mudding. I like a solitary fish or a few fish in small pods, well spread out so that I can take my time and work each one.

Frankly, I’ve always found black drum moody and unpredictable when fished with a fly, but I think this also adds to this often-overlooked species’ charm.

Black Drum
101

Presentation
Accuracy is the essence of this game. In fact, you must place a fly right under a fish’s chin to stand a chance with black drum. Remember, these fish use barbels to locate shrimp, clams, crabs, even minnows, and they seldom move far for a fly. Therefore, it’s important to determine which way a fish is facing before casting. Once determined, you want to drop the fly in front of the fish and keep it there as long as you can, maybe even pausing the fly on occasion. Fortunately, drum aren’t very leader-shy and you should get multiple shots at each fish.

Setting the hook
Drum take a fly subtly, so keeping a tight line during the retrieve is paramount. The best way to do so is by keeping the rod tip near the water so that no slack line flaps in the breeze. When you feel a take, set the hook by the strip-strike method. That is, just make a long, smooth strip, not necessarily fast, until the tension on the hooked fish is solid.

The fight
When a black drum feels the steel you never know how he will react. Sometimes he shakes his head several times and moves slowly away, gradually gaining speed. Other times he may just take off. Regardless, think of a big black drum as a heavyweight boxer, slow but powerful, with plenty of endurance. If he manages to drag you into deep water, he may never give up. I’ve fought 40-pound drum at length with 12-pound tippet before I could get my hands on them. Conversely, on summer days with temperatures in the 90s, a fish may bow out quickly.

Tackle
I like 6- to 8-weight rods for small drum, 8- to 10-weight for the big bulls. On the flats I prefer a floating line, but for schools of large fish in deeper water I’ll use a clear intermediate line or even a fast-sink line to get my fly where it needs to be.

A standard redfish leader also is just right for black drum. Standard setups are nine to 10 feet long, with a tippet strength of eight- to 12-pound-test for your 6- to 8-weight rod, 12- to 16-pound on the heavier rod. On big black drum I may use a bite tippet of 30 pounds, but I have taken them with a straight tippet, too.

There are days when black drum are wary, typically when those fish are in very clear, extra-shallow water on a flat calm day. Given those situations, I’ll go to 12-foot leaders and lighter rods, such as a 6- or 7-weight.

Flies
Most black drum flies are medium to dark in color, but a bright fly or one with flash also may draw their attention, especially in deeper water. You’ll use weighted, bulky flies for drum because you’ll need to keep in touch with the bottom and a big fly pushes more water, making it easier for a drum to find.

My favorite patterns include Clousers in dark colors; shrimp patterns, mostly in dark colors; crab patterns in tan, medium to dark brown or dark green; spoons in dark colors or gold, and with a weedguard. I tie most of these on hooks from #2 to 2/0 or so, depending on the size of black drum I expect to encounter. Larger flies for those bigger fish.

Remember that black drum have mouths like hard rubber (and the bigger the drum, the harder the mouth). For effective hook penetration either file your barb when sharpening or, better yet, just plaster it down with pliers before sharpening. Your hook won’t stay sharp because the point often touches bottom. Keep an eye on the point and make sure it’s sharp so you can hook that 50-pounder when he takes your fly.—C.F.

Chico Fernandez lives in Miami and is the author of Fly Fishing for Bonefish.