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