Edgewater -- When saltwater anglers discuss their favorite species, “black drum” is not usually at the top of the list. While this bottom-dweller grows very large (over 100 pounds) and fights with the might of the Wabash Cannonball, it just doesn’t draw the acclaim of its cousin the redfish — or most other inshore game fish.
“It’s not a glamour fish, not a high-profile fish,” said fisheries biologist Mike Murphy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
But the black drum is very precious to light-tackle guide captain Joe Porcelli of Edgewater and his colleagues who fish primarily in the shallow waters of east-central Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. For them, it’s another species to target when the reds aren’t cooperating or when it’s too cold for snook and tarpon, or too rough to fish offshore.
Porcelli has made a big part of his career catching really big black drum. He is responsible for 11 IGFA world records — all but one as a guide — including a 90 1/2-pounder caught on four-pound-test line by Raleigh Werking of Edgewater in 1998 and a 66-pound junior world record for Coral Springs’ Heather Harkavy in 2009.
But despite his expertise, Porcelli says black drum still are something of an enigma that march to their own beat.
“I won’t guarantee that you’ll catch one,” he said.
Black drum are common from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay south in the Atlantic to Argentina and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The all-tackle world record of 113 pounds, one ounce was caught near Lewes, Del. The Florida record is 96 pounds caught near Fernandina Beach in 2001.
According to fisheries biologists, the black drum is primarily an inshore fish found at river mouths, bays and estuaries that feeds on shrimp, crabs, clams, oysters and small fish that it combs from the bottom using barbels on its chin and then crushes in its throat.
In the Mosquito Lagoon, the species lives in mosquito impoundments, or muddy ditches until they are driven out to the flats by dropping water levels or too-cold temperatures. That’s where Porcelli and his clients catch them on light tackle using bits of shrimp, Berkley Gulps, small jigs and flies. Farther south, schools of large drum in the 50-pound class are spotted periodically during the winter months tailing in the Banana River. Wading in the shallows in the middle of an aggregation, you can hear them drumming underwater.
Porcelli said prime time for catching and releasing really big Indian River spawners in the 50-to-100-pound range is in February and March from dusk to after dark just before the full moon or just before and after a new moon. Best tide, he said, is near the end of the flood until after waters start to ebb.
The guide likes to anchor his bay boat on a shallow flat near a channel edge, toss out some blue crab parts as chum, and then put out a crab carapace minus legs and claws as bait on the bottom. This style of fishing is not the most exciting — until one of the big drums swallows the crab and you have to chase it around the lagoon in the dark. But the bite is mostly subtle — usually a small bounce of the rod tip, not a blistering, drag-screaming run — so it can be easy to miss.
Anglers in South Florida catch black drum mostly in Florida Bay near Flamingo or in the Ten Thousand Islands plying mangrove shorelines with jigs, spoons and shrimp — generally while looking for other species such as snook, reds and mangrove snapper.
Bag and size limits are more liberal for black drum than for their cousins the reds. Anglers may keep five black drum per person per day measuring 14 to 24 inches, with an allowance for one fish greater than 24 inches. For commercial fishers, the slot limit is the same, but there’s a 500-pound trip limit and no big-fish allowance.
Murphy says black drum grow slower and larger and live longer than reds — up to about 60 years. While they typically don’t reproduce until age 4 or 5, they are prolific spawners producing millions of eggs. Tagging data shows the blacks migrate long distances seeking food and companionship; some caught in the Indian River Lagoon have been recaptured not long afterward in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
Fisheries scientists are now in the midst of conducting a stock assessment for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — the agency that oversees black drum management. Dave Chagaris, an associate research scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, says the coast-wide stock seems to be in very good shape, but final results won’t be in until June.
Whether black drum are plentiful or not, Porcelli releases nearly all the ones his customers catch so they’ll be around for future angling enjoyment. However, they sometimes keep a few of the smaller slot fish to eat because those make the best table fare.
Sort of like permit being considered the “bulldog of the flats,” the black drum may very well claim the title of “bulldog of the estuary,” and right now is prime time to slug it out with them.
To book an inshore fishing trip for black drum, red drum, snook, flounder, tarpon or other inshore or offshore species on Florida’s Space Coast, call Joe Porcelli at 386-314-5656.