No. 53–The Drum Family

Last month’s column on sea trout was sort of a backdoor introduction to the drum family (Sciaenidae). There are approximately 275 species representing 70 genera within the order Perciformes. Dating from the Late Cretaceous, it is the largest order of vertebrates and contains approximately 40% of all fish species.

Members of the family best known to local anglers are the red drum, black drum, whiting, croaker and spot. Red drum are best accessed by boat when fishing rivers and creeks while black drum, whiting, croaker and spot are commonly caught from shore and docks. Large mature red drum may be taken in the surf.

The red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), aka spot tail bass and redfish, is arguably the most popular game fish in these parts. They populate Atlantic and Gulf coastal waters from Massachusetts to Northern Mexico. Incidentally, they were nearly wiped out in the gulf thanks to Paul Prudhomme’s culinary popularization of blackened redfish in the ’90s.

Red drums spawn in the fall in coastal waters near the mouths of our sounds. Much as off shore spawned post larval shrimp do, the newly hatched larval drum ride incoming tidal currents into the small creeks in the upper reaches of the estuary. This relatively sheltered habitat provides an abundance of food and protection from predators.

Feeding on small shrimp-like crustaceans, half inch drum grow to about 2 inches by late fall when falling water temperatures drive them into deep water in the main river channels for the winter. Growth slows considerably with the drop in metabolism and feeding activity and even in deep water they are subject to winter kill. It is thought that only 1% of a years spawn survive the sea to estuary migration and first winter.

Surviving juveniles move back into the shallow tidal creeks as the water warms and grow at a rate of 1 1/2 inches a month feeding at first on grass shrimp and the juveniles other fish species and expanding their diet to include mud and fiddler crabs and small fish as they grow. In mid summer, at 7 to 8 inches, they migrate to the larger creeks and rivers. While most remain in these waters through the sub-adult phase till sexual maturity is reached at 3 to 5 years, some are known to venture off our beaches and even to near shore reefs.

It is the sub-adult fish that recreational anglers are allowed keep for the table. Current regulations have a daily per person limit of 3 fish no less than 15 inches and no more than 23 inches.

Red drum move from their estuarine home to coastal ocean waters upon reaching maturity. All males have matured by age four with a length of around 28 inches. Females begin spawning at five years and have a length of around 33 inches. Males and females average in the 11 to 12 pound range at this stage.

The relatively rapid growth of the early years ends abruptly at maturity. A fish that reaches 12 pounds in 4 to 5 years may take another 20 years to tip the scales at 30 pounds. One source consulted for this piece sites a red drum caught on the Outer Banks on North Carolina weighing in at 94 pounds 2 ounces. This must have been a very old fish.

As with the spotted sea trout, the red drum’s coloration will vary with habitat. Estuarine sub- adults are copper colored while the mature fish off the beaches are silvery to blend with the lighter surroundings. The signature false eye spots of the “spot tail” are a defensive camouflage to confuse predators. It is a ploy common not only to other fish species, mainly tropical, but to numerous species of butterflies and moths as well.

Next month we will cover the black drum, which also grows very large, along with the smaller members of the drum family found in our waters.