No. 54–Black Drum

Last month saw an interruption in the series on game fish found in local waters to revisit the blue crab in honor of the 5th Annual Soft Shell Crab Festival and Earth Day events sponsored by the Old Village Association in Port Royal. I hope you were among the many that availed themselves of the hospitality of our little town.

Having previously introduced spotted sea trout and red drum as members of the Sciaenidae (drum) family, we continue now with the black drum (Pogonias cromis).

There are three distinct populations in U.S. waters with one ranging the length of the Atlantic seaboard and two others found in the Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantic population is highly migratory with patterns both age specific and seasonal.

The Atlantic population’s seasonal migration pattern has them moving inshore and northward in the spring and reversing that movement in the fall. The age specific element of migration has to do with the propensity of individuals to establish permanent residency in northern waters as they age. I’ve found nothing in the literature that would explain that pattern but it’s strikingly different from what we have been observing locally with regard to human migration.

The black drum takes its scientific name from the Greek Pogonias (bearded) and cromis (to grunt). Largely a bottom feeder, it sports several pairs of prey detecting barbles on its lower jaw which accounts for the “Pogonias” and it makes a grunting or drumming sound produced by the swim bladder when agitated.

A predominantly marine rather than estuarine species, black drum spawn near shore and in the mouths of our sounds with the larval young moving into the estuary for protection and the abundant food resources. Young black drum found in the estuary have 4 to 6 vertical white stripes on their sides which leads them to be occasionally mistaken for sheepshead or spadefish. The vertical stripes are thought to help them blend in with the marsh grass when the tide is in.

The camouflage stripes eventually disappear as the fish ages. Juveniles move from the nursery creeks into the more open water of the estuary where they will remain and continue to grow for three or more years. The color of mature fish may vary greatly both between and within the three population groups. As with the red drum, water clarity levels of estuarine and near shore waters dictate the coloration of the resident populations. The generally high turbidity of our creeks, rivers and sounds accounts for the black drum within being truly black.

Black drum are unique among the other members of the family in that they have powerful jaws equipped with a set of specialized teeth in their throats used for crushing oysters clams and crabs before swallowing. They also grow to be the largest members of the family with 30 to 40 pounders quite common and the largest ever recorded weighing in at 146 lbs.

Not being great leapers or known for spectacular runs, black drum do not carry the same cachet among sports fishermen as the red drum or spotted sea trout. They are, however, a challenge on light tackle. They are strong dogged fighters that will wear out your arms and test your gear. Landing one has been compared to reeling in a rubber boot full of water in a strong current.

Shore and dock fishermen use bottom rigs baited with shrimp, squid or cut bait. Black drum may also be taken from the shallows with artificial lures if you have a boat. A day’s catch limit is five fish per person with a minimum of 14 and maximum of 27 inches in length.

While flounder, red drum and snapper may be may be held in higher esteem by some gourmands, black drum under 5 lbs. are excellent for frying, baking or grilling. The flesh of larger fish is coarser and better suited for soups and stews.

Next month’s issue of this publication will hit the streets in the midst of what could arguably be called, in fishing circles, “The Broad River Blowout”; Cobia, anyone?