“Oh, c’mon. We ain’t that lucky,” said Captain Bob Cope as he eyed the tip of one of the four rods he’d set out moments before. To my untrained eye, nothing about the barely perceptible taps looked lucky—they looked like the peckings of a dogfish or skate—but I was in no position to question Cope. He was on his third black drum trip in three days while I was my third drum trip in 38 years.
Cope picked up the rod, rocked slowly forward, then leaned back, almost gently, lifting the rod over his head and letting it load under the strain of something much larger and stronger than any sand shark. He handed the bucking rod to my boss, Chris Megan, and shouted loud enough for the tourists in the Victorian homes in Cape May to hear, “Got ‘em on!”
The black drum lacks the good looks and charisma of its smaller relatives, the weakfish and redfish. It lives a hardscrabble life, rooting around muddy bottoms for clams, worms, shrimp, and crabs. Juvenile specimens sport a black-barred prison uniform, but few fish that small swim in Delaware Bay. It’s the larger drum—broad-shouldered, copper-scaled brutes of 30 to 80 pounds—that enter the bay each spring, confounding inexperienced fishermen with their deceptively light bites.
Had I done the proper research, I’d have had no reason to question Captain Cope’s expertise. In The Saltwater Fisherman’s Bible, Erwin Bauer describes the drum’s strike as “slow, deliberate, often with repeated mouthing of the bait.”
However, Bauer dedicates only a half-page of scripture to the black drum. Other saltwater fishing works are similarly lacking in information on this massive member of the croaker family. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission calls drum a “data-poor species.” Cope himself, despite having dedicated his springtime to the pursuit of drum for the past 40 years, knows little of where they go outside Delaware Bay; inside it, however, no one’s better at finding and catching them.
We anchored over a “slough,” the local name for the long, narrow divots in the otherwise shallow bay. The sloughs run parallel to the main shipping channel, through which Wilmington- or Philadelphia-bound cargo ships travel. On my first-ever drum trip (not with Bob Cope), we saw a Chiquita containership destined for Wilmington pass by in the distance. An ominous portent, indeed. If you, like me, are a superstitious type who believes a single banana spells doom for a fishing trip, imagine what a containership full of them could do. We caught no drum, but I feel lucky to have escaped the incident with my life.
Some sloughs are named for their depths (60-foot Slough, 20-Foot Slough), while others carry the names of forgotten watermen, like Tussey’s Slough.
When we’d first arrived at the spot, Cope motored the Full Ahead, his 34-foot Calvin Beal, slowly over the slough, looking for promising signs on the fishfinder. He passed over marks in the middle of the water column, explaining that midwater drum had spawning, not feeding, on the brain. A cluster of marks on the bottom, though, caused him to drop the anchor.
The black drum is built for bottom feeding. Its underslung mouth sports a fleshy goatee of barbels that “taste” and feel for food in the low-visibility (read: muddy) waters of Delaware Bay. Its preferred prey is slow moving, if not stationary, so the best tactic is to anchor over the area and fish with the baits pinned to the bottom.
Fresh clams top Cope’s list of drum baits; frozen or salted don’t work. Old clams might work, but only if the boats nearby aren’t doling out fresher clams than you have; otherwise, you’ll end up watching instead of catching.
Black drum are uniquely equipped for eating hard-shelled prey like clams and oysters. Using a set of crusher plates, they crack the shells of crustaceans or mollusks, ingesting the soft flesh and spitting out the shells—at least sometimes. When that first drum of the afternoon hit the deck, it was in the process of passing a fistful of clamshell shards … the hard way.
Cope’s approach to drum is methodical yet simple. He uses a fish-finder rig weighted down with a 6- to 8-ounce sinker and finished off with an 8/0 circle hook at the end of a 60-pound-test leader. He uses short jigging rods and powerful conventional reels spooled with 50-pound braid that strike the balance between being light in hand and powerful enough to stop a big, strong fish in heavy current.
He fishes four rods at a time, two off each stern corner, casting the rigs away from the boat before placing the rods in an out-rodder that holds them at a 45-degree angle to the water. After that, he shucks several clams to have ready as replacement baits, and then moves back up to the wheelhouse without taking an eye off the spread.
A good day of drum fishing, Cope says, ends with everyone on board catching one, though he regularly has trips tally much higher numbers than that. Just the day before my trip, a crew of four put 14 drum on the Full Ahead.
Many of Cope’s clients keep their drum despite claims that their meat is supposedly wormy and unpalatable. “Old wives’ tales,” Cope says. Drum do serve as an intermediate host for a tapeworm that afflicts sharks—called “spaghetti worms” by fishermen—but Cope says only about one in 10 fish that make it to his cutting board have them. And the drum meat is firm, versatile, and mild tasting, lending itself to a variety of preparations, including “Drum Parmesan.” Trust me, it’s delicious.
New Jersey regulations allow fishermen to take up to three drum, 16 inches and over, though the average Delaware Bay drum is more than twice that size. In fact, despite the baby-drum-making that happens in the sloughs of the bay, juvenile drum appear to be in short supply in New Jersey and Delaware. A 1961 study on Mid-Atlantic black drum(1) recorded a size gap in the Delaware Bay drumfish, finding no fish between 10 and 27 inches. The hypothesis of another study on black drum genetics(2) posited that following their first year, juvenile black drum migrate to southeast estuaries to feed and grow until reaching maturity, at which point they head offshore and begin migrating to the Delaware and Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds.
Miraculously, the only Delaware Bay drum I’d ever caught fell squarely into this size gap. Dale Sutton, the skipper on that trip, my second-ever attempt at drum fishing, was kind enough to call it an “eater,” which is captain speak for “small.”
When cleaning our catch back at Utsch’s Marina, Captain Cope reached into the rack of one of the filleted drum fish and pulled out a dark red muscle about the size of a NERF football. “This is what makes the sound,” he explained. “Old-timers used to grill this up and eat it. They said it tasted like London broil.”
Riding the high of my first big drum and feeling adventurous, I took the sonic muscle back to the house in Ocean City and cooked it up. It did indeed taste more like beef than fish and wasn’t altogether bad. Next time I keep a drum, I’ll probably even eat it again, but I was still glad to have some Manco and Manco pizza to wash it down.
I liked my odds for catching a true drum on my trip with Cope. We had a fish on the deck within the first 15 minutes of fishing, and just a few minutes after that, another rod tip started to twitch.
I pulled the rod from the holder and waited for a more decisive bite. It felt as if something down in the green-brown waters flowing between the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean was plucking the line like a guitar string. Remembering Cope’s advice from earlier, I lifted the rod slowly and felt for the sinker because the drum might have taken the bait and moved toward the boat. As the line came tight and the rod bent, the fish at the other end felt the pinch of the hook, and the fight began.
Bauer describes the fight with a black drum as “stubborn but uninspired,” continuing that they rarely take runs “of even medium length.” My fish’s first run might have been only of “medium length,” but recovering that line proved more difficult than expected.
Drum have broad shoulders and big tails, and they use these to square off and hold their position in the current—stubborn indeed. But uninspired? The drum unleashed a series of body-rocking headshakes every time it changed direction, leaving me feeling like a bull rider just trying to survive his eight seconds. It was unlike any fish I’d ever fought before.
That drum pulled the hook, but my next bite stayed buttoned long enough for Cope to sink the gaff. Based on the fight, I was expecting a fish of 60, maybe 70 pounds, but instead the fish was probably closer to 45.
The largest black drum in the world swim in Delaware Bay. The fish ranges from New York to Mexico, with some going as far as South America, but the all-tackle world record, a 113-pounder, came from Lewes, Delaware. The New Jersey state record, taken in 2008, was just a few pounds shy at 109 pounds.
On deck, the drum, using its specialized swim bladder ad sonic muscle, made a subwoofer boom that I could feel through my deck boots.
Drum use that sound during the spawn and, later in the trip, when we began hearing a chorus of drumbeats through the hull of the Full Ahead, it didn’t bode well for the fishing. By that time, Megan had caught and released a second drum, and our baits were being pecked at by skates and dogfish (which, to my eye, now looked like drum bites). Cope pulled the anchor, pointed the bow toward the Cape May Canal, and we left the drum to work on “getting lucky” for themslves.
1. Frisbie, C. M. 1961. Young Black Drum, Pogonias cromis, in tidal fresh and brackish waters, especially in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay areas
2. Leidig et al. 2015. Genetic population structure of black drum in U.S. waters