Think Like A Black Drum

Get familiar with Delaware Bay Boomer behavior to catch more of them this spring.

Delaware Bay black drum

Get familiar with Delaware Bay Boomer behavior to catch more of them this spring.

As one of the largest fish inhabiting the inshore waters of New Jersey, the black drum is a popular target when their spring spawning migration brings them into the Delaware Bay. Their scientific name, Pogonias cromis, literally means “bearded grunters,” referring to the drum’s whisker-like barbels and ability to create a croaking sound using its air bladder. Understanding more about the black drum’s habits and the bay where they live will help you find and catch more of these big booming gamefish.

Finding Delaware Bay Drum

A school of drum feeds like a herd of cows—heads down, moving slowly and grazing along the bottom. Drum move between established feeding stations scattered throughout the Delaware Bay.

Because of the Delaware Bay’s swift currents, marine life has a hard time colonizing the sand and mud bottom unless the current is broken by a slough, trough or hump. In these areas, and also in areas with shale, rock, shellfish beds, wrecks or artificial reefs, a whole marine ecosystem develops. These oases are loaded with razor clams, mussels, snails, crabs, shrimp and copepods, making them regular feeding stops for the Delaware Bay’s black drum.

Every spring, schools of black drum enter the Delaware Bay to feed and spawn.
Every spring, schools of black drum enter the Delaware Bay to feed and spawn.

Drum also love to feed in algae beds laden with crabs, clams, razor clams and oysters. Algae can only grow in depths that receive sufficient sunlight. In the often turbid waters of the Delaware Bay, this usually means depths less than 45 feet. Black drum will occasionally feed in water so shallow their tails wag in the air.

Reaching weights of 110 pounds, black drum are one of the largest inshore species in New Jersey.
Reaching weights of 110 pounds, black drum are one of the largest inshore species in New Jersey.

In searching for Delaware Bay drum, anglers first look for clean water. Coming out of the Cape May Canal, fishermen often have to travel 3 to 5 miles west, toward the main channel of Delaware Bay, in order to find clean water. The strong currents that sweep past the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay silt up the shallower water there, making it unappealing to the drum.

After finding clean water, the captain will often search the edges of the lumps and sloughs for feeding stations that drum will seek out. These appear as minor elevations off the bay floor and tend to have a roughened appearance. On many color fish-finders, feeding stations look like a band of green over the hard red line showing the bottom.

Some anglers still have success on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay, but much of the effort shifts to the Delaware side of the bay when drum move into the shallows. The area off Slaughter Beach (named after a previous owner of the land in that area), in water less than 12 feet deep, is a popular black drum spot. Here anglers fish closer to the beach on the incoming tide and generally shift to deeper areas such as the Broadkill Slough on the outgoing.

Worm Watch
Some larger drum contain parasites in their tail meat. Called “spaghetti worms” by fishermen, they can be easily removed when cleaning the fish. The adult stage of the spaghetti worm is actually a tapeworm that lives in the intestines of sharks. The drum act as an intermediate host after picking up the parasite from infected copepods they ingest while foraging over algae beds. While a little gross, the worms pose no threat to humans.

When fishing shallow, you want to glide in and drop the anchor quietly. To give yourself an advantage when getting ready to set up for a tide, cut off your motor, drift in, and quietly drop your anchor at least a hundred yards from other boats.

In shallow water, it may be hard to see the drum on your fish-finder. Instead, use the unit to locate structure that is likely to harbor a mussel or razor clam community.
Besides looking for areas where drum will stop to feed, captains also look for the telltale marks of big drum on the fish-finder. Experienced captains will idle around an area, keeping their distance from other boats, looking for drum marks on the fish-finder. Some days the fish will be found over sandy bottoms when they are moving from one feeding area to another. They may also be found over sandy bottoms as they aggregate to spawn. However, for the greatest likelihood of finding black drum, the feeding areas should be your primary target zone.

It is always interesting to try to figure out the feeding patterns of the fish we target. Many years, you can expect the drum to move to the shallower spots on the incoming tide and deeper areas on the outgoing. This is a common pattern for many fish species. Sometimes they develop a predictable pattern of showing up at certain areas during the same time for several days. I’ve even seen a drum bite take place on successive days in the same spot at the same hour, despite the daily change in tidal cycles.

Did You Know?

Black drum are capable of living over 50 years and growing to over 100 pounds in weight. While current regulations allowing 3 fish per person in New Jersey are in the process of changing, it is wise to harvest one or two smaller fish for table fare and allow the larger specimens to survive after revival at boatside. These fish can be safely gaffed in the mouth with a small hand gaff or grabbed with a lip-gripper. Keep the fish in the water as you remove the hook, and hold it facing into the current until it is revived for release.

Catching Drum

Drum feed through a process called “noodling,” where they push their chins into the sandy bottom and use their barbels and the pores on their mandibles to find baits. The barbels allows drum to “taste” baits before they eat them. This type of hunting requires little visual acuity.

The black drum uses the barbels under its chin to locate food along the mud bottom of the Delaware Bay.
The black drum uses the barbels under its chin to locate food along the mud bottom of the Delaware Bay.

Drum are voracious feeders, capable of consuming one oyster for every pound of their body weight, every day. In other words, an 80-pound drum can crush and eat 80 oysters in one day. This makes the drumfish unpopular among oyster farmers. In some areas where clams are raised inside burlap bags, drum have been found sucking on the bags as the clammers attempt to raise the bags from the bay floor.

Drum can’t actually see the bait as it enters their mouth. They use the touch receptors on the barbels of their chin and lips to position their mouths. These fish are close-range scent hunters, in contrast to other species of fish in the bay, such as stripers, that use long-distance scent trails to locate food. Anglers have different opinions on the usefulness of chumming when fishing for drum from an anchored boat. When you consider how drum forage, from area to area, rooting through the sand to find crabs, bivalves and snails, it seems unlikely that chum will draw fish to the boat, but, once a school of drum finds your chum, it will likely hang tight to feed on the free offerings. Don’t chum too heavily, however, as too much scent in the water will draw in rays and sharks that will overwhelm your baits.

A set of pharyngeal teeth allows the drum to crush bivalves and crustaceans.
A set of pharyngeal teeth allows the drum to crush bivalves and crustaceans.

Drum do not run off with a bait like a striper would; when a drum picks up a bait, it quickly moves it to the back of its throat, which is equipped with upper and lower pharyngeal teeth. These “teeth” are groupings of hard structures used to crush the bivalves they consume. Soft bivalves, like razor clams and mussels (along with snails, shrimp, and other soft creatures), are crushed and swallowed whole. Harder bivalves, like clams and oysters, are crushed, and the shell fragments are blown out through the gill plates. Drum will also crush a clam and spit it back out, picking the soft meat from among the crushed shell.

A drum eating a clam bait interprets your hook as a shell fragment and will suck the clam off your hook if you aren’t paying attention. Surprisingly enough for such a large fish, this bite can be barely perceptible. Braided line will help you detect it.

Fresh clams are essential to drawing strikes from black drum.
Fresh clams are essential to drawing strikes from black drum.

Fresh clams are the best drum bait. Decaying clams will not attract fish. When buying bait, choose fresh clams with closed shells and meat that is dark yellow in color. Spoiled clams have open shells and pale meat. Some anglers also use blue crabs as bait, removing the top shell and cutting the crab in half.

Over the years, I have found both J- and circle hooks to be effective at hooking drum. For very attentive anglers, I prefer a J-hook so the angler can set the hook before the fish has a chance to spit it. This requires that the angler either holds their rod or keeps a very good eye on the rod tip. When the drum are feeding aggressively, circle hooks work quite well, as the fish will hook themselves as they pick up the bait and swim away. Sizes 7/0 to 9/0 will work for both circle and J hooks.

Some days there may be a very good bite on one tide and a poor bite on the other tide. Sometimes this is simply because the fish have moved out of the area, but it is not unusual to see fish on the fish-finder and not get any bites. This is often a product of the dirty water that comes with a tide change in the Delaware Bay after rain or heavy winds. Even if the surface waters are clean, the water near the bottom could be silted up. When this is the case, anglers will notice that the fish they see on their fish finder are suspended off the bottom.

Drum and the Moon

Spawning in many species occurs around periods of maximum current flow during spring tides that best disperse the fertilized eggs. Most black drum spawning occurs around the big full moon tides, with some spawning occurring during the new moon as well. Drum are serial spawners, meaning that they will spawn multiple times during their stay in the Delaware Bay.

Drum, like many other fish, don’t feed while spawning. Drum seem to spawn as the sun sets, the process lasting maybe an hour or so. A congregation of spawning drum is given away by the telltale drumming sound that can be heard coming from under the boat.

The best drum fishing takes place around the full moon. Even though the drum do not feed while spawning, they will feed before and after. Finding a large spawning congregation of drum could lead to fast fishing after they have completed the circle of life.

Delaware Bay water is often turbid, forcing drum to rely on scent to find their food.
Delaware Bay water is often turbid, forcing drum to rely on scent to find their food.

The same strong tides that drive the drum to spawn create challenges for fishermen. Current speeds of 2 to 3 knots are not unusual in the Delaware Bay, and this adversely affects the fishing in two ways. For one, the strong currents can stir up the bottom sediment and silt up the water. Even though drum feed mostly by scent, few fish feed heavily in silty conditions.

A second challenge of fishing the full moon tides regards presentation. The heavy currents cause the baits to dance all over the bottom, which appears unnatural to the drum that are used to feeding on stationary or slow-moving foods like crabs and bivalves.

One way to compensate for the strong tides is by shortening your leader. A 12- to 14-inch leader will better hold a clam bait in place, even on a running tide. Weight added to the leader just in front of the hook will also keep a bait from moving around too much in the fast-moving current. This can be accomplished by adding weight in the form of a pinch weight or egg sinker. The amount of weight used is based on the intensity of the current, and egg sinkers up to 3 ounces are commonly employed for this purpose. A small crimp can be used to keep the egg sinker close to the hook. The added weight will not discourage a hungry drum from taking your bait. Drum commonly suck up whole clams or oysters, so a bit of extra weight is no big deal.

In rough seas, anglers can minimize bait movement by keeping rods at a low angle to the water or casting their rigs away from the boat. Ideally, rods would be held parallel to the water to minimize the effect of the pitching boat.

Daylight or Darkness

Early June is generally the best time for drum fishing in the Delaware Bay.
Early June is generally the best time for drum fishing in the Delaware Bay.

Years ago, most Delaware Bay anglers would go drum fishing in the late afternoon and evening as that best fit their work schedules. These fishermen discovered that the drum fed exceptionally well during this time, and over the years, the afternoon and evening became the accepted time to fish for drum. While there is truth that the drum feed well during this time period, they also feed during the morning, early afternoon, and through the night. I have had many double-digit catches while fishing in the morning and early afternoon, when few other boats were out fishing.

I have found that drum feed quite well during both daylight and darkness when their population numbers are high. When numbers lessen late in the season, mostly related to fishing pressure, the late day and evening bite seems to be the most reliable.

The old timers say, “The drum bite begins as the dogwood blooms.” They’re right. The dogwoods are in full bloom, and the black drum are in Delaware Bay—and they’re hungry.

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