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Different beats

Black drum get a bad rap, even though they might be more willing biters than their popular but finicky friends, the redfish.

Published March 31, 2007


Understudies, backups, body doubles - they're all trained to stand in for premier performers when illness or injury prohibits the big names from doing their jobs.

Take a peek inside coastal backwaters and you'll find a similar arrangement with day-saving potential.

Along the Nature Coast, red drum, more commonly called redfish, rank as top-tier game fish. Generally cooperative for those who mind the basics of tides, weather and stealth, redfish aggressively strike a variety of baits and artificial lures.

Theirs is a stubborn fight with respectable runs and lots of arm-stretching.

Nevertheless, even the accommodating redfish has its off days. When the amber beauties play hard to get, you needn't change your focus - not entirely. There's another member of the drum clan with appetite and aptitude to spare.

Meet the black drum. Hold this fish adjacent to its crimson cousin and you'll notice strong resemblances in mouth design and general fin structure.

Differences also are clear. The black drum's dingy, grayish tone contrasts the redfish's shiny, amber sides and dark, spotted tail. Juvenile black drum sport dark vertical bars, which often fool anglers into thinking they have caught a sheepshead. The latter has more bars and stout grinding teeth.

Black drum have taller, huskier profiles than the streamlined redfish. Their pectoral fins are longer as well.

Common to both fish is a brutish disposition and the muscle to back up the bravado.

Undervalued underlings

Some anglers immediately dismiss black drum to the dungeon of undesirables into which toadfish, sea robins and the infamous gafftopsail catfish fairly reside.

That's just not right. Granted, black drum won't outrun a mackerel, and they're not likely to bump a snook off the cover of any fishing magazines, but this is one tough fighting fish that requires far less finessing than redfish. Older drum tend to hold a lot of flesh parasites, but younger fish in the 2- to 5-pound range offer firm, mild fillets.

Luke Magnuson of Weeki Wachee catches plenty of both drum in the marshes from Bayport to Chassohowitzka. During winter months, he finds red and black specimens huddled in the deeper backwater holes, but in the spring they pursue different agendas.

Redfish graze around oyster bars and grass edges, and use structure points to ambush prey during moving water. Following their stomachs, reds are the most mobile of their family.

Black drum, on the other hand, are content to mosey around the marsh holes and creek ends, where they use their sensitive chin barbels to locate crabs, shrimp, shellfish and invertebrates along the bottom.

"They aren't really the fastest fish in the world," Magnuson said. "They don't need a lot of tide movement and if they did, they'd starve to death because they'd never catch their meals."

That doesn't mean black drum can't put up a fight.

"Redfish and black drum both kind of bulldog toward the bottom," Magnuson said. "But I think the black drum pull a little harder because they're stouter."

Rules of engagement

Low tide congregates black drum in backwater trenches. Getting back out of muddy marsh arteries can prove tricky, so fishing through the incoming cycle is your safest strategy.

The good thing about black drum is that if you can get to the fish, you almost always can get them to bite.

"You can catch them pretty much in any type of weather," Magnuson said. "They stay so far back up in the marsh that not much affects them."

Mature drum move offshore in fall to spawn, but they are back by spring. Nature Coast fish rarely reach the gargantuan proportions of the monsters living under Tampa Bay bridges, but double-digit fish are no rarity in local waters.

"A big one for us is about 20 pounds," Magnuson said, "and you'll have your hands full with a drum that size."

Transitioning from red to black drum just requires a little terminal tackle adjustment. The same medium-action spinning outfits with 10- to 15-pound braided line and 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders work just fine for both species.

Magnuson jump-starts the black drum bite by chumming a marsh hole with cut shrimp. For bait, he peels off a whole shrimp's shell to release more scent and threads the crustacean tail-first onto a No. 1 hook. A split shot set 12 inches above the bait keeps it on the bottom.

"They're just waiting for it to come to them," Magnuson said. "They're lazy."

That sentiment ends with the hookup. Then you find out how much game these fish bring.

Realistically, black drum aren't likely to overtake redfish in popularity. What they will do is prevent you from breaking your rods when their ruby relatives refuse to cooperate.

David A. Brown covers area fishing tournaments and can be reached at

[Last modified March 31, 2007, 07:27:08]

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