The people who live along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay love their shellfish — heck, half of them think they invented blue crabs — but the richness of the bay isn’t just enjoyed by humans. Not by far.
A creature better known in southern climes comes to visit us as the spring waters warm up, ready to gorge themselves on bay crabs as well as its clams and mussels: the black drum. What is surprising, however, is that most of these drummers are true goliaths of the species.
In the Chesapeake Bay, it is rather rare to catch a black drum under 20 pounds; 40 and 50 pound fish are average, and fish over 100 pounds get caught every season. In fact, Cape Charles, VA, at the mouth of the Chesapeake, can claim six IGFA line class records for black drum. The biggest of them, at 111 pounds, is just two pounds off the world record for all tackle at 113 pounds plus one ounce, which was set just off the coast in Lewes, DE.
Early birds appear along the shoals at the mouth of the bay in April, when they are also caught along the waves of the barrier island of DelMarVa. In a week or two, anglers casting bait at well-known wreck and reef sites inside the bay, like the Cell and the Cabbage Patch, will be engaged in sweat-inducing tug of war . And in mid-May, the race is usually in full swing with monster black drums captured from the headlands that emerge in Maryland waters.
black drum bait
Historically, anglers targeting mega-blacks have used very different baits and methods from region to region. In fact, there is little crossover even when considering hotspots only 40 or 50 miles apart.
In surfing, casting simple high and low rigs baited with sand fleas is a no-brainer. But when targeting black drum on the shoals at the mouth of the bay, baiting with freshly shucked clams is the norm. Most anglers drop anchor along a drop-off and cast four to six baits on egg or sonar gear, then settle in and wait for a bite.
Anglers looking for the big black fish inside the bay, meanwhile, usually use soft lumps of crab rather than clam bait, and it’s becoming more common as time goes by. as you travel north.
Anchorage, meanwhile, is virtually unheard of up the bay in Maryland waters. Instead, anglers here set up their rods with sonar rigs, bait 10/0 to 12/0 hooks with half a soft crab, then start moving around likely areas at slow speeds. The crew stays on a hair trigger until the fish are spotted on the sonar – there’s no mistaking the absurdly large marks they make on an LCD screen – then the captain switches to the neutral as fishermen submit their bids as soon as possible.
Find the black drum
In recent years, this game has changed quite a bit, especially in the Maryland sections of the Chesapeake. Hotspots that have held a reliable drum hunt for as long as anyone can remember, like Jane’s Island and the famous Stone Rock, no longer seem to hold big blacks like a magnet from mid-May to mid -June.
While this made finding fish more difficult, it also opened up new opportunities. Some pioneer anglers have found that black drummers are happy enough to inhale scented jigs, Gulp! baits in particular, giving light sharpies who avoid using baits a very real chance of latching on to these monsters.
Others, meanwhile, have noticed that the drum is found on several Chesapeake oyster restoration reefs, where reef balls have been placed. These reef balls are placed in spat and quickly covered with growth, including oysters and mussels, so given the drum’s penchant for crunchy foods, their presence around the reef balls is not surprising.
Later in the season, once summer officially arrives, traveling black drum schools break up into small or solitary groups. This makes it much harder to target them, and at that point most become an accidental catch.
They sometimes spawn for anglers casting flies and reds in the southern areas of the bay. On occasion, they unexpectedly catch bait meant for stripers as far north as Baltimore, and they can end up on the end of a fishing line anywhere in between.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel’s man-made islands are an exception, as they’re known to hold the drum all season long into the fall and can deliver a tug of epic proportions just about anytime. .
The black drum grows slowly and can live for over 50 years. Bigger, older fish don’t taste good, and they’re armored in scales so thick you need a table saw to cut through them. Many drummers over 30 pounds also develop worms in their muscles.
Anglers generally agree that fish over 20 pounds, and certainly those weighing 30 pounds and over, should be released unharmed. Plan to use circle hooks and carry a landing net with a mesh suitable for the fish.
Black drums are true mid-Atlantic mammoths, both in size and appearance. Most anglers will agree that these fish are no more beautiful than an elephant carrying a rug. But if you want to catch a black drum that crosses the triple digit mark, there’s no better time or place than Chesapeake Country in May.