The Red Drum...North Carolina's State Fish - NC Angler Fishing Articles

Article: The Red Drum...North Carolina's State Fish

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    The Red Drum - North Carolina's State Fish
    by Capt. George Beckwith

    When Capt. Owen Lupton and young Rick Cayton caught the first tarpon on a rod and reel in the deeper waters of Pamlico Sound in 1976, a new fishery was created for Pamlico County anglers. The heavy, 20-40 pound gear reserved for offshore excursions through Ocracoke Inlet proved ideal for the newfound tarpon fishing. In the subsequent years, a few local anglers spent thousands of hours battling mosquitoes, dodging sudden thunderstorms and learning the secrets of the giants of the lower Neuse.

    Pamlico anglers soaked bait, trolled live baits, lures and even kite fished, searching for ways to better catch the 100-pound tarpon. Occasionally they would take a shark, some of the 200-400 pound beasts would be caught as far as 30 miles up river. Once in a great while they would also catch a big red drum, an adult over 40 inches, locally called an “old drum”. According to local anglers such as Owen Lupton, during the 50’s and 60’s a great shore fishery for the big reds had existed along the western side of Pamlico Sound but had all but dried up by the 70’s. It would take until the early 80’s before the big red drum began to show up with any certainty in the catches of this handful of tarpon anglers.

    By the end of the 80’s some of the die-hards would fish at night for the big drum, reportedly the best time to catch them. During these nighttime trips, they would face the fear of midnight squalls that black out the moon, turn the water white and stop time. In the event of “getting caught” they would wonder if their anchor would hold and was it really worth it to be on such big water after dark. Could they bail water as fast as it’s coming over the bow? Is that the sound of a waterspout lurking in the darkness or just the wind? Hard to tell, it’s blowing so hard the wind muffles the oncoming thunder and lightning.

    The old drum weren’t good for much, an old drum stew maybe. Most folks would kill their first one, find out how hard it was to clean, then not kill another one. One local told me, “You gotta scale ‘em with a hoe”. The same was probably true for the Outer Banks surf fishermen who began releasing more of the big fish, especially when Bill Foster, working for the Division of Marine Fisheries at the time, began to tell people how old those giants really were, 20 to 50 years old.

    Commercially, the big drum weren’t of much value and often considered a nuisance. There wasn’t really a market prior to the blackened redfish craze. When Louisiana restaurants started looking at North Carolina waters, the good folks at DMF demonstrated some forethought. In 1991, they banned the sale of mature red drum, anything over 27 inches, including the giant spawners.

    As far as commercial bycatch of the big spawners, a wrap around haul net would sometimes round up schools of giant drum; sometimes several fish would be caught in a shrimp or fish trawl. Today, there are only a tiny fraction of haul netters working North Carolina’s waters and they no longer release the non-sellable giants with pitch forks or gaffs. Turtle excluder devices kick out the big fish as well as turtles and the devices are required on shrimp trawlers and ocean flounder trawls.

    Owen Lupton, a teacher of a “marine occupations” class at Pamlico High School and Capt. Rick Cayton, his former student, report seeing a yearly increase in large red drum after the mid-80’s. Anecdotal observations through the mid to late 90’s suggest that there are more big drum in the lower Neuse River and Pamlico Sound than there were several years ago. On the other hand, anglers from the Outer Banks report drastically less fish. Are migrations changing? Are the Outer Banks fish of a different population than those of the Pamlico Sound? Are Pamlico Sound anglers really seeing more fish, or are they just learning to catch them better? These answers are uncertain, and very little is truly known about the adults, their habits and their population size.

    Recreational fishing pressure on giant red drum on the western Pamlico Sound, lower Neuse and Pamlico Rivers has increased. Instead of a handful of local anglers trying their luck for a big drum, growing coastal populations and increasing numbers of coastal anglers have led to as many as 50 boats on a single shoal on a weekend night. Reports that these fish are spawning further complicate the issue and propose additional questions for scientists and fisheries managers.

    Although the late 90’s produced several near record year classes of juvenile red drum, powerful DMF data suggested that all was not rosy for North Carolina reds. Concrete DMF data suggests that not enough juveniles are living to adulthood, about 5 years old. The goal of fisheries managers is to improve “escapement” of juvenile red drum to age 5 from a low of 3 % in 1989 to a target of 30% and an ultimate goal of 40%. Low escapement of juveniles, coupled with increased recreational pressure on adult stocks led to drastic measures. In 1998, the Marine Fisheries Commission passed regulations to insure that more of the numerous puppy drum, or juvenile red drum, would reach adulthood and that they would be protected once they got there.

    Recreational limits were reduced from 5 to 1 fish between 18 and 27 inches. To curb any directed harvest of adult fish, especially on their possible spawning grounds, recreationals were not allowed to keep any fish over 27 inches.

    The commercial gill net fishery faced a barrage of restrictions. Regulations were based on solid study of gill net mesh size selectivity, water temperature mortality and habitat distribution. For the first time, commercial netters were required to attend all small mesh nets in red drum habitat during the warm months.

    Through the reduction of commercial trip limits from unlimited to 500 pounds to 50 pounds to 5 fish, a directed commercial fishery was halted. Restrictions were tightened to the point that it was no longer profitable to target red drum.

    The problem of wasteful bycatch in the unattended flounder net fishery remains, especially in years like this, when there are a lot of legal sized red drum to be caught.

    In the majority of the state, the success of these regulations and the Red Drum Fishery Management Plan are becoming evident. Blitzes of 8 to 15 pound “yearling” drum have crashed the beaches, inlets and even unsuspecting trout fishermen in the brackish waters of the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers. These 3 to 5-year-old red drum are up to 40 inches, but lack the “shoulders” of an older fish of the same length. Yearling drum were once so rare that biologists called them the “missing links” and fishermen rarely saw them, furthering the misconception that a puppy drum, under 10 pounds, was a different species than the giant red drum.

    Even though juveniles now have a better chance to reach adulthood, limited knowledge of the adults calls for careful protection. Many people agree that the increase of fishing pressure on the adults of the lower Neuse River could have serious consequences on the future production of juveniles.

    For the past 6 years I have been working with biologists from NCSU and DMF through a NC Sea Grant Fisheries Resource Grant to answer some questions about the adults. We have monitored movement and behavior through the use of ultrasonic tags; studied the effectiveness of numerous types of circle hooks and fishing rigs; and we have studied the mortality rate of fish caught on a rod and reel. We have also documented red drum spawning through the use of passive acoustic sonobuoys and plankton trawls.

    Below are some tips for special care of these giants and some results from our research:
    • Use heavy tackle, over 20 pound test and at least 4 pounds of drag. Other species have demonstrated high mortality rates due to long fight times, especially when coupled with high air and water temps.
    • Circle hooks are recommended. Conventional j-hooks often deep hook more than 50% of adult red drum and at least 10 % of deep hooked fish will die. The larger the circle hook, the less the chance of deep hooking. A 16/0 Mustad circle hook, also used for bluefin tuna, reduces deep hooking to 11%
    • Keep a very tight line. Heavier weights, short leaders and non-sliding weights help keep the line tight. The best combination tested thus far is a Capt. Owen’s Majik Drum Rig, named after its inventor, Owen Lupton. He uses a 10/0 Eagle Claw circle hook or a 14/0 Mustad circle hook, both hooks are made barbless and NOT offset. , a 5 inch leader and a fixed or pegged 3 oz. weight.

    • Hold your rod. If you hold your rod and keep the line tight, you will not only reduce deep hooking, but you will also feel more bites and catch more fish.
    • Limit the number of rods that you fish. Unattended rods can lead to slack lines and more deep hooked fish
    • Remove the hook or cut the line. When you catch a deep hooked fish and cannot easily remove the hook or if you do not see the hook, just cut the line below the weight and release the fish. Our research demonstrated that over 80% of the fish that swallowed a conventional 7/0 hook survived.
    • Use barbless hooks. Barbless hooks, especially barbless circle hooks, lose very few fish and aide in the removal of the hook and safe release of the fish.
    • Do not gaff or gig red drum. It is not good for the drum and it is illegal to do so.
    • Handle with care. Ideally, remove the hook from the fish while it is in the water or use a small landing net, preferably with soft, plastic webbing. The fish is guided into the net and gently lifted into the boat by holding the base of the tail, cradling under the belly and lifting with the net.
    • Limit handling time. Although red drum are heartier than many other fish, limit handling and photo time as much as possible. Cradle the fish as it is returned to the water and hold upright in the water until it regains its bearings and kicks off.
    • Look for tags! Tags will be on either side of the dorsal or top fin of the drum or on the left side of the belly. If you find a tag, snip it off and report the tag number, capture location, size and condition of the fish to NCDMF. Sometime algae may need to be scraped off to reveal the tag number and instructions for reporting.
    Capt. George Beckwith is a Marine Biologist and well known fishing guide in Oriental, NC. He has been featured in the Salt Water Sportsman, Bassmaster, Sport Fishing and North Carolina Sportsman Magazines. As seen on TNN with Shaw Grigsby's "One More Cast", Carolina Outdoor Journal, Big River Outdoors and North Carolina Saltwater. Down East Guide
    Capt. George Beckwith

Replies to Article: The Red Drum...North Carolina's State Fish
  1. Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Near the Capital City

    Default Re: the Red Drum...our state fish

    Thanks Randy! Very good read!

    I went to the website link at the very bottom and they have some awesome reports on there.
    "If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience." Woodrow Wilson

  2. Join Date
    Sep 2005

    Default Re: the Red Drum...our state fish

    Great article and packed with info.


    Chuck - Fishing on the 2nd To One
    Lake Tillery, NC


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