By Jonathan Saldeen, Fall 2023 Conservation Intern
Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) is one of the most sought-after game fish for recreational anglers from Massachusetts to South Texas. These fish are known for their reddish copper coloration, distinctive black spot on their tails, and the drumming sound they make. Red drum do this “drumming” by vibrating a muscle in their swim bladder to attract females when spawning and sometimes when distressed. All fish in the Sciaenidae family are known for “drumming”, including black drum, Atlantic croaker, and spotted sea trout, all close relatives of red drum. The black dot found near the red drum’s tail is thought to be a way of confusing predators. Scientists believe that predators mistake the dot for an eye, fooling predators into attacking the drum’s tail and allowing it to make a quick escape.
The red drum has a complex life history. They begin life as eggs floating through the water column in coastal waters. Once hatched, larval red drum make the miraculous journey from the ocean to nearby estuaries, where they will spend six to eight months rapidly growing. Red drum reach maturity after about three to four years and move out of the estuaries to live near shore. Red drum are generally benthic feeders that feed on blue crabs, fiddler crabs, and shrimp, but will feed on smaller fish if given the opportunity. Red drum on average grow up to 45 inches and 52 pounds on the Atlantic coast and up to 40 inches and 40 pounds in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the record red drum caught in North Carolina weighed 94 pounds! The black dot found near the red drum’s tail is thought to be a way of confusing predators. Scientists believe that predators mistake the dot for an eye, fooling predators into attacking the drum’s tail and allowing the redfish to make a quick escape.
During my time as an intern at the Bald Head Island Conservancy, I spent countless nights at the Shoals with a fishing pole in the sand, line in the ocean, and George Strait playing, patiently waiting and hoping to finally land a huge Red Drum. Here on Bald Head Island, there are many great places to catch red drum, including the point of the Shoals and Beach Accesses Five and Nine. They can even be caught fishing in kayaks throughout Bald Head Creek. The best time to catch red drum on Bald Head is in the spring or early fall until around Thanksgiving. Red drum can be caught using natural bait such as mullet, blue crab, or shrimp being fished along the bottom. To fish along the bottom, use a fish finder rig or high low rig with a circle hook and a pyramid weight heavy enough so the rig is not moving in the water column. Red drum can also be caught on artificial bait like weedless spoons, soft plastic lures shaped like shrimp or bait fish, and fish-shaped lures. Once hooked, a big redfish will usually fight like crazy, taking line out until they’ve temporarily tired themselves out. Once the fish is tired and isn’t taking out line, you have the chance to start reeling it in- that is, until it runs again. Usually this process repeats a few times, and your arm is dead tired once you get the fish to shore, but it is all worth it when you get the chance to see the beautiful fish, and maybe even get your picture with the prize catch. When you are ready to release your catch it is important to help revive the fish if it is exhausted. Hold the tail with one hand and put your other hand under its head allowing for water to flow over the gills until it starts to swim off under its own power. In North Carolina in 2023, anglers are only able to keep one red drum per day that is between 18 and 27 inches. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality sets these limits to protect breeding populations of red drum so future generations will also be able to enjoy the thrill of catching these fish.
One chilly night in October at the Shoals, I was lucky enough to land two red fish(both too big to keep) using cut mullet for bait and a high low rig. This was my first time ever catching a red drum or any fish this large, so when I reeled the first fish from in the surf and pointed my red headlamp towards it, I was stunned by its size. I quickly ran to my bag to grab my pliers to remove the hook. With the hook removed, I lifted the stout and slimy fish to get a quick picture and briskly waded into the surf to safely release it. About ten minutes later, I felt another huge tug on my fishing pole. Hoping for another red drum, I excitedly reeled and reeled. After what felt like hours, I was eventually able to tire out the fish and reel it in. Once again, I pointed my headlamp towards the crashing waves, and to my delight it was another red drum, this one even bigger than the last! I quickly unhooked it, struggled to lift it because of its weight and the amount of slime on its scales, snapped another picture, and sent the drum on its way. I felt extremely lucky to catch two in one night and became even more hooked on fishing trying to recapture the excitement of that night.