Bob Wagner, a 66-year-old retiree from Pennsauken, N.J., beached a possible state-record black drum from the surf at the north end of Wrightsville Beach last Thursday, but mistaking it for a red drum, he released it.
"I've caught red drum before, but they were small puppy drum," Wagner said. "I didn't even notice the missing spot on its tail and thought it was a red drum. I didn't know what a big black drum would look like because the ones I've seen before were much smaller and had dark stripes. This fish was a gorgeous brown or bronze color."
Wagner was fishing with a buddy, Elwood Carter of Bayshore, N.J., around 2 p.m. on Nov. 6, catching mostly blowfish and flounder.
“I really wanted to catch some pompano, because we don’t have them (in New Jersey),” Wagner said.
Around 2 p.m., after catching a flounder and a bluefish, Wagner switched his terminal tackle from a bluefish rig to a two-hook bottom rig, baiting it with Fish Bites artificial clam strips and anchoring it with a 3-ounce bank sinker. He was fishing with an 11-foot Tsunami surf rod and a Salt Stalker 5000 spinning reel spooled with 300 yards of Power Pro braid.
"I had called home, and in New Jersey the water was 55 degrees," he said. "But here, the water was flat and 69 degrees, so we were in shorts and barefooted. There was a little bump, I pulled back on the rod a little bit and thought I was hung on the bottom, until the bottom started to head for England."
The fish took almost all of the line off the reel and would not turn toward the beach for 20 minutes. When it became visible, the lip of a sandbar prevented Wagner from reeling it to the beach. It took him another 10 minutes to work the fish close enough to grab.
"It was just after low tide," he said. "The bar had only 8 inches of water covering it, so I worked the fish into a shallow slough that had about 12 inches of water. A local angler named L.C. Smith was fishing nearby. He came to help, and all three of us held the fish while we measured the fish's length and girth."
The black drum was 51 ½ inches long and 39 inches in girth. Wagner said he used the calculation for estimating gamefish weights – girth squared multipled by length divided by 800 – which resulted in an approximate weight of 97.91 pounds.
Photos were taken with a cell phone, and, thinking it was a big red drum, Wagner released the fish.
When they finished fishing, Wagner and Carter headed to a local store Redix, where they learned that the fish was a black drum. They were sent to Intracoastal Angler, which certifies applications for the N.C. Department of Marine Fisheries’ saltwater citation tournament, and Wagner filled out an application for a release certificate for black drum, being eligible since his fish was longer than 40 inches.
Wagner learned that the state record for black drum was 100 pounds, 1 ounce, a fish caught by Sanford taxidermist Chuck Dycus near Southport in 1998.
"The calculation we used for estimating the weight of a fish has a greater margin for error with larger fish, so the fish may have been heavier than the state record,” Wagner said. “If I had known it was possibly a record, it would have posed a moral dilemma. I've found out since that black drum that size are too tough to eat and it probably would have had lots of worms, so it would have been a waste to have kept it, even to have it weighed. I'm glad I let it go."