July’s sizzling weather matches a torrid bite for bull red drum in the lower Neuse River and western Pamlico Sound.

“Some people are saying ‘old’ drum show up earlier now, but I think they’ve always been in the river,” said guide Joe Ward of Flydaddy Charters (252-229-4656). “An uncle used to catch big drum in flounder nets in March at Point of Marsh.”

Four summers ago, guides discovered they could catch old drum — spawners from 25 to 60 pounds — with popping-cork rigs in 5 to 7 feet of water.

Ward said fish followed break lines in the morning. “They may feed all night in the sound, then they’ll go to the shoals in the morning,” he said.

Before popping-cork rigs, the accepted tactic when targeting old drum was to soak cut menhaden on the bottom for hours.

Ward often drifts sideways with the wind or uses a trolling motor to move slowly and throw popping-cork rigs. In 2015, Ward and a friend, Danny Skinner, set up a shallow-water drift along a channel in the Neuse River and, using popping corks, caught 36 old drum.

“By 11 a.m. we were wore out and went back (in) for lunch,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Ward and guide Richard Andrews of Bath discovered an easier way to fish for old drum.

“It’ll wear you out throwing a popping cork for several hours,” Ward said. “Richard and I found out we could use 7-foot TFO medium-heavy rods and 4500 Series reels with 30-pound braid and a shock leader of 4 or 5 feet of fluorocarbon or a monofilament leader of 60-pound Trilene Big Green mono, everything tied with a Sebile or FG knot. We caught old drum under bait balls in 20 feet of water.”

After the sun rises or if reds are being pressured, they’ll move into deeper water where they’re not so easily frightened.

“We used Rat-L-Traps and big spinnerbaits used for muskie fishing,” Ward said. “(Old drum) also hit Drone spoons. You just drift and let your lures down, raise ’em up and let ’em fall. It’s a lot easier than casting popping corks.”

Anglers may keep one red drum daily, and only between 18 and 27 inches.

Ward said the key to successful fishing for drum is being quiet in a boat.

“Drum are very spooky,” he noted.