Once upon a time, anglers headed out of Oriental, taking a pounding from afternoon waves on the expansive waters of the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound in search of the sundown bite that characterized the huge adult red drum of summer.
That reliable bite still occurs, with huge males drumming up business, emanating their characteristic drumming sounds to attract females as dusk approaches. Daytime fishing was an afterthought, but some great fishing for puppy drum takes place with the sun blazing — a bonus for fishermen who can get in on that action.
“Dusk is probably still the best time to fish for the big ones,” said George Beckwith, an old hand at the red drum game who operates Down East Guide Service. “But you can catch puppy drum any time of day if you know you are looking for. Most of the time, we try to catch the puppy drum during the day and wind up fishing for the adult drum just before dark.”
Beckwith has a tower on his 23-foot boat, and it wasn’t long after the beginning of one summer fun-fishing trip with two other guides — Mitchell Blake of Chocowinity and Jennings Rose of Oriental — before one of them was up the tower for a look at the Brant Island Tower.
“Anytime you can get higher than the deck, it gives you a better chance of seeing something that may lead you to a school of red drum,” Blake said. “It might be a school of baitfish with red drum blowing them up, or it could be an oil slick from the baitfish the red drum are eating. Sometimes, you can even see a big school of red drum pushing water on the shoal.”
The light tower marks the shoal that was once Brant Island before rising sea level covered the island. It was the first place they targeted with jigs.
“You might catch red drum around the edge of the shoal,” Beckwith said, “but you know you can always catch bluefish, croakers and other small fish for bait.”
After 30 minutes, with a few speckled trout in the cooler and pinfish, bluefish and croaker for bait, Beckwith headed for Raccoon Island.
“Anywhere you find a drop-off, you are likely to find puppy drum,” he said. “See all of those birds working? The baitfish under them is a good sign.”
Rose and Beckwith cut croakers into chunks, put them on bottom rigs and lobbed them near the shoreline. Blake used a spinning rod to cast a tandem jig rig.
“I like to give them a smorgasbord,” Blake said. “I use different colors. If I find that they like one color combination more than the other, I might switch to a single jig.”
The trio caught reds in a variety of sizes, from 14 inches up to 32 and everywhere between.
“The fishing for adult red drum overshadows our great fishing for juveniles,” Beckwith said. “We can move around to lots of different spots like this one, catching puppy drum all day. You might be having so much fun that you forget about the big ones. Besides bait rigs and jigs, we catch puppy drum with topwater lures and jerkbaits.”
A drop-off that holds puppy drum can be subtle, especially when compared to what a bass fisherman is familiar with in a freshwater lake. Eroded banks that have soil lumps falling away from the shoreline but are still growing marsh grass are indicators of drop-offs of a foot or so over a horizontal distance of perhaps 10 to 20 feet. It doesn’t seem like much of a drop, but with thousands of yards of homogenous shoreline having gentle slopes reaching far out into the sound, it is enough to concentrate baitfish on which puppy drum feed.
“There he is!” Rose said. “It’s a nice one, too.”
Rose reeled in another 30-incher, while Blake cranked in its mate. He kept his fish in the water while Beckwith handled Mitchell’s fish, inserting a yellow dart tag before releasing it. Then he did the same with the fish Rose caught.
A log card bound for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries was filled out with details about the fish: its length, condition and date and time it was caught. Beckwith, a trained marine biologist, tags all red drum 30 inches sort longer, knowing the data is instrumental in helping biologists develop an understanding of the fishery.
“It turned out that these fish are pretty tough,” Beckwith said. “We handle them as gently as we can and never hold them vertically, keeping them in a horizontal position. Once we tag them and snap a photo, we put them back in the water and send them on their way.”
Beckwith, Blake and Rose caught so many red drum it was difficult to keep track of the numbers — probably around two dozen — with fish on every dropoff, including a particularly good one near the Cedar Island Ferry landing.
With he sun sliding toward the horizon, they headed to an area far from the shoreline near South River. Beckwith watched his depth finder screen intently while Rose kept the anchor ready. When Beckwith throttled down the engine, he let it fall and tied it off.
“It drops to about 18 feet to 10 feet over a horizontal distance of 100 yards,” Beckwith said. “We learned from our acoustic tag studies that these fish can move miles in a single night. Individual fish move to a different spot every day. But they use these drop-offs as travel lanes and could be moving anywhere along them. They might be at a curve or an intersection of two channels, but you never know. I just set up in a good spot, set out baits and wait for a bite. Sometimes I fish a spot because that is where I caught them yesterday.”
The anchor line came taut against the current as Rose and Blake cut croakers into chunks and Beckwith began baiting hooks on the five spinning rods that were fan-cast in all directions.
More croaker chunks were tossed into the water as chum, a technique that few anglers use for red drums but one that proved valuable when one light tightened, the reel’s drag sang out and the rod bent over.
Rose, closest to the rod, grabbed it and hung on while the red drum surged away. After a long battle, it came alongside. Beckwith cradled it in his hands, unhooked it and released it just in time; a thunderstorm was approaching and the sunlight coming through the clouds was creating eerie colors.
“In summer, afternoon storms can chase you off the water,” Beckwith said. “But if you fished throughout the day, you will have already caught as many puppy drum as you want.”
HOW TO GET THERE — A public boat ramp in Oriental offers great access to the drum waters of the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. To reach the rout from Raleigh, take US 264 to Washington, then US 17 south to NC 33, then turn south to Grantsboro and then south to NC 55 to Oriental; the ramp is on Midyette Street, just short of the bridge.
WHEN TO GO — Best fishing for adult drum starts in June and will last into September. Puppy drum are in the area all year.
BEST TECHNIQUES — For puppy drum, cast 3/8-ounce jigs with Bass Assassin and Fin-S soft-plastic trailers. Adult drum and puppy drum strike chunks of fish. For adult reds, use medium-heavy spinning rods with 8000 series reels spooled with 20-pound monofilament or 50-pound braid. When using braid, tie a wind-on leader of 80- to 130-pound test. At night, fishing with natural baits and hooks larger than 4/0, anglers must use “old drum” rigs with circle hooks (barbs bent down or removed, 6-inch leaders and stationary weights. For puppy drum, any medium-action spinning or bait casting outfit will suffice.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — George Beckwith, Mitchell Blake, Jennings Rose, Down East Guide Service, 252-671-3474 www.pamlicoguide.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Bayboro House Hotel, 252-745-7270; Oriental Marina Inn, 252-249-1818.
MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing Guides, 1-800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com.