Drum Line

If the water is clear, red drum schools can be visible in the surf at the Outer Banks in spring.

Anglers mostly chase central and northern coast red drum during fall, but big schools are ready to be caught now.

Fall drum are predictable, readily located, widespread, and scattered, but that’s when most fishermen pursue them at the Outer Banks during the peak of the fishing season.

Less familiar are spring red drum because the arrival time is less predictable (water temperature is important), and fewer people are at the beaches in early spring. Yet, surprisingly, the fish are bunched up in large pods.

And when anglers find them, they really find them.

Surprised? So was I when Frank Folb and Darrell Hendricks hit me with some little-known Outer Banks’ lore.

Why are red drum (Sciaenops ocellata) hard to find in spring? Where do they come from and where do they go the rest of the time?

History of N.C.’s red drum

Here’s a short version of North Carolina red drums’ life history.

The big fall run is coincidental to spawning at the major inlets of the middle Atlantic coast from Rudee Inlet in Virginia to Oregon, Hatteras and Ocracoke inlets.

There is probably spawning at smaller inlets, but these aren’t as accessible to fishermen. The major spawning areas are just outside Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke Inlet, but Oregon Inlet is no slouch. Red drum spawn in masses, like most other drum.

After spawning, the fish spread out for feeding all along the barrier island beaches as they fatten up for the offshore migration. Adult and older juvenile drums move offshore into deeper, warmer water around December or January to overwinter but may lag around the beaches or move back inshore if the water remains warm enough for them and baitfish.

The fertilized eggs of the late October to early November spawn hatch nearshore and the larvae move through the inlets into the sounds, working upstream into practically fresh water. Later they’ll gradually move into more saline and downstream waters with age and growth.

Baby red drums spend their first year in the sounds or tributaries and won’t move offshore until the second (sometimes third) year. During this first year the young will experience and become tolerant of the lowest temperatures they’ll ever be able to survive.

In the spring, when the warming coastal water signals a return of bait fish, crustaceans, and green shoots in the sounds, the red drum return from their overwintering grounds and once more approach the beaches, inlets, and nearshore sand bars.

Phytoplankton levels still are low, and winds have abated, leaving the water almost as clear as winter. The returning drum are bunched up but still separated by size, with smaller fish moving in first into the cold spring water, and larger fish (like older people) returning soon after when the temps are a couple of degrees warmer.

Most years, the small (puppy) drums arrive in late March or, if the winter has been mild, they may have been near or on the beaches throughout the winter. The big drums seldom are around in winter but arrive in force sometime in April.

When the water is sufficiently warm, usually some time in late April or early May, the fish move through the inlets and into Pamlico Sound (or Chesapeake Bay), where they spend the warm season.

Expert fishermen and professional guides can locate them all summer, but few people will search for them, and most of us either find them by accident or not at all. Another reason (as if we needed another) to make use of the expert and reasonably-priced guides in this area.

Pier fishing for spring red drums is hit or miss because temperatures can change quickly along the shallow beaches. Tar Heel anglers traveling long distances may not get here fast enough to share in a brief blitz, but Virginians live for them.

Only two hours away, they descend on the northern Outer Banks piers at the first phone call from a buddy or a pier operator. The moral is “be nice to our neighbors to the north” as they’re the scouts who announce the arrival and movement of drum.

You’ll find spring red drums (all sizes) throughout April from Duck to Portsmouth Island, representing populations native to Chesapeake Bay and Pamlico Sound. These are genetically-distinct stocks, as are all red drum stocks from New Jersey to Texas, with little interbreeding and different temperature tolerances and spawning times.


If the Outer Banks are my favorite part of North Carolina, Avon is my favorite town.

It’s where I got my first big drum on the (much longer at the time) Avon pier, and where I met and learned from the best fishermen anyone ever met.

This was the stomping grounds of the Bracher twins and other experts who could throw a half pound of bait and a heavy sinker distances achieved today only by long-distance tournament casters. It’s where I learned British casting, one- and two-rod gamefishing off a pier, and the skills and courtesy of North Carolina and Virginia sport fishermen.

It’s where I learned to warn bystanders when beginning a cast — “I’ve never done this before” — which is the best way to make people back off.

Avon, 6 miles north of Buxton, is where the last two world-record red drum were taken from the beach south of the pier. And it’s the home of Frank and Fran’s Tackle Shop (252-995-4171). It’s also the headquarters of the nation’s biggest fall red drum tournament.

So whenever Frank Folb talks about red drum, I listen.

“Red drum are widespread in April,“ he said, “but 95 percent of the action will be at Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets, Cape Point and Portsmouth Island.”

Temperature is the key to when the fish arrive. At 55 degrees, puppy drum action picks up dramatically, and when the water warms up to 58 to 62 degrees, the big red drum (channel bass) show up.

“The water temperatures go up in response to a few days of a good southwest wind,“ Folb said. The wind pushes the fish inshore and around Cape Point to the north side.

The south side of the Point is always discernably warmer, since it’s the terminus of the South Atlantic Bight circulation, whereas the north side of the Point is the terminus of the countervailing Mid-Atlantic Bight circulation. Our red drums arrive in spring from offshore and probably to the south.

Folb recommended searching the south side of the Point first and keeping an eye out for a south-to-north current, combined with a southwesterly wind warming the water at both sides of the Point.

“The fish are more aggregated in the spring,” he said, so you can often see them moving through the clear water before the hit.”

However, spring fishing is mostly sightless, with the most fish taken with cut menhaden (sometimes mullet or the head of a sea mullet) on a 7/0 to 10/0 short-shank circle hook on a fish-finder (slider) rig.

You need storm sinkers (with prongs digging into the sand) to hold bottom in these longshore currents. Weight is whatever it takes, from 8 ounces to twice that.

Sometimes you see the fish coming, and sometimes you see the birds that see the fish coming. In either case, the first indication (after the birds) will be dipping rods to the south, steadily advancing northward. That’s the time to stick your stick in a rod holder and grab a big casting rod armed with a big Hopkins, Gator,or other big metal jig (we call them “spoons” here).

Hatteras Island is the most heavily fished area year round, but big red drum are often caught a week or two earlier off Ocracoke and especially Portsmouth Island. Portsmouth can be miserable this time of year, but big red drum have a way of making you forget you’re cold, tired, wet, and hungry.

You’ve got several choices. The best piers are at Rodanthe, Avon, and Frisco, the best beaches at Cape Point, False Point at Hatteras Inlet, Ocracoke Inlet, and anywhere at Portsmouth Island. But for the best fishing, you really ought to get a guide and a boat.

Here’s why.

Boat Fishing

Captain Darrell Hendricks skippers the Tide Runner out of Hatteras Harbor Marina (tiderunner82@earthlink.net).

Like many inshore guides at the Outer Banks, he specializes in red drum, striped bass, king mackerel, cobia, and less sexy fish like Spanish mackerel, seatrout and flounder.

April is a peak period for finding large aggregations of big red drum, and Hendricks knows where to look.

“April is a great time for sight casting, especially up against Diamond Shoals,” he said, “because the water is clear, the fish are bunched as they chase baitfish. In the early morning you can see the large copper patches of schools in the shallow water against the shoals or the beaches.”

Boat fishing has the advantage of being able to chase the fish.

“They’re moving fast this time of year following bait, usually with the wind,” Hendricks said. “If the wind is blowing the bait offshore, they move offshore and you can follow them.”

He doesn’t use bait, preferring sight casting with light tackle. He recommends 8- to 17-pound-test line and tossing bucktails, Hopkins or other small lures and, like other guides, provides everything unless you prefer to use your own tackle.

“They’re all sizes out there, from puppy drum to 40- and 50-pound fish,” he said. “And they’re as easy to find in April as in the fall, often easier because the water is clear, the fish are bunched up, and they’re in shallower water.”

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