Put together the Hatteras red drum puzzle

(Photo by Brian Carroll)

Open water behind Hatteras Inlet presents anglers targeting red drum with challenges. Here’s how one local guide overcomes them.

Good fishermen who target redfish along much of both Carolinas’ coastlines might be taken aback at how different the fishery and tactics are behind North Carolina’s Outer Banks, particularly the area behind Hatteras Inlet, between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

There’s no huge tidal surge, no extensive marsh areas, no drains and creeks, no oyster rakes — not a lot of the things that anglers from Beaufort, S.C., to Beaufort, N.C., come to rely on to point them to the copper-colored battlers that are simply called “drum” by many locals.

So, faced with a blank slate and tens of thousands of acres of open water, where does an angler used to grass lines, oyster beds, big tidal pulls and visible casting targets start when he backs his boat down one of the marina ramps just east of Hatteras Inlet? In the summer?

That’s an easy question for Rom Whitaker IV, a second-generation captain from the tiny fishing village of Hatteras, the son of an offshore charter captain. 

Whitaker runs Sound Bound Charters, based at Hatteras Harbor Marina, and when drum become the subject, he has plenty of answers.

“Our drum work in from the ocean in May, and they come into the channels — Boot Slough and Sloop Channel — which are safe places for them,” he said. “They show up the first or second week of May, and they’ll be schooled up, in schools of 200 to 500 fish. They’ll be here in June, then they’ll move over to the other side of the Pamlico Sound and spawn in the Neuse River; that’s in July.

“I think a lot of the smaller, puppy drum stay on our side all summer. They like to get between Ocracoke and here on our side. There will be a lot of 25-, 26- and 27-inch fish around.”

It will be fall, after the big fish have spawned, before they return to the area, heading out of Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets, among others, on their way back to the ocean to overwinter.

Sound advice

The Pamlico Sound behind the Outer Banks may look like a huge expanse of open water, but it’s what’s underneath that counts. Much of the sound behind Hatteras Inlet for several miles on either side is made up of channels, shoals that are only inches deep on the high end of the tide and uncovered on the low end and flats of submerged grass, broken in clumps, 2 or 3 feet deep.

Most big drum move across the Pamlico Sound in July to spawn, but a few hang around behind Hatteras Inlet, including some fish up to 40 inches like this one caught by Mary Joyner. (Photo by Rom Whitaker IV)

The channels are highways the drum use to move around the sound, most of the time in pods or schools. The flats are where they spread out and feed, using holes in slightly deeper water and clumps of grass as ambush sites to suck down mullet, blue crabs or silversides, three of their favorite meals. The huge schools of shrimp that draw trawlers are more likely to be found from mid-sound to the western shoreline.

“The channels are safe places for ’em, and they have all the things they like to eat,” Whitaker said. “They will be silver in that clear water, but they do change colors. They can be bright orange when they get up on those grass flats where they’ll live all summer long. These drum are very territorial; they will stay on a flat for months, but if you get four or five boats on ’em, they’ll go deep, but they’ll be back there the next day. They will stick together unless they get scattered by bad weather.”

Whitaker admitted that he once chartered a small airplane from Billy Mitchell Airport in the village of Frisco, just a handful of miles back up the island, and went scouting.

“A couple of years ago, I rented an airplane in Frisco and flew all over,” he said, “I found eight different schools of drum. I went back out in my boat and found three of them.” 

Generally, Whitaker said, the drum in a school or scattered across a grass flat will be of roughly the same size. You won’t find many under-slot fish, and spring and fall when the big drum are moving through are the only times you’ll see them. Most fish will be upper-slot size and just above, sometimes up to 40 inches.

Search mode

Whitaker spends plenty of time on the tower of his skiff; the extra height gives him a much-better angle for spotting schools of drum and, around Memorial Day, the cobia that show up at Hatteras. He will check the edges over extremely shallow shoals, watching for schools of puppy drum that might be skirting the shallows, hunting for a meal. He’ll point them out to anglers on the casting deck when they get in range for a shot.

“The tide plays a huge part in it. I like to have the water moving,” he said. “You need a good ebb or flood for sight-casting. I don’t want it slick, but just a pretty, sunny day with a little current running.”

Whitaker would rather find them scattered on the expansive grass flats that make up much of the sound behind Hatteras Inlet. They go there to feed, too, he said.

“They spend a good bit of time on that broken bottom, laying in holes,” he said. “They’re singles then, scattered. You’re looking for singles or just casting. When they get on those flats, I feel like they sit down in that grass, in those holes, where they might catch a blue crab or a minnow coming across the bottom.

“They’ll sit in those sandy spots on those grass flats. We’ll start upcurrent or upwind and drift across that flat in 2 or 3 feet of water, making long, downwind casts. If I’ve got three fishermen in the boat, we’ll go across a flat, casting, and fish for 30 or 40 minutes, then go to another one. If I’ve got some good anglers who can cast, we’ll catch drum. Boats with trolling motors, they can work the edges of those flats.

“I like them to cast a gold spoon and cast it as far downwind as you can and just reel it back. A good angler will pull that spoon over those clear spots and let it fall. That’s why a good pair of sunglasses might be one of the most-important pieces of equipment on your boat.”


Whitaker likes to fish a 7-foot or 7-foot-6, medium-light Star spinning rod and a Penn reel. He will tie the gold spoon — the venerable Johnson Silver Minnow — to a 30-inch fluorocarbon leader and attach it to the main line, with “the smallest barrel swivel I can find.” 

“You just cast it downwind as far as you can and reel it back,” he said.

Until a few years ago, Whitaker was tying on a jighead and a soft-plastic trailer for most of his casting to drum. Then, an out-of-town angler showed up one day and taught him a lesson.

“All of us used to use jigs, but a boy from Florida came up a few years ago and really caught ’em on a gold spoon, so a bunch of us started using those weedless gold spoons. You can cast ’em a mile.”

The ageless Johnson Silver Minnow, a casting spoon, is an extremely productive lure when fan-casting for Hatteras puppy drum.
About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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