Target ‘December’s drum’ in Carolina waters

Black drum are often overlooked by inshore fishermen, until they hook up with one. Here’s how to make that happen more than just by chance.

Winter arrives this month, along with colder weather. 

The crisp mornings tend to move anglers into the deer woods or duck blinds, but the Carolinas can offer excellent winter action for a wide variety of inshore species. 

Speckled trout and redfish, aka spot-tailed bass or puppy drum, rank at the top of inshore boards, yet a black drum often shows up on the end of the line, carrying a big stick with no intentions of coming aboard easily. And late fall and winter are  prime times to load the boat with these black bombshells.

Reds and speckled trout are often at the top of an inshore fisherman’s fall menu, but black drum can make many a trip a success.

Black drum rarely receive the praise their bronzed cousins get, but they are no lesser species by any stretch of the imagination. They carry characteristics with other drum species and are built like a Division I noseguard with a bad attitude. For a light-tackle angler with 10-pound test line spooled on the reel, a testy battle can be just what the doctor ordered. 

Like all drum species, black drum patrol the sea floor and are often classified as bottom feeders, equipped with sensory barbels on their chins. Shrimp, mole crabs, fiddler crabs and even small fish make up their diets through most of their range. In the Carolinas, they’ll eat everything, but shrimp and small crabs become their primary meals in late fall and into the winter.  

Tom Cushman of Captain Cush’s Calmwater Fishing Charters guides out of Little River, S.C., and catches his fair share of black drum throughout the year in the estuaries straddling the North Carolina-South Carolina state line. His black drum bite really takes off in late fall.

“Black drum are available throughout the year in our area, but we catch a lot more of them in fall through spring,” said Cushman (843-997-5850). “The bite picks up substantially when the water cools.”

It’s not unusual to catch red drum and black drum in the same general areas, even on the same pieces of structure.

Black drum are similar to speckled trout: a local population exists year-round, but more arrive in the fall when the water cools. They are migratory and travel south when the waters cool to the north. Conversely, black drum move back to northern waters in the spring when water temperatures rise. 

Black drum can be found in a wide variety of areas. As water temperatures dip below 65 degrees, they move into deeper areas, but they won’t move too far from the dinner table. Fortunately, they are in good company. Speckled trout and redfish move into deep holes and channels, along with any available bait in the area. Black drum have voracious appetites and are often found in schools. 

Baits or lures crawled across the bottom will often come in contact with a black drum in late fall and early winter.

“Black drum eat mostly shrimp and small crabs,” Cushman said. “We catch a lot of black drum while floating live shrimp for trout, but they will eat fresh and frozen shrimp, too.” 

Speckled trout feast on live shrimp and generally turn their noses up when the shrimp die, lose their flutter or are severed in any shape or form. Black drum are delighted to get the opportunity to eat a live shrimp but are satisfied with leftovers, whether just the head, tail or any morsel remains. They will rarely refuse a chunk of cut shrimp, whether freshly caught or sourced from the bottom of the freezer. Fresher bait will perform better than old bait. 

“Frozen shrimp can catch fish, but fresh bait is always a better sell,” Cushman said. 

Fiddler crabs are often used for sheepshead around jetties, bridge pilings and nearshore reefs. Fiddler crabs are a delicacy for black drum and can put fish in the boat quickly when they’re around, even if they’re acting finicky. They will eat almost anything when they are famished and in a feeding frenzy.

“Some days, black drum are feeding like a school of piranhas, where they will eat anything you put in the water, and on other days, they can be a little finicky — like all fish get sometimes,” he said. “When they get finicky, we make sure to have very fresh shrimp or live fiddlers.”   

Cushman will use a float rig for live shrimp unless he’s fishing structure, deep channels or places with heavy current. where a dropper rig is good. Float rigs remain good options for cut shrimp floated barely above structure. The float reduces hang-ups and allows the bait to free-float in the current. 

Black drum inhabit a wide variety of places in the Carolinas, including nearshore reefs and about every type of habitat in inshore waters. They prefer feeding around structure: docks, rocks, oyster bars, grass edges or shell-covered bottoms. They will scavenge the bottom, feeling for scraps to eat, but they prefer to settle along structure-laden bottoms in heavy current and wait on their meals to come freely. 

“Places with heavy current tend to hold more black drum than areas with gentle or no current at all. They sit along the bottom and pick off shrimp getting washed by them in the current,” he said. 

The Carolinas’ coastlines are littered with prime places to catch black drum in winter, but the best in winter tend to be deep, shell bottoms in creek bends, deep rocky shorelines along main channels, inshore reefs and other structure-laden habitats. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway spans the entire coastline with a wide offering of habitat for black drum in winter.

Jetties that line inlets along the shorelines of North Carolina and South Carolina attract plenty of black drum, which feed in the swift current around the jetty rocks. (Photo by Jeff Burleson)

“In the ICW, channel ledges with oyster or shell bottoms are excellent places — or docks and boat slips,” Cushman said. “Boat slips can be great, because they will be wallowed out and deeper than the surrounding water.”

Black drum can grow to 100 pounds, but most in inshore waters, they rarely exceed 20 pounds unless they’re found in deep-water habitats. And if a big black drum is anticipated, deep channels with excessive current and structure can produce the biggest fish. While a 60-pound black drum can be exciting to land, a 7½-pound black drum can take a light-tackle angler’s gear to its critical limits. 

Black drum are sometimes considered by-catch, but they should be a prized species for their sheer power and liberal feeding behavior.

About Jeff Burleson 1312 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.

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