November often conjures up visions of shorter days, cold mornings and evenings, and a transition away from saltwater fishing. Putting away your red drum gear, though, might be a bit premature.
The big fish have mostly left the sounds and inlets, where they reign supreme in the late summer and early fall. So where are they? That’s an easy question. These fish are anywhere in the ocean where they can find consistent food. So often, this means they are right on the beach, ravaging the menhaden schools that can hang around late into the fall.
Capt. Jeff Williamson runs Get Busy Charters out of Ocean Isle Beach and says that the late beach bite is one of his favorite trips of the year. It’s kind of a last hurrah before he starts hunting full time.
Ten years ago, Williamson was certain that the bite peaked about the third week in October and disappeared shortly after that. But that is no longer the case at all.
Several years of warmer water temperatures, particularly with the southerly facing beaches of Brunswick County means that the menhaden stay well longer than they previously did. If the menhaden stay around, the red drum will stay too. The “bait buffet” is simply too much for them to pass up.
Watch the weather
The weather in November can be hit or miss. You may find yourself wearing bibs at first light, which thankfully is early (at least when the month starts) due to daylight saving time. You may also find yourself coming out of those bibs quickly if the day heats up.
Thankfully the runs to these fish are generally short. It’s a matter of coming out of your inlet and turning one way or another to look for bait. Not only will you use any menhaden that you net, but any decent-sized pod is also going to give you your first fishing location too. Williamson said that he favors a light wind out of the north on these trips, as it makes the water right on the beach almost like a lake. Anglers can catch fish on just about any wind, but the northerly wind makes the bait much easier to spot and sneak up on.
In clear, calm water, it’s also a good idea to look before you motor right up to the bait. Williamson looks for mud trails. These aren’t caused so much by the menhaden, but by a school of drum. If you don’t see the telltale “pops” from bait up top, these mud trails can lead you right to the bait.
He has even successfully targeted these drum after filling the livewells just by looking for mud trails, figuring out what direction they are headed, and positioning his 22-foot Pathfinder to lead them with a series of casts. Sometimes, it can be that easy.
Regarding tackle for these fish, Jeff uses the same rods that he uses to catch Pamlico Sound drum in August. He said these fish are generally the same size, just hungrier due to the cooler water.
Stout spinning tackle spooled with 55-pound PowerPro or J-Braid gets the nod. He rigs up with a modified Carolina rig, using a 2-ounce egg sinker that slides on the braid, a swivel big enough to stop the weight from sliding onto the leader, a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader of no more than 2 feet, and a circle hook.
The only modification he may make is when the bait is really large and keeps trying to swim up off the bottom. In this case he’ll peg the sinker to keep the menhaden in the zone where it’s going to get inhaled by a drum and not a shark. If the drum are there, the sharks will be there too, but further up in the water column.
The best bet is to just bait up and cast right into the middle of the menhaden. Often, upwards of 50 drum are in a school, and they are underneath the menhaden, herding the bait toward the surface. If the drum are there, it’s usually not long until rods begin to bend.
These fish aren’t spooky in the ocean, either. If you have located a good school, you can often just stay with them using the trolling motor and catch fish after fish. Many times, Williamson’s anglers’ arms wear out well before the bite dies.
It is not possible to tell how late in the season this fishery may last in the Carolinas. Anglers north of Atlantic Beach may see little or none of this. But as you progress south in the Carolinas, the warmer water on the beach has the potential to keep these fish around very late in the year. Just think about the climate difference between Nags Head and Hilton Head. Knowing your locale can make all the difference when it comes to planning your trip to rack up on drum releases.
You won’t catch many slot fish doing this, but that’s not really the point. A quick trip late in the season with decent weather, possibly featuring big fish within sight of land? I’ll sign up for that any day.
Catch, don’t cook:
When fishing this way, the goal isn’t to catch frying-sized fish. These are the big drum that are feeding up to move offshore for the winter, so eat your Wheaties, bring stout gear, and prepare to catch some of the biggest fish you’ve ever hooked.