Fall Trophy Reds Arrive off Southern NC
When the big red drum arrive off the Southern N.C. Coast each fall, calls go out almost like the young girl in the Poltergeist movie when she called to her parents and said, “They’re back!” Seriously, the news spreads faster than the warning of an imminent hurricane strike and fishermen arrive almost overnight. Many of them have planned their year to vacation or otherwise be free when the big drum arrive and it’s happening again.
When the water temps begin to cool and schools of mullet begin their fall treks southward down the beach the big drum arrive. The area between Cape Fear and Myrtle Beach holds a good amount of menhaden, locally called pogies, and when the mullet join them the buffet is set. These big drum, most of which exceed the minimum 40 inches required for an Outstanding Catch Release Citation awarded by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, converge upon the area and gorge themselves in preparation for winter.
The abundance of these large red drum and their almost non-stop feeding brings them within range of many fishermen. They are pursued by surf fishermen, pier anglers, kayak fishers and fishermen in boats. Even better, the success rate is typically high. Some are even caught by fishermen pursuing other species.
Catching these trophy red drum begins with surf fishermen. All that is required is suitable tackle and bait. None of the beaches between Bald Head Island (Cape Fear) and Myrtle Beach allow driving on the beach, so don’t worry about having a four wheel drive vehicle. A good tackle cart, with balloon tires for the sand helps a lot. A wagon with wide tires will transport gear in a jam and an enterprising angler could carry the basics and go fishing.
A good surf rod, somewhere between 10 and 15 feet helps with casting beyond the breakers. Spin fishers should consider a 6000 size reel as the minimum, while fishermen proficient with baitcasting reels should consider a 6500 or 7000 size. Twenty pound line is a good starting point and using a smaller diameter braided line allows a reel to hold more line to deal with long runs. Regardless of which line you use, add a shock leader of 30 to 50 pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line that is long enough to go through all the guides and wrap around the reel a couple of times. This will absorb the shock of casting a chunk of bait and a heavy sinker.
Now for the rig… We have learned we don’t need long leaders or sliding sinkers for drum. The circle hook rig often referred to by its creator’s name as the Owen Lupton rig is preferred by many fishermen for fishing in waters without much current. However, it uses an egg sinker and the round sinker will roll in the surf. The dynamics of this rig work well and a similar rig, but made with a flat sinker, will work.
Another rig that works well uses a three-way swivel with the shock leader attached to one eye, a pyramid or other surf capable sinker on a very short lead, snap link or with a sinker slide on another eye and a short (6 inches or so) leader out to a 7/0 or 8/0 non-offset circle hook from the third eye. The idea is to have a short distance between the hook and a fixed in place sinker that won’t roll in the surf. The short leader to the hook pulls it into the corner of the fish’s mouth once it moves off with the bait. This and the circle hook help prevent deep hooking fish. Most are hooked in the lower jaw near the corner of the mouth.
Mullet is the best bait. Some folks like live large finger mullet, some like dead finger mullet with the tail cut off so oil and scent will escape and some like chunks of mullet. Other oily fish will attract drum, but mullet works best. Menhaden is a good second choice.
Yes, these oily baits will also attract sharks, bluefish and more. Sure, these interlopers can be a nuisance at times, but catching them is a good sign your bait is smelling good and the scent is dispersing. Besides, you’re going to have to release any drum longer than 27 inches and you’re targeting them much longer than that, so the fight is what it’s all about anyway. The incidental critter catches give good pullage too, so smile as you release them.
When surf fishing, keep scanning the water around you for signs of a school of bait moving close to shore. Drum are notorious for herding a school of bait to the shore and then feasting on them. You’ll know it if you see this and if you see it, move close and cast into the edge of it or as close as you can get.
Pier fishermen can use the same rigs and bait as surf fishermen, but should switch to shorter rods. A long rod is awkward on a pier. The same reel works well, so put it on a six to seven foot rod and go fishing. Fishing from the pier eliminates the need for long casts and gets fishermen over deeper water. The main drawback between piers and surf fishing is that if you see a school of bait erupt several hundred yards down the beach, you can’t run down to it and make a cast. Check the pier regulations before heading to a pier. Some have regulations, like not allowing braided lines or certain baits, so be sure before you go.
Chasing big drum from kayaks has become a big deal. Many fall mornings will find several vehicles with kayak racks or trailers parked at the beach access points at Oak Island and on the weekends it often gets crowded. Oak Island is popular with kayakers because if they don’t find the drum chasing schools of bait just off the beach, it’s only a 30 minute paddle out to Yaupon Reef (AR 425) which is about 1 1/2 miles off the beach. Seriously, it’s not unusual to see a dozen or more kayaks at this artificial reef and it often holds big drum, mackerel and more. Some kayaks also launch at the Caswell Beach access near the Hot Hole but getting a kayak to and from the beach there is more difficult. The benefit to launching here is the Hot Hole is only 1/2 mile off the beach and usually holds big drum.
Kayakers use the same bottom rigs as surf and pier fishermen, plus the Owen Lupton Rig works well when fishing vertically. Kayak and boat fishermen add the dimension of fishing a surface line too. This is called corking, just like in the Neuse River. A bait or a lure is suspended 30-36 inches under a loud popping cork. The Blabbermouth cork from Fish Grip and the Cajun Thunder Magnum from Cajun Thunder are two of the more popular corks. A live or dead finger mullet is the prime natural bait and a large (6 or 8 inch) curltail grub is an good lure for when bait isn’t available. Corking is simply casting the cork and bait, then loudly popping the cork while retrieving it.
Corking may be productive at any time, but is especially effective when drum have pushed a school of bait to the surface. The noise of the cork attracts the drum, which then see the attached bait and eat it. When kayakers spot a school of bait on the surface, they ease near it and cast a few yards into the school and pop the cork. Don’t cast into the middle. You may spook the school if you hook a wild fish and you may get accidentally cut off by another fish swimming into your line while fighting one.
I think catching big drum from a kayak is the most fun of any of the ways. They rarely make a big run, but go about 50 yards and begin to circle. They go one way for a while and then turn and go the other. I call it the Tilt-A-Whirl ride as they spin the kayak.
Fishing for these big drum from a boat is the luxury version of kayak fishing. The techniques are the same and you have a boat to stand up and walk around, plus a motor to move between schools when they’ve pushed bait to the surface. Having a remote control trolling motor makes it even easier to stay on fish or maneuver the boat as needed.
There is an outstanding catch citation for catching and releasing red drum longer than 40 inches. This requires a witness to sign the citation application form and the forms are available at all the tackle shops, piers and marinas that are official NC Weigh Stations.
Surf fishermen don’t need the net, but everyone else should carry a large net, plus lip grippers, a hook remover and a line cutter. These big fish are fun to catch and pretty hardy, but they aren’t invincible. Any red drum longer than 27 must be released and all of these far exceed 27 inches, so handle them with care and respect. If you can’t do this, either hire a guide who will or don’t fish for them.
The first thing is to fight them hard and get them to the boat or beach quickly. The reason for proper tackle is to fight it quickly so it isn’t exhausted and has the strength and energy to swim off. Understand that there is a difference between releasing a fish and merely throwing it back.
Ideally you leave them in the water while you remove the hook, then revive them and send them on their way. However, it’s understandable that these are the largest fish many fishermen will ever catch and they want a picture. When surf fishing, leave the big drum in the edge of the water and kneel beside it for a picture. This requires a little more care on the pier or in a kayak or boat.
From the pier use a landing net to lift a drum to the pier deck for removing the hook and getting a picture. In a kayak or boat, use a lip gripper to stabilize the fish in the water to remove the hook or a large net to support it while lifting it aboard. Sometimes circle hooks don’t want to back out easily and when this happens I cut the line right at the hook and spin it out turning it forward. Retie the hook later. If removing the hook is difficult or taking a lot of time, cut the line as close to the hook as possible and release the fish. They tolerate the hook for a few days until it works loose and falls out.
If you want to hold a big drum for a picture, do not lift it vertically by its lower jaw or gill plates. They have tendons and ligaments in their jaw and neck this can stretch or break. Lift it level and use one hand and/or arm to support its belly. The internal organs are held in place by thin membranes that can shift or break and the organs become bruised and damaged when the belly area isn’t supported. Take your pictures quickly.
Once you are ready to release the drum, lean over the side and lower it into the water, holding it horizontal just under the surface until it catches up. Don’t swish a fish back and forth when trying to revive it. They don’t have reverse and their gills don’t work when going backwards.
If you aren’t anchored, idle forward to force water across its gills. If you are stationery, hold it in place and move its tail from side to side to work its gills and get it going. It may take more than a few seconds, but if you haven’t handled it roughly or held it out of the water too long, it should revive. When it tries to surge away, it’s ready to go.
Releasing from the pier has two options. One is to be as quick as possible getting the hook out and taking any pictures, then lowering it back over in the landing net. If it doesn’t show motion in a minute or so, lift and lower the net to give it some motion. The other option is rushing down the pier and into the surf to support the drum while facing into the waves so water runs over its gills.
These big drum are lots of fun to catch and tolerate proper catch and release pretty well. Getting it back in the water quickly and handling it properly are keys to it staying healthy and swimming off. Help it live to thrill someone else, or maybe even you again, being caught on a later date.