Traditional “Old Drum” Fishing in North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound

Red drum, North Carolina’s state saltwater fish, is a highly sought-after recreational species up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.  Many inshore anglers have formed a special bond with “redfish” in large part because of their willingness to take a baited hook, artificial lure, or fly.  The strong fight they provide keeps fishermen’s hearts pumping and adrenaline flowing throughout the red drums range.  Luckily, anglers in North Carolina can target resident red drum populations year round.  They also have access to the largest red drum in the world during the late summer and early fall as the big fish move inshore to spawn.

Sub-adult “puppy drum” frequent our coastal marshes and beaches, holding together in tight schools during the winter and spring. Dedicated fishermen willing to bundle up on a cold winter day can find huge schools of reds that are willing to feed in water as cold as 44 degrees.  As the spring season kicks in and turns to summer, the puppy drums are on the move like a pack of wolves, searching for bait that moves into our area as the water temperatures warm.  Anglers respond, working inshore waters searching for fish near oyster bars, flooded grass beds, docks, and drop offs.

Puppy drum usually are predictable and can be found in the same areas time and time again until something forces them to move.  As long as food is available, water temperatures are consistent, and the fishing pressure is light, the fish often will allow anglers several opportunities to target the same school.  That is one of the main reasons anglers who target red drum have learned to move quietly, using a push pole, kayak, or trolling motor to work areas where the fish are likely to be found.  Part of the fun involved in catching reds in shallow water is the pursuit.  Attempting to find fish you have been on for multiple days, sometimes even weeks or months, is rewarding.  It is as much hunting as fishing, and the approach appeals to many anglers.

As summer turns to fall, puppy drum continue to work the inshore waters of North Carolina, but many anglers turn their attention to the mass migration of large adult red drum that move inshore to spawn.  During August and September, mature “old drum” come inshore to spawn at the mouth of the Pamlico and Neuse rivers before moving off the Outer Banks beaches where they can be targeted in October and November.  People from all over the country travel to places like Oriental, Swan Quarter, Cape Hatteras, and Cape Lookout to try to catch and release a “citation” fish over 40 inches long.

Most of the old drums are caught by bait fishermen on large pieces of fresh cut mullet or menhaden.  Traditionally, anglers target old drum around sunset and at night during the late summer and early fall run on the Pamlico Sound.  Recently, though, thanks in large part to Captain Gary Dubiel of Speck Fever Guide Service,  anglers, they have had some success catching the fish during the day using soft plastics suspended under popping corks and even on a fly.  Captain Dubiel has been experimenting using different techniques on the fish for the past couple of years.  This year seems to be the year it all came together for him.  I have been following his reports, and, consistently, he is catching them on artificial baits, which I am sure is a lot of fun.

I have had a great amount of luck targeting them the “traditional way” in the late afternoon and at night, soaking a shotgun spread of fresh baits along any bottom contour that I can find.  My friend Captain Bryan Goodwin of Native Guide Service taught me that the reds use depth transitions as their pathways as they move through the sounds, and they spawn at night on ledges and submerged shoals that can be easily found and marked on a fish finder.  I like to look for areas where I can see abrupt depth changes, typically anywhere from 8-14 feet of water.  When fishing these ledges, it is best to position your boat to be able to fish a variety of different depths with your spread.  Sometimes you have to move around a little bit to find out exactly where they are running, as one day they seem to be moving deep, then the next time the bite will be near the top of the shoal.

The fun thing about fishing a shotgun spread of 6 rods is the anticipation.  It may not require as much skill as sight casting a fly rod to a cruising fish in shallow water, but it is still a rewarding experience.  Since you have time to sit back and relax in between changing out baits, it is a great way to catch up with an old friend.  I go out once every year with my good friend Paul Buckman to try to catch a citation fish and rekindle a close friendship that, at times, seems difficult to maintain as we grow older.  With a busy work schedule and a family, I do not get much time to share with my lifelong “brother from another mother”, so we look forward to the time each year when we can put it all aside and catch up for a few hours.  We tell stories, we listen to music, and we laugh like hell.  Every now and then, the chatter is interrupted by shear moments of chaos as a rod, sometimes two, doubles over with a fish pulling drag.  It’s always fun to see who gets to the first fish the fastest.  After the first one, we take turns.

It’s a fairly mellow style of fishing that allows you to relax occasionally, but make no mistake about it, it is not always easy.  You have to change out the baits constantly, making sure to keep them fresh, as that is one key to success.  You also have to work to keep the lines tight and spread out so they do not get tangled.  That’s not easy to do when you are experiencing 20+ mph winds as we often do along our coast.  You have to be careful.  The Pamlico Sound is a large body of water and an east or northeast wind can be especially punishing, as I learned on our annual trip out this year during late August 2013.

We were fishing a ledge at Maws Point, near Vandemere, and were getting worked by the waves.  We moved into the Bay River in attempts to get out of the chop, but it was tough to hide and yet still be in an area where we were likely to encounter fish.  We decided to struggle with the wind driven waves and fish the best we could.  In less than ideal conditions, we caught and released 4 monster red drums in about 5 hours.  It was a trip I will never forget.

One of four old drum we caught on August 24, 2013 near the mouth of Bay River. This one put up one heck of a fight!
One of four old drum we caught on August 24, 2013 near the mouth of Bay River. This one put up one heck of a fight!

If you decide to try to catch your own citation fish, there are a few things you need to know.  These big fish require a heavy rod and reel capable of casting over four ounces of weight.  You want to be able to land these fish fast, and light tackle often leads to break offs that leave the fish trailing yards of line, often resulting in entanglement.   I use a minimum of 25 lbs. test line.

Terminal tackle is pretty simple.  When fishing from the surf, I like to use modified fish finder rigs and circle hooks.  When fishing at night with cut bait along the inland waterways during the spawning season, it is required to use an “Owen Lupton” style rig.  The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission has adopted regulations that require the use of circle hooks when fishing at night in Pamlico Sound and its tributaries during the summer.  The rule prohibits fishing with any hook larger than 4/0 between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. from July 1 through September 30, unless the tackle consists of a circle hook with the barb either compressed or removed and a fixed sinker, weighing not less than two ounces, secured no farther than six inches from the circle hook.

According to Lee Paramore, biologist with the N. C. Division of Marine Fisheries and lead staff member on the Red Drum Fishery Management Plan, fish are less likely to swallow a circle hook than a traditional J-hook. This is true particularly in the adult red drum fishery in Pamlico Sound where as much as 40 to 50 percent of all fish taken on a typical J-hook rig are gut hooked.  In one study of 104 fish caught in North Carolina waters, mortality rates of lip hooked fish were zero percent, compared to 16 percent for deep-hooked fish.  All the deep-hooked mortalities occurred with J-hooks. Research has clearly documented that deep hooked fish are far more likely to die when released than lip hooked fish.  “Circle hooks seldom gut hook a fish and usually hook fish in the jaw, making it easier to release a healthy fish,” Paramore said.  In the study, 96 percent of all red drum captured using a circle hook in conjunction with a short leader and a fixed weight were lip hooked.  “Removing or flattening the barb reduces stress and further damage to fish”, Paramore added.

It is important to remember that the old drum fishery is catch and release only.  In North Carolina, anglers are allowed to keep one red drum between 18-27 inches each day. However, many recreational anglers who target red drum choose to promote catch and release regardless of the size of their catch.  In particular with the old drum fishery, it is extremely important to do everything we can to protect them.  Anglers need to take care of these fish, as they are the breeding stock for the entire population in our state.  Anglers should work carefully not to remove them from the water but for a brief moment, if necessary, for a picture.  Many of the fish I catch are released boat side without bringing them into the boat, but I admit I love to hold them in my arms and get a picture sometimes.  Make sure to have your camera ready beforehand.

Red drums are hearty fish that survive well when released, if they are handled properly. When handling the fish, never reach your hands into or attempt to support the fish by the gill plate.  Hold them horizontally and support the weight of the fish evenly as you cradle it like a baby in your arms.  Enjoy the brief moment you have with the fish, but return it to the water as quickly as possible.

Anglers should remember that these fish are a valuable resource.  We should be careful to regulate ourselves in order to protect them.  I look forward all year to the one trip that I take with my good friend, but I make an effort not to go multiple times each year.  Too much fishing pressure can have an effect on the spawning success of these mature breeding fish.  We need to do everything we can to make sure this fishery is continued  in a sustainable way that will allow future generations the same fishing opportunities that we enjoy.

One of these magnificent fish a year is more than enough for me.  Many people would be happy to catch one fish that size in their lifetime.  The biggest red drums in the world live right here in North Carolina, and, if persistent, anyone can catch one regardless of skill.  For these fish to continue to thrive in our waters, anglers need to educate themselves on how to target them efficiently to reduce stress on the fish.

Wayne Justice works full time as a marine biologist and naturalist.  In his spare time he loves to fish, scuba dive, and explore the waters around his home in Morehead City, North Carolina onboard his 17ft Carolina Skiff.  

In case you missed the Saltwater Radio Show on Old Drum Fishing with Wayne Co-Hosting:

Join Captain Jay, Wayne Justice, Captain Gary Dubiel – Spec Fever Guide Service, Captain Blake Mitchell – FishIBX and other guest as we talk about Inshore and Old Drum Fishing in North Carolina!

Video footage of Wayne and Paul on their quest for NC Old Drum!

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