July 27, 2008

Black Drum a Rare July Find

By Sue Cocking, The Miami Herald

Jul. 27--TITUSVILLE -- A strange thing happened this summer in the Indian River north of Titusville. And when the word got out, lots of people sought to take advantage of it -- including me.

A huge school of black drum -- usually seen in the Indian River Lagoon during the winter -- popped up unexpectedly in June and stayed through the middle of July. Milling around and tailing in two feet of water, this mass of 2- to 7-pound fish made great targets for live bait, artificials and flies.

For the past month, anglers and guides have had days of 20-plus fish on two seemingly random spots in the northern Indian River. But like the newest hot nightclubs, these black drum venues are becoming victims of their success.

"We were able to keep it hush-hush until [recently]," said light-tackle guide captain Jim Ross of Rockledge. "But with daily pressure, they're not as happy. When we first saw them, there were 1,000 fish in the school. As the pressure has been applied, they've started to break up and become more wary."

When Ross, captain Russ Rivers of Melbourne and I arrived just after dawn last week at one of the two drum circles, we found a small boat with two fishermen and a yappy dog engaged with the school. One of the anglers was fighting a fish while his furry, miniature Klaxon dashed about, barking loudly.

Ross quietly skirted the area using the trolling motor on his 22-foot Skeeter bay boat and asked the anglers' permission to approach the school from the north.

One of the anglers replied that would be fine, the idea being to let the fish sort of bounce between the boats. Ross said this strategy had been working well for the past couple of weeks as boats shared the drum bounty.

But as Ross staked out on the flat, we noticed that the "happy" fish seemed to be fleeing the sound of the yapping mutt. It wasn't as if they were dashing away at the speed of light; black drum don't move like bonefish. But after a particularly sharp spate of barking, the fish would split up, with some heading deeper and some shallower.

"I can't understand why they would bring Sparky with them," Ross murmured, giving the unknown adversary a name.


Eventually, the fish headed toward our boat. Rivers caught and released one using a live shrimp on light spinning gear. Then they swirled around us and headed away.

Two more boats entered the fray, so instead of two boats to bounce between, the black drum now were being corralled on four sides.

After an hour of black drum Ping-Pong, the school -- now far smaller than its original size -- waked toward Ross' boat once again.

Rivers caught another one, and I hooked one on my seven-weight fly rod using a shiny, big-eyed, slow-sinking crab pattern.

I would compare the fight of a black drum on fly rod as being like a bonefish dosed with Ketamine; sluggish, it probably took two minutes to begin clearing line off the deck with no drag setting. Trying to encourage the fish, I reeled up the slack. Only then did it start yanking line off the reel. It was fun while it lasted -- any fish is a treat when hooked sight-casting -- but the fish had the last laugh. It shed the hook before I could get it to the boat.

For the rest of the morning, the fish became more and more difficult to entice. Ross and Rivers cast live shrimp directly in front of the oncoming school and caught and released only one more fish.

Most of the time, the drum ran over or around the baits without touching them. I never got another take on fly rod despite making a few pretty good casts.

During the lull, I asked Ross why the fish were hanging out in unaccustomed areas in the heat of summer.

He explained that over the wintertime, much of the sea grass had died and decayed in the two spots where the black drum now appeared. The smell, he said, was so bad that fishermen would give the flats wide berth when transiting the area. Then the heavy winds and rains of spring cleared the waters and allowed bait species, such as small shrimp and crabs, to flourish in their new habitat.

"I've not seen shrimp on the Indian River like I've seen this year," Ross said.

Defying their usual cool-water habitat, the black drum, he said, poured onto the toasty flats to devour their new forage.

"We've had them tailing and hooked them 10 feet in front of the boat," he said. "It's almost cane-poling."

Well, it was. What started as an artificial bait bonanza evolved into a quasi-artificial Berkley Gulp fishery, and eventually a fresh-or-live shrimp-fest.

Ross said the fish might settle down if anglers wouldn't chase them with trolling motors.

"You create a cattle-drive situation," he said. "A fish stampeding down a flat does not eat well."

Still, it was great fun while it lasted.

"Normally, we just have redfish and trout," Ross said. "This has given us a new species to chase."

And, in my case, new species to practice casting my seven-weight.


To book a fishing trip with captain Jim Ross on the northern Indian River Lagoon or attend the Indian River Fishing Academy, call 321-636-3728. To book a fishing trip on the southern Indian River Lagoon with captain Russ Rivers, call 321-255-5976.


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