Pogonias Cromis, more commonly referred to as the black drum, is the least glamorous member of the popular drum family. With a range that extends along the entire eastern seaboard and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, black drum can be found in a wide variety of venues. Here in Florida they are commonly encountered along bridge pilings, piers and inlets, but also have a close association with shallow grass and mud flats. One such extremely diverse estuary that offers prolific feeding grounds for large schools of hefty black drum is bordered by New Smyrna Beach to the north and Cocoa Beach to the south—and it’s called the Indian River Lagoon system.
Encompassing the Banana River, Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon, the pristine shallows of the Indian River Lagoon system are a fly caster’s match made in heaven. Although world famous for fantastic opportunities with trophy redfish and seatrout, these shallow bodies of water also offer incredible sight-fishing for monster black drum. While these powerhouses can be caught year-round, the winter and spring months bring the greatest number of drum onto the shallow flats where shots at fish up to 40-pounds are commonplace.
…a tailing fish is a fly angler’s dream because when fish are tailing there is one thing we know for certain; they are hungry and actively feeding.
Like their cousins, black drum can often be seen tailing as they dig their noses deep into the substrate in search of crustaceans. Depending on the ferocity of their appetite you may spot just the tip of a tail or as much as half of their body protruding from the water. Often misidentified, the tail of a black drum is more rounded at the corners when compared to the reddish, blue-tipped tail of a redfish. In addition, black drum tails have a straighter edge, which ranges from dark gray or black to a nearly transparent orange. Whatever the color, a tailing fish is a fly angler’s dream because when fish are tailing there is one thing we know for certain; they are hungry and actively feeding. Tailing also means the fish are focused on small crustaceans, which can easily be mimicked with a fly.
While redfish will eat nearly anything they encounter, the diet of a black drum is much more limited. From palm-sized blue crabs to tiny mud crabs smaller than a dime, drum are especially fond of crunchy critters. Shrimp, marine worms, clams, mollusks, and whelks are also on the black drum buffet. Unlike redfish, black drum are equipped with barbells on their lower jaw and since they rely on smell more than sight to locate food, sensitive chin whiskers greatly enhance their predatory pursuits. It’s important to note that a fish with poor eyesight can be both an advantage and hindrance to the fly angler.
On the positive side, it is often possible to get much closer to black drum than it is to redfish or trout. It is still imperative to use stealth when approaching these fish, but their limited vision enables anglers to get within 20-feet or closer. Poor eyesight, however, means your offering must be presented within inches of the drum’s face. In addition, most fly patterns commonly used for drum are quite small, so it is no surprise casting accuracy is extremely important.
While numerous fly patterns have been developed to replicate crab and shrimp species, duplicating a clam or mollusk is much more difficult. And while we know drum love crustaceans, at times they can be extremely selective about what they eat. When tailing fish refuse everything you have in your fly box they may be on a shellfish binge. You can either keep throwing the standard flies and hope for the best, or experiment with some less popular patterns. What works may surprise you.
The northern end of the Banana River is a no motor zone that’s famous for schooling black drum. Captain John Kumiski (spottedtail.com) is a veteran of many kayak and canoe trips in the Banana River. His favorite time to target black drum is from Thanksgiving to Easter. During this period cooler temperatures make the water on the flats crystal clear, which makes sight fishing much easier. “I prefer to wade if at all possible, as wading allows for a lower profile while also enabling the angler to concentrate solely on casting and not having to control the kayak or canoe,” says Kumiski.
For the average Banana River drum, Kumiski tosses a black redfish worm fly tied on a #4 hook. “You often have to make repeated casts to the same fish, dropping the fly right on their nose. If you want a bite, you had better show them the fly,” continued Kumiski.
If you encounter larger drum, fish over 20-pounds, Kumiski recommends switching to a fly with a slightly larger profile. A brown Merkin or black Clouser are worthy considerations. These flies provide more of a meal for big fish and will get to the bottom quickly, which is where they are most effective.
Over in the Mosquito Lagoon black drum fishing can, at times, be outstanding. However, some days the fish are nowhere to be found. About 5-years ago the number of drum that could be found on the flats were remarkable. Huge schools of 200 or more fish could be located nearly every day, although commercial cast netters along with anglers enjoying their 5 fish per day limit quickly reduced these schools to a fraction of what they once were.
Captain Todd Fuller (flyfishorlando.com) specializes in fly-fishing Mosquito Lagoon and is always prepared to encounter black drum. Fuller prefers an 8-weight outfit most often combined with a weight-forward floating line. Leaders of at least 9-feet will keep the fly line away from spooky fish. “Presentation is very important,” Fuller says. “Stripping the fly too fast is the number one mistake I see. Keep the fly on the bottom and barely move it.” Fuller goes on to explain, “Long, fast strips quickly move the fly away from the fish. If they did not see it right away, it is now certainly too far from them.”
The northern stretch of the Indian River Lagoon, generally thought of as the 25-mile zone from the lagoon’s northern end to just south of Titusville, is home to a healthy population of black drum. From schools of 5 to 10-pounders to giants over 40-pounds, you often find black drum foraging in the same general area as the reds. Captain Keith Kalbfleisch (capt-keith.com) has been guiding these waters for over 15-years and loves the opportunities afforded by the winter and spring months.
“The drum seem to school more during these months, which makes targeting them on fly much easier. When you spot tailing fish be sure to approach them cautiously, as there’s a good chance there are other fish around you don’t see,” says Kalbfleisch. Captain Keith also prompts his anglers to be ready for very close, quick casts at fish that suddenly appear near the boat. With their often dull and drab appearance, it is not uncommon to pole within feet of a drum before spotting it.
Experienced guides prefer really dark flies when targeting black drum. However nothing drum eat is natuarally black or purple. While the reason the colors work so well is purely conjecture, it is most likely that black and purple provide a stark contrast and are easy for fish to see. Other popular fly colors include olive, brown, tan and green. No matter what color or style fly you choose, presentation is key. While laying the fly in front of an approaching group of 50 fish is easy, presenting a fly to a single fish 50-feet away is much more difficult.
With their chunky stature, black drum are built for endurance and will put up a valiant fight. Often overlooked for their bronze brethren, don’t hesitate dancing to the beat of a different drum.