As I pushed the throttle down and the skiff jumped on plane, we weaved our way along the stained waters of the Crystal River toward the open expanse of the pristine Gulf of Mexico. It felt like we had stepped back in time. Sure, there were waterfront homes lining the first few miles of scenic shoreline and a fair amount of vessels on the relatively active waterway, but everything seemed so much more peaceful and far less congested than the typical hustle and bustle associated with more urban landscapes of South Florida. Along our home waters of Broward County, residential eye pollution practically stretches into the sea. Not so in Crystal River, as much of the marshy watershed is still completely void of development.
Truthfully, we drove up the day before with skiff in tow not to cash in on the Nature Coast’s consistent redfish, tarpon and trout fishing. Nor were we in search of the world-class grouper, sheepshead or cobia action the Big Bend is famous for. Instead, my co-host Captain Carlos Rodriguez and I made the drive with a single goal in mind—to film an episode of Florida Sport Fishing TV highlighting the region’s astonishing black drum fishery.
While adult fish upwards of 40 years old may exceed 50 pounds in weight, relatively light tackle is the best way to enjoy the fight.
While these broad-shouldered behemoths can be caught around the entire state, Crystal River is ground zero for these shellfish sucking bottom feeders. With the coming months peak season, the area’s flourishing oyster bars and crab-infested waters provide an abundant food supply for these large predators. Additionally, the local black drum population sees very little pressure as compared to more popular destinations like Mosquito Lagoon or Sebastian where big drum encounters are commonplace. Here, in the shadow of a massive energy complex you can meander far across the flats and fish the shallows all day without seeing another soul.
It’s important to note that first time visitors are discouraged from fishing these waters on their own without at least some level of local knowledge or previous experience. The same oyster bars that attract big numbers of black drum also present a navigational nightmare. We’re not talking about forgiving grass flats, but hazardous, hard-as-a-rock shell mounds that will shred a propeller to pieces and rip a lower unit right off. From the moment you exit the mouth of the Crystal River and meander your way outside the clearly marked channel, the minefield begins. When partially exposed during low tide the oyster bars aren’t such a big deal, but during higher tidal stages you could easily find yourself in a miserable maze of trouble.
My recommendation is simple. If you are not a local, hire a local. The Nature Coast is home to many highly respected guides who know these waters like the back of their hand. Many are second or third generation fishermen whose families have been plying these waters for many years.
On your own or not, once you make your way into the shallows the approach is relatively straightforward. Big black drum are rarely seen out in the open and prefer cruising tight to the shelves and drop-offs created by the ancient shellfish mounds. Approach the partially exposed bars with caution and kill the engine no less than 50 yards out. At this point it is time to deploy the trolling motor and start your search. This is sight fishing at its finest, with 20- to 40-pound black drum regularly seen tailing as they root the bottom. Foraging fish have their mouths in the mud and are often so transfixed on sniffing out their next meal that they provide keen anglers a perfect opportunity for a couple of accurate shots. However, get right on top of them and you can expect the entire pod to blow out.
Once you have a target in sight, spend a moment determining which way the fish is moving. Black drum generally feed directly into the tide, sniffing out prey with their incredible sensory organs and chin barbels. This however is just a generalization, so keep your options open and make adjustments if the scenario dictates. Ideally, the goal is to present an offering no more than a rod length in front of the fish. Allow your crab, the preferred bait in the region, a chance to settle on the bottom. While these bloodhounds will sniff out a whole crab, it’s common practice to crack open one side of the shell to release an inviting aroma that feeding drum can’t resist.
Big black drum have soft, rubbery lips surrounding a gapping mouth that can easily inhale a mature crab, claws intact. Once the fish picks up the crab it will likely turn the bait in its mouth and suck it down its throat where a set of powerful crushers smash the crustacean to bits. At this point, all one needs to do is close the bail and reel tight. Ninety-nine percent of the time the fully exposed circle-hook will grab the fish perfectly in the corner of the mouth.
While adult fish upwards of 40 years old may exceed 50 pounds in weight, relatively light tackle is the best way to enjoy the fight. With that being said, you don’t want to play them down too much and it’s important you provide a healthy release. The ideal outfit is a 7 foot medium-action spinning combo loaded with 10 to 20 lb. braid. Terminal tackle consists of four feet of 40 lb. fluorocarbon connected with an Albright or Bristol knot. Complete the rig by attaching a 7/0 circle-hook with a small loop knot.
Once boat side, black drum deserve to be handled with care. Providing poor table fare, these big breeders are excellent sport fish and should be released unharmed to ensure the health of future populations. While often considered the black sheep to more glamorous redfish, big black drum provide one of the greatest opportunities to battle giant fish in shallow water. Hold on and hang tight!