Black Sheep

A relative to one of Florida’s most highly revered inshore targets, black drum are often overlooked and are arguably the most underrated species in the entire state. Although it is true they don’t make long runs like redfish, spectacular leaps like tarpon or vigorously chase down topwater plugs like snook, there’s something about these big bruisers that keeps inshore anglers coming back for more.


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The author proudly displays a typical Space Coast black drum. Photo: Captain Willy Le

As a professional guide fishing the Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River and Banana River, I’m privileged to have world-class opportunities with a variety of prized targets within close reach. And although redfish reign supreme year-round, black drum begin to make their presence known in November. What’s interesting about black drum is that when gathered in large schools they may hang out and feed in the same areas for weeks, or sometimes months at a time.

You need to slow it down to the point your offering is barely moving. Moving it too fast will result in a spooked fish or lazy looker…

Anglers approaching surface disturbances often mistake schooling black drum for redfish because they tail and push wakes in a very similar fashion. It isn’t until you get a closer look at the broad tail, high arched back, and grayish body that you’ll realize your live mullet or topwater lure is out of its element. That’s why you need to be prepared to run into a school of big black drum during the fall and winter months while fishing your favorite redfish honey holes. If not prepared you may miss out on some really exciting action.

Because black drum feed differently than reds, trout and snook, you’ll need to alter your approach. These fish are lethargic and will not waste energy chasing down baitfish or fast moving lures. And since they don’t have the greatest eyesight they must rely heavily on feel and smell to find their food—hence their large, whisker-like chin barbels. Cut clam, live or fresh dead shrimp, quartered blue crab, and even a chunk of finfish will get their attention. Soaking natural bait is a great way to get connected, but I truly enjoy targeting black drum with artificial lures.

I’ve had great results with D.O.A. Softshell Crab and 3″ Shrimp in dark patterns, although scented GULP! Peeler Crabs and GULP! Shrimp will also get you connected. Small black or dark brown bucktail jigs also entice strikes and can be enhanced with crab or shrimp scents and gels for even greater results.

When fishing artificial lures the key to success is in your retrieve. You need to slow it down to the point your offering is barely moving. Moving it too fast will result in a spooked fish or lazy looker that isn’t interested in a high-speed chase. You need to crawl your lure as close to the fish’s face as possible and let it sit still once in the fish’s field of view. If the drum does not react, give the lure the slightest twitch and let it sit again so the fish can follow the vibration and puff of sand kicked up. If you are using a piece of cut bait or even a heavily scented artificial lure simply cast in front of the fish and let the aroma do the work. You can also soak these same baits in the surf and around oyster bars, bridge pilings and rock jetties.

You don’t need any special equipment when targeting black drum on the flats. The same light tackle outfits used for redfish will do the trick. I like to spool with 10 or 15 lb. braid on a 3000 or 4000 reel matched to a medium-action spinning rod. The reason I like braided line is because of its abrasion resistance. When you hook into a fish there will likely be others in the vicinity. The action will spook the other schoolmates and bruiser black drum will be racing off in every direction, including towards your line. If you are targeting black drum around bridges and pilings you’ll want to beef up the tackle because these fish are usually bigger and smarter. These fish will put up a battle royale while trying to take you around every piling or piece of sharp structure in the immediate area.

My favorite way to target black drum on the flats is with fly rod in hand. Nothing gets my heart pumping more than seeing a pod of tailing fish in less than a foot of water. Put an appealing fly on top of their head, give it a small strip and watch the fish pin the fly to the bottom. As you come tight make sure your line is clear for takeoff. The key factor for catching black drum on fly is presentation. Like I mentioned before, black drum have terrible eyesight so you literally have to put the fly directly under their nose for them to eat. If it’s just a tad too far away, the fish will never even know your fly was in the area.

While you must have excellent accuracy to get connected, the trade-off is that these fish aren’t super spooky so you often have the opportunity to make multiple casts to the same fish. I normally like to hit the fish on the head if they are tailing. If you encounter cruising fish lead them and allow your intended target to approach the fly. From here give it a small strip just to let the fish know it is there. Flies for black drum should be dark in color. Black, brown, purple or olive are good colors to start with. Crab patterns, shrimp patterns, deer hair sliders and even worm flies will do the trick. As for equipment, an 8-weight with weight forward floating line is all you need.

The next time you plan on fishing the flats of Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River or Banana River, don’t forget to bring an extra rod rigged for black drum. You never know when you may run into a large school of tailing drum. Whether you prefer fly tackle or spinning gear you will be surprised how much fun these powerful fish are to catch. Any fish that tails in the shallows, puts up a great fight and will readily take a fly is a worthy opponent.

Sensational Shrimp

A good friend of mine, Captain Honson Lau, recently came up from Miami to target black drum in the northern stretches of the Indian River. He created a fly specifically for these fish and calls it the rattle shrimp. This black craft fur and deer hair concoction has a small glass rattle inserted in Mylar tubing that’s attached to the body of the fly. When we were testing this fly it proved to be deadly. Not only did we catch multiple black drum, but we also witnessed them aggressively hunting for the fly. With the internal rattle, every strip results in a subtle ticking sound that drives these fish bonkers.