Vet Craft Sport Fishing 

Big Bad Black Booming Drum
by Captain Harvey Yenkinson

There are few places on the east coast of the United States that one can fish in water less then 10 feet deep and catch a fish that may top 100 pounds. Luckily for southern New Jersey and Delaware anglers, this is an adventure that unfolds every spring in the Delaware Bay. Armadas of boats seek these big behemoths as they enter the bay to feed and spawn every April and May.


Eating Machines


Drum are consumers of a large amount of forage on a daily basis. The oystermen of old hated the drum because they ravaged the oyster beds that provided them with a living. Drum are capable of eating one oyster for every pound of their body weight, on a daily basis. Massive schools of drum, sometimes numbering in the thousands, would wipe out an entire bed in several days time.


The key to hooking these fish lies in the knowledge of how they feed. Drum take a large bivalve (clam, oyster, mussel) into the back of their throats and crush the creature with their powerful pharyngeal teeth. Once crushed the drum blows shell fragments out its gills and spits out large portions of shell out of its mouth. By this method the drum doesn’t load its stomach up with too much undigestible shell material. The drum then sucks the meat off the shell fragments with its thickened lips.


Another feeding method of the drum is to scour the bottom, feeding in algae beds. Here they forage like cows consuming algae as they go. While not really vegetarians, the drum are really after all the crabs, snails, coral, copepods, razor clams, mussels and small fish that inhabit the algae beds.


The stomach contents of drum signal what areas they have chosen to forage. Anglers fishing the sloughs and flats for drum often catch drum loaded with mussel shell fragments. Mussels are the predominant bivalve in the Delaware Bay. Clam beds and seeded oyster beds do exist but are smaller in number.


Anglers fishing the edges of lumps, with their rocky and shale bottoms, catch drum whose stomachs are filled with algae from foraging in those areas. So called “drum noodles” are the depressions created in the bay floor from the foraging activities of this fish. Algae beds particularly predominate on the north side of the lumps as the nutrients from farm run off nourish the beds on outgoing tides.


In both scenarios, drum use their barbell and pore laden lower jaws to locate food items. This small eyed fish feeds both day and night due to this complex sensory network. Scent is the keenest sense in these fish and serves them well in finding forage.


Clams for the Behemoths


While drum consume a variety of food items, almost all drum seekers fish with fresh surf clams. And fresh is the key word due to the importance of scent in the world of drum fish. When clams are harvested from the ocean, they start dying immediately. Bait shops keep them refrigerated and they must be used within a few days or they develop an unappealing odor, refused by all drum.


Anglers do best when they can get the clams coming off the trucks being delivered to the bait shops. Rancid clams should be removed so as not to contaminate the remainder of the good clams. Clams in good shape have closed shells or their shells close when you touch the meat in between. Fresh clam is yellow in color unlike the whiter color of older clams. The clams smell “clammy” and not rancid. Anglers typically take a bushel of clams to fish for a trip. Some anglers take two bags, one to crush and use as chum and the second as bait.


How to Fish for the Big Ones


The typical tackle is conventional gear with 30 pound test line. Terminal tackle consists of a fishfinder rig with a 3 to 4 foot 50-80 pound leader. Lighter tackle can be used when fishing neap tides. When fishing spring tides, though, heavier tackle is required to fight these wide bodied fish that will use the current to their advantage during fishing battles.


Chumming is best employed by crushing some clams and tossing them around the boat during the slacker tides. As scent is so important to draw the fish to your baits, chum should be dispensed throughout the day. As these fish are pretty much only bottom feeders, the scent trail should be dispersed from the bay floor. This is most commonly done by crushing two clams together and throwing the broken one over. Chummed clams should be tossed up current so they end up resting where your baits are deployed.


Hooking these fish is the big challenge. Drum are very adept at sucking the clam off the hook, just like they suck clam meat off a crushed shell. Rods left in rod holders usually miss the bite unless they are rigged with self setting circle hooks. More commonly anglers fish with 8/0 or9/0 octopus hooks and hold the rod in their hands waiting for that telltale tug. The hook must be set before the hook is “disengorged” like a shell fragment.


Baits need to be kept as still as possible on the bottom. Drum are not used to moving baits. Setting the rods down in the boat reduces the constant tug from a rocking boat. Also pinch weights can be added to the leader to keep the baits still. Ample weight should be on the fishfinder to hold the baits still as well. Also, baits fished further from the boat will suffer less movement then rods fished straight up and down.



The Best Time to Fish for Them


Day vs Night:    A majority of anglers fish for drum during the afternoon hours into the first couple hours of darkness. This trend started from anglers fishing for these fish after work. These fish feed equally as well at night as they do during the day. Most anglers still persist fishing in the darkness. It is during the dark hours that the males can be heard making the booming sound that gives them their scientific name Pogonis chromis which means bearded grunters. The nighttime booming sound of the drum is unlike any other oceanic sound an angler is likely to hear.



Tidal cycle:    Many anglers swear too that the best bite is around the full and new moons. There is validity to this claim as the drum migrate in and school up for spawning purposes during this period of the tide cycle. The spring tides around the end of May and beginning of June always produce the biggest of these fish. Spawning occurs during these full and new moon cycles although the fish temporarily stop feeding when spawning. These fish spawn several times while in the bay. The good news is that when the hour or so long spawning ritual is finished, the fish go right back on the feed.


Boating the Boomers


These mammoth fish have very tough scales. Many of the big fish are caught and released to breed again, being capable of reproducing for more then 30 years. When desired, these fish can be brought on board with large nets or as is more commonly done, gaffed in the mouth. While capable of making strong pulsing runs when hooked, they tend to be docile and lay on their sides once brought boatside.