South Jersey Fishing: Time to Bang Some Drums
Some drum, as in black drum, beating has been going on in sections of Great Bay for the past couple of weeks, and for sure it’s great to see this annual mid-April through mid-May run get rolling.
These Great Bay fish have been in the 20-50 pound range, and it seems every year there are a few over 60 pounds dragged up on the sedge banks. The top producing areas are Graveling Point, Ohio Drive, and Iowa Court, all accessed via Radio Road on Osbourne Island at the lower end of Mystic Island.
Still, it’s Delaware Bay that is the major playing field for this in close “big game” fish, also known as boomers, and reports have been filtering in that they are beginning to be caught with some regularity that is sure to increase as May progresses. The bite is occurring on the New Jersey side of the bay, and hopefully, as during the past two May-to-late June “seasons,” the action will continue, negating the need to travel to the popular Slaughter Beach on the Delaware (where a non-resident saltwater fishing license is required) side of the expanse.
When they are on the move, you can hear the air bladder-fueled “booming” and feel it through the deck as the drum pass underneath.
Popular spots include, among others, the Pin Top, Tussy’s Slough, and the Punk Grounds, but these broad-tailed, thick-shouldered springtime migrants are where you find them. Oftentimes we’ve been anchored well within sight of land and caught drum on flats as shallow as six feet bordering channel edges.
Big fish, big fun. From “puppies (15-35 pounds) to the adults weighing in excess of 70-80-plus pounds (the current Garden State record is 109-pounds caught in 2008), the black drum our powerful and deliberate in their pull and will keep the hooker occupied for a while, especially when the tide is ripping.
Reasonably stout tackle, be it spinning or conventional, braided lines at 50-65 lb. test, and 60-lb. fluorocarbon leader are advised, with an 8/0 or 9/0 offset circle hook the metal of choice.
The end game involves either a big net that can handle puppy-sized fish or, far better, a gaff. It’s going to be an in-the-mouth-and-lift grab, as the near-impenetrable scales will invariably cause a bounce back if attempting a body shot. No kidding. Medieval knights could have put these silver dollar-sized scales to good use.
The top bait is fresh (not salted) surf clam, but when these are at an extreme premium as they always seem to be this time of year, opt for white legger or blueclaw crabs, broken in half and hooked through the rear swimmer. These baits have been successful offerings when the clams were not available, and plenty of drum will continue being caught on them.
The species’ mollusk and crustacean diet (primarily clams, oysters and crabs) results in meat that is firm and steak-like without a hint of a fishy taste. Be sure to remove any dark flesh. We liken it to a veal porterhouse. It lends itself well to frying in nugget form, baking (drum parm is a family fave), and grilling. If the drum is big enough, keep the rib racks. The meat in between the thick bones is luscious, and we baste with either a BB-Q sauce or a melted butter/lemon juice/minced garlic mix. We prefer grilling these but have also enjoyed them oven-baked.
Oh, the worms. You’ll sometimes hear about black drum meat being full of worms. Since fishing for, catching and eating black drum starting in the early Nineties, I’ve seen less than a dozen cases where the drum had worms, and these were all in the narrow section just before the tail, and not a lot of them either, maybe a half dozen or so. No biggie. Either pick them out or discard that section of meat.
These fish are to be skinned, as the aforementioned armor-like scales will quickly dull even the sharpest fillet blade. Because of its physical structure, the yield of meat will be less than expected, but after working on a 50-plus pound drum, rest assured there will be enough sweet meat for several meals at least.
No boat? Want to get into playing the Delaware Bay drums? There are any number of ace captains in Cape May, several at Utsch’s Marina, that will put you on these bruisers big time. And no, there isn’t the need, unless you want to, pursue them at night. The majority of trips start before mid-afternoon, with the boat back in the slip and the skinning underway before the street lights come on.
Captain Steve Bent, owner of Free Spirit Sportfishing charter service based in Utsch’s Marina and a 30-plus year Delaware Bay black drum veteran, talks all about it on Saturday (5/7) morning’s Rack & Fin Radio, 7-8 am.