Anything Fly Fishing

Big, Ugly Fish

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They lack the sublime beauty of a brook trout, the delicacy of a grayling. They lack the speed of a bonefish, the jumping ability of a tarpon. What they do have is the low gear of a John Deere tractor, and often, the size to put it to good use.

There’s a special moment when you’re standing in the water up to your hips (in waders, of course) and a gray tail the size of a whisk broom comes up within casting range. You drop the fly as close as you can, then barely move it. If the bite comes, you’ll know, believe me. Remember to strip strike.

The late Joe Mulson and I were out one day when he hooked a monster specimen. It took him all the way to the reel arbor. I was waiting for something to pop, but the line simply went slack. Joe reeled it all in. On the point of the hook was a tiny piece of flesh- the hook had simply pulled out.

We’re talking about black drum, Pogonias cromis- the biggest tailing fish to which you will ever cast a fly.

We’re talking about black drum, Pogonias cromis.

Black drum range all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, most prevalent between the Delaware Bay and Florida coasts, and along the Louisiana and Texas coasts. I’ve caught them on flies in Florida and Louisiana. Black drum are bottom feeders, with adults eating mostly mollusks and crabs. Fly fishers need to search for them in shallow water, and need a fly that sinks fast. Where I usually fish them, in the Indian River Lagoon, you’re most likely to find them on shallow flats during the winter months (thus the waders). When they dig mollusks and crabs out of the bottom sediments, up come the tails.

The drum have chin barbels that they use to find food. My observation is that some days they use the barbels when feeding, to the exclusion of vision. They’re tailing all over the place, you’re making good casts, and you can’t get a bite. It’s frustrating. Other days they feed by sight, like most of the fish fly fishers target, and getting bites isn’t a problem.

Black drum have chin barbels that they use to find food.

While I’ve caught them with numerous different fly patterns, my three favorites, in no particular order, are a black over forest green Clouser Minnow, a black bunny leech, and a wool crab, all weighted with lead eyes, all tied with weed guards on a #2 Mustad 3407 hook (or equivalent). I tie the fly to a 15-pound fluorocarbon tippet (heavier around oysters), using a loop knot. And yes, they will bite when not tailing, if you can see them in the water and make a good cast.

Fight these fish hard!

I once had a rod I did not like, a nine-foot, seven-weight Rocky Mountain rod made by Orvis. I hooked a brute one afternoon, then thought, “I wonder how much this rod can take?” I locked up the reel with my hand. The fish pulled harder and harder, putting more and more pressure on the stick. Too late, I realized that if the rod blew up, I’d likely get a face full of graphite splinters. I let go of the reel.

Should you, gentle reader, ever be so foolish as to try this stunt, let me assure you that you cannot get your fingers away from the reel fast enough to avoid being struck several times by the spinning reel handle, with enough force to cause both bruises and freely flowing blood. In spite of my injuries (certainly not life threatening), I did land the fish. But I never tried that experiment again.

My friend Ricky, the handsome fellow in most of the photos, loves the black bunny leech for these fish. In these photos you can see the ideal water depth, where seeing the fish and presenting a fly is possible. Too shallow, no fish. Too deep, you can’t see them. Knee- to hip-deep, perfect.

The black-and-white photo was taken on a cold winter day. John Thompson and I were fishing along the shoreline, looking for redfish. I kept see what looked like fish, far enough away from us that I told myself, “John. You can’t see fish from that distance.” I kept seeing it though, so we went out there. There were dozens of big drum there. We got a half-dozen between us.

Some days (rarely) you can see the fish from a ridiculous distance.

Rarely, you can hear the fish drumming before you see them, a booming, low-frequency sound that will come through the hull of your boat. Once you hear it, you’ll never mistake it for anything else. I suspect it’s meant to be the drum’s version of a love song, but to me, it’s a “Here we are!” It’s a great thing to hear.

If you’re fortunate enough to stick one, do not make the mistake Joe Mulson did. If you let it, the fish will just swim. Make it fight hard for every inch of line. To use a line from Billy Pate’s Flyfishing for Tarpon video, “You have to want the fish more than it wants to get away, and the fish thinks it’s going to die.” I try to never let them get into my backing, and generally I’m using a six- or seven-weight rod.

I hooked a big one from my kayak one time. It just towed me out to deep water. I got it to the boat, but it was easily 50 pounds, too big for me to pull it in. I tried everything I could think of to get back to shallower water, where I could get a photo, but nothing worked.

In the meantime, the fish was resting. When it recovered sufficiently, it decided to swim away. Holding the leader in my hand, I said no. The fish, not to be denied, just straightened out the hook. No photo.

Black drum aren’t glamorous. But they are a load of fun!

Black drum aren’t flashy, and are certainly not glamorous. For a lot of fly casters though, catching a 30- or 40-pound fish on a fly would be a lifetime dream realized. And often, there are big red drum in the same areas where the black drum are. I find black drum very entertaining, and I say to you, “Try it- you’ll like it!”

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