Drumming Up Alabama Redfish (Black Drum, Too)
May 30, 2018
Sure, the state doesn't have the longest coastline, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great places to pursue Alabama redfish, black drum.
Alabama has 160 miles of direct beachfront, but add the lengthy shorelines of the coastal bays and estuaries and there are more than 600 miles of fishy habitat here according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, much of which hold both red and black drum.
The whole region is fed by the flow of multiple nutrient-laden rivers, and this grows enormous crops of menhaden, mullet, shrimp, crabs and other gamefish forage, resulting in a great fishery. A whole lot of this terrain is populated by red drum and black drum.
Both are members of what scientists call the Sciaenidae family, and like all members of that group, they can "drum," which they mostly do during spawning. Though they behave differently in some ways, they are fairly similar when it comes to the habitat they prefer. And, though some might disagree, they're both pretty much equal on the table in the smaller sizes.
Finding and Catching Red Drum
Red drum, known by most as redfish, are found mostly near beaches and passes in adult sizes — fish over 10 pounds are mature and usually prefer coastal waters, though the Alabama state record — 45 pounds, 9 ounces — was caught from an industrial canal well north in Mobile Bay in July of 2013. The adults tend to remain in schools off the beach or around oil and gas structures except roughly from August through October, when they move into the passes to spawn.
Smaller reds — including most of those in the legal slot of 16-26 inches — are more likely to show up around rip-rap shores, docks, oyster bars, marsh edges and bridge pilings. Like spotted sea trout, they tend to move inshore and up the bays in winter when water cools and rains are moderate, and back seaward in spring, summer and fall when water is warmer and rains are heaviest.
Redfish populations along the Gulf Coast took a nose-dive in the 1990s and early 2000s during the blackened redfish craze, which resulted in widespread commercial harvest of massive schools of fish, but all Gulf states, including Alabama, soon moved to shut that down. Commercial take was banned in federal waters in 2007, in large part as a result of outcry from recreational anglers and the Coastal Conservation Association. Reds have since restored themselves to abundance all over the area.
Biologists report that reds mature at three to five years, at lengths of 28 to 33 inches. They can live up to 60 years and reach weights of up to 94 pounds, 2 ounces, the current all-tackle record according to the IGFA.
Catch more fish
One area to find redfish is Dixey Bar, named after a shipwreck, a sandbar on the east side of the Mobile Bay ship channel extending off the tip of Fort Morgan peninsula. It's almost three miles long, with a depth that varies from 4 to 10 feet. On the west side of the bar is the Mobile Ship Channel, which is 30 to 40 feet deep. The abrupt depth change, as well as the strong tidal flows and lots of bait, make this bar gamefish junction, and there are bull redfish somewhere on the bar almost year around according to Capt. Bobby Abruscato.
He says just about anything thrown, when fish are feeding, gets bit — he advises large single-hook jigs and swimbaits so it's easier to release them. For some real excitement, a big topwater with the trebles replaced by single hooks can bring on spectacular strikes.
Red drum, aka redfish, will chase lures, while black drum typically eat crabs and other slower food sources.
When there's no obvious action on top, drifting the edge of the drop with a live croaker, pogie or finger mullet just off bottom on outgoing tide does the job — experts use a 5/0 extra-strong hook or larger, 2 to 4 ounces of lead and 20- to 30-pound-test line so that the battle does not last so long the fish can't survive after release. On calm weekend days there's likely to be a crowd — drift with the fleet, then motor back to the top of the bar and repeat.
Other good spots include the shell and sand bars just west of the Dauphin Island Bridge, particularly those with deeper cuts between them, Sand Key, which is about three miles south of the tip of Dauphin Island, and the south tip of Pelican Island, which juts out from the east end of Dauphin Island.
Up the bay, the man-made spoil island known as Galliard, east of the community of Theodore, is also good — deep ship channels run very close to the south and east side, and large rocks line the shore to prevent erosion. Fishing live shrimp or croakers close to the rocks under a popping cork draws the bite.
There are also a series of shell bars and finger channels just west of the Dauphin Island bridge that are noted for producing redfish ad spotted seatrout — fish this area with a shrimp under a popping cork, or a good imitation like the Egret Lures Vudu Shrimp or the 3-inch DOA Shrimp in natural tan/brown colors. The artificials are fished exactly like the real thing, simply drifting with the current, popping the cork occasionally, then reeling in to make another cast uptide.
Oil and gas rigs can attract schools of large reds at any time, and many in Mobile Bay have hard strata placed by the Alabama DCNR designed specifically to draw reds, black drum and sheepshead.
On the east side of Mobile Bay, the outlet from smaller Weeks Bay is 10 to 15 feet deep and narrow, and can be a good spot to connect with both keeper reds and larger bulls on strong outgoing tides, drifting with finger mullet just off bottom gets them.
Docks on Bayou St. John, which is the outfall from Perdido Bay on the Alabama/Florida border, can also be great spots to catch slot reds; casting jigs often works, but even better is drifting live shrimp under a cork beneath the docks on tide movements.
Overlooked Black Drum
Now black drum don't get much respect in Alabama: there's no bag or size limit and no closed season. The species has a lackluster reputation as a table fish because the large ones have coarse, chewy flesh and sometimes have worms in the meat of the tail sections — harmless to humans, but enough to put them off many dinner menus.
However, the juveniles are pretty much identical in table qualities to redfish of legal size. Black drum have vertical black stripes on their sides when they're young, which they lose as they reach about 5 pounds or so. The rule for anglers is to toss them back if they've lost their stripes, because they won't be prime table fare. The smaller fish, on the other hand, are just fine.
The Alabama state record for black drum is 61 pounds, the all-tackle record a remarkable 113.1, according to IGFA. Because they're rarely targeted — most are caught incidentally by redfish and sheepshead anglers — there are plenty of them.
A whole lot less is known about black drum angling tactics than redfish tactics because there are no big-money black drum tournaments to spur development of expertise. In fact, it's safe to say most black drum are caught by anglers fishing for other species, particularly sheepshead, which like most of the same sort of forage preferred by drum.
Drum fight much like reds when caught in deep water; there's no jumping and not many long runs, but they've got lots of muscle to slug it out.
In shallower water — they sometimes prowl back into creeks to feed on oysters — the larger ones do put on some impressive runs on occasion.
When it comes to tactics, the big difference is that black drum are less inclined to run down an artificial lure than redfish. They're more crab and shellfish eaters than predators, which causes them to pass on most lures, though a slowly-hopped soft plastic or a Berkley Gulp Crab can sometimes get them.
Black drum and hard bottom go together. Look for them where there's lots of oyster shell or broken rock, riprap or other structure. They sometimes ease up around shallow bars, and they tail just like redfish in these situations at times. A silent approach and a long, accurate cast with a shrimp imitation will sometimes catch these fish, and on occasion fish of 20 pounds are caught this way. Drum to about 4 pounds also feed on the flats in some areas — they make holes where they root up the bottom digging out food, and spotting a number of these holes is a sure sign that blacks are visiting that area.
From June to September, local anglers report there are lots of big black drum, over 30 inches long, around the Dauphin Island Bridge. Time to catch them is after sundown, and the best bait is half a blue crab fished on a 6/0 circle hook on bottom. An occasional big redfish may also come along and grab this bait. The fish caught this way are too big for the table, but they provide an interesting wrestling match.