Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Rant: Chapter 2

It is the summer of 1999 and I had 5 years of guiding for giant red drum under my belt.  Back then, the majority of drum fishing was occurring on Swan Island Shoal and there were very, very few people fishing for them.  On a Friday night in August/September, there may be a couple boats fishing, but back then, we pretty much had the river to ourselves…..however the secret was getting out.

Because there were not many boats, I could fish the same place day after day without “getting caught” by other fishermen who would “steal” the spot and be waiting for me when I got there the next day.   I had a spot near Swan Island Shoal that we call “The Saddle”.   I was fishing exactly the same place every day and the drum would arrive at the same time every day.    I assumed that this was the same school of fish…….a lot of drum fishermen today assume the same thing, but those of you reading The Rant are going to learn differently. 

Our plan for the day was to tag a drum with a radio transmitter,  then use our grid system to locate the fish on subsequent days with our hydrophone, hopefully determining where he was spending his time.   With a few dozen tagged fish out there, we could hopefully determine the habitats they preferred and hopefully where they were spawning.

We’re sitting on the spot and right on time the drum showed up, we caught a fish, tagged it with the transmitter and sent him on his way.   The next day we spent several hours searching our grid for the fish that we tagged the day before but all was quiet.   We could not find our fish anywhere in the area.

That afternoon, we were sitting in the same spot as the day before, this time listening with the hydrophone and fishing.   Surely the fish that we caught the day before would arrive in our chum slick, but all was quiet on the hydrophone, no “beeps”.  Nonetheless, a school of  drum arrived right on time and we got our bite and tagged another fish.

With two fish swimming around emitting “pings”, surely we would find at least one of them the next day before setting up and fishing again.   We searched and searched and searched for miles within several miles of the tagging location, we heard nothing.   This is proving to be much more difficult than we suspected.  Maybe our tags are malfunctioning and not transmitting?  Maybe the fish are dying and drifting off?    We catch fish in the same place every day for weeks, certainly this is the same school of fish?   

On this third day, we were optimistic that we would hear one of the two previously tagged fish arrive in our chum slick.  After 6 hours of searching and finding nothing we set up to fish in the same place, same time, no “beeps”, but the drum were there and we got a bite and tagged a third fish. 

This time our curiosity got the best of us.  After tagging the fish, we followed it, trying not to get too close and “push” the fish with the outboard, but we wanted to get an idea of how much it was moving, what we learned changed the way we thought about drum behavior.    This drum went on the move, sometimes more than 4 or 5 miles/hour.   Turns out this is typical behavior.  When they are “on the feed”, a school of drum is moving fast, eating everything that they come across.    The point is, if you are anchored up on a shoal, the school of fish  that you are catching  now may be caught by other fishermen, 5 miles away, within the same hour.

There is absolutely no reason to cut someone off when you are approaching your favorite spot on a shoal, because the drum have no favorite spots.   The drum you caught in that spot the day before may not even be in the area.   If someone is where you want to fish, there is no reason to crowd them!!!!   Just get on the same shoal, in the same depth and the same fish are eventually going to come your way.   Also, why would you want to share fish?   Spread out, be adventurous and get by yourself a mile or two away and you’ll be catching the same fish.  

On the fourth day,  with 3 “beeping” fish out there, we expanded our search area, now covering both sides of the river, and the center of the river from Oriental to the Neuse River entrance marker.   We spent 10 hours looking for our fish and we never found them……that day.    We again needed to change our strategy because these fish were moving more than we ever suspected and if we were going to learn anything about them, we needed to spend more time with them…..but we had to find them first.  More on this in the next chapter of the rant which I have already begun.

In short, over 2 years of tagging the drum with transmitters, we never found the same fish in the same place on subsequent days.   We would tag two fish together and later find them miles apart but with other drum that we had tagged at different times.   Several days or weeks later, we may find those two fish back together.   It appeared to be a lot of mixing of individuals and more movement, up the river and down the river than we ever suspected.   I believe that we often temporarily lost track of fish because they moved outside our search area which was pretty much all of the lower Neuse.

This was actually good news.  If all the fishing effort is concentrated on Swan Island Shoal, at least those fishermen aren’t hammering the same fish day after day.   But the secret was now out and the fishery was beginning to explode.   More and more boats were fishing and at the time, almost all of them were using j-hooks, letting the drum run before setting the hook which was already deep inside their stomach.   Conversation on this is coming together in a future chapter. 

 I’m just getting started, hope you will pass along to your friends and especially those clueless acquaintances who just don’t get it and think that they are spot fishing behind Shackelford or crappie fishing in Lake Jordan.