In the late
90’s the secret of the Pamlico Sound Giant Red Drum was getting out. For decades surf fishermen have waited in
crashing waves and foul weather for the bite of a lifetime. They would wait sometimes for days and
especially at night for the bite of a trophy-sized fish that occasionally would
turn into an epic blitz of multiple hook ups.
A wave of rumors
swept across the sound to outer banks drum fishermen that a few fishermen were
reporting double digit releases of giant red drum in the protected waters of
the Pamlico Sound and Neuse River. These
rumors rolled through the fishing community, across the state and the country and
lights from the boats of drum fishermen began to dot the shoal around Swan
Island at dusk.
As this fishery
began to explode, some biologists expressed concerns over the increasing effort
on what could be an important spawning population. Until Anna’s research, Chapter 5, it had not
yet been documented that these fish were spawning in the Neuse River and
Our tagging study documented that at the very
least we were fishing on different schools of fish, schools were mixing and that these fish had a much larger range
than limited to Swan Island Shoal, where most of the drum fishing effort was
concentrated. However, our impacts on
the individuals that we were catching were unknown. Most anglers were still using j-hooks which
gut-hooked a large percentage of big drum.
What was the fate of those deep hooked fish?
study proved to be very difficult and we were limited in what we could learn
through the tags, so the focus of our study shifted to learning about mortality
rates, circle hooks and how to take better care of our state fish.
For the next
three years we had two holding pens established, one on the south side of the
river near South River and the other on the north side, near Lighthouse Shoal. In the afternoons we would watch the boats pass
us by and run the many miles to Swan Island.
Each pen had a permanent water
quality measuring device recording temperature, oxygen and ph. We had a mobile unit on our boat and would
record the data at every fishing location.
We also recorded the fight time, handling time-- the amount of time that
the fish was out of the water while we were measuring and tagging it and the
transport time to the in-water holding pen. Initially we would hold them for 3 days, but
all mortalities occurred within the first couple of hours, so that time was
eventually shortened to one day.
used j-hooks in this study so that we would have a sufficient number of
deep-hooked fish to observe. Regardless
of the fight time, including some fish that were caught on 4# and 6# test,
regardless of the time that these fish spent on the deck, waiting to be worked
up and put in a transport tank, regardless of the time it took to get them to
the pens, these fish proved to be extremely hearty.
The only thing that they cannot survive is a
j-hook through the heart or laceration of the liver, causing major internal hemorrhaging. In
three years, all the red drum that died except for one was deep-hooked. The one exception was a fish that I dropped
on the corner of the gunnel so hard that we made a note of it in the data. We were very careful with handling these
fish, not lifting them by the gills and carefully supporting them.
more surprising to biologists than to drum fishermen, giant red drum did not succumb to long fight times and
rough handling like other species. What
was shocking to all of us was the very high survival rates of deep-hooked fish,
at least over the short term. One drum
that was deep hooked and took to an aquaculture facility for longer observation
expelled a j-hook that it had injested…..probably just as they do blue crab
parts. If you are going to live to be 65
years or older and eat whole blue crabs for a living, you better figure out how
to get rid of a claw stuck in your craw.
showed that deep hooking rates, while using a 7-0 j-hook, a 2 foot leader and a
2 oz. sliding weight was 50%. There had
to be a better way and circle hooks were coming on the scene, but they were not
the answer. Same rig, 14/0 Mustad
circle hook, deep hooking was cut in half to around 24%, but this was still not
good enough. The best reduction in deep
hooking, only 11%, was with a 16/0 Mustad, the same hook that Bluefin tuna
fishermen were using. Then Owen Lupton
introduced me to his rig.
retiring, Owen Lupton taught a commercial fishing occupations class at Pamlico
County High School where he taught young kids the art of being a working
waterman. In addition to how to make
crab pots and hang nets, he also taught ethics and tested new techniques to
reduce bycatch. The school even had a
shrimp boat that the kids would work on through the summer, raising money for
the class. It was from this shrimp boat
on a July day in 1976 that Owen and a student
of his named Rick Caton caught the first tarpon landed on rod and reel in the
gave me a handful of his rigs, using a circle hook almost exactly the same size
as the 14/0 Mustad that we had tested, a
3 oz weight that was crimped in place so that the leader was only a few inches
long, I nearly dismissed it. He insisted that I try it. Because we already had good data on a similarly
sized circle hook, I copied Owen’s rig, making it up with the circle hook that
we were already testing. I was
amazed at the results. Effectiveness did not seem to be hampered, but
after several hundred giant red drum releases, only about 4% of them were deep
In our study,
of the deep hooked red drum, nearly 12% of them died. If 50% of the drum being caught on j-hooks are
deep hooked, then the overall mortality is about 6%. That is unacceptable for a fish that lives
so long and is so important to the future of this fishery. With Owen’s rig, IF the mortality rate is
the same as the j-hook, but we are only deep-hooking 4% of the drum, then we
can get overall mortality rate to less than 1%.......hence the current regulations
of mandatory use of short leader rigs while fishing with bait at night, which
is when most drum fishing occurs.
A short word
on drum tournaments and the corking craze:
there is a mortality rate associated with fishing for giant red drum, the more
you catch, the more you kill. People less
experienced at fishing for them and handling them will kill more fish. Encouraging people to catch as many as they can……especially
for a prize…….is encouraging people to kill as many big red drum as they
can. Fishing for these fish should not
be a competition. Just ask some of
those old timer surf fishermen standing
in the waves about the hopes of just getting that one bite and appreciate every
bite that you get, not just the next one.
the popping cork craze….... Over the past three mornings I have opened up what
I have been referring to as Pandora’s Box……and I’ve liked it a lot. I’ll have to get the key from Gary and have
a couple of drinks of Polish vodka before writing that post, if he doesn’t
write it himself. Although many locals
have occasionally caught a big drum on poppers and popping corks, no one has
pursued how effective it can be under the right conditions. I’ve got to give it to Gary, he started a
wave that is going to transform this fishery.
Myself and a
lot of other drum fishermen have been shaking our head about what was staring
us in the face and we are nursing our bruised egos from not having come up with
I have heard
criticism that some anglers are using tackle that is “too light”. Although I recommend using tackle heavy
enough to wear the fish down, at least in the 20# class, based on my
observations, it’s better for an angler
to take a little longer landing one fish than a boat load of people trying to
catch as many as they can on heavy tackle.
Even using tackle too heavy and clamping down on the drag can be more
harmful to a drum with a hook in his gut, ripping and tearing internal organs.
was a long one. Next Rants may be by