drum with transmitters, then using a grid system to relocate them was proving
to be much more difficult than we suspected.
If we were going to learn anything about these fish, we needed to
concentrate our effort into following individuals and monitoring their
behavior. Hopefully we would run into
some of the other several dozen fish that we had tagged with transmitters,
learning where they were congregating and hopefully where they were
spawning. In 1999 very little was known
about big red drum, including where they were spawning and if that was even
occurring in the Neuse River. If so,
this would be one of the few red drum populations that was documented as
spawning somewhere other than the open ocean.
track individuals, we recruited another boat.
The plan now was to tag a fish and follow that fish for 24 hours/day for 3 days. We would use two boats with 12 hour shifts on
each boat. We would start that
afternoon, this time fishing in the center of our grid, off Turnigan Bay, hopefully
tagging a fish, following it through the night and having our relief boat pick
up the trail the next morning.
that we tagged off Turnigan Bay that night was a special fish. We got it in the boat, measured it’s girth,
standard, fork and total lengths and we tagged the fish, but the transmitter
wasn’t working. It took a few minutes
to get another tag prepared and I was dumping buckets of water on the fish to
keep it from drying out. With the fish
now ready to go, bleeding from 3 tags, the tag from the failed transmitter
which was now removed, a regular NCDMF tag and the tag with the new transmitter. This big drum was very weak when we released
it after being in the boat for many, many long minutes. I spent some time reviving it and he slowly swam
off. We slowly followed the fish into
the night, the fish traveled a couple of miles then stopped. Was it dead?
We got close
to the fish and quietly anchored the boat.
Every few minutes we would put the hydrophone in the water and listen to
the strong signal of the “beep”. It wasn’t moving. Several hours later, just as the sky was
lightening to the eastward, we put the hydrophone in the water and the “beep”
was much fainter, this fish was not dead, but on the move and so were we if we
were going to keep up with it.
was not only moving, but also moving really, really fast along the deep edge of
the shoal. As the sky was lightened,
birds started to pick, slicks started to pop up and we would actually see a
drum occasionally bust the surface. Our
tagged fish appeared to be in a school.
The biologist using the hydrophone pointed in the direction that the
beep was coming from and a couple hundred yards away, exactly where he was
pointing, a big drum came to the surface and crashed a crab. The drum that we were worried about
surviving 10 hours earlier was now actively feeding and apparently rejoined a
school. This was fantastic news.
years, we tagged several dozen drum with transmitters and followed them for
countless hours, dodging daily thunderstorms and weathering nor’easters on the
water, through scorching days and dark, rough nights. This is some of what we learned.
We NEVER found the same fish in the same
place on two days in a row!
worry about it if someone is “in your spot”, just get in the similar depth of
water and keep your distance, you’ll get ‘em.
It may be a
good spot and drum may pass through there every day, but it may not be the same
Most of the drum that we tagged traveled the
8-14 foot drop off, that’s always a good bet, but if they weren’t there, they
would often be running the shoreline.
repeatedly observed schools and individuals of red drum, just “laying up” in an
area for hours. Perhaps they were
sleeping, perhaps they were slowly following schools of menhaden, eating the
scraps from feeding bluefish, but these fish were not working hard and not
moving much at all. This behavior was
seen most often in the middle of the day and late at night/early in the
of catching drum exhibiting this behavior have recently been unlocked. Although Capt. Gary Dubiel and I are often
like oil and water, I have to give him the credit he is due for pioneering the
popping cork craze.
and tagged together would later be found apart, perhaps with other drum that we
had tagged. Days later the two fish would
be back together in the same school again.
There seemed to be a lot of mixing of schools and these schools were
covering a large area, alleviating worries that drum fishermen were
concentrating their effort on one small spawning population.
were concerns about these recreational fishermen, most of them fishing at night
and most of them using j-hooks and deep-hooking huge numbers of big drum. What was the mortality rate of these deep
hooked fish? Some suspected that
mortality of deep hooked drum would be
near 100%. If this were true, then
recreational fishermen could due irreparable damage on the spawning population.
of the actual mortality rate, there has to be a way of reducing deep hooking
which cannot be good for those fish. The focus of our study changed from
identifying drum movement and preferred habitat to documenting mortality rates of
deep hooked fish and how to reduce deep hooking.
We began to explore
with circle hooks and tag some deep-hooked fish with our transmitters. Instead of retrieving our transmitters off
of bloated, floating dead drum, the deep-hooked fish that we tagged seemed to have
done reasonably well, surviving the deep hooking experience. With only a few deep hooked fish with
transmitters and our season coming to an end, plans were already in the works
to focus on the impacts of hook and line fishing. I’ll sum up our findings of the next three
years of research in the next rant.