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April 17, 2012

Virginia Pups and Bulls

Virginia grows some of the world's largest red drum

Inside every puppy drum is the heart of a bull redfish. From the jarring strike and freight-train run to the blazing charge of the bulldog endgame, red drum, no matter their size, are tough customers.

At the northern end of the fish’s range, Virginia grows some of the world’s largest red drum, with bulls that can measure over 50 inches and weigh more than 50 pounds. Even better, the state’s puppy drum population is stretched out along 3,000 miles of tidal coastline.

Walk the Dogs
Juvenile red drum, called puppies, like to live in shallow water close to shore. Finding little reds is simple; look any place that current intersects structure. Oyster bars, sandbars, sloughs, marsh points, channel edges 1 and even dock pilings and bridge supports can hold puppy drum. Little reds are found along the bayside and oceanside creeks and marshes of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across Chesapeake Bay on the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck, and all the way down the Bay’s south shore to Hampton Roads and Lynnhaven River. Little reds can even be found in the ocean-side surf from Cape Henry to Sandbridge.

To pull feisty reds out of structure, use tough tackle and plenty of drag. A medium-light-action spinning rod and matching reel spooled with 10-pound-test braided line will subdue redfish up to 30 inches. Attach a 12-inch leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon to the end of the braided line with a slim beauty knot, then pick a lure to match the structure that will be targeted.

Like their larger brethren, little reds are aggressive and insatiable. They’ll eat everything from jigs to topwater poppers. To fish deep structure like pilings or rocks 2, choose a 38- to 1-ounce jig and a 4- to 7-inch soft-plastic tail. This lure is effective both when it’s cast and retrieved and when it’s jigged vertically. Reds often pick it up on the drop, so be sure to pause between bounces. This technique is deadly when fishing the deeper channels in Rudee and Lynnhaven inlets and along the rocks and pilings of Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

Puppy drum also hunt in shallow water over grass banks, oyster beds and mud flats 3. These bottoms are typical of Lynnhaven River, the creeks along the Eastern Shore, and the rivers and marshes around Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula. The same jig and soft-plastic will work here, but switch to a small gold spoon or a spinnerbait and jig, which can be retrieved faster, and you’ll cover more ground. Rigged weedless, these lures will skip over oyster shells and weave through the grass.

Puppy drum will also jump on topwater lures and destroy walk-the-dog-style plugs, especially at dawn or dusk. They’ll even hit topwater lures at night, especially in water too shallow for jigs or spoons.

While little reds can be caught year-round, the hottest season is fall, when the next generation heads out of Chesapeake Bay. For the first three or four years, puppy drum stay close to their shallow-water nursery. But when they hit 30 inches, they head for the coast. During the migration, it seems like reds can be caught on almost any piece of structure in less than five feet of water. If a spot looks like it should hold drum, it probably does.

Bull Fights
In Virginia backwaters, bull reds are the showstoppers. To qualify as a bull, a red drum has to exceed 40 inches.

Each spring, herds of giant red drum return to the inlets and beaches of the Eastern Shore. When the water temperature tempts 60 degrees, look for reds in Fisherman’s Island Inlet, Wachapreague Inlet, Ship Shoal and New Inlet.

The primary method for snaring one of these monsters is soaking bait and waiting for a bite. Get the bait into the wash from shallow water and breaking waves. Start with a 7- or 8-foot heavy-duty casting rod (surf-anglers will want a 12-footer) matched to a high-speed reel. The business end should consist of a fish-finder rig modified to maximize aerodynamics and increase casting distance. Snell an 8/0 circle hook to an 18- to 24-inch piece of 80-pound-test mono. Slide a 150-pound-test snap swivel on this leader, and attach a 150-pound-test barrel swivel to the free end. Tie the barrel swivel to the shock leader, and clip a 4- to 8-ounce pyramid sinker to the snap swivel.

Red drum will eat a variety of baits. A small piece of cut menhaden or half a peeler crab are favorites. If stingrays or dogfish become a nuisance, switch to a whole blue crab.