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.
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.
The best strategy is to anchor the boat in a deep slough that runs alongside a shallow shoal. Cast baits to cover the water from deep to shallow. Continually monitor the conditions. Changing tides and sea states can quickly put a boat and crew in peril.
As spring turns to summer, the fish move to deeper water at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Anglers fishing Inner Middle Ground, Nautilus, Nine Foot and Latimer shoals at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay will run into trophy fish by anchoring along sloughs or the edge of a drop. Tidal currents in these areas can be powerful; often the best bite is around the tide change. At the mouth of the Bay and along the Virginia Beach oceanfront, lucky crews will encounter huge schools of reds swimming just under the surface or rooting around the shallows.
Bull reds will fight over a swimbait, bucktail, spoon or popper. Even when reds get 10 times bigger than their juvenile siblings, in every puppy drum, there is always some bull red, and in every bull, there’s still a little puppy.
What: Chasing bull reds and puppy drum around Virginia’s marshes, beaches and shoals.
When: Year-round, especially spring and fall.
Where: Virginia coast, Chesapeake Bay.
Who: You’ll catch drum afoot and afloat in deep and shallow water. These local captains can help you get started right.
Capt. Hunter Tucker
Capt. Ben Shepherd
Capt. Blake Hayden
Since this is mostly a release fishery, do the drum a favor by using heavy enough tackle. Reels should be able to produce steady drag and hold a couple of hundred yards of line. Rods must be stout enough to control a fish before it can get into trouble. To handle the pressure, use braided line and a generous mono leader.
Rods: For bulls, 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rods for casting artificials, 7-foot medium-heavy conventionals for soaking bait. For pups, 7-foot medium-light spinning rods.
Reels: For bulls, 20-series star-drag conventional reels for bait, 5000-series spinning reels for casting lures. For pups, 2500-series spinners.
Lines: For bulls, 50-pound braid. For pups, 10-pound braid.
Rigs: An 8/0 circle hook, 80-pound leader, 150-pound snap and barrel swivels, a 4- to 8-ounce pyramid sinker.
Lures: 3- to 6-inch swim shad, spoons and topwaters.
Redfish pros list favorite red-drum lures.
Cory Routh; ruthlessfishing.com. Pups: Gold Redfish spinnerbait and 3-inch pumpkinseed or chartreuse paddle-tail. Bulls: 5-inch paddle-tail in natural color and 1-ounce jig head.
Chad Hoover; www.kayakbassfishing.com. Pups: Rapala X-Rap SubWalk. Bulls: Rapala X-Rap Walk or Yo-Zuri Hydro Popper.
Capt. Blake Hayden; www.righttidecharters.com. Pups: 4-inch Bomber Saltwater Grade Mud Minnow on 14- to 1-ounce jig head. Bulls: 6-inch Berkley PowerBait swim shad.
Capt. Ed Lawrence; www.speckulatercharters.com. Pups: Popping cork with 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Shrimp in Molting or D.O.A. 408 Red/Gold Glitter paddle-tail on 14-ounce jig head. Without the cork, 4-inch D.O.A. 414 Silver Rush (known locally as Black Death) jerkbait on 14-ounce jig head.
Kevin Whitley**; www.kayakkevin.com. Pups: 12-ounce jig and Berkley Gulp! Pogy. Bulls: 5-inch Berkley Gulp! Ripple Mullet, or 2-ounce jig head or bucktail and 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Swimming Mullet.