Fresh catch: Black drum
Drum up some exciting flavor with this in-season fish
Story by Bailey Gilliam
The black drum is a member of the croaker family and therefore related to the Atlantic croaker, red drum and spotted seatrout. But this fish is the easy-going middle child that begs for attention. Unlike spotted seatrout, which spawns only in the bays, and red drum, which spawns only in the gulf, black drum will spawn in either the bays, the gulf or in the connecting passes, making it a more straightforward catch. These unusual fish can produce croaking or drumming sounds with their air bladders, hence the name “drum.” Some anglers can sometimes hear sounds from schools of black drum passing near their boats. The chance of hearing this fish could be enough to get anyone out on a boat. But tasting this fish would be well worth the effort of the catch.
–They are also known as Texas Drum, Sea Drum, Saltwater Drum, Gray Drum, Drumfish, Striped Drum and Tambor.
–Free spawning (random release of eggs) occurs mostly in February, March and April, with some later spawning occurring in June and July. Larval drum are found in the surf and along bay shorelines in March and April, and by early summer one-half to one-inch juveniles are common in shallow, muddy creeks, sloughs and boat basins.
–Small fish under a pound in weight are sometimes called “butterfly drum,” while those of larger size, 30 pounds and more, are called “bull drum,” although the large specimens can be either male or female.
–Black drum can live for over 60 years.
–Young drums feed on maritime worms, small shrimp, crabs and small fish. Larger drum eat small crabs, worms, algae, small fish and mollusks.* Females have between two and 12 eggs per spawning season. The eggs are fertilized internally, and after a gestation period of 18 to 24 months, female dogfish bear live young (an average of six pups).
Black drum aren’t actually black, contrary to the name. They are silvery gray to dark gray in color, and the young have vertical bars that disappear with age. They are deep-bodied and carry large, comb-like body scales. Black drum are typically around 14 inches in length and weigh a wee 2 pounds.
To aid in feasting, black drum have barbels, or whiskers, to find food by feel and smell. They often dig or root out buried mollusks and worms while feeding in a head-down position. This process is called “tailing” and creates small craters, or “noodles.” The black drum has no canine teeth like the spotted sea trout but has highly developed pharyngeal teeth (in the pharynx or throat), which are used for crushing mollusks and crabs before swallowing. It has a unique feeding habit that consists of opening its mouth wide and then sucking up prey before closing its teeth to capture it. It sounds a bit scary, but at least it doesn’t have those creepy canine teeth like its cousin, the spotted sea trout.
Where to find them
Black drum are found along the Atlantic Coast from New York, south through the Gulf states to Mexico over sandy and soft live bottoms in salt and brackish water, such as estuaries, coastal rivers, shallow coastal bays and along beaches. Spatial distribution is closely tied to natural and artificial hard structures, including reefs, rock piles, jetties, docks, pier pilings and bridges.
How to catch them
Don’t count on using artificial bait when going for black drum, since most feeding is done by feel and smell. Cut fish, squid and shrimp are the most popular bait choices. Since feeding is done on the bottom, the basic technique is simple: put a baited hook on the bottom, and wait for the drum to swallow it.
The state record is an 89-pound black drum caught by W. P. Buquet of Port Royal. Buquet caught the fish in 1978 while fishing in Port Royal Sound. This record fish was caught before the current size limits were implemented. In South Carolina you can only keep five black drum per day, and they must be between 14 and 27 inches in total length.
Like most fish, black drum is high in protein and low in fat content while providing an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for cardiovascular health and brain function. This type of fish also contains more vitamin A than other fish and is rich in magnesium, which aids calcium absorption and helps to prevent osteoporosis, muscle cramping and spasms. The black drum also offers potassium, vitamins B12 and D, selenium, phosphorus, niacin (B-complex), riboflavin and thiamine.
Black drum are excellent table fare, as they have a moderate flavor, are not oily and can be prepared in various ways. There are regulations in South Carolina regarding how large of a black drum you can catch, but this is actually a good thing when it comes to cooking them. The bigger the size of the fish, the tougher the consistency will be. Sometimes it is compared to chicken, rather than having a flaky texture as many other fish do. The best kind of drum to eat are typically going to be the smaller ones that you catch. Huge drum are sometimes filled with worms. Eww.
While some prefer flounder, red drum, snapper or more glamorous fish, many anglers maintain that a black drum of fewer than five pounds, cleaned and prepared correctly, may be better than many of these so-called “choice” fish. Many coastal restaurants noted for their seafood serve drum extensively. Fish caught in cold weather before spawning tend to be fatter and in better condition than those caught in summer after spawning, so now is the perfect time to catch them.
Blackened black drum
1 cup Cajun blackening spice
1 tablespoon kosher salt, if needed
6 skinless black drum fillets
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup lemon juice plus 2 tablespoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
 Combine the blackening spice and salt, reducing or omitting the salt as needed. Spread the spice mixture on a plate, and coat each side of the fish fillets.  Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add the grapeseed oil, gently lay the fish in the skillet, and sear until the spices have blackened and formed a nice crust on the fish, 3 to 4 minutes. Gently flip the fish, and sear on the second side for 3 to 4 minutes more. Remove from the pan, and allow the fillets to rest for a few minutes before plating.  Combine the butter, lemon juice, lemon zest and parsley in a bowl and mix well. Season with salt and pepper. Top the fish with the herb butter, and serve while the butter is melting over the hot fish.
Fried black drum
1 pound black drum
Egg wash or buttermilk
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon celery seed powder
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Pinch of kosher salt and pepper
 Heat the fryer or an oiled frying pan to 350 degrees.  Slice black drum fillets into smaller pieces. Soak the fish in an egg wash or buttermilk, and place in the refrigerator for 5 minutes.  Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, and set aside. Place the pieces of the black drum into the breading mix and coat thoroughly, letting the fish drain off the liquid before placing it into the breading mixture. Once all pieces are breaded, place them on a plate or tray, and put them in the refrigerator for at least 5 minutes.  Fry your fish in batches for 4 to 5 minutes each until cooked. The fillets should be crispy and golden brown. Place on a tray with a wire rack or paper towel to drain. Sprinkle a dash of salt, and serve with a lemon wedge.