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Black Drum


Amy Withers with a nice Black Drum caught on a fly. Photo: Capt. Jay Withers

I’ve been seeing lots of black drum photos lately. Black drum are really cool fish that don’t ever seem to get very much attention. In fact, if you do a quick search on black drum, you just might get more search returns for red drum than black drum. So today I’m going to give these fish some love.

Black drum, Pogonias cromis occur from the Gulf of Maine to Florida, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and as far south as Argentina. Black drum are large fish that can reach sizes over 46 inches in length and 120 pounds. They are also long lived reaching ages of nearly 60 years on the Atlantic coast and about 45 on the Gulf coast. Black drum grow rapidly during their first 15 years of life and then slow after.

Coloration of black drum can change with age or habitat. Young black drum have 4-6 vertical black bars along their sides. These bars, which sometimes lead to them being confused with sheepshead, fade as the fish ages. Adults are silvery to black in color with a copper or brassy sheen. Black drum in bays and lagoons tend to be darker and often have a bronze upper surface with gray to white sides.

Notice the copper to brassy sheen on the sides of this black drum. Photo: Capt. Jay Withers

Notice the copper to brassy sheen on the sides of this black drum. Photo: Capt. Jay Withers

Black drum are the largest members of the family Sciaenidae (sigh-EE-nih-dee), which includes drums and croakers. Sciaenids are known having the ability to produce a “croaking” or “drumming” sound. To produce the sound, sciaenids possess special muscles called sonic muscle fibers that vibrate against the swim bladder. These sonic muscle fibers run horizontally along both sides of a fish’s body and are connected to a central tendon which surrounds the swim bladder. When the sonic muscle fibers are contracted against the swim bladder, they produce the drumming or croaking sound that gives drum and croaker their common name.

A scientist colleague of mine, James Locascio, spent quite a few years studying the sounds of black drum in southwest Florida while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida. Drumming can be used for a variety of reasons, but most notably it is used for spawning. Whereas a lot of fish species move to the passes or offshore to spawn, black drum spawn both in near shore waters and in the estuary. Spawning takes place from late fall through early spring. During spawning black drum produce high intensity sounds that are associated with courtship and spawning. These sounds are loud enough to be heard from a boat and even a waterfront home.

To study sound production associated with black drum spawning, James (who by the way now works at Mote Marine Laboratory) deployed acoustic equipment that recorded fish sounds in the Punta Gorda Isles canal system and in the Cape Coral canal system. Although all fish make sound, black drum can be identified based on the sound wave frequency they drum at. What Jim found was that some black drum produced sound occasionally during the day, but the black drum chorus increased sharply from late afternoon to early evening and lasted up to 12 hours during the peak spawning season from January through March.

Black drum are multiple spawners and are capable of spawning every three days during the spawning season. Female black drum mature around 4-6 years in age. Males mature earlier and at smaller sizes. During a single season an average sized black drum female can produce around 32 million eggs. Black drum eggs are free floating and hatch in less than 24 hours. Newly hatched larvae rely on tidal currents to transport them to their preferred nutrient rich, muddy water nursery habitats inside tidal creeks and canals. Interestingly, black drum less than three quarters of an inch in length already have visible barbels for feeding along their muddy bottom nursery habitat. As black drum grow their habitat preferences change with adults’ preferring bare bottom areas in shallow water, particularly areas with high water movement and oyster reefs.

Black Drum schooling at the surface. Photo: Capt. Jay Withers

Black Drum schooling at the surface. Photo: Capt. Jay Withers

Black drum are primarily bottom feeders, although occasionally, they have been observed feeding on small finfish at the surface. Young black drum feed mostly on very tiny invertebrates whereas larger black drum feed on larger mollusks, crabs, and shrimps. Black drum larvae are preyed upon by jellyfish and comb jellies. As they get larger, juveniles are prey for other fish such as spotted sea trout and crevalle jack, and adults are likely prey for sharks.

The salinity range of black drum is very broad but generally older fish tend to migrate towards saltier water. Older black drum are also known to move offshore where they form large schools that can migrate over large distances.

Black drum fun fact: Pogonias in the black drum’s scientific name means bearded, referring to its barbels, and cromis means to croak.

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. 2012. Draft Interstate Fishery Management plan for Black Drum, report to U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA, October 2012.

Locascio, J.V. and D.A. Mann. 2011. Diel and seasonal timing of sound production by black drum (Pogonias cromis), Fish Bull. 3(109), 327-338.

Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce. 2016.Black Drum species profile.