The Janet M II slowly idled away from her berth at Happy Harbor Marina, captain John MacEwen shaking his head and wondering if “they” would be where he hoped they’d be.
“They” were black drum, brutish, thick-scaled, bottom-scouring fish that in a nanosecond will let an angler know if the knot he tied to a soft crab-baited hook is worth its salt. The same goes for the fishing line that can range anywhere from 25-pound test to 50-pound, even more. If it’s bargain basement junk, the drumfish will pop it like sewing thread.
“I got two of ‘em yesterday,” said MacEwen. “Let’s hope some others are still in the area.”
The 40-foot charter vessel entered the Chesapeake Bay and headed east, its diesel engine moving the heavy boat along at a good clip. The destination was Sharps Island Light and an odd, redundantly named place known as Stone Rock, not far from Tilghman Island. The area is littered with boulders that attract various marine life, and when late spring comes to the Chesapeake, schools of the black drum invade this particular spot as if it’s the only place worth looking for a snack.
MacEwen’s party this day consisted of Charlie Coates, editor of the regional Sportsman’s Magazine; long-time fishing pal and friend, Bill Heflin; Joe Dinoto, who owns the Columbia, Md., Chick-fil-A restaurant; and a newspaper writer.
When we arrived in the 20-foot-deep waters that are common around the Stone Rock area, MacEwen slowed the boat to a crawl and began staring at an electronic depth locator that can show the presence of black drum by way of round, dull splotches at the bottom scale of the screen.
It didn’t take long.
Heflin, who’s had much charter fishing experience as a mate, volunteered to bait 4/0 and 5/0 hooks with half a soft-shelled crab and made sure a 2- or 3-ounce sinker completed the bottom-fishing rigs that were tied to strong monofilament or braided line on saltwater level-wind reels. Meanwhile, MacEwen suddenly slammed the boat’s gears into neutral and shouted, “Drop ‘em!”
He meant for us to slowly release the baits over the side, the lead sinkers quickly reaching bottom where the fragrant baits could work their magic. We did just that, and Dinoto very quickly set the hook to something as yet unseen. It wasn’t a drum but a fine keeper-size rockfish that apparently beat the drum — if there were any — to the buffet we’d presented.
Dinoto reeled the wildly objecting striper to the surface and flipped it into the boat. Moments later, it reposed on the bottom of a huge fish box.
MacEwen, who had seen his boat drifting a good distance from where he initially spotted the suspicious round markings, commanded, “Reel ‘em up. We need to get back to the place we started in.”
The scene soon repeated itself. “Drop ‘em!” he shouted again, and within minutes Coates fought something that was strong but didn’t appear to be a typical drumfish. It turned out to be a juvenile black drum of about 12 pounds.
Dinoto soon entered the fray by setting the hook to what appeared to be an underwater freight train.
“My Lord!” he shouted with a laugh. “What in the world have I got?”
MacEwen used a huge landing net and slipped it over the fat drum’s head, then saw the rest of the body slide in. With Heflin helping MacEwen, the two eventually hoisted a 60-plus-pounder over the side. Wow! What a fish!
It was my turn next. After I had landed a large croaker and missed several pickups from drum and lost my crab baits to the thieving bottom feeders, a young drum finally made the mistake of hanging onto the bait while I set the hook.
Then Heflin, who had been complaining that the fish apparently didn’t like him, felt something popping his crab offering. He slammed the hook to a still invisible quarry, lifting his rod sharply, but it came down just as fast. Heflin had a drum, a fat, broad-shouldered specimen that taxed his muscles.
“Doggone it,” he said, as he hung onto the fish. “These things are strong.” After a drawn-out fight, he brought it alongside, and it was netted like all the others.
Everybody now had a drum, as tasty a fish and as hard a battler that swims. Its only drawback for discriminating sport anglers is its desire to stay down, not rising and leaping. Drumfish simply don’t do that, but they’ll strip the gears of a cheap reel in a heartbeat — that’s how strong they are.
MacEwen says he expects strikes from the heavy drum to last until the end of the month, but all along MacEwen can deliver the goods as far as striped bass, croakers, and soon also sea trout and bluefish are concerned. In other words, you’ll catch something to chat about at the water cooler.
MacEwen is a delight to spend a day with. He can be reached at 410/867-3273.
Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail:gmueller@washington times.com.