- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

DEALE, Md. - John MacEwen’s charter boat, the Janet M II, idled from her slip in Happy Harbor Marina, carrying six passengers aboard for only one reason: to catch black drum — delicious, powerful, brutish black drum.

The fish with a name that sounds like a painted barrel come up into Chesapeake Bay’s eastern side every year to well-known angling spots like Sharps Island Light and Stone Rock. Normally, it happens in mid-June after they finish their spawning chores far down the bay in Cape Charles, Va., close to the Atlantic Ocean.

Why the huge bottom feeders come to the Sharps Island sector of the Chesapeake no one really knows. Perhaps it’s to fatten up before their return journey to the ocean, where it’s believed they spend the rest of the year.

Captain MacEwen, who has been taking charter fishing parties into the bay for more than three decades, is a veritable wizard when it comes to finding the often elusive drumfish. As he crossed the deep shipping channel and soon reached the eastern side’s 20- to 30-foot-deep bottom, he began to stare intently at the screen of a color depth sounder.

“When they’re in a feeding mode, you’ll see red spots tight on the bottom, slightly fuzzy looking,” he said pointing at his electronic sounder’s screen. “When the drum aren’t biting, they’ll look more like a drawn-out ball, elongated and off the bottom.”

With the help of volunteer mate Bill Heflin, six stout boat rods soon were rigged with 6/0 hooks, 2-ounce sinkers and half a soft crab gently fed onto the business end of each hook. The line on the reels generally was 50-pound-test monofilament line.

Over irregular bottom in 27 feet of water, in plain view of the Sharps Island Light, MacEwen spotted what he was looking for. If the depth sounder could be believed, it appeared to be a small school of black drum. MacEwen threw the charter boat’s gears into neutral, simultaneously shouting, “Drop ‘em!”

Six crab-baited hooks and adjunct sinkers disappeared in the briny. The reels were engaged as the baits struck bottom and then were allowed to slowly drift along.

After the usual missed hook settings and snagging lines on underwater obstacles, getting acquainted once again with the Chesapeake’s watery “floor,” I struck the day’s first gold — or should I say black?

I felt a slight nudge on the line and resisted the urge to set the hook, because drumfish often mouth a bait, spit it out, then pick it up again — meaning business the second time around. I knew I had a drum sampling the bait and finally decided to rip the rod upward and — great goshamighty — the rod came back down just as quickly and line fairly screeched from the reel.

The drum was hooked and for now was in charge and knew it as it removed line from the carefully adjusted brake tension of the reel at will. Eventually, however, it tired of the fight and allowed itself to be reeled in amid much huffing and puffing.

MacEwen slipped a huge landing net under the bronze and gray fish and, with Heflin’s help, quickly lifted the roughly 60-pound drum onto the deck where it lay still emitting typical guttural grunting sounds — the drumming — that gave it a name.

Jeanette Huckleby was next. The proprietor of JJ’s Tackle Shop in Deale fought and wrestled an even larger black drum to the side of the charter vessel. Her catch was quickly followed by long-time black drum fan Joe Dinoto, who landed a 60-pounder. Then fishing writer and editor Charlie Coates eventually latched onto a drum that appeared to weigh a little less.

When the “drumming” is good, there is no stopping them from taking the hooks, and we enjoyed a brief, successful span of hooked, landed or lost drum. Eventually, however, the big brutes quit biting.

When that happened, MacEwen, aware that the excitement was over, looked at his charges and asked, “Had enough? I don’t believe there’ll be any more. What do you say we go in, have a cool drink and relax. Maybe I can talk my son into filleting your drumfish.”

MacEwen is a master at this kind of fishing, but when the drum head back down the bay in early July, he’s just as skilled at finding rockfish, croakers and bluefish. Check him out 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@washingtontimes.com.

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