One particular year of remarkably successful reproduction, effective regulations, few predators (especially sharks), and a wide diet. These have been identified as the primary factors that have sparked and sustained the astonishing red drum recovery in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond.
Lewis Gillingham, director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, says while there are no young-of-the-year index and similar surveys on red drum, also known as redfish, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows 2010 was a “colossal year” for red drum reproduction.
“Red drum spawn in late summer, around the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and the larvae recruit back into the estuaries for their first winter. Food availability, predation, water quality, and likely the winter’s lowest water temperature play a key role in survival,” Gillingham said.
The winter of 2011 was very mild and very likely resulted in the survival of many more larval red drum than normal.
Amazingly, red drum are capable of living up to 50 years, an incredible feat in the saltwater environment where a vast majority of fish and other living things die a premature and often violent death. The impressively long life span of red drum mean many of the drum in the huge 2010 year class will continue to live and reproduce for another 30- to 35 years!
Gillingham credits fisheries management, specifically the red drum slot limits implemented by states, with providing very effective and important protection. Be sure to check current regulations in the state(s) you fish, yet in Virginia the slot size has been 18- to 26 inches with a three-fish per angler daily possession limit. In Maryland, it is usually one fish per day between 18- to 27 inches. Delaware’s slot limit is typically 20- to 27 inches with a five-fish daily limit. Many anglers, keenly interested in enjoying many more years of outstanding redfish action, voluntarily release every red they catch.
Red drum grow quickly. As result, they spend only a brief period of their lives in the slot limit size when they are legal to catch and kill. It takes only 18 months to two years for drum to grow beyond the slot limit size. Once larger than the slot limit’s maximum size, red drum can never again be legally harvested, providing them with protection for the remainder of their long lives and opportunities to survive and reproduce for years, even decades.
As drum grow, the threats posed to them by predators quickly diminish. One of their few natural predators is large coastal sharks; however, practically every species of coastal sharks has been in serious decline in recent years. Fewer sharks mean more drum survive and reproduce.
Captain Bob Walter, known to many as Captain Walt at Light Tackle Charters, has fished the Chesapeake Bay and the Mid-Atlantic Coast for most of his life. He believes another key to the red drum rebound has been their ability to eat and receive sustaining nourishment from an extensive list of fish and crustaceans. That list includes, but is not limited to, bunker (menhaden), Norfolk spot, croaker (hardhead), mullet, eels, crabs, oysters, shrimp, mussels, and sand fleas. A decline in several of these food sources would have little impact on drum.
Gillingham said a steady increase in the number of red drum means that they all “can’t be in the same place at the same time competing with each other for the same food sources.” So they spread out, traveling farther and farther, probably in pursuit of menhaden and other food sources. Anglers have been fishing for drum, and catching them, in locations that previously held few or even no drum.
“We have been seeing directed fisheries for these large trophy fish in Virginia’s upper portion of the bay, where seeing or even hearing of red drum was a relatively rare event,” Gillingham said.
Drum have also been caught even farther north in Maryland’s portion of Chesapeake Bay, as far up as Poplar Island and in Eastern Bay.
Delaware anglers have hooked drum in Indian River and along the ocean beaches.
The remarkable red drum resurgence is providing anglers with easier access to exciting fishing for these beautiful fish. Why not give it a try!
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Top Photo: This chart, from the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, shows the numbers of citation red drum caught over the years in Virginia and clearly demonstrates how impressive the red drum have rebounded.