Black drum are cool fish that are getting quite a bit off fishing action right now. Black drum, Pogonias cromis, occur from the Gulf of Maine to Florida, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and as far south as Argentina. They are 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 slower afterward. These large fish can reach sizes over 46 inches in length and up to 120 pounds.
Black drum are the largest members of the family Sciaenidae (say “sigh-EE-nid-ee”), 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 the 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.
Drumming can be used for a variety of reasons, but most notably it is used for spawning. A lot of fish species move to the passes or offshore to spawn, but black drum spawn both in nearshore waters and in the estuary. Spawning takes place from late fall through early spring. During spawning, male 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.
Although all fish make sound, black drum can be identified based on the sound wave frequency they drum at. Studies that have examined black drum sound production have found that while some black drum produced sound occasionally during the day, the black drum chorus increases sharply from late afternoon to early evening. It can last up to 12 hours during the peak spawning season from January through March.
Black drum are multiple spawners, and are capable of producing eggs every three days during the spawning season. Female black drum mature around four to six years of 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 nursery habitat: Nutrient-rich muddy waters 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. Adults prefer bare bottom areas in shallow water, particularly areas with high water movement and oyster reefs.
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, while larger black drum feed primarily on mollusks, crabs and shrimp.
Black drum are also eaten by other species. Larvae are preyed upon by jellyfish and comb jellies. As they get larger, juveniles are prey for other fish such as spotted seatrout and crevalle jack. Adults are sometimes eaten by 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.
Betty Staugler is the UF/IFAS Extension Charlotte County agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program. Contact her at email@example.com or 941-764-4346.