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  • Writer's pictureBetsy Walker

Red Drum

Known as one of the three fish in the grand slam of southeastern sportfishing along with flounder and speckled trout, red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) are in the same family (Sciaenidae) as speckled trout, black drum, croaker, and whiting. As I described in a previous post, their percussive talents are similar to the speckled trout (but not quite John Bonham level ;D), making a croaking or drumming sound by vibrating super fast sonic muscles again their swim bladder. Red drum are commonly known as redfish but also go by spottail, puppy drum, red bass, or channel bass. Florida’s legal slot limit is 17 to 27 inches. The smaller redfish that are 20 inches or less are sometimes called “rat reds”, and the ones longer than 30 inches are called “bull reds”, even though many of the larger red drums are actually female.

The coloration of the redfish is not really red, but actually more of a coppery bronze fading to a light or white belly with amber to orange colored fins. The body color will vary a bit depending on bottom substrate, showing a darker copper in muddy areas and lighter copper in sandy areas. Tolerant of a wide range of salinity and water temperatures, red drum spend the majority of their lives in estuaries and nearshore waters and prefer sand bars, oyster bars (everyone loves Peg Leg Pete’s), and grassy flats. Redfish are opportunistic bottom feeders that prefer blue crabs, shrimp, and fish but have been known to eat sand dollars, small nutria, snakes, turtles and ducklings (none of which you can get at Peg Leg’s). Powerful and sharp pharyngeal teeth located in the throat area of the redfish are used for shredding their prey.

With a heavy head and blunt nose, the body of the redfish is strong and sturdy with an arched back and slightly concave caudal fin. Most redfish have one spot found just in front of the caudal fin. This ocellated (eyelike) spot is how it got its species name ocellatus, and it is not uncommon for redfish to have more than one spot on their tail (“My eyes are up here, Bob.”). It is thought that this eye mimic may be used as a defense mechanism that misleads predators to attack the tail instead of the head, giving the red drum an extra millisecond to escape.

One of the most popular recreational gamefish along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, red drum have the ability to live more than 40 years and can reach up to 45 inches and 50 pounds. Redfish on the Atlantic coast are generally larger than the fish along Florida’s west coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The IFGA world record is 94 pounds 2 ounces caught in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The Florida record is 52 pounds 5 ounces caught in Brevard County on the Atlantic Coast.

In the article “Redfish and the Wonderful World of Drums,” author PJ Stoops says, “More than likely, humans living along what we call the Gulf of Mexico have been eating redfish for 14,000 years (or more)….[and] humans have probably been eating redfish longer than humans have been growing crops.” Because redfish was so commercially popular and sought after over many years, they, like many delicious fish, were over-harvested. In 1986 the Commerce Department set bag limits, slot limits, and banned commercial harvest to help in the recovery of the red drum population. Still, the continued demand in the commercial seafood industry for this mild, flaky, delicious fish created an interest in farming red drum in captivity through aquaculture or mariculture operations, which has been successful for commercial marketing as well as stock improvement.

Regardless of the success of farming, commercial harvesting of redfish is still prohibited in all Gulf Coast states (except for Mississippi) in order to help keep populations sustainable. Even with the help of fishing limits that reduce the stress on adult redfish populations, the most vulnerable life phase of redfish are the larvae and juveniles. The destruction of their safe, sheltered nursery habitat is perhaps the biggest threat to redfish populations. Like most marine species, conservation and existence of estuaries and healthy nearshore habitats (marshes, seagrass beds, and oyster reefs) is one of the most important factors in protecting and sustaining fish populations.

Simple yet spectacular (or should I say spot-tacular), I personally love grilling my redfish on the half shell (in the skin) with butter and lemon with a little salt and pepper. I have been spoiled by having access to redfish fresh from the cleaning table at my place of work, and I hope to continue the trend this year after the pandemic threat passes and we move forward to a healthy and happy Summer and Fall 2020!

Fish Tales, Sounds, and Photos

Sounds redfish make, from :

Record redfish catches:

This 37" red drum had more than 970 spots per side. It was caught in East Galveston Bay, Texas by Henry Perdue in June 2013.

Photo by Captain Jim West, Bolivar Guide Service.

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