Black Drum: Barnegat Bay’s Loudest Spring Breakers…almost!

small fish in the palm of a hand.
Small Black Drum caught in the Barnegat Bay

By JJ Egan, Field Specialist of the Barnegat Bay Partnership

The black drum (Pogonias cromis) is a large member of the family Sciaenidae, more commonly known as the drum or croaker family. This family gets their name from the deep sounds they make by vibrating muscles around their swim bladders, and the black drum are no exception, creating low frequency sounds that can not only be heard but felt through the hull of a boat. They are bottom feeders (though schools are sometimes seen milling about on the surface), that feed primarily on clams, crabs and oysters. While they don’t have particularly strong jaws, they use their pharyngeal teeth in their throats to break up these hard-shelled prey. These fish are known spring & summer visitors of the Barnegat Bay, however they have become more prominent recently. While the fish have a range from the Gulf of Maine to Argentina, it was rare to see juveniles in our local waters prior to 1998. Since then, surveys have started to see adults and juveniles alike. The adult drum enter the bay in late March and early April to feed and spawn, usually found in the lower Barnegat/ Great Bay. These locally spawned juveniles spend the summer in the bay (we actually see them every year in our seining survey) and eventually leave in the fall.

Black Drum fish being held up by a fisherman in a boat.
Black Drum caught in the Barnegat Bay

The most famous and largest spawning aggregation on the East coast occurs a few miles south of our local waters, in the Delaware Bay. The fish usually arrive around the first full moon of May, and stay in the bay feeding and spawning until Late June. It is not entirely clear where the drum go when they leave the bay, but recreational fishermen do occasionally report encountering them throughout the summer and on nearshore structures. The Barnegat/Great Bay aggregation has fewer fish than the run in the Delaware Bay, and the fish tend to be smaller (10-25 lbs). Black drum in the Delaware Bay regularly exceed 40 lbs. and every year angler encounter fish that approach 100 lbs.

Large fish being held up by a fisherman in a boat.
Black Drum caught by BBP’s Field Specialist JJ Egan in the Barnegat Bay near Seaside Park, NJ.

 While the main body of drum in our local waters are usually found further south in our watershed around Tuckerton, this year has been unusual not only in the number of drum, but in their location. Large numbers of drum have been found significantly further north in the bay than in years past. While it’s a faux pas to fishermen to give away the exact location, a large number of drum were caught within sight of a certain Ferris wheel. This sent local tackle shops into a fury trying to stock as many fresh clams as they can get their hands on, a favorite drum bait for anglers. Despite the excitement among recreational fishermen this season, larger black drum are not usually valued as food fish, because they tend to be infected with parasitic worms. The rule of thumb for most fishermen, is that if a drum still has its stripes (the fade with age) then they are still fit to consume. A popular dish with drum fishermen in South Jersey is actually Black drum parmigiana, which is surprisingly good.

While the events of this spring do not necessarily mean that the population of black drum is expanding north, there has been a trend of southern species becoming more and more common in our local waters. This is most likely due to a changing climate, and we will likely see other changes in the estuarine ecosystem in the coming years.

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