In the early 1980s, New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun-style blackened redfish dish thrust red drum into the limelight, making it a popular menu item all over the country. And that soon became a problem.

Red drum were over-fished to the point of near extinction. Fortunately, strict government regulations were enacted that have allowed red drum to move from “endangered” to the “recovering,” list, and anglers around Wilmington can look forward to a challenging day of catching them and a satisfying evening of eating them.

Red drum is the accepted common name for North Carolina’s state saltwater fish, though it’s also called channel bass, spottail bass, and redfish, while juveniles (aged 1 to 4 years) are also called puppy drum. They’re named for their often reddish-bronze color and the drum-like sound males make by vibrating a muscle in their swim bladder during spawning, though it’s a good bet most of us will never get to hear that sound. Marine biologists will also know them as sciaenops ocellatus.

Red drum is considered “mature” between 3 and 5 years- though they can live as long as 60 years! At around 3 years, they’ll typically weigh in at about 6 to 8 pounds. Mature red drum can be as long as 33 inches- though it’s important to note that North Carolina fishing regulations only allow you to keep a catch that’s between 18 and 27 inches in length (note the bag limit, too- one per person, per day).  The world record for red drum was set in 1984- that one weighed in at over 94 pounds, and currently North Carolina holds 10 out the 16 world records for red drum. You’re not missing anything by throwing the bigger ones back- red drum over 15 pounds tend to be tough and more like chicken than the flaky texture of younger, smaller fish.

This time of year, red drum are breaking out of their schools and moving out of the surf and into the flats. You’ll find them feeding around the docks and in deeper areas of local creeks. Reds are also hanging out in the rivers, the waterway, oyster bars and the tips of islands. Fresh shrimp, mud minnows and cut mullet are popular baits, and a lot of folks also have success with soft plastics on jig heads, top water plugs, and twitch baits. As the water warms up the reds will get more aggressive- and that’s when you’ll learn a thing or two about drag settings and line quality. An aggressive red will practically fight you all the way to the dinner table!

Besides being tough to land, red drum can be challenging to clean, too. Removing the large scales can be difficult. One trick is to filet the red first with an electric knife, and then cut the filet from the skin and scales. Once cleaned, only one question remains- how are you going to cook it?

Red drum isn’t oily, and has a moderate taste- lending itself to a variety of cooking methods from baked or grilled to blackened or “on the half shell.”  I’d recommend trying them every way you can- though with the “one per person” bag limit, that might mean several days of fishing for reds. But really- how can that be a bad thing?

If you’re interested in learning more about red drum or how to catch them- and even some hot tips on where they’re biting lately- stop by and see Ben & Arlen at Intracoastal Angler on Oleander Dr. in Wilmington

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