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July 05, 2006

Coastal Drum Beat

A Look at the World's Most Important Group of Inshore/Nearshore Game Fishes

Drop a baited hook just off any beach or in any inlet or bay where the climate is temperate or tropical and most likely the first fish you catch will be a member of the drum or croaker family, Sciaenidae. For both sport and commercial fishermen, no other estuarial-intertidal-nearshore group of predatory fishes can compete in importance worldwide.

Take this family out of the picture and the odds of a good fish grabbing your offering go way down. Without sciaenids, California loses its fabulous white seabass and corvina. The entire Southeast and most of the Atlantic Coast can kiss goodbye the astoundingly popular redfish. Ditto black drum and spotted seatrout.  Oh yeah, and weakfish, too. 

But the bad news for coastal anglers would hardly stop there. Central/South America would lose its orangemouth corvina (as would the Salton Sea, where this game fish also thrives, supporting a significant sport fishery) and acoupa weakfish (think: 50-pound seatrout). And Europe, Africa and Australia would take major hits with the loss of various species of meagres (some exceeding 200 pounds) and kobs (a.k.a. mulloway and jewfish).

So varied is this group that even aquarists would be losers: Small drum of a few inches like the Caribbean's zebra-striped highhat and other pint-size striking sciaenids would disappear.

The world would lose a group of fishes that's not only valuable but interesting. For example, how many fish do anglers hear before they see?

The Drum Beat Goes On
I've been out with guides (like Joe Porcelli, who fishes northern Florida's Indian River) who'll shush their clients so they can put their ear to the boat's fiberglass to listen for the base drumming sounds that signal the presence of big fish nearby. Sciaenids are in fact named drums and croakers for a reason, which has to do with specialized muscles that connect the swim bladder to the body. The swim bladder becomes a resonating chamber that amplifies the "drumming" sound these fish make. Their oversize swim bladders have many branches - the better for you to hear them with, my dear.

Certainly some species - especially larger types such as the 40- to 80-pound black drum Porcelli was after the night he set the anchor and waited to hear the fish signal their arrival - are more "vocal" than others. Pull any one of these into a boat and even if your eyes were shut, there would be no doubt of its familial identity.

Drums are very much fishes of the coast. (For the record, my reference to "drum" includes croakers, as well as weakfish, corvina and other monikers that describe this single large family.) Ray Waldner, a professor of fisheries biology at Florida's Palm Beach Atlantic University, cites the family's availability, particularly to small boaters as well as those who fish surf, pier and jetty.

"They're good to eat, they can be caught on many kinds of artificials and natural baits, and are relatively abundant," Waldner adds. What's not to like?

Certainly sport fishermen in Australia like their  drum, even if they don't call them that. Fishing for mulloway and black jew - the two largest species around this continent (both reaching at least 100 pounds) - adds up to big business, from remote Pacific beaches to the very heart of Sydney Harbour. Ben Diggles, an Australian fisheries biologist, also points out the accessibility of these species to anglers.

Of all the continents, none is home to as many large species of drum as Africa. Its extensive, estuary-rich coast offers countless miles of ideal habitat for drum and croaker - mangrove-lined lower rivers, current-swept river mouths, bays and inlets with deep holes, seemingly endless sandy beaches, and nearshore rocky or coral reefs. In fact, so many species of sciaenid live around Africa, often in such remote areas, that even some of the largest still lack any official common name.

The relatively few sport fishermen who fish northern Africa's beaches and nearshore waters can troll or cast live mullet or soft-plastic baits for meagre, one of the largest of the sciaenids. In the summer, fishermen catch them off western Europe as far north as France.

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