Red Drum

Red drum, redfish, channel bass, Sciaenops ocellatus
Copyright © Diane Rome Peebles
Black drum, Pogonias cromis
Black drum, Pogonias cromis
Copyright © Diane Rome Peebles Click for larger image.

Similar Species

Black Drum

The red drum is easily distinguished from the black drum (Pogonias cromis) by its lack of chin barbels, more elongated body, and the presence of a large black spot on either side of the tail just ahead of the fin. (There may be additional spots elsewhere on the body.) Younger black drum have dark vertical stripes on their sides; red drum never have stripes.

Description

Red drum are robust, elongated fish with moderately compressed bodies. Their head is straight in profile with a somewhat conical cross section. The mouth is located beneath the head. Unlike some other drums, the red drum has no chin barbels or "whiskers."

 

Tail of a 20" juvenile red drum, showing the characteristic spot and blue coloring. The blue disappears as the fish ages.
Tail of a 20" juvenile red drum, showing the characteristic spot and blue coloring. The blue disappears as the fish ages. Larger image.
Photo by Jim Franks and Don Abrams.

The dorsal fin has two sections, with a spiny fin at front separated by deep notch from the soft dorsal fin. The scales are large and have jagged edges. The body color is typically an iridescent silvery gray, bronze or copper on the sides and whitish on the belly. There are one or more dark spots near the base of the caudal fin or tail. (The species name oscellatus refers to these eye-like spots.) Older fish tend to lose their excess spots. The tails of young fish, less than about 18", may be bluish.

The color of red drum varies with the type of water they inhabit. Where the bottom is muddy and the water is brackish, red drum have a dark copper color. Fish living in surf areas and areas with higher-salinity water and sandy bottoms are lighter colored and may even be silvery or silvery pink. During the spawning season, the fins take on an orange color.

Red drum may reach five feet in length and a weight of 90 pounds. They may live to an age of 40 years or more.

The name "drum" comes from the ability of the male red drum, and the males of its drum family relatives such as the spotted seatrout and black drum, to produce a deep drumming sound by contracting muscles on either side of the swim bladder. The sound is used during courtship and sometimes when a fish is distressed.

Red Drum, Photo by Jim Franks, GCRL
Red Drum, Photo by Jim Franks, GCRL   Click for larger image

Occurrence

Red drum are commonly found along the southern Atlantic coast from Chesapeake Bay to Key West, Florida, along the entire U.S. Gulf coast, and south to about Tuxpan, Mexico. Their range on the Atlantic coast may extend as far as Massachusetts, though red drum are relatively rare north of Chesapeake Bay.

Because red drum tolerate a wide range of salinity and water temperature, they are found in all types of water from freshwater to the open Gulf to the lower reaches of coastal rivers. In general, younger fish prefer the lower salinity of inshore waters and older fish prefer higher salinity found offshore. Red drum can survive water temperatures from 36 °F to nearly 100 °F, though rapid temperature changes may be fatal. Red drum can be successfully acclimated to freshwater.

Red drum live in both inshore and offshore waters, with younger fish inshore and older fish moving offshore when they mature. Younger juvenile red drum are found in bays and estuaries and seagrass beds. Juvenile red drums are particularly attracted to the edges on marshes and seagrass beds. Older juveniles and subadults move to more open water over sand, mud, and seagrasses, and move into shallower water to feed on rising tides.

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.

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. Click for larger image.

Rats and Bulls

Red drum are almost always called redfish on the Gulf coast. Large red drum (longer than about 30" in length) are commonly described as "bull reds," even though many of the larger fish are actually females.

Smaller red drum (up to about 20" in length) are often called "rat reds."

Life Cycle & Reproduction

Red drum spawn offshore. The larvae develop offshore and then migrate into inshore nursery areas where they mature. As they near sexual maturity, they return to offshore waters.

Female red drum begin reaching reach sexual maturity at age three, with all fish being mature by age six. Males mature as early as age one, with all males being mature by age three. After reaching maturity, female red drum are found almost exclusively to the south of the barrier islands.

In Mississippi waters, red drum spawn from late September through November. Spawning takes place offshore, often near barrier island passes. Male red drum congregate and produce a drumming sound by vibrating their swim bladders with a special muscles alongside it, similar to rubbing a finger over a balloon. Drumming activity increases as dusk and spawning takes place during the night. Females are attracted by the drumming and the males nudge them in the abdomens to induce release of the eggs, which are then fertilized.

A single female red drum can produce as many as two million eggs at a time (more than a quart). Individuals can spawn every three to five days during the spawning season.

Fertilized red drum eggs are spherical and approximately one millimeter in diameter. They are clear and contain tiny oil droplets which provide flotation and nourishment for the larva, in addition to that provided by the yolk sac. The eggs are carried through the island passes and inshore by tides and currents. Eggs hatch after about one day. The larvae live off their attached yolk sac for about three days and then begin to feed on plankton. They remain in the water column for about 20 days.

Typical Length vs Age for Red Drum
in Mississippi
Age
(years)
Typical length
(inches)
1 12 - 13
2 19 - 21
3 24 - 25
4 27 - 29
5 30 - 33
Typical growth rates for young red drum. Growth rates vary widely.

In Mississippi, beginning in September or October, red drum larvae come to rest in shallow water among seagrasses that provide shelter from predators and tides. As they grow, they move further into the estuary. During their first winter, the juvenile fish begin moving into the deeper water of bayous and bays, with some fish even reaching the Gulf during their first spring. By age one, red drum may gradually move into the Gulf with the arrival of cold weather, returning to shallower water in the spring. However, many juvenile fish remain in estuarine waters.

Red drum grow rapidly during the early years of their lives, though after age five their growth slows substantially. Males and females show similar growth and size patterns. Growth rates vary with location; Gulf coast fish typically grow faster than fish in other locations. Red drum may live for 40 years or more and continue to spawn their entire lives.

Approximate weight vs. length relationship for red drum in Mississippi.
Approximate weight vs. length relationship for red drum in Mississippi. Click for larger image.
Source: "Aspects of the Biology of the Red Drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, in Mississippi," Robin M. Overstreet, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, 1983

 

Age vs. length for red drum. Mississippi red drum grow slightly faster during their early age.
Age vs. length for red drum. Mississippi red drum grow slightly faster during their early age. Click for larger image.
Source: Red Drum - Natural History and Fishing Techniques in South Carolina

Diet

Larval red drum feed on plankton. Juvenile fish gradually shift to copepods, shrimp, marine worms, small crabs, and fish as they mature. Adult red drum are aggressive and opportunistic feeders that take a variety of prey, primarily shrimp, blue crabs, fish, and polychaete marine worms. Commonly eaten fish include menhaden, mullet, pinfish, sea robin, lizardfish, spot, Atlantic croaker, and flounder. Feeding habits change during the year. During winter and spring the diet consists primarily of fish. During summer and fall, more crabs and shrimp are eaten.

GCRL researchers Robin Overstreet and Richard Heard conducted a detailed investigation of the diet of red drum in Mississippi Sound - Food of the Red Drum, Sciaenops Ocellata, From Mississippi Sound.

Red drum locate prey with both sight and touch, most often using their downturned mouth to forage on or near the bottom and sometimes using their pectoral fins to orient themselves on the bottom. They capture prey both by biting and by suctioning as they flare their gill covers to draw water into their mouths. Red drum will take prey from the water column and even from the surface when the opportunity arises.

Red drum often feed in very shallow water. As they lower their heads, their tails may be exposed at the surface. Anglers refer to this behavior as "tailing." In very shallow water, the fish's dorsal fin and back are exposed. Along marsh edges, red drum can sometimes be detected as they move among the march grasses and cause them to move. The shallow water feeding behaviors of red drum make them particular interesting as game fish. (Examples of shallow water feeding behavior are provided in the video references below.) In deeper water, red drum often lie in depressions behind sandbars or troughs where they wait for tidal currents to push prey toward them.

Predators and Parasites

Bottle-nosed dolphins are the primary predators of red drum and may take even the largest adult fish.

Red drum are subject to a variety of external and internal parasites, none of which pose a threat to humans. Several species of worms, collectively referred to by the descriptive term "spaghetti worms" are commonly encountered by fishermen while cleaning red drum, speckled trout, and black drum. While visually unappealing, the worms are not harmful. The can be readily removed manually or simply ignored.

Common external parasites of red drum include several species that resemble small streamers attached to the fish by one end. External parasites generally do no harm to the fish unless the occur on the gills in sufficient numbers to impair respiration. Several external parasites are visible on the tail and pectoral fin of the fish in the large version of the photo below.

Fishing for Red Drum

Red Drum caught at Ship Island, Mississippi.
Red Drum caught at Ship Island, Mississippi. Click for larger image.

Red drum are popular sportfish and food fish throughout their range, second only to the spotted seatrout (speckled trout) in the opinion of most anglers. Red drum are noted for being willing to take a variety of lures and baits and for being strong fighters.

In shallow water, it is possible to "sight fish" for red drum, moving quietly and watching for the fish tailing or disturbing the marsh grass as they feed.

On the northern Gulf coast, red drum are popularly regarded as one of the "big three" of sportfish, along with spotted seatrout (speckled trout) and flounder. Anglers refer to catching each species during a single trip as a "grand slam."

Red drum are a regulated game fish. In Mississippi, the daily recreational creel limit is three fish, with a minimum total length of 18". Only one fish over 30" in length may be kept. The commercial catch of redfish in Mississippi waters is subject to the same length limits, with an annual quota of 35,000 pounds for the commercial fishery. Commercial harvesting of red drum is prohibited in other Gulf coast states. Red drum were designated as a protected game fish by Executive Order in 2007. The harvest of red drum in federal waters is prohibited.

Redfish on the Table

Red drum, broiled "on the half shell" with simple Cajun spices.
Red drum, broiled "on the half shell" with simple Cajun spices.

Red drums are an excellent food fish up to a weight of about ten pounds. Larger fish may be coarse, stringy, and less palatable.

Red drum are delicious when fried, broiled, smoked, and incorporated into dishes such as redfish courtbouillon. They are often broiled or grilled "on the half shell" as filets with skin and scales left on. The "throats" of red drum are very meaty and should be harvested and enjoyed. They are delicious fried or smoked. After fileting and removing the throats, the carcass can be used to make a rich, flavorful stock.

Conservation Status and Management History

The red drum has not been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Red drum are most vulnerable as larvae and juveniles. Degradation and destruction of the estuarine habitat are potential threats. It has been shown that the abundance of red drum is directly related to the extent of the estuarine area nearby. However, little is known about the effects of human encroachment into estuarine habitat on red drum populations.

Populations and harvests of red drum on the Gulf coast declined substantially during the 1980s, prompting more stringent harvest regulations. Harvest figures from subsequent years indicate that the measures have been successful, with recent annual harvests as much as two to three times those of the late 1980s. The following text and graph are from the "Summary Report of the Red Drum Special Working Group for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council," 2010.

"Historically, Gulf-wide reported annual red drum landings usually varied between 1 and 3 million pounds until the mid 1980s when “blackened redfish” became popular. This resulted in a huge demand for commercially caught red drum that were targeted both in offshore state waters and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On June 25, 1986, the Secretary of Commerce implemented an emergency rule limiting the commercial catch in the exclusive economic zone to one million pounds amid concerns that the stock would collapse. Federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico were closed in 1987 and have remained closed to both red drum recreational and commercial fishing (Porch 2000). Recreational red drum fisheries do occur in all Gulf coast state waters. Mississippi is the only state that allows a small red drum commercial fishery (Figure 1)."

Commercial and Recreational harvest of red drum in the Gulf of Mexico

Annual commercial and recreational harvest of red drum in the Gulf of Mexico, 1980 - 2010.
Source: Summary Report of the Red Drum Special Working Group for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council

 

Aquaculture

Red drum are successfully aquacultured for both the market and stock enhancement. Their tolerance for variations in temperature and salinity contribute to successful aquaculture.

Red drum aquaculture references:

Interesting Facts About Red Drum

Redfish print by coastal artist Marty Wilson
Red drum print by local artist and angler Marty Wilson
  • Red drum can live more than 40 years.
  • A 35" female red drum is about six to seven years old and may produce millions of eggs each year for another 30 years.
  • Red drum are opportunistic feeders and have been known to eat sand dollars, small nutria, snakes, turtles, and ducklings.
  • Mature female red drum are seldom found in Mississippi waters north of the barrier islands.
  • Red drum tolerate salinity from freshwater to levels higher than the open Gulf of Mexico.
  • Red drum often have more than one spot per side. However, a red drum with no spots at all is extrememely rare.

Resources and References

 

Schooling Red Drum. Several jack crevalle are present at the edges of the school.
Source: Youtube, FishNet Daily News

Red Drum Videos

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