Captain Norman Miller, aboard his charter boat Rascal, was drifting nearby. He pulled up along side for a visit. “Looks like it’s slowed down a bit. We were catching the trout real good, but we’re just getting a fish here and there, mostly bluefish. I think we’ll go look around out on the shoals,” Miller said as he eased his boat out towards Ocracoke Inlet.
A half hour passed. The trout quit altogether, but we continued to pick at the blues. Nell caught a huge sea mullet.
Suddenly, my radio came to life. “Joe, can you see me?” I recognized Norman Miller’s voice in a normal conversational tone. Before I had a chance to answer, he was there again. “Joe, can you see me? Come here now. Come here NOW!” Miller spoke the last word urgently, in big letters.
I couldn’t see him, but we cranked in lines, fired up the motor, and headed to where I thought he was.
“Joe come here FAST, come here NOW! FAST, NOW, NOW”, Miller’s voice was edgy and impatient. If his boat was sinking I suppose he would have called the Coast Guard instead of me.
I could see a boat a mile away. I wasn't sure if it was the Rascal, but I steamed for it anyway and pushed the throttle forward. I wasn’t sure how to get there, but the water was clear, the sea was calm, and I picked my way through and around the shoals, never backing off the throttle.
A hundred yards from the Rascal, I could see three anglers in the cockpit, with rods doubled. Norman was on the bridge, spinning rod in hand. His boat was drifting, engines running but out of gear, at the edge of a mass of dirty water.
My mind was racing, trying to figure out what was going on. “What’s making the water so dirty?” I asked Nell. That's when the puzzle pieces came together. “The water’s not dirty, it’s brown. Reddish brown ... red drum brown.”
“Oh Lord, it’s fish. Drum. We need ... bucktails ... leaders,” I rambled. I realized we were not rigged up with tackle heavy enough for these fish.
I pulled a three-foot piece of fifty-pound test monofilament off the leader spool, reached for the rigging pliers that are usually in a case on my hip. Ooops...we had been surf fishing the day before and my rigging pliers were in my truck. I’m embarrassed to admit this but all I had to cut the mono was tiny scissors, designed for trimming cuticles, on my miniature Swiss Army pocket knife.
I cut several leaders and on two of them tied a double surgeon’s loop in one end, then secured a two-ounce bucktail with a Uni-Knot to the other end of the leader. Nell ran 20-pound test mono line through the rod guides, and tied on a snap swivel. Two seven-foot spinning rods were rigged and ready.
I looked up and saw Norman on the bridge of his boat waving and hollering at me to get closer. I didn’t want to get in his way, two of his angler’s fish were heading in our direction. Nell made a cast, her line came tight. But the fish didn’t fight. It wasn’t a fish. She cast over a line coming from the other boat, attached to a drum. I could see the fish wallowing on top ten yards in from our bow.
“Oh no, we’ll never be invited back,” I thought, but kept the comment to myself.
We freed the line, eased away from the school, Norman's client continued to fight the fish. We collected our thoughts and could see several other small schools of drum spread out around the shoals in splotches of brown, diffused over the green water.
“Nell, fifty yards, straight ahead, they’re coming this way,” I said. I don’t know why I was whispering, when a minute earlier I was screaming.
We were somewhat cooler, almost in control. When the fish were twenty yards away, Nell threw a good cast into the wind and immediately hooked up. She had the fish on for five minutes, and broke it off. These were all big drum, twenty-five to forty pounds, maybe bigger. She grabbed the other rod, while I motored slowly to another bunch of fish, and mini-scissors in hand, tried to re-rig the other rod.
Her second cast was right on. I could hear Norman shouting, “Slow, slow, crank it slow.” Fifteen minutes later the fish was at the side of the boat. With a gloved hand I grabbed its bottom lip. I freed the barb, the fish kicked its tail, and swam away in a swirl when I relaxed my grip.
The drum were still around us. Another cast and Nell was hooked up again. I looked to the right and saw drum, stacked like big brown logs, side by side at the edge of a shoal. A wave crested and broke, another bunch of drum surfed down the wave. Before we released the next fish, I picked it up carefully and laid it flat on the gunwale. It hit the tape at forty-five inches.
The Rascal was now about a hundred yards away, and still fighting fish. Nell hooked two more drum and fought each for several minutes before the hook pulled on one, and the other broke off. While she was fighting the last fish I realized I didn’t see any more brown water. The tide was falling hard, and the drum must have moved off into deeper water.
Soon we were joined by my friend Graham Evans in his Whaler. Together we looked for another half hour, but couldn’t find a fish. After hearing our story, Graham didn’t want to give up, but we were tired and decided to cruise back to the dock.
Running through a deep slough inside the inlet shoals, I found another school of drum. Stacked up and laying next to each other, noses to the shoal, into the current streaming over the sandbar with the falling tide. I could see them clearly enough to pick out individual fish.
Nell lobbed the two-ounce bucktail into the bunch, and I called Norman and Graham. Graham was there in five minutes, but the Rascal was already back in Silver Lake, waiting for the afternoon trip.
Nell caught and released two more drum, four total, all between 30 and 45 pounds. Graham released one before the fish scattered. Later that day Norman Miller told me his party, a group from Charlotte, released ten.
This all happened on Memorial Day weekend and according to Norman Miller the drum were around later than usual, usually they thin out at Ocracoke by mid-May. According to a few locals, some big drum have been seen and caught recently around Oregon Inlet.
If you come across a school of drum, Captain Norman Miller recommends staying at the edge, away from the school. Cast the lure past the school and work it slowly through the fish. Two or three ounce bucktail jigs or lead heads dressed with a large, 6-inch, soft plastic tails are effective. He fishes with twenty-pound test line, on seven foot spinning rods. For information about chartering a trip out of Ocracoke aboard Captain Norman Miller’s Rascal call 919-928-6111.
"Ocracoke Drum Blitz"
Nell and I were drifting in our boat, inside Ocracoke Inlet. The water was clear and green, pushing into the inlet with an incoming tide, and fishing was good. Small gray trout and bluefish were hitting double bucktail jigs, sweetened with squid strips.