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Posted on Sun, Aug. 31, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Red drum showing signs of comeback
Once overfished, species has been upgraded to `recovering' in N.C.

Special Correspondent

The fish fought with such speed and vigor that Rick Hiott was convinced a sting ray was on the line.

As it surfaced, Hiott saw the fish wasn't a sting ray but a red drum, reeled up from the 35-foot depths of Charleston harbor.

As he wrestled the drum aboard, the fish made a characteristic drumming sound, indicating it was a male. After releasing the reddish, 34-inch fish, Hiott acknowledged that a red drum's bite can be deceptive.

"A tap, tap and they're off with it," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a shark and a red drum."

Hiott, an inshore fishing guide, targets adult red drum between 32 and 50 inches. These are breeding-age fish, larger than the sub-adults that light-tackle and fly-rod anglers seek in marshes and creeks.

Also called redfish, the fish is more often called red drum in North Carolina. South Carolinians use the name spottail bass because of the distinctive black spot on the fish's tail.

Red drum in the Carolinas might be on the verge of a comeback after decades of overfishing. A fast-growing, slow-to-mature fish, red drum filled coolers and, sometimes, the backs of pickup trucks, before South Carolina enacted its first limits in the early 1980s.

Until 2001, anglers could keep five fish a day from 14-27 inches long. The limit tightened that year to two fish between 15 and 24 inches to help the fish recover. Such "slot limits" protect both juveniles and breeding fish, which must be released if caught.

As a result, said Charles Wenner of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, more are showing up. "We are just above the long-term average for sub-adult fish (those one to four years old)," he said.

South Carolina, like most Southeastern states, has designated red drum a gamefish, meaning it cannot be fished commercially. North Carolina, however, has the region's largest commercial red drum fishery.

Long classified as "overfished" in North Carolina, the Division of Marine Fisheries in last week reported good news for red drum. The N.C. agency upgraded its status to "recovering."

"We project we're no longer overfishing," said Lee Paramore of the agency. "We're seeing positive signs."

He said those signs include increased numbers of 1-year-old fish surviving to maturity, that is, becoming a 4-year-old, 32-inch fish. In the 1990s, Paramore said, just 10 percent made it. Today, it's estimated to be 40 percent.

Stricter bag limits are the main reason, he said. Since 1998, recreational and commercial anglers may keep fish only between 18 and 27 inches. The recreational limit is one a day; the commercial limit is seven per day.

Last year's commercial catch of 81,092 pounds was far below the running 10-year average of 196,000 pounds. Sport anglers caught 183,531 pounds.

In late summer, Paramore said, adult red drum can be found in the western Pamlico Sound, where they breed. In fall, they move to the inlets and surf and winter offshore.

Wenner said S.C. adult red drum in summer hang around Winyah Bay, St. Helena Sound and the mouth of Charleston harbor.

Two weeks ago I joined Hiott, his wife, Eve, and friend David Russin of Sullivans Island on a fishing trip in Charleston harbor. Hiott set out four lines baited with cut and live menhaden on an incoming tide. An east and southeast wind flattened the water; Hiott said a northeasterly wind is more favorable for fishing.

The first drum, the 34-incher, came from an area with underwater rocks and coral called the "Grillage."

Hiott next moved to the "dynamite hole" near the harbor's south jetty and anchored. At noon, a red drum and a bonnethead shark hit simultaneously, both taking live menhaden on the bottom. Eve Hiott handled the shark while Russin took the drum. As Rick Hiott lifted the drum out of the water, the fish's coppery sheen gleamed in the August sun. "Grow up, big boy," Hiott said as he released the fish.

Russin said the 33-incher was his first drum. "It felt strenuous. But it's fun," he said. "I think it's really exciting. What you like about it, you get to throw it back."

Want to fish?

Guide Rick Hiott can be reached at (843) 412-6776 or http://www.reelfishhead.com/. For a list of other Charleston-area inshore fishing guides, see http://www.charlestoncvb.com/ or http://southcarolina.fishingcharter.net/.

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