CHARLESTON - The fish fought with such
speed and vigor that Rick Hiott was convinced a sting ray was on the
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
"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
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
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),"
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
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
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
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/