IF YOU'RE UP for something different, try fishing for one of the largest and ugliest fish to prowl the chesapeake Bay. The black drum will be the target of an armada of anglers this weekend at Cape Charles on the eastern shore of Virginia. The occasion is the annual, and traditional, Cape Charles drum tournament, a local project to benefit the high schools.
So how big are these black drum? Well, the biggest one caught last year was 89 pounds. The record for the Virginia part of the Bay is 111 pounds; it was caught off Cape Charles in 1973 by Betty Hall.
And how ugly are they? They're short, fat, big-eyed and have whiskers (barbels, actually) on their chins. That's pretty ugly, compared to, say, a rockfish.
The black drum feeds on the bottom on shellfish and crabs. Most Cape Charles fishermen use a fish-finder rig -- a sliding sinker rigged in front of the hook so the fish can mouth the bait without feeling the resistance of the sinker. The drum are usually found in 20 to 25 feet of water.
Hooking a big drum has been compared to hooking a tank, and you need tough equipment to handle it. Boat rods five to six feet long with double handles and reels from sizes 2/0 to 4/0 are recommended by Nicholas Karas in his book "America's Favorite Saltwater Fishing." Karas suggests using a heavy wire leader and hooks from sizes 6/0 to 9/0. Avid drum fisherman Herman Penn, who works at Pope's Creek Pier in Newburg, Md., says he uses an even larger hook, a 10/0.
Penn says that, depending on the strength of the current, he may use up to a 16-ounce sliding sinker on 60- pound test line. He uses large sea clams for bait. You can also use crabs.
When the drum are on top of the water, they won't bite. "Sometimes you can see them swimming around the boat, but they won't bite a thing then. You have to wait till they go down," says charter-boat captain Carl Lewis of Cape Charles.
Some people say drum larger than 10 pounds don't taste as good, but don't tell that to Penn.
"I love all of them," Penn says. "I caught one that weighed 64 pounds once, and it tasted fine -- kind of like pork."
"Like a pork chop," echoes Lewis. "They all taste all right to me."
The drum, which gets its name from the booming, drumming sound it makes in the water and out, is a member of the large croaker family. According to Karas, the sound is made by rapid contractions of the swim bladder and is better developed in the male.
The Cape Charles tournament runs this Saturday and Sunday, and next weekend, May 18-19. First prize is $300 worth of tackle. A trophy for the largest fish is given each weekend. It costs $2 per person to enter, and you can register at the boat ramp at the Cape Charles harbor.
Cape Charles is almost at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, about 250 miles from Washington. To get there, take I-95 south to Richmond, I-64 east to Norfolk, then U.S. 13 north across the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to State Road 184 west to Cape Charles. Or take U.S. 50 east across the Bay and south to Salisbury, Md., and then U.S. 13 south to State Road 1854 west to Cape Charles.
To find the fish, look for the other boats. More than a hundred private boats and 20 or so charter boats are expected to enter the tournament, according to Emmett Bailey of Bailey's Tackle Shop. Or you can stop by Bailey's at 433 Mason Ave. and he'll tell you where the drum are biting. Markers C10, C13, C16, the Cabbage Patch and Plantation Light are a few of the favorite spots.
If you want to hire a charter boat, fees range from $225 to $250 for six persons on a boat. Rods, tackle and bait are supplied, but not food or snacks. Call the Kings Creek Marina (804/331-2058), and the folks there will book you on a charter that has an opening.
If you can't make the tournament, the drum usually can be found around the Bay inlets on the Delmarva Peninsula through May and into June.
CLOSER TO HOME
If you're not in the mood to drive 250 miles, and want to get your feet wet in the Bay, you might try surf- casting for blues at Point Lookout (90 miles). Ken Lamb of The Tackle Box in Lexington Park, Md., reports that surf-anglers at Point Lookout "have found the going good at the causeway and on the beaches." Cut baits are bringing in blues between 12 and 18 pounds.
Lamb also recommends Cedar Point and the mouth of the Patuxent for blues. He adds that sea trout are mixed in with the blues, both in the Bay and on the beaches, and that "crabs have begun to appear in the creeks and many are shedding" their shells.
If the rains stay away, you can expect the crappie and smallmouth bass fishing to be good just about anywhere. Largemouth bass are still in the beds. In the Washington stretch of the Potomac, the occasional largemouth and a walleye or two are being caught, but "these are the exception rather than the rule," says Dan Ward of Fletcher's Boat House.
The herring in the Potomac are "real thick," Ward says, thick enough to have success with a big dip net. (Remember: Snagging is not the sporting way to catch these fish.) Big perch are around, but catching them requires "knowledge, patience and dedication," Ward says.
And the catfish -- big ones -- are biting. Don't forget you can catch catfish for a good cause: A catfish tournament is being held Saturday at the Naval Ordnance Station in Indian Head (at the end of Route 210). Proceeds from the $5 entry fee go to the American Cancer Society. For details, call Cloyd Blankley at 301/743-5185.
THE TANGLED ANGLER SAYS:
A chugger lure is not a keg of beer at a fraternity party, but the name of a type of surface lure that makes a chugging sound as it's cranked in. The noise is supposed to attract fish.
SAFETY TIP OF THE WEEK
If your boat capsizes but continues to float, the Coast Guard Auxiliary urges you to put on your personal flotation device (that's what they call them these days -- they used to be called life jackets) and stay with the boat. You are easier to locate when someone comes to your aid. Attempts to swim to a distant shore too often are unsuccessful.