PINELLAS POINT — Dr. J. McHenry Nielsen has fished on every continent and caught his share of exotic species, including peacock bass in South America, steelhead in British Columbia, even the fabled giant trevally of Midway Island in the Pacific.
Yet the Dunedin ophthalmologist could not hide his excitement when he talked about a recent fly-fishing trip he made in waters not far from home.
"It could have been a world record," Nielsen said of his black drum caught on a fly rod near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
But the "60-something" eye doctor will never know if his catch was greater than the International Game Fish Association's 16-pound tippet record of 68 pounds.
"I practice catch-and-release," he said. "We let everything go, no matter how big."
Fishing guide Court Douthit knew that Pogonias cromis were members of the drum family, but he didn't realize how they got their name until he hooked a 50-pounder off Pinellas Point.
"You could hear it, plain as day, booming like a big bass drum," he said.
Every March, large schools of this inshore species gather near the mouth of Tampa Bay before moving to deep water to spawn.
"One of my friends had come across the fish a couple of days before," Douthit said. "He had been catching them on jigs, and I thought that we should give them a try with a fly rod."
There are about a dozen members of the Sciaenidae (drums and croakers) family found in Florida waters, the two most common species being redfish and spotted seatrout. Although these fish may vary in size, shape and color, they share a trait: the ability to twitch a muscle that covers their swim bladders and create a drumming noise.
The red drum's less glamorous cousin, the black drum, usually confines itself to piers and bridge pilings, except during the spring, when the fish gather and move through open water in a spawning ritual.
On the fly
When Douthit and Nielsen found the fish, the school was surrounded by a dozen boats.
"Some of the boats were foul-hooking them. … They were that thick," Douthit said. "I knew that if we just threw a small crab pattern out there and let it settle down in the middle of them, we would get a hookup."
Douthit said the scene reminded him of the frenzied chaos of Boca Grande Pass, where tarpon anglers often fish less than a boat's length away from each other.
"The fish were big, and only in a few feet of water," the guide said. "You could see their tails sticking up like broomsticks."
Douthit put Nielsen in position, and the fly-rodder cast the crab.
"It sank for a moment and then I hooked one up," Nielsen said. "Then somebody on another boat yelled, 'Move, move … he's got one on a fly.' "
The other anglers stopped fishing and watched the battle.
Nielsen was using a 10-weight fly rod with 16-pound tippet. "But it has more power than you might think," he said. "Once you put that butt down and get the backbone of the rod on it, it is easy to turn the fish. The fight only lasted about 15 minutes."
All members of the Sciaenidae family have the ability to make a drumming noise, but with most species, only the males sound off. Black drum are unique in that both the male and female "drum."
While native Floridians might recognize the sound the black drum makes ("boom-bound!") during the spawning season, those unfamiliar with the phenomenon can find it quite unsettling.
In 2005, the southwest Florida city of Cape Coral agreed to pay USF researchers $5,000 to find the source of a mysterious noise that was aggravating residents living along the canals.
Many residents of the popular retirement community come from other parts of the country, and as a result, had no idea what could be making the strange booming noise that was keeping them up at night.
So the marine biologists, who had earlier conducted a black drum spawning study in nearby Punta Gorda, set up underwater sound equipment that revealed black drum were the culprits.
Some researchers believe that black drum are an advanced species and their calls may go beyond the mating ritual.
These fish, which can live up to 80 years, measure 4 feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds, are just now being appreciated by sportsman such as Nielsen and Douthit.
"We probably caught five or six of them," said the guide. "It is something that everybody should do it at least once in their life."