With bay drum, hard to get in a rhythm


June 13, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

The screen on Capt. John Motovidlak's chart plotter looked like a 2-year-old's Etch-a-Sketch, a scribble of circles, ovals and squiggly black lines overlaid on the bottom contours of Eastern Bay off Rich Neck.

After a windy, wet morning of rockfishing last week, Motovidlak had returned most of his party to the docks in Tilghman and headed his charter boat back out through the narrows to search for black drum, a secretive species with the size and disposition of Bluto and the table manners of Olive Oyl.

"Used to be that nobody really fished for drum," Motovidlak said as his 46-foot Markley, Dawn Marie, ran northeast past the old ferry boat landing at Claiborne. "Back in the late '70s, we'd catch one while trolling for bluefish, or once in a while someone would hook one while bottom fishing.

"But it usually was accidental."

In the years since, black drum have developed a limited following of anglers interested in catching these skulking bottom feeders that can weigh more than 100 pounds.

Once hooked, big drum are not spectacular fighters. Some anglers say the action is more like winding a winch and lifting the fish from the bottom.

But in order to have the chance for a hookup, one must find a school or pod, and Motovidlak, son of the Shore and son of a Shoreman, is recognized as being among the best drum captains.

"Sometimes they're in an area the size of a football field," he said. "Sometimes there's just a smaller spot."

But in all cases the key is hard shell bottom, where the drum feed on mussels, razor clams and soft shell clams. Best bait is a quarter of a soft crab, although a big surf clam might work just as well.

For a large fish, the drum's bite is soft and hard to detect, which is surprising for a species that crushes mussels and clams when it feeds. The one possible bite on Thursday stripped the bait and deftly spit out the hook.

Optimal depths are 15 to 25 feet, said Motovidlak, who learned the locations of bars and rocks during years of dredging oysters from skipjacks, fishing drift nets, hand-tonging and running charter trips.

"You're not going to just drift onto them," said Motovidlak, 50. "If you're going to catch a drum, you have to find them and drop your bait right on them. You just about have to drop it on their heads.

"And if you don't catch them in three minutes, you just reel in your lines and move on."

Motovidlak moved the Dawn Marie often last Thursday, and each move left its mark on the chart-plotter -- a squiggle, a circle an oval.

Over the space of a few hours, Motovidlak prospected from Rich Neck to Kent Point to the northern edges of the Poplar Island complex, hard-bottom areas he fishes regularly for drum.

"They were definitely here when we got here, but I don't know where they are now," said Motovidlak, as he worked Dawn Marie around a marker buoy set on a 25-foot shelf off Rich Neck. "Years ago, these fish didn't seem so skittish. They didn't move around as much as they do now."

Some years ago, after hooking a drum in Eastern Bay, a float was attached and the fish was released.

"Do you know that fish and the whole school with him moved from Kent Point to Tilghman Point [about six miles] in the space of an hour and half?" said Motovidlak. "Now that's some moving."

The Department of Natural Resources has a continuing study of black drum and monitors pound net catches as they work up the bay. But part of the mystery of black drum is where and why they move.

For the most part, anglers can count on drum beginning to show up at the Stone Rock at the mouth of the Choptank River around Father's Day.

For the next week or two -- and sometimes longer -- the drum might be found along the edge off Rich Neck, near the state fishing reef inside Kent Point in Eastern Bay and over the oyster bars to the north and northeast of Poplar Island.

"You find them one day and they're biting and you think this is something that's gonna be real good -- and then you don't see them for two weeks," he said. "They've gone off somewhere else.

"I call it looking for a needle in a haystack."

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