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A tale of channel bass time past -- and red drum times to come

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A tale of channel bass time past -- and red drum times to come 

I know red drum, profoundly, though only historically speaking. Being a fishing-history devotee, I’ve read just about every shred of what little information there is on the red drum’s past in NJ, where it was known as the channel drum.

As a Jersey species, Sciaenops ocellatus was egregiously despised by baymen, who saw the bullish bottom-feeder as a fish non grata, an attacker of prized crustaceans and shellfish, especially oysters. Anglers felt the oft-jumbo channel bass muscled out the far more favored member of the drumfish family, like weakfish.

Angler/writer Al Ristori offers this historic read. “The first two world records for red drum came from Barnegat Inlet and ‘New Inlet’ -- and almost all of those fish were over 20 pounds -- causing major problems for anglers fishing for smaller species such as kingfish and weakfish as they ran off with expensive linen lines.”

By all indications, the times-past biomass of red drum in NJ, up to as recently as the 1930s, was on par with the famed red drum stocks of the North Carolina area. Such a significant bottom-foraging presence only heightened the distrust of the species, leading to its being intentionally and aggressively overfished – to within a scale-hair of extinction.

Old LBI fishing photos clearly show the slaughter. Dozens atop dozens of channel bass, including some looking to be an easy 50 pound, were caught, hand over foot, especially near Beach Haven Inlet. They were then traditionally hung for photos … before being used fertilizer or, more often, just dumped into the trash pits.

Below: This photo from the famed LBI history book “Six Miles at Sea,” by my late buddy John Baily Lloyd, sure seems to show channel bass – though some folks argue they’re weakfish. No way. 

Same classic book shows those who hated the channel bass ... 

As to its culinary value, red drum was long thought of as being poor eating -- if not downright inedible. This distaste extended throughout much of its East Coast and Gulf shores range, though “redfish” (red drum) were occasionally eaten in the Louisiana Bayou, as proven by a 1933 recipe for “Creole redfish courtbouillon” cooked with ingredients like lard and claret.

Prejudice against eating red drum vanished in a TV flash when, in the early 1980s, chef Paul Prudhomme hyped “blackened redfish.” Its popularity went viral, helped along by Prudhomme marketing the exact ingredients needed to properly blacken redfish. The species’ popularity was soon bolstered by other high-profile chefs going big with red drum recipes. According to a New York Times piece by James Gorman, “On March 1, 2009, redfish was the ‘secret ingredient’ on the television program Iron Chef America, with competitors Mourad Lahlou and Cat Cora both preparing several dishes from the fish.”

Ironically, NJ’s red drum population was fished to near extinction for its thought eco-harmfulness and gastronomic uselessness, while, in modern times, red drum stocks across much of the south have been critically overfished for its deliciousness.

With southern stocks being ravaged, the red drum is now among the most highly regulated of all nearshore gamefish, more so than even stripers – though both were combined in Executive Order 13449 of October 20, 2007, entitled, “Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations.” (I’ve attached that Executive Order down below).

One of New Jersey’s least-known size limits applies to the red drum: We can only keep one slot fish, between 18 and 27.99 inches, per day. Yep, that’s truly true. For that reason, the state record red drum of 55-pounds, taken (1985) in our own waters (Great Bay) by our own Dan Yanino (LBI) remains locked in place. Worrisomely, I doubt more than 10 percent of all saltwater anglers know about the red drum size and bag regulations, i.e. can you imagine the average surfcaster knowing to release a 50-pound red drum? And don’t think a drum that size won’t soon be coming our way – on the wings of a warming ocean.

WARMING OCEAN BENNY?: Although I have fished for "bull reds" (red drum) when visiting the Outer Banks, NC, on surfing assignments, I’ve never come near latching into one of the 50-plus-pounders regularly taken thereabouts. But, I’ve been guaranteed by a slew of top surfcasters that monster “reds” are the hardest fighting fish a beachside angler can hook into … anywhere along the East Coast. For initial line run-off and prolonged fight thereafter, they can easily beat out stripers and chopper blues, I was told just this week.   

By the by, red drum are so emblematic of Tar Heel State fishing that, in 1971, the North Carolina General Assembly voted it the state’s official saltwater fish. And right it should be. Not only has NC produced 10 of the top 16 IGFA-certified red drum but it holds the world record. On Nov. 7, 1984, David Deuel bested a mind- and rod-boggling 94-pound, 2-ounces red drum, taken from the beaches of Hatteras. It fell for a chunk of mullet. Deuel’s fish beat out the reigning world-record red drum, which had been caught years earlier … only 17 miles away.

It’s historic hyperbole to suggest that an NJ channel bass caught back in the day could have flirted with 90 pounds, though I’ll again bring up the photos I’ve seen with easy 50-pounders … rotting in the sun.

While a 90-pounder is out of the question nowabouts in NJ, we might very well vie for the world record in global-warming days to come?

You might get a sense of where I’m going with this, seeing I’m a firm believer that a warming planet will initially impact LBI in far more obvious ways than slow-to-show sea level rise -- like monster redfish calling us home-sweet-home. 

Recently, NOAA all but assured anglers that more and more currently southerly fish species will be warming to life in our zone, due to both water temperature increases and, more complexly, changes in water chemical signatures caused by an environmentally-transitioning shoreline. 

Bouncing back to NJ's bad old days, when our channel bass biomass was both impressively and distressingly large, conditions here were obviously quite conducive to the lives and times of the species. What now awaits any northward drifting red drum? Dollars to donuts they’ll find things easily as accommodating as back when. We harbor some of the finest and cleanest ocean waters anywhere in the nation. I’ll even go up against North Carolina on that count. We also have a tastily impressive and ever-increasing forage pool, comprised of bunker galore, an array of invertebrates, a veritable buffet of smaller finger-food forage fish, clouds of sand eels and countless crabs/crustaceans. This is the foodstuff coveted by drumfish … and stripers.

It’s likely a leap too far ahead but how well might stripers and red drum coexists when vying for the exact same forage? As it now stands, that conflict is side-swum by, very generally speaking, red drum reigning south of the Chesapeake area while stripers trend northward of there. But the skies might dictate directional changes , creating a crash course for the tow heavyweights. 

What an ugly irony if, once again, the red drum is locally seen as a destroyer of a more beloved species – and attacked by anglers for that reason. At the same time, the high regard red drum have garnered among Carolina anglers could easily work its way this way with the species. In fact, that could be why that striper/red drum Executive Order held both species in equal esteem.

One quick biological note: Red drum may be more adaptable than stripers when it comes to tolerating wildly-swinging oceanic and seasonal temperatures, like those associated with climate change – though stripers are far from slouches when it comes to tolerating wild climatological swings. In fact, if there is an odd fish out in the face of a climate-change species shuffle, it would be the weakfish.  

Below: NJ red drum, Cape May, Kensdock Report

While this surely seems a load of what-ifness, I’m not the only sciency soul out there who feels oceanic species shifts – northward, in our case -- are closing in fast. In fact, a red drum arrival – or is it a return? – is behind schedule. However, it could easily happen in short order, especially with protective regulations throughout its entire range. In fact, the next mild winter could spur things on.  

Executive Order 13449 of October 20, 2007

Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, to assist in ensuring faithful execution of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, and the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act (chapters 38, 71, and 71A of title 16, United States Code), and to conserve striped bass and red drum fish, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the United States to conserve striped bass and red drum for the recreational, economic, and environmental benefit of the present and future generations of Americans, based on sound science and in cooperation with State, territorial, local, and tribal governments,the private sector, and others, as appropriate.

Sec. 2. Implementation. (a) To carry out the policy set forth in section

1, the Secretary of Commerce shall: (i) encourage, as appropriate, management under Federal, State, territorial, tribal, and local laws that supports the policy of conserving striped bass and red drum, including State designation as gamefish where the State determines appropriate under applicable law;

(ii) revise current regulations, as appropriate, to include prohibiting the sale of striped bass and red drum caught within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States off the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico;

(iii) periodically review the status of the striped bass and red drum populations within waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and:

(A) take such actions within the authority of the Secretary of Commerce as may be appropriate to carry out the policy set forth in section 1 of this order; and

(B) recommend to the President such actions as the Secretary may deem appropriate to advance the policy set forth in section 1 that are not within the authority of the Secretary.

(b) Nothing in this order shall preclude or restrict the production, possession, or sale of striped bass or red drum fish that have been produced by aquaculture.

(c) The Secretary of Commerce shall implement subsections 2(a)(i) and (iii), insofar as they relate to Atlantic striped bass, jointly with the Secretary of the Interior, as appropriate.

Sec. 3. Definitions. As used in this order:

(a) ‘‘Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States’’ means the marine area of the United States as defined in Presidential Proclamation 5030 of March 10, 1983, with, for purposes of this order, the inner boundary of that zone being a line coterminous with the seaward boundary of each of the coastal States;

(b) ‘‘red drum’’ means the species Sciaenops ocellatus; and

(c) ‘‘striped bass’’ means the species Morone saxatilis.

Sec. 4. General Provisions. (a) This order shall be implemented in a manner consistent with applicable law (including but not limited to interstate compacts to which the United States has consented by law, treaties and other international agreements to which the United States is a party, treaties to which the United States and an Indian tribe are parties, and laws of the United States conferring rights on Indian tribes) and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(b) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budget, administrative, and legislative proposals.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, instrumentalities, entities, officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

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New Jersey's Record Fish Lists

Record Freshwater Fish
Record Saltwater Fish
Record Saltwater Fish - Spearfishing

Entering a Fish in the Record Fish Program

New record fish are caught and entered in the program every year - a testament to the excellent condition of our fisheries resources and the anglers who enjoy them. Complete rules and instructions are found on the application forms. However, the following rules apply to both fresh and saltwater species:

  • New Jersey State records are determined by weight alone. There are no line classes.
  • Fish must be weighed on a certified scale as soon as possible. A copy of the current scale Registration Certificate and valid Inspection/Test Report issued by the County Office of Weights and Measures (pdf, 25kb) is required to achieve record fish status.
  • All fish must be identified by a division biologist.
  • A clear, side-view color photograph of the fish must be submitted. All photo entries become property of the Division of Fish and Wildlife and will not be returned.
  • Application MUST be submitted no later than one month after the date of catch.

Application Forms

There are separate application forms for freshwater and saltwater species:

Freshwater Record Fish Application Form (pdf, 26kb) 
Saltwater Record Fish Application Form (pdf, 55kb) 
Saltwater Record Fish (Spearfishing) Application Form (pdf, 70kb)

Skillful Angler Recognition (Awards) Program

Catch a fish which may not be of record size but is of sufficient size and weight to have tested your skill and/or be of "bragging" size? Then enter your catch in the Division of Fish and Wildlife's Skillful Angler Recognition (Awards) Program.

The Skillful Angler Recognition (Awards) Program is designed to supplement the Record Fish listing. It honors the many anglers who catch both freshwater and marine fish which aren't of record size but are impressive and worthy of recognition. Qualifying anglers receive a signed certificate attesting to thier achievement. At the end of each year, special recognition is given to the anglers who caught the largest fish in each of the species categories.

For more information about the program, including a link to download the application, visit the Skillful Angler Recognition (Awards) Program page.

 

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Comment by Allen Lawrence Jr. on May 20, 2018 at 9:37am

Red Drum are very powerful fish. Back on October 12th 2014 I caught and released a 44" one off of the Garden City Pier in South Carolina. I thought it was gonna spool me and I caught it on N.J. Finger Mullet of which I cast netted myself before my wife and I went on the trip down there to Myrtle Beach for 2 weeks.The date was also my late father's birthday of whom I had lost on March 1st that year which made the catch extra special.

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