Also known as redfish, channel bass, rat red, spottail, or just "reds", red drum are a favored target of Tampa Bay anglers for their incredible fighting spirit.
Red drum are a coppery reddish-brown color, which fades to a silvery hue around their bellies. The large black spot at the base of their tail easily identifies these fish. Although a single spot is most common, it is not unusual to see redfish with multiple spots.
Red drum prefer shallow waters along the outskirts of estuaries. Often, they are found in water so shallow that their backs are exposed while swimming. They may also be seen feeding with their nose down and their tails poking up out of the water. This phenomenon is called "tailing". Although they are generally bottom feeders - dining on shrimp, crabs, small fish, and marine worms - they occasionally feed in the water column when the opportunity arises.
The name "red drum" describes both their reddish hue and the drumming sound they make during spawning or when taken from the water. This drumming occurs when special muscles rub against the swim bladder - the muscles act as drum sticks and the swim bladder acts as a drum.
Red drum can tolerate a wide range of salinities and temperatures. They grow rapidly during their first four to five years, and continue to grow throughout their lives. In fact, the life span of a red drum can exceed 40 years! In the first year alone, they grow as much as one inch or more a month. The record redfish in Florida weighed 52 pounds and 5 ounces.
Males reach sexual maturity at about two years of age and females are sexually mature at about four years of age. New or full moon phases usually trigger the spawning season, which lasts from August to mid-November and peaks in September. Red drum prefer to spawn near the mouths of passes and inlets.
Like many bay inhabitants, red drum display elaborate courtship rituals. Males exhibit dramatic color changes, turning stark white on their bellies and a shimmering bronze on their flanks and backs. Beginning in the late afternoon, males trail closely behind the females for hours at a time while drumming loudly and butting them. Just after dark, both male and female shudder - the female releasing a milky cloud of eggs and the male a cloud of sperm into the water. The miniature eggs, about 1 millimeter in diameter, are clear and contain oil globules that keep the eggs afloat as they are whisked away by currents into the estuary where they hatch. Throughout the spawning season, red drum may spawn every three to five days producing tens of millions of eggs. Unfortunately, few survive to adulthood.
Once inside the estuary, juveniles find shelter along the fringes of seagrass beds and other vegetation. As adults, they move from the estuary to the Gulf of Mexico where they join large schools of sexually mature fish. They don't wander too far, however. Tag studies show that red drum prefer to stay close to the area where they were spawned.
The popularity of blackened redfish on restaurant menus in the early 1980s, combined with loss of seagrass habitats, contributed to dramatic declines in red drum populations. By 1988, state and federal governments placed a complete ban on commercial harvests of red drum in Florida. Although recreational harvests are still permitted year-round, there are strict bag and size limits.
To help replenish red drum populations, scientists with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) Florida Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory are raising red drum in the state fish hatchery at Port Manatee and releasing them to Tampa Bay. As of July 2003, more than 2.7 million red drum had been released into the Bay. The fish are tracked from the day of release using a variety of methods, including DNA analysis of fin clips received from anglers and underwater acoustic tracking.
Tampa Bay anglers are urged to help scientists assess the impacts of hatchery-raised red drum released into the wild. Here's how:
Hatchery red drum may be marked with a variety of externally visible streamer tags. These tags protrude from the back near the dorsal fin or the belly behind the left pectoral fin. If you catch a tagged red drum, record the capture information such as the tag number, fish length and specific catch location. Record any unusual circumstances regarding the catch. When you release a tagged hatchery red drum, do not remove the streamer tag. Repeat captures of the same fish are not uncommon. If you plan on keeping your catch, please mail the tag to FWC.
14495 Harllee Road
Port Manatee, FL 34221
Because most hatchery-released fish will not have an external tag, anglers are urged to participate in the Redfish Fin Clip Program. A nickel-sized piece of tissue clipped from the second dorsal fin provides enough DNA for researchers to determine whether the fish is hatchery-raised or wild. Fin clips and carcasses from legal-size fish (18-27 inches), if they are kept, can be turned in at any participating bait shop. To obtain a fin clip kit or receive a list of participating bait shops, call 1-800-367-4461 or e-mail Tagreturn@MyFWC.com