Black drum are bottom-feeders, equipped
with chin barbels that allow them to taste
food before they swallow it. Adult drum
have hard crusher plates and strong throat
muscles that allow them to crunch and
eat clams and oysters. Pups—fish under
eight pounds—love worms, mud crabs,
and other small crustaceans like the grass
shrimp that lured this one to my friend’s
hook. Their food preferences are the critters that proliferate on oyster reefs and
other three-dimensional surfaces in the
Bay’s bottom communities. The juvenile
fish have four-to-five prominent dark vertical bars that become less pronounced as
Most likely these two puppies were spawned
offshore of the Virginia Capes in the spring
of 2015. They then made their way to the
nursery ground of the Severn River in the
deep, salty current that flows northward in
the Chesapeake’s main stem beneath the
freshwater carried seaward. Female black
drum can lay eggs every three days during
their April-to-June spawning season. After
spawning, the adult drum migrate up the
Chesapeake in schools. Along the way, the
fish stop to feed on any reefs they can find
as far north as Love Point, at the mouth of
the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern
Shore. They hang around in the Bay through
September before heading south to warmer
waters for the winter. Anglers like fishing
for them because they are large (up to 100
pounds) and powerful. Because the meat of
big drum is coarse and they are hard to clean,
many get released. Puppy drum, though, are
tasty like other members of their clan.
It’s actually not accidental that those two
little pups turned up at Jonas Green Park
along the Severn River. The shoreline under
the bridge is rocky rip-rap, next to a fish-
ing pier recycled from the old drawbridge.
Under and around the fishing pier and the
shoreline lies a sanctuary oyster reef that
CBF built with spat-on-shell (baby oysters
attached to old shell). It’s perfect feeding
grounds for black drum, large and small.
If the scientific community is correct that
we have reduced the Chesapeake’s oyster
stock to one percent of what it once was,
there’s no surprise that we have lost fish
species that depended on those vast, nav-igation-impeding, bursting-with-life reefs.
But those puppy drum from Jonas Green
are proof that restoring oysters creates habitat and brings back a host of species that
were once plentiful. There are scattered
but encouraging reports of other reef fish
like tautog, black sea bass, and sheepshead
caught around the Potomac and further
north. One other especially encouraging
spot is off Cook’s Point in the mouth of
the Choptank. CBF and a local fishing club
planted 1,200 reef balls with baby oysters
on them. To date, that area is producing
an encouraging mix of species, including
large and medium black drum and black
And there is more good news: The recent
report from the Chesapeake Bay Program
Partnership says that 2015 Bay water quality
overall was the fourth best since 1985 (bay-
2015 was a relatively dry year water-
shed-wide, a condition that reduces overall
runoff pollution. But this broad conclusion
is difficult to gauge for any one of us watch-
ing just our own locale and home waters.
So first, we must thank the Bay Program’s
scientists, especially those from the U.S.
Geological Survey, who give us the big
picture on stream and river flow to the
This big picture provides a basis for comparing the Bay’s condition with that of previous
years with similar flow. The more than thirty
years of data we have because of our long-term investments in Chesapeake science now
show their value by giving us a weather-inde-pendent way to gauge what returns we have
gotten. The overall message from the Bay
Program is that 2015 saw solid reductions in
nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment flowing
to the Chesapeake. These improvements
appear to have come from reductions in air
pollution, sewage discharges from treatment
plants, and farm runoff.
Encouraging catches like these two pup-py-sized black drum well up the Bay are
ecological results. We are tipping the balance. Oyster restoration and water-quality
improvements are paying habitat dividends.
Our Bay is finally starting to recover. The
signs are as subtle as this little fish, but they
John Page Williams,
Senior Naturalist, is one
of the Chesapeake Bay
Our Bay is finally starting
to recover. The signs are
as subtle as this little fish,
but they are real.
Black Drum at a Glance
n Usually found in or near brackish waters. Older fish like saltier water.
n Black drum are mostly bottom feeders, eating worms, mud crabs, and
n Black drum can weigh up to 100 pounds.
n The scientific name for black drum is Pogonias cromis, which roughly
translates to bearded grunter or croaker.
n Fish under eight pounds are called puppy drum.
SOURCE: LIFE IN THE CHESAPEAKE BY ALICE JANE LIPPSON AND ROBERT L. LIPPSON