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Out There: The drum beat

8/17/2005

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.

The Mississippi River couldn't have been more beautiful that night. We were catfishing on a stretch in east Arkansas, with a canopy of bright stars above and a carpet of murmuring water below.

The bite was slow. Bill Peace and I sat quietly in his boat.

I hadn't noticed it earlier, but now that the world had gone silent I could hear what sounded like the distant beat of a bass drum. I remembered hearing the same sound when I was child curled up in the bottom of the boat, almost asleep, while my uncles fished through the night.

"Can you hear the drum singing, Bill?" I asked.

He said nothing for a long time, as if he were thinking. Then he told me a story.

"I heard them one night a long time ago when I was fishing here with an old river rat who lived in a shantyboat down by the mouth of the White. He said a long time ago one of those big fancy paddlewheelers was steaming up the river not far from here. It was nighttime.

"The steamboat was all lit up, and all the folks on board were having a good time. An orchestra was playing music. Then suddenly, the steamer hit a snag and began to sink. All the people on board were lost. The Mississippi just swallowed them up.

"The old man said that sound you hear is the sound of the orchestra that drowned. Every year, their ghosts come back and play the same eerie melody over and over again."

"You believe that?" I asked.

"Well, you and me both know it's just a bunch of freshwater drum making that noise," he replied. "That's how they got the name drum.

"Every year when they're ready to spawn, the males start singing to their sweethearts and making that strange noise. Every time I hear it, though, I think about that old man's story, and I can almost see that old paddlewheeler coming up the river and hear that orchestra playing inside."

I've often wondered if ghost stories like that are the reason folks don't fish much for freshwater drum.

It's always puzzled me. Here we have a fish with many endearing qualities.

Freshwater drum are abundant in lakes and rivers from Canada south to Mexico and from the Missouri River drainages east to the Atlantic seaboard. They're easily caught on a wide variety of natural and artificial baits. They strike fiercely, battle tenaciously and reach weights exceeding 50 pounds. And despite popular misconceptions, they're delicious to eat.

Why, then, is the freshwater drum ignored as a sport fish throughout its range?

Ghost stories could be the reason, I suppose. Or perhaps the drum is scorned because it has large, rough scales and a down-turned mouth like carps, suckers and other so-called "rough fish." Maybe it's because a hooked drum doesn't leap in spectacular fashion like a trout or a bass.

Whatever the reason, drum anglers like me don't care. The less folks fish for drum, the better. That leaves more for the rest of us.

I started targeting drum after a summer fishing trip with my son Josh about 20 years ago. Until then, like most anglers, I always considered drum to be "trash fish." Every angler I knew thought of them that way. But my shortsighted prejudice against drum was about to change.

Josh and I hoped to waylay some big bluegills in a little oxbow lake that day. But as darkness fell, our stringers were still bare, a fact I attributed to the oppressive summer heat. Josh requested a last ditch effort for catfish, so on the drive out we pulled off the road to fish where a stream ran into oxbow.

I wasn't prepared for the action that followed. My first night crawler had hardly settled to the stream bottom when I felt a ferocious strike. The fish fought deep and pulled hard like a big channel catfish but, to my dismay, it was instead a very large drum.

Josh, unencumbered by my own prejudices toward drum, cast another night crawler to the same spot. Again, there was an almost immediate response, and Josh was soon whooping with excitement as he thrilled to the tug of his own big drum.

"Get it off quick, Dad," he said as I worked to unhook it. "I want to catch another one!"

I quickly was caught up in the excitement. Over the next hour, we caught 16 drum. The smallest weighed just less than 2 pounds; the largest was just more than 10. It was a trip Josh and I will never forget.

Back home, I related the story of our drum fishing excursion to my fishing buddy, Lewis Peeler.

"Sounds like a lot of fun, especially during this heat wave when nothing else is biting much," he responded. "Why don't you take me and show me how it's done?"

So it was, two weeks later, I found myself back on that stream trying to "drum" up some more summer fun. We fished from noon until 4. And we caught drum continuously for those four hours. We landed more than 100 before we quit counting, including several in the 10- to 15-pound range. Before it was over, Lewis also had become a drum fan.

In the years since, I've fished for freshwater drum in many rivers and lakes, usually during the hottest part of summer when most other fish have a bad case of lockjaw. The hotter it is, the better drum seem to bite.

I've caught them on everything from crankbaits and jigs to minnows and worms. If drum are present, they'll bite almost anything. I've hooked them while casting, trolling and bottomfishing, in deep water and shallow, during day and night — and every darn one I've caught has put a smile on my face.

I've learned there are other anglers who target these fascinating fish, including some who've learned to catch them in winter, when they congregate in deep holes.

Drum anglers remain a secretive bunch, though. Perhaps it's the stigma that still goes with being a drum fisherman that keeps some quiet.

I'd venture to guess, though, that most simply don't want drum fishing to catch on.

It's tough nowadays to find an abundant, easy-to-catch, hard-fighting, heavyweight sport fish that doesn't draw a lot of attention. And me and my drum fishing buddies would just as soon keep it that way.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.