Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus)

Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus)

Commonly known as a channel bass and a redfish, the red drum is second only to the black drum (see: Drum, Black) in size among members of the drum family, Sciaenidae, but probably first in the hearts of anglers. The common term “drum” refers to the loud and distinctive “drumming” noise that occurs when the fish raps a muscle against the swim bladder. The noise is voluntary and is assumed to be associated with locating and attracting mates, and it can sometimes be heard from a good distance, even by people above the water.


The red drum is similar in appearance to the black drum, although its maximum size is smaller and it is more streamlined. The body is elongate, with a subterminal mouth and a blunt nose. On adults the tail is squared, and on juveniles it is rounded. There are no chin barbels, which also distinguishes it from the black drum. Its coloring is coppery red to bronze on the back, and silver and white on the sides and the belly. One black dot (also called an eyespot) or many are found at the base of the tail.


The average adult red drum is 28 inches long and weighs roughly 15 pounds. Although red drum can attain enormous sizes, they seldom do so. A 30-pounder is generally rare south of the Carolinas or in the Gulf of Mexico, although fish weighing up to 60 pounds are caught in offshore locations. Thirty- to 50-pound fish are most prominent in the mid-Atlantic, principally in North Carolina and Virginia; these sizes are considered trophies.

Red drum can live 50 or more years. They are reported to live to at least 40 years in the Gulf of Mexico, and the all-tackle record, a North Carolina fish of 94 pounds, 2 ounces, was reportedly 53 years old.

Life history/Behavior

Males are mature by 4 years of age at 30 inches and 15 pounds, females by 5 years at 35 inches and 18 pounds. The spawning season is during the fall, although it may begin as early as August and end as late as November. Spawning takes place at dusk in the coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, near passes, inlets, and bays, and is often tied to new- or full-moon phases. Right before spawning, males change color and become dark red or bright bluish-gray above the lateral line. Both males and females, hours before mating, chase and butt each other, drumming loudly. A female may release up to 4.5 million eggs, although very few survive to adulthood. Currents and winds carry the larvae into estuarine nursery areas.

Adult red drum form large schools in coastal waters, an activity presumably associated with spawning, although it occurs throughout the year. Anglers often see them at the surface or moving under schools of blue runner and little tunny. Sight casting to schools is a favored activity.

Drum are known generally to remain in the waters where they were hatched, although some populations migrate seasonally, and large reds may move offshore, as previously noted.

Food and feeding habits

As a bottom fish, this species uses its senses of sight and touch and its downturned mouth to locate forage on the bottom through vacuuming or biting the bottom. Juveniles consume copepods, amphipods, and tiny shrimp. In the summer and the fall, adults feed on crabs, shrimp, and sand dollars. Fish such as menhaden, mullet, pinfish, sea robins, lizardfish, spot, Atlantic croaker, and flounder are the primary foods consumed during the winter and the spring. In shallow water, red drum are often seen browsing head-down with their tails slightly out of the water, a behavior called “tailing.”

Other Names channel bass, redfish, rat red (schooling juveniles less than 2 pounds), bull red (more than 10 pounds), puppy drum (under 18 inches), drum, spottail bass, red bass, red horse, school drum; French: tambour rouge; Spanish: corvinón ocelado, pez rojo, corvina roja, pescado colorado.

Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus)
Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus)


Red drum are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Maine to the Florida Keys, although they are rare north of Maryland, and all along the Gulf Coast to northern Mexico.


An estuarine-dependent fish that becomes oceanic later in life, the red drum is found in brackish water and saltwater on sand, mud, and grass bottoms of inlets, shallow bays, tidal passes, bayous, and estuaries. The red drum also tolerates freshwater, in which some have been known to dwell permanently. Larger red drum prefer deeper waters of lower estuaries and tidal passes, whereas smaller drum remain in shallow waters near piers and jetties and on grassy flats.

Red drum can survivewide ranges of salinity and temperature. Smaller drum prefer lower salinity levels than do larger ones. Optimum salinity levels range from 5 to 30 parts per thousand, optimum temperatures from 40° to 90°F.

More big reds and fewer small ones exist in a fairly short stretch of the mid-Atlantic because of the rich feeding opportunities. This is said to keep the fish from migrating southward each fall, as they prefer to move offshore to warmer continental shelf waters until spring.