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Wild Side Column: Back in Florida for some Drum love

The tail of a large red drum that I caught near Cedar Key, Florida. Dan Wilcox photo.

I returned to our place in Cedar Key, Florida a couple weeks ago to take delivery of a fishing boat. I picked up my fishing friend Frank Fillo of Moberly, Missouri on the way south. Frank and I were fortunate to get out fishing a number of times during our short stay in Cedar Key even though my new fishing boat wasn't ready to hit the water, being rigged with a motor and other equipment at the Cedar Key Marina.

I met Matt Sky several years ago in the winter at the Tiki Hideaway Bar in Cedar Key where Matt and some friends were playing music to the crowd that had gathered there to watch the sunset. Matt is a fine musician and an avid fisherman who now lives in a wheelchair after an accident when he was guiding a pack horse trip out west. He has a house in Cedar Key, a van and a fine fishing boat. Matt invited Frank and I to go fishing with him.

We launched his boat at the city boat ramp and Matt ran his boat out the main ship channel past Seahorse Key along the Seahorse Reef, a sandbar that extends about 10 miles out into the Gulf. Seahorse reef concentrates baitfish and their predators. We caught a number of herring, blue runners and pinfish for bait on small hooks and then cast live bait for king and Spanish mackerel. We caught one mackerel and a lady fish out there before the wind and waves persuaded us to go back to the shelter of the islands.

When we reached quieter water near the islands, we had one of those exciting times of saltwater fishing when a school of jack crevalle chased baitfish right past the boat, followed by a number of big red drum. I caught one of the strong crevalles. Drum grabbed baits that Matt and Frank threw out. We had three fish on at once but despite the various tangles got them all to the boat. It was heartbreaking for Frank to release a 28-inch long red drum, an inch over the slot size limit. Moments later we were visited by a group of manatees and an enormous loggerhead turtle.

Fishing along the north side of Seahorse Key for one more keeper drum, we caught a few Spanish mackerel and sea trout. Frank broiled up sea trout and Spanish mackerel for an experimental taste test dinner. Both were fine, with the mackerel getting the higher marks.

We were invited to go out with Melvin Lauderdale, owner of Painted Sky Lodge that Frank rents each January. Melvin is an avid fisherman who grew up fishing around Cedar Key and has a fast flats boat. We launched his boat at the city boat ramp. We ran out a couple miles on the marked channels. Melvin beached his boat on an island, threw a cast net a few times and filled the bait well on his boat with small mullet and mud minnows. He called them "drum candy."

Melvin piloted his boat south from Cedar Key, past the clam lease areas into treacherous Wacassassa Bay that is shallow and strewn with scattered limestone rocks. We fished some inshore oyster bars on a flooding tide. I caught a beautiful 26.75- inch long keeper red drum, just under the 27-inch upper limit of the slot size. Rather than the usual circular black spots on the tail, that red drum had a heart-shaped spot.

We caught a bunch of sea trout, several Spanish mackerel and another keeper drum. Frank had an enormous tarpon on but only for one jump. Juvenile hawksbill turtles surfaced near the boat and were surprised to see us. We saw flock of elegant oystercatcher birds on Corrigans Reef on the way back.

Our return to Cedar Key coincided with the spawning season of red drum. Adult red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) gather in nearshore Gulf of Mexico waters during their September-November spawning season. The spawning aggregations can be seen from airplanes. Tides carry the developing larvae into estuaries where the young drum spend their first few years and are heavily targeted by anglers. Red drum become sexually mature at 3 to 6 years, which coincides with their growing out of the 27-inch slot limit. The large fish leave the near-shore estuary areas to join the spawning aggregations.

Doug Raines, a six-generation Cedar Key resident who owns a bait and tackle store, said that a lot of big red drum have been caught near Cedar Key recently. We really enjoyed catching them. Frank Fillo is a great cook and his broiled redfish picante is excellent. What's not to love about beautiful days on the water, catching red drum, and having fine fish dinners?