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The Drum

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"His drumming heart cheers up his burning eye." —Rape of Lucrece.

The good Bishop Paul Jovius, who flourished in 1531, tells the following story, illustrative of the regard in which the epicures of olden times held a European representative of the drumfish.

In 1480 there lived in Rome a famous gourmand named Tamisio, who had a weakness for the maigre, the surmullet, and for murries drowned in wine. To such an extent did this passion carry Tamisio that it was his custom to station his servant in the fish-market to bring him intelligence of the destination of the finest fish. Learning, one evening, that a maigre of unusual size had been brought in, he instantly hurried to wait on the conservators, in expectation of an invitation to dinner; but as he ascended the steps of the capitol he met the head of the fish, adorned with flowers and borne, by order of the conservators, as an offering to Cardinal Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Tomasio, being well acquainted with this prelate, gladly joined the procession ; but Riario, delighting in a play of words, said that the head of the greatest of fishes should by right go to the greatest of cardinals, and sent it accordingly to Cardinal St. Severin, who was of extraordinary bulk. St. Severin, in his turn, despatched it in a golden dish to the wealthy banker Chigi, to whom he owed money. This time Tomasio, in his eager pursuit, had to traverse the whole city and to cross the Tiber on his way to the Farnesian palace, which Chigi had built. Chigi, however, did not retain the much-prized head, but after replacing the faded garlands by newly gathered flowers, sent it to his mistress, whose abode lay a good way off. There Tamisio, who, though fat and unwieldy, had tracked the object of his desires, under a hot sun, over a whole city, was at length permitted to enjoy the luxury he had endured so much toil to obtain.

The persistence of Tamisio was a bagatelle compared to the journeys of modern anglers, who cross oceans and continents to take the fishes of their choice. The modern Tamisio is an angler, his object being to take a big sea-drum with light tackle. Its flesh is little appreciated, though it is fair to say that very few anglers know that the head of many fishes, invariably thrown away, is the bonne bouche.

The sea-drum is a very well-known fish, attracting attention by its ponderous size. It ranks next to the tuna, black sea-bass, Florida jewfish, black grouper, and tarpon in size among American game fishes, specimens having been taken which weighed over one hundred and fifty pounds; and fishes from forty to eighty pounds are not uncommon. In appearance the sea-drum is a large and attractive fish. The body is deep and oblong, rising in a decided "hump," the ventral outline being quite the reverse, so that when placed on the beach the lower surface of the fish will touch from the lower jaw to the tip of the tail. The dorsal fin is tall and prominent; the tail large and powerful, not forked ; the anal fin long; the eye is large and striking, the head blunt. The teeth are small and arranged in bands ; the pharyngeal bones provided with a crushing pavement, formed of blunt molar teeth, or "oyster crushers." The color of the fish is black or very dark in the adult, the young being silver gray with five or six vertical bands. On the under jaw are numerous short barbels. The range of the fish is from Long Island to Mexico, being almost everywhere a common fish, affording good sport to the angler.

The drum belongs to the family Sciaenidae, which includes the weak fishes, the white sea-bass, and many others famous in European waters and among the ancients. The sea-drum, the object of our attention, is known to science as Pogonias cromis, but in various localities it has other common names. In some the striped young are considered separate fishes and called striped drums. On the extreme outer reef the men I fished with called it the "porgy," the drum being " big porgy " and the sheepshead " little porgy."

Its habits are similar to those of the sheepshead. It is a slow swimmer, frequenting shallow waters, preferring sandy bottom ; affecting oyster-beds, or localities where it can obtain shell-fish. Its taste for these dainties renders it one of the enemies of the oystermen, the small succulent bivalves being crushed like paper in its powerful jaws. The trail of the drum along oyster-beds is easily followed by the masses of broken shells and the evidences of ruthless destruction, which can only be compared to that produced by the deadly starfish.

So dreaded are these fishes by oystermen that the owners of beds have adopted many methods to frighten them, one being to anchor highly colored cloths over the beds, which move up and down with the waves ; others, according to Ernest Ingersoll, drop pieces of tin on the beds, in the hope that the flashes and gleams of light will drive them off. At such times the drums are often found in vast schools, each fish weighing from forty to sixty pounds, and possessed of an extraordinary appetite for oysters in the shell. Such a devastating horde was caught in a school in Great Egg Harbor nine years ago, in a seine ; the fish numbered two hundred and eighteen, and weighed nearly nine thousand pounds. A City Island oysterman reported to Mr. Ernest Ingersoll that drums had mulcted him to the extent of $10,000 in a single season. Similar stories come from almost every locality where the fish is found.

The fish spawn in the latter part of March, in April and May, in different parts of Florida, those farther south spawning first. Thus down near Cape Florida the fish spawn in March. Upon the upper Florida and Alabama coast and along-shore, according to Silas Stearns, they spawn in April and May, and at Tortugas, as near as could be determined, the spawning season was in March. While an oceanic fish, the drum enters rivers, and I have seen six- or eight-pounders taken with a seine between Jacksonville and Mayport on the St. Johns, and have caught large specimens in the Nassau River near Fernandina, where the water was certainly more than brackish. I have also caught large sea-drums near Old Point Comfort, some localities being famous for them. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the drum is the habit of drumming," from which it derives its name. I first heard it when fishing in the Chesapeake, the sound being so loud and resonant as to be distinctly heard several feet away. On my speaking of the incident to the late Professor Baird, he told me that some years previous he had gone out with a fisherman on the New Jersey coast for the purpose of listening to the drums, and that the sounds they produced astonished him. A peculiar feature is that the drumming often sounds differently to different persons. To me it was a muffled boom - boom — boom, with a slight resonance, this from the open water; but later I had a number of large drums under my observation for several weeks in a large tank, and the sounds were deeper, a roaring boom so penetrating that it could be heard throughout a large room. It happened that I was looking at one of the fishes when the sound was made, and noticed a very slight opening of the mouth and gills, a convulsive movement. The drumming is possibly a sexual call, at least it is heard more in the spring when the fishes are breeding, both sexes uttering it; that produced by the male is the loudest, that of the female is said to be the most musical. The drumming sound is produced by the air-bladder, and whether it can be heard to any great distance beneath the water is a question unsolved. I have been fortunate in hearing the vocal accomplishments of a number of fishes, and several are certainly as interesting as the drum's and one as startling. The common grunt (Haemulon) of the Florida reef would always grunt and groan in a most despairing way when caught. The loudest noise I have heard made by a fish was uttered by a midshipman, a fish nearly a foot long, which I kept in a tank at Santa Catalina Island. This fish would utter a loud resonant croak or bark under water which could be heard with startling distinctness fifty feet away.

Nearly all of the Sciaenidae are sound utterers, and that the early Indians were familiar with the notes of the drum is shown by the legend of Pascagoula and its music, it being described as rich, soft strains which rise from the water on still nights, sounding like the notes of an AEolian harp. In the narrative of' Bienville, who entered the Mississippi in 1699, there is an account of the music of Pascagoula. The Italians give the name of covo to one species, which utters a croaking sound. El roncador of Central America has a similar habit, and Sir John Richardson states that upon one occasion he could not sleep on the coast of Carolina owing to the drumming of a certain species. Lieutenant John White of the British navy reported to, his government that when anchored at the mouth of the Camboya River, his men were demoralized by strange sounds which came up from the sea, " resembling the bass of an organ mingled with the tones of a bell, the croaking of an enormous frog, and the clanging of an enormous harp." Humboldt also refers to a similar occurrence which is quoted by the same author: " About seven o'clock in the evening the sailors were terrified by an extraordinary noise in the air like the beating of tambourines, followed by sounds which seemed to come from the water, and resembled the escape of air from boiling liquid. It ceased at nine o'clock." Not a few black boatmen who fish where the drum is found are terrified by the mysterious sounds.

The large drums are fishes of striking appearance, and while not quick of motion, when they find themselves hooked, they make a remarkable fight and afford good sport. The greatest catches are made with hand-lines and near Fernandina, in a party of a dozen men fishing, but two had rods, the others being armed with lines which would have held a man-eater shark, and I was told by my sable boatman that even these were sometimes broken by big "sheepshead. " But I found that a number fifteen line was large enough for any " sheepshead " up to seventy pounds, and the largest drum known can be taken with a light rod and a number twenty-one cuttyhunk line. So far as tackle is concerned, I should use for these fish the equipment employed for the yellowtail, that is, for large fishes, but the twenty-pound drum can be taken on a much lighter line. Crab and clam bait were used in the Chesapeake, fiddler crabs being a common lure at Fernandina. I used crab, a " fiddler" community affording excellent bait for channel-bass or drum. The capture of a drum of seventy pounds' weight will be remembered, if the fish is taken with the rod; and when the angler reaches that part of Florida where the people try to sell him all kinds of articles, from picture frames to impossible flowers, all made of fish-scales, he may accept it as a foregone conclusion that " drum " can be caught in that vicinity, and later on he will witness the extraordinary scene of a longshore Cracker, a Conch, or a " reefer," scaling drum with a hatchet, for the very good reason that the fish does not relinquish its scales with ease. One black oars-man I had, cleaned the large fish by nailing the tail to a scantling and, standing off, scraped off the scales with a sharp hoe.

One of the largest drums it was ever my good luck to catch was far out on the Florida reef and under peculiar conditions, — circumstances which demonstrated the fact that the big drum is possessed of Joblike patience. I was lying prone upon some staging beneath a pier, where I could observe the coming and going of fishes beneath me, unseen, and was intently watching the actions of a number of grunts, which were engaged in a game of some kind, when I saw a large, high built, thick-set, " double-decked," dark grayish fish come slowly out of the gloom of the channel. It swam with great deliberation, and I quickly recognized the high forehead, the big dorsal fin, of the drum, or " big porgy." On it came, until it reached a pile not six feet from me, when it stopped and began, after the fashion of its kind, to dine upon barnacles and teredos incrusting the woodwork, making the rotten and disintegrating wood fly in every direction. As the fish poised and moved around the pile, I noticed something peculiar about it. It had several horizontal stripes which were not fixed, but undulating and wavy, and presently I saw that they were remoras, the peculiar fishes which attach themselves to sharks by the sucking plates upon their heads. There were four of these fishes clinging to the drum, which patiently towed them about wherever it went, bearing them not only without the slightest protest, but with absolute indifference. As the pieces of teredo-infested wood began to permeate the water with a dusky cloud, the remoras disconnected themselves and darted rapidly about, evidently feeding. The fish was one of the largest I had seen, and I determined to attempt its capture. Not fifty feet away, alongshore, were the remains of an old wreck, and judging that the fish would visit this, I carefully retreated, and having secured a rod hard by, baited the hook with a third of the crushed tail of a crayfish — the spiny lobster of the reef. This luscious morsel I cast from a high pile of dead coral rock which formed the intervening beach between the pier and the wreck in a highway which I knew the porgy or drum would pass in full view, owing to the remarkable clearness of these tropical waters ; nor was I mistaken. The moment my bait sank in about fifteen feet of water it was surrounded by a motley throng of grunts, shad, young gray snappers, porcupine-fishes, angel-fishes, and others, which seized and tossed it about like a ball, creating a commotion that, as I surmised, attracted the attention of the big fish which in a short time appeared, still swimming slowly and with dignity, its jet-black followers trailing against its sides like the barbels or whiskers of a catfish. One broke away and swam ahead, and rushing into the throng, seized the bait. As the ponderous drum approached the lure it stopped, turned slightly upon one side, evidently eying it, while the swarm of small fry melted away as do wolves or coyotes when larger game approaches. The bait was evidently satisfactory, as the drum turned until it appeared to stand almost upon its head, then seized it. The remoras, which had been darting about, " got aboard," attaching them-selves, and the drum moved on.

At this particular moment I became a factor in the proceedings. I had given the fish three or four feet of slack, and as the line came taut the big fish did not immediately notice it; then it gave a sudden jerk as though of annoyance, making the reel cry out beneath my thumb, and then with a steady bearing off I successfully set the hook into its ample jaws which so easily break large hooks by a mere crushing or grinding process. A streak of gray, with streamers of black, a cloud of sand sent rolling upward into the clear waters, a z-e-e-e-e-e-e-e! long drawn out, and the game was away, a rush so fierce, so determined, that I fully expected to see all the line unreeled ; so I descended from the pile of dead coral, my point of vantage, and ran along the beach to a dinghy, hoping to reach it. But the boat was high on the sands and I ran by it, as the fish was now going rapidly down the slope of the channel into deeper water, and headed out the channel. It carried me fifty yards up shore before I stopped it with my light rod, and then I had waded out, knee-deep, on to a little shoal which projected into the channel, from which vantage-ground, the home of the mullet, I played my fish and was played. I would gain ten or twenty feet, then lose it, then by turning the fish inshore and wading rapidly, I would regain the lost line. And so, giving and taking, the contest went on, every now and then the fish making a desperate rush ; and the closer in I reeled it the more savage became its plays. It had one singular movement which appeared to be a rapid dive in a half-circle, bearing away on the line with all its power, then evidently turning suddenly, which gave a slack line for a second as it ran toward me, which was perhaps a trick to gain line. But I foiled it by more than ordinary good luck, all the time being carried slowly up the channel, but now moving gradually in so that I at last reeled the fish up the steep channel slope on to the shoal and had it in three feet of water, where it circled me several times as I slowly and carefully backed inshore.

By this time one of the boatmen had appeared and now waded out ; and, as well wearied with my bare-headed fight under a terrific sun, I brought the fish in, he grained it — a savage and barbarous method of gaffing, but possibly excusable under the circumstances — and dragged it out upon the sands, remoras and all, the four attend-ants refusing to leave until they were forced off. This fish weighed, if my memory serves me rightly, about seventy pounds, and was the largest "big porgy " ever seen at Garden Key, at least by the fishermen I knew. I gave it to the man I often fished with. He was not a Tamisio, and I fancied he looked at me reproachfully the next day when I asked him how it tasted. His reply was that it might have been fine fishin', but it was mighty tough eatin'." So my biggest drum undoubtedly went to feed the sharks, which were the principal scavengers along the key of the Gulf.

Small drums, or " porgies," from eight to twelve pounds were highly valued and caught in the same localities as sheepshead, though in deeper water, one of the best places being on the edge of a deep channel opposite Sand Key, where " Long John " could soon fill the well of the " Bull Pup," as he called his old sloop, which went to the bottom one day in a hurricane. The fishes were probably revenged by using her as a retreat until the teredos reduced her to dust.



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