Left to right: The soundside marsh supports a variety of species at Hutaff Island. The author and his friends
swap stories in their camp on Hutaff in the 1980s. A fortunate fisherman carries his catch at Elmore’s Inlet.
26 september 2021
OUT IN THE SLOUGHS, gulls wheeled and dove into a
school of pogies, a favorite finfish of red drum. The fishermen awoke
suddenly, scrambling to rig their big rods with long leaders, 4-ounce
sinkers, and single 7/0 hooks threaded through a slab of cut mullet.
They waded out into the surf slough, breathless as cold, salt spray
peppered their faces. Breakfast could wait. They were after big fish,
and they didn’t care about much else.
Once in the slough, the fishermen paused, positioned their surf
rods behind them. In a smooth arc, the first fisherman cast his bait
high in the air out into the depths where the gulls swooped and
circled. It didn’t take long. A massive tug followed by the whine of a
sizzling drag, and the rod bent into a deep curve.
The second fisherman cast, and a minute later his rod suddenly
lurched down, twisting into a dangerous bend, the reel singing a
high-pitched howl. A feverish battle ensued as it always did with
rod-and-reel fishermen battling red drum.
When an angler hooked a drum, care was taken to carefully play
the fish or a torrid run could spool a reel, stripping off the last bit
of line. If the drag was too tight, the friction could seize the drag,
rendering the reel useless. Worse, the shock and run of a 50-pound
drum could occasionally shear off the rod tip or an eye, or even
break the rod into splinters.
Even if all went well with their gear, the fishermen constantly
struggled for footing in the deep, shifting sloughs and fought both
wave and current while arms tightened and backs ached.
“There was really nothing like it,” says Tripp Brice, who was raised
on Topsail Beach and fished on Hutaff Island most of this youth.
“If you have ever had the privilege of drum fishing and hooked a big
one, you know the sheer excitement of testing yourself and your gear
against one of the strongest fish in the ocean.”
It’s usually all a weekend fisherman can do to land a 10-pound
puppy drum on a stout spinning rod. Think about a 50-pounder
and a fight that may last half an hour! All of the angler’s experience
comes to bear, as well as each screw, pin and eye of his gear, any of
which could buckle, break, crack, shatter or implode at any minute
— and often did.
A hooked drum starts with a series of freight train runs out to
sea that can easily strip off 100 yards of line. The big fish can then
turn on a dime and commence a scorching reverse run leaving
your heart pounding as you feverishly reel to gain slack line while
the drum beelines straight for you. Then, while you untangle the
resulting bird’s nest in your line, the fish rolls, reverses direction
again, tail-swats your already frayed line, and then pulls another
Taylor has experienced multiple drum battles and knows the gruel-ing
sequence quite well.
“The worst is when they go to the bottom and try to grub out
the hook while all the time your rod is whiplashing and your drag
whining,” he says. “When they do that, the hook usually comes out
and you lose the fish.”
More than half a century has passed since drum fisherman
roamed Elmore’s Inlet and the secluded sloughs along Hutaff
Island. In those days, anglers could bring their fish to shore and
proudly pose for the traditional picture. Today’s regulations limit
recreational anglers, and most fishermen now are strict catch-and-release