Big Uglies on The Fly By: Josh Broer

Sight Fishing Black Drum at Tampa Bay Bridges

I’ll bet that most of you know that there are giant black drum at our Tampa Bay area bridges.  Local bait anglers have been targeting these massive fish with whole and cut blue crabs for decades, and they will eat an artificial offering too.  But, what I discovered about 15 years ago is that these big, ugly fish, “Big Uglies” as they’ve come to be known, will happily eat a fly.

I first became interested in targeting big black drum on fly while tarpon fishing at a few local bridges.  I noticed that, when they are in a feeding mode, they lie on their sides while chewing piling barnacles, thus exposing their pectoral and tail fins above the water line. They can often be spotted by their massive tail fin waving in the air, much like a redfish on the flats. It became a mission to get one of these brutes to eat a fly.

I threw a lot of flies at them, crustacean patterns in particular, since they love to chomp barnacles, shrimp and crabs, but nothing worked.  It wasn’t until good friend and local OG fly guy, Captain Brad Lowman, suggested a large, heavy crab pattern, that I finally got an eat.  With this fly, I finally got their attention.  Getting them away from the structure was a whole new battle.

Here’s how to play the game.  An eight-weight fly rod can get the job done, but a nine or ten weight is preferable in order to muscle these beasts away from the bridge.  Use a thick leader!  I initially started this journey with 30 lb. mono or fluorocarbon leaders, but they were no match for the razor-sharp barnacle and oyster encrusted bridge pilings. I moved up to 50, and sometimes 60, which made a big difference.  Make your leader long – a 10-foot piece will help to keep your pricey fly line out of harm’s way.  Tie on the largest crab fly you can find, or tie up yourself, and begin the search.

I like to move around the largest pilings, although you’ll often see them at smaller ones. The older bridges, which have more growth and marine life, tend to hold more fish. A trolling motor is a valuable tool here, as an outboard motor can put them down. Big uglies can be spotted at any tide, but a higher tide is best as it allows the fish to reach food higher up the pilings. Look for that giant tail fin or pectoral fin waving around as they chew away.  Although not the spookiest of fish, they will go down if you get too close. Move in as quietly as possible and lead the fish according to their movement along the wall. If they see the fly, they will eat it. Lock down the drag, get down-and-dirty on the rod, and move the boat away as quickly as possible. It’ll be win or lose within the first ten seconds.

The fish will do everything in its power to get back to the bridge, so keep the boat moving away until you find open water. The larger fish will give you one heck of a fight and make a number of strong runs. You’ll almost always see your backing. A typical fight from eat to fish-in-hand lasts anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. You can manage all of this solo, but having a mate to help you maneuver the boat and land the fish is the way to go. Get your trophy pic and set ‘em free. Older black drum are filled with worms, so don’t bother with the fillet knife. Big Uglies on fly – newbie fly fisherman or seasoned bug whipper – it’s addicting.

Joshua Broer, a Tarpon Springs native, is the Facility Manager for the College of Arts & Sciences at USF.  His specialties include flats and bass fishing, fly fishing, and sea kayaking.  Reach him at

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