What is North Carolina’s State Saltwater Fish?

February 24, 1999

The red drum is also called spottail bass because of the distinct marking on its tail. These spots may trick predators into attacking the fish’s tail, allowing it to escape.

In 1971, the North Carolina General Assembly chose the red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) as the Tar Heel State’s official saltwater fish. Our state is known for large red drum caught in and around Oregon inlet and Cape Lookout.

On average, this species grows to approximately 5 feet and weighs about 100 pounds. The red drum is the second largest fish in the drum family, with black drum being the largest.

Our state fish most likely got its common name from the drum-like sound males make by vibrating a muscle connected to their swim bladders. Most fish in the drum family, including croaker, make similar sounds.

The red drum can be found in coastal and estuarine waters from Massachusetts to Mexico. Using its senses of sight and touch, the red drum searches the ocean or estuarine bottom for crabs, shrimp and sand dollars. It also feeds on other fish such as menhaden, spot and mullet. Spawning occurs in ocean waters near inlets from September to February.

Like most of the economically important fish in North Carolina, the red drum depends greatly on estuaries during the early years of its life. The female’s eggs hatch within 24 hours after fertilization. The newly hatched red drum are carried by currents into the estuaries, which serve as nurseries for the next six to eight months. There they find protection and abundant food in the rich, productive estuarine environment. Juveniles stay in the sounds and estuaries, and sometimes the surf zones along inlets, for the first three or four years of their lives.

As the red drum matures, it spends more and more time in the ocean, but may swim into estuaries and inlets to feed. Red drum live an average of 20 to 30 years. Although the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries indicates numbers of older fish are declining, some red drum are still caught that are as old as 60 years.