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FISHERMAN’S PARADISE

by Berry C. Williams

(Chapter X)

THE MIGHTY MULLET

Lee County fishermen often refer to the mullet as the “mighty mullet,” not because it is powerful, but because, if there is strength in numbers, this multitudinous fish deserves the name. Probably no place in Florida is more blessed with endless acres of this school fish than Lee County.

The common variety of mullet here is the gray, with its goggle eyes, silvery scales and small mouth. Many times I’ve seen the rivers and bays filled with floating masses of migrating mullet swimming almost on top of the water, periodically surfacing with their small mouths breaking the surface as if to take in gentle gulps of air. At such times, they’re moving slowly enough to be netted. When mullet travel this way, they’ll swim almost against the side of your boat.

At other times, I’ve seen mullet so thick I had to take an oar and push them aside to make passage for my boat. One night, when I was fishing at the pilings at the Punta Rassa ferry slip, I’d rowed my skiff the short distance from the anchorage slips rather than be bothered with putting the outboard on the boat. While I was trying to snag an aggravating snook, a huge school of mullet came into the shallow, bay-like opening back of me between the fish camp dock and where I was fishing. They were feeding noisily and several casts of my line into their midst didn’t bother them at all. When an hour’s efforts hadn’t produced the wily snook, I was ready to go home. The shortest route was to row against the current through the middle of their feeding ground. I expected them to scatter when I started plowing my oar through them, but I was in for a surprise. They paid me no more mind that a flock of pigeons. In amazement, I stated pushing them aside with my oar as I poled the skiff back to the fish camp.

No one can ever be sure what a mullet will do. One day I was in Shell Creek sitting in my boat at a bend in the creek waiting for the tide to turn. I had caught nothing but small snappers and sheepshead, so I put my rod aside to eat lunch while I waited. I had just unwrapped one of my wife’s good roast beef sandwiches and was about to sink my teeth into it, when suddenly, some flying object darted past my head, knocked the sandwich from my hand, and landed in the bottom of the boat near the bow. It was a 4-pound mullet that had been swimming lickety-split with the current as it swept in. It had leapt out of the water at the bend in the creek only to land in my boat. Such occurrences are not unusual; perhaps there’s no commercial fisherman in the area who hasn’t had mullet jump into his boat.

Mullet are a frolicsome bunch. They “boil” the water and jump clear of it constantly. One can hardly go into a creek or small bay that mullet aren’t playfully breaking the water. It’s a thrilling sight to see mullet jumping. In moving water, they usually make forward leaps, their bodies flattening out parallel to the water. In more placid waters, they make an almost vertical leap, clearing the water by several feet and becoming rigid as they reach the crest of the jump, then falling back stiffly into the water with a flicking motion of their tail.

There have been a lot of theories as to why mullet jump. Some experts believe they’re feeding on insects; others say they’re shaking off parasites. The best guess is that they’re trying to digest their food, kind of like a dog shaking his throat to bolt his food faster. As logical as these theories seem, there’s one occasion I know for tee totally certain why mullet jump, flee, scramble, or whatever you want to call it.

That’s when a dolphin or two plows into their midst, savagely bent upon feeding on them. I’ve seen 400-pound dolphins plow through a mud flat in water only a foot deep to reach a school of mullet.

Anyone who has fished in Florida can tell you that the mullet is not a game fish, but in the next breath they’re quick to add that it’s about the best food fish in the state, not only for humans but also for other fish. Perhaps no other fish is so widely used for bait. Nearly all game fish will strike a mullet. Tarpon find it especially savory. I often use it for bait for Jewfish [GoliathGrouper].

Whenever I hear anyone say you can’t catch mullet with a hook, I shake my head and say under my breath, “The heck you preach.” Actually, it’s simple to do. Just find some calm water where mullet are feeding and quietly sit there until the mullet become used to your presence. Then fix an almost invisible hair hook on a very fine monofilament line. Bait this hook with a tiny dab of hulled shrimp, skinned-on red worm, or hard, smelly dough ball. Put a lead shot on the line whatever distance from the hook the depth of the water is. Gently flip this rig twenty or thirty feet into the water and sit back and wait. I know mullet are vegetarians, but they’ll take this type of miniscule bait. I’ve caught fifty a night fishing for them this way. Of course, I’ve lost a lot of lines, because I had to use tiny test lines in order to fool the fish, and I had to play them in gently. If a 3- or 4-pound bruiser happened to take my bait, I usually lost both line and fish. However, I manage to land a pretty good average of those that bite, especially when I use a long-handled net to sack them up.

Whoever wants to argue that mullet can’t be hooked, should give this method a try. He’ll end up agreeing that not only is mullet good food and bait, it’s also a good sport fish.

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