Fishing is a pastime steeped in its own mythology, its own lore, and its own received wisdom.
Much of this wisdom comes hard-earned, the result of hours and hours of waiting, of reading ripples as they echo across the water, of gauging a fish’s personality based on the tentative tug at the end of your line.
Sometimes, though, this wisdom is born not out of experience, but rather of prejudice. The archetypal example of this is catfish: “They’re bottom-feeders!” the benighted unbelievers scream, jamming a hot dog into their mouth while swigging carbonated high-fructose corn syrup from a 36 oz. jug, “Who knows WHAT they’re eating.”
A similar prejudice keeps countless anglers from enjoying one of the greatest pleasures and challenges in saltwater fishing, let alone from enjoying what is one of the tastiest, most succulent delicacies offered by the sea. The prize? Mullet.
Yes, mullet. Stop rolling your eyes. They’re tough fish to catch, but well worth it. Once you’ve had your first smoked mullet, you’ll never go back, trust me.
But why don’t folks like them? In most places, they’re bait fish, used to fish but never eaten themselves. Why? I imagine there are three reasons.
Mullet, much like catfish, are what most lay-folks would term “bottom-feeders,” although if hard pressed I doubt any of them could give you a clear or accurate description of what they mean by that term.
Broadly, mullets eat whatever they can, feeding on organic detritus, nibbling plants, and chasing the occasional invertebrate. Have you ever seen what they feed chickens or hogs on land, in farms? Trust me, some mullet picking through the mud sounds pretty good after you’ve seen that.
However, their omnivory means that the bait used to get them on your hook isn’t particularly sexy, which I reckon is one strike against them in most folks’ eyes.
Mullet also tend to hug the shoreline, living in murky, turbid waters near outlets or in estuaries where their big eyes help them to navigate the gloom. They have a fairly high tolerance for a wide range of salinities, and will sometimes swim up creeks or rivers a fair way.
Their home, however, is in the sea, and it’s there that you’ll catch them. I imagine that might be strike two for the humble mullet; they’re mobile and active, cruising a wide range of habitats that can make them hard to find.
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Finally, mullet are difficult to catch. In the past, most industrial fishers caught them with huge gill nets, which resulted in wide-spread depopulation, murderous bycatch numbers, and habitat destruction.
Thankfully, large-scale gill netting was outlawed, meaning that mullet populations have rebounded. Catching a mullet without a net though can be tricky since the fish, well aware that it is delicious, is always on the lookout for predators. It takes skill and lots and lots of practice.
I learned how to catch mullet from an old oysterman who lived in Apalachicola, Florida. His name was Eddie. Everyone called him Cap’n Eddie, and they said it without the hint of a joke or with any mockery in their voice. He was a tall fellow, naturally wiry but with the knotted arms and massive shoulders of an oyster fisher. When he wasn’t out scrapping the bottom with the nine-foot tongs used to harvest bay oysters, he could usually be found on the piers, nursing a beer and coaxing the mullet.
Cap’n Eddie knew his fishing, and he generally caught mullet on a cane pole, which is the hardest kind of fishing in the world as far as I’m concerned. Fly fishing has nothing on cane fishing. You can’t hide behind your gear on a cane pole; your successes or failures are your own.
I never could get the hang of it, never hooked a mullet, and so I generally used a simple rod and reel with a nice sturdy six-pound test, a no. 10 hook, a weight, and a bright orange bobber.
Mullet are, as mentioned above, egalitarian in their appetites and undiscerning in their palates. Generally, they are uninterested in most bait and all lures, meaning that to get them to bite your hook you must rely on their willingness to eat soft, squishy bits of organic matter. And the softest, squishiest matter out there? White bread.
Get yourself a hunk of the cheapest, palest, least nutritious white bread you can find. Mullet have tiny little maws and they’re not really gulpers, so you’re going to want to give them something to mouth and play with a bit while they think it over. The proper form, according the Cap’n Eddie, is to encase your hook in a nice broad-bottomed, teardrop shaped bit of mushed up bread, something firm enough to hold its shape in the water while covering the hook.
Of course, the bread will soften up in the water and eventually fall off if nothing eats it, so you’re going to have to reapply periodically. Luckily, white bread, particularly bad, flavorless white bread, is pretty damn cheap.
Take a couple of slices and tear it up for feed – unless you’re very lucky, you’re going to have to chum the waters with bread to get the mullet biting. When you see some activity, set your bobber a fair distance from the hook. Depending on water depths, you’ll want at least two feet, but a good three or four is better.
Now, you wait. This ain’t reel fishing. Leave that bread out there until it’s either chomped up of falls off.
Watch close, and get a good feel for the vibrations in your fishing rod. This is the tricky part, because a mullet doesn’t just swallow and go. Nature’s paranoiacs, mullet will tap and play with the bread while they study the situation, sometimes mouthing it gently before spitting it out.
There’s really nothing like experience, but if you’ve ever fished for catfish on a cane pole you’ll know that there’s a difference in the brief, sharp tug of a play hit versus the sustained pressure of a fish taking the bait. When you feel the real thing, you’ve got to sink the hook with a sharp jerk on the rod, and then haul them in.
Most mullet run two to three pounds, but it’s a dense, muscular fish with a strong will to live, and it will fight you. They seem to break out all sorts of evasive maneuvers when they’re caught, zig-zaging through the water while they try to head to shelter. Watch for stumps or obstructions, and try to keep your prey off of them while bringing them in to land.
With a bit of luck, you’ve got yourself a mullet. What do you do with it, exactly? Check out my next post, and I’ll give you some of my favorite mullet recipes.