I have used quite a few different techniques to catch mullet. I’ve never really fished them commercially, so I have no experience with large-scale gear such as gill nets or stop nets — though back in the 1970s and ‘80s, I did sell a modest number to the fish houses for crab trap bait.
My most effective way of catching mullet has been to toss a cast net at night. From the earliest days of their lives, mullet are chased by things that attack from above. Flying hunters such as pelicans and ospreys and waders such as egrets and herons all eat lots of mullet, so it’s a well-ingrained defense for mullet to scatter when a shadow passes overhead. This strategy is good when birds attack but is also an excellent defense against a high-flying cast net.
Good mullet cast netters are patient enough to wait until the school is moving away and all those sharp eyes are scanning the opposite direction of the approaching net. A low, fast net trajectory helps too. For my part, I took the easy way out and mostly cast netted mullet at night off seawalls. Mullet don’t see the net well at night and were easier targets for my youthful impatience and sloppy net throwing skills.
But this fishing does have its drawbacks: You need to know the area where you’re throwing well enough to avoid rocks. Also, it’s a bad moment when you discover that the loaded cast net draped over your arm and shoulder had been sitting in an unseen fire ant nest just moments before.
In my youth, I caught mullet with snatch hooks. This works pretty well when there are big, tight schools in the canals, but it’s hard work. My favorite snatch hooks were large, heavy trebles that required a stout rod to cast. You needed a stiff rod anyway to make the hooks penetrate the mullet’s scaly armor, especially since we were mostly using stretchy monofilament line in those days.
The idea was to chuck that big heavy treble hook just past the thickest part of the school and retrieve it with mighty whips of the rod. Not a light-tackle pursuit at all. You’d work up a sweat pretty quick even during the fall schooling season.
Those dense pre-spawn schools of mullet were also good targets for a throwing gig. This is a lightweight gig with a wrist lanyard that we’d toss at the fish when they were near enough to the seawall. That was fun, but not nearly as efficient as snatch-hooking.
I’ve shot them with bow and arrow as well, with about the same level of success as a throwing gig. They needed to be pretty close to the seawall and pretty close to the surface to stick a fiberglass fishing arrow in them. I’ve also speared a fair number of mullet while snorkeling. My old two-band Arbalete speargun is long gone, but it stuck a lot of fish back in the day.
We used a different type of gig at night from a boat: A much heavier version that we’d make out of a piece of heavy dowel rod about 10 feet long and tipped with a big No. 9 gig head (a menacing five-pronged contraption with a spread of about 6 or 7 inches).
This weighty rig was not thrown. Instead, we’d jab it into a fish and hang on. If you’d hit your target just behind the head, you might kill it outright and not have to contend with a struggling fish. If you gigged something big, like a 10-pound redfish (legal prey for gigging in those days) and didn’t kill it immediately, there was a good chance that it might twist off the barbed gig points and escape.
To avoid losing big fish, we’d try to stick them as near vertical as possible and work to pin them to the bottom until their struggles slowed, then swing them aboard. We gigged out of a small, shallow draft boat moving slowly enough that jabbing a gigged fish into the bottom would stop the boat in its tracks. Of course, it helped if the operator knocked it out of gear as quickly as possible.
We gigged at night in the shallows with a bright light that illuminated the water under and in front of the bow. While we did stick a lot of running targets, many of our victims were fish that froze in the light just like the old “deer in the headlights” scenario.
I have also caught a few mullet on hook and line. A very few of those — less than a handful — have come on fly. The others, probably no more than a dozen in my lifetime, took shrimp while I was fishing in the canals.
I have never tried the old-school technique of chumming with oatmeal or whatever and fishing with tiny suspended hooks, but I am told that it can be very effective. One old-timer who has done it a lot told me that this technique works best when fishing in more fresh water and not so good in saltier water. I do not know why this would be, or even if it is true, but he was very adamant.
Anglers know that some fish of some species tend to jump when hooked, while others do not. Since we see mullet jumping all the time, you’d think that they’d tend to jump when hooked. But no mullet that I’ve caught on rod and reel or even snatch-hooked has ever jumped. They pull hard and long, but they tend to go deep. Many of us have asked, or been asked, why mullet jump. My question is a little different: I wonder why hooked mullet don’t?
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.