Change is good...The evolving shrimp
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
If you're going to take up the challenge of catching mullet on the fly, know this: The odds are NOT in your favour. But they always seem tantalisingly close to 'evens'...and anyone bitten by the mullet bug will move heaven and earth to place their bets on that basis. So the constant search to refine tactics, improve knowledge, and evolve the perfect killer fly patterns is what consumes those of us who have fallen for the seductive charms of this enigmatic, ubiquitous and most frustrating of fish.
A plump Thick-Lipped Grey Mullet
I've been fishing for mullet on the fly for about 12 years now, seriously for the last 10. Yet somehow, the three species (Thick-lip, Golden and Thin-lip Grey Mullet) still persist in making me feel like a rank amateur at times - even if (in reality) I'm not. Fortunately, Mulleteers (as we like to call ourselves) tend to lean towards sharing our pain. And our successes too - a big part of which are our fly patterns.
Now there has been a lot of debate in the UK Saltwater Fly Fishing (SWFF) fraternity about fly caught mullet. There seems to be a core of non-believers who simply refuse to accept that mullet will actively hunt for their dinner. But our combined experiences as mullet fanatics, watching and catching these wily fish, utterly convince us that the reverse is wholly true. The accepted wisdom amongst those in the know is that all three species actively feed on sand and mud shrimp, and therefore that is what our fly patterns generally imitate. They tend these days to fall into two genres; 'generic' and 'imitative'.
I count amongst my best friends someone who has perhaps done more than any other person to both further our knowledge of how to tackle mullet in all their habitats, as well as innovate simple and highly effective fly patterns. His name is Colin MacLeod, and to most of us, he is Mr.Mullet! But he's not the only one. Darren Jackson and Ray Brambley have also brought game-changing patterns to the table (Darren being one of the most extraordinary imitative fly tyers I've ever seen!). All these clever gents have invented mullet flies that catch... consistently. For my part, I've taken inspiration from all of them and evolved some of those ideas to come up with yet more irresistible variants. And that's what we do - borrow, enhance, combine and collaborate, all with each-other's blessing in order to help tweak those odds just a little further in our favour.
Over the 10 years I've been chasing Mullet, a handful of core patterns have risen to the top and stayed a staple part of the arsenal.
The first fly was conceived by Ray Brambley and is affectionately known as Rays Mullet Fly (or the Mullet Bach by those who've never had the pleasure of meeting Ray, a twinkle-eyed Welsh gent with a Peter Pan quality which means whenever I run into him - always a joy - he's never aged!) The pattern was tweaked about a bit and has now settled as a firm favourite.
The simple, but deceptively effective original Rays Mullet Fly or Mullet Bach
Not Long after the RMF graced our fly boxes, Colin Macleod sat tinkering at his fly-bench and a new pattern emerged which sent mullet flies down an entirely new evolutionary path; the Spectra Shrimp. This was still very much a 'generic' fly, but was clearly beginning to look more shrimp-like. Colin's rough and ready fly was, again, extremely simple with just four 'ingredients'; some peacock neck feather 'swords', iridescent, brown Hends Shellback, dark brown Hends Spectra Dubbing (hence 'Spectra Shrimp'), and a thin, gold-wire ribbing. Imitation was not the name of the game, so a quick, scruffy tie was sufficient, and it very quickly started to rack up a reliable tally of fish, particularly Thick-Lips. These days it's still a go-to pattern in estuaries. I tie them far more neatly than they need to be with an emphasis on making the body shape a little more shrimp-like in profile, but honestly? It's probably not necessary.
Spectra Shrimp - don't leave home without one!
Sometimes, it's the fishing conditions that influence how a new fly pattern is devised. Whilst the RMF and Spectra shrimp steadily clocked up fish after fish, Colin found there were times the mullet at his local mark were sitting either high in the water or were feeding in mere inches. In both instances, either drifting or pulling the other two patterns presented problems; both the RMF and Spectra sank. This meant they either drifted below the feeding fish or quickly snagged up on weed or stones in the shallows. Colin surmised that a buoyant fly would solve the issue, and sought to bring some of the Spectra Shrimp's elements to a pattern that would address the problem. And thus, the Ghostbuster was born! The photo below is a 'tagged' version I've just tied. More on that later.
An unlikely looking pattern, but on it's day, and in the right conditions...
...It works just fine!
Just a few years ago, Colin started fishing a new mark. In contrast to the gravel and mud of his local haunt, this new venue was predominantly fine, silty sand - pale in colour and a perfect habitat for both mud and sand-shrimp. Wading the shallows, Colin noticed small, pale shrimp flicking through the water and set about revisiting the Spectra Shrimp to change the colour scheme.
Originally, that meant just 'going blond' with the materials. But something else made its breakthrough entry into the gradually growing family of mullet fly patterns. Right back with the RMF, the colour red had been associated with being attractive to mullet. Colin had early-on caught late-season Thick-lips on a trout pattern called a 'Red Tag' and Ray Brambley had added a red varnished head to the prototype RMF, before we switched to red glass beads. Red worm patterns still work to this day, the supposition being they imitate the threadlike red Harbour Ragworm, common in estuary mud. To Colin it seemed a logical step to eventually add a red tag to the sand shrimp variant of the Spectra, and the results were instantaneous. The resulting final fly? The Romy's Sand Shrimp, named after Colin's daughter. What's more, that crucial tag started to find its way onto 'tagged' versions of other flies too and its now a core element of many a mullet pattern.
Now a firm favourite - Romy's Sand Shrimp as tied by yours truly
A Golden Grey Mullet that fell for the charms of the Romy's Sand Shrimp
Next out of the stable, was the hybrid offspring of the Spectra and Romy's; taking the best of both, the Romy's Mudshrimp was a natural extension. Again, tyers started to put their own personal accents on the core pattern.
My version of the Romy's Mud Shrimp
By now many of the saltwater fly fishing fraternity were sitting up to take notice of mullet as a viable quarry, and the flies that were working. That brought in a raft of new tying talent to experiment with variants and get creative with new methods. Enter Darren Jackson, a gifted angler and extraordinary fly tyer. Not only did Darren hone his own generic shrimp patterns to perfection, but he began experimenting with UV-cured resins to create incredibly life-like, translucent shrimp imitations.
Early versions were simple, some Organza fibre feelers and/or legs, and clear, mono body overlaid with clear UV resin and coloured subtly with marker pens. But they were immediately effective in Darren's local estuary mark. He set about making them gradually more realistic. Using a Stanley blade to score the resin body of the shrimp into segments meant that when the marker was applied, the ink bled into the thin cuts, giving an incredibly life-like look to the 'shell' of the shrimp.
The devastatingly realistic 'DJ Shrimp'
The 'imitative' school of approach was now well underway with other tyers looking to following Darren's lead. Darren continues to pursue perfection and some of his more recent UV resin ties have been nothing short of breathtaking.
Even leaving the UV resin to one side, Darren's acute observational skills enable him to produce skilful imitations that will be the downfall of many a fickle fish.
Left - a real Corophium Volutator mud shimp, and below, Darren's copy
The most recent addition to the generic flies is another Romy's derivative. Colin decided that the red-factor may as well be an 'all-in' feature rather than a hot-spot, and so the Simply Red popped onto our radar over the winter and was eagerly adopted by many mulleteers. The Covid crisis delayed it's general deployment, but since lockdown eased and we've been able to access fish, it's place in the go-to selection has been assured after the pattern immediately began to rack-up fish after fish. The additional tweak to more UV reflective tagging (Glo-Brite floss) also seems to have further improved things.
I tried the Simply Red recently, and on a tough, unforgiving day, it nailed the only two fish between three of us, so certainly my confidence in the pattern is riding high!
Left: The Simply Red...
Below: Early success - The Simply Red tempts my first two fish of this season!
So here we are...pretty much bang up to date in the potted-shrimp-history of the mullet fly. Of course it doesn't stop there. Colin and I have been collaborating over a new branch to the generic family tree. Rather than tying on curved hooks, I've switch to straight patterns in order to imitate shrimp as they flee - their bodies tend to straighten out as they panic and swim away from predators. This is is now something of a fusion between the generic and imitative worlds, and it's resulted in the 'Fleeing Shrimp' family (below). It's brand new, not yet tested on it's intended quarry, but you know what? I'm quietly confident
The Fleeing Shrimp family
Finally, on behalf of all the Mulleteers, thanks to Ray, Colin & Darren (indeed all the mullet fly tyers who share) for their innovation and creativity. As I sit and tie flies which are 'variants', and 'next-steps', I'm doing so by standing on the shoulders of the true mullet fly pioneers. Splendid job chaps... you've definitely lowered the odds in our favour!
If you're not tempted into the fiddly world of fly tying, worry not. Many of the best patterns are now available commercially, especially Colin MacLeod's range of mullet flies. Click here to visit Selectafly's page and fill your boots! https://www.selectafly.com/mullet-583-c.asp