• Joe Walker

Mullet flies - Wake me up before you go-glo

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

IF you’re old enough (like me), you’ll remember, first-hand, things like all the lyrics to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (whether you’ll admit to that or not), Cadbury’s Flake adverts (at least if you were a teenage boy in the UK), Saturday morning kids TV, and the classic line in the film ‘War Games’ (“Would you like a nice game of chess?”).

The 80’s also railed against the previous decade’s pre-disposal towards largely brown and yellow couture (often in the same outfit) and replaced it with offensively lurid day-glo pink and lime green combo’s.

So, much better then.

As it happens, I recall having a pair of virtually luminous pink, green and black knee-length board shorts, sporting the legend “Shreddin’ the Wedge” down one leg. I still have no idea what that meant, but apparently my shorts were rad.

What the heck has any of that got to do with the recent developments in mullet flies?

Well the thing is, all that day-glo stuff in the 80’s, which also extended to makeup, lipsticks, jewellery etc, had a dual purpose. Yes, it was loud and boisterous and made Sir Phillip Green lots of money, which is what the decade was all about, but a lot of it also really came alive in your local night-club. Why? Because the clubs were all decked out with perfectly safe (ahem…) UV lighting. Once nefariously dingy venues were suddenly full of people positively radiating ghastly toxic colours and probably developing Trump-esque sun-tans to boot. But boy, were we all highly visible. Tron had a lot to answer for.

Cue the relevance to mullet flies.

Early on, the first ‘mulleteers’ attempted to catch mullet using a variety of trout flies. All manner of patterns were flicked past the noses of our aloof grey-scaled chums, and most elicited no response. Most. After a while, it became apparent that a small handful patterns did work, albeit inconsistently, and two broad observations were made; a. that a general shrimpyness caught their eye, and b. Mullet like red.

Early on, Ray Brambley’s Diawl Bach derivative (which became the Ray’s Mullet Fly) featured a dob of red varnish on the head, and Ray was catching regularly on it. Red bloodworm patterns also got a reaction, as did the traditional Red Tag wet-fly.

My first ever fly caught mullet...and on the very first Rays Mullet Fly ,with the red nail-varnish

on the head. I had two - they were like twins.

But why red?

Well it’s an established fact that fish have very good colour vision, It may be that mullet are attracted to red because it matches the vivid colour of threadlike marine worms and juvenile harbour ragworm that are abundant in the mud and silt we so often see mullet mooching about over. Packed with protein, the worms are an easy and nutritious meal, so it’s not hard to see why mullet could be simply ‘hard-coded’ to investigate anything bright red, and that could therefore make your fly ‘stand out’ from the crowd.

And in the very same session, this one fell to a red maribou tailed bloodworm. They just can't get enough.

Pepping up flies by adding red elements has since become pretty established and has evolved from a dob of varnish into imaginative use of bright, translucent red glass beads, Flexifloss, woolen ‘tags’ etc. Flies that were already catching were further enhanced by the addition of a flash of crimson somewhere, and there was no doubting the effect.

Fish see colour, Mullet like red. So far, so successful.

But what’s been confirmed much more recently is that many species of fish see in the Ultraviolet spectrum too.

This requires some pretty specialist anatomy within the eye of the fish, with both the structure of the eye allowing UV wavelengths to travel through to the retina, and specific light receptive cells to enable that part of the colour spectrum to be processed.

Not all fish have this. In fact some detailed studies on reef species in Australia (involving 211 different species) established a complex mix of fish,

  • those that could see in UV and sported invisible markings only revealed under ultraviolet light,

  • those that had UV markings but could NOT actually see in the UV spectrum themselves,

  • and those that had neither trait.

Interestingly, two species of Grey Mullet (including the flat-head) were included in that study, and they fell into the 50.2% that did have the UV transmissive structures in their eyes.

If the evidence suggests mullet can see in the UV spectrum, it begs the question, why? The recent David Attenborough BBC wildlife documentary “Life in Colour” touched upon the hidden UV-coloured world of reef fish, and how it may help similar coloured species differentiate from one another, or look for mates etc. It’s also true that UV light penetrates far deeper through water than other colour wavelengths do, so it’s speculated that it may help fish see one another, food, or predators more easily, particularly in open water.

I wonder if those pesky schoolies can see red... they seem to - wild boys that they are.

Now as it happens, we mulleteers had begun to suspect the UV connection a while ago; let's take a step back to the height of the 'red-era'. I think it started with mullet guru Colin MacLeod’s grandmother. Or more to the point, a large ball of red wool that I’m sure he’d said belonged to her and had ended up in Colin’s fastidiously neat collection of flytying materials. I may have imagined the Grandmother thing, but if so we’ll call that bit artistic license.

Having had some extremely positive responses to a Red Tag fly from some hulking great thick-lips, Colin decided to snip off a little of the wool and add it to his then recently devised new pattern the Spectra Shrimp. The suspicion that there might be more to it than just the general ‘redness’ only came when we started coating the shell-backs of the flies with UV cured varnish to give them a little more longevity, especially when they’re often harried by cheeky, toothy little bass. One click of the UV torch button revealed that the red wool tag positively lit-up ten-fold under it’s beam; it fluoresced. Oddly, not all dyed wool does that, (it’s down to the composition of the dye) but the flies tied with wool that did, seemed to be the ones that worked more consistently.

Left: pretty soon, the 'glowy' red wool was festooning flies left, right and centre! Flies were trading places fast.

Right: A much later, tagged Ray's Mullet Fly, complete with glass beads on the head and , of course,'glowy' wool! Only fools would ignore it.

The ‘glowing’ wool became a firm favorite for us, adorning ‘tagged’ versions of pretty much all our staple mullet patterns. In fact ‘red-fever’ lead to going all-in, and the Simply Red was conceived on the vice – red tagged, iridescent red Hends shell-back, sparkly red Hends Spectra dubbing… well you get the idea. Did it work? Oh yes.

The Simply Red - an instant hit I'd say! And a fly design that will hold back the years for sure.

Wanting to push the hypothesis a little further, the year before last Colin purchased some crimson ‘Glo-brite’ floss, and by doubling it up several times was able to cut a short, neat tuft of super-UV-fluorescent material which replaced granny’s wool. The results were another boost in catch-rate, and I for one was certainly convinced by their efficacy!

Of course what we don’t know (without some very expensive camera equipment) is how the mullet might possibly see the fluorescing floss. We assume that because it glows under a ‘black light’ in a way we can see it, that it would similarly stand out to UV sensitive mullet peepers. That assumption could be way off…but the way the fish react more readily (no pun intended) to the flies suggests perhaps it’s not wide of the mark. So we go with what we know.

There was definitely something in the UV/fluorescent thing where mullet were concerned. But…did it have to be red? There was only one way to find out! Late last season I met up with Colin again for another session, and mid-way through he revealed a Romy’s Sand Shrimp tied not with the now-usual scarlet Glo-brite UV floss tag, but a lurid Chartreuse one. It looked frankly a bit weird and freaky, like someone with over-bleached teeth but, never one to shy away from trying something new, Colin affixed the garish variant and sought out some feeding fish. It didn’t take long, and the new kid on the block was energetically snaffled by a plump thin-lip. With confidence up on the new colour, the results need replicating, so this season’s box contains a good smattering of vibrant green amongst the red. It looks rather festive.

"What you have discovered Lord Percy, if indeed it has a name, is...some Green"

By way of a further tweak, Colin also started to do what I call a ‘hot-wrap’ on some flies; Those tied without a full tag (so keeping the original profile and ‘feelers’ typical of an untagged shrimp pattern) needn’t go entirely without the attention-grabbing burst of UV material. Instead of tying in a tag, a little of the UV floss can be wrapped along the bend of the hook, providing that valuable hot-spot of colour alongside the original shrimp body. Again, it’s a case of including as much as possible to tip the balance in the mulleteer’s favour, and I have no doubt at all that it’ll work.

The very latest Rays Mullet Fly variant - tied in a new tan colour with a UV 'hot-wrap'. It's like a leg-warmer. Mad Lizzie would approve.

The final and most recent ‘why not?’ was to in fact take the ‘tutti-frutti’ approach and add the hot-wrap AND the tag, and of course in the two very different colours. And there you have it – the 80’s vibe; They’re bright, they clash, they glow under UV light. It’s like having Harry Enfield yelling “LLLOADSAMULLEEEET” in your flybox. Grab your Walkman and slam in the Wham… the 80’s and the Mullet have more in common than just the haircut!

I mean...come on (Eileen)...how 80's is THAT?

Oh, and one last UV related fishy fact that I came across whilst reading a couple of scientific papers on the subject: fish can get sunburn! Those that live in shallow, clear water or very close to the surface have evolved what is in effect a natural sunscreen in the mucus coating they excrete. So next time I forget mine, all I need to do a rub a mullet on my ears.

Now… as I sang, with a deep sense of irony, after completely missing my 4.30 am alarm-call on one session last year, waking 40mins drive away from our meet point just as my chums were leaving on the boat… “Wake me up, before you go-go, coz I’m not planning on going solo…”


Yes, I'm a child of the 80's. Well...teenager of the 80's. I appreciate I have more than a few overseas readers who may not get some of the smattering of 80's references here. I guess the same goes for anyone appreciably under the age of 50. Very possibly consider yourselves lucky!

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