The Lazy Mullet
Want more mullet on the fly – think 'Lazy'!
There’s always a better angler. That’s how it seems, and never more so than when you’re skimming though facebook, as an endless column of happy anglers posing with their personal bests or myriad catches slides up the screen.
After you’ve had a blank or two, particularly on the quest for mullet on the fly, you can get left feeling pretty darn inadequate. It’s especially biting when you’re relatively new to the agonies of this particular pursuit, and it can easily leave you feeling despondent and tempted to go and target something easier. Like the Loch Ness Monster.
Mullet Master - Colin MacLeod winkles out another
But hang on in there. There are three things to consider here;
a. Even the very best of the mullet gurus started with (and still get!) days where the landing net remains stubbornly dry, and
b. Those guys who do have regular success have something you don’t have yet but can get… the advantage of time and experience. And finally
c. Never underestimate utter laziness.
Let’s be honest though… you’re reading this because you want a short-cut, right? Can’t say I blame you – it can take a royally long time to accrue enough experience with mullet on the fly as it is, let alone doing it from scratch by trial and error. Some of us probably don’t have 20 years to spare!
So… what is it that I hear most from stressed and exasperated would-be mulleteers when they vent their anxieties online beneath those happy grip’n’grin shots (aside from a general wail of “Where am I going wrong…?!?”).
For the most part, those anglers new to chasing mullet with a fly rod have already found some fish, but what they’re not getting is any response to their flies. And when there are really significant numbers of fish right in front of you and you get not a sniff, it’s no wonder you question your angling ability. This is even more exasperating when fishing next to one of the mulleting gurus who’s using the same flies, setup, leader, trace and aftershave as you, and yet seems to be able to connect, usually several times, while you’re chewing the cork off your rod handle and struggling to hold back the tears.
The body language says it all...
It’s worth taking breath at this point, and focusing on what’s happening in front of you, not to the side. If you’ve got the right kit and flies (for advice on flies see this article: (https://www.saltandsalmonids.co.uk/post/change-is-good-the-evolving-shrimp ) then the rest of what you need falls under the heading of ‘just watching’.
Observation is crucial to successfully targeting mullet on the fly.
Unlike throwing half a loaf of crusty white into the sea to promote feeding, we’re trying to get mullet to chow down on a shrimp imitation. It’s simply not going to work (or at least, is a lot less likely) if the mullet don’t fancy a bit of shrimp to start with – you’ve got to find them in the moooood!
Dinner was served
Think about it logically then. If you’re already familiar with flyfishing rivers, one same core principal applies in the salt… Fish are hard-wired to be lazy. Well, when I say lazy, what I mean is they want maximum calory intake for minimum calory outlay. That means good quality food without having to travel too far or expend too much energy to get it.
From the feeding mullet’s perspective, that criteria is filled by either having your food delivered, or finding somewhere which is the marine equivalent of Supermarket Sweep.
Delivery is simple – it’s all down the current. If the fish can hold in the flow and have a steady supply drift straight to them, then that’s a good place to start. Of course there are a few things to consider;
Firstly, too fast a current is not a good use of energy, whilst too slow will mean larger food particles (like shrimp) will drop out of the flow (and who wants to go and collect if you don’t have to, right?). This will become self evident – the mullet will choose sit in the ‘goldilocks zone’ and hold there if it's worthwhile.
Secondly picture a hundred mullet, evenly spread throughout a current 20 meters wide, 40 meters long wide and 1.5 meters deep. That’s just 1 mullet for every 12 cubic metres of water…and you want to trundle your teeny, tiny flies right past the nose of the one fish that’s hungry? Long odds. So you want to try and choose the time and place where those 100 fish are funnelled into a much, much smaller volume of water. The funny thing is, the mullet are having the exact same thought, one notch down the food-chain – concentration fish and their prey work exactly the same way.
Think three-dimensionally; Narrow the flow and make it far shallower. This does two things – it forces the fish to pack far more tightly together thus increasing the chance of your flies being noticed, and it then introduces a potential golden ticket…competitive feeding! One fish feeding is good, but three fish feeding increases your chances exponentially! Three fish and only two (apparent) juicy shrimp drifting by? No-one wants to lose out, so caution takes a back-seat, and there’s often a race to grab dinner whilst the offer’s there.
Finding these ‘flow zones’ comes down to a bit of time invested in looking at the topography of the shore at low tide. Natural channels and bars that will funnel water through, rivers emptying into the sea, weirs or outflows… there can be many features that can create the conditions that the mullet (and you) can take advantage of.
Left: Look for features that funnel water
Below: Think 3D - Shallow water concentrates fish too!
In terms of presentation, dead-drifting flies in this scenario can be really effective. You still need eyes on your fish, as their behaviour will still help you further tip the scales (no pun intended) in your favour. Cast upstream a little and let your flies roll down with the current, keeping connection with them by very gently taking slack out of your line as it develops – Nymphers, you’ll know what you’re doing here. Watch the flyline for twitches and pick-ups and ‘strip-strike’ at the first sign by tugging the fly-line back sharply in your free hand. Takes can be lightening fast so be ready, and whatever you do, overcome the urge to lift the rod to strike. That’s a good way to lose the opportunity and send the rest skittering for cover.
A chunky Thick-lip comes to the net - it took a dead-drifted Spectra Shrimp in a current
Feeding behaviour in flow can usually be observed as splashing just like a trout rising, or by flashing flanks as fish dart and swerve from side to side to intercept edible morsels being swept past.
So that’s the mullet version of Deliveroo covered. Onto the supermarket...
Once the flow has dissipated (or perhaps there was none to begin with) the mullet will go looking for option two, again with the lazy-gene in full control; find somewhere where the food is concentrated so that if I, Mr.Mullet, have to get off my piscatorial arse to go shopping, I can do it with as little effort as possible. In other words, we’re talking ‘abundance’ here.
We’ve already stated that we’re mostly concerned with mullet feeding on shrimp. There are a few different species but generally we’re talking sand-shrimp and mud-shrimp (corophium volutator). Shallow, soft, silty sand, and a sand/mud mix, exposed during the tide cycle, are naturally ideal habitat for the shrimp which burrow into the top centimetre and skit about looking for food (whilst hoping not to become it) as the rising water covers them again.
Areas where currents or depressions tend to corral the shrimp together make natural hot-spots, and the mullet will employ the same tactic as you when it comes to concentrating their target in the least possible volume of water. This means the fish will be impatiently waiting to get onto those fertile hunting grounds as the water comes up (or indeed drops – never discount observing the ebbing tide – that can be just as productive) and they will move in water barely deep enough to cover them if it means the shrimp are in better concentrations.
Sometimes those shrimp stay buried, but sometimes they seem to erupt from their burrows and the mullet which had been patiently waiting in in a likely spot will have a short opportunity to fill their boots, metaphorically speaking. This, more than anything, is the difference between the seasoned mulleteer and the ardent apprentice – spotting that short-lived, often very localised spike of frantic activity. The clearer the water the better obviously, because you really need to see the fish more than ever at this point. More often than not, feeding is betrayed by sudden bulges, swirls and flashes of silver. Remember, by and large those mullet won’t want to expend energy for nothing, so a burst of sudden, fast activity with sharp, sudden turns in a localised area signals ‘dinner’s up’, and you need to get your flies in there pronto!
A shiny Thin-Lip takes a fast retrieved Romy's Sandshrimp in inches of clear water
Now here, the technique is different…the shrimp are fleeing in all directions and the mullet are switched on to that movement. If there’s little to no appreciable current, you need to give those flies some life! Drop the flies into the melee, give them a few seconds to settle, then a couple of short, quick pulls. Often a passing mullet on the hunt will react to that movement as your fake shrimp erupt from the sand and make a bolt for freedom! If that doesn’t yield an immediate response, keep stripping the flies at a steady rate of about a foot every 1-2 seconds. Vary it slightly too – Golden Grey mullet and Thin-lipped mullet react far more aggressively to a fast retrieve, whereas Thick-lipped prefer a slightly more sedate movement. Keep going, and remember the strip-strike. If that activity ceases, carefully move on and look for more.
A Golden Grey will home in like a missile if it's in the mood!
The key to moving the odds massively in your favour is finding those hungry fish. Don’t bother waving another platter under the nose of those that’ve already enjoyed the 15 course banquet and are now contemplating two Alka-Seltzer and an early night.
There are a couple of other behaviours to tune-in on too.
‘Static feeding’ seems to manifest itself more regularly over muddy gravel and weed. Here the mullet have to dig-about to find and dislodge shrimp and worms. Again this is usually in very shallow water, and the mullet shoal-up and become very pre-occupied, heads-down and tails and dorsal fins often clearly pricking through the surface. They remain in one area, only moving along very slowly as they systematically turn over pebbles and detritus to find their quarry.
This can be exciting fishing, but an especially stealthy approach is needed (get down on your knees!). The aim is to drop the flies as gently as possible into the feeding fish – tippet only (don’t send the flyline crashing down onto them, or that’ll be that!). A sneaky, gentle figure-of-eight retrieve is what you need, just barely trickling those flies across the bottom, as if they were shrimp hoping to gingerly tip-toe out of the way without anyone noticing! Watch the line closely for takes – again (more than ever!) remember to strip-strike, not lift the rod-tip. Often you don’t get many chances with static feeding – the fish are wary and connecting with one will often send the rest of the shoal panicking for cover, so make the most of your chances.
A short video showing classic 'static feeding' taken by Colin Macleod a few years ago
Finally there’s the surf mullet. Darren Jackson in South Wales is the acknowledged master at targeting surf mullet and has written extensively on the subject. Watching him fish that environment is fascinating and it requires perhaps more deftness than any other for being able to tune into on what the fish are doing and to interpret the signals on the line.
Essentially, mullet use the wash of the surf tables to both dislodge the food and deliver it to them. Again, they exercise their innate laziness – too much turbulence where the waves are rolling over makes for hard-work trying to find and chase-down food, but allowing the gentle water tables that move right in to the shore to carry you in and then deliver your dinner to you as they ease out again…ah, that’s the mullet equivalent of butler service and a hammock! The mullet will slide right in to mere inches of water, often appearing as a series of dark bulges in the very water’s edge. As the water flowing up the sand reaches its limit and starts to slow, the mullet will hoover up morsels and turn-tail to catch the flow back out as the wave-table recedes.
Its a little fuzzy but you'll get the idea - the fish are way closer in than you realise!
The optimum approach is to drop your flies into that slowing water and let them wash into the path of the incoming fish. It takes a lot of practice, but hooking a surf mullet is surely one of the best ways of all to connect with these enigmatic and opportunistic creatures, as a big one will run to the open sea like you wouldn’t believe, using the waves to its every advantage, testing your clutch – and your nerves – to the very limit!
There you have it. If you’re new to chasing mullet on the fly, take heart; those guys who seem to have god-like mulleteering powers are just further down the path you’re already on. All you need to do is watch closely and put some effort in, whilst bearing in mind that the mullet, wherever possible, sure as heck won’t! Lazy buggers.