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Hoping to be seeing red
Be on the lookout for large schools of mullet, a tipoff to gamefish.
By ED WALKER, Times Correspondent
Published December 8, 2007
Each year around this time, cooling water temperatures initiate the spawning instinct in the local mullet population. No matter how far back in the creeks, mangroves or brackish water they normally reside, they must get together and move into the gulf when it comes time to reproduce. Since their journey toward open water is fraught with danger, they prefer to make the move en masse. Safety in numbers is the name of the game when it comes to facing unrelenting attacks by dolphins, sharks, large fish and birds.
All around the mainland shore small pods of mature mullet join others, eventually morphing into massive schools containing tens of thousands of fish. These huge gatherings remain in the relative safety of shallow water until the arrival of a cold front churns the gulf and they make their dash for open water.
Mixing it up
While the weather is fair, pre-spawn mullet masses pass the time moving from one shallow flat to another or in and out of coastal rivers and creeks. Since mullet feed primarily on algae that grow on the bottom, the big schools often cause large-scale turbidity when they eat. This not only provides food for the vegetarian fish, it uproots shrimp and small crabs that are preyed upon by redfish, jacks and other species of inshore fish.
Even when the mullet are not feeding, gamefish will swim along with the schools waiting for any opportunity that presents itself. You probably will not see them through all the jumping, flipping and flashing mullet, but chances are there is something that will bite your hook in the commotion.
When targeting the gamefish that are moving with the mullet, such as red drum, there are a variety of baits that will draw strikes. Artificials get the nod from many of the local guides since they can cover the largest area in the least amount of time, perfect for fish that are in feeding mode to begin with. Gold weedless spoons work well in this situation, as do slow-sinking jerkbaits rigged in a weedless fashion. Having the hooks either buried in the plastic body of the lure or behind a weed guard not only helps keep you out of the grass, it helps avoid brief snags with the mullet themselves. Running any lure through several thousand mullet in 2 feet of water takes some getting used to. Bumps and tugs on the line will happen on nearly every cast as the lure runs into fish after fish. The only way to tell if you have a real bite or just another mullet is to give a minimal hook set with each pronounced tug on the line. If it is a mullet, you will come up empty; if it happens to be a redfish that has gulped the lure, you'll be hooked up.
If the mullet school is hanging around in one particular area and milling back and forth, natural baits work well. There are two common approaches to bait fishing. One is to cast out several lines baited with pieces of fresh-cut fish, such as sardine or mackerel. Spread the lines out where the mullet are moving and simply wait for the reds to sniff them out. Using circle hooks when dead bait fishing greatly reduces the number of gut-hooked fish.
The other is to suspend live baits such as pinfish or scaled sardines from small floats and place them directly into the mullet mass. The bobbers will bounce around like crazy the minute they hit the water because the bait fish will be afraid of all the mullet. But wait until it goes under and stays under for a few seconds before setting the hook. This will help from jerking the rod and yanking the bait back out of the water due to false alarms.
Where and when
As any commercial fisherman will tell you, keeping track of the movement of pre-spawn mullet is not easy. There may be thousands in one area for a few days and none the next.
Weather is definitely a factor. After a cold front passes, many of the mullet will be miles offshore and not return for several days. Several years ago we stumbled into one such group of fish 5 miles off Pasco County. There were large birds diving from high in the air and more than a dozen dolphins working the area.
We pulled in and set out several baits thinking we had found the mother lode of kingfish. The depth recorder went completely black in 18 feet of water but we had no bites. All around us dolphins swirled and chased fish. Finally a dolphin threw his catch in the air and we saw that it was a mullet. It was a spawning aggregation that was truly massive in size.
When the mullet are in on the flats, they often shift from one area to another during the tide changes. If you find them in one spot, make a mental note of the tidal stage. There is a reasonable chance they will return during the same phase each day.
As the weather begins to deteriorate, they will make a shift toward the open gulf. Sometimes they will move north or south along the mainland shore then pour out across the open sound may follow the edges of the flats then run out through a deep channel.
Either way, if you can find them, they may provide you with a great fishing opportunity as they move.