'Playing hard to get'


The astute reader may have noticed that this chapter and the following one were originally a single item in the published book. However, due to constraints on space we have had to divide it into two parts - this is part one...

The thick-lipped grey mullet, like the bass, is essentially a surface swimming fish that spends a large proportion of its time in shallow inshore waters. Both species are excellent in terms of sport and as food fish but there the resemblance ends. As already mentioned, this species, which is the most common British mullet, had been found comparatively easy to catch up to weights of a couple of pounds.

We had fished for mullet from the quays and piers, such as those at Poole and Weymouth, by using fairly light tackle, often described as `freshwater tackle' and baiting with bread in various forms (flake, crust and paste) or with small ragworms. Even in those early days, we were aware, by way of the angling press and by word of mouth from other anglers, that larger mullet were sometimes caught, apparently on tackle similar to ours, by 'those in the know' who fished from the open shore. It was said that heavy groundbaiting and float fishing with maggot bait was successful in rocky areas, such as Durlston Bay, near Swanage.

During our Bass fishing trips we would often see mullet in large numbers, sometimes far greater than those of the bass that we caught. Many a time, as we made our way back to the car park after an evening's bass fishing, one of us would say something like, `just think of the sport we could have, if only we had a good method for catching the mullet.'

For two or three years we were so absorbed in trying to catch bass that the mullet were more or less ignored. Occasionally during a quiet spell, we would spin through huge shoals of mullet more in hope than in expectation, but it was only rarely that a mullet would be taken, sometimes foul-hooked. The hooks were generally found to be lodged in the base of the pelvic fins but occasionally the tail treble of a Mepps Mino or even of a large plug would be well inside the mouth, a position which it could only have attained by means of a fish trying to take the lure. The fish caught in this way, by accident, so to speak, ranged in size from 8-ounces to almost 4-pounds, but little satisfaction was to be extracted from landing them.

Maggot feeding mullet.  Several fish are surface feeding in a small area.

The useful tips gathered from this `chuck and chance it' approach were, firstly, that the mullet had definite preferred regions of the shore along which they tended to congregate. These regions differed from time to time', particularly in relation to weather conditions, but almost always the greatest concentrations of fish were to be found in those spots where large amounts of debris accumulated at the high water mark. Secondly, mullet were easy to see, because they often lay at the water surface, or a few inches below it. Ripples, boils, swirls, backs, fins or noses almost invariably gave away their presence. Our eyes became attuned to distinguishing the swirl of a mullet from the disturbance caused by the swell passing over a submerged rock. The glint of a silver grey flank beneath the breaking waves would often reveal a shoal feeding on sea-bed algae, or a pyramid of snout adorned with plump, pink-flushed lips could be picked out amongst the little triangular wavelets caused by a squall of wind.

It soon became possible to distinguish between signs of bass and those of mullet. The upper lobe of the tail fin, which is often the most conspicuous feature of both species, is sharply peaked in the mullet and somewhat rounded in the bass. The mouth of a bass is, of course, rather larger than that of a mullet; it is also somewhat paler when it gapes open. Given a glimpse of a head (a much more frequent event than one might suppose), that of the bass creates the impression of having a circular, black-bruised area surrounding the eye.

The small number of mullet, which we had caught, fought quite differently, with less acceleration and fewer fast runs, than similar sized bass. The take of the mullet was of course, less fierce but these fish were by far the most dogged fighters and almost invariably struggled all the way to the net, even after five or more minutes play on an 8- or 10-pound line. Lastly, the oft-repeated myth of the soft-mouthed mullet was brought into perspective. The lips of these fish are tough and rubbery resembling, as much as anything, those of a chub. Fish that came of the hook in the course of the fight frequently left one or two massive squarish scales on the points of the treble hooks, indicating that they had been foul hooked in their armour plating. A small hook once firmly fixed in the mouth of a mullet can be the very devil to remove and, more than once, has even required minor surgery.

These then were our first encounters with grey mullet on the open shore, and they were sufficient to arouse considerable interest in the possibility of catching these fishy enigmas. Almost all the mullet that we had caught in these situations, when they were subjected to the statutory post mortem, were found to contain only the maggots of the seaweed fly, often hundreds in a single fish. If the water was dirty with silt, the thin-walled part of the stomach, similar to the crop of a bird, contained maggots. The other stomach chamber, rather like a muscular gizzard, would be packed with fine gritty sediment. The two items were always perfectly separated. A little research at this stage revealed that the thick-lipped mullet and many of its relatives are basically adapted to feeding on fine particles.

Selection of fine particles by American grey mullet.  Fine mud has the greatest food value.

With regard to their feeding habits, as mentioned already, they are generally, and correctly, supposed to feed on filaments of algae and on the microscopic plant and animal material which is associated with this algae. The mullet's herbivorous inclinations are confirmed by the enormously long gut, which is only too obvious to anyone trying to clean these fish in the traditional manner by slitting open the belly. In fact, many other species of fish that feed on algae have fairly short guts, and their digestive processes are assisted by the presence of a very strong acid secreted in the stomach. Mullet, in contrast, have neutral or alkaline stomach secretions and rely on the specialised `gizzard' or colloid mill which, with the aid of swallowed sediment to act as a grinding paste, smashes up the swallowed cells.

Another interesting fact about the feeding of grey mullets relates to their ability to select, or sort out, fine particles of a narrow size-range, from sediment that they suck into the mouth. This selection is achieved by a sophisticated filtering apparatus in the throat. Young (small) grey mullets feed on the same sort of detritus, algae and small animals, as do their older relatives. Studies on striped mullet, off the coast of Florida, have shown that the fish feed almost entirely in the hours of daylight, with a peak of activity just before midday. Similar information is not available for British mullets but they are certainly active daytime feeders.

Like bass, thick-lipped mullet are fairly slow-growing fish. Their age can best be determined by reading the scales, which have very clear growth lines. Mullet only mature at nine to eleven years of age when they are about 14- to 18-inches in length; so many immature mullet must be killed each year by anglers and commercial fishermen alike. A good specimen of about 5-pounds weight would probably be not far short of twenty years of age.

Growth of the thick-lipped grey mullet (aged by scale rings).

The way of life of grey mullets is obviously a successful one because a great many species are very abundant and they are distributed throughout the world. In Hawaii, young striped mullet stay in the very shallow water of estuaries and intertidal pools, only moving offshore when they reach about 2-inches in length. On the coast of Dorset, shoals of tiny mullet swim in the intertidal rock pools, rippling the surface and leaving V-shaped wakes just like miniatures of those made by the adults on estuary mudflats. When disturbed, the small mullet disappear as if by magic and may then be found wedged into tiny rock crevices and under stones.

To return now to the business of fishing for mullet. We had managed to catch a few fish, accidentally, by spinning. Therefore, in 1972, plans were made for a serious attempt to take them in greater numbers. At first, a traditional approach using float-fished bread produced a few infrequent bites and even less fish. Whilst fishing in this way we would watch, with some frustration, the shoals of mullet feeding within five or six feet of our boots. It was quite apparent that, in most cases, these fish were not feeding beneath the surface but actually right in the surface film. It was also obvious that the fish had no interest in bread or any natural detritus but were feeding exclusively on the larvae or pupae of the seaweed flies, which were being washed out of the weed by the incoming tide.

The first real glimmer of success came to the rod of Fred Philpott. Fred was a student from Brunel University who spent a year working with us down at Wareham. He was a lanky, longhaired young man with a pleasant manner and a ready smile, and above all he was, like the rest of us, a fanatical angler. An experienced beach caster, with many good catches of sole and other flatfish to his name, Fred took to bass spinning like a duck to water. His interest was consolidated in the early summer of his stay when, on an evening trip with Terry, he landed three bass on a borrowed plastic plug. The fish in question weighed 5-, 6.5-, and 9-pounds, but Fred was not satisfied. Like the rest of us he was fascinated by the tantalising sight of all those mullet.

The following evening found Fred alone, getting out of his car and putting up an 11-foot match rod with small fixed spool reel (an old Intrepid) loaded with 4-pound line. Leaving the spinning rod in the car, to avoid temptation, he set off on the two-mile walk to the scene of his previous night's success. The sea was calm with only a light southwesterly breeze and Fred made good time along the narrow undercliff path. The spring tide was already two-thirds of the way in. Full of anticipation, he waded through the shallow water past Black Ledge, knowing that he would be cut off for at least a couple of hours either side of high water.

Half a-mile further along the beach, as he approached the appointed place, there was a strong smell of decaying kelp and his boots squelched through mounds of well-rotted weed. The little embayment in the cliff was reasonably well sheltered from anywhere but the south and southwest. Waves from these `quarters' were reflected back from the cliff and the resultant confusion of swells dumped every fragment of flotsam, jetsam and weed onto the high water mark at this point.

There they were in the dirty brown water - mullet of all sizes. Possibly sixty or seventy fish were concentrated into an area not much bigger than a snooker table. Fred tied on a size 12 eyed-hook and baited it with a cube of crust. By holding the long rod almost vertical, the light breeze eddying from the cliff was just sufficient to billow out the fine line, enabling him to drop the cube of crust in the midst of the shoal. At the first attempt the bread was taken by a good mullet, sipped in more delicately than one might suppose for such a large fish. A sharp lift of the rod tip by the somewhat surprised Fred was met with only the merest resistance as the hook came away, having just nicked the lip of the mullet. There was no doubt that the fish had felt it though. With an enormous boiling of the surface the entire shoal dispersed in an instant.

It was almost fifteen minutes before the fish reassembled and it was again possible for him to drift his bait amongst them. The crust was dapped in the middle of a group of churning mullet once more. Three or four times his bait was brushed off the hook by the back or tail of a fish passing nearby. He baited up and cast again, and a small fish turned towards the bait. Holding his breath, wrist muscles tense with anticipation, Fred waited. The cube of crust was dragged into an open mouth. This time the strike connected firmly and the fish, seemingly confused, allowed itself to be dragged shoreward with only a gentle flapping of its body. It touched the rim of the waiting landing net and suddenly became aware of its plight, tearing away in a series of strong three or four-yard runs. Soon the fish was fifteen yards out from the sea's edge and the line was draped in bits of weed like a string of little signal flags. It was two or three minutes later before the mullet was enveloped in the net and slid from the sea.

It was a 2.5-pounder, quite a good fish by our usual quayside standards. The hook was removed and the fish returned to the water. An hour later Fred packed it in and made his way back along the beach, having landed one other 1.5-pound fish. His modest catch was one of several that he had made on bread crust but was significant in the fact that the fish had been taken while they were feeding in the surface film.

No doubt the reader is already way ahead of us and wondering why we had not tried fly-fishing. Truth to tell, we had already discussed this possibility but Harry and I lacked the confidence to use a dry fly in the sea. In fact, the first attempt at using a fly was made by Rick, a keen trout fisherman with no experience of sea fishing at all. It was our persuasive tales of huge fish and vivid descriptions of the `mother and father of all evening rises' that did the trick. The analogy, if memory serves right, was that of a trout farm at feeding time. What trout angler could resist? - Certainly not Rick.

The outcome of it all was that Rick and I made an evening trip down to the sea. The sun was already low over the western cliffs of the bay as I, carrying my faithful old spinning rod, and Rick with a light 8-foot trout fly rod, no. 6 line and 4-pound B.S. cast, walked the fifty yards from the car park to the sea. The sight that met our eyes scarcely lived up to our earlier descriptions. About a dozen mullet were ensconced in `car park corner'; slowly they cruised about, turning and turning again, each with about half-an-inch of snout projecting above the surface film as they mopped up maggots floating on the water.

Unhooking a 5-pound, fly-caught mullet.

The sea was dark and waves of about a foot in height were breaking amongst the boulders. Rick sat back on a big rock and took out his fly box. I walked ten yards along to the left of the feeding fish and began to cast my plug. Rick selected a dry Coachman, much as he might have done had he been about to fish the evening rise on one of the local chalk streams. With obvious trepidation he walked to where the breaking waves were splashing over his rubber-booted feet. He worked out about ten yards of line before allowing the fly to settle on the water. For half-an-hour he fished, trying everything he could think of. The fly was allowed to sit on the surface, vibrated, skated back and even drowned, all to no avail until, suddenly, it disappeared and a fish was on. The resulting plunge of the hooked fish was so powerful that the cast could not take the shock and parted with a sharp crack.

Stunned, Rick sat down to tie on another fly and, as is my wont, I gave vent to a few choice words about the fish's parentage. The dry Coachman had been the only fly of its kind in the box, so a small Olive nondescript of about the same size was tied to the remainder of the cast. It was becoming quite dark and we were just discussing whether to `give them best' when a firm pull on Rick's fly line was met by an adept lift of the rod. This time the fish was well hooked and line buzzed from the reel as it moved off in a series of strong runs which, as we now know, often characterise the fight of a mullet taken under these conditions. Gradually the lost line was regained and the fish came closer to where I waited with the net.

Even in the dim light we could see that it was a good mullet of about 4-pounds hooked in the mouth. Just as Rick was manipulating the fish into the net and heaving sighs of relief it made a final desperate plunge and the hook hold gave way. The feeling was rather like finding two pence and losing a ten-pound note. We were both pleased to have seen a fish hooked on fly but its ultimate loss was a tragedy. The following morning a gale blew up and the strong winds continued throughout that series of tides.