'Playing hard to get'
THE GREY MULLET Part 2
...and here is part two!
Two weeks later when conditions were again suitable for fishing, a bright, calm Sunday afternoon saw the old contemptibles, Terry, Harry and I, venturing down to the coast again. We were intent on going to `Casey's ledge', a sheltered corner where there was almost invariably a good accumulation of seaweed. Once again it was a spring tide, high water would be at about eight o'clock in the evening and we were prepared to stay until dark
Each of us was equipped with a fly rod and reel of some sort. Terry's was a fine built-cane rod that had seen much service with the trout of Lake Windermere. I also had a built-cane rod but it was now six inches shorter than its original 9ft 6in. following some ham fisted fly fishing experiments on the banks of the River Frome. Harry had a cheap, hollow glass rod purchased expressly for the occasion. I had, fortuitously as it turned out, brought a few white maggots left over from the previous week's dace fishing. As we tackled up there was no sign of any fish at all, the tide was still two yards from the edge of the deposited seaweed. A scrape of the welly boot soon revealed that the weed pile was in an advanced state of breakdown; internally, it was hot, steaming and seething with seaweed fly maggots.
By now we had begun to `get the message' about these mullet. The rising tide was obviously likely to wash maggots from their hiding places and as they drifted onto the surface of the sea the mullet, quick on the uptake, were accustomed to make hay while the sun shone.
Harry and I sat down on a couple of handy boulders to await the' anticipated arrival of the fish but Terry, a much more experienced fly fisherman, tied on a 2.5-inch, Waddington pattern, blue and silver salmon fly, armed with a size ten treble, to try for a bass. As we watched, he cast well out over the clear water and stripped the line back into his left hand in a neat figure of eight. Obviously there were not many bass about, for it was difficult to imagine how any fish could ignore such an attractively presented lure.
The tide was now beginning to lap at the base of the weed and little creamy-white patches of maggots were floating off as the water level rose between the big grey boulders. A few feet from the water's edge we noticed one or two swirls, almost like small dace rising. The mullet were approaching closer as they swam up current towards our position.
All three of us were standing up and casting now. Terry fished on with his streamer fly but Harry and I had attached small, light-coloured dry flies in the hope that they would resemble drifting maggots. Quite a few fish were feeding actively in front of us and many were well within casting range.
The minutes ticked by without a take except for a tiny bass which impaled itself on the salmon fly. It was obvious that the fish could see the little dry flies from the fact that they would swim up to them and then turn emphatically to one side to avoid them. Terry was into another fish by now and this was clearly a better one. Already the fly line was down to the backing and there was little sign of the fish stopping. Harry and I reeled in laid the rods down and went to his aid. Harry picked up the large carp net and stood ready. `It'll be a bit yet,' muttered Terry, as his adversary took back all the line that he had just recovered. The fish ran fast and hard, shearing and kiting across the tide so that he had to hurry along the beach to keep in touch. `Must be a nice bass,' said Terry. `Perhaps it's a small one foul hooked,' I retorted, a remark greeted with the disdain it deserved.
At last the fish was tiring and now we could see glimpses of a spiky fin as it twisted and turned ten yards out. Another couple of minutes and it was drawn over Harry's waiting net-a fine bass of 6.75-pounds, a grand fish for a trout fly rod and 8-pound cast. We all returned to our fishing. The mullet were more numerous now. Small tight groups of a dozen or so fish were almost falling over one another to gulp down the thousands of drifting maggots. I shouted to Harry, `I'm going to prog a couple of maggots on my fly!' `Worth a try,' came the reply. Feverishly I reeled in, and thinking about the shortcomings of my casting technique, threaded four maggots onto the bend of the fly hook. I recast and the fly landed squarely in the middle of a group of feeding mullet.
The pull, when it came, took me completely by surprise and I forgot to strike. Two more casts and nothing happened so I reeled in and examined the fly. The maggots were flat and dead, like little bits of translucent yellow plastic, but the skins appeared to be undamaged. The seawater had killed and dehydrated them, so I put on some fresh ones and flicked them out again. This time I was ready when the line twitched along the water surface. A sharp strike resulted in a well-hooked 3-pound mullet. Harry had got the message by now and was already baiting his fly with some of the maggots. I played and landed my own mullet and as I turned back towards the sea the rods of my companions were well bent. Both the fish were mullet, Terry's 3.5-pounds and Harry's nearly half-a-pound heavier.
The bites came infrequently to Harry and I now, but at intervals of about ten or fifteen minutes, Terry hooked a succession of bass on his streamer fly, none as good as his second, but several of between 4- and 6 pounds each. As dusk fell the tide was half way out and only a few fish were now visible. We picked up our tackle and put the eight larger fish that we had kept into the obligatory fertiliser sack. On the way back we discussed the fishing. (It is now many years since any of us killed and kept bass or mullet in this way.)
The salmon fly had seemed to be quite an effective way of taking bass under the prevailing conditions. Harry and I had finished up by taking a couple of mullet each but after a while our dry flies had ceased to float. The fish had shown little or no interest in a sunken fly, whether adorned with maggots or not. Live, wriggling maggots seemed to induce bites with almost alarming speed so long as they remained on the surface. The fish had been swimming with their eyes just in the surface film and obviously were well able to see both the natural maggots and the angler's flies and to distinguish between the living article and the inanimate feather imitation.
Many of the observations we had made in previous years were now beginning to fall into place. Some of the reasons why mullet and bass congregated at certain spots and times were blindingly obvious. Places where weed accumulates in periods of rough weather are where seaweed flies collect to breed. Some of these sites are easily identified in a single walk along the shore at any time of day, although the weather and particularly the wind strength and direction are likely to favour specific places at different times. In other words, one place may be better than another, according to the conditions.
The second vital consideration is the state of the tide. Under calm sea conditions, the seaweed fly larvae are only available to the fish at the top of the biggest spring tides. Rough weather in which waves reach further up the beach can easily extend the period worth fishing to seven or eight days in each series of tides. Against this, rough conditions can make it tricky, to say the least, to fish with a fly.
One of the substances most frequently cast upon the beaches is expanded polystyrene. This white, fluffy, incredibly light material in the form of cups and blocks of packing material is washed and blown up on every shore in the country. The natural progression in dry fly fishing for mullet, in view of our problems with 'drowned' flies, was to make permanent floaters. At first we simply picked up a few granules of polystyrene from a handy piece of flotsam and threaded them on the hook shank. A bunch of ordinary, commercially produced maggots was placed on the bend. The numbers of mullet taken on fly leapt sharply on the introduction of this refinement. The foam was, in fact, a bit of a nuisance and was easily flicked off the hook during casting or, on occasions, it slid over the eye of the hook and up the cast.
Polystyrene on the hook is clearly a newer version of an old idea, for 'cork maggots' were used in freshwater fishing many years ago. It was only a short step from fragments of polystyrene to the use of modern polyethylene foam (ethafoam), which is much tougher and more durable than polystyrene. With a minimum number of whippings at either end, a neat and permanently floating 'maggot fly' can be created.
Ideally, the maggot fly would be used without the adornment of real maggots, which soon die when exposed to seawater. Experience has shown however that, just as the mullet had avoided our original dry flies, they are perfectly capable of distinguishing a polyethylene maggot, however realistic, from the genuine article.
The ability of these fish to discern small objects is verified in other ways. The finest cast which it is practical to use (5- to 6-pounds B.S.) is easily visible to the surface-feeding fish. Frequently they will cruise towards a cast lying on the surface and submerge within inches of it, only to resurface on the other side. Even a fly line 'false cast' well above the heads of the feeding fish will often be greeted by a violent flourish of activity as they disperse.
To obtain the best results it is necessary not only to bait the fly with maggots, but also to replace the maggots every half-dozen casts or after every missed bite. Similarly, mullet are easily frightened the presence of an angler on the shore - melting away like magic should the angler disturb them in any way by a sudden movement, or even by his shadow falling on the water.
The original hooks used ranged from size fourteen to about size six, eyed and bronzed, fly hooks. As in most, if not all, angling, only the best hooks are worth bothering with. The hooks on which commercially prepared flies are tied are often too brittle and if they touch one of the cementstone boulders on the back-cast the resultant loss of hook point will only be noticed after an abortive strike. Worse still, the hook may break in a fish with the inevitable, disastrous result. Fine wire hooks are equally unsuitable because they are liable to turn a point on touching a rock.
The main hazards of fly-fishing from the seashore are rough weather and weed. Loose weed, which is the key to the presence of the bass and mullet shoals, will frequently drape itself over even high-floating plastic fly line. The result of this entanglement can be extremely frustrating, particularly when it is combined with a moderate surf. In no time at all, it seems, the line is buried under several pounds of floating kelp and, in trying to sort out the resulting mess, a broken cast is the usual outcome. Worse still, five minutes of valuable fishing time is thus lost. When this little scenario occurs for the fifth time in succession tempers are apt to become somewhat frayed.
Frequently, before the mullet concentrate at high water, it is profitable to fish six inches below the surface using light float tackle and a size twelve hook baited with maggots. In this way the period of sport can be prolonged considerably. The fish thus taken on the float will usually be considerably smaller - say 1-pound - compared with the average 2.5 -pound fish taken on the surface fly. Many good mullet have been caught by fly-fishing. The best single bag was five fish with a total weight of over 25-pounds, taken by Terry in one evening. A catch of this size together with the usual quota of missed bites, lost fish and smaller fish returned, represents quite a hectic spell of fishing. In such circumstances it is not unusual to feel the entire trip has been spent playing, landing and losing fish.
When using the maggot fly, along the Dorset coast, mullet of over-4-pounds are not out of the ordinary, and fish of over 5-pounds are caught quite frequently. To add to the excitement there is always the chance of a good sized bass for variety, because bass, of all sizes, join the mullet at their feast. On one occasion we were joined by Robin, an enthusiastic and successful fly fisherman, intent on trying his hand on catching mullet. Predictably, at the first visible signs of moving fish, he decided to have a go, leaving the rest of us to go on to one of our favourite spots. He did not follow us as expected and when we returned carrying a couple of nice mullet, we found Robin still fishing in the same place. Behind him on the rocks lay bass of 7.5-, 6, and 5.5- pounds. All had been taken on a maggot fly which he had cast to individual 'rising' fish. Needless to say he was impressed with the sport and the rest of us were envious of his catch.
To take good mullet on fly tackle consistently needs a certain amount of practice. Bites may be detected in different ways. Some of us prefer to use relatively large maggot flies on hooks of about size eight, so that the mullet can be seen actually taking them into their mouths. Others watch for the line to draw across the surface. Either of these methods can be very effective, particularly given good eyesight and calm conditions. For those (like me) with eyesight that is less acute, a third approach is possible and probably more fish have been taken in this way than any other. The cast is aimed to place the fly beyond a group of feeding mullet; after a couple of seconds the rod is raised very slowly and the weight of the bow in the fly line allowed to draw the fly slowly through the shoal. If the fish are feeding well, and have not been scared by the cast, a take may come at any instant and can be detected by a change in the movement of the line which, as the rod is raised, slides smoothly towards the angler. The line may slow down or stop or the bow may straighten perceptibly. Sometimes there will be a knock or a pull on the rod tip, but this usually indicates that a fish has brushed the line with its dorsal fin or bumped into the cast with its open mouth. Many of the abortive strikes, at what seem good bites, are due to these causes. Striking at fish which have bumped into the cast in their feeding frenzy will sometimes result in them being hooked on the outside of the lips or nostril.
Having struck a mullet successfully it is usually worth taking a couple of backwards paces to ensure a tight line. This may be more difficult than it sounds if the angler is standing on a rock surrounded by water or if he has surmounted a pile of decomposing slippery seaweed. In view of these hazards, the most conspicuous characteristics of our mullet fishermen are their soaking wet clothing and their distinctive smell. (The use of chest waders has now caused a revolution with regard, at least, to the wetness aspect.)
Once it has been hooked the mullet will usually do one of two things. At times a fish will simply jag slowly on the line and allow itself to be led to the net. If it can be netted without it realising its danger, the fight will be over in a minute or less. If on the other hand the mullet takes fright, either on seeing the net or the angler or, more usually, on being hooked, it will normally make a series of powerful pacey runs. The total amount of line taken is normally more or less proportional to the size of the fish. A large mullet of 5- to-6-pounds will take a full fly line and ten yards of backing off the reel without much trouble. A fish which, when hooked, accelerates quickly to a high speed and keeps going is either a big bass or a mullet which has been foul-hooked. The latter soon becomes obvious by the way in which the hooked fish is inclined to shear across to left or right.
As in spinning, fish which escape after a few minutes are often found to have been foul-hooked in a scale, if possible, fish should be played along the shore away from the feeding shoal. A through action rod and a smooth check on the fly reel are important in avoiding broken casts. As in playing any powerful fish on comparatively light tackle and small hooks the important thing is to be patient, to take one's time and, above all, to try and anticipate the movements of the fish. Mullet should always be netted, for more fish are lost in vain attempts to beach them than in any other way. Even the best hold of a size twelve hook will not stand the full force of the last desperate lunge of a big mullet.
A gaff is not a good idea for two reasons; firstly, a large mullet scale may shield the point of the sharpest gaff and, secondly, the gaff is quite likely to penetrate the body cavity of the fish, the contents of which may then contaminate and taint the flesh (and of course gaffed fish cannot be returned to the sea).
If possible, a quick survey should be made to determine the possible places where mullet will turn up on the forthcoming spring tides. On the actual fishing trip one may be confronted with a variety of conditions. If it is calm and mullet are rather thin on the ground with, perhaps, a fish showing every few yards, it is debatable whether fly-fishing is worthwhile. Casting to individual fish is a possibility and will sometimes result in a good fish taking the fly, but often it will simply be an object lesson in the difficulty of deceiving the humble mullet when it has plenty of time to cast its eagle eye over the fly line, cast and fly. It may well be more profitable to put up the spinning rod, tie on a floating plug, and spin for bass for an hour or so in the hope of the mullet aggregating into feeding groups. The third alternative is a brisk walk along the beach in an attempt to find more intense concentrations of fish. Float fishing can also be productive under these circumstances.
It is sometimes possible to create actively feeding groups of fish by ground baiting or feeding with weed and maggots of the seaweed fly. This is no job for the squeamish, as it is best achieved by manhandling the stinking, steaming, glutinous, brown weed into the sea where it will gradually be dispersed by the rising tide and breaking waves.
On another day there will be a moderate breeze and mullet could be feeding ravenously in small-restricted areas. In these circumstances the fish are sometimes difficult to scare. This may also be the case when the approaching dusk helps to conceal the angler from the fish. The main problem with actively feeding fish is getting a fly into the shoal, for frequently such groups of mullet will found to be within a foot of the waters edge, right in the breaking waves. It then becomes necessary to cast parallel to the beach, from upwind if possible, flicking a loop of line out to sea as the cast is made, so as to try to avoid the fly line being cast ashore amongst the piles of weed.
Less easy to deal with, or to accept, is the situation when maggots or casters (pupae) of the flies have been driven out from the shore by the joint actions of the wind and the undertow. This results in the need for long casting, and it reaches a point at which the difficulties of fishing dictate that the angler resorts to spinning or fishing the float at long range.
A strong, long shore current may concentrate a band of feeding fish close to regions where the cliff or rock ledges push out into the sea. The mullet will then be visible close to the shore, stemming the tide, facing the current and simply filtering the surface-drifting maggots carried to them by the flow. Such fish may be fairly easy to catch by casting the fly uptide and allowing it to drift down to them. These conditions normally result in a higher proportion of fish hooked on the outside of the lips than usual. This is due to the drifting cast contacting the mouths and snouts of the feeding mullet.
As the summer wears on into September and October, fish are still to be found feeding on seaweed fly maggots, but rough sea conditions and dirty water are more frequent. Sand smelts, little mullet-like fish which ring the surface like large minnows, become a significant feature close inshore. It is under these conditions that a spinner, a plug or, best of all, a streamer fly, will take mullet. Bass will also show at the surface under these conditions as they zigzag in their hunt for small baitfishes.
Masses of seaweed lying on the high water mark will generally behave like a garden compost heap. The decaying contents of heap generate a great deal of heat even in the colder months of the year. In fact the air temperature has very little effect on the development of a 'good brew' of weed and maggots, and the latter can be found at almost any season. Very hot, dry weather, although it is generally favourable to the presence and feeding activity of the fish, can quickly dry up even large quantities of 'maggot food'. Prolonged hot spells, such as the summer of 1976, may make fly fishing almost useless by destroying the main source of attraction.
In contrast, when the weather is very wet, mud will be washed into the sea and any sort of fishing may be difficult. In an effort to induce bites under these conditions it was felt that some sort of vibrating lure was needed which the fish could detect by sensing the movement. It is well known that anglers in Christchurch Harbour use small Mepps spinners with some success (for thin-lipped mullet). We were already aware, however, the normal Mepps with heavy metal bodies were liable to snag the bottom unless they were retrieved very quickly. To enable a slow retrieve the metal bodies of the spoons were replaced with streamlined, balsa wood 'torpedoes'. These wooden bodies were painted white to enhance visibility in murky water conditions and even though they were given limited trials they proved attractive to both bass and mullet. The principle of using a buoyant body and a bar spoon would seem to have considerable potential in other types of angling. Unweighted, they would allow a slow retrieve over heavy weed for pike fishing. Behind a suitable lead they could well be as effective as wooden or plastic Devon minnows for salmon fishing. The scope would seem to be large.
A couple of tips worth noting with regard to preparing fish for the table. (Popularity as food has been the downfall of bass and it would be a great pity to see mullet stocks go the same way. We have not kept mullet for many years. The National Mullet Club, quite rightly, frowns on killing these beautiful, long-lived fish. However, if you must eat one, the following advice still stands.) Mullet must be scaled before they can be filleted. If this is done at home the huge scales get everywhere, so it is a good practise to scale the fish while it is still wet, and before leaving the beach at the end of a session. No knife is necessary to scale a mullet; if the fingertips are carefully run under the scales from the tail towards the head the entire flank can be cleared in a single movement. A word of warning at this point; the angler should, in handling either bass or mullet, take care to avoid running the very sharp fin spines into the finger ends. Accidents of this kind are liable to result in days or even weeks of discomfort.
Large fish can be filleted easily with very little waste; smaller fish should be gutted as soon as possible. It is not absolutely necessary to gut either species because the fillets can be removed easily from both fish. Both bass and mullet make superb eating and are similar in flavour. Cook for ten to fifteen minutes, (according to thickness), turning a couple of times. With a slice of bread and butter or a few chips they are a gourmet's dream.
In conclusion we add a cautionary word about fishing close under the face of crumbling cliffs. Apart from the risk of being buried by a cliff fall there is always the danger of being hit on the head by a pebble descending from a great height. On no account should one dig or otherwise disturb the base of such unstable cliffs. Landslips are most frequent when heavy rain follows a spell of hot dry weather and at these times it is wise to wear a hard hat if it necessary to stand in the danger area.
Anyone who spends a lot of fishing time on Dorset beaches is likely, at some time or other, to experience near misses from the crumbling shale. On one occasion Harry, Terry, Fred and I were strung out along a straight stretch of beach assiduously spinning and fly-fishing for scattered shoals of bass and mullet. Every few minutes pebbles would rattle down from above and all four were keeping half-an-eye open for nearby falls. Suddenly a rumbling sound was heard from the vicinity of Fred's position. The attention of the rest of was immediately focused on the point. Clouds of grey dust billowed out to sea obscuring the entire beach and as the dust cleared, a huge pile of freshly fallen slabs, some bigger than tea chests, was visible where Fred had been. 'My God!' said Harry, 'He's gone!' As we made our way along the rocks towards the spot, Fred's head appeared from beneath the waves and he emerged from the sea coughing and spluttering, still hanging on to his rod. On hearing the cliff rumble down behind him, he had wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Without waiting, he had jumped straight out to sea only to fall forward and disappear under five feet of water.