Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle


Information Page.

'Mullet off the top' A fly angler's dream.

As I said in my saltwater page I shall be away in Italy for a couple of weeks. Anyway, here's a bit more about mullet until I get back.

I promised my New Zealand pals some information about mullet fishing tactics that might be worth a try with their native species. I've already dealt with thinlips and spinning tactics so this time I dug out some of my old stuff on surface feeders. This may not be familiar to everyone over here (some is in the mullet chapter of 'Operation Sea Angler') and although part of the stuff is over twenty years old it still applies.

Surface-feeding mullet employ several different and distinct feeding methods which present scope for real initiative and originality on the part of the angler. Coarse anglers know that different species of fish taking floating food use different approaches and the ‘rise-forms ’ of trout have provided trout fishermen with a perennial topic of conversation. We have all seen the pet goldfish with it’s lips breaking the surface as it gobbled up the ants’ eggs. By slowly swimming forward and, at the same time, pumping water into its mouth and out through the gills, ‘old Gilbert‘ manages to create a constant stream of drifting fish food into the regularly pulsing lips. Carp and tench often break the silence of the lake-side with loud sucking noises as they take snail-eggs or insects from among the lily leaves. Fish such as trout or grayling use a wide range of sipping or sucking movements to take trapped or emerging insects.

All of these fish are susceptible to angling methods designed to present a bait at the water surface. It is no coincidence that so many species feed at the surface. The so-called surface tension of the water creates a sort of invisible skin which acts as a trap for small animals. The buoyancy of the water also forces many of the lighter fragments of plant and animal remains to the surface. The natural larder of floating particles (properly called neuston) provides a concentration of food to good to miss.

The sea is no different to fresh waters with regards to it’s surface food supply and several species take advantage of it. Sand-smelts, bass and particularly grey mullet are all quick to seize their chance of an easy meal. Mullet are quite capable of sucking in individual food items from the surface just like any of the species mentioned above. Accounts of such surface-feeding have appeared in the press from time to time and Des Brennan gives a stimulating description of landing a large thick-lip from an Irish harbour by using free lined, floating, bread crust. Grey mullet have a second method of taking surface food which is more akin to that used by basking sharks and whales. With their large mouths wide open and their keen eyes focused along the surface film, they swim steadily along, like living plankton nets, sieving the surface film for floating scraps. Just as in any other form of surface angling it is first necessary to decide what the fish are taking. Seaweed fly larvae, pupae, mosquito or midge larvae(buzzers), fragments of eel-grass, kitchen waste, seaweed beetles - even organic scum are all engulfed.

Having decided on a suitable bait, we are then faced with the problem of how it can be presented to the fish or, if this is impractical, how it may be simulated. Over the years a variety of methods have been applied to catching surface feeding fish, mainly in fresh waters.

1. Free lining with light, fine wire hooks, light lines and buoyant baits such as bread crust is the simplest approach. Since the tackle in use has little weight to assist casting a long, light rod of the type used by freshwater match fishermen is often an advantantage. By dunking the crust just before casting, quite respectable casts can be made. This simple method is sometimes suitable for crust feeders in harbour situations and was, in fact, the first method I used successfully for surface feeders from the open shore.

2. To achieve greater distances, unweighted or weighted float tackle may be used. For best results the float should be allowed to lie flat on the water surface and the cast between float and hook treated with a silicone floatant.

3. A bubble float containing sea water will assist long casting. Because of the inertia and drag of the bulky float, which tends to impede striking, it is often better to attach the hook to a dropper between float and rod.

4. All these techniques enable surface feeders to be caught by anglers using light and fragile baits on tackle designed for more conventional methods but dry-fly gear is a complete system evolved precisely for the presentation of surface baits. The other methods mentioned are self explanatory but fly fishing needs a bit more detail.

The lure used on fly tackle must be sufficiently tough to withstand the stress of casting and this generally restricts it to the use of artificial flies or baits. This restriction does not seem to be too serious in the pursuit of trout, grayling or chub but the eagle-eyed mullet is more critical of fur, feather and fabric.

Mullet are wary, not only of the carelessly presented fly, but of the fly line on the water surface, the nylon cast floating in the surface film and indeed the fly itself if it does not look and behave like the genuine article. The reasons for this fastidious behaviour are not difficult to determine. The eyes of the fish are focused at the water surface and are perfectly positioned to weigh up hazards on or above the water. This is logical because surface feeders are vulnerable to aerial attack. Also mullet need to distinguish carefully between the living (food) and the dead or inanimate (rubbish) to avoid wasted feeding activity.

As an example of how to catch surface feeding thick-lips using the scoop and select feeding approach, I shall describe a situation which I know well. On many of the world’s coasts, kelp flies or seaweed flies are almost unbelievably abundant. For example, on the coast of California it was estimated that a million tonnes of kelp were washed ashore each year and on a warm summer’s day there could be as many as ten million kelp flies on a kilometre of beach. The maggots of these flies feed on the rotting kelp and on the South coast of England they are equally abundant. In the years 1953-4 the flies were so abundant on our southern shores that they were described as a plague. The annual bonanza of sea-weed fly maggots is just what the mullet ordered. As the spring tides approach their two-weekly peak the thick-lips congregate along the shore line at each period of high water.

Many years ago Terry Gledhill and I gave an account of a simple and effective account of dry-fishing for these surface feeding fish. Since then at least a few anglers have, successfully, used the polythene maggot to catch mullet but even in this area the method has not really caught on although I have now landed thousands of mullet on the fly. To get back to the fishing. The hot dry summer of 1983 dried out much of the sea-weed debris cast up along the spring tide line. Such conditions reduce the amount of maggot-food and are not conductive to good or consistent fly fishing. Even so quite a few mullet came inshore at times. For anglers prepared to walk a mile or two, it was possible to find concentrations of fish.

Following a superb sunny day, sea conditions were still, calm and clear. For ease of walking in the sweaty conditions I was wearing a pair of plimsolls which had seen better days, ancient, tatty jeans and a tee-shirt more brightly coloured than was sensible.

After a two-mile walk we found a reasonable-sized mound of decaying weed. As the sea crept towards the high water mark, the little, soft, white maggots of the seaweed flies floated out of the weed mass. There was no wave action or wind drift and the maggots collected in white, scummy clumps close to the tide line.

Small numbers of average-sized mullet (two to three pounds in weight) were gathering to gorge themselves on the free feast. They were feeding in water only a foot deep and within a few feet of the sea’s edge. Swimming buisily along the gentle longshore current they were scooping the maggots into their wide-opened rubber lipped-mouths. By keeping a low profile it was possible to approach without alarming or dispersing the shoals (a common problem). This cautious stalking had the disadvantage of requiring the angler to kneel or squat in the slimy, stinking rotten weed. The rod was an old, eight-and-a-half-foot hollow glass fly rod made from a cheap kit. The reel was an old ‘Pridex’ which had long been fused permanently to the reel fittings by the corrosive action of sea water on aluminium. The line was the usual plastic double tapered, floating number 6, needle knotted to 8ft cast of 6lb nylon. The cast was armed with a good quality, size-twelve dry-fly hook. A spindle of white polythene foam, whipped at each end to the hook shank, and garnished with four white maggots completed the tackle. By casting at an oblique angle to the shoreline it was possible to place the fly beyond a group of feeding fish. A slow, progressive lift of the rod caused the fly to skate sedately through the middle of the shoal. One or two false-bites were the result of fish brushing against the cast and these were punctuated at regular intervals by more positive twitches of the line as fish mouthed the fly.

Because of the crouching stance necessary to keep out of the fishes’ field of view, movement was a bit restricted and the response to bite had to be a full swinging movement of the fly rod. A successful strike was met by solid resistance as a decent mullet felt the hook, boiled on the surface and tore away out to sea. Following the typical, initial, long and powerful run the fight resolved itself into a characteristic, dogged, tug of war interspread by the short fast surging runs of the fish. Gradually the line built up on the spool of the reel and after about five minutes the first fish was swallowing under the rod tip on a short line. By now Dave had reeled in his float gear and was by my side wielding the landing net, the fish plunged and made a final short run before it slid into the meshes and was drawn on to the beach.

My pal returned to his fishing. The fish weighed just 3lb, about average for fly caught thicklips. Dave was already into a decent fish, one of six similar specimens which we landed on float or fly fished maggot in the space of a couple of hours.

It would be foolish to pretend that surface feeding mullet are to be found everywhere but fish behaving in the manner described occur on many parts of the Dorset coast, the channel islands and the Isle of Man (and many other places as I now know). It is well established that sea-weed flies are widespread on British shores and it would be interesting to know of other instances of maggot feeding (or indeed any surface feeding ) mullet or bass, so that anglers can form a picture of where and when these fish behave in this manner.

In the past months I have considered how a study of there habits of grey mullet makes it possible to catch these fine fish whether they are feeding on the sea bed in mid water or at the surface. There is rarely any need to resort to random selection of fancy baits and additives, although this is not to suggest that all possible methods of catching mullet have already been explored.

When you are faced with an unfamiliar situation give a little thought to (1). What the fish are eating and whether you can obtain, present and fish with a bait which will deceive them . (2). If not, is it possible to wean them on to something which you can use for bait? In either case I can promise a problem and eventually a satisfaction which are the equal of any other form of fishing. .

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com


Mullet fishing.

Pole fishing.

A pole is a good way to fish a small floating bait for mullet - make sure you have strong elastic.


These are almost essential additions to the poly fly if you want to get bites.

It's on!

Mullet are outstanding battlers on fly gear.


When it's bright you may have difficulty keeping out of sight of the fish.

Surface feeders.

Mullet cruise with their mouths at the surface.

A beauty.

I never use a net these days but if you want to land your fish it's best to take one.

Where shall I fish?

Black headed gulls and mullet both feed on maggots.  Where you find one the other is usually close by.

Keeping low.

The next four pictures show the actual (1983) sequence described above - the slides are washed out by now, hence the fuzziness.

Trying to control it.

I'm standing up now in an attempt to deal with the strong runs of the fish.


The mullet's close to the beach now but they never know when to give up.

The net.

Dave, fully equipped with pipe and net, is ready to help me land the fish.