The Mighty Mullet
So you think you know mullet, do you?
If you fish in the coastal Southeast, you likely already have an appreciation for how well cut mullet or live “finger” mullet entice redfish, flounder and trout.
But have you ever dropped a big, live mullet down in 180 feet of water for grouper? Ever caught a fully grown mullet on rod and reel? Ever served up smoked mullet filets with crackers and hot sauce?
If you live here in the Lowcountry, chances are you haven’t done any of these things. You’re missing out — this little fish has a whole lot to offer.
While many variations of mullet are found throughout the world, only two swim in South Carolina waters: striped and white mullets. Telling the difference can be difficult, as not all striped mullet show their namesake lateral stripes. To tell one from the other, look for a golden patch on the gill plates of a white mullet or be prepared to count the soft rays of the anal fin. White mullet have eight, striped have nine.
Mullet are also well-known for jumping … again and again, in fact. A big mullet might break the water’s surface three or four times in a row. Why they jump is unknown, but possible reasons include escaping predators, getting additional oxygen and just having fun.
Anglers around Charleston catch mostly striped mullet, which the S.C. Department of Natural Resources says is the most abundant fish species in the local marine ecosystem. They’re prolific because they adapt easily to different conditions, including salt-, brackish and even freshwater. They’re also incredibly tough. Unlike menhaden, which seem to croak if you look at them crosswise, mullet can withstand tough punishment, including a hot and crowded bait well.
When temperatures begin to cool in the fall, mature mullet head out toward the continental shelf, where they’ll breed from October through April. They also move south, but not typically very far. Most tagging efforts show recovered mullet don’t swim long distances and almost always turn up south of their origin. Freshly hatched mullet will drift north and back toward the coast with the currents and winds, eventually making their way back into the creeks to grow over the summer.
This mullet “run” typically kicks into gear in late August around Charleston, making late summer a great time to target large game fish with live mullet.
Big “horse” or “hog leg” mullet will draw strikes from king mackerel, tarpon and bull red drum all the way through October and even into November.
Jack and Eren Bracewell of Summerville, familiar names atop the leaderboard at king mackerel tournaments, often use big mullet to attract winning fish. Their favorite baits are bluerunners, but mullet are hardier and easier to find. The Bracewells will catch mullet up to a few days before fishing a tournament. Their standard kingfish rig consists of a swivel, 3 feet of wire (either 42-pound-test single strand or 60-pound-test 7-strand), then a short-shank live bait hook followed by two “stinger” treble hooks (they like Eagle Claw #4s). They place the live bait hook through the mullet’s nose, then the first stinger hook into its side after scraping off a scale or two, then the second stinger ahead of the top tail fin.
Fishing guide Ben Floyd of Charleston Fish Finder is a big fan, as well.
“Mullet are the only bait I’ll use now (July) through November,” Floyd said.
Floyd likes to use mullet to target not only redfish, trout and flounder, but also massive sharks. It’s not unusual to see bottlenose dolphin herding big mullet during the run, slapping and thrashing at the jumping mass of fish, and Floyd knows sharks often clean up after the dolphins crash a bait ball. He’ll simply toss a big mullet into the fray.
Floyd’s also had success using mullet offshore. The little guys are hardy enough to survive the trip down to 180 feet, where they’re often quickly engulfed by big grouper.
After the fall run, mullet are definitely harder to find inshore, but some remain in the creeks all year long. Come winter, Floyd looks for mullet hiding in creek bends where the current has carved out deep holes. Or he’ll turn to frozen mullet he stockpiled during the fall. His trick to ensure the freshest frozen bait: Salt the mullet before freezing with a little water.
Catching mullet is easiest in late summer and fall, when they begin migrating out of the saltwater creeks and making their way out to deeper water.
Most anglers use a cast net to catch mullet, which can usually be spotted swimming in large schools at the water’s surface. Low tides are best, since the fish are forced out of the cover of marsh grass.
Bigger mullet often can be netted in brackish or even freshwater impoundments, including neighborhood retention ponds and golf course water hazards.
Some folks even fish for mullet with rod and reel. The fish’s largely vegan diet, however, makes baiting the hook particularly difficult. Some anglers have reported mullet hook-ups by using canned corn or salted, frozen dough balls.
Another strategy involves chumming the water with a half-and-half mixture of oatmeal and chicken feed (laying mash), stirred together with enough water to form a loose dough ball that slowly breaks apart in the water into a big cloud. Mullet rigs consisting of a bobber, some splitshot weights and #4 gold Aberdeen hooks evenly spaced along about 4 feet of leader. The hooks can be baited with small pieces of white plastic worm or firm pieces of the dough ball.
Mullet for the money
For centuries this mighty fish has been a cornerstone of the Lowcountry’s marine ecosystem, feeding everything from alligators, bottlenose dolphin, ospreys and pelicans to a host of saltwater game fishes.
These plentiful fish have also fed generations of humans, from Native Americans to modern-day coastal residents. In fact, mullet generate millions of dollars annually for coastal fisherman, though mainly outside of South Carolina.
It seems our northern and southern neighbors find a lot more to love about mullet than we do.
The striped mullet commercial fishery in North Carolina is the largest along the East Coast today and a major part of the state’s fishing history. Three million pounds of mullet were harvested annually during the late 1800s, and daily hauls of 1 million pounds were recorded during the autumn seasons of the early 1900s. Today’s predominant commercial draw is exporting the mullet’s roe overseas.
Floridians also love the stuff. Entire festivals in the Sunshine State are dedicated to mullet mania. Fans ate nearly four tons of the fish at last year’s Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival in Niceville, Fla.
In contrast, South Carolinians largely ignore the mullet’s commercial potential. Recorded commercial landings of mullet in the Palmetto State dropped significantly after 1982 and remain nominal today. Various factors play a part, including regulations on gill and other netting techniques. But mostly, the locals just don’t seem to have a taste.
Can it catch on here in the Lowcountry?
Paul Ziegler of Isle of Palms thinks so. Ziegler, 86, first tried smoked mullet while vacationing in North Carolina, where fresh grilled mullet and dried mullet roe are also favorites. His smoked trout and salmon have been well-known among family and friends for decades, and he quickly adapted his recipe to use local mullet.
Ziegler prepares a lot of fish and other game, including his own venison jerky, and has even pickled mullet. The result was better than pickled herring, he said.
So why don’t more Lowcountry residents share the mullet love? “It’s a perception thing,” said Floyd, who grew up around McClellanville. Mullet are largely thought of as bottom feeders, dining on mud and detritus. Throughout history, plenty of bottom feeders have been snubbed at the table — even lobster was once considered fodder for only the poor — at least until something happens to change public opinion.
In truth, mullet, which have a gizzard (like chickens) to help them digest, feed up and down the water column on all sorts of food. Varying a bit over their lifespan, the fish dine on small crustaceans, zooplankton, worms, algae and other microorganisms.
But, for the vast majority around here, “it’s still considered a trash fish,” according to Bill Roumillat with DNR’s Estuarine Finfish Research Group. Roumillat, who enjoys eating local smoked mullet, once asked a coworker why people don’t eat more mullet. The response: Why eat bait when we can eat flounder, trout or redfish?
That’s a fair question. But maybe a mullet in the bucket is worth two trout in the creek. If you’re looking for something different to eat, to sell, to fish with or even to fight on a line, give the mighty mullet another shot. TL