Mullet on the Fly
The early morning sky and sea fused into a never ending cobalt mass as I stepped from the deserted beach into the warm water. Although the sun was only a few hours old, it gnawed at the exposed skin on the back of my neck and I berated myself for forgetting to apply sunscreen.
The water retained the clarity of gin, despite the overnight passage of a storm from the south, demanding a stealthy approach to wading the flats. A gentle south westerly breeze pushed lazy waves through the sandy bay. Breaking waves attract fish and I scanned the wash for evidence of feeding activity. For a brief second, a small dark shape punctured the surface one hundred meters to my left, tight against the shore line.
I hurried over, unhooking the point fly and freeing line as I went. There it was again, only this time the shape could clearly be identified as a tail. A very large tail at that, which caught the glow of the rising sun as it fluttered in the soft breeze. The tail suddenly disappeared and I felt a wave of anxiety. It re-appeared thirty seconds later, some twenty feet distant, where the fish continued to nose through the sand in search of food. A developing sense of déjà vu carried my mind back to my first trip to Cuba, where I had a single shot at a tailing permit. The fly landed perfectly and the fish turned to investigate. My guide became excited, unlike the permit which swam away in disgust. Today I stood alone, as I prepared to cast towards a tailing fish once& more. The fly landed with a gentle plop, within eighteen inches of the fish. The tail immediately disappeared from view and I cursed myself for forcing the situation. Suddenly the line tightened and almost in disbelief I struck and lifted the rod all in one motion. The first, lightning fast run took me far into the backing, as a fish in peak condition powered through the shallows towards deep water. Twenty wonderful and absorbing minutes were required to control the fish and bring it to the net. The mullet was my largest of the season so far and certainly my most prized capture. With one flick of its huge tail, the fish melted into the shimmering haze.
Forgive me if the above description had you imagining southern Cuba rather than southern England but the fact is that a taste of the Caribbean is swimming on our very doorstep. Chelon labrosus, the Thick Lipped Mullet, has earned the nickname of British Bonefish in recognition of its fighting prowess and is fast developing as a cult fish amongst UK saltwater fly fishers.
The Thick Lipped Mullet is the largest growing and most commonly encountered of the three species of Mullet to inhabit our coasts. Greatest concentrations are found in the south and west but thriving populations exist further north, encouraged by sources of warm water such as power station outfalls. The main season for Mullet runs from April until late October. Thick lips are relatively slow growing and a fish of 6lb is likely to be in the region of 20 years old. The UK record for a rod caught Mullet is 14lb 2oz, with a fish of 5lb considered to be a specimen. They are not renowned as an eating fish and are typically returned to do battle another day.
Mullet are ostensibly vegetarian by nature, dining on micro-organisms and algae found in the sediment and weed of harbours, sandy bays and estuaries. However, localized populations of mullet are conditioned to feed on small invertebrates where an abundance of these organisms exists and this creates an opening for the fly fisher, especially in those parts of the country where spring tides introduce maggots from rotting seaweed to the water. A 6 or 7wt outfit with floating line and a 12 foot leader of 10lb Soft Plus fluorocarbon is perfectly suited to the task at hand, achieving the desired balance of delicacy in presentation and sufficient backbone to tame immensely powerful fish. A robust reel with efficient drag-system and at least 100m of backing-line is required to cope with the mullet’s searing runs. Consider use of a landing net and unhooking mat to facilitate the capture, handling and release of these majestic fish and provide the opportunity to photograph your hard earned prize.
Until recently, fly choice was a matter of conjecture. Mullet were deemed uncatchable by the fly fishing community and sure to drive the angler mad with frustration. Fortunately this is far from the truth and with a little patience, observation and the correct patterns, regular and exciting sport can be enjoyed with these incredibly powerful fish. The ‘flexi-shrimp’, ‘ghost buster’ and the ‘Red-necked Diawl bach’ (all size 12) offer readily accepted generic imitations of the invertebrates upon which mullet dine. I normally fish with these three flies on the leader.
The colour red holds a definite fascination for mullet and a ‘red flexi-floss blood worm’ or ‘Red tag’ can often save the day.
The tactical approach to thick-lipped mullet fishing is remarkably simple. Thick-lips betray their presence through surface activity……splashing, jumping and forming conspicuous ‘v’ shapes in the water as they cruise the upper layers. Fishing a flooding tide from low often offers the best advantage, with Mullet visibly exploring the shallows in search of food, especially around estuary mouths. Wade gently to take up position ahead of an advancing shoal and make use of any available current to dead drift your flies to cross their path, with the emphasis on ‘dead’.
When fishing for trout or Bass, we endeavour to present the fly as a living organism to achieve a reaction. With Mullet, the opposite is more likely to succeed, the aim being to introduce a dead organism carried by the current, to the foraging fish.
Monitor the end of the fly line closely for any indication of interest….. mullet takes can be very gentle and lightning fast. Strip-strike gently to set the hook and utter a small prayer to the fishing- gods. The ensuing tussle may well leave you trembling and the high from catching your first Mullet will last for several days.
Large bass often feature as a by-product while fishing for mullet. The two species regularly demonstrate communal feeding, with bass normally first to the fly.
The 2013 season was unusual in that a cold winter and indifferent spring were followed by the first bona fide heat wave for many a year. The combination of these weather events had a pronounced effect on the feeding behaviour and movements of thick lipped mullet. Instead of frequenting the estuary flats, the shoals chose to feed in areas of very fast current and water of around four feet deep. Getting the fly down to the fish became a problem, easily solved with the creation of the ‘flexible fiend’, a weighted version of the flexi-worm. The flexible fiend made short work of the current and soon found favour with a variety of species, including bass, sea trout, golden grey mullet and of course thick lipped mullet. The flexible fiend also produced a surprise catch one hot and humid September morning, with perhaps the first Thornback ray to be caught on fly.
Thin Lipped mullet (Liza ramada) also feed around estuaries and can be caught with the same tactics. Thin lips are smaller in stature than thick lipped mullet but compensate for this with a more developed predatory instinct and the desire to chase after a retrieved fly. The UK rod caught record for this species stands at 7.5 lb. Thin lips also feed over areas of mud flat on Corophium volutator (mud shrimp), where they swim on the edge of the flooding tide with their backs out of the water, trying to catch the shrimps before they escape to the safety of their burrows. Place a size 12 ‘Corophium’ pattern in front of a moving shoal and twitch the fly as they arrive to enjoy explosive sport.
The Golden Grey mullet is the third species of mullet found in UK waters and is quickly becoming a cult fish amongst salt water fly fishers. Golden greys visit our shores between May and October and numbers are most prevalent in the south and west of the country. This is the smallest growing member of our mullet family and the UK record for a rod caught fish currently stands at 3.5lb. The Golden Grey is very similar in appearance to the Thin -lipped mullet but is distinguishable by the ‘gold thumb print’ on each gill cover.
The preferred habitat of the species is the relatively warm, shallow waters of sandy bays, sand bars and the long sandy beaches so common in south Wales. Therefore, the technique to adopt when fishing for Golden greys is quite different to that for tackling estuary fish. Golden greys primarily concentrate their feeding on the area where waves break against the shore, dislodging food in the process. Fish are commonly seen ‘surfing’ in on a wave, ready to pounce after the breaking wave stirs up shrimps, hoppers and other fare. The approach is to stand roughly 15 yards from shore, facing the beach. A typical cast for Golden greys would consist of a 10 foot fluorocarbon leader with a red flexi-floss blood worm on the point and a red-necked Diawl bach or flexi- shrimp on a single dropper. A 6wt outfit with floating line is perfectly matched to the conditions and sporting capability of the fish. Cast the flies to land on the beach, right on the edge of the breaking waves and then slowly trickle the flies into the water. Takes are lightning fast and surprisingly hard and even a 1lb fish will run far and fast, jumping like a mini-tarpon along the wave.
Unlike brown or rainbow trout, mullet appear quite unaffected by weather conditions. I have caught mullet under clear blue skies and blistering sun, during rain storms of biblical proportions and in winds so strong I could barely stand. Rough conditions often give fish the cover and confidence to enter very shallow water and feed intently. Water clarity is a limiting factor, but as long as the water you fish is sufficiently clear for a mullet to see the fly, then expect action. Several myths exist in relation to fishing for mullet. The most obvious is that they cannot be caught regularly on fly, followed by ‘Their lips are soft and this is why so many escape the hook’. The truth is that the upper lip of a Thick lipped mullet has the consistency of a Michelin Radial, hence the need to strip strike to set the hook when a fish has picked up the fly. Lifting the rod before striking leads to lost fish. A third myth is that mullet cannot be caught in the dark. In fact, some of my most enjoyable and successful mullet fishing has taken place under darkness. Mullet display the same feeding patterns (at the same stages of the tide) at night time as during the day. A calm, moonlit night offers the best conditions to observe the movements of a feeding shoal. The beaches are devoid of human activity and the fish become quite relaxed as they emerge with the flooding tide, grazing like sheep as they travel through water only inches deep. A black coloured fly, such as a black GRHE, tickled across their noses will often bring an explosive response. The first reaction of a hooked fish is to head for the safety of deeper water, at incredibly high speed. The first run of a decent fish can approach 100m, dragging fly line and copious amounts of backing off into the inky darkness. Do not expect to see backing return to the reel for a considerable time, such is the power and stamina of these wonderful fish. A 5lb Thick lip will normally require 25 to 30 minutes of hard battle to bring to the net, all played out in pitch darkness, with hearing and touch the only senses available to the angler.
For several years I made the mistake of not packing a travel rod for the annual family holiday to Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Witnessing an incredible bass blitz against the beach by our hotel one morning convinced me of the error of my ways. I returned the following summer armed with a selection of bass flies but it was the large shoals of mullet which patrolled the mouth of a nearby estuary which firmly caught my imagination. The shoals consisted of Thin- lipped mullet and Flat- head mullet in the 1lb to 5lb range.
These fish provided many mornings of exhilarating sport, with good numbers falling to size 12 un-weighted black Czech nymphs and flexi-shrimps. The warm waters of the Med seem to intensify the mullet’s predatory instincts but also increase the speed with which fish take and reject a fly, requiring the angler to sharpen his reactions considerably. Marks (locations/features) to concentrate your attentions on are the same as in the UK, with estuaries being the prime spot. Long expanses of sandy beach can be alive with feeding Golden Greys, especially at first light. UK tactics work very well with Four summers ago I chanced upon a strain of Flat-head mullet which the Spanish call Pardete. And so began a challenge! From that point on, this large growing mullet received my full attention. Many fish were hooked and lost (some in the region of 15lb in weight) before an hour long duel in the sun finally delivered a 10lb Pardete in July 2011. A size 12 flexi-shrimp was the successful fly that day and went on to cement its reputation by claiming an 11lb 2oz fish in So there you have it. The simple mullet, offering a taste of the Caribbean in terms of fighting ability yet almost completely over looked by fly fishers in the UK, and beyond. Perhaps one of fishing’s best kept secrets has just been let out of the bag!
Here's Colin's quick guide to the use of the various patterns in the range:
Flexi-worm - Best fished dead drift style to thick lipped mullet feeding in a current or allowed to roll around in the wash when targeting golden grey mullet foraging in the surf. Also proving an effective attractor pattern for thin lipped mullet in rivers, drawing the fish in and encouraging them to take the dropper fly.
Red headed diawl bach - A great all round mullet pattern. Quite lethal when dead drifted to thick lipped mullet and will also gain a reaction when slowly retrieved amongst fish feeding in static water. Effective with all species of mullet.
Flexi-shrimp - A generic shrimp pattern which is best fished on a slow retrieve for mullet feeding in shallow water. This pattern has accounted for the three species of UK mullet and large flat head mullet in the Mediterranean. Also effective for thin lipped mullet feeding over mud. A slow, jerky retrieve imitates the mud shrimp which thin lips feed upon.
Red Tag - A great pulling pattern, one of the few which entices mullet to chase a fly.
Romy's Sand Shrimp - A pattern designed to imitate sand shrimp and small invertebrates inhabiting areas of sandy shore. Simply leave to hang in the wash or retrieve slowly amongst fish feeding in the shallows tight to shore.
Ghostbuster - Idotea (marine woodlouse) feature heavily in the diet of both mullet and bass. The ghostbuster offers a buoyant version of this invertebrate and can be fished slowly amongst columns of bladder wrack where mullet prowl. Also highly effective as a drifting pattern for fish feeding in extremely shallow water, where other patterns would constantly snag the bottom.
Flexible-Fiend - A weighted version of the flexi-worm. Useful for fish feeding in strong currents or deep water where traditional mullet patterns fail to reach the feeding zone. Has accounted for thick lipped and golden grey mullet, along with bass , sea trout and a thornback ray.
Corophium - Designed to imitate the mud shrimp, Corophium volutator. Thin lipped mullet feed heavily on these shrimp and are often seen swirling and splashing in shallow water as the tide floods over mud. The mullet are attempting to intercept the shrimp before they can return to the safety of their burrows. Introduce a Corophium amongst the commotion and commence a short, slow retrieve. Hang on to your rod!
Spectra Shrimp - Probably the most deadly of all mullet patterns. The spectra shrimp has produced incredible sport when drifted on a current to feeding mullet and has also excelled as a pulling pattern, producing an 8lb 12oz thick lipped mullet from a Welsh tidal river. The fly can be retrieved at high speed inducing an aggressive reaction from mullet.