Florida anglers know it’s not always a fish-eatfish world out there.
Vegetarian fish lack innate regard for the ingenuity lavished on modern sportfishing tackle and artificial lures. Florida’s fresh water hosts a few such ingrates, whose office it is to torture young anglers, frustrate them with their large bodies and small, declining mouths. In some cases, they bring out the resourcefulness of those anglers. Chief among these chlorophyll eaters and of longest standing is the infamous mullet.
Mullet grow to five pounds and more, will bend the rod with the best of them and feel secure enough to rocket randomly from the water just to show exactly where they are and where they are going. If they had an extendable tongue, it would precede them through the air.
We all have suffered a youthful trauma at the fins of mullet. Mine occurred at the age of eight. The family took a trip and stopped at a motel on a back bay where I spied enormous fish idling about a dock. Though I never had fished, my blood suddenly boiled with the instinct. I begged my parents for anything to fish with, whereupon they found me some kind of a cane pole to soothe my exploding genes. As commonly happens when human evolution wells up to meet our nemesis the mullet, it became a night of heartbreak, that, apparently, I’m still not over.
Mullet are commonly targeted along the seawall of the St. Johns River’s Lake Monroe with cane pole and various corn meal concoctions. The mulleteers chum with handfuls of corn meal as they fish, with the occasional bluegill or bullhead coming in plus a recent addition to their stringer, the tilapia.
As with any fish it’s best to adapt technique to conditions. I once saw teenagers wading the mouth of a spring with light spinning tackle simply reaching down and plucking little gobs of algae for their hooks and tying into big mullet. Mullet also can be caught in fresh water on worms.
Have you ever sat there relishing every mouthful of that juicy steak embroidered with a nice ring of crackling fat while your vegan friend across the table is pretending to enjoy his twenty-fifth carrot of the week and suddenly he screams and lunges for your plate? Me neither. In fact I don’t think I have any vegan friends. But that’s what happens to the occasional mullet. Once in a while one of them just can’t take it anymore.
After a long battle my first snook on streamer turned into my first mullet on streamer. I also have caught mullet, shiners, tilapia and gizzard shad temporarily gone mad on spoons.
Shiners are the vegetarian friend of the young angler, eager to be fooled by breadballs. They are hard fighters and a big one is an exciting addition to the possibilities.
A dedicated kid will figure out how to catch shiners but for those adults who have progressed beyond figuring things out but wish to try, the basics are these: Where bluegills are liberally scattered all around the shore, shiners tend to hang out deeper and must be chummed in. Bread will work. A tiny hook is best and the cheapest white bread has the right softness for molding onto the hook. The best breadballs are squeezed into being under high finger pressure, usually the smaller the bait the better. Use light line and tiny hook or hook and tiny bobber. Once shiners are busting the floating bread, a tiny piece of clothesline rubber on the hook will work for the fly fisherman.
Tilapia are classic tormentors as they make themselves highly visible, particularly when spawning. They also are astoundingly sensitive to the lightest, most distant footfall: If you can see them, they can feel you. I long ago gave up trying to entice these highly evolved African fish to bite, having tried breadballs and putting weeds on my hook. It took parenthood to crack the code. With monumental patience my 13-year-old boy Ely figured it out. Three years later, I give his account here:
“Tilapia dig broad, deep beds in shallow water from April through July. Being filter feeding vegetarians, tilapia are not often caught on rod and reel, and when the occasional specimen is captured it is almost always on a bread ball being fished for bream or bullheads.
“A few years ago, however, while fishing for bass in a shallow local lake full of the tilapia, I happened upon a much more consistent method of catching them.
“I was idly casting from a low bridge spanning an offshoot of the lake on a sunny May day when I noticed a tilapia rooting around in its bed. This nest was about two feet wide with a clean, yellow sand bottom. Clean, that is, except for a small piece of bark in the center of the bed. As I watched, the male tilapia (males guard the nests) carefully picked up the obstruction in its mouth and deposited it off the bed. I had a 1⁄16-ounce black jig on my line and immediately dropped it into the bed below.
“This was the beginning of many successful tilapia fishing ventures. I later perfected my techniques and discovered that the fish would spook easily if disturbed.
“My approach became routine, if time-consuming. I would creep slowly down the bank to a cluster of beds, small dark jig affixed to my line. Dark jigs work best because they provide the most contrast with the sand of the bed. I would carefully position the jig in the center of the bed, open my bail and retreat until I was behind a tree or barely able to see the jig.
“This is where the waiting begins.
“It was often half an hour before the tilapia would pick up the jig to clear the nest. Vigilance at this stage is crucial. The moment the fish picks up the jig, the hook must be set. This method has proven reliable for me time and again, rewarding me more than a dozen times with a saltwater-worthy fight.”
There are reports of lake chub-suckers living in Florida. Never having caught a single one or even snagged one, I was becoming skeptical until seeing them everywhere at Manatee Springs. Pecking away at the bottom with their co conspirators, mullet, these sizable fish totally frustrated me and even Ely, caring not for breadballs or anything else we could think of, not a rogue vegan in the bunch. They seemed like ghostfish. Whoever can crack that code is in for some fun.
Russian amurs were sent here from Russia before receiving the less Cold War name, grass carp. These vegans become the biggest thing in the lake, reaching 30 pounds and can be enticed by breadballs or flies, including the amur-specific bread fly and green fly. Mark Benson and his pal Louis stealthily stalk them with flies like giant freshwater bonefish, swapping poling duties while scanning for tails of amurs nibbling St. Augustine grass at water’s
“I wish these things would come out and finish the lawn for me,” Mark confided wistfully to his pal.
“They’re pretty big. What if one of them just decided to try your cat for something different?”
“Don’t have a cat.”
“Well, all right then.”
Opposite the less savvy carnivorous fish, who often gather when one is hooked and try to get hooked themselves, a hooked amur apparently releases a pheromone to warn its fellows that something not totally fishy is going on; so usually only one man gets to bend a rod in that vicinity.
Grass carp are much less sensitive when they’ve been munching on ficus berries, a behavior developed during their residence in South Florida canals bordered by the shaggy trees of the same name. It’s thought that consuming the ficus fruit brings on a sort of stupifying condition, not unlike drunkeness. In a weak moment, the now-boisterous vegetarian may be fooled into smacking a deer-hair fly dyed purple.
Maybe all this will rotate with time. Why can’t fish change their minds and a species switch its eating habits? I quote from Gulf Stream North, a celebrated novel penned by Earl Conrad in 1954. It is a saga of commercial menhaden fishermen along the Florida-Georgia coast.
“While the menhaden move in swarms and eat the plankton, the shark, whale, bluefish and tarpon and even smaller fish like pompano, mullet and flounder, they all smash into those moving fish cities, feed and forage.”
Mullet maniacally attacking menhaden? Who knew? Who could even imagine it? Pompano forsaking crustaceans on the bottom for the taste of living fish coursing overhead? Flounder slashing open-mawed through schools of hapless prey? Well, change is good for everybody. Perhaps one day a gleam will come to the eye of the menhaden as they turn on their persecutors, slashing though them with their pudding-mouths wide open for business. It could be a real Menhaden Transfer. Such a surprise those sharks may be in for. - FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Jun. 2012