Catching Mullet on Fly

Solving the jumping enigma with flies.

Perhaps the lowly mullet deserves similar consideration. Once these shiny critters lose their bait shop image, what’s left is a scrapper that’s certainly more fun to catch on ultralight fly gear than it is to stack in a Cedar Key smokehouse. Anyway, before anyone contemplates such leaps in consciousness, they’ll want to stock up on a few groceries. But this time, it won’t be for dinner.

Okay, skeptics, let’s look at mullet a little more sympathetically. Certainly these mid-sized dynamos don’t have a reputation for destroying tackle but I suppose if you tallied all the soft-tissue injuries attributable to say, catching bonefish or seatrout on fly gear, you wouldn’t have much of a list either. So if you intend to go after mullet with a drag-equipped reel, go easy. There’s plenty of pinpoint casting involved and more than a few broken tippets, but what goes on beyond that transcends pure technology.

What’s it like to catch mullet on flies? You won’t hear that question asked very often but who among us hasn’t watched these fish jump and wondered?

For your information, catching mullet happens to be a hoot. Supposedly, fly fishermen in other countries pursue various mullets that strike flies aggressively but local anglers consider our domestic species lock-jawed due to some curious eating habits. Nonetheless, it’s time to strip away the scales of ignorance since nowadays, thanks to the introduction of ummm…”vegetable nymphs,” even beginning fly casters can catch mullet until they’re sick and tired of it. Incidentally, I don’t have to remind anyone that this is break-through stuff.

You’ll find two mullet species in Florida. Both hit flies. The black variety grows slightly larger than its streamlined silver cousin and if you ask any Florida cracker, you’ll learn that black mullet are for eating while silvers are bait. Personally, I like catching the bigger, hard-hitting blacks. That doesn’t shed much light on the mystery, though.

In a word, mullet are weird. Their unique behavior discourages anglers from the get-go. If I’d had something fancier to fly fish for early on, I’d probably be doing it instead. Mullet are considered prey rather than predators. Something you catch in a net to catch something bigger and better. Let’s face it-we think mullet jump because they’re being chased, though at times, they seem to be having fun. Whatever the reason, nobody ever considers getting one to jump at the end of a fly line.

I’ve tried to learn more about the habits of these enigmatic fish. In the end, it hasn’t amounted to much. Give it a chance. If you’re still with me, let me set the scene. It’s sunset in suburban Fort Lauderdale. The daytime horn honking and hustle are finally beginning to melt onto a morass that teeters visually between condominium stucco and the ersatz rainforest landscaping. The breeze puffs, sending leaves to the surface of my backyard canal, which happens to be one of the few natural drainages left behind by the developers. The ocean’s a dozen miles away, but the water here is slightly salty. In spite of its tidal influence, my canal conjures visions of paddlewheels rather than counter-rotating props. Before I surrender to the daydream, a fish plucks a blossom from the film.

The Mulleting Hour has finally arrived.

Quietly, K.C. Smith tosses a handful of oatmeal in the canal after spitting in his palm so some will stick together and sink. Meanwhile, I tear bread slices into quarters. Swirls erupt as fish attack floating crusts. Then, a mullet free-jumps near the opposite seawall. Perhaps he’s reconnoitering. No one knows exactly why mullet do this; perhaps it’s pure whimsy or maybe just fun. We pick up our rods. Within minutes, mullet schools race around between crusts. We cast ahead of the splashes in an attempt to lead the school without success. Even in such syrupy settings, it seems frustration has its place. At first, the fish are too engrossed to pay heed to small flies, so we quit casting and wait. The bread will be gone soon and hopefully, the mullet will become more amenable to our offerings. The swirls finally subside, and we cast.

Tense seconds pass before K.C.’s strike indicator plunges beneath the surface. It’s a powerful hit, by something legitimate. K.C.’s little rod bends, line slips through his fingers, his reel screeches and the mullet jumps. It’s only then, while he remains oblivious to several dumbfounded gawkers, that K.C. finally laughs.

Mullet fishing with flies, at least with any hope of success, is a fairly recent preoccupation. According to rumor, several of fly fishing’s early legends may have caught one here and there but since these catches were supposedly made with wet flies, I’d wager most were accidental. As a point of interest, I once nailed a monster black mullet squarely in the mouth with a 4-inch Phillips Multi-wing. No kidding, he completely swallowed the streamer. Yet if you managed to count the mullet that saw my flies over the years, that catch equates to a single confirmed strike out of ten million presentations. And tales of mullet banging big Deceivers meant for snook under bridges have bounced around, too. Accident or opportunism? Whatever, the secret to catching mullet is cutting to the chase by finding out what they eat then matching it.

Mullet feed like any other fish, via the front end. If you had the inclination to follow a mullet around, you’d eventually see him sifting through the bottom ooze for organic matter and maybe when the light was low, grabbing a few leaves off the surface. He feeds, certainly, but his choice of diet makes him a vegetarian. This in turn means that if you want to catch him, you’ll need a different sort of fly. Plant life isn’t exactly flashy. If you sit around waiting to attract mullet to some sort of inert green thing, you’ll end up with a good case of fanny fatigue. Mullet nip rather than tear at vegetable matter, so you’ll need a small fly. If you carry this argument to its conclusion, you can see that locating a No. 14 Plantmaster in a cloudy ditch is like finding a cracker crumb in a shag carpet. In other words, you’ll need a little help. Like you’ll get via the miracle of chum.

Once you understand the mullet’s basic diet, plan the menu. However, before heading to your lawn mower or your grocery’s vegetable counter, consider what canepolers have known for years: Oatmeal, bread, and batter mix were all plants at one time. They also happen to be a lot easier to store, and to imitate, than St. Augustine grass clippings. Evidently, the mullet agree and that’s why our canal “professionals” turn to ordinary bread, oatmeal, or even good ol’ Bisquick whenever they want a few mullet for the skillet.

Ah, Dixie! There’s something to be said for sleepy rivers and lazy days. And since nothing fits the canepole scenario better than floats and doughballs, it follows that similar logic works for fly fishermen, providing that the most effective fly patterns imitate milled vegetable prod ucts. From a design standpoint, my favorite mullet flies imitate dissolving bread. I fish them beneath strike indicators but unlike conventional bobber-lobbing, I make pinpoint casts.

Long ago, I learned that mullet schools migrated south along our beaches, or in the Intracoastal Waterway at certain times of year. I also recognized that these were nervous fish, far too agitated to feed. What I didn’t understand was that once mullet get wherever they are going, serious feeding commences. Every winter after their migration, schools of 1- to 6-pound mullet invade the canals and creeks near Everglades National Park, parading up and down the banks in plain view. Take a look at the Tamiami Trail canal from Ochopee to the Port of the Islands; if you watch the individual fish, you’ll get the impression they’re basically chewing away at nothing. If you ask me, these white-lipped sippers are actually vacuuming microscopic plant matter from the water. That’s feeding in a sense, which means they can be caught.

Local fishermen definitely have their number. Whenever I’m poking around after snook and tarpon, I watch the canepole fishermen fill their buckets as oatmeal boxes empty. In defense of this type of sport, fishing over chum isn’t any different than working a hatch except that here, you control the “bugs.” Yep, if they’ll rise to grain, they’ll strike flies. That’s providing, of course, that the flies are properly tied. Whenever you toss bread upon the water, it breaks down. Avid trout fly tyers know that synthetic fibre antron has a refractive index similar to that of water. In the drink, antron looks like dissolving bread. Or a milled oat. Using antron for mullet flies is a natural, considering that in addition to its more esoteric properties, the fibre sinks. I tie my Yeastie Beasties (like the name?) by simply wrapping antron yarn around a No. 14 Sproat hook. In order to present my flies at the proper depth, I suspend them approximately a foot beneath a typical strike indicator. Just for the record, I tie two other carbohydrate patterns-one with a tail and “thorax” I call the Bisquick Nymph (brand-name infringement?) and an-other, whose name for the sake of delicacy, I’ll omit. Both are similar to the Beastie, except one is tied from polypropylene in order to float (for use just before dark).

I arrived late one day for an hour’s fishing. The sky was overcast so the fish came up immediately. Within a few minutes, I was into my first black mullet, a fat 3-pounder. Afterwards, several others like it followed in quick succession. After an hour, I decided to take a breather. It was during this break that I noticed several unusually large boils that I originally discounted as the work of turtles. Eventually I decided to return to fishing. The mullet began swirling again in response to more bread and once again, I cast. I didn’t have long to wait. I raised my rod to set the hook, and the fly line literally shot through my fingers. To my surprise, whatever I’d hooked proceeded to run off all the fly line and an appreciable amount of backing. Since I was using a 4X tippet testing at six pounds, I wasn’t worried. But a few minutes later, after being forced to shimmy around a chain-link fence and stumble over a picnic table in order to keep up, I started having my doubts. It became a carnival of errors. My fly line caught on an overhanging tree branch but I managed to work it free after some fancy footwork and continued chasing after a mullet that by now, I was convinced I’d snagged. But unlike most foul-hooked fish, the mullet didn’t slow down. By now I’d run a hundred yards from the fence to the guest parking lot, only to discover that this baitfish still had plenty of moves left, at times refusing to budge. In the end, I got him close enough for a look. There beneath me lay a fish coal-black and as big around as a child’s football. A true leviathan of his species. I popped the leader in order to set him free, not knowing exactly how much he weighed, except that it was a great deal more than the 6-pound tippet could hoist.

I don’t hook monster mullet like that every time out. However, enough infiltrate the bread line to keep me on my toes. Sometimes other fish come too, which reminds me of the time I lost an entire fly line to a monster sheepshead we’d named Bis-marck. That’s another story of course but for now, let’s get to the specifics of this one, which includes the wherefore of catching mullet on flies. My best advice would be to find a location where mullet gather unmolested and try chumming. Incidentally, wherever you see them foraging with sand grains spilling from their gills is a sure bet. Give it a shot at twilight. You’ll find out soon enough whether you’ve picked a winner.

Would-be mulleteers don’t need fancy tackle. Just about any light rod matched with click-drag reel will do. However, long leaders tapering to 6-pound test or less are a required item, as are fine-diameter floating fly lines. Mullet evoke freshwater fly fishing’s folksy side but casting accuracy is just as critical here as it is while bonefishing. So is the ability to get off a quick cast. Keep in mind that there’s nothing easy about catching mullet on flies. It’s just a lot of fun.

Admittedly, fly fishing for mullet is a personal addiction. I don’t suspect anyone will open a mullet camp, or if you’ll pardon the pun, a mullet school in the suburbs. Or that “Mulletwear” will show up on the canal banks. I feel, however, that the thousands of fly fishermen who either reside in or visit Florida might consider mullet as a viable alternative when all else fails, or when you only have an hour or two to kill. I think you’ll agree that with a little imagination, one man’s baitfish can easily resurface in another’s sportfishing bacchanal.

Tying the Bisquick Nymph

Ready to give this craziness a try? This is a top fly and a cinch to tie. And it doesn’t need refrigeration! First, lay a strand of white antron yarn (ask your local fly shop to order it) along the shank of a No. 14 Mustad 3906 Sproat hook. Allow a short length to extend beyond the bend. Tie the rest down by wrapping white 8/0 tying thread forward to a point directly behind the hook eye. Wind the antron around the hook shank in order to form a football-shaped body. Bring the antron forward and pull down in order to form “legs” before tying off behind the eye. Trim the tail and legs to 1/16-inch length. That’s it.

Originally Published Florida Sportsman Feb. 2002

  • Phil

    This article is awesome, well done!

  • Gloria Vila

    I got hit in my right eye this Saturday 7/14/12 by a jumping mullet!!! Can you believe that? What are the odds of getting hit in the eye by a jumping fish? Lol. I was at Lido Beach in Sarasora, Fl

  • mudfish

    Jebus – I'm not fishing for mullet! There's got to be some level of dignity, man!

  • Tim

    Can you post a photo of the fly

  • FBT

    Steve, great article. Can you pls pass a photo of this pattern pls.. Or, send to my e mail address fbtarim@gmail.com