October 21, 2022
Mullet are one of the best inshore baits, the cream of the crop for the aspiring inshore angler. There are several species of mullet native to the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and they can be found all over Florida and as far north as New York. The two species we will be discussing throughout this article are silver mullet and black (striped) mullet, the most common species in Florida waters.
So, what makes them so special?
Let’s start with habitats, for which both species of mullet are vast. Mullet can be found in rivers, bays, the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, freshwater lakes and canals. Their wide distribution makes them a universal prey item among a wide range of fish, from wahoo in the open ocean to largemouth bass. Mullet can be found around structure, mangroves, inshore, offshore, and they typically travel in schools like most baitfish. Adult specimens may reach sizes of 20 inches or more.
With all of these factors working in sync, mullet are among the best bait in Florida. So how do you use them? Where can you catch them? All valid questions that we are going to discuss. It’s time to master the mullet.
If you’re on a mission to catch trophy fish, particularly inshore around Florida, learn first to catch mullet! They are the perfect bait for snook, jacks, tarpon, redfish, trout, even cobia and more. So, what do you look for when trying to catch mullet and how do you do it?
You’re going to need a cast net and you’re going to need some patience. Catching mullet at certain times of year can be deceivingly easy, but sometimes it can seem like a nearly impossible task. Fortunately, mullet, both striped and silver, will often expose themselves by jumping. Spend a few seasons chasing them and you’ll learn to “look” for them as much with your ears as your eyes; listen for the splash. You’ll start to notice that distinct sound of their jump. This is often the easiest way to start your search.
Mullet gravitate to shallow areas like sand bars and flats, and the vast majority of the time they will be near shore. Why? They are typically evading predators and want to find cover. Sandbars will limit the space around them, therefore, they feel protected. They will also hide around mangroves for the same reasons. Shoals and mangroves also provide a great habitat for mullet to feed in. Mullet are omnivorous and will eat plankton and other small plants or debris around these areas.
On the hunt for a school of mullet, if you are not noticing them jumping, look for “nervous” or otherwise disturbed water. On a very calm day, you may even spot their tail fins poking above the surface. Mullet are notoriously hard to catch in deep water—they are swift and evasive, and quite capable of seeing and reacting to an incoming castnet. Early morning, before sunup, might give you the best chance. My preferred method is cornering them on a sand bar or flat. There is less depth for my net to travel, resulting in a higher catch rate. Still, be prepared to throw on a school of mullet… and catch a lot of water! If the depths are greater than 2 or 3 feet, there is a high probability they evade your cast net. Frustrating, yes, but also entertaining and potentially good exercise.
On the east coast of Florida, August through November you can often find massive schools of mullet on the beaches and around the inlets. This time of year is what anglers dream of. We refer to this as the mullet run. This is a time when juvenile mullet, the “finger mullet,” migrate south into Florida. Sometimes, the Gulf Coast will also experience these conditions.
Late spring and early summer deliver another kind of mullet run, as adult silver mullet congregate in southern Florida estuaries before moving offshore to spawn. They are bigger than the fall-run fish.
When targeting mullet, start by gearing up with the right cast net. Your choice will depend on several variables. Will you be throwing from land, wading, on a boat, in shallow water, or in deep water?
When throwing from land or wading, I like to use a lighter net, something easy to carry. On occasion, I’ve found myself hiking hundreds of yards with a net and bucket in search of mullet. On days like this, you’ll be thankful you chose a light net. My preferred land-based net is 6 feet in overall height and typically around ½- to 1-inch mesh (narrower mesh is needed for sardines; mullet are larger—and the wider mesh sinks more quickly). The ideal weight for your net when land-based is around 1 to 1.2 pounds per foot (radius). This is easy to transport and will get to the bottom.
On a boat, cast net needs may differ. For targeting mullet in shallow water, I like to use a net that is 10 feet with a ½-inch mesh. My ideal weight is 1.3-1.6 pounds per foot. A 1.6-pounds-per-foot loaded, full, and wet can become extremely heavy extremely quickly, so it is not for the faint of heart.
My current favorite net is a 10-foot Calusa with a ½-inch mesh that weighs 1.5 pounds per foot. I’ve found that going with a nicer net like a Calusa or Cracker is worth it. Their durability is better and they open easier and tangle less frequently. Inexpensive nets commonly suffer from lower-quality monofilament, and they tend to tangle more and be a bit more difficult to open. If you’re unsure of what kind of net is best for your waters, find a reputable local tackle shop and ask for advice. If you see several cast net models displayed, with some of them hanging up for inspection, that is a good sign.
Once you’ve got your mullet, it’s time to get rigged up. There are two primary methods for rigging a livelined mullet. The first one, my favorite, is to go inside the roof of the mouth and up. You don’t want to hook both lips, just the top jaw. This will keep your mullet on the surface and provide a strong anchor point for your hook so it doesn’t come off. The upper-jaw hookup is preferable if you will be casting and retrieving often. This will increase the longevity of your mullet. Mullet are hardy baits and will last a long time if treated well.
The second rigging method is below the second dorsal fin. This is a great method if you want to have your mullet swim more freely and feed it line. This will also allow your mullet to swim downwards much more easily. Keep in mind that when you hook them below the second dorsal fin, it will not be as feasible to cast and retrieve them often. This is because you will flood their gills as you retrieve them. When I use mullet I often pitch them like a lure. There is a lot of cast and retrieval as I’m flipping docks and mangrove lines.
For hooks, I prefer to use circle hooks when fishing mullet, especially freelined mullet. This is because it can be difficult to tell when your mullet has been hit. Sometimes you will see a larger fish popping on your mullet and putting on a show but it may not have swallowed the bait yet. You have to be patient and wait for your moment. During this adrenaline-pumping process, I often have my bail open to feed it line. This will present a more natural look. Because of the slack, it can also reduce the sensitivity of the hit; this is where the circle hooks come into play. You can wait for the tension on your line to straighten and then reel to tighten. With a J hook, sometimes if you don’t feel the hit, you won’t have time to set, or if there is too much slack, you may set into nothing and pull the mullet out of your target species’ mouth. Been there and done that.
This brings us to our next topic, flipping docks, sea walls and mangroves with mullet. If you’re fishing from shore or wading, find a good area that can provide the above elements. If that is not feasible, a live mullet, or even dead, is always a sure bet around major jetties, bridges and inlets. Pitching mullet around structures can lead to some incredible fish. Large snook, jack, reds, trout and tarpon may be eagerly awaiting their shot at a mullet while ambushing them around the structure.
So how big should your mullet be? Well, that is a great question. It’s all about what you’re trying to target. Many people like to use “finger” mullet. These are smaller mullet that are between 3 and 6 inches. These are great for trout, reds, snook, tarpon and jacks. Much like adult mullet, but you’re more likely to attract smaller fish. The saying goes, the bigger the bait the bigger the catch. That is incredibly true when it comes to mullet. For example, if I’m going on a tarpon mission with mullet, I will often grab the biggest mullet I can get, assuming I’m looking for a triple-digit fish. The same goes for snook or jacks; typically, I like to use larger mullet as a way to weed out the smaller fish. I would rather catch quality over quantity, but everyone is different. Finger mullet are excellent for producing high numbers of fish. Sometimes, during colder months, bigger fish may key in on smaller presentations. This can also be a great time to focus on using finger mullet.
Another awesome way to fish mullet is to use a weighted rig. Think ½- to 2-ounce egg weight with a swivel and a leader. You can use a J hook or circle with this method. The weight will allow you to keep tension on your line so you can feel the hit. This bottom rig is an excellent way to catch fish in deeper waters. All of our favorite inshore fish will be found in various depths; whether it is tarpon, snook, trout or reds, their habitat fluctuates throughout the year. When you need to get the mullet to the bottom, this is my favorite way. This is also my preferred tactic around bridges.
It’s no secret that mullet are excellent trolling baits. There’s a rich tradition in Florida of preparing dead mullet for offshore trolling; many of the techniques start with removing the backbone to replicate a lifelike flutter as the rigged bait passes through the water. Live specimens, when you can acquire them, are very effective, and especially so on inshore waters, where tarpon, snook and big jacks cannot resist the panic reaction that a mullet displays. It’s best to hook mullet through the upper jaw to troll them. Limit your speed to 1 or 2 MPH, the sweet spot. I have caught some of my best fish this way. When trolling a large mullet, my rod is typically in a rod holder and I don’t have the reaction time you need for a J hook, so the circle hook is again the choice. I let the hook set itself.
For all of these approaches, if you are using a mullet larger than 8 inches (my preferred size) you are going to want some sturdy gear. Mullet can be rather heavy and you want to make sure your rod is able to handle the weight when casting and retrieving. I like to use rods rated for 30- to 50-pound-test line. While you sacrifice some sensitivity, the usability is worth it.
For shore-based fishing, a time-honored way to fish mullet off beaches, jetties and structure is chunking. Fishing cut chunks of mullet (particularly the head!) is a proven way to catch big snook, tarpon and other fish. I vividly recall my grandfather using large chunks of mullet on Sanibel Island and Haulover Inlet (Miami) to catch some of the biggest snook I’ve laid eyes on. Fresh chunks always work best but a frozen mullet may still do the trick. Pro tip: Make sure your chunks are large enough that catfish can’t eat them. If you’re going to be chunking around heavy surf, inlets or other areas with strong current, use a heavy weight or a spike weight to keep your bait still. Patience pays when chunking.
Don’t be afraid to go big on your chunk, just be aware you might get sharked. Use a large circle hook when fishing mullet chunks, to minimize chances of gut-hooking prized fish like snook and tarpon. Also note that intentionally targeting sharks from shore (whatever that actually means?) obligates you, by Florida state law, to use non-stainless, non-offset circle hooks—and to watch the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s online Shark Smart video to obtain the Shore-Based Shark Fishing permit. The FWC education component is worthwhile, regardless of whether you intend to fish for sharks.
So, there you have it. The mullet is one of the most versatile baits in Florida. You can fish them free-lined, weighted on bottom, head hooked, tail hooked, trolled and chunked. All of these methods have been proven effective time and time again. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2022