Mullet are bastards!
The rain is stair-rodding its way across the lagoon at 45 degrees on fiercesome Atlantic wind. Today the mullet are proving impossible to find, which makes a change from finding them impossible to catch. In many ways it’s less stressful. I fished in conditions with little prospect of success but just enough hope make me feel that the enterprise was worthwhile. More about mullet later. It’s not a species to dwell on for too long if you want to retain your sanity. Occasionally they seem obliging, more often they frustrate and at times can drive an angler to drink, drugs or even darker places!
Today is the last day of the trip and tomorrow we return to a drought-hit England sweltering in record temperatures. Already one Wye barbel trip has been cancelled due to low water, and I suspect the next will go the same way unless some biblical rain decides to interrupt the stultifying heat. But hey-ho – there’s always a fish somewhere willing to oblige and feed our obsession. That’s the beauty of being an all-round angler with an insatiable desire to keep adding to that bucket list. The adventure never ends until time is called and the last cast is made.
What’s not like about the West of Ireland?
I’m visiting a fishing friend who has relocated to a piece of rock about as far west as it’s possible to travel on the island of Ireland – the sort of place only an angler or an artist would covet. My love affair with Ireland and the Irish began in the 1970s, when I joined the throngs of English anglers on the ferries from Holyhead; all of us escaping the close season in search of big nets of bream, roach, tench and rudd. These days I come here for bass, pollack and mullet (allegedly) with travel rods, a few lures and minimal gear. Back then it was all Shakespeare seat boxes, bristling rod holdalls and pillowcases full of maggots that had to be smuggled onto the ferry and stashed in the lifeboats for the crossing. The fishing was spectacular at times, whether it was bagging 100lbs of bream on the feeder from Lough Gowna or catching a netful of sparkling roach from the Erne and its tributaries. A particular favourite of mine was the River Barrow, Ireland’s second longest river, which begins life in the Slieve Bloom mountains in the midlands and flows south past Carlow to Waterford and the sea beyond. The Barrow is swifter flowing than most Irish coarse fishing rivers and the bream, roach and rudd grow bigger and fight harder in the strong current. But best of all it has some truly magnificent rudd / bream hybrids that can provide spectacular sport on the right day.
I’ve fished now for well over half a century and in recent times, with the time pressures of a political career now well in the rearview mirror, much of it has been in far of places I dreamed of as a small boy but never thought I’d get to see. Memories of giant mahseer in India, big peacock bass in the Amazon, reel-screaming marlin, kingfish and barramundi in Australia and brutal battles with GTs and tuna in the Indian Ocean all burn bright and provide me with a thousand precious moments.
But so too do those days chasing altogether more modest fishes in altogether more modest surroundings. Despite my ever-expanding fishing wanderlust, Ireland still grips me and an annual visit is very much in my plans. I don’t care if it’s standing in the Kerry surf waiting for a bass to smash my lure, casting bread into an estuary for mullet or working a float down a river in search of roach, bream or a combination of both in a single fish. For me it is a country synonymous with fish and fishing, and one that keeps on drawing me back.
Back to Mullet
Apart the sheer cussedness of the species there two main reasons why mullet are challenging. The first is they may actually no longer exist where they used to flourish, thanks to those nice commercial fishermen in search of a few grubby pounds for converting a beautiful sporting fish into cat food. The second is that when you do find the things, it’s rather important to find out what sort of mullet you have in front of you. There are very few anglers who can definitively tell the difference between a thin and a thick-lipped mullet just by watching them in the water. And therein lies the problem, because they might as well be totally different species when it comes to catching them rather than the close cousins they actually are. The thins rarely eat bread, will sometimes take a fly on move and are almost exclusively caught on ragworm spinners. The thicks by contrast are sometimes partial to a bit of bread, will usually only take a static fly and have no interest in lures or spinners. So if rule number one is first find your mullet, then rule number two is to establish the species – otherwise, you run the risk of fishing pointlessly. And rule number three is to study the tides. This is important, because although mullet like to come in on the flood tide their feeding zones can vary immensely. There are low-water spots, high-water spots and places where the fish assemble as the water begins to flow on the tide change. As a rule of thumb, it pays to seek out estuaries and examine the exposed mud flats at low tide for the tell-tale sign of mullet scrapes and target these spots as the water rises.
Waiting for the mullet to come in on the tide at Rosscarbery
And so it was the other day that Sean and I found ourselves at the Rosscarbery estuary in West Cork hopeful to do battle with some of the monster mullet the place was known to hold. We had been inspired by the catches of English emigré and mullet specialist Dave Rigden, who had kindly told us the best spots to target. However, he did advise that neap tides could be tricky and that the place fished much better on bigger tides. Well, he wasn’t wrong. We eventually found the fish at the top of a pathetically small tide in about two feet of water. There must have been 200 of them sloshing about in an area not much bigger than a tennis court. They were diving into the silt, swirling on the surface, swimming under our rod tips and even colliding with our floats. In fact they were doing everything except eating bloody bread like they’re supposed to, and we eventually packed up defeated and frustrated.
With the Irish mullet proving impossible we were grateful for the ever reliable pollack
Further attempts to lure an Irish mullet were similarly unsuccessful. We found a pack of thins in a spot that we hoped were thicks as we only had bread with us. I wasted two hours waiting for a tidal lagoon to flood before realising that in the weak tide neither the water nor the mullet were going to arrive anytime soon. All I can say is ‘thank God for pollack’, as they saved the trip.
Whilst there’s little doubt that fishing for the big thick-lips has got harder in recent years there are some places where the thin-lipped mullet have thrived. One of these is Christchurch Harbour at the junction of two of my all-time favourite rivers – the Hampshire Avon and the Dorset Stour. I’ve written about targeting these harbour battlers on ragworm spinners in a previous blog and Sean was keen to come with me to find out what it was all about.
Now while Christchurch Harbour can be fished from the bank on a day ticket, it’s a busy place with lots of boaters and paddleboarders, so it pays to be afloat in order to find fishable spots away from the inevitable disturbance. Luckily, we had access to a boat – and thanks to Tom at Christchurch Angling Centre opening up for business (and ragworm) at 7.30am, we were able to get fishing at a reasonable hour.
Ragworm spinners are not the easiest of things to throw any distance, so we took nine-foot rods and reels loaded with superfine 15lbs braid to maximise our casting range. The leaders were 10lb fluorocarbon and the spinners were Mepps nos. 3 or 4, trailing a size 2 Aberdeen hook on a five-inch trace with four inches of ragworm threaded up the shank. It’s important that very little worm hangs beyond the end of the hook to avoid the mullet nipping the tail and failing to hook up.
Sean was happy with his first thin lip on tbe ragworm spinner
I’ve had some great sessions on the harbour and some difficult ones too. However, when Sean’s rod arched over on only his second cast in the first spot we tried, I had feeling this was going to be one of the better days. And so it turned out, with hard fighting mullet coming to both our rods in most of the spots we visited. The usual stamp of fish here is between two and three pounds but Tom has told us that that the bigger specimens had been showing this year to over four pounds. He wasn’t wrong and by the end of the day I had landed 14 mullet, including two beautiful four-pounders.
It’s a foolish angler that thinks they’ve nothing left to learn, and I like to regard every day on the water as another school day – even when doing something as straightforward as casting and retrieving a lure. Mullet will often follow the spinner and turn away at the last moment, but one I found to induce a take was to stop winding a couple of yards from the boat and let the spinner and worm flutter down for moment before giving it a sharp twitch. This often induces a violent take right under the rod tip. Now Sean, having done far more reservoir trout fishing than me, was able to apply his knowledge and take this technique to a new level. If the flutter and twitch didn’t produce and the fish were still in evidence, he would swish his rod tip in a figure of eight pattern beside the boat until the mullet either buggered off or smashed his lure.
One of the better fish from a day when the mullet generously decided to cooperate
I even managed a bit of innovation myself which has its origins in salmon fishing. I think it’s referred to as ‘fishing on the hang’ – also a revered reservoir trout tactic. One particularly productive spot is where the channel narrows and the flow runs hard under a line of moored boats. We had caught few fish that had been drawn to the spinners from mid-river, but I fancied that there might be some more sheltering under the boats below us on the inside. So I cast across the flow and worked the spinner around so it was positioned about ten yards downstream at right angles to my rod top. Once it got close to boats I stopped winding and left it fluttering in the current. But not for long as big bar of silver emerged and hit with such force that the clutch was screaming before I had time to lift the rod. It was a bit like touch ledgering for barbel at close range without the interminable wait for a bite!
By the time we pulled anchor for the last time we had racked up nearly 30 mullet between us, alongside innumerable numbers of small bass. You can see some of the action from that day on this nice little video that Sean put together.
Mullet madness warning
I make no apologies for encouraging traditional coarse anglers to spread their wings and have a go for mullet. Whether thicks or thins they are worthy adversaries which look great and pull hard – they are not known as the ‘British bonefish’ for nothing. However, just when you think you got them cracked, they will confound you. Just when you think you know where they’ll be, you’ll turn up and they’ll be gone. When you find them they might oblige you, yet the next day you will fish amongst them for next to no reward. In short, they can be bastards – but the challenge makes it all the more fun.