Four tactics for catching big coastal fish during the fall bait run.
Using my trolling motor to position the boat a long cast from the seawall, I stood ready to send a topwater plug deep into a basin created by two parallel seawalls roughly 80 feet apart. The tips of the walls stuck out 30 feet or so from shore, blocking the path of the mullet schools migrating along the shoreline.
Professional bass fisherman Shaw Grigsby was with me that morning and as the first hint of light hit the water the mullet schools started to push around the seawall. Grigsby made a long cast parallel to the seawall with his topwater plug, and started crawling it down the wall with a walk-the-dog retrieve. Instantly, it was movie night at Orville Redenbachers, as a big snook popped his plug while other fish blasted the school of mullet coming around the point.
One cast into the day, and we were fast to a big snook, with lots more waiting.
That’s how the fishing can be during the fall mullet run when the fish stack up along ambush points. Life expectancy for a live mullet or topwater plug is often less than 10 minutes.
In with the mix of snook were jumbo jack crevalle and some of the largest ladyfish of the year. By the time Grigsby and I stopped casting, we had almost a dozen snook to our credit.
Crawl The Walls
Among the first places I look when the mullet come to town are seawalls, bulkheads and rocky shorelines, places where predatory fish can pin the baitfish.
These structures direct or occlude the movements of the mullet schools, forcing the fish to move in a consistent manner. If the obstruction sticks out from land or blocks the path and creates an ambush point the mullet have to go around, then so much the better.
There’s also a tendency for higher than normal tides around the new and full moons which raises the water levels in front of the seawalls, allowing the largest snook in the area to get in on the action. So whether you throw topwater plugs down the wall at first light or pitch live mullet against the wall during the daytime, the snook are there waiting for the mullet to run the wall, so the action takes place all day long.
Find the Feeding Frenzy
The fall mullet run is one of my favorite times of the year to fish because of the variety and abundance of gamefish, but also for the constant food chain in motion. From sharks and tarpon to snook, jumbo ladyfish, flounder and redfish, fall has it all if the mullet are present. And therein lies the rub: There has to be mullet pushing for the bite to go ballistic, and that doesn’t always take place.
One of my main strategies to fishing the fall mullet run is to find the bait—find the bait and you find the fish, it’s that simple. I’ll start my day working seawalls, and then as the sun gets up, I’ll start the engine and cover water looking for mullet schools being actively busted or chased. On calm days, that may mean running the beaches, often covering 20 miles or more watching for big schools of mullet tight against the shoreline.
You’ll know when you find a school that’s actively being fed upon. The mullet will be raining as they jump from the water to escape the attacks from below, and in the mix will be cartwheeling tarpon and snook, sharks racing through the schools and bluefish, Spanish mackerel and ladyfish attacking the edges of the schools from the outside.
In areas where there’s public access, you can fish these bait schools from the beach. In fact, I’ve stood on shore just outside of public swimming areas as massive tarpon took every inch of line off my reel, never stopping, and I’ve caught snook to 30 pounds or more right next to children wading and skimboarding.
If the mullet are there, the predators are going to be feeding from their ranks.
Lures work well from the beaches, particularly during low light when the fish can’t get a good look at the offerings. Big swimming plugs and soft plastics with boot tails are the top offerings in chartreuse, red-and-white and black or green backs with a natural colored body. Cast the lures parallel to shore or the outside edge of the mullet school and reel them back with a slow, deliberate swagger to their swimming motion.
Live bait is hard to beat, particularly when you’re standing next to an unlimited supply. One throw of a small castnet will get you all the bait you need for a day of fishing, but I like to catch my baits fresh every time, so I know they’re hearty and swim strong. Standard tackle for the fall mullet run includes 30-pound spinning or baitcasting gear, a 60-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and a 6/0 circle hook.
There’s a lot of options when it comes to hooking up a live bait, but I like to start with casting my net and using the largest of the finger mullet or the smallest of the adult mullet, ideally looking for a bait that’s 6 to 10 inches in length. At this size the baits will cast well, and represent a large enough meal to draw the ire of a tarpon or trophy snook.
Hook the baits below and just behind the anal fin, which forces the baitfish to swim to the surface where it sticks out. Hooked this way, its tail will constantly tap the line, sending injured bait impulses through the water that the fish can detect. Also, if you pull on the line, the fish will swim away from the pressure, meaning away from you and further out from shore.
As the fish reaches the outside edge of the bait school, those rhythmic thumps of the tail will really attract the predators, and you can often tell when a strike is imminent, as the beating of the tail picks up measurably as the fish sees its attacker approaching and tries to get away.
Go Deep To Score
Weather is the key to migrating mullet, with cooler temperatures, northerly winds and extreme high tides all factoring into the fish’s movements. Hurricanes can negatively impact the run, as can high seas and surf, all of which push the baitfish into deeper water offshore, limiting angler and gamefish access to the food source.
As a rule, the finger mullet are the first to show, usually by the third week of August. As the run ramps up, the schools get larger, as does the size of the mullet, with the mature baitfish arriving by mid-September. From there, it’s a mixture of baitfish of all sizes.
When fishing the finger mullet schools, it’s common for the largest game fish to sit deeper in the water column so that a freelined bait or topwater plug swimming near the surface gets bit by mostly juvenile fish. One of the easiest ways to increase your number of bites and the size of the fish is to add a jighead or weight to the equation.
When fishing the finger mullet it’s common to use lighter line from 15- to 20-pound test, and a 40-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. The jighead you select can be any color, but it seems red or chartreuse work best, and should weigh between ¼- and 3⁄8-ounces, or just enough weight to get the bait below the bait school and still allow the finger mullet the ability to swim.
If you find a spot with moving water, such as around inlets or bridges, you can cast the jig and finger mullet combination upcurrent and bounce it along down-tide. You’ll get a lot of flounder, redfish and snook that way.
About 10 years ago I was fishing inside the St. Lucie Inlet during the month of October and freelining finger mullet along the shoreline. I was catching a good number of mostly sub-slot snook, with over a dozen fish to show for a couple of hours of fishing.
On a whim, I tied on a ¼-ounce jighead, pinned a finger mullet to it and cast to the same area where I had been fishing. On the first cast, I caught an 18-pound snook, the largest of the day, and in the next hour landed six slot or over-the-slot snook, all from that same area where I’d been catching 24-inch snook all morning.
The same goes for fishing around docks or in the open water schools of finger mullet being actively attacked by gamefish. While the larger fish do on occasion feed from the surface, it seems like a lot of the smaller fish are the ones you see doing cartwheels or busting water, while the larger fish lurk deep and feed without showing their presence. A jig and mullet or weighted mullet cast into the mix will often find the fish lurking below the bait schools.
Explore The Nightlife
Since it’s still hot during the daytime, night fishing is a great break from the October heat. Even better is that the fish tend to concentrate around the lights of docks and bridges, narrowing down the areas to fish. In fact, the fish can be so concentrated at times that you can see big schools of snook under the docks lights or on the edges of the light. And you can bet these fish are there to feed.
Less boat and angler pressure also fires up the apex predators in open water, as tarpon get on the bridges and in the inlets at night. Some of the best tarpon fishing of the year can happen at the inlets, as fish from 10 to 100 pounds or more lie in the current waiting for the silhouette of a mullet to flow by with the tide. And when it does, the strike can be spectacular.
I’ve sat in the St. Lucie Inlet at night on a strong outgoing tide freelining finger mullet behind the boat and using the trolling motor to maneuver the boat and force the finger mullet to cut a wake along the surface. The best advice I can give you is to bring a lot of bait, as I’ve had 40-bite evenings where fish of all sizes were blasting the mullet, with a tarpon bite taking place every few minutes.
A major drawback to tarpon fishing in the dark is that you feel the bite when the fish is already in the air before you have time to react, so tarpon tend to throw the hook more than in the daytime when you can see the action taking place. By the time you try to bow to the leaping fish, the sound you hear is the fish landing back in the water.
Topwater plugs and swimming plugs work well in these situations and also around the bridges for snook of all sizes. Crank a lipped plug slowly down the shadow line and be ready to retain possession of your rod and reel when everything comes to a sudden halt. If there are big schools of mullet pushing through the bridge and getting crashed regularly, that’s a good time to break out the topwater plugs and cover water.
The best fishing during the fall mullet run takes place whenever the mullet are moving, and that regularly includes the worst weather scenarios. When the wind is blowing and the seas are kicked up as the first northerly fronts push south, you can bet the mullet are on the move and the fish are feeding from their ranks. Get there when the fish are feeding, and you’ll catch the best bites of fall.
For deepwater areas around bridges, or around seawalls where you want the bait to push away from the boat and up against the wall, the best place for a hook is in front of the dorsal fin. To get the bait to swim deep, you can also hook it in the throat, a great technique when fishing directly above the bait on a bridge; the mullet swims down against the pull of the line.
Fishing from land toward open water, hook the underside of the bait behind the anal fin, to force the bait to swim away while remaining on the surface. Similarly, when fishing toward a seawall, you can hook mullet beneath the second dorsal fin (left, bottom) to drive them toward the structure.
Around docks, hook through both lips (left, top) to let the bait swim around a piling, but pull the baitfish out of the structure should it get too deep. This is also the best hook placement for slow-trolling.
About the Fall Mullet Run
Peaking some time in October, Florida’s east coast mullet run is a sight to behold. At beaches and inlets from Fernandina to Miami, when the mullet arrive, you can expect to see thick, dark waves of baitfish fleeing tarpon, sharks, bluefish and all manner of coastal predators.
On the Gulf Coast, bursts of similar activity kick off this month, as well.
The east coast run is composed primarily of silver mullet in the 4- to 5-inch range. These “finger mullet” are fish not yet one year old, spawned in the March-through-June time period. In spring and early summer, the larval silver mullet are carried north by the Gulf Stream, and then move inshore to feed in estuaries as far north as North Carolina. The species is intolerant of water below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit; as winter approaches, the fish head south for warmer water. (Only juvenile silvers— young of the year—were documented in a North Carolina report, for example; few, if any, adults.)
Another mullet “run” of sorts may intersect that of the silvers: Striped mullet, mature at 8 to 11 inches, move seaward in the fall, exiting rivers, canals and intracoastal waters. They will spawn offshore in October through December, and then return to their home waters. This pattern sees big schools of mullet gathering in lower estuaries of both Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Striped mullet are more tolerant of cold water than the silvers; thus populations reside year-round in northern estuaries.
Members of both species require some level of salinity in very early stages, hence the “catadromous” spawning activity—living in fresh waters, spawning in salt, the inverse of salmons and other anadromous fishes. Once striped mullet reach about 1 inch, they can live in completely fresh water; we were unable to find a specific reference to salinity threshold for silver mullet, but one report indicates the species is less tolerant of low-salinity waters.
Mullet are primarily herbivores, grazing on algae and tiny plants.
A simple way to tell silver mullet from striped mullet: the silver has a black edge on the tail fin.
Pause For The Cause
Any time you’re fishing topwaters at night, you want to walk the dog through the lights and structure, with the exception of fishing bridges with distinct shadow lines. I’ve found that walking a topwater from the dark and into the light in one continuous motion isn’t as effective as pausing the bait when it first contacts the light. What I like to do is work the bait continuously in the dark areas, and then pause the lure when it hits the light, allowing the wind and current to push the bait through the light.
If you watch a single mullet moving through a bridge, the baitfish will zig and zag their way through the dark, but when they hit the light, they freeze. It’s as if the light blinds or confuses the baitfish, as they drift through the lighted area with the tide. Quite often, that’s when the snook and tarpon attack.
So when working a topwater, stop the lure in the light and let it drift through the light, bouncing up and down with the wave action. This technique doesn’t always work better than a steady retrieve, but there are a lot of nights when it’ll outfish a steady retrieve three to one.
Lastly, you want to match the size of your topwater lure to the size of the mullet moving through the light. Color isn’t as important as the size of the silhouette of the lure as it drifts through with the tide. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2013