The Amazing Race

Here Comes Florida’s Most Important Baitfish

FSF Staff September 30, 2013

To the collective surprise of no one, the fall mullet run will soon be in full force. Like the changing of seasons, Florida anglers know that every fall mullet will train south and cloud waters along the coast. However as predictable as this annual migration is, it never ceases to amaze. Cruising helplessly in large masses through bays, inlets and backwaters as they make their way to the coast, mullet are on their way to one of the world’s most incredible migrations. Like wildebeest running the gauntlet of killer crocs and ferocious lions in Africa en route to their seasonal watering holes, mullet must traverse savage waters ripe with relentless game fish.

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Photo: istockphoto.com/ftlaudgirl

Mullet live their lives in backwaters and freshwater marshes but spawn in saline habitats and travel tremendous distances to do so. While salmon in the Pacific are andromodous and venture to freshwater to spawn, mullet in the Atlantic and Gulf are catadromous, meaning they leave freshwater bodies in search of saltwater to spawn.

In northeast Florida, anglers saw the first signs of mullet in mid-August. South Floridian’s know that by the second week in October it will be game on.

While mullet ignite explosive feeding frenzies along both coasts, these schooling forage fish play a critical role in the health of estuarine habitats. Like you learned in elementary school science class, the web of life is critical to the well being of all members of the ecosystem and lowly mullet are more important than you think. Mullet feed on decayed plant material, phytoplankton and other microorganisms found throughout inshore estuaries. These microorganisms are then converted into energy to feed their massive migration, which results in protein intake for predators across waters both inshore and offshore. As a significant food source to upper level predators, mullet are one of the only species of large finfish that convert plant matter into protein through direct predation with large game fish.

Just as you can likely predict the mullet run, with the first cold fronts and falling water temperatures triggering massive movements of mullet, game fish are also well aware of the changes on the horizon. You should know that the mullet migration doesn’t happen all at once, rather waves of giant schools filter south as the fall season continues. You’ll likely notice that the first schools of mullet training south are devoid of predators, but once the scaly bait schools catch the attention of one predator fish many more will take part in the action.

In northeast Florida, anglers saw the first signs of mullet in mid-August. South Floridian’s know that by the second week in October it will be game on. While Florida anglers have been patiently waiting for the action, mullet have been on high alert for weeks as they fight for their freedom while exiting coastal shallows of Mid-Atlantic States. Once they leave the safety of these inshore estuaries, roe-filled females and milt-stuffed males gather along the coast before they head offshore to spawn. Mullet in the Atlantic swim south to spawn and release their eggs in the Gulf Stream, where they are taken northward where they once again settle in the shallows of the Mid-Atlantic, effectively continuing the cycle of life.

Mullet spawn offshore and it is believed that females can release over 2.5 million eggs per spawning event. Studies have also uncovered that hatching occurs only 48 hours after accompanying males fertilize the eggs. It is only through these amazing reproduction capabilities that mullet are able to withstand the onslaught year after year and continue to dazzle anglers with their predictable annual migration.

In the Gulf, mullet migrations start with the same cool north winds of fall. Here they have less of an inclination to migrate north or south, rather they typically head offshore upwards of 100 miles to spawn and then move back to the comfort of inshore habitats. While spawning migrations are prevalent along both coasts during the fall, mullet are rather plentiful during many seasons and can typically be captured with relative consistency no matter the time of year.

While there are many species of mullet, we generally only encounter three—striped mullet, white (silver) mullet and fantail mullet. With fish from 3- to 14-inches migrating south, it’s no surprise this scaly mass attracts a serious slaughtering from countless predators. Nearly every carnivore along the Eastern Seaboard will engulf a mullet given the opportunity. The largest and most robust mullet are always striped mullet, and just to provide some clarification there’s no such thing as legitimate finger mullet.

Striped mullet are distinguishable from silver and fantail mullet in that they grow larger and have discernible horizontal black stripes. However, these stripes aren’t present until they reach around 8-inches. All three species can be difficult to distinguish at young ages and that’s why juvenile fish only a few inches long are commonly called finger mullet. Along both Atlantic and Gulf waters, striped mullet are the most common species. In fact, striped mullet are found around tropical parallels throughout the world and mullet is common verbiage in over 100 languages worldwide. They are also unique in the fact that they can be found in pure freshwater springs all the way out to the deep blue.

No matter what you choose to call them, which particular species you encounter, or where you are in the state, as mullet migrate some choose to enter area inlets and passes where they get crushed along docks, bridges, seawalls, jetties and other ambush points. Those that choose to ride it out in the open ocean will succumb to tarpon, jack, cobia, sharks and king mackerel. The largest striped mullet found offshore are often decimated by the ocean’s most capable predators like wahoo, sailfish and dolphin. The bottom line is that the upcoming fall season is a bad time to be a mullet.

Mullet are warriors and after months of constant swimming and relentless attacks, populations will reach Florida Bay and the end of their migration. While tagging data reveals that some striped mullet may move between coasts, the exact movement and mixing of mullet populations remains relatively unknown. What we can tell you is that the bite is going off right now, so get out there and get hooked up!

Baitfishing At Its Best

Believe it or not, but striped mullet are increasing in popularity as viable light tackle targets. Rarely considered a worthy game fish, large mullet can put up a respectable tussle on the appropriate gear and also leave anglers with a tasty meal. Because they eat phytoplankton and zooplankton, the most likely method of approach is a small string of artificial baits held vertically by a split-shot on one end, and a small float on the other. Micro flies mimicking tidbits of chum work, as will quill rigs or miniscule pieces of soft plastics impaled on tiny hooks. Set up to three of these rigs in areas where large mullet are seen frolicking. Chum the area well and wait for a float to disappear.

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