As tropical weather patterns disrupt the Atlantic basin, water temperatures will begin to fall and prevailing southeast winds will gradually veer to the north. This highly anticipated changing of seasons ignites an incredible migration. With mullet inundating inlets, beaches and shallow backcountry venues in massive pulses, it’s best described as a full-on feeding frenzy lasting for weeks on end.
Like autumn foliage changing colors, Floridians know that every fall mullet will wander south and cloud waters along the coast. As certain as this annual migration is, it never ceases to amaze. 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 heading offshore to spawn.
Mullet in the Atlantic swim south to spawn in the Gulf Stream, where 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 reproductive capabilities that mullet are able to withstand the onslaught year after year and continue to dazzle anglers with their predictable annual migration.
In northeast Florida, we saw the first signs of mullet in mid-August. In the southern region it will be full throttle by the second week in October. As a general rule, smaller fish collectively addressed as finger mullet are the first to show, usually by the third week of August. As the activity heightens the schools get larger. Finger-size mullet are first to show, with mature silvers arriving by mid-September. From here it’s a mixture of all sizes.
While there are many species of mullet found worldwide, we generally only encounter striped mullet and silver mullet. The largest and most robust fish are always striped mullet. And to clarify the confusion, finger mullet are juvenile silvers. With an exodus of fish slowly meandering 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.
Striped mullet, also referred to as black mullet, gray mullet and flathead mullet, have broad heads and grow much larger than silver mullet, which are sometimes called white mullet. When striped mullet approach maturity and eclipse eight inches in length they develop prominent black stripes that extend the length of their body. Identifying the two species as juveniles can be difficult, which is why fish only a few inches long are commonly called fingers. Though striped mullet are of great commercial importance and harvested for food value, silver mullet are favored for dead bait purposes as their shine and firmness of meat is far superior to that of a striped mullet. Both species live in brackish water, but silver mullet can withstand greater salinity levels. Additionally, the head of a silver mullet is streamlined and ideal for rigging a swimming split tail, compared to the unmistakably blunt head of a striped mullet. While it requires close inspection, they may also be identified by the anal fin ray count—eight for striped mullet and nine for silvers. Lastly, silver mullet have a distinct spot at the base of their pectoral fins and black edging on their caudal fins creating a noticeable V. Neither of these attributes are present on striped mullet.
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 coastal estuarine environments. 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. With the long-awaited mullet run in full swing, anglers should not only take advantage of the impressive angling opportunities afforded by the immense migrations, but also in the procurement of fresh offerings that are highly versatile and easy to acquire.
Mullet are often observed lethargically milling the surface and are not that impressive compared to an agile goggle eye or sardine, but when silver mullet are expertly rigged they come to life as enticing dead baits. Carving strips out of mullet is a vintage approach that has remained unchanged and requires a razor-sharp knife with a thin, flexible blade. Much like you would fillet any game fish for the dinner table, start by making an angled incision in your mullet behind the pectoral fin. Continue filleting the slab toward the tail, taking care to ensure it splits into two even sections. Routinely employed by crews around the world targeting pelagic game fish, deboned split tails are incredibly versatile baits that can be fished in a variety of positions throughout your spread.
Whether you prefer to fish them off a downrigger, trolling lead, flat line barely skimming the surface or as hookless teasers for dredge adornments, you will undoubtedly catch more trophy fish with silver mullet in your spread.