Every year, the mullet run is eagerly awaited by anglers fishing Florida’s east coast. Once cooler fall temps push these bull-headed baitfish out of area backwaters in the Carolinas and other locales further north, they begin a long and dangerous trek southward for the winter. These flickering baitfish travel in huge masses along shoreline shallows, much to the surprise of casual beachgoers. You’re not really a Floridian until you’ve been swarmed by a mullet school in waistdeep water (just kidding). However, what many anglers do not realize is that along with the massive groups of mullet clinging to the coast, there are huge numbers making the journey offshore, away from the beach.
Unfortunately for the mullet, the journey doesn’t get any easier away from the shore. While the onslaught in the shallows is unlike any other, with snook, tarpon, redfish, sharks, jack crevalle, mackerel, birds and more taking advantage of this traveling buffet, the offshore edition of the mullet run provides its own dangers to these migrating baitfish. While you won’t come across as many of the visual signals that you get near the beach, the mullet that choose to make their way south via offshore waters are under constant attack. It’s not as much of a spectacle, but it provides equally exciting opportunities for area anglers.
When tracking the mullet run near the shoreline, the visual indicators as to where the bite is located are fairly obvious. You’ll see birds diving and huge schools of mullet showering as they’re being chased by a multitude of predators, not to mention the occasional shark fin or two. In the offshore arena, the visual signs are a bit more subtle and you’ll have to rely on more than just the naked eye. In this deeper water, the mullet still form massive schools beneath the surface. But unlike along the beach where the shallows trap these baits in the surf, the blue water makes them more elusive.
Early in the morning or later in the afternoon, it’s not uncommon for offshore anglers fishing along the edge of the Gulf Stream to see mullet shoals dimpling along the surface. While this is a dead giveaway for where the baits are and likely where the predators are, picking up on this visual indicator requires very calm water and perfect lighting. It’s a great sign when these conditions do present themselves, but it’s not something you want to rely on. Instead, anglers use their sonars to mark schools of bait, or simply deploy their own baits hoping to cover a lot of water and find the action themselves.
When fishing with mullet offshore, one of the most popular methods involves getting a bait down below the surface where certain predators roam more frequently. There are several tactics in getting mullet below the surface, and much of your choice will boil down to personal preference or trial and error. Regardless of your method of choice, there’s a lot to be said about the effectiveness of deploying a mullet below the surface. While these baitfish form massive schools, deploying a bait below the concentrations rings the dinner bell for nearby predators, as your offering will appear weakened or injured. From the perspective of a hungry game fish, this is easy prey.
One of the best ways to fish a live mullet below the surface is with a downrigger. These devices are relatively easy to use and not only get baits below the surface, but they do so without having to rig with any weights attached to your actual outfit. This makes things much easier when fighting fish. Additionally, downriggers allow users to control the precise depth at which their baits are set, making it much easier to get your offerings in front of fish marking at a certain depth. When fishing downriggers, wire leader is recommended as your most likely targets are going to be large king mackerel and wahoo, though other predators like cobia and sailfish might be interested as well. For larger mullet, stinger rigs with a J-hook pinned through the lips and a treble hooked between the bait’s dorsal and tail fins account for toothy y predators that might hit the bait’s tail first.
Another popular way to deploy a mullet below the surface is by trolling. While you can certainly slow-troll live mullet from your downriggers, this method inherently limits your speed and doesn’t allow you to cover as much water. Instead, some anglers prefer deploying planers set to certain depths, allowing them to troll at higher speeds and cover more water. In this pursuit, however, a split-tail mullet is the best option. For those who prefer to fish artificial enticements, Marea’s Motion Minnow (mareagear.com), available in 7.2 and 9.5 inches, is an excellent option. Either of these baits will yield a natural swimming motion that closely resembles that of a live mullet.
When it comes to fishing mullet at the surface, a kite is going to be your best bet. During the mullet run, these baits are easily accessible, easy to keep alive and are great baits for a variety of offshore predators. When deploying a kite spread, it’s not uncommon to include a variety of different baits to see what the fish feel like eating that particular day. This time of year, many common offshore targets have mullet on their minds, so it makes sense to include a few live mullet in your kite spread. Depending on which region you’re fishing and how far along these baits are in their migration, the size of your bait matters. Later in the migration, larger mullet are more common, while the beginning stages of the mullet run almost always feature smaller finger mullet.
Regardless of your choice, you want to make sure you rig in accordance to the size of the bait and the fish you’re targeting. If you seek wahoo or kingfish on the kite, then rigging with wire and stinger rigs is highly recommended. Conversely, if you’re targeting sailfish, cobia or even blackfin tuna, rigging with fluorocarbon and a circle hook is your best bet. On that note, I also recommend bridling your baits when kite fishing. If you’re using a 4/0 or 5/0 circle hook on a 8-inch mullet, you need to make sure the hook is completely exposed, and bridling your bait is a great way to do that.
Now that we’ve covered the surface and just below the surface, let’s touch on how you should fish mullet on the bottom. While these baits naturally migrate through the upper reaches of the water column, bottom feeders like grouper, snapper and more won’t hesitate to engulf a live mullet. These predators are opportunistic in nature, and a large mullet roaming near structure usually won’t last long. If it’s not a grouper or snapper, it’ll likely be a cobia or jumbo amberjack tracking down your mullet on a bottom rig.
There are many methods when it comes to fishing live bait on the bottom, from the tried-and-true knocker rig to using a heavier bank sinker attached via loop or rubber band. Regardless of your personal preference, make sure you’re fishing a long leader and just enough weight to hold bottom. I like 60 to 80 lb. monofilament in this pursuit, as well as large circle hooks pinned upward through the bait’s lips.
While it’s tough to look past the mullet run action taking place right off the beach this time of year, I recommend switching gears and experiencing this annual angling spectacle in the offshore world. In the coming months, no mullet is safe, not even in the blue water.