By Joe Walker
There’s always a better angler. That’s how it seems, and never more so than when you’re skimming though Facebook, and an endless column of happy anglers posing with their personal bests or myriad catches slides up the screen.
After you’ve had a blank or two (and it happens in the salt, particularly on the quest for mullet on the fly), you can get left feeling pretty darn inadequate. It’s especially biting when you’re relatively new to the agonies of this particular pursuit, and it can easily leave you feeling despondent and tempted to go and target something easier. Like the Loch Ness Monster.
Mullet Impresario - Colin MacLeod winkles out another
But hang on in there. There are three things to consider here;
a. Even the very best of the mullet gurus started with (and still get!) days where the landing net remains stubbornly dry.
b. Those guys who do have regular success have something you don’t have yet but can get… the advantage of time and experience. And finally
c. Never underestimate the power of utter laziness.
No, I’m not advocating hiring someone to do the fishing for you. But…let’s be honest… you’re reading this because you want a bit of a short-cut, right? Can’t say I blame you – it can take a royally long time to accrue enough experience with mullet on the fly as it is, let alone doing it from scratch by trial and error. Some of us probably don’t have 20 years left to spare!
So… what is it that I hear most from stressed and exasperated would-be mulleteers when they vent their anxieties online beneath those happy grip’n’grin shots (aside from a general wail of “Where am I going wrong…?!?”)?
For the most part, those anglers new to chasing mullet with a fly rod have already found some fish – mullet aren’t that hard to locate - but they’re getting a distressingly disinterested response to their flies. And when there are really significant numbers of fish right in front of you and you get not a sniff, it’s no wonder you start to question your angling ability (and often your sanity).
This is even more exasperating when you find yourself fishing next to one of the real mullet gurus, who’s using the same flies, setup, leader, trace and, indeed, aftershave as you, and yet seems to be a
The body language says it all at times...
It’s worth taking a deep, calming breath at this point, and focusing on what’s happening in front of you, not to the side (tough though that can be in the face of “Yay! I’ve caught another one!” wafting across to you, barely audible over the grinding of your own teeth). If you’ve got the right kit and flies, then the rest of what you need falls under the heading of ‘just watching’.
Observation is crucial to successfully targeting mullet on the fly. Unlike throwing half a loaf of crusty white into the sea to promote feeding (hey, you can if you want to, we’re not judging), you’re trying to get mullet to chow down on a shrimp imitation. It’s simply not going to work (or at least, it’s a lot less likely) if the mullet don’t fancy a bit of shrimp to start with – you’ve got to find them in the moooood!
Dinner was served
Think about it logically then. If you’re already familiar with flyfishing rivers, one same core fact applies in the salt… Fish are hard-wired to be lazy.
Well, when I say lazy, what I mean is they want maximum calory intake for minimum calory outlay. That means good quality food without having to travel too far or expend too much energy to get it. From the feeding mullet’s perspective, that criteria is filled by either having your food delivered, or finding somewhere which is the marine equivalent of Supermarket Sweep.
Delivery is simple – it’s all down to the current. If the fish can hold in the flow and have a steady supply of grub drift straight to them, then that’s a good place to start. Of course there are a few things to consider;
Firstly, too fast a current is not a good use of energy, whilst too slow will mean larger food particles (like shrimp) will drop out of the flow (and who wants to go and collect if you don’t have to, right?). This will become self evident – the mullet will choose sit in the ‘goldilocks zone’ and hold there if it's worthwhile.
Secondly picture a hundred mullet, evenly spread throughout a current 10 meters wide, 30 meters long and 1.5 meters deep. That’s just 1 mullet for every 4.5 cubic metres of water…and you want to trundle your teeny, tiny flies right past the nose of the one fish that’s hungry? Long odds. So you want to try and choose the time and place where those 100 fish are funnelled into a much smaller volume of water. That channel at a lower point in the tide could be still 30 meters long, but only 7 meters wide and just 0.5m deep… that means one mullet in every 1 cubic metre of water… your odds have increased four-fold! The funny thing is, the mullet are having the exact same thought, one notch down the food-chain – concentration fish and their prey work exactly the same way.
Think three-dimensionally; Narrow the flow and make it far shallower (such as might happen naturally at certain stages of the tide for example). This does two things – it not only forces the fish to pack far more tightly together thus increasing the chance of your flies being noticed, but it also then introduces a potential golden ticket…competitive feeding!
One fish feeding is good, but three fish feeding increases your chances exponentially! Three fish and only two (apparent) juicy shrimp drifting by? No-one wants to lose out, so caution takes a back-seat, and there’s often a race to grab dinner whilst the offer’s there.
Finding these ‘flow zones’ comes down to a bit of time invested in looking at the topography of the shore at low tide. Natural channels and bars that will funnel water through, rivers emptying into the sea, weirs or outflows… there can be many features that can create the conditions that the mullet (and you) can take advantage of.
Look for features that funnel water
Think 3D - Shallow water concentrates fish too!
In terms of presentation, dead-drifting flies in this scenario can be really effective. You still need eyes on your fish, as their behaviour will still help you further tip the scales (no pun intended) in your favour. Cast upstream a little and let your flies roll down with the current, keeping connection with them by very gently taking slack out of your line as it develops – Nymphers, you’ll know what you’re doing here. Watch the flyline for twitches and pick-ups and ‘strip-strike’ at the first sign by tugging the fly-line back sharply in your free hand. Takes can be lightning fast so be ready, and whatever you do, overcome the urge to lift the rod to strike. That’s a good way to lose the opportunity and send the rest skittering for cover.
A chunky thick-lip - it took a dead-drifted Spectra Shrimp in a good current
Feeding behaviour in flow can usually be observed as splashing just like a trout rising, or by flashing flanks as fish dart and swerve from side to side to intercept edible morsels being swept past.
So… that’s the mullet version of Deliveroo covered. Onto the supermarket...
Once the flow has dissipated (or perhaps there was none to begin with) the mullet will go looking for option two, again with the lazy-gene in full control; find somewhere where the food is concentrated so that if I, Mr.Mullet, have to get off my piscatorial backside to go shopping, I can do it with as little effort as possible. In other words, we’re talking ‘abundance’ here.
We’ve already stated that we’re mostly concerned with mullet feeding on shrimp. There are a few different species but generally we’re mostly talking about sand-shrimp and mud-shrimp (corophium volutator). Shallow, soft, silty sand, and a sand/mud mix, exposed during the tide cycle, are naturally ideal habitat for the shrimp which burrow into the top centimetre and skit about looking for food (whilst hoping not to become it) as the rising water covers them again.
Areas where currents or depressions tend to corral the shrimp together make natural hot-spots, and the mullet will employ the same tactic as you when it comes to concentrating their target in the least possible volume of water.
This means the fish will be impatiently waiting to get onto those fertile hunting grounds as the water comes up (or indeed drops – never discount observing the ebbing tide – that can be just as productive) and they will move in water barely deep enough to cover them if it means the shrimp are in better concentrations.
Sometimes those shrimp stay buried, but sometimes they seem to erupt from their burrows and the mullet which had been patiently waiting in in a likely spot will have a short opportunity to fill their boots, metaphorically speaking. This, more than anything, is the difference between the seasoned mulleteer and the ardent apprentice – spotting that short-lived, often very localised spike of frantic activity. The clearer the water the better obviously, because you really need to see the fish more than ever at this point. More often than not, feeding is betrayed by sudden bulges, swirls and flashes of silver. Remember, by and large those mullet won’t want to expend energy for nothing, so a burst of sudden, fast activity with sharp, sudden turns in a localised area signals ‘dinner’s up’, and you need to get your flies in there pronto!