Fly fishing for thick lipped grey mullet
The sight or sounds of a shoal of wild fish to any dedicated fly fisherman is as Mr Holloway states enough to make "the heart race and stir the blood”. Even during the close season, reminiscing that nocturnal racket of running Sea Trout who were forging their way upstream towards you in the lowest of water can keep your spirits up during the winter months. Ok maybe night fishing for Sea Trout is not your thing, it might be remembering those pods of gleaming fresh Salmon right off the tide that gave you the hits you needed at the time and is what keeps you dreaming on. Unfortunately such amazing scenarios may not be experienced and enjoyed by many fly fisherman for what could be a multitude of reasons.
"Chelon Labrosus" The Thick Lipped Grey Mullet
However what if I stated to every angler that next season should you wish, you could encounter an equally amazing shoal of wild fish that appear from their winter spawning grounds in late March and might not disappear again until late October, which gives us a very generous window of opportunity to get to grips with them. Twice a day they can come within casting range simply to feed and as a bonus can be prepared to display competitive feeding behaviour from time to time. Pound for pound they fight harder and for longer than most UK game fish once hooked and as a bonus, sight fishing is the order of the day as they show themselves quite freely. Couple all this with the simple fact that fishing for these fish can be completely free from any expense and I have just outlined to you the enormous pull of fly fishing for Mullet.
Typically we have three species of Mullet present here in the Uk, firstly we have the Thin Lipped Grey Mullet, then the Golden Grey Mullet, both of which are more common in the UK’s southern regions and finally we have the mighty Thick Lipped Grey Mullet. I say "mighty" for the simple reason that the Thick Lipped is the one which I believe grows the largest and can provide unbelievable sport. Grey Mullet return from their winter spawning grounds in spring and come inshore into estuaries, river channels and harbours, usually when the water has warmed to around 10c and the air temperature slightly higher.
The estuary can be one of the best places to get to grips first hand with the Mullet and dependant on its features, it is possible to be able to fish for these fish right throughout the full tidal cycle, that is if you are aware of their movements and it is safe to do so, but before I go into detailing the set up and approach for these fish I am going to provide some essential safety information regarding entering estuaries.
You may find this hard to believe but two summers ago whilst walking out to a low water mark I encountered a young couple from the Oxford area who were walking hand in hand, pleasantries were exchanged and I politely asked them where they were heading, to which they replied the town on the other side of the sands. I explained to them that the tide was due to run in at 12pm and they looked back at me somewhat confused. Once I had explained to them that "everything they can see will soon be covered in water and the tide on this particular day was also predicted to reach 8.9 meters", the shock on their face said it all, needless to say my good deed for the day was done.
I would therefore recommend that following reading this article you come back and experiment with this online tidal prediction programme by selecting your nearest coastal town. This programme will give you one full week of tidal predictions and more importantly it will give you them in an easy to read and understand graph form. You will see from the chart where the tides reach the maximum height for the week selected, the blue line which runs from low to high is proportionately steeper compared to tides of which maximum height is lower, this indicates that the incoming water speed will be quicker than the speed of an incoming "Neap" tide. In some estuaries at certain times of the month the water can come in faster than the average person can run.
The danger in this scenario above is where people who are not fully aware of the monthly tidal trends usually get caught out. Not only do the spring tides come in the fastest and furthest, we must also appreciate that they also go out the fastest and furthest too, thus the temptation to unknowingly walk right out onto land not normally uncovered may prove to be fatal once the huge bulge of water acted upon by the moon reverses. It is therefore VITAL that you understand fully how the lunar cycle affects the sea’s before venturing out at low water at any time of the month… the incoming tide will wait for no one...!
If you decide to enter an estuary, as well as doing your homework outlined above before setting off, please ensure beforehand that someone knows exactly where you are going and what time you are expecting to come home. Nearly all people own mobile phones these days so please ensure you are carrying yours with you in a waterproof pouch, further ensuring that it is fully charged. If whilst fishing you are uncertain as to what the water is doing then simply withdraw to safety, the fish will always be there for you on another day. Mullet fishing can be good at night, however estuaries should only be fished in the dark once a full understanding of how the tides "and wind" affects the actual surroundings. This knowledge can be confidently gained following months of actual daytime experience and observation.
Foam collecting on the waters edge, a sure sign that the flow has turned.
The basic tackle setup...
For most still water anglers or any sea trout fisherman there is no need whatsoever to go out an spend hundreds of pounds on new equipment because the chances are that you already own all of what you need. A 9-10ft rod rated between 6# and 8# should suffice for most instances, the 6# for fishing shallow river channels, sheltered harbours and low water estuaries on calm days and the 8# will come into its own when fishing exposed shoreline where the wind can prove difficult. Your reel should have the capacity to store 100-150 yards of backing and preferably have a reliable drag system built in for those powerful surging runs.
The line is something if anything that I would be prepared to spend extra money on. Ideally I would recommend a short headed, quick loading line that can deliver the flies to the fish with the least number of false casts. My own personal choice is to utilise shooting heads which I make myself to the length I require, but there are already a few suitable full lines on the market and ready made shooting heads that come in below 40ft in head length. If you are fishing really tight spaces and restricted to roll casting then it can also be a good ploy to up line by one rating above that of the rod so that you have sufficient casting weight beyond the tip even if you are not utilising the full head of the line. A standard 9ft tapered leader with sufficient diameter in the butt to effectively compliment the fly line its attached too and finish this off with three to four feet of 5-8lb fluorocarbon tippet. This set up should see your flies turn time and time again, landing gently enough to warrant not spooking everything in sight. If you know that your equipment is not saltwater resistant then please take the time to wash everything in fresh water immediately upon your return home.
Finding and approaching the fish...
Mullet by their very nature can be quite active fish and because of this they are not that difficult to track down. Huge areas of nervous water can be seen from hundreds of yards away as fish after fish circles around just beneath the surface, sometimes coming to the top to what looks like gulping at air, you may even be treat to the sight of them leaping clear of the water. When a shoal is located then time taken to work out an approach strategy is advisable. Wading right in to begin casting wildly at the fish is not advisable no matter how eager you are to catch one, two or three good displays of “Mullet eruptions” under your belt will teach you this lesson very quickly.
Questions I may ask myself at this moment in time would be, are the Mullet actively feeding and if so can we discern what they are feeding on? where is the front of the shoal?, can we make an effective presentation given the surroundings and conditions encountered? and finally can we safely land the fish should we hook one?. In a wide open estuary channel at low water there will only be two of those questions that need answering.
1. What are the Mullet feeding on?
2. What is the position of the shoal front?
Utmost care to be taken in such glassy water
Mullet are very opportunistic feeders throughout many stages of the tide and quite often will position themselves in prime locations. In low water conditions encountered in an estuary they can be found at the tail end of shallow riffles where everything gets funneled right towards them from the available flow. A two minute walk upstream well away from the fish can prove to pay dividends as we can wade into the water to see what is coming down. Buzzers, Beatles, Maggots, Small Brown Shrimp can all feature on a Mullets menu, even this low down and I am very certain that we all have flies in our boxes which can represent the above. A good place to start out would be with a two or three fly setup, typically a large bushy muddler or sedge pattern on the top dropper to act as an indicator then tiny nymphs or maggot patterns on the second dropper and point position.
The main reason why we needed to assess the position of the fish at the front of the shoal is because if we line him/her with an unclean cast then there’s a good chance it will spook, and this causes the entire shoal to spook too, it is therefore vital we carefully start at the top and work our way down through. The first cast is made from a position level with the fish but pitched ahead of them, following which we can mend the line to buy ourselves essential drag free drift time. Nothing new there in that technique of course, the golden rule is the same as in dry fly on rivers “no artificial movement imparted or caused by line drag”. Allow the flies to pass right through the shoal before retrieving, lifting off and re casting. If you happen to get an enquiry from a Mullet there will be no mistake!...
As the tide begins to run you will have to either head back to safety if you have crossed any channels to reach your mark or you can move inland along your bank to follow the fish. With a good number of outings under your belt you will have probably discovered that finding exposed rotting seaweed left stranded by the highest tides of the previous cycle will benefit you enormously. The fish know where this is and more importantly the food that’s contained within, only they have to wait till the tides rise again to allow them to access it. Tides on the weeks which are rising towards the fortnightly springs are heaven for the Mullet angler as its now where our research pays dividends. Here we can head straight off to the locations which we noted earlier and prepare an ambush style attack with flies that represent the food found in the rotting weed, generally a team of small maggot patterns.
Don't be disheartened if your local shoreline into your estuary appears devoid of structure and sea weed, if there are Mullet present "which there probably will be" they are there for one reason only, and that is food. All it may take is for you to look a little closer. In a sandy estuary close to my home the above crustaceans "Corophium Volutators" or "Mud Shrimp" as they are more commonly known are seemingly the staple diet of the Mullet which frequent these parts. The males of these species emerge from their sandy burrows to find a mate at the time when the tide begins to recede, the Mullet are very aware of this activity and are quick to capitalise on such a readily available meal.
When the time comes for you to hook and land your first Mullet, please be assured that I would be more than delighted to hear all about it, normally the high that comes from experiencing the fight from a Mullet tends to last for about three months.
The Thick Lipped Grey Mullet
"Please be aware that the Mullet is a very slow growing fish, a specimen of 8lb+ could be 20 - 30 years old, so please treat your quarry with the utmost of respect and handle the fish with care if you are going to return it to the water"