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Local saltwater fishing is still stuck in a summertime pattern, as the game fish are not plentiful but are nice-sized and most of the action is in the morning or at night. Something not in short supply are the baitfish and shrimp, which are swarming through our waters right now.
Any angler with a cast net can catch plenty of bait for fishing. Live bait is your best bet for fishing right now, and it will only get more effective. Soon our inlets and creeks will be filled with striped mullet of all sizes, from big pop-eyed mullet to the finger mullet so prized by flounder, red drum and speckled-trout fishermen.
There are lots of good live baits available for saltwater fishing, but mullet are often an angler’s top choice wherever they school. In the fall, hordes of mullet descend on local waterways, where they are pursued by predators both above and below and used by fishermen to catch the game fish trying to eat them.
Mullet (which should not be confused with whiting, a totally different fish often called sea mullet) come in several different sizes and all of them jump out of the water. Exactly why they jump is a matter of some debate. It most likely has something to do with the fact that everything under the sun wants to eat them. If diving birds, steel-clawed crabs and snapping bluefish were all flying or swimming at you trying to make you dinner, I bet you’d jump, too.
The sizes of mullet in the water go from a few inches to big female fish of up to 15 inches or more. The smaller size are known as finger mullet, since they are about the size of an adult man’s index finger, and they are the ones sought by most anglers who want live baits to use on rigs for flounder, redfish and speckled trout.
Mullet 6 to 9 inches are sometimes called corncob mullet and are too big for most anglers looking for live bait, although some folks seeking big game such as large bluefish, Spanish mackerel, or huge doormat flounder, might use them whole and alive on a rig. The largest mullet are called popeye mullet in some places, since their eyes do indeed look as if they are popping out of their heads.
All sizes of mullet can be cut up into chunks or strips to use for bait. Cut mullet are a terrific bait for just about any fish, and are especially good for blues, redfish and sharks in the surf.
When anglers find a stretch of water covered with pods of finger mullet and filled with the sound of little fish jumping, they often figure they have it made. However, things are not that simple. There can actually be a strange ironic situation veteran anglers recognize where there may be too much bait in the water. This often occurs in the summer before the game fish are really thick.
You should keep your rig extremely simple so that trout or flounder will choose your offering from the many mullet out there. You want your bait to look like a wounded mullet. Casting out two squirming finger mullet on standard J-Hooks attached to a two-hook wire rig and a 2-ounce pyramid sinker isn’t a good way to do this. You will catch far more fish with the right presentation.
To fish with finger mullet you want to avoid all excess gear and frills. Unless you are going to fish under a float like a popping cork (mainly done for speckled trout) you are going to be fishing with a sort of bottom rig. You want to keep the weight as light as possible to give the mullet a lot of room to roam around and attract game fish.
For trout or blues, always go as light as you can. For drum and flounder, you must get to the bottom, but don’t anchor your bait. Fishing a 3-ounce weight in a little creek is never wise and won’t allow you to feel the bite of a flounder.
Instead, you want to make a simple rig and let your frisky finger mullet do most of the work. Start by threading an egg sinker on the line running from your rod. Go as light as you can with the weight. In the creeks, it should be well under an ounce if you can get away with it. In heavier current, you go up to an ounce. Sometimes inshore conditions will necessitate up to 2 ounces, but if you are fishing finger mullet with a heavier weight than that, you might want to investigate a different spot or wait out the tide.
Tie on a small black swivel on the line to stop the egg sinker. You want to use black so a passing bluefish doesn’t bite at the flash of your swivel and cut you off. Don’t use wire leaders for inshore fishing. There is no need. You need to use fairly strong mono or fluorocarbon line for your leader material.
I personally like 20-pound test in most situations inshore, but if you are convinced something is going to bite through your line, you can go up to 30- or 40-pound test. The lighter the leader to your mullet, the less noticeable it is to the game fish.
Then tie on a hook, and don’t use one that’s too big. Hooks from number 4 up to 3/0 are useful in different situations, with 1/0 hooks being the size I use most often and larger hooks being favored by catch-and-release anglers.
Curved Kahle-style hooks are great for finger mullet fishing, especially for flounder that tend take the bait in their mouth and grind it around a bit before they slurp it up. Anglers who release their fish are opting more and more for circle hooks these days, but you have to know what you’re doing to use them.
One fine way to fish a finger mullet rig is to cast it out and let it settle to the bottom. Then give it a quick pop, so the baitfish flashes in the water. Let the rig fall back and pause again. Work it back to you in little hops, similar to the way you might work a plastic worm for largemouth bass on a farm pond. Many fish will hit the mullet as you let the rig fall back to the bottom after popping it. Resist the temptation to bring the mullet back to you too fast, as slow with frequent stops in the retrieve allow the bait time to swim around attracting predators.
As fall approaches, we’ll have what’s locally known as a “mullet blow,” where mullet of all sizes are incredibly thick in the water. When this happens, finger mullet are wonderful bait for trout, flounder, redfish, blues or anything else out there trying to eat them. Just catch some with your cast net and fish a simple rig simply. If you have a live mullet running around out there, the instincts of the game fish will do the rest.