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Mullet on dry fly and nymphs

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by Austen Goldsmith

Encounters like this are common
when saltwater fly fishing
If you want to experience the thrill of catching torpedo-fast fish in shallow saltwater, then perhaps a bonefishing trip could be on your mind. There is however a cheaper alternative that you can try within our inshore waters and that is fly fishing for mullet. These fish are so often overlooked and I am often as guilty as the next guy, despite a few very memorable experiences.

Match the hatch

On many occasions while bass fishing I have witnessed a large hatches of sand hoppers and like most other anglers I was somewhat blinkered and slow to change tactics and capitalise on the situation. These crustaceans congregate in the weed that piles up on some beaches and this begins to rot in the same manner as a compost heap. The hoppers are often evicted from the weed by the big spring tides. During this time they become vulnerable and are washed into the sea.

It is worth remembering that the same circumstances that lead to the hopper feast can also result in a hatch of seaweed maggots. The mullet will feed away on maggots with the same gusto as the hoppers. So always bring a few simple white bugs along. Dorset beaches are famous for their maggot hatches and further south on my home beaches the hoppers seem to be far more prevalent. These days, I carry a small box of trout flies in my back pack just in case. So far I have encountered these feasting tides between mid July and late October. Muggy, damp, humid weather will often provide an opportunity.

What to look for

Mullet on a pheasant tailed nymph
Look for areas where sea weed piles up, look for steep beaches or heavy boulder strewn corners. A storm during decreasing or spring tides will allow the sea weed to pile up higher than the average tide line. Given a couple of weeks with mild weather that weed will start to rot. Flies may lay their eggs in the weed or sand hoppers may take residence and feed, providing the weed does not get dislodged by further storms or tides. When the next big tides start to hit the weed, the hoppers and maggots will get washed in the sea. The trick is to get to know a few spots and try to keep an eye on them during the weeks prior to a big tide; revisit sites and give the weed a good turnover and look for signs of life.

Sand smelts may also appear and begin to feed along side the mullet. Bass may well be around feeding on both the sand smelts and the hatching maggots or hoppers. So a few casts with a baitfish pattern are always worth trying in the area. These areas will be regular haunts for the mullet and I know a few 'buggy' locations where the mullet will cruise or do that mullet thing i.e. nothing for weeks at a time. They do seem to hang around and wait patiently for the next bonanza, perhaps plucking off the occasional stray bug.

Fishing method

It's all very simple belt and braces fishing. You wade out through smelly rotting seaweed and you get knocked about by the shore break while trying to keep the line in the line tray and clear of loose weed. Your gang of flies will constantly sink and get debris attached. You may have fifty or a hundred fish within a few yards of your rod tip and this can be very frustrating, so just bite your lip and hold your breath as the shoal zigzags past your fly over and over again. You may struggle to distinguish a take in the surging water but just keep striking at anything suspicious in much the same way as any upstream nymph fisherman would do. It can be infuriating to have a shoal of fish at your feet gorging and ignoring your offering but if you persevere eventually you should see the leader or controller slide away. These fish will fight very hard, way harder than any UK bass I have encountered. They will often need quite some time spent reviving before being fully released.

The set up

You can fish with any 6-7 # fly rod - your cast will be no more than 10 yards. Saltwater fittings are obviously preferable. I have, however, used freshwater gear on many occasions. I just make sure the equipment gets a good shower after a session.

You definitely want a quality reel that will take a decent amount of backing with a smooth drag. Mullet often take a while to warm up. You hook them and they tend to procrastinate under the rod tip. You get them to the net and then all hell breaks loose, so keep that drag set correctly and keep a close eye on the fly line. If it snags up you're in trouble. Floating lines are all that is required in this situation.

I fish with a 6 -9 foot long 8-10 lb mono leader. A six foot leader may sound rather short and contradicts all that we hear about this spooky species but in the dirty, weed-filled water a long leader is not necessary and is liable to break. A gang of three flies will increase your chances of a hook up as the shoal may well be blind filter feeding rather than picking up individual food items. I apply Muslin to the leader at regular intervals to prevent the leader from sinking and taking the flies away from the zone.


Successful patterns
So far I have found pheasant tailed nymphs are an excellent match for hoppers I have also used foam backed shrimps with some success. I have no doubts that the grayling bugs along with buzzers will work, too. Don't be afraid to use flashy materials in the dressing - the water will no doubt be murky. I have found a gold ribbing will get the fishes' attention. Choice of fly is less of an issue; concentrate on presenting the fly repeatedly until it eventually gets sucked in. A line tray is essential when standing knee deep in what would best be compared with vegetable soup with live croutons!

Mullet shoals can sometimes appear to have a collective sixth sense. They will pluck and push your offering around like a toy and drive you mad. Often they will simply take a look and turn away. There are, however, other days when they will completely drop their guard and gorge themselves under your rod tip. These are the days when mullet are less likely to drive you mad.

Saltwater fly fishing in the UK often requires legwork and research; provided you put in the time and keep your eyes open and study the tide tables you will eventually start cracking the code.

Austen Goldsmith is based in Cornwall and runs a specialist saltwater fly fishing business - working with a loyal customer base looking for guided bass fishing and saltwater fly tying. More >

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