Fresh-caught mullet, hush puppies and a cold glass of iced tea: That’s summertime living the Gulf Coast.
Mullet deserve a new look. The fish don’t have a great reputation with most Gulf Coast anglers. These silly fish spend their lives running in big schools and leaping out of the water again and again for no apparent reason. Most of us have found that mullet won’t bite a hook and line baited with shrimp, artificial lures or any other “normal” bait. But it’s really not fair to degrade our friend the mullet. After all, it helps us anglers in a number of ways.
Look at everything the mullet does for us. Small mullet three to four inches long are the very best flounder bait, and these mini-mullet have put many a plate of delicious flounder fillets in front of countless Gulf Coast anglers. Mullet a little bigger (four to five inches long) are prime speckled trout bait. Gator trout cannot resist a finger mullet presented to them. Mullet a bit larger (six to eight inches long) are great Spanish and king mackerel bait when fished off the beaches. Bigger mullet (ten inches to a foot long) are deadly on big red snapper and grouper when lowered to them on the Gulf wrecks. It’s hard to find a better live bait than the lowly mullet.
Also, when mullet get bigger, say fourteen inches or more, they are prime people food. Fresh mullet fried is an absolute delight, and the biggest roe mullet when split and smoked over a slow grill fire are nothing short of fine.
Yep, it’s true, even though they are like Rodney Dangerfield and don’t get much respect, mullet do a lot for us.
Gathering Up the Mullet
The traditional way to catch a big mess of mullet, whether for bait or supper, is to use a cast net. Cast netters standing on bridges, piers, and the bows of boats watching for schools of mullet to swim by is a classic scene of Gulf Coast life. Cast nets come in a wide range of sizes and mesh dimensions, depending on whether the netter is catching bait or supper. Using a cast net takes skill and practice to achieve best success. Beginners and people like me try to cast a net (the real pros make it look so easy) and the net winds up tangled around the beginning thrower’s head or in a wad down in the water. For some of us, using a cast net is neither a happy nor workable idea.
Many people think mullet can’t be caught on hook and line. But they can be, and for us “net- throwing limited” people, there’s another option. Let’s look at another way to catch mullet that’s also a lot of fun.
My buddy Yano Serra who grew up in Coden, Alabama, where mullet fishing is a way of life, tells me that not only is it possible to catch mullet on rod and line, but that it’s a very effective way to get a bucketful of mullet in a short time.
How it’s Done
First, get the equipment together. We need a long cane pole (nothing fancy); just a twelve to fourteen foot pole will be fine. Use a length of ten or fifteen pound mono line as long as the pole. Get a package of small, gold bream hooks. Put one of the hooks on the end of the line with a small split shot sinker a foot above the hook. Use a very small bream-type bobber about two feet above the hook. That’s it. We’re rigged and ready.
Now comes the weird part. Scout along the shoreline around Mobile Bay, Grand Bay, Perdido Bay, Heron Bay, the ICW or anywhere mullet occur and look for mullet jumping or swirling in the water. We don’t want a whole lot of current or water movement here. Then take the mullet chum (Yano recommends commercial rabbit food mixed with a little water but others say cottonseed meal while some say whole kernel canned corn) and throw handfuls of the chum into the water near where the mullet are swirling. Let the chum sink and settle. Give the mullet in the area time to scent out the chum and start feeding on it. Let the area calm down for an hour or so, and then get your bait ready. A tiny little piece of redworm is placed on the hook (it only takes a half-inch of worm to do this) and put the hook in the baited area.
Watch the bobber. Rarely will the mullet take the bobber under when it bites the hook, Yano says. When the bobber quivers, immediately jerk that mullet out of the water. Mullet are hard to keep on the hook, so don’t give them much chance to get off. Use that long pole to lever them out onto the bank and into the bucket. Repeat the bait-and-jerk process until enough mullet are in the bucket. Sometimes the mullet are slow to bite, and other times they line up to be taken. It’s just like any kind of fishing that way.
Yano laughs when he tells of cane pole mullet fishing: “It’s a lot of fun. I’ve spent many hours mullet fishing, and you’ll usually have lots of company in the better spots.”
To Prepare the Meal
I like very fresh mullet filleted and fried up. Yano recommends that the fish be scaled and not skinned. The mullet has a layer of oily fat under the skin which gives a very good taste when fried. Use a good milk wash on the fillets, roll in hush-puppy mix, and drop in hot oil. I like to use deep enough oil to let the fillet float when it’s through cooking. Oh, this is so quick and so good that your taste buds will do back flips.
Another classic way to prepare the largest roe mullet, which sometimes respond to the chum fishing technique, is to head the mullet, split it down the middle, and open it up. Brush the exposed inside of the fish with olive oil and then sprinkle the exposed meat with either Tony’s or Zatarain’s seasoning. Then very slowly smoke the fish over a pecan wood and charcoal fire.
A closed griller is best for this technique. This way of cooking takes most of a day to do right. The fish doesn’t take the direct heat of the fire but only the smoke and a little indirect heat. When done, the smoked fish will be pretty dark in color and sort of dry to the touch. It doesn’t look too good, to be honest. However, when sampled, this smoked mullet is one of the best-tasting fish to be found anywhere.
So Let’s Show Some Respect for the Mullet
For those of us lucky enough to have the cast-net skill, catching mullet is usually no big deal, but even for us net-challenged folks, using chum and tiny bits of live bait will enable us to catch a mess of these great fish-catching bait, or main course for a fish dinner. At any rate, we get a lot of benefit from these coastal fish, and we need to respect them.