Mullet Fish: Chelon labrosus and Liza ramanda
Mullet (thick-lipped, Chelon labrosus; thin-lipped, Liza ramanda) are notoriously the most exasperating of sea fish, yet they exert a strong spell over sea fishermen, sometimes to the point of becoming an obsession. One reason, I suppose, is that they look so attainable, lazily swimming near the surface of very shallow water so that every detail of their scaling is visible.
Then very light tackle can be used for their capture, the kind of gear that a freshwater man would use for chub, or even roach, though no roach or chub that ever swam could approach the verve and strength of the mullet’s fight. Finally, they are such a challenge. At first it seems absurd that fish that can be seen so easily, that are so plainly feeding, should be such a difficult proposition. But that’s what they are and sooner or later the mullet haunt requires a different approach and a different technique if the fish are to be caught. One really obsessed mullet man has told me that as soon as he has discovered the way to catch mullet in one particular place, he loses interest and searches for another estuary or harbour where fresh problems arise for him to worry about.
We can begin our discussion of the British mullets by dismissing altogether as a serious angling species the so-called red mullet. This fish is very rarely taken by sea anglers in this country and is insignificant in size. Furthermore, it is not at all closely related to the grey mullets, in spite of its name, belonging to a quite different family of fishes. The only point worth noticing, perhaps, is that it was to this fish that the ancient Romans were referring when they wrote of the gastronomic excellencies of mullet — and how right they were.
Of the three grey mullets, one can be disposed of quickly —the golden-grey mullet (Liza aurata), distinguished from the others by the two pronounced gold spots on its head, one on the cheek, and a larger one on its gill-cover.
We are left then with the two chief species of British grey mullets, the thin-lipped and the thick-lipped — species, note, not varieties. No precise study has been made, but it seems likely that the thin-lipped fish are commonest along the Cornish coast and around the Channel Isles, where they probably outnumber the thick-lipped species. I have myself observed very large grey mullet of around the 6.7-7 kg (15-16 lb) mark feeding in very clear water close to the wall at Milford Fish Docks and it seemed to me then that they were the thick-lipped species, though it is impossible to be absolutely certain without a close examination.
Both are solid in the body and rather blunt-headed, and have two barbules below the chin. Briefly, the difference lies in the relative smallness of the fins on the thin-lipped mullet and, as the name suggests, in the difference in thickness of the upper lips. There are also certain differences in fin-ray formulae, so that the angler who is really in doubt about the species of the mullet he has caught should take his fish to an expert ichthyologist or failing that, should consult one of the reliable reference books like those by Kennedy or Travis Jenkins.
The thick-lipped species is undoubtedly the most widespread in British waters and is the fish we see moving in stately fashion up salt water creeks and into little harbours, turning indolently from time to time so that a heart-stopping bronze-silver flash signals through the water. This is the one that causes all the trouble, and hereinafter, when I refer to mullet, this is the fish I am writing about. So far as I know, no one has ever suggested that different fishing techniques are necessary for the two main species, though it is just possible that the thin-lipped fish are more likely to take larger forms of life as food than the thick-lipped. Thin-lipped mullet are predominant in the Mediterranean and seem easier to catch there, so that this may be true of British thin-lipped mullet also.
On most parts of the coast, mullet are not found inshore in winter, though, as we shall see, there are certain favoured localities where they do spend the winter near the shore and can be caught throughout this season — which may well be the best part of the year for angling. If it is a warm spring, the fish will generally show up in March or early April, and remain inshore until late October or November, when they seem to migrate into deeper water.
As with other sea fish which have little commercial importance, very little research has been done into the spawning habits of mullet. Spawning probably takes place a little after the annual inshore migration in the spring, but it is not known for certain whether it takes place in brackish or in salt water. It is quite possible that it takes place in both.
Once again, no detailed observations have been made of mature fish. Scale reading is difficult in the case of mullet. However, fry and small fish have been collected which seem to indicate that the mullet is a slow-growing fish. Second-year mullet, for example, measured only 7.5 cm (3 ins) long.
It remains to be remarked in this section that mullet are markedy gregarious in habit, and they seem to shoal according to size. Even fish of specimen size (around the 3 kg or 6 lb class), keep in small companies. Mullet do not seem to feed at night, though they may sometimes be taken in the strong light of harbour lamps.
Mullet have a very strongly marked preference for the brackish water provided by river estuaries and will ascend as far as fresh water, farther than any other strictly marine fish. I have noticed that in the upper reaches of Milford Haven mullet will press even farther up the estuary than school bass. Perhaps my statement will be thought a little too dogmatic when flounders are considered, but it is doubtful whether they can strictly be regarded as purely marine fish. Incidentally, the thin-lipped mullet seems to have an even greater tolerance for fresh water than the thick-lipped.
Mullet also enter harbours, lagoons that form behind sandy beaches, mud creeks, and sheltered bays, and they frequent open-sea rocks when conditions are calm. They are probably a good deal more catchable under open-sea or harbour conditions than they are in estuaries, especially when they appear to be travelling on their way to a feeding ground. Mullet, incidentally, nearly always reveal their presence by producing characteristic V-shaped ripples in the water or by flashing. As the tide makes up the creeks of a small estuary, it is quite easy to tell the gentle, leisurely swirls and ripples made by mullet. Bass are much more splashy and dramatic.
With that we come to the basic angling problem regarding mullet. There seems to be no doubt that the staple diet of inshore mullet consists of microscopically small plants and organisms. They may be observed sucking at weedy stones or at harbour walls, seemingly feeding on the weed, though the soft weed itself may be supplemented as diet by the tiny creatures that live in it, such as very tiny snails, amphipods, and chironomid larvae. Clearly, this is impossible to use as hook-bait, which is whyis so important in mullet fishing.
Mullet that come into harbours, however, may adopt a very different diet, one imposed on them by the variety of food that is available because of the presence of man. For instance, mullet taken at Ballycotton, Co Cork, contained, among unidentifiable matter, the following: maggots, blue-bottles, bread, curd, fish guts, bacon rinds, and peas. Dr Kennedy has observed mullet at the fishing port of Kilmore Quay nosing at the livers in the carcases of rays and skates that had been jettisoned over the side of the harbour wall.