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Date of Issue: January 07, 2009


Mullet run strong, still going on off Island

Casting into the water for fish
Mullet fishers congregated off Bean Point in the mouth of Tampa Bay last week for a mullet catch. The fish, prized in Europe and Asia for its roe, gather in large schools in late fall and early winter before heading to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn and then return to the bays of Southwest Florida. Islander Photo: Jack Elka
Fish smiles
Bob Barrett and his camera caught up with a couple of young mullet fishers near the Nautilus condos last week. The young fisher in the foreground caught his mullet bare-handed, while his buddy offered a smile of his own at pal's prowess. But in the excitement, Barrett was unable to get names, so congratulations to "Mulletfingers" and friend.

The annual mullet run appears far from finished for local fishers.

Mullet, Mugil cephalus, is one of the most common fish found in the waters off Anna Maria Island. They grow to 20 inches or more in length.

You know a kid’s sketch of a fish, that skinny, lopsided “8” on its side, with one eye, a fin or two and a big tail on the end? That’s what a mullet looks like, complete with a grayish-brown top and white underside.

The species has a soft mouth used to gum its algal diet and is loathe to take a hook. There have been reports of catching a mullet with a doughball-encrusted hook, but most mullet now are caught in a castnet.

Mullet also frequently jump out of the water, although just why they become airborne is a mystery. Some argue the fish are escaping predators. Others opine the returning splash knocks off parasites. Some say it’s the male’s way of fertilizing the female. Some folks say a mullet jumps just for the fun of it. 

Mullet gather in the late fall in enormous schools in the bays, predominately near inlets, before heading to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. Old timers recall schools of mullet so thick “you could hardly row across to one of the keys without ending up with a dozen or so fish in your boat.”

It’s mullet run time again, and Cortez fishers have been joined by their East Coast counterparts to harvest the fish and their financially lucrative roe, both red and white.

Karen Bell of Bell Fish Co. in Cortez said the run has been going on for a while and is excellent this year. “There have been three or four runs already,” she said. “We processed 75,000 pounds on New Year’s Day, and the fish still haven’t moved out to the Gulf. We need a good front to stir them to go out, and that’s not forecast for a while yet.”

She said the fish have been coming in just right for processing, too, and the quality has been good.

So far, Bell Fish Co. has handled about 500,000 pounds of mullet this year, up significantly from last year’s harvest.

And mullet harvesting isn’t an easy chore. Due to a Florida constitutional amendment banning the use of most near-shore gill nets, the 100 or so fishers working out of Bell Fish are using smaller castnets to pull in the tasty fish. It’s backbreaking work throwing a 20-pound net, then pulling it and its catch back to the boat. Then hurling it out again. And again.

Of course, gill netting wasn’t a placid day on the water either, with rough water and bitter cold and fish scales everywhere. And following a catch, clearing the fish and the net, unloading it all and reloading the net on the boat for another day’s work.

Roe sales this year are predominately to Taiwan because prices there are better than other markets in Europe, Spain and Egypt.

Mullet mysteries

The mullet is a most peculiar fish with mysterious habits.

It indeed has a gizzard just like a chicken, the only fish in the world so equipped. And its millions vanish from these parts semi-periodically and no one knows why, then reappear and no one knows why. All anyone can do is wonder.

It’s been awhile since they last did their disappearing act, but it could happen again any day now. Or not. Who knows?

Snooks Adams and Walter Bell, who have kept a sharp eye on mullet longer than most, don’t know. A theory or two, maybe, but nothing serious, and they told them to the late Islander reporter Jim Hanson in 1998.

Adams was born in the fishing village of Cortez when it was the mullet capital of the world, and fished commercially from childhood until he became head of law enforcement on Anna Maria Island, later retiring in 1975.

Bell helped make Cortez the mullet capital of the world, fishing when he was younger and then taking over with his brother their father’s A.P. Bell Fish Co.

Both recall the time when mullet abandoned Cortez and Sarasota Bay and all these parts in the 1930s.

“We all tried the bays and all over, and couldn’t see enough mullet to make a living,” Adams said.

Bell said, “I was a kid then, and my dad left here to find the mullet, camped out on the Alafia River south of Tampa to fish, even for blue crab, and fishing was so bad he just came on home.”

Then came World War II in late 1941, and the fish came back with it. It was too much coincidence for some people, said Bell — “They figured God was with our country. He sent the fish back to feed Americans. You could look anywhere and see 50 jump, millions of them.”

But they didn’t stay. Adams said that a couple of years after he came back from World War II he traveled all of Tampa Bay and around St. Petersburg hunting mullet, and couldn’t catch enough to pay for his boat’s fuel.

“Along in the late ’40s,” Bell said, “most of the men in the community had to quit trying to fish and went to scalloping for a living. I went with Charlie Guthrie down to the Sister Keys where some mullet were jumping, and we caught 10 head in four nets.”

A memorable bumper crop came when the dredging began for construction of the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay in 1954, said Bell. “They showed thick then, during construction. I took a job for $25 a day watching out for falling painters, laid off the bridge in my boat and picked them out of the bay, and the mullet were all over the place.”

Same thing happened during the dredging of Port Manatee in the early 1970s, he said. Mullet were scarce until work started, then they showed up in great numbers.

Again in the 1980s, for “about ’81, ’82, ’83, around in there, there were the most fish I ever saw around here,” said Adams. “Then they fell off again.”

Neither of these thoughtful veterans knows for sure what brings this great ebb and flow of mullet. Nor does Dr. Randy Edwards, staff scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory and an acknowledged expert on Gulf fish.

Edwards suggested that a series of red tide blooms may decimate mullet along with everything else in the sea, so there are no mullet until the survivors replenish themselves. And the fish move around, he said, responding to conditions.

That theory has some credence based on recent events. The bad red tide bloom a few years ago slowed the mullet harvest and could have taken until now to come back to top fruition.

Adams suspects mullet run in cycles, “like most life, animals and even vegetables. They come out of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, come across the south part of the Gulf and up into Florida waters. Seems every seven or eight years they fall off and then pick up again.”

Bell feels they may come and go according to the weather and respond to such conditions as air pressure. “One year may be a big one in Louisiana, the next one Florida. Get a spell of weather in Carolina in the fall, a hard nor’easter, and the mullet come down around Florida and up into the Gulf.”

The mystery may never be solved, or even seriously investigated, for mullet don’t figure in much here anymore as a cash crop. Inshore netting has been prohibited since 1995.

It doesn’t bother the mullet. They go on as always, coming and going for whatever fishy reasons, not caring at all whether or not man understands.

Bell explained that after spawning the mullet come back in from the Gulf and lose their fat, becoming so long and skinny that fishermen refer to them as “snakes.” And they disperse, not bunching up in schools as they do in winter.

Gradually now they will “thicken,” as fishers describe fattening, and gather in schools around June, when they can be profitably fished again.

Bell said the run comes when mullet gather in schools before heading into the Gulf to spawn. “They go the opposite direction from salmon,” which go inshore and upstream for spawning.

The normal mullet run begins just after Thanksgiving. It lasts only two or three weeks, then they go out to sea.

“Weather controls the fish,” he said. “A good hard norther for four or five days and they go offshore to spawn.

“They come back in around the end of January and lay around on the bottom. You don’t know they’re here unless you look down and see them loafing around down there. That’s the ones that survive the sharks in the Gulf.”

Sandscript factoid

Jim Hanson offered a little ditty about mullet with his 1998 article:

A funny fish is the mullet

He has a chicken-like gullet

He just disappears

For several years

Then he’s back, and you can just mull it.

After the groans subside, remember that Jim was a writer, not necessarily a poet, but it’s still a pretty punny ditty.

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