Tony Keehbauch tosses one of his fresh-caught mullet into a stainless-steel bin Dec. 12 at A.P. Bell Fish Co., 4539 124th St., Cortez. Keehauch sorts the fish based on gender. RIGHT: Keehbauch’s mullet in the bin. Islander Photos: Jennifer Glenfield
Female mullet, prized for their red roe, are sorted at the fish house, where the going price is $2.20 per pound. Male mullet are worth 10 cents a pound.
It’s harvest time. And like farmers heading into the fields for a day’s work, well before sunrise, mullet fishers are loading their cast nets and gear aboard boats and heading onto the water.
In the fall, mullet group together and begin a migration pattern, intrinsic to their reproduction cycle, and a frenzy for fishers and fish fattened with roe begins.
But commercial fisher Tony Keehbauch doesn’t relate fishing to work.
“It’s like a two-month-long hunting trip. It’s fun, and you can make some good money,” said Keehbauch.
He hit the water by 4:45 a.m. Dec. 12. After a long day of throwing his cast nets, he took his haul to A.P. Bell Fish Co. to sort and weigh his catch. He squeezed the bottom side of each mullet with the skill of someone who has done it many times. Females, left bin; males, right bin. He repeated this action for each mullet in his 1,500-pound haul.
Keehbauch lives in Bradenton and has worked the mullet run for 15 seasons. He also fishes for mackerel and ladyfish.
“This year started slow, but the last two days have been pretty good. I got 1,200 pounds yesterday, 1,500 pounds today. We’ll probably kill ’em tomorrow,” said Keehbauch.
The slow start is a response to weather conditions, not calendar dates. Cold weather produced by a front signals mullets’ instinct to migrate from the bays into the Gulf of Mexico in large schools, making it easier to net large numbers of fish in one cast.
“It’s been a mild December, which helps fish get backed up,” said Keehbauch.
When the fish “get backed up” closer to the warmer shoreline waters, the migrating schools are larger and full of precious roe. Once the fish reach the Gulf, mature fish mate in deeper waters and release fertilized eggs, sustaining the population and continuing the migration pattern.
To extract the roe for consumption, the fish must be caught before they mate.
While male and female fish are caught, sold and consumed, the red roe in the female mullet is the real catch. This year’s price has started at $2.20 per pound for female fish and 10 cents per pound for male fish.
“The price is good. Last year it was $1.50 a pound for females. There’s big price difference,” said Keehbauch.
Keehbauch gauged the prize for his female fish as he tossed them into the bin. “That’s a $5 fish. This one here, maybe $4.50.”
Aside from the temperature, the mullet run also is affected by the conditions on the water. Mullet fishing requires hand-throwing a cast net, which can be difficult, if not impossible, on rough waters.
“Today was borderline. I was on the north end of Anna Maria Island and near the exposed shoreline. It was pretty rough,” said Keehbauch.
As the season comes to a close and the mullet travel into water too deep to catch, Keehbauch is happy.
“You put in some long hours, but it’s super fun and you get paid,” said Keehbauch.