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Date of Issue: November 30, 2006

Mullet season starting, looking good

The mullet are running and castnetters are cashing in, though nothing like they hope to do as the season goes on.

With an unusually early start, the big run of the fish will end in early January, according to nature's schedule - that's when the eggs are all laid and fertilized and the fish lose their plumpness.

Right now "they're really nice and fat," said Karen Bell of the A.P. Bell Co., largest fresh fish processor in the area. The prices paid to fishers are around $1 per pound, with females bringing far more than males because they're the ones with the highly valued, high-priced roe.

The roe is similar to caviar, and many markets abroad sell it as caviar. The rest of the fish is smoked or sold as a high-yield, low-cost protein. South America is a particularly good market for the fish, Bell said.

It is caught with castnets nowadays, work best suited to the exceptionally strong and determined. The nets are circular and of varying sizes, and are whirled out over the surface and allowed to sink to the bottom. Hauled to the surface, they hopefully will have snared many heads of mullet.

A good castnetter in a good run of mullet can make up to $1,000 a day, said Bell. About 20 fishers work out of Cortez for the season, nearly all of them taking time off from regular jobs to fish.

Some years Bell buys and processes 200,000 pounds and more of the fish, but last year was "a bummer," she said. Red tide was a season killer then, but there is no indication of any such calamity this season.

The mullet must be netted because, unlike other fish, it is a vegetarian and can't be caught with bait on a hook and line. For years they were disdained, used as animal food and fertilizer. Now, though, it is accepted widely as a food fish and Cortezians have developed ways of cooking them that make mullet a delicacy.

The mullet roe season begins about Thanksgiving and usually lasts until sometime in January