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Date of Issue: June 03, 2009

Jumping, gulping mullet puzzle Islanders

Lifelong Islander Jean Bystrom captured mullet photos last week at "mom and dad's dock," Jean and Hugh Holmes Sr., in Holmes Beach, where the fish were schooling and gurgling on the bay water's surface.

Mullet school, bottom feed, are mostly vegetarian, jump from the water for seemingly no reason, and, now, are frequently observed skimming air and plankton on the water's surface. Islander Photo: Courtesy Jean Bystrom

Although mullet are most sought after when they are full of eggs in the fall and winter, the bottom-feeding fish are at the surface in the waters of Anna Maria Sound of late.

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” lying on its side, with a fin or two and a big tail on one end and a big round eye on the other? That’s what a mullet looks like, complete with a grayish-brown top and a 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 are caught today with a castnet.

The fish also jump. A lot. Three, four, even as many as seven times in a row. Think of sturgeon leaping over waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest and you get an idea of a mullet jumping out of the water in the placid bay waters.

Why do they jump”

Bill Lowman at Island Discount Tackle in Holmes Beach said he’s been reading about jumping mullet for years. No one seems to know why, he said. He offered his own thought: because they can.

Biologists have proposed that the fish jump to rid themselves of parasites. Or to attract a mate. Or to avoid prey. Or to help in the digestion of the gassy algae which constitutes their diet. Or just for the fun of it. Or to see what’s out there.

Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage president Allan Garner offered one of the most whimsical reasons: “Because they’re trying to evolve.”

But the question now is: What are the bottom feeders doing on the surface?

Feeding, according to Capt. James Lee, owner of Cortez Bait and Seafood in Cortez, who said he’s noticed that whenever there are fish traveling along the surface, there are also fish swimming along the bottom.

“There’s a plume of stuff that the bottom fish stir up to the surface that the surface fish eat,” he said. “I guess when the surface fish get full, they swim down to the bottom and stir up more for the rest.”

And as for the jumping?

Capt. Lee — Wyre — said “it’s because they don’t want to smell their own farts.”