Winter Mullet

Photo: Laurence Hanger

I don’t mind admitting that I learnt most of what I know about float fishing for mullet from my friend, Laurence Hanger. Laurence is an adept coarse fisherman and the finesse and watercraft needed to fool wily thick lips is already deeply ingrained in his angling. Of course, I knew how to set up a waggler float and make bread mash before I met Laurence but there’s a difference between knowing and knowing – that injection of belief that comes with seeing something done well in real life and then copying it successfully. 

With thick lips more than perhaps any other species I regularly fish for, belief is a massive part of the game. Anyone who has fished for thicks more than a few times will surely have encountered one of those days where the fish seem uncatchable, either completely ignoring the bait or nibbling it all off the hook without hanging themselves. Then again, there’s those all-too-rare sessions when the fish seem easy to catch and you wonder what all the fuss is about. Even so, the fact that thick lips have demonstrated to me on so many occasions that they are very aware of my attempts to catch them still gives me a thrill when I do. It’s almost like I’ve pulled off a crime that people thought couldn’t be done. This fuels the belief which, in turn, fuels the fishing.

For the last couple of years, I’ve really enjoyed pursuing mullet through the winter here in Cornwall. For whatever reason, these cagey opponents become easier to catch in the agitated, discoloured water and the average size is bigger than in the warmer months. It’s great to have an option for daytime fishing also, especially one that is inexpensive to fish for. Many anglers I know like to leger for mullet, a technique that, if anything, seems even more effective than fishing the float. I always used to leger or freeline for thick lips but after fishing with Laurence for a while, float fishing has become my favourite method to target these winter fish.

Mullet habitat in the Gannel estuary

Fishing with a waggler float in a boiling, brown winter sea is so different to any other float fishing I’ve done. It seems ludicrous at first, watching the tiny speck of orange being thrown around the frothy surface. The float spends so much time half-disappearing, how are you supposed to tell when you get a bite? You do though. Something in your subconscious tunes into the movements, making links between what the sea is doing and the reactions of your float. Then you’ll start seeing the bites. The float might not disappear as such, often you’ll just glimpse a movement that seems unnatural, out of sync. You’ll start striking at these tiny indications and, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself connected to a mullet. It’s beautiful angling and a reminder that, even in this modern world of convenience, man has yet to lose the instincts of a natural hunter.

Having more sheltered options close by has proved very useful this winter as conditions have seldom been good for the local open coast marks on days that I’ve been able to fish. I’m fortunate enough to have occasional access to a private quay nestled into the north bank of our local Gannel estuary. Laurence and I have put a few sessions into this mark now and are getting somewhere in figuring out how to approach the fishing. Although we haven’t caught stacks of fish, generally one (or both) of us will catch. They’re good fish too, with the typical stamp being around 4lbs. 

The quay only has water immediately in front of it for two hours either side of high tide. There is a short sandy plain in front of the wall before the ground slopes away into the narrow main channel. As the tide fills in the estuary, a back eddy forms in front of the quay and the mullet swim in out of the main current to browse along the shallows and the wall. I suspect that the wall itself is a major source of the attraction, the surface is slimy with accumulations of weed and detritus – just the sort of thing that thick lips love to pick over. Regardless of whether this is actually the case, we bait up in close and most of the fish are caught within a rod length or so of the wall.

Drennan loafer floats are perfect for mullet fishing. I mostly use the number 4 size

On our most recent session, Laurence and I were fishing what we now consider to be ideal conditions. A small tide coincided with coloured water after a spell of rough weather and the sky was heavily overcast. There was rain on the way but it wasn’t forecast to hit until after high water so we’d at least be able to get some dry fishing time in. Laurence is a believer in adding a little extra zing to his loose feed so after mixing up our bread mash, we poured in a good glug of some especially pungent krill oil that he had.

Laurence’s method to set the float depth is to trap the line against it with elastic pellet bands, a useful trick that I’ve happily adopted. I’d set my float up with the shot all bulked about eight inches away from the hook – this method promotes sensitivity while allowing the bait to waft naturally in the current. So often I get lift bites fishing this setup and that’s exactly what happened with my first fish. The float lifted in very obvious stutters and I struck into a mullet that immediately rocketed up and splashed on the surface. We both saw straight away that it wasn’t a big fish but we were delighted to get into one so early (on our last successful visit, the fish had come on the backing tide near the end of the session). After playing in a torpedo-shaped mullet of about 2lbs, I took a few pictures before carefully sending it on its way. Returning to my spot, I threw in a few handfuls of bread mash to keep the interest of any more fish in the area. The rain had arrived early, lightly pattering against our jackets and making it difficult to keep our hands dry for baiting up. I struggled to pinch the damp bread onto my hook but I finally managed to produce a bait I was happy with and dropped it back into the same spot that I’d caught my fish.

A 4lb 2oz winter thick lip

Within a cast or two, I noticed some very subtle movements of the float. I poised, ready to strike, waiting for a more definite indication. After a minute or so had passed, I figured that my bait had probably been robbed and I started to reel in. As I did so, the line drew tight and the tip curved round, a flash of silver flank visible through the water. Laurence said, ‘That’s a good fish!’ and line ripped from the clutch as the mullet powered away into the current. This fish fought completely differently to the previous one, there was no splashing, no sudden darts – it stayed deep and moved deliberately. It wasn’t a particularly long battle though and within a few minutes the fish came to the surface and started wallowing, showing us that it was a nice mullet in the 4lb class. Laurence netted the fish at the first attempt and we took some time to admire a long, pristine winter thick lip. The hook was lodged solidly in the upper lip membrane and I wondered if the fish had somehow hooked itself without giving an indication or I’d reeled in at exactly the moment it sucked in the bait. Another puzzle from a species that already offers them in spades.

We fished on, hopeful of plenty more action. The mullet had other plans, however, and we had no bites until just after the top of the tide. Laurence missed a fish right in close, cursing his misfortune. It wasn’t long before he had a second chance, however, and this time he hooked up cleanly, his fish rocketing out into the strong current like mine had. Laurence always gets nervous when he has a fish on. He’s caught all kinds of specimens, coarse and sea alike, yet he still values every catch he makes and is visibly horrified at the idea of losing a fish. This mullet seemed determined to test his nerves, threatening to get into the hard-flowing river current and swimming very close to a buoy that had robbed him of a fish in a previous session. Luckily, Laurence was able to coax the fish away from trouble each time and it wasn’t long before I was netting his prize, another beautiful thick lip of a similar size to my bigger one.

Laurence with a fine mullet. Photo: Laurence Hanger

After returning Laurence’s mullet, we had a few more casts but the water was retreating fast and soon enough, there was little point carrying on. Having caught a nice fish each, we were both very pleased with the way the session had turned out and began the walk back up the path talking about big mullet and discussing the pros and cons of different brands of krill oil.

Like many anglers, my first experiences of targeting thick lipped mullet were in harbours. I did catch fish but more through perseverance than anything clever I did tactically. In the calm, clear waters of a harbour, the mullet have time to inspect every tiny aspect of the angler’s presentation and it seems to me that the fish hold all the cards, they just make mistakes. The same fish hunting for food in a rough, discoloured open coast or estuary environment have much less of an advantage and the odds tip more in favour of the angler. The presentation still has to be good and the deception disguised by light line but I feel far happier watching my float bobbing on the chop of a rough, wintry sea than the slick waters of a sheltered harbour, confident that any odd indication could see me hooking into a fighting fit thick lip.

Footnote: Laurence Hanger has loads of great mullet fishing content online. Check out his instagram account and YouTube channel!

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