Winter Steel

The highs and lows of my 2021-22 winter mullet fishing campaign

‘What did we used to fish for at this time of year?’ asked Roy as we watched our floats gently bobbing on the water. 

‘Uh, dunno,’ I answered. ‘Dabs? Rockling?’ Mentally, I got my trowel out and unearthed a few unspectacular recollections of the sort of fishing I used to do through the February to April period. A lot of it was speculative in nature, having a go for species that I hoped were early to arrive inshore or late to leave. Much of the time, this was unsuccessful. After all, these days the fish can be tricky enough to catch in season, never mind off-peak. Some of the memories were pleasant in that I’d enjoyed being out when the spring was beginning to spring and I could remember the odd good fish but, for the most part, the fishing could be characterised by how utterly unmemorable it was. At least from a results standpoint.

Winter Mullet on the Float

Everything changed for me four years ago when I first met Laurence Hanger and he woke me up to the mullet fishing that I had on my doorstep through the winter and into spring. I had previously dabbled a little with winter mullet fishing but I had yet to fully embrace it. After fishing with Laurence, however, I realised that I no longer needed to struggle through the traditional doldrum period – there were quality fish right under my nose waiting to be caught.

Watching the float on a bright afternoon

Perhaps what was most appealing about the style of mullet fishing that Laurence introduced me to was that it is so different to most of what I’m doing for the rest of the year. You can’t get much further away from bottom fishing with a 6oz lead and a lump of squid than lobbing a float and a bread bait into a frothing winter sea. Even now, I find legering for mullet so much less appealing than float fishing, mainly because, well, it’s boring old legering and I do more than enough of that. I’ve had several people suggest that I should sack the float fishing off and fish on the bottom if I want to do better and catch bigger mullet. I don’t dispute that this is great advice and I thank those people for trying to help me be more successful in my fishing but there’s something totally absorbing about fishing the float for thick lips and I find it a more satisfying way to catch them. Sometimes, the enjoyment of pleasure fishing is as much about how you’re doing it as it is about whether you are catching as well as you could be.

Although I had done a fair bit of mulleting over the previous two winters, last winter was the first one that I spent almost exclusively float fishing for mullet. From January through until the end of March, only fish with lips like Lolo Ferrari were on my mind and I enjoyed my angling immensely. Of course, at that time there were still some travel restrictions in force and it suited me to stay local anyhow. What was different was that in previous years I would have spent some time speculating off the local deep water rock marks to see if a decent fish had become hopelessly lost and ended up in the area. In the winter/spring of 2021, I felt no such need.

After mainly targeting giltheads through the warmer months of 2021, I began switching my attention back to mullet again in September. I found the autumn and early winter unexpectedly barren in my local area, however. Aside from a smattering of fish in the 3-4lb category, bites from sizable fish were tough to come by and often the only mullet present seemed to be small ones. I kept going into the new year, hoping that at some point the fishing would take off. Throughout this period I also kept in constant touch with Laurence and he reminded me that February/March were the months to really get excited about.

Those amazing lips!

The First Goodun

As it happened, my first encounter with some better fish came right at the end of January. It was a grim day, overcast and with constant wind-driven rain that made the fishing pretty uncomfortable. I was fishing one of Laurence’s favourite mullet spots alongside Cornish thick lip fanatic Pete Bluett. Pete had caught some good fish there earlier in the week while I largely spectated from a mark further inside the estuary but we both felt on this day that the conditions had worsened a bit with the colour dropping right out of the water. It turned out that the clear water afforded us one of the most exciting moments of my 2022 mullet fishing season. We had been fishing for about an hour when Pete suddenly called over, ‘Look!’ I looked down and right at my feet were several good-sized mullet flanking and flashing in the marginal weed. As my gaze drifted, I started seeing more fish and realised what I was looking at – a proper shoal of solid mullet, the first I had seen all winter! All the fish looked to be between 4 and 6lbs and all of them were now troughing happily on the groundbait stuck to the submerged rocks and fronds of weed below us. You can imagine the anticipation. I quickly dropped my float right in the margins, getting several quick reactions as hefty fish hungrily mouthed my hookbaits. It wasn’t until my float lifted and did a silly little jig, however, that my strike connected with the firm resistance of a hooked mullet. Fish on!

The fish initially made a long, powerful run right out into the main body of the estuary and the whole fight became about trying to win that ground back and get it back into comfortable playing range. This mullet wasn’t having any of it though and was doing its damnedest to stay out long and sulk along the bottom. For the first time in a good while, I was really nervous about losing a fish. I worried about everything, the hookhold, the knots, the line and I struggled to keep my composure and be patient. Several times, I would start to feel like I was gaining line on the fish before it would shake its head and steam off again. 

Pete was certain it was a big fish, all I knew was that it had to be at least 4lbs as none of those fish we had seen were smaller than that. It seemed like a long time before we saw it though, the float appeared first then a moment later a plump flank broke the surface. It looked to be a beautifully healthy fish and I was beyond relieved when it finally flopped into the net and Pete lifted it to safety. On the scales it made 5lbs 5oz, a really good size for this venue which has yet to give up a 6 pounder for me or anybody else I know who fishes it, at least in more recent years.

A fantastically plump January 5 pounder

I had hoped that this capture would spell the start of some good, consistent fishing but it was another month until I tangled with another larger mullet. After a few sessions without a bite, my confidence was not in good shape. When my float gently drifted into a hole between two weedbeds, I wasn’t at all prepared for the sight of it zipping under the surface and heading out into the main channel. My strike was weaker than the last gasp of a dying butterfly but, fortunately for me, the fish had hooked itself and I was properly in. This fish put up another really good scrap and kept diving worryingly close to a set of weed-covered rocks. I could tell it was a decent one as its movements were powerful and deliberate. After a splendid battle, I slipped the net under a beautiful fish of 4.13.

Roy Moore in the Mix

I didn’t have so long to wait for the next good fish of the campaign. Bringing me right back to the start of this story, I had joined forces with my mate Roy Moore, fresh off the back of having scored himself a stunning new PB mullet of 6lbs 3oz at another venue. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon but the water was carrying that tinge of colour that really seems to be the magic ingredient for my local mulleting through the winter. Arriving to find Pete Bluett occupying the mark we had intended to fish, we settled for a spot further upriver that I fish more frequently anyway and know well. 

As the tide pushed into the belly of the estuary, the bites began to come. After a stuttery indication, I hooked a thick lip in the 2-3lb category which I returned promptly. After that fish, the bites dried up for a spell, although the sight of Pete into a fish further towards the sea gave us hope that a fresh shoal was on its way to us. They were, but it seemed like a long time before the float that I had just dropped at my feet plunged beneath the surface and I found myself connected with a good fish. Like my last good one a few weeks previous, this mullet gave a great account of itself and, at one point, managed to get my line caught around some long fronds of wrack which really had me worried! Luckily, the line pinged free and I was back in direct contact, although the fish was still a good way out in the main channel of the estuary. Fortunately, the hookhold was good and it wasn’t too long before I was coaxing a mint 4.14 bar of silver into the net expertly wielded by Roy.

A fighting fit bar of winter steel
Roy with a real chunky one

After photographing and releasing my fish, I went to sit by Roy for a chat. As we watched, his float tilted and pulled under and his answering strike saw him fast into a fish. Roy fought it hard on a short line and I soon had the net under it, a fantastically plump mullet of 3.8 that capped off the session nicely. The trip had been really encouraging for me as it was the first for a while where I felt like there was a decent number of fish running in on the tide. We had seen a good few fish passing and Roy had even had one come and try to eat his float – always a funny sight! Although we had only seen fish in the 3lb class, there were clearly bigger ones in the mix and it looked to be all to play for.

Unfortunately, that batch of fish didn’t stick around. Over the next few tides, Roy and I had a couple more sessions with only a single fish coming to the rods on each occasion. The fishing was still enjoyable but it was clear that the bulk of the mullet that had been in the estuary a few days before were now elsewhere. A week or so later, I made a first light trip down to the estuary in very mullety conditions only to blank without so much as a single bite. Still, I reasoned that every tide is different and Roy and I arranged to meet up the next day and give it another go.

A rare catch-up session with Mark Reed - plenty of bites this session but no fish

A Session to Remember

The following afternoon, Roy joined me down on the rocks and we began fishing in earnest, keeping the mashed bread groundbait going in regularly to attract the fish to explore the margin in front of us. Some people question whether there is always a need to use groundbait for thick lip fishing. The experiences of Roy and my friend Mark Reed fishing another venue throughout the winter leads me to believe that it very much can make a huge difference. Mark, in particular, uses huge quantities of groundbait and will pretty much always outfish any other anglers there (and there can be a fair few at this spot) by some margin. So definitely, when you are competing for attention from the fish, attractant in the water is your friend. Where it might not make so much difference, for example, is when you have the fish all to yourself and where the mullet are already very accustomed to eating bread and other manmade food sources. Even in these situations, however, I suspect groundbaiting rarely hurts as long as it’s done in well-judged proportions at suitable intervals.

The flooding tide was a bit stronger than I had anticipated and my number three Drennan Loafer float was struggling to stay cocked properly so I decided to change over to the slightly bigger number four. This proved to be just man enough to deal with the flow. Deliberately stopping fishing to change floats is something I often have to really talk myself into doing but it can pay dividends. Matching the float to the conditions ensures that bite detection will be at its best.

Roy fishing in fantastic mulleting conditions

We were still questioning whether any fish were going to turn up when I had a good mullet follow my bread bait up from the bottom as I reeled in to recast. With any uncertainty about the presence of fish now out of the picture, Roy and I began to fish with renewed purpose. About twenty minutes later, I missed a bite and then after a shorter interval, my float ploughed under and I struck hard. The fish immediately came up to the surface and flanked and I could see it was a fair size but I didn’t think it was much bigger than 4lbs or so. The mullet ran powerfully out into the main channel swimming against the flow and out to sea. I was chuckling to myself at how much strength the fish had and it took me applying a good bit of sidestrain to stop it veering right around the corner and fouling my line on the rocks. The fish arced around until it was directly in front of us but stayed deep and refused to be led. I kept patient and let it tire itself against the pressure of the rod, all the time thinking that it was fighting heavier than the impression I had of its size. After a while, the fish drew up off the bottom and surfaced and I finally realised that the reason it was fighting like a bigger one was because it was a bigger one, looking to be substantially heftier than the scraper 4 I had it down as. From there, playing it became a bit more tense although I just managed to keep a lid on my excitement. 

As the mullet began to succumb to the steady pressure and come into netting range, we could see that it had a friend following it, a smaller fish that came in so tight we could almost have scooped it up along with mine! Roy quickly got my fish in the bag and handed it to me before flicking out his feeder rig into the last spot we had seen the pursuer. I took my mullet up to higher ground to unhook it and the next time I turned around, Roy’s rod was bent into a fish. Roy wasted no time in subduing his prize and was soon showing me what we both agreed had to have been the fish we saw following mine. It had exactly the same stature and light colour across the back.

While Roy had been dealing with his fish, I had a moment to cast my eye over mine. It was in good condition and a much bigger fish than I initially thought when I hooked it. Although not especially fat, it had a good bit of length to it and I thought that it would clear 5lbs. The needle settled on 5.14 and subtracting 4oz for the dry weighing sack made for a very satisfying weight of 5lbs 10oz – just one ounce shy of my current PB thick lip that I had caught a year before at the same venue. I was super pleased with this fish and what made the capture all the more special was being able to capture a double catch selfie of Roy and I with our prizes. Shared memories like these are some of the finest gifts angling has to give us.

A memory to treasure

On Reflection

With this session, my winter campaign reached a natural conclusion. It had been an enigmatic period of fishing, with plenty of blanks in conditions which, from past experience, ought to have produced some action. Why this was the case, I can’t fully explain. Although I’ve only been at it a few years, it definitely seems to be the case that my local winter mullet fishing has gotten more and more difficult with each successive season. Whether this is down to declining numbers, changing patterns in the weather and the movements of the shoals etc. I couldn’t say with any certainty (I suspect it is a combination of these factors). That said, these things often go in cycles so who is to say whether next winter things will reset and the mullet will show in force again?

Regardless of how bumpy the road was to get there, I was more than happy with where I had finally ended up. I realised that the season had played out in a kind of gently rising trajectory, each good fish giving me hope that better was to come until, with that second five pounder, the campaign finally reached a glorious climax. Had I not been getting those sweet rewards, it might have been difficult to see a reason not to take a break from my local float fishing and head further along the coast to another venue that was producing plenty of thick lips to leger tactics all winter. As it was though, I didn’t have too much trouble staying focused and continuing to keep invested in the fishing that my head and heart were really into.