Mullet: You can’t see them but you know they’re there. Less than a hundred yards away, the surf rages and roars to the tune of a building groundswell, but there is still relative calm in the bubbling, foam-flecked waters of the sheltered cove. The water here looks unmistakably fishy; carrying a healthy tinge of colour and practically frothing with dissolved oxygen, pulsing ever more strongly as the tide races up to high water. Soon the cove will be overwhelmed by the surge and suck of the surf as the reef protecting it is overcome by the advancing waves but right now, in this moment, everything looks right. You carefully bait the hook, ensuring that everything is sitting as perfectly as possible to maximise the odds of the point finding a hold, before filling the feeder with mashed bread. The cast hits the water with a resounding ‘splosh’ and you can picture the plume of irresistible particles billowing around the hook bait and piquing the interest of your enigmatic quarry. The bite is unmistakable, quick sharp taps that draw your hand to the reel handle like a gunfighter waiting to draw. Another tap turns into a pull and every nerve and fishing instinct in your being shouts ‘GO!’ You strike. The rod jams over, the clutch chatters and a steel-flanked missile thrashes furiously on the surface before belting off on its first run. You play the fish with the chaos of the open sea as a backdrop, patiently reacting to the fish’s darts and dogged wallowing and hoping that the size 8 hook will hold firm.
Equally patient is your mate with the net, waiting in the shallows for the fish to run out of steam and allow itself to be guided into your clutches. This specimen is not giving up easily though, stubbornly swimming to and fro behind the shore dump. Every now and then, its tail emerges and slaps down on the surface, seeming absurdly large in proportion to the fish’s body. Finally, a glistening torpedo shape appears beaten on the surface, gasping as it is gently coaxed into the mesh.
Carrying the fish to the safety of the rocks at the top of the beach, you notice the hook lodged firmly in the scissors; this one was never coming off but it didn’t hurt to be careful. Laying your prize on a smooth flat slab, you take a moment to admire a fish in the absolute peak of condition; full-finned and stocky, the metallic shades of its diamond-scaled flanks reflecting the low late afternoon light. The chill in the air seems to add an extra sheen of steeliness to the fish’s appearance. Without question, this is a species that thrives on the open shore, a silver ghost drifting silently through the wild surf and a different proposition to the same duller, greyer fish you’d find in the upper reaches of estuaries in the warmer months.
It was no happy accident that saw me standing on the coarse sand of the tiny cove at 3am, rod in hand and feeling down the fine braid with numb fingers. I’d arrived half an hour before, carefully prebaiting the area by burying slices of white bread in the deeper patches of sand. The full moon shone starkly on the water and there was little need for the headtorch, I could see most of what I needed to without it. This was a spot I’d heard about for some time but only recently made my debut trip to, although my friends Mark Reed and Roy Moore had been fishing here for a while and done well. My focus had been on rough ground fishing for the last couple of months, but the recent inclement weather and unruly seas had scuppered my plans and made me look for other opportunities. I didn’t need to do much thinking; Mark and Roy’s recent exploits with thick lipped mullet at this mark and the quality of the fish that they had encountered instantly came to mind.
On paper it seemed like a straightforward proposition, but my first visit had resulted in a multitude of missed bites, a lost fish and ultimately a blank. The style of mullet fishing necessitated by this mark was not familiar territory for me and so I took the failure as a sign that my approach was not quite up to scratch for the situation. I’d originally gone for equipment that offered a little bit of give, reasoning that this would soften the effect of the surf and offer less immediate resistance to the fish, hopefully resulting in a more confident take.
After a good chat with Mark, I made some subtle tweaks to my set-up, swapping mono for braid and the quiver tip of my mullet rod for the all-carbon tip; both changes aimed at improving bite sensitivity and reaction time on the strike.
I’d known for a while that the winning tactic at this venue was a light running leger with an ounce or so of lead, but what was more interesting was that regulars here always fished with some kind of pop-up on the hooklength, usually in the shape of a floating bead. I decided to use a small cube of white foam, reasoning that it looked a little more natural and would hopefully not spook the mullet away from the bait if they were feeling cagey. The reason for the pop-up became obvious once I saw the bottom that I would be fishing over, a mix of soft sand and stones with the occasional patch of wrack. A bread bait fished hard on the bottom would run the risk of snagging or being rapidly worn away by friction over such terrain. Popping the bait just off the bottom would also make it easier for the mullet to find and eat and I needed no convincing that this was the way to go.
I fished the last hour or two of the flood that morning, missing a couple of snatchy bites and feeling numerous plucks and pecks down the braid. This didn’t bother me unduly, there hadn’t been what I’d call a ‘proper’ take as yet. The water was lively and screamed ‘fish’, and at one point I was treated to the sight of a salmon jumping further out in the heavy run of current behind a section of reef. This was the second salmon I’d seen here; on my first trip I’d caught a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful bright silver specimen of well into mid double figures leaping in exactly the same spot this one had.
Over high water the cove filled right in and became very difficult to fish, so I decided to retire to the car for an hour’s nap and come back when the ebb had brought the sea down to a more favourable level. When I returned, the mullet were clearly still present and interested in the bread. I had another snatchy bite, then my first proper pull which I somehow managed to miss. Muttering to myself, I rebaited and plopped the bait out into exactly the same spot. This time when the pull came I made no mistake and locked the rod into a mullet that instantly rocketed up to the surface and thrashed wildly before kiting off to my right. In truth, this was one of those fish that just didn’t seem to have much fight to it and once it had kited into the shoreline, it simply swam back towards where I was stood, made a couple of darts and let itself be beached. I was soon standing over a handsome thick lip in the 2-3lbs class which I photographed quickly before slipping back. Just during the short period of time I’d spent on the capture of that fish, the tide had rapidly receded from the cove and there were no more bites that morning.
Later that day I was back in the same spot, tackling up with half-an-eye on the sea. The waves had yet to breach the lower-lying sections of reef that blocked off the cove but it wouldn’t be long. Joining me this time was Mark Reed, who was busy gradually adding water to his bucket of sliced bread to create a mash mix of just the right consistency. My rig freshly tied, I wandered down the tiny beach to where the sand flattened off. The sand lay in the shape of regular ridges, creating a ripple-like effect parallel to the shoreline. Mark had come up with the idea of hiding the bread under rocks instead of burying it and this made absolute sense to me. The aim we had in mind was to follow one of the basic principles of fishing for thick lips: creating a lot of scent and particles in the water but giving the mullet precious little of substance to eat other than our hookbaits. Mark had also suggested trying cage feeders as part of this concept and it was one of these contraptions that I borrowed from him and attached to my link.
Our first casts were into mere inches of water but already there were a lot of small mullet out there, visibly pecking at our baits and giving us regular tweaks down the braid. After a couple of casts we both heard a shout and turned to see the welcome sight of Roy Moore stomping down the steps, kit in hand, grinning to himself. Roy set up just to my left, the tide filling in rapidly and the cove looking more and more spot on for a fish by the minute. Mark somehow managed to hook one of the small mullet that had been helping themselves to our baits, showing me a fish of probably less than 8oz before sending it on its way. The next fish was mine, a hard yank that I made a meal of striking but was lucky enough to hook solidly, playing to shore a much better stamp of mullet to be netted by Roy after a prolonged battle. This was a decent fish with a huge tail and weighed in at a couple of ounces short of 4lbs. I decided to keep it for the table (I find mullet from the open sea great eating) and we fished on for the next hour in eager anticipation of further action.
After a good stretch without a bite, I began to wonder if the capture of my fish had spooked any others in the vicinity. From my perspective, standing on the shore staring at the frothing cauldron of water I was fishing into, it seemed ludicrous that any shoal of fish could communicate effectively with each other in such a maelstrom. Evidently the mullet had a greater command of this environment than I had first thought, and I reminded myself that it was most unwise to underestimate the potential of a thick lip to spook. I had imagined that the rough conditions would make the fish less guarded and easier to hook, but my experience over the handful of sessions I’d fished demonstrated to me that when there seemed to be only small numbers of bigger fish present, this did not appear to be the case.
Mark and I decided to move on and try a different spot on the way home; another sheltered beach but this time with a tiny estuary emptying into it. The strong swell and massive tide made the fishing very tricky, however, and after a fishless hour or so we decided to call it quits. Despite only catching two fish, I was happy with my day. I’d certainly fished harder for thick lips in the past and had less to show for it at the end! This had been a welcome change of pace from the rough ground tactics that had been the bulk of my fishing over the last few months. There’s something special about being stood on a beach with the surf roaring and the cries of gulls ringing in your ears, holding the rod and waiting for a bite. Maybe it’s the connection to the descriptions of bass fishing so prevalent in the work of some of sea angling’s most celebrated writers like Clive Gammon and John Darling. But then again, maybe it’s just the fact that this is such a raw and primal way to fish, and the emphasis is so firmly on elements like touch and watercraft. Touch legering for bass in the surf is one thing, but substitute bass for thick lips and the game changes substantially; the tackle gets much lighter and the need for subtlety is that much more acute, especially as it appears that the mullet retain a good proportion of their usual finickiness even in a surging torrent of whitewater. At first, it does feel strange to be using such light gear in such turbulent sea conditions, but that’s one of the beauties of this especially fun and intriguing way to fish, with the adrenaline-pumping payoff of hooking a tearaway thick lip adding to the addictive nature of the challenge.