Failing to pack a travel fly rod for the annual summer holiday to the Alicante region of Spain is probably the biggest mistake of my angling career. And the mistake was made year after year, until I realised the error of my ways when witnessing a huge bass blitz at the mouth of a small river one morning. I returned the following summer suitably armed and ready to discover what the Mediterranean had to offer. The fishing is uncomplicated and focuses on the mouths of rivers and lagoons on the falling tide. A wide selection of predators and mullet species gather to feast in the resulting flow. Daybreak is the time to try your luck, with most sessions drawing to a conclusion by 9am as the strengthening sun clears the shallows. Therefore, the fishing is very family friendly.
The bass and other predatory species are great fun but it is the local mullet population which captured my imagination, especially the Flathead Mullet (Mugil cephalus) which the Spanish call ‘Pardete’. Flatheads are known as Striped Mullet in the USA and are distributed from Novia Scotia, south to Brazil.
The following extracts from my Saltwater Diary give a brief taste of the sport to be enjoyed with these challenging, enigmatic and powerful fish. The mullet patterns mentioned are available from a company called Selectafly in the UK and further accounts of my adventures with mullet can be found in my recently published book ‘Mullet On The Fly’.
The second, larger river involved a forty minute stroll south of town. A sandy bay has been formed around the river mouth thanks to the construction of two breakwaters and this feature combined with the influx of fresh water has created a highly diverse and productive fishery.
I arrived at the mouth of the river shortly before 7am to find the left hand breakwater by the river channel heavily populated by mullet fishers, their bread baits suspended beneath an armada of colourful floats. Fifty meters further out into the bay, a large sand bar had formed, running directly between both breakwaters, with its outer edge sloping gently away into deeper water. This area was free from fishermen and provided abundant space to wade. Groups of mullet were showing along the far side of the sand bar, travelling in packs and causing the water to boil upon discovering food. These were not the slow moving mullet of British waters, but highly charged fish in perpetual competition to feed.
I had prepared a three fly cast – a brown Klinkhammer on the top dropper, a Flexi-Shrimp in the middle position and a ‘Bin-bag Nymph’ on the point (a fly tied Czech nymph style, using black bin bag from the apartment to form the shell back). My approach was to anticipate the movement of a group of fish and place the flies in readiness. This led to several nips and follows but nothing more committed. I then noticed a pod of the bronzed- backed fish, encountered the day before, moving in from deeper water. The fish were again partially exposed, moving slowly across the surface before accelerating abruptly in a spray of water, presumably to catch food.
I placed my cast a few meters ahead of the largest fish, which appeared to be four feet or more in length! The fish darted forward and my line tightened. I applied pressure as the fish moved slowly along the edge of the sandbar, apparently unperturbed.
I followed in close attendance, intending to steer the fish over the bar and towards the beach and waiting camera. Perhaps my thoughts transferred down the fly line, for the fish appeared to waken up and realise its predicament. It turned and headed for the open sea, slowly gaining momentum, bending the 6-weight rod into an absurd shape, then picking up even greater speed. Mullet of all sizes leapt skyward, assuming attack, as the fish ploughed forward, enabling me to pinpoint its exact location. Almost 150 meters of backing had disappeared through the rings and the bare metal of the reel was beginning to show. Mercifully, the run came to a halt and I managed to turn the fish and slowly regain line. The fish simply used its mass to provide resistance and each foot of line reclaimed required considerable effort. Eventually, I heard the comforting sound of the fly line clinking back through the rings, as the fish neared the sandbar.
The fish swam towards the right hand breakwater, almost to the feet of a growing Spanish audience who gesticulated the size of the fish, as if I was not already aware. Finding new strength, the fish nosed round and bolted once more and the entire exercise was repeated.
Forty five minutes into the battle, my reel had just been emptied for the sixth time. Tired and in need of water beneath a scorching sun, I decided to prevent the fish from returning to open water and bring matters to a conclusion. I applied as much pressure as I dared and manoeuvred the fish over the sand bar. Sensing the shallows, the fish veered round and produced its fastest run so far, snapping the leader in the process. I reeled in to find the ‘Bin-bag Nymph’ missing. A Spanish angler informed me that I had been doing battle with a ‘Pardete’.
6.10am at the breakwater south of Alicante. The first semblance of daylight revealed the Pardete to be in position once more, feeding intently in the current passing between two sandbars. Yesterday’s cast of flies retained their positions and on only the second drift the line pulled tight as a Pardete of around three feet in length rose to the surface to claim breakfast, before powering 100 meters out to sea. The fish possessed incredible strength and was completely unstoppable as it swam amongst a group of rocks, severing the leader.
Two casts later and I connected with the second Pardete of the day. At first the fish appeared calm, swimming slowly around the sandbar but then produced a blistering run in excess of 100 meters. I quickly followed the fish as far as I could wade, genuinely concerned that I was about to lose fly line and backing. The fight became a war of attrition, any line regained lost once more, within seconds. The 6-weight rod was bent double and creaked audibly under the intense strain. In the distance I could see the Pardete’s enormous tail slashing across the surface. Out of the blue, the fly suddenly pulled free after thirty five gruelling minutes. In some respects this was a blessing, for I was making no headway with the fish and 100 meters of backing remained out to sea.
I was beginning to question if a Pardete could actually be landed on a fly rod. A more powerful rod may be more effective in tiring the fish but also more likely to pull the fly.
I returned to the sandbar to find that activity had heightened further but frustratingly missed a succession of fast pulls before changing my angle of cast. A surprisingly aggressive take followed, with the fish showing a severe reaction to the hook by attempting to leap the sandbar before finding traction in deeper water and launching into a 100 meter sprint, the speed of which would have given a bonefish a run for its money. This Pardete appeared to be one of the smaller members of the shoal and would hopefully be more manageable! And so it proved, for after thirty minutes of dogged battle, the fish was almost in touching distance of the net. Almost but not quite. Upon seeing the net, the Pardete would find renewed strength to pull several meters away. This state of deadlock persisted for a few more minutes until, to my utmost relief, the fish finally came to rest in the net, a Flexi-Shrimp nestling in its the upper lip. The Pardete measured 30” in length and weighed in at slightly under 10lb. Time for an ice cool beer!
At 6.05am I quietly entered the water and crept towards the sand banks, 6-weight rod in hand with floating line and three nymphs attached to 12 feet of Orvis Mirage 12.5lb fluorocarbon leader. Wading warm water in only a pair of Crocs and trunks gave a sense of freedom, compared to the wader clad restrictions of UK seas. The tide was lower this morning and yesterday’s perfect current had all but subsided. Good numbers of fish continued to feed in very shallow water and in the channels between the banks but the absence of current meant that the flies fell lifelessly to the sandy bottom and were of no interest to the mullet. Suddenly, a group of large fins surfaced in the channel beside a sand bank and the nymphs were dispatched to work their magic. A very slow figure-of-eight retrieve would hopefully impart enough life to the flies, to gain a reaction. After twenty patient minutes the line tightened abruptly. Before I could strike, the fish accelerated at high speed across the sand banks towards a group of large rocks and I was forced to lift the rod high and exert strong sideways pressure to steer the fish away from the snags and certain freedom. Thankfully, the fish turned a few meters short of sanctuary and retraced its steps across the banks at blistering pace, before turning to run for deeper water. In typical Pardete fashion, the 200 meters of backing on the reel began to disappear in a rasping blur.
I followed quickly, attempting to retrieve line as I went, until I could wade no further. Again, applying considerable pressure succeeded in turning the fish and the long process of pumping the fish to shore began. Eventually fly line was re-introduced to the reel and my confidence grew. Instead of striking for open water once more, the fish elected to do battle in the shallows, running the channels at break neck speed, causing dire panic amongst the mullet shoals, no doubt fearing that they were under attack. At one point, the fish tracked across the top of a sand bank in water only inches deep and for the first time I was able to appreciate its size. My confidence shrank! Then I had a lucky break. The fish swam away from the sand banks and headed towards shore, some 50 meters distant, with me in hot pursuit. This enabled me to play the fish out in shallow, snag free water from a position on the beach. Gradually the fish tired and the runs lessened in duration and intensity. I decided to beach the fish rather than use a net, which can panic the fish and prolong the contest considerably. After 40 minutes of hard battle, a timely wave delivered a beautiful Pardete of 11lb 2oz onto the beach. A size 12 Flexi-Shrimp sat firmly embedded in the mullet’s top lip. The fish required several minutes of careful reviving, before swimming strongly away.
The large and powerful Pardete mullet I longed to encounter failed to show until the penultimate morning, when incredible numbers of these fabulous fish moved into the bay with the incoming tide. The mullet moved at speed through a well-defined rip, with hundreds of enormous ochre coloured fins and tails slashing the surface. The mullet remained frustratingly out of casting distance until finally a push of the tide brought them within range. Standing chest deep in water I managed to cover the nearest fish and before I could straighten the line it was already heading for Tripoli at great speed. The explosive contest offered by these magnificent mullet never fails to impress and it was with genuine relief that I eventually steered the fish from the surf on to dry land. My hands were shaking so badly that I struggled to operate the camera. The Pardete weighed in at seven and a half pounds and sported a Spectra Shrimp in the left hand scissors. The perfect end to a memorable trip.
I awoke to the sound of wind and rain. Autumn had found me once more! Daylight was late to arrive at the river mouth and I stood in a steady downpour for fifteen minutes before venturing in to the water, already wet to the skin. A good flow from the river developed shortly before 9am and a sudden outbreak of large fins and tails banished all thoughts of warm showers and hot coffee. I waded out to chest deep water, in order for the flies to reach the path of the travelling fish. This was sight fishing of the absolute highest order, spoiled only by the mullet’s refusal to accept a fly, until a particularly boisterous group entered stage left and showed no hesitation in hunting down a tagged Romy’s Sand Shrimp. The fly was nailed on the surface in an eruption of spray. A gentle strip-strike saw the fish leap skyward in an attempt to throw the hook, confirming the fact that I was attached to a decent Pardete at the same time. The fish executed a series of lightning fast runs through the shallows, before electing to sit in the strong current to ponder its predicament. Steady but measured pressure eventually coaxed the mullet in to the shallows and finally the net, to my great relief. The fish weighed in at 6lb 4oz and sported a Romy’s Sand Shrimp in the left hand scissors.