Fishing the Fall Mullet Run | Florida
Every fall, impressive mullet schools migrate along Florida's coast in their annual shift from North to South. While fishing the fall mullet run, these coveted baitfish are victimized by nearly every coastal predator including snook, tarpon, blacktip sharks, and monster jack crevalle. The season transition and dropping water temperatures push the substantial schools of forage south which enable Florida anglers to capitalize on one the best fishing spectacles available within the Southeastern United States.
As sea surface temperatures plummet, the mullet masses push their way south to warmer waters where grasses and algae grow during the winter. Almost exclusively herbivorous, these fish follow a constant growing food source, which is necessary for survival and simply travel towards the warmer environment and climate which produce more plant life.
- Migrations & Behavior
Upon reaching the Southeastern coast of Florida, sexually mature mullet head offshore and spawn in the Gulf Stream. Essentially, this is a free ride for the fertilized eggs to cruise effortlessly on this north current. The cycle then repeats all over again as the young mullet move into the beaches and estuaries along the coast. As we all know, the word FREE always come with a price. Relying on their safety in numbers, unsuspecting mullet masses are stalked by every predatory species- including the widely targeted and very powerful - "Silver King". Mid-September historically marks the beginning of frontal conditions, which provides every beach goer and surf angler with an unforgettable spectacle of viewing acres of panic stricken mullet schools launching themselves out of the water in every effort to escape mortality.
Tarpon, also known around Florida and the waters of the Atlantic as Megalops Atlanticus, gorge themselves on the abundant mullet supply every September and October. The larger fish tend to hang outside the pods of mullet waiting patiently for an unfortunate straggler veering a little too far from the pack. At that time making a thrashing effort to inhale the next snack. Triple-digit tarpon do not grow to mammoth stature by being foolish and precisely calculate every effort spent to feed. This unique predator is fully capable of filling it's swim bladder with air, replicating the functions of a fundamental lung and gives this species a large advantage during predation when low oxygen water levels are prevalent.
After many years of guiding full time along South Florida's eastern seaboard, I noticed one consistent pattern that emerged with resident tarpon after every trip. They were prepared and waiting to feed of the scraps from our fruits of labor. Talk about an intuitive and opportunistic predator with very little enemies. Tarpon figured it all out. Sit patiently along the shadow line of a bridge waiting for bait to flush into their strike zone or coast along the charter boat docks late at night once everyone is gone. Either scenario lets them feed easily and with minimal effort, exactly how these high calculating fish are built to be.
Big Fish Behavior
It was incredible to see these tarpon just hang and stroll about, while I spent my days running at times up to 75 miles, struggling to put together a solid catch for my clients. Honestly, I think biggest tarpon have it completely figured out. During the 9-5 working man hours, most larger tarpon spend time cruising the beaches, riding the tide and enjoying the beautiful contours of our natural coastlines. This does not necessarily mean that they will be in feeding mode. Before sunrise, the fish fed heavy on scraps at the marina left from the late night party boat snapper trip. As the sun sets, tarpon ignite their nocturnal feeding instinct and become scavengers picking up crabs, dead baitfish, and even crustaceans drifting by. Bigger tarpon favor the forage coming to them with a natural flowing tide, rather than go in heavy pursuit for a meal that is on the move.
- Leader and Main Line
September marks the beginning of the mullet run and one tactic that works well is simply to cast large mullet looking artificial lures on a 4ft piece of 60-80lb fluorocarbon or monofilament on frenzied feeding fish. For the business end and my leader, I prefer a 3-4ft section of 80lb Gamma fluorocarbon as it ties very easily and is nearly invisible in any level of the water column. A solid line to line connection such as a blood knot or spider hitch w/ Yucatan knot will join your monofilament or fluorocarbon section of leader to your main line consisting of no less than 300 yards of braid.
The biggest snook or tarpon will test every yard of line on your reel, so be sure you always fish the cleanest leader allowable, by checking your connections and leader after every time you're tight. When focusing your efforts on open water and pitching to cruising fish, don’t be afraid to scale down leader to 50lb on clear blue bird days. Many times this is the difference between coming home with a cool story to tell and simply burning a ton of fuel. On the flip side, if bridges, jetties, and ledges are your focus areas for targeting big tarpon, step up the line diameter to 60 and even 80lb. It will keep you in the battle and connected to your soon to be airborne silver king.
While using artificial mullet imitations and the decision to swap out the stock hooks on your plug arises, I strongly recommend Mustad's 9175 Black nickel live bait hooks, Gamakatsu's Octopus 4x strong, black nickel circle hooks in 8/0 or VMC's 7385 tournament black nickel, inline circle hooks, as your hook up ratio will skyrocket. Always fish the biggest hook your offering will allow you to fish, providing you with the most natural presentation available. A heavier wire hook will not allow the lures to swim and track correctly when retrieved with the tide. Rigging with a light wire hook can also drive you loco and frustrates any angler when finally connected to a trophy silver king and seconds later breaks off as the hook straightened out.
Rapala's X-Rap 14, floating crankbait in the black and silver pattern, dives to about 6ft and is a staple within any local angling community. Work the lure just outside of the bait pods and hold on! Feeding fish will always target the weak and a wounded looking and properly presented lure will at times out fish live bait.
Large snook caught on an artificial lure on Florida's East Coast.
Stick or Glide baits, introduced around 2009 are relatively new to the US market, although many anglers over seas have been reaping the benefits for years. This fishing technique has been a staple with offshore anglers is rapidly finding a home in the coastal & inshore arenas as well. The subtle gliding action of these stickbait lures excel in areas where there is a steady flow of current or tide. Look for lures rigged with 3x strong hooks, native baitfish color patterns, and a profile that pushes water very similar to a mullet cruising in with the tide.
Lure Retrieval Techniques
Regardless the brand or size of your offering, it's vital to present any lure in a manner that mimics a natural predation scenario. Pay close attention to which direction the fish are traveling or feeding. Next cast your bait past them - usually 20-30ft, retrieving it back with the natural tide flow. This will fall under nature's innate movements which will not raise any eyebrows to wearing feeding predators. Casting your lure right into the school of fish will not put you in the most optimal position to get a bite as your lure is now competing to get the attention of larger predatory fish feeding on straggling baitfish. Presenting the bait to the outside of the bait school will put you in the strike zone and increases your chances of getting tight tenfold!
When tarpon break the water's surface with their backs, this action is commonly known as rolling. By pushing their back out of the water, this provides anglers with a visual of where to position their cast and also re-oxygenates the fish's air bladder with a fresh gulp of air. During the fall, water clarity is affected by the changing season and murky colored inlets are a haven for ambushing the migrating schools of mullet. This is a key frame for not only tarpon but snook, sharks, and other inshore gamefish to easily commit to eating your artificial offering. The murkiness of the water hides with hooks and also allows gamefish to focus on the water displacement of the lure.
Remember to focus of these tips when stalking all predatory species and your baits will get crushed more often. Tight lines and ripping drags!