Torpedoes of the Bann
GARDINER MITCHELL tells us why he gets excited about catching mullet on the fly......
I am sure that some readers will automatically want to skip this article. "Fishing for mullet? Not for me!" Well, don't be so sure. How fishing is changing! I was brought up in the salmon and seatrout-rich rivers of the Foyle system where only these two fish were deemed worthy quarry, and, in the past, few were returned. With new legislation and in the present era of catch-and release, the whole dimension is changing. In my early salmon angling years the main objective was to have a fish on the bank to take home as a prize with the salmon in the net acknowledging closure. Then, as I thought more deeply about what was the most pleasurable part, I realised it was the 'take' of the fish and the initial vigorous runs and leaps it would make. Getting it in the net was now just another process. Today, a fish on the bank is no longer important.
So why do I fish? It has to be the peace and tranquillity of beautiful locations, the deceiving of the fish to accept your man-made creation and, ultimately, the fight. This has opened up for me new species which I feel are as worthy a target as sea trout or salmon.
When I was asked by professional angling guide and good friend, Leslie Holmes, to accompany him on a day targeting mullet on the Bann Estuary near Coleraine in Co. Londonderry, I had visions of fishing near some sewage outlet or using patterns resembling algae or bread.
In discussion with many anglers who fish for mullet, most will agree that they can be wide-ranging in their diet including algae, bread, kelp maggots and small fish to name but a few examples. The type we were after, however, were shrimp feeders. Leslie commented that the rest of the algal, maggot and bread 'fly' patterns didn't seem to work on these big shoals, which cruised the estuary.
Algal feeding mullet are usually found around underwater structures sucking in soft fronds of algae with little vigour and direction. However, Leslie informed me that the shoals of fish in the estuary moved with purpose and amongst them were always those that who were accelerating to be a few metres in front of the rest as they were more aggressive in their feeding and chasing shrimps. The shoal would remain in a specific location for a minute or two while they grubbed about in the soft sediment.
Above: To cope with the blistering runs and powerful fight, a 9ft 9wt rod coupled with a large arbour reel with plenty of strong backing is required.
Working behind these would be other fast moving fish darting about ... feeding on crustacean, which had been dislodged by the mud sifters. These shrimp feeders would be our quarry for the day and I was surprised by the patterns Leslie suggested would work.
"Where's your salmon fly box?" he joked and much to my amazement proceeded to pick out two tiny size 16 salmon treble shrimps. "Bright day 16, dull day 14."
Above: The Curry's Red shrimp size 14 and a Yellow Shrimp size 16
On arriving at the venue how wrong my mind's eye impression of it had been. Beautiful sand hills and reed-lined mudflats fringed the river and the only sounds were the lapping of the incoming tide and the shrill calls of oystercatchers. It certainly was a bright day with blue sky, few clouds and stifling summer temperatures certainly not which would be described in freshwater fishing conditions as a good angling day but according to Leslie this would not be a problem. We tied our 12ft casts of 10lb fluorocarbon to 9ft 9wt rods with a full floating line - and plenty of strong backing. The floating line is the only line of use as we would be fishing the majority of the time in a mere 1.5ft of water.
The other major tactic he relayed to me was to overcome the myth of the mullet's soft mouth. In reality they have a narrow, rough rubbery mouth but certainly not soft and Leslie's instruction was," Strike immediately with force!"
Above: A close up of a mullets mouth. The mouth is not soft but hard and rubbery and difficult to get a good hook-up. Almost always when a fish is netted the hook falls out!
Remembering that this was with a stiff 9wt rod, after many days previously spent fishing dry fly it would be hard to implement the directive when the moment came. The final advice was, ''When you get a hook up, give no quarter ... but lock up and it’s over!” This would certainly be different.
The author, Gardner Mitchell casting to a cruising mullet close to the shore
On approaching the water's edge the first of the mullet torpedoed out from the shallows into deeper water. Indeed the first few casts were made with the majority of the fly line landing on the shore, with only the first 10 metres landing in the shallows. These fish were soon forgotten as large shoals were identified in the deeper water coming in with the tide. We waded out 15 metres calculating an interception with the shoal but the water still remained below knee-depth. As it approached I cast and proceeded to strip my flies across the front of the shoal. Many casts were made and only when Leslie told me to strip as fast as I could did the fish show interest, with several chasing the flies causing water to bulge behind them. The anticipation of a hook-up was immense and as I concentrated, I repeated Leslie's words in my head, "Remember ... hit immediately and as hard as you can." Leslie, however, had been targeting fish at the rear of the huge shoal and made a connection’ but the fish threw the hook after a few seconds. As another shoal went past, I cast, stripped line fast and out of the blue a fish took the fly… and you guessed it… I struck as if it was a 2lb trout on a Mayfly. The fish splashed and the rest of the shoal, once spooked, created a flurry of white water – leaving me with a slack line.
I turned to see if Leslie had witnessed my clanger but he too had hit a fish and this time it was on. It headed off like the proverbial “scalded cat”, taking him well into the backing within a few seconds, running at least 120 yards in the direction of the ocean with no intention of stopping. I lodged my rod in the sand and double-timed after Leslie who was now walking at a brisk pace after the fish. Some several hundred yards from where we had started and after ten minutes of dogged fight, the fish started to tire and it was my job to net it. “Go for it!” he shouted as the fish swam past at a rate of knots to which I replied that it wasn’t ready for netting. I expected that it would have given an indication by going on its side or allowing its head to be lifted out of the water. He informed me that if a mullet did this on the fly it would be in its death throes! They don't give up!
Above: Leslies fish. Total Power! Notice the fins and the full tail.
Our hearts were racing and we were shaking - no 61b salmon would do that for us any more.
Unfortunately I didn't land my first mullet on this occasion but I can say this hand on my heart if the offer was for a day's salmon fishing or mullet on the fly, I know what I would be doing.
Above: Mullet can be found cruising in the shallowest of water and create hardly any disturbance.
Above: A size 16 Yellow shrimp is almost dwarfed by a finger tip!
About the Author: Gardner Mitchell is a Photographer and Biologist who has fished the lakes and rivers of Northern Ireland and Donegal for over 30 years. He enjoys flyfishing for all species but especially wild brown trout.
Fly Fishing and Flytying is a UK based magazine that is published on a monthly basis and deals with a wide spectrum of fly fishing disciplines and is especially strong on introducing new and exciting fishing and flytying techniques.