Thursday, March 05, 2009
Why do mullet jump?
By Richard E. Noble
Mullet has been a staple of life for decades here in Franklin County. Most other places it is considered a bait fish or trash fish and people cringe at the thought of eating one. But Calvin Trillin “the international gourmand of chili dogs and fried pork rinds” wrote that Franklin County, Florida is the best place in America to find smoked mullet. I think you can find this essay in Trillin’s book the Tummy Trilogy.
Most people first notice mullet when they are standing on the shore looking out at the horizon. Suddenly they see some kind of fish jump out of the water and sail through the air. And then the same fish does it again and again and again. I watched one mullet jump five times in a row. Everybody’s first question when discovering mullet is - why do mullet jump?
The obvious answer is because they are trying to escape something that is trying to eat them, like a Bottle Nosed Dolphin. I’ve also read that they might be jumping to get an extra gulp of oxygen. I’m sure that there are many other answers as to why mullet jump but I have always liked Marion Millender’s the best. He said that he thought mullet jumped because they were happy.
Carol and I had our first exposure to mullet not in Franklin County, but in Port Isabel, Texas. We were on our Hobo-ing America adventure when we landed at Padre Island and then went down to Brownsville. There was an old bridge, similar to our Island fishing pier bridge, at Port Isabel that had been turned into a State Park and Carol and I spent some time there fishing and waiting for America to warm up.
We were fishing off the rocks at the foot of this bridge when the water offshore began to churn up. There seemed to be miles of some kind of fish out there and they were coming our way. I didn’t know what they were or what they might bite. On another occasion up in New England when I was fishing off the Black Rocks at Salisbury Beach a school of pollack came through and I caught a mess of them with a Dare Devil lure. I had one in my tackle box at the bridge in Port Isabel so I rigged it up. I threw it out in the middle of the churning water but got no bites. Then I remembered techniques that I had developed snagging Salmon up in Michigan. I started jerking the Dare Devil through this school of whatever and whammo. I had a five gallon pail full in no time.
People came wandering by peeking into my bucket. Most of them whispered and talked among themselves. Finally this one older fellow said, “No sense in saving those, son. Those fish are mullet. They’re a trash fish - no good for eatin’.”
We had heard similar stories about various types of fish but Carol and I were not prone to throwing any variety of fish back into the water. We are “catch and eat” not “catch and release” fishermen. That night we ate fried mullet and we were hooked.
For a time here in Franklin County we could catch all the mullet we wanted. We had two cast nets that Carol had constructed by hand and we had a hundred foot of gill net that Mr. Millender gave us. We would ride around inshore and roll that 100 foot off the cull board of our oyster boat or stand on the bow and sail out our cast nets. We never caught enough to sell by these methods but we had plenty to eat.
Every oyster shack along 98 in Eastpoint had a smoker and a sign advertising fresh smoked mullet in those days. You could buy a whole smoked mullet for a dollar to a dollar-fifty. We loved smoked mullet, but we were too cheap to buy it. We decided to build our own smokehouse out back. We had a pile of old corrugated tin laying around and we stuck it together and built a full sized smokehouse about six foot high and three foot wide and maybe two or three foot deep. We made metal doors in the lower front section for the wood and built some racks higher up for the fish. We put some doors on the upper section also. For awhile we had all the smoked mullet that we could eat. We smoked chicken, hot dogs, beef and pork.
People also like to eat the roe (mullet eggs) which presented a problem as you can imagine.
I’ve since heard that you can catch mullet on a cane pole or by hook. Folks use ground worms, oat meal, chicken feed and dough balls made from wadding up some cheap store-bought white bread. We never tried it.
Mullet are strange; they have a gizzard. They feed on dead plant matter and detritus - no meat. They’re vegetarians. They spawn in the Gulf and live inshore in the bay or up the river. They live in schools and periodically they come leaping out of the water - because they are happy.
I like that answer. Now every time I see a happy mullet leaping out of the water, I smile and find myself a little happier also. Why not?