Migrating mullet make great surfcasting on the South Shore of Long Island
Mullet runs have waxed and waned over the years, yet, in spite of recent meager runs, anglers continue to look for and chase the relentlessly moving mullet simply because fishing the mullet run can be incredibly exciting. Unfortunately, it can also be quite frustrating.
Decades ago, mullet schools were large, and they filtered out of the bays for weeks. The runs were reliable, varying little in magnitude from year to year. I may be getting on in years, but I can still recall watching school after school of mullet – schools so large they almost filled the trough from beach to offshore bar – while anglers caught fish after fish. These are just memories now, I’m afraid. As vivid as these memories are, I have to go back quite a ways to retrieve them, because big-time runs of mullet haven’t been the norm in recent years. From time to time I hear a story about an angler who bumps into a large school of mullet and scores big, but such stories have become rare.
One Of The Good Ones
I remember one particularly good mullet run in the late 1980s. That year, the word leaked out in late summer from those spending time deep in the bays and creeks that mullet were plentiful. So by early September, a legion of anglers began lusting for a nor’easter or big-time cold front to set the mullet on their march to the south. Finally, a nor’easter blasted in on a Saturday morning. Guess where I wasn’t? Yep, I wasn’t on the beach! Unfortunately, I had to attend a wedding. I remember being seated with friends around a big round table at the reception, unable to stop myself from repeatedly glancing out the window at the raging storm. I was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency to be on the beach with my buddies, in the midst of what I was certain were blitzes. My obsession with the weather drew angry looks from the people I was with, but what can an addicted surf angler do?
The next day I got a call from a friend reporting on his success that stormy Saturday. “Gilgo Beach was hot, Doc! Better get down there as soon as possible.” I looked out the window at Sunday: a bluebird day that held little hope the action would repeat. I expressed this on the phone, and my friend responded, “No, man, they were there this morning with tons of mullet.” This morning. Great! I thought. Another missed opportunity.
There was no way I was going to rush to the beach, since the beautiful and tranquil weather had dented my faith. But, I thought, I have nothing else to do, so I’ll pack a lunch and head for Gilgo. Once on the sand, I went right to the little point my friend described. Located about ½-mile east of the four-wheel drive entrance, it jutted out from the sand into the trough. I made only a few casts when a family, including pets, tumbled over the dunes from Garbage Cove and plunked right into the water in front of me. Obviously annoyed, I said nothing since I still did not believe I’d catch anything anyway. So, I moved a little west to another small point as I cursed under my breath.
However, it turned out that the oblivious family did me a huge favor because this second point and the bar that stretched out to sea from it was loaded with mullet and striped bass. I enjoyed a terrific afternoon of fishing that included several big stripers, and I didn’t leave the beach until sunset.
The New Normal
In recent autumns, instead of abundant large schools, I’ve seen pods of mullet pushing west along the beaches toward New York Bight. These pods of several-dozen nervous finger mullet were typically pressed tightly against the boundary of waves and sand. So tightly, in fact, that sometimes the receding waves temporarily left them semi-stranded. Sadly, these pods were so small that they usually passed to the west unnoticed by predators that might have been as close as a cast or two away.
In spite of meager mullet runs, I remain one of the faithful, trudging to the South Shore beaches each fall, hopeful for a full-fledged mullet run. Sooner or later, in spite of polluted estuaries, habitat destruction, and ecosystem neglect, large runs of mullet will happen, and I want to be there. Again, that’s the addicted surf rat in me. Besides, I’m still hoping to be one of the lucky guys in the middle of one of those rare mullet blitzes.
So, where is there? Generally, I gravitate to the west sides of South Shore inlets because when mullet come out of the bays, their instinct is to push west. That’s why places such as Great Gun, Cedar Beach, and Gilgo Beach are among the most productive spots. But there are exceptions, too. I suppose the most obvious exception is the “pocket” at the Jones Beach jetty that happens to be on the east side of the inlet. Why so productive? Easy: mullet accumulate there. There are two primary reasons why mullet gather in the pocket. The first is that westward migrating mullet encounter the jetty and it is a barrier to their fanatical straight run to the west. Thus, they are delayed. Second, on a southwest wind and ebb tide, mullet exiting Jones Inlet have a tendency to be pushed against the inside of the jetty as they make their way to the tip, and then they are spun into the pocket by eddies of tidal currents and wind-driven waves. The significance of the pocket as a bait collector changes over time, and so too the build-up of mullet. Sometimes the pocket is shallow and short, sometimes longer and deeper, but regardless of size, it remains a productive spot during a mullet run.
Although the mullet run is usually associated with September and early October, during good mullet years, schools dribble out of the inlets well into November. Although unusual, a strong cold front in late August can trigger an early run of mullet, especially if the front rumbles through around the full moon. This happened several times in a row in August during the late 1970s. As a result, I am alert to the possibility of mullet during all my south shore trips beginning the end of August.
Some anglers have trouble identifying mullet in the surf. I tell them to look close to shore for V-shaped wakes at the surface. Anglers then point out, quite correctly, that peanut bunker also leave V-shaped wakes as they swim near the surface. However, although these juvenile menhaden are also migrating west in the fall, blitzing schools of stripers and blues can force peanut schools to turn around and swim for miles either east or south. You’ll never see mullet change their dogged drive to the west for very long. Sure, an attacking group of predators will stop them and perhaps even get them to move a few yards to the east, but as soon as the stripers or blues slink into the trough, the mullet will reform their squadrons and push hard to the west. Further, although peanuts sometimes move up onto the slope of the beach when under heavy attack, by and large they prefer to remain in the trough, while mullet prefer to run near the interface between water and sand.
Anglers can also look for baitfish in the water on calm clear-water days. Mullet appear grayish-blue with flat heads and pectoral (side) fins located high on their flanks. Anglers wearing polarized sunglasses will have a better chance of spotting these characteristics.
Why bother identifying the bait? Knowing the primary fodder in the area gives a surf angler a big leg up. For example, let’s say you spot a small school of bait sliding west, close to the beach, and they are leaving multiple V-shaped wakes. Are these baits peanuts or mullet? If I identify the bait as mullet, I will clip on a popper or pencil popper, reposition myself so I can cast parallel to the beach, and put the lure about 10 yards seaward of the lip. Doing so keeps a surface lure in the narrow strike zone longer. On the other hand, if I identify the bait as peanuts, I’ll switch to a white bucktail with red-and-white porkrind and work beyond and around the school of peanuts.
Does Color Matter?
I’ve long believed that presentation is far more important than color. As an observer as well as a fisherman, I’ve come to realize that the two aspects of fishing ºmost overlooked by anglers are their tackle and lure presentations. That is, too many anglers use tackle that is underpowered, and lots of surf rats pay too little attention to lure presentation. To me, it seems as if these anglers just cast and retrieve without regard to wave height, current speed, water depth, the type of baitfish present, and wind direction and speed. Good presentations are the result of considering all these factors and more. Of course, proper presentations are difficult or impossible to achieve with weak tackle that limits casting accuracy and distance, the size of the lures that can be used, hook-setting power, and the ability to deal with waves, currents, and winds. That said, let’s get back to color.
My rule about color being unimportant has exceptions, however, and one of these involves the mullet run. There is little doubt that blue-and-white and white poppers are often more productive than other color combinations in the presence of mullet. Therefore, I always carry these colors from early September into November.
Although I advocate fishing the west side beaches of South Shore inlets, selecting a spot on the beach is another matter. I don’t simply pick a spot randomly; I look for variations in the beachfront that might help me. For example, I seek out steep-sloped beach faces, small sandy points that jut out under the water into the trough, spots where the offshore bar bends in or curves back on itself, and humps of sand smack in the middle of the trough.
A steep-sloped beach face lifts incoming waves and creates strong back surges between wave crashes that make it difficult for mullet to swim. Furthermore, sharply crashing waves and the resulting back surge creates turbulence that makes mullet vulnerable to attack. Stripers favor turbulent areas as feeding zones. Casting parallel to the beach face is the most productive presentation.
Sand points that extend into the trough are good spots to fish because they provide a break in the trough similar to the pocket at Jones Beach. That is, mullet approach the edge of a bar and are reluctant to quickly move over it or around it. The best place to fish is the down-current side of these sub-surface bars where stripers tend to sit, waiting for the mullet to make a charge over and around the obstruction. I prefer to throw my lures onto the skinny water over the bar and let the moving water slide the lure to the edge where the gamefish wait in ambush.
Finally, there are variations in the offshore bar. Here and there you might notice that the offshore bar moves closer to the beach. Often, near a cut in the bar, surging water redistributes sand, forming an arched bar that curves toward shore. The resulting turbulence created by this bar in proximity to the cut provides excellent hunting areas for stripers and blues as well as quick access to deeper water. Obviously, this piece of structure doesn’t work during calm weather because waves create the turbulence and thus, without the waves, the area becomes stable and calm. I like waves that are 4 to 6 feet high around this type of structure. If the wave period isn’t too short, it is possible to fish effectively with poppers and pencil poppers, however short-period waves tumble surface lures. If the waves have a short period, bucktails are best.
Well, there’s my formula, honed from lots of mistakes and many mullet runs, and I hope it’s useful to you. It’s a simple formula that consists of using the right lures at the right structures, in the right sea conditions at the right time of year. Let’s hope this year’s mullet run attracts big schools of bass and blues to the beaches and lasts into November. And when you catch your mullet-run cow striper, remember that today’s release is tomorrow’s catch!