When you get right down to it, fish are opportunistic. Some favor the hunt more than others, but none will turn down an easy meal.
That's what happens each fall when thousands of mature mullet gather in the coastal shallows in preparation for spawning. Mullet gatherings usually begin mid to late October and last through February. Halloween through Christmas sees the strongest activity.
As herds of these fish rumble across shallow grass beds, the commotion stirs up loads of shrimp, crabs and finfish. Snook, trout, redfish and jacks mingle with the mullet and gorge themselves on the free chow.
Those big-eyed vegetarians you often see leaping and belly-flopping throughout area waters roam the North Suncoast year-round. However, when days grow shorter and winds turn cooler, mullet will stage in backwater spots from Sand Bay and Green Key to the marshy mazes of Bayport and Chassahowitzka.
Cold fronts prompt the fish to move offshore and spawn, but while they tarry, mullet inadvertently create opportunities for other fish and the fishermen who seek them.
Mullet are naturally nervous fish, probably because they rank high on the diets of dolphins, sharks, ospreys, pelicans, big snook and jumbo redfish. The upside of that personality trait is the nearly constant disturbance mullet leave on the surface.
Some confuse these wiggling wakes with those of redfish, which commonly inhabit similar areas. However, reds move with decisive purpose, whereas mullet just kind of ramble.
Regardless, spotting a mullet school — particularly a large fall group — is easy. Once you locate the party, you'll want to ease in cautiously.
In addition to feeding opportunities, dense schools of mullet also provide shelter for the freeloaders that swim with them. In such tight quarters, fish respond sharply to any hint of trouble from schoolmates. Spook the mullet and you'll send the gamefish packing, too.
Avoid this by shutting down your big motor at least 50 yards from your target area and easing into range on the trolling motor, push pole or a wind drift. When mullet are on the move, using a small mushroom anchor or a hydraulic anchoring device called a PowerPole enables you to move in measured lengths and quickly stop to work an area.
Watch closely and you'll probably see the mullet startle with a white-watering jolt if the shadow of a bird passes over them. This hair-trigger caution erupts when anglers make sudden, sharp movements, so maintain a low profile and keep your casts low; sidearm it if possible.
Where firm bottom allows, wading offers nearly limitless mobility with minimal noise and a low profile. If you take your time and pick your casts, you can enjoy multiple hookups from the same general location.
As the mullet school moves, quietly move with it. Watch the bottom and walk in sand holes as often as possible. Slippery grass and mud demand greater effort. That slows your progress, plus it makes you vulnerable to noisy and uncomfortable slipping.
Also, consider investing in a good pair of neoprene chest waders. Water temperatures are dropping and hypothermia awaits the unprepared.
Waders with built-in boots may look convenient, but the boots will sink into areas of soft bottom and your foot will pull out when you try to step. It's inconvenient, plus it's a serious hazard, as stumbling in cold water can turn tragic if your waders fill up and inhibit your movement.
Given the degree of bottom rustling associated with mullet schools, it's easy to see why shrimp, crab and pinfish imitators do so well. You'll catch fish on natural baits, but you can cover more ground and find the predators with artificials such as jigs, soft plastic jerk baits and gold spoons.
The big three — trout, redfish and snook — will rub fins, but they often segregate themselves into certain areas of a mullet school. Your best bet is to work the perimeters of the school. Work the edges, or let your bait sit still until the school overtakes the lure and then twitch it to simulate a fleeing crustacean.
Casting mid-school usually spooks the fish, unless the mullet are highly active. If you see a nearly constant line of churning water, that means a lot of moving mullet bodies and plenty of opportunity to sneak a topwater plug into the fracas.
Throw darker plugs in low-light conditions and brighter ones on sunny days. No need for a precise walk-the-dog retrieve; you might do better just letting your plug bounce around in the crowd. Big trout are notorious for picking off such vulnerable prey.
The mullet school game can produce some of the most intense action you'll find anywhere, but take time to carefully release your fish. A little care goes a long way toward keeping the mullet march rolling.
be aware of manatees in november
November is Manatee Awareness Month, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is reminding boaters to be aware of manatees in local waters. Manatees generally start traveling to warmer waters when the air temperature drops below 50 degrees or when water temperature drops to about 68 degrees. Speed zones on many waterways will change in mid-November. Boaters are urged to scan water in front of the boat for swirls or mud trails. To find further boating regulations for manatees during the winter, go to www.myfwc.com.
Kids pitch osprey as new state bird
The children have spoken, and they would like the osprey to be Florida's new state bird. The FWC teamed with the Department of Education to take a vote of fourth- through eighth-graders to determine which bird should replace the current state bird, the mockingbird. The FWC will prepare a bill for introduction for the 2009 legislative session. The bill must be approved by the House, the Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist before the osprey is officially designated as the state bird. Teachers and students can follow this process at www.vote4bird.org. After the osprey, the top vote-getters were the snowy egret, great egret, brown pelican and black skimmer. More than 77,000 children from all counties in Florida voted.