Wednesday 17 February 2016

2015 - My Highlights - Part 3: Float Fishing in the Dark for Grey Mullet

So, onto the final part of my 2015 highlights trilogy!  The epic finalĂ©.  Hopefully it'll be more Toy Story 3 than Jurassic Park III; more Die Hard with a Vengeance than Superman III!  There's only one way to find out...

Cornish manoeuvres in the dark

On our first holiday with our (by now, 4 months old) baby daughter, fishing was never going to be high on the agenda, it would be a case of grabbing a chance if and when it arrived.  We stayed in this country, which allowed me to take quite a range of gear with me so that I could exploit any opportunities which came my way.  The first of these came in Poole, where we spent a week.

Our hotel was walking distance from a bay of some repute amongst local angling bloggers I'd looked up before we went.  A couple of evening trips produced my first two bass (which would have each fitted in the palm of my hand and they were returned as quickly as possible) and a couple of eels which had me fooled I might have hooked a bit better bass.  Brilliant fun, a new species chalked off and all done without upsetting the family because high tide coincided with the time everyone was going to bed!

After the week in Poole we upped-sticks to the Cornish coast and the delightful fishing village of Mevagissey, which would be our base for the following week.  The drive took a little longer than we'd anticipated and it was already dark when we arrived on the narrow quay beside the cottage we'd rented.  As I stepped out of the van to begin unloading our luggage my eyes were inevitably drawn towards the water.  I made a double take; in the glimmer of a nearby streetlight I saw a ghostly shadow near the surface, skulking away from me.  I only caught a glimpse for a second, but I knew I'd seen a large mullet.  Way bigger than any I'd caught before.

I've caught mullet in a few different countries and I've fished for them in many more places but fallen foul of the species' mystical bait-mouthing qualities and spooky nature.  I had spent a frustrating day following a feeding shoal up and down a backwater on the Hampshire coast in my mid-teens.  The last time I'd targeted them was at Coffs Harbour in Australia, back in 2001, where again I had seen big fish but failed to convince any of them that my bait was safe fayre.

My more successful encounters with mullet included lowering a hand-line down from the deck of a ferry on a school trip in Greece.  A bit of pilfered breakfast roll scattered on the surface got them going and they definitely hadn't been fished for with a vertical line before, as I hooked and landed a couple of them before I decided that the drop back down to the water was neither pleasant nor fair on the fish and decided to watch them feed instead.

By far my most memorable tussles with mullet were back when - in my early to mid-teens - we holidayed regularly in Tenerife.  I took along a telescopic rod each time (back when you could take them on a plane as hand luggage!) and would disappear for hours at a time, keeping myself entertained by fishing for the small wrasse and other species amongst the rocky breakwaters.  As I grew bored with this kind of fishing and saw some of the locals pulling out much larger bream and mullet, my interest was piqued and I mirrored their tactics to catch a few (but not many) hard-fighting mullet.  My PB mullet, a fish of around 2lb, will live long in the memory because I spotted it swimming around with what looked like a jellyfish wrapped around it.  Luckily I caught the fish and found this "jellyfish" was actually one of the ghastly plastic ring contraptions which holds 4-packs of cans together.  The fish had somehow swum through three of the holes when it was much smaller and as it had grown the plastic had become a potentially lethal ligature, just behind the head.  One pectoral fin was pinned back against its flank and on the underside the plastic had dug in to around 15mm deep!  How this fish was still alive, I have no idea, but the wounds were almost entirely healed up; there was little open flesh, so I carefully cut off the plastic with a penknife and set the fish free to hopefully live another day.  It had survived that long inside its plastic noose, so who knows, it may have lived for a good long while.  One thing this taught me is to always cut those plastic can holders up before they're thrown away.  I've been anal about that ever since because I've seen the unneccesary suffering they can cause when discarded.

Grey Mullet on harmed by plastic litter
My old PB grey mullet, which was almost decapitated by a plastic 4-ring can holder!
Back to Cornwall!  The next morning after breakfast I headed to the local tackle shop to get the lowdown on what was being caught in the area.  "Not much" was the reply!  Apparently my best bet would be to chuch some feathers at the mackerel from the breakwater, but that's not "proper" fishing to me.  It's not very sporting and unless you're catching them to eat (I wasn't) or to use as bait (I had no way of freezing mackerel or transporting them home frozen to keep as pike baits) there isn't really much point in fishing for them.

I could only really fish at night because we were busy sightseeing during the daytime, and for the first couple of nights high tide was around midnight, which gave me a decent opportunity to fish in the dark before it got too late.  So my thoughts turned to that shady figure I'd spotted the previous night.  In my wisdom I had packed a specimen float rod and match reel, a couple of stick floats and wagglers, and even a couple of starlites.  I had the ideal setup for having a go for a mullet in the dark.  I'd never heard of night fishing for mullet before, I had no idea if they'd even feed in the dark, but seeing that solo fish so close to the surface gave me hope that if I could find them I would be in with a chance.

The following evening the weather was calm and dry, so I set out with my float rod and a couple of loaves of bread.  My tactics were simple, walk around the quay scattering pieces of floating bread in a few areas and then visit each one in turn, listening for fish sucking at the bread and keeping an eye out for grey torpedoes cruising in the gloom or creating ripples as they feed.  In a couple of really fishy-looking spots I made a bit of bread mash to throw between the boats, to give any fish not cruising the surface layers something to home-in on.

Hoping that the big harbour grey mullet would feed in the dark
Peace and quiet!  The tranquil quayside before the pubs chucked out!
After half an hour or so I had spotted two big mullet feeding and regularly visiting a particular area.  I made my first cast too close to one of them and saw it spook but after a little more cautious coaxing I was ready to have another go.  As I concentrated on the water, trying my hardest to focus on the dark shapes as they swam, playing tricks on my eyes all the time  (I would think I had my sights locked-onto one and then it would seemingly shape-shift and become part of the reflection of a boat or building!) I became aware of some drunken shouting around the other side of the quay.  I thought nothing of it until they got closer and closer and I realised they were heading in my direction.  This wasn't the conversation of men who'd had a swift couple, it was the top-of-the-voice drunken hollering of a group of blokes who'd had a proper session.  A skinful.  And it became apparent that they were in the mood for a bit of "bants" with me!  Like flies to shite, drunken people are instinctively drawn towards anyone doing anything remotely interesting or different from the norm.  Here I was trying to fish for mullet in the dark; a great big steaming turd of attraction!

I thought "just my 'king luck!" and slowly moved towards the inebriated fellows and away from my cautiously feeding quarry, so as to hopefully head them off before they were close enough for the mullet to hear their heckles.  It worked for a while and as the first of the merry men approached me and enquired about my success so far, I tried my best to say as little as possible (so they'd get bored quickly or maybe even realise that I'd rather be left alone) whilst being as polite about it as I possibly could.  After all, I was perched on a quayside in the dark, there were four of them and one of me and I know from first-hand experience that alcohol impairs logic.  I'm not stupid.

At this point I should probably explain that I'm not down on anyone having a drink or getting drunk.  I've been in some proper tangles over the years thanks to beer.  I love a drink and I reckon if I'd been in their position and I saw someone fishing, I would have been on them in a flash!  Probably forcing upon them whatever tactics first came to mind and professing that they'd be far better off following my advice than doing whatever the hell they were doing!  It's not that they were drunk, it was that I was fishing.  An over-enthusiastic passer-by can be off-putting when you're trying to catch a fish, but a drunken one (or worse still, group of 4 of them!) is just plain annoying.

Their banter was good though!  When I realised I wasn't going to get rid of them very quickly there was a bit more back-and-forth.  When I said I was fishing for mullet there was an immediate reply of "You're fishing for mullet and you've got a feckin' mullet!".  The next line was "Are you (impressively side-burned North Lincs. speed addict) Guy Martin?...  It's Guy Martin!" followed by a few laughs.  Apparently my hair poking out from beneath my headlamp made it look like I had sideburns and apparently to their untrained south-western ears an Alfreton accent sounds almost identical to a Grimsby one!

The blokes opened the side door of a nearby van which was adjacent to where I'd got the fish feeding.  They started taking jumpers off and I presumed they were bunking in the back of the van for the remainder of the night.  I decided the swim was a write-off until they'd gone to sleep so I wandered off to see if I could find any mullet elsewhere.  A couple of minutes later I heard some shouting from the direction of their van and then a "Kashboosh!".  To my horror one of them had jumped off the quay, right into the spot where I'd had mullet feeding 20 minutes before!  My careful baiting and patient waiting of the past hour and a half had surely amounted to nothing?  Another of the group jumped in, followed by another and then the other.  They splashed and generally dicked around, completely unaware of what they'd done to my as-yet almost unfished mullet swim!

I was dejected.  I'd wasted all of that time when I could have been in bed like the rest of my family.  I'd no doubt be grouchy next day thanks to lack of sleep and the impromptu freestyle diving competition wrecking my chances of a mullet.  What happened next took me completely by surprise.  As I watched the starlite bob only with the gentle undulations of the tide, the four men climbed out of the harbour, got dried off, piled into two separate vehicles and drove off!  I was far too far away to take any registrations and these guys could barely stand up, let-alone drive.  As I watched their headlights disappear up the hillside I could only hope that at this small hour they were lucky enough for no-one else to be out on the roads and in their way.

A few minutes after they'd gone I thought I'd have one last roll of the dice by walking past the swimming area, along to some moored boats where I'd thrown in some mashed bread earlier on.  It was darker here and quite out of the way from where the night swimmers had been, so there was a chance it was a place mullet would head to for a bit of sanctuary.  I put out a few pieces of floating bread and flicked out my stumpy, bodied waggler towards the far end of the boats.  It was at that awkward range where your starlite/isotope is still visible, but only just, and your eyes start playing tricks by making the float seem to move when it hasn't.  I was fishing at around 14" depth, with a bulk of shot just beneath the float but with rubber float stops holding it in place, so I could alter the depth quickly.

"I'm sure that float just moved", I thought, momentarily before it sailed away in the opposite direction.  A swift strike followed and I felt a little bit of resistance but no hooked fish.  "Damn! I've pricked it and probably blown my chance".  I had a couple more casts before adding a couple of inches to the depth which resulted in an immediate bite.  I struck again quickly and came back with nothing, so I decided that if I got another bite I would let it run until I was sure the bait was properly inside the mouth of the fish.  Next cast the float started dipping and darting.  My right arm was itching to strike but I fought my instincts and waited until the float moved off at speed.  Then I gently lifted into the fish and immediately connected!  "Sweet Jesus!"; I was not prepared for what happened next!  The fish bolted like a turbocharged barbel, pulling metres of line off the reel as it went, and took me way out into the darkness where I could make out other boats, buoys and what were no doubt their mooring ropes and anchor chains!

Crikey, these fish are unbelieveably fast, but somehow I managed to lift the line over a boat and steer the fish into open water where I was able to play it out and land it, with my extending landing net handle at full stretch and me laid out on the quayside, arm reaching down as far as I could.  It was mine!  A definite new PB and what a thrill!  After writing off my chances a little earlier, I'd trounced the odds and landed a PB mullet in the dark from between the chandlery, after my swim was destroyed by four boozed-up bathers!

I was chuffed with this new PB mullet in testing circumstances, but a much bigger one followed it to the net!
A new PB, completely against the odds!

After a couple of quick pics, I released my 3lb thick-lipped grey mullet to battle another day and although very satisfied with my new PB, I knew I would have to have another go for them because a fish twice its size had followed it almost into the landing net!

Luck wasn't on my side the following few nights.  We had some really heavy rain and I didn't have the gear with me to cope with fishing out in it.  Plus, I doubted that fishing shallow for mullet would be much good in the pelting rain.  The high tide for the remainder of the week had gone way past midnight and on the next calm night high tide was at 3am.  When my daughter woke up screaming for a bottle at ten past three, I realised I had an opportunity.  After the feed was done and she was happily back asleep I got dressed, grabbed my tackle and headed for the quay (with baby in the care of my fiancĂ©).  I threw some bread into both areas where I'd seen or caught fish on the previous session.  Nothing was interested so I moved up to where a stream gushed (with all the previous nights' rainfall) into the harbour through a large outfall pipe.  I introduced a couple of balls of bread mash and started trotting baits through.  I got occasional bites and missed them but after throwing in a few pieces of floating bread I realised there was a shoal of small mullet in the swim, so I moved out of their way and back to where I'd caught my mullet from.

Still seeing no signs of fish activity, I cast out between the boats.  On the fourth or fifth cast I missed a quick bite.  There was still something here at least.  But bites were hard to come by so I cast around to different places between the nearby boats.  After spotting a large mullet emerge from beneath the hull of a boat, take a piece of bread and disappear back into the darkness, I lowered my rig into the very spot.  Another missed bite! 
I cast around between the boats, trying to find a feeding mullet
After a few increasingly frantic casts around this area I worked my way back towards the area I'd had the bite.  This was just far enough out for the float to be surrounded by the gloom, rather than lit up by the quayside lights, so the only indications of any fish in the vicinity would be movements of the float.  It wasn't too long before the float did move and I struck immediately.  Nothing.  At least tonight the mullet were living up to their finicky, difficult to catch reputation!

Out went the rig, a little beyond the feeding area.  I slowly worked it back towards me and a few seconds after the float had settled in the right spot it was swiftly pulled beneath the surface.  Remembering the way I hooked the other fish, I decided to pause for just a second before striking.  The float continued its angular path towards the stern of a boat so I struck before I lost sight of it.  This time I felt the hook set.

If I was feeling a little drained and drowsy from my early morning exploits, I was about to have that slapped out of me, courtesy of a mullet-shaped exocet and a titanic dose of adrenaline!  My heart had only just returned to its normal rhythm from the battle I had a few nights prior but here it was again trying to punch through my ribcage from the inside!  Wow, can mullet shift!  And pull!  Certainly on this light, balanced float gear I was using, anyway.

This battle between the boats was never going to be straightforward and potential disaster struck just as I was thinking I'd got the measure of the fish.  It dived under a boat to my right, faster than I could react, and found a boat component I didn't even know existed!  This boat had a wooden beam fixed to the side of the hull, extending vertically downwards into the water for a couple of feet and the fish had wrapped the line around it!  (I've since thought that this beam is most likely a stabiliser to keep the boat upright in the empty harbour at low tide, but still, I didn't expect it to be there!).  The mullet rose to the surface beside the beam and I felt physically sick!  I could see it was huge and I knew that with such a short tether it only had to kick a couple of times and the hooklength would snap.  My rod tip was waved around and plunged under at various angles before I felt the line work free a little.  Luck was on my side and the fish followed, freeing itself to knock seven bells out of me again.  They're real ego bruisers, mullet.  Cheeky buggers.  Even when you finally manage to hook one they find a way of flicking you a methaphorical middle finger!

To my amazement, I found myself once again laid on the quay trying to guide another PB mullet toward my landing net.  The battle was over and I was as stunned by the events - and the fish which filled the net mesh - as I was elated by them.  This was one of the most memorable and genuinely fulfilling angling experiences I've ever had.  The thought of it still excites me, six months later!

A new PB Grey Mullet caught on float-fished bread in the dark!
My second PB Mullet in a week!  This one will take some beating.
Here's the specimen.  Possibly the same fish that had shadowed my previous fish to the net; certainly a similar size if not the same individual.  Either way, I had a mullet of over six and a half pounds in my net.  A true Cornish beast, which I'll probably never eclipse.

Returning my personal best Thick-Lipped Grey Mullet
Back she goes...