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The day is a hot one, and the sea lays calm. 

Where I’m fishing, across some marginal weed, out onto the estuarine mud, the incoming tide drifts by gently, carrying its burden of organic flotsam slowly past the point.

No need of heavy weights enabling me the delight in fishing light for the school bass.

Out to my left are the marshes, where waterfowl call to one another, and in front of me the terns swoop down, attacking a shoal of baitfish.

My eyes are drawn away from my rod tip as nature puts on its show, just for me.  And as my eyes scan the vista, from left to right, I see the swirls on the top of the drifting water, uptide and to my right.

Bass?

The fish continue to move downtide toward me lazily, at the same speed as the drifting debris scattered across the calm surface.

Soon they are in casting range, and I begin to make out the shapes beneath the swirls.

Carp?  The stupid thought flits across my mind.  For these are big fish, carp-like in their lazy movement beneath the surface, and shoaled together closely.

The angler inside of me cannot resist casting toward them, not once but several times, even though they show no interest in my lugworm bait, other than annoyance at the closeness of the splashing I’m making, disappearing like grey ghosts into the depths, then reappearing moments later, unconcerned.

Mullet?  That's what they are, mullet.  Uncatchable!

It was several years later that I gained the skill to catch my first mullet, and still I’m haunted by the picture in my mind of those large fish, drifting idly by.

And now I know much more about them, and respect them more for knowing all that.

In our cold waters it takes mullet around ten years to reach just 3lb, the age at which they first spawn.

Those fish I saw that day must have been around 20 years old.

Once they reach spawning age, they spawn infrequently.  Perhaps every other year, perhaps just one year in three.

Limited tagging reveals that the same fish return to the same places, often being caught and released a number of times by mullet anglers during the season.

Yet again, they do sometimes venture far and wide, perhaps when they go to spawn.

And perhaps that explains why the larger fish are so special.

It takes nature fifteen years or so to produce a specimen fish, 20 years or so to produce a remarkable fish.

Decades of avoiding otters, seals and dolphins; gill nets and trawls; anglers who put their catch into plastic bags.

Mullet anglers who have the catching of a specimen fish in their sights are best advised to abandon those places with a reputation for being known mullet marks, and where anglers over the years have inadvertently but systematically removed fish that have had the potential to grow big, and concentrate their activities on venues where the mullet population has been relatively undisturbed for the previous decades, a place more likely to hold a mullet population that has a fully representative age structure.  Big old fish, as well as newer recruits.

And once such a location is found, they are best advised to keep quiet about it, for even if it is too much trouble for all but dedicated mullet anglers to reach, the netsman’s ears are always alert to news of fish.

Although anglers ignorant of the specimen mullet’s vulnerability can, over time, significantly affect the chances of an area being able to produce specimen fish, it is the netsman who can really do damage to a population.

With modern monofilament gill nets, cheap to buy, easy for a man in a small boat to deploy many kilometres of netting, a netsman targeting a bay or harbour, can seriously affect the chances of anglers catching a specimen sized fish there, perhaps for decades to come.

And mullet, deemed to be a fish of no great commercial significant, can be targeted without quota restrictions by fishermen displaced from other more valuable fisheries by conservation measures.

Then there is the targeting of mullet by the unscrupulous that gives them an excuse to be netting in a bass nursery area.

So, what can mullet anglers do to safeguard their future sport?

Well, at a personal level they can return all mullet caught, using an unhooking mat to lay them upon, and getting them back into the water as quickly as possible.  (Often fish being returned will need to be supported for a while, particularly if the fight has been hard and prolonged).

The actions of being seen to take exceptional care of fish, and returning them safely, will impress itself  upon other anglers and help to establish the mindset that mullet are sportsfish to be returned, and not to be eaten.

Every opportunity should be taken to educate other anglers, especially young anglers, as to the life-span and localisation of mullet, and how important it is that they are returned if big fish are to be caught in future.

Netting is more of a problem, and unlike salmon and sea-trout that have laws to protect them, or bass protected by nursery areas, and fast getting a reputation as a valuable recreational sports fish, mullet are fair game.

But anglers are beginning to fight back in the face of the technical revolution that is mono-filament gill netting, surprisingly sometimes joined by licensed commercial fishermen who see illegal netters selling their catch and undermining their own livelihoods.

The Angling Trust, in response to anglers’ demands, have made inshore gill-netting a priority issue to campaign on, but will only be able to achieve progress with the support of anglers who become members.   One good reason to consider joining them (the NMC is affiliated as a club to the Angling Trust).

Secondly, if you suspect illegal netting report it.  It’s a good idea to carry the contact numbers of the Environment Agency’s 24 hour Hotline with you whenever your are fishing (0800 807 060 – put it in your mobile now), and the contact number for your local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA).   More information on illegal netting can be found here. 

We are lucky to have around our coasts, estuaries and harbours a sports fish of finesse and exceptional fighting qualities, as more people realise just what a challenge mullet fishing can be, the popularity of fishing for the species will grow.

If they are targeted by the ‘take it home in a plastic bag’ brigade, the future of our fishing will suffer, it’s up to each of us to educate others to what’s at stake, and why mullet should be returned.

And as other species become scarcer, the efforts of commercial fishermen will increasingly be targeted toward our species of choice, and slow maturing and late developing, when they are gone, they will be gone.

Don’t let your apathy be the netters’ best ally.

Tight Lines - Leon Roskilly