As a young boy who often visited his grandparents, Lelia McDuffie and Eddie Tennesse Smith, in Wilcox County back in the 1960s, I thought that mullet was the best tasting fish to ever be pulled from the water and put on a plate. But hey, the pure fact was that I was starving at the time, and that probably had a lot to do with that assessment. The ladies of the family would sit around and talk all afternoon, and it was often dark 30 before food showed up on the table. The guys would play hard and work up a terrific appetite, so if fried tree bark was put on the table, we would have gobbled it down. Hunger, like the old Indian once said, is the best sauce. But Grandma Smith performed a miracle with those mullet!
Sometimes the mullet were caught in the nearby Ocmulgee River, if the fish were biting. If not, she would go by the local store when the fresh mullet truck hit town once a week and pick up several pounds; back then they cost 39 cents a pound. Mullet were often the freshest fish you could buy, so they were near the top of the preferred food list come supper time. The mullet were purchased whole, because they were cheaper that way, and prepared on the cleaning table in the backyard. The free-ranging yard chickens would fight over the cleaning tidbits, and this is where I learned all about the food chain, and that it was good to be at the top.
Back in the kitchen, the mullet were cut into two long pieces, dipped into flour, sprinkled with a lot of salt and then dropped into boiling hot Crisco grease. Man, they were good! We thought mullet were a God given sea treasure provided to the good folks in piney woods Georgia. After dinner, we did not need to clean up much, because there wouldn’t be anything but a few bones left. In more than 50 years, not much has changed. Thankfully, mullet still run in large numbers along the Georgia coast and up our free flowing rivers for anglers to catch them, and the mullet trucks still run all over Georgia, bringing great food to appreciative country folks. The cycle of life thankfully continues.
Mullet are one of those species of fish that a lot of folks know what they look like on a plate but have little idea of the life cycle of the mullet, thus they are shrouded in deep mystery. The striped mullet is catadromous, that is, they spawn in saltwater, yet spend a good portion of their lives in freshwater.
Mullet migrate offshore to spawn in large numbers. The larvae move inshore to extremely shallow water, which provides cover from predators, as well as a rich feeding ground. After reaching 2 inches in length, these young mullet move into slightly deeper waters around coastal islands and tidal estuaries. Striped mullet leap out of the water frequently. Biologists aren’t sure why these fish leap so often, but it could be to avoid predators. Another possibility is that the fish spend much time in areas that are low in dissolved oxygen. They may quickly exit the water in order to clear their gills and be exposed to higher levels of oxygen.
In south Georgia, there is a rumor going around that mullet leap out of the water to spot fishing boats, so they can avoid these areas, but this is just a rumor.
According to Spud Woodward, director of DNR’s Coastal Resources Division, mullet are an amazing fish that fill a unique niche in the ocean. They can be caught 50 miles or farther off the Georgia coast, all along Georgia’s coastal islands and up many of our freshwater rivers until they meet a dam or obstruction. Many anglers are not aware that mullet can run many miles up rivers and streams in Georgia.
They can be found up the Ocmulgee River all the way to the Juliette dam, up the Oconee River to the Lake Sinclair dam, and up the Savannah River to Augusta. In addition, anglers can catch them in the Ogeechee and the St. Marys rivers. The Altamaha River, especially around the Jesup area, is a hotbed of mullet fishing activity. Generally, the bigger the river and the closer to the ocean, the better the mullet fishing.
Justin Altman, of Adamson’s Fish Camp on the Altamaha River (81 miles upriver from Darien), says mullet fishing is popular, and he sees them jumping in the river all the time. He says the hot months of July through September are the best times to target them. There is no limit on mullet, and the state record is 9-lbs., 3-ozs. and was caught by Steve Middleton in 1994.
Most river mullet will weigh from a half pound up to 2 pounds.
Mullet can be challenging to catch since they are mostly vegetarians, feeding primarily on algae, moss and decaying plant matter. They forage around sandy bottoms and submerged logs, sucking off the green algae. Think of them as the cleaning crew of our streams, said Spud.
In addition to algae, they can feed around plants, snacking on small insects and larvae. Such a diet makes it hard to select a bait to catch them, but it can be done. A top bait, according to Bert Deener, WRD Fisheries region supervisor in Waycross, are small pieces of red wiggler worms. Other possible baits are small balls of moist bread, cheese, meal worms, catawba worms or a small piece of green moss.
The typical mullet rig is a 12-foot-long B&M fiberglass pole with 6-lb. line, one small lead split-shot and a small No. 6 or 8 hook. The pole can be fished out of a boat or by wading in an area where mullet are holding. Anglers often wade into the rivers below sandbars to fish. Ok, all that sounds good, but how do you draw in mullet to a specific location to catch them? You throw a chum party.
According to Willie Cummings, of Milledgeville, Purina Layena Pellets is a good chumming feed for mullet, but it should be used in conjunction with a white salt block. When this writer was trying to track down mullet fishermen around Georgia, the Little Ol’ Country Store in Baldwin County said Willie was among the best, often stopping by with coolers full of fish.
Willie, 64, is a heavy equipment operator for Fall Line Land and Timber Company. On Aug. 1, I meet Willie and his fishing buddy, Kevin Liggins, at the DNR public boat ramp south of Millegeville near the Georgia Department of Corrections. This is only a few miles south of the Lake Sinclair dam on the Oconee River. Kevin, 46, is a retired U.S. Marine who served two tours in Iraq and loves to fish.
After we launched the boat, I noticed the river level was very low. We proceeded about 300 yards downstream and could see the new Fall Line Road Bridge under construction. Out from a sandbar, Willie saw a deeper spot, about 4 feet deep, where he had seen some mullet jumping the day before. He dropped out the salt block, and the water was so clear we could see the salt block resting on the bottom. Hmm, I thought, there is hardly enough water for any fish, much less mullet, but I was here to learn.
Willie tossed out about three good handfuls of Purina just above the salt block, and we anchored only 10 feet away upstream. You can also put the chum in a loose knit bag, put it on the bottom or hang it off the side of the boat. Now it was time to wait on the mullet to show up, and Willie said it could be 10 minutes, three hours or never.
Willie was standing up in the front of the boat with his polarized sunglasses, and after about 10 minutes, he calmly said, “I see mullet.” We could see them darting around, but mostly they were lined up behind the salt block, like they had just found their long lost mama. My doubts about finding mullet in central Georgia melted away, but could we get them to bite?
We all dropped lines down in the area, but the mullet did but seem interested in the chum or our little red wigglers. Willie was using a Zebco 33 with 6-lb. line, one small bb weight and a small No. 8 hook. The mullet were so close to the salt block that they looked like they were sucking on it, but Willie had seen this situation before.
He lowered his red worm down to the salt block and let it roll down in front of the mullet. His cork barely moved, but Willie gently set the hook on a 1-lb. mullet. Ounce for ounce, mullet are very strong fighters, but soon Willie had our first mullet in the boat. We hooked into several more, but they all got off before we could get them to the boat. They have small, gentle mouths, and hooks easily tear out. After two hours, we had one mullet, and it was time to move.
Going upstream about a half mile above the boat ramp, the river makes a right hand turn around a sand bar that has big rocks on the west side. We repeated the drill with the salt block and chum, and soon we had a large group of mullet around us. We caught a few, but at noon a boat came by and stirred up the bottom moss and soon the mullet went on a feeding spree. We ended up with a good stringer of fresh mullet.
James Taylor catches mullet in the Altamaha River near Jesup, near Altamaha Park. James lives in Hawkinsville and works for Com South. He catches them in the Ocmulgee River near his home but has better luck at Altamaha Park.
On Aug. 2, he, Jim McLeod and Tyler and Tanner Meeks put 60, 1-lb. mullet in the cooler. They were fishing on the north end of the first sandbar you see upriver from Altamaha Park. They were fishing in 6 feet of water and put a locater rod in the river bottom on the back side of their chum and salt, so they could keep up with the bait’s location. A salt block will only last three to four hours in the current.
On the upper Ocmulgee, Brent Moye catches mullet in the deeper holes behind Granite Shoals near Juliette. In the middle Ocmulgee near Hawkinsville, Lenny Griffin catches them around rabbit pellets.
On the Savannah River near Wrens, Marian Peeler chums deeper holes with sinking catfish food and also sets out catfish poles and does great for both species.
Mullet are great eating and good for you with lots of Omega 3 and 6, a rarity in freshwater fish. My grandma taught me to appreciate mullet, and once you catch and cook a few, you’ll be hooked too!