Even if you don’t fish, if you have lived here for any period of time, chances are you have seen silver fish that are long and slender with rounded heads, jumping repeatedly out of the saltwater or in brackish lagoons. It’s hard to miss because it appears they like to jump, even though every time they land it’s a belly flop.
What are they? They’re mullet.
I sort of remember the first time I saw mullet jumping when my family moved here and, already being a rabid fisherman, I couldn’t wait to wet a line and catch one. But no matter how hard I tried, I never caught one.
It wasn’t until an elderly gentleman working at the Sea Pines golf course pulled me aside one day and said, “Get yourself a cane pole, a tiny hook and use bread balls and you’ll catch ’em one after another,” followed by “Dem is some good eating too!”
As bottom feeders, mullet mainly eat grass, algae and plankton. Mullet caught from the open ocean are pretty tasty, but from experience, I can tell you mullet from brackish lagoons tastes like fried pluff mud with a hint of Old Bay seasoning.
But back to the real question – “Why do mullet jump?” – nobody seems to know. I sure wish I had a nickel for every time folks have asked me that question. Over the past week or so, I might finally have an answer.
For the next few weeks at least, they are jumping because if they don’t, something is going to eat them. I guess I would jump too, if I were in their place.
Every year around this time the “mullet run” begins. If you have never seen one, it’s spectacular. Mullet by the thousands that have been hiding up in our maze of creeks all summer have some internal clock that triggers them to head to the open ocean. Gathering together in staging areas, wave after wave of mullet, numbering in the thousands, appear to be making a run for it.
Have you ever seen movies of schools of porpoises bounding across the surface of the ocean? That’s pretty much exactly what the mullet run looks like, with the exception of giant explosions erupting in the middle of these bounding mullet as sharks, mackerel, trout and just about any other fish with teeth does their best to nab a mullet in mid air.
It reminds me of images from the Civil War where opposing forces line up facing one another. Can you imagine being in one of those lines, forced to stand stock still with the enemy standing in front of you within spitting distance as bullets whiz by you? Well, that is how I imagine mullet must feel as they face predators where only the strongest, and luckiest, survive.
But it’s not just mullet that are experiencing this primitive type of battle right now. Though it’s still a tad early, millions of shrimp that have been living back in our marshes since birth are also starting to stage for their own run to the open ocean. Having grown from a tiny speck to about three or four inches long over the past few months, they have no choice but to go for it.
When I think of shrimp as teenagers, there is no volunteer army. For teenage shrimp, military service is strictly mandatory. I tried to research how fast a shrimp can run, but nobody seems to know. I will say this though, from years of observing shrimp, it amazes me how they can be in one spot by the thousands one second and in a matter of minute or so, they simply vanish.
I imagine their ranks being like the hordes of Chinese troops that our soldiers encountered during the Korean War. We may have had superior firearms but no matter how many Chinese we may have taken down, there was no way to stop them all. I guess overwhelming numbers is the key to the survival of shrimp and it’s a battle that has been going on for millennia.
Just as mysterious as to what exactly triggers mullet and shrimp to make their run for it is this: What triggers their opposing forces to know that it is time to gather their rank and file and intercept the masses heading their way? It’s not like they can pull out a pocket calendar or look back in their logbook and see when it is time to make their move.
I do keep a logbook, however, and looking back, the “run for it” has never been the same in any two years since I began keeping records that date back to the early ’70s.
All I can say is, if you are not out there to witness this amazing battle in nature that is just now starting, you are going to miss out on the most spectacular time of the year around here for fishing, while seeing these forces collide.
For sure, right now the battle lines have been drawn.
Collins Doughtie, a 60-year resident of the Lowcountry, is a sportsman, graphic artist, and lover of nature. firstname.lastname@example.org