Martin Bowler pre­pares to do bat­tle with the UK’s tough­est river fish

I suc­cumb to ‘mul­let ma­nia’ in Christchurch Har­bour


CUBA has its bone­fish flats, but on the south coast of the UK a fish just as ath­letic and even more eas­ily spooked makes its home in less than ex­otic sur­round­ings.

In the nat­u­ral har­bour of Christchurch, as in so many other brack­ish coves, mul­let gather to feed along the rich muddy banks, scoop­ing up seabed sed­i­ment be­fore sift­ing out in­ver­te­brates and crus­taceans.

Golden grey and thin-lipped mul­let swim in our waters but my

cho­sen quarry on this au­tumn day was the third, and largest, na­tive species – the thick-lipped grey.

This truly sport­ing quarry is our own home-grown ‘bone­fish’, and I was keen to en­gage it in bat­tle.

My 60-mile drive saw me rac­ing the ris­ing sun across Sal­is­bury Plain, know­ing any early-morn­ing sea mist would soon be burnt off along the coast to leave a glo­ri­ous day ahead.

After a stop at the local tackle shop to buy a ticket for the har­bour, all that was left be­tween me and the con­flu­ence of the Rivers Avon and Stour was Stan­pit, a 65-hectare salt marsh made up of pans, creeks, reed beds and sand scrub.

Ea­ger as I was to make my first cast, this place de­served to be savoured for a while. Curlews, egrets and snipe poked and prod­ded in mud freshly ex­posed by the fall­ing tide. A kestrel hov­ered over a reed bed, wait­ing for a vole to make a mis­take, and be­fore me the yel­lows and pinks of hawk­bit and wil­low herb bright­ened the neu­tral colours of the scrub.

The scene only served to whet my ap­petite for the fish­ing ahead, and as I reached the es­tu­ary, mul­let – prob­a­bly thin-lipped – scat­tered in droves as I crunched gravel un­der­foot.

The wa­ter was thick with them, but this didn’t mean suc­cess was guar­an­teed – far from it.

I had ar­rived on a low tide and in­tended to fish the run-up to high wa­ter. With such a fluc­tu­a­tion in lev­els I felt it best to fish from a penin­sula that gave me ac­cess to the river to my left and a bay on my right.

To be­gin with the mul­let would be in the main flow, but as dry land dis­ap­peared un­der wa­ter the mul­let would move in to ex­plore.

I had learned long ago that my tackle needed to be stout, so out of my holdall came a Specialist Avon Quiver rod and a reel loaded with 10lb Syn­cro XT line.

When leg­ering for mul­let the stan­dard ap­proach is a cage feeder, but I pre­fer a Drennan Method. The mould is per­fect for com­press­ing liq­uidised bread, which is kept moist in an air­tight bag after a white loaf has been blitzed in a food pro­ces­sor.

I re­jected a mono hook­length in

favour of ro­bust 8lb braid.

As for the hook, which pat­tern to choose causes much de­bate among mul­let afi­ciona­dos, since a fish can fall off at any stage dur­ing the fight.

I have tried plenty and none are im­mune to los­ing a grip in that bony mouth, but I set­tled on a size 10 Drennan Wide Gape Specialist.

Next, I pressed the 20p-sized piece of flake serv­ing as the hook­bait on to my loaded Method feeder, keep­ing it out of harm’s

way dur­ing the cast.

Prepa­ra­tion was com­plete as the tide of the English Chan­nel be­gan to flood back in.

I cast into the flow, plac­ing the rods high in their rests to keep the in­com­ing float­ing weed at bay. It didn’t take long for the first bite, but a rat­tle rather than a sav­age pull told me that this was no mul­let. Coarse fish, too, find the brack­ish en­vi­ron­ment of Christchurch Har­bour a rich hunt­ing ground, and hordes of roach and dace were happy to plun­der my feed.

They were in mag­nif­i­cent con­di­tion and I wel­comed the first few, then I re­alised that the mul­let weren’t get­ting a look-in. So I swung right and cast to the crease line along the en­trance to the bay to avoid the at­ten­tions of the sil­ver­fish.

For once I was pleased not to get a bite, and I cast reg­u­larly ev­ery 15 min­utes to build up a trail of bread. Thick-lipped greys con­tin­ued to show, and I was feel­ing the on­set of ‘mul­let ma­nia’ creep­ing in when the rod fi­nally hooped over. For a mo­ment I wasn’t in con­trol, and a minute later the hookhold failed – typ­i­cal, but still frus­trat­ing.

Mul­let feed­ing spells are nor­mally short-lived but dis­tinct, so I got the rod out again and con­cen­trated hard. A thin and a thick-lipped came to the net over the next half-hour, and although they were no mon­sters I was happy to en­joy their com­pany.

In such a fluid sit­u­a­tion, where the tide con­stantly moves the goal­posts, it came as no sur­prise that I then lost con­tact with the fish. I sus­pected they had left the river for the flooded bay.

So, with the wind push­ing over my shoul­der, I be­gan to dis­creetly feed crusts into the mar­gin that went un­no­ticed by the gulls and swans.

They bobbed in the rip­ples a few rodlengths out, then I no­ticed a dozen grey shad­ows a foot be­low the bread, cir­cling in ex­pec­ta­tion.

Quickly I took the feeder off one rod, re­plac­ing it with just a hook and a small piece of crust. With no cast­ing weight I dunked the bread into the wa­ter be­fore flick­ing it out to where the free food sat. I knew bet­ter than to re­veal my­self on the sky­line so I stayed down on my knees, watch­ing in­tently.

The head and lips that broke the sur­face did so as pur­pose­fully as a carp, suck­ing the crust from view. I waited a split-sec­ond and then struck. This had to be my sweet­est bite of the year!

The hooked mul­let took off across the sur­face at break­neck speed, and the fight was fast and un­for­giv­ing. I loved ev­ery minute of it, es­pe­cially when the fish went air­borne, its sil­very flank lit by the sun. At over 5lb, the spec­i­men thick-lipped had made my day – not only be­cause of its size but for the bite it gave, the fight it put up, and the place it called home.

Another, big­ger, mul­let fol­lowed soon after, again to float­ing crust, leav­ing me to ques­tion why I don’t fish for them more of­ten. How­ever, I think this ev­ery week about ev­ery species. Maybe, while the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture is still high, you too should risk a spot of ‘mul­let mad­ness’. It’s frus­trat­ing and spec­tac­u­lar in equal mea­sure.

We might not have bone­fish here in the UK, but mul­let are more than a match for them.

Roach love this brack­ish wa­ter too!

This 5lb-plus mul­let put up an epic bat­tle.

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