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.