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In Search of the Mullet Man

"...the mullet is, perhaps, the most maligned of fish."

By Mark Smith, Jr.

The droning buzz of a 115 horsepower Evinrude and the hot, Florida sun together bore down on an open stretch of the St. John’s River. If you are a fisherman, you know that sound, you know that sun, and you know the anticipation in that boat. My father at the helm, my youngest brother, Matt, is seated at the bow and I at the stern, we are en route. It is a picture in a photo album moment -- rods, worms, crickets, sunscreen, t-shirts and hair tattered by the speed of the boat.

At three-quarters throttle, the quick trip up the central Florida waterway was going well, until it wasn’t. A silvery object launches from the black water and strikes my brother in the face, knocking him from his pedestal seat. He and the object both writhed on the floor of the boat. It is a doggone mullet. In one single motion, Dad puts the boat in neutral, swoops up the fish, throws it in the live well, sits down, hits the throttle and the boat is flying down the river again. Struggling to get back in his seat, Matt looks at me with a red welt on his face, and the two of us burst out laughing.

Why does a mullet leap? There are many different theories; most involve sex. Some say females leap to open their egg sack to release eggs. Males leap because they are near females and they are really lousy at starting a conversation. Whatever the reason, the mullet is, perhaps, the most maligned of fish. What other fish has a bad haircut named in its honor? With their oversized googly eyes, tiny mouth and dark striped bodies, they look like giant minnows. Often shunned as a trash fish or considered too boney and oily, many never give the jumping fish a second thought. One does not go to Bass Pro shops to purchase a mullet boat; but as a sport fish, it is one of the most difficult to hook and is a fierce fighter.

Mark Smith Jr.

Of the lines that divide the South -- you are familiar with the sweet tea line and the gnat line -- there is also a mullet line starting somewhere around Albany and extending down into the Gulf. As a food source, smoked mullet is a culinary staple of the panhandle. Many local restaurants serve it fried or smoked and, as a bonus, you can still find quite a few of the namesake mullet haircuts in Panama City. In case you were wondering, the difference between the Atlanta Braves “A” and the University of Alabama “A” is the Alabama “A” has a mullet. See for yourself.

While working for the newspaper in Jacksonville, I regularly crossed bridges and tributaries lined with old Black men and old Black women fishing for mullet. I would often stop and, with envy, study their method. From folding aluminum chairs perched on the bank, they would bait a cane pole with a dough ball and plop the heavy load into the murky water. They would then grab a handful of laying mash or dry cat food from a 5-gallon bucket and toss it in, chumming the waters. I wanted to ditch my shirt and tie and join them.

When the mullet were “on” as they would say, they would be pulling in 2- and 3-pounders as fast as they got the hook in the water. Among the ancient Romans, the mullet was a highly esteemed and a rare, expensive fish. My guess is they did not have aluminum chairs and cat food back then.

Yet the mullet seems to always struggle with an image problem. As a child, I recall my father returning from a fishing trip to Lake George with giant cooler of mullet; with which he was greeted by my mother at the door asking, “What are we going to do with that?” As it turns out, the original target, Copperhead Bluegill, were not biting and the guys found a fishing hole under a pylon that used to hold military targets for bomber pilots -- a fishing hole full of mullet. They stripped the gears out of four Zebco 33’s and filled up five full-sized ice chests. It was from that trip the legend of the Mullet Man was born. While his identity may never be fully revealed, Astor, Florida folklore tells of a preacher, an RV, and 300 pounds of the fish.

Look up the word ubiquitous in the dictionary and there is probably a picture of a mullet. With over 20 different species, mullets are worldwide.

Once on vacation in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to go snorkeling off the coast of Kailua-Kona and take pictures of colorful and exotic fish. Yet there in the middle of paradise, a school of the gray striped found a way to photo bomb all my shots. How did that trash get over here? I imagine the mullet were looking at me thinking the same thing.

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Mark Smith Jr. (1965-2019) was the Executive Editor of Lakelife magazine and a Vice President of Smith Communications, Inc. The winner of the 2018 Joe Parham Trophy, 1st place for humor columns in the Georgia Press Association, Mark’s columns appeared in each edition of Lakelife in 2019 and were popular with our readers. This is one of his columns which appeared in the April 19, 2019 issue of the Lake Oconee News newspaper.


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