I've spent the last twenty-five years chasing the fish that swim in our local waters and I've enjoyed every minute of it! During that time, I've made some remarkable friends and together we've learned a great deal by spending loads of time on the water.
September is a transitional month that marks the end of the summer season and the start of autumn. Despite warm ocean temperatures, cool nights and dwindling daylight hours trigger the beginning of the fall migration. Hoards of baitfish move out of our backwater creeks and channels towards the inlet and out along the beachfront. Most seasons, mullet are one of the first species of baitfish to begin their fall migration and this year they seem to be moving out right on cue.
The mullet run is in full swing!
Timing the mullet migration isn't usually difficult. Mullet begin moving out of our back bays sometime between the end of August and the beginning of September. If calm and stable weather patterns are present, full and new moon phases usually get the mullet moving. This year's September new moon phase took place on Sunday, September 13 and the mullet responded accordingly. I spent the last few days fishing the coast from as far north as Island Beach State Park (IBSP) and to the south at Cape May Point – numbers of mullet were present at almost every jetty pocket along the way. The mullet should remain staged along our beachfront at least until the next full moon, which occurs this Sunday, September 27.
Inlets are a great place to find mullet.
Unfortunately, the recent onshore flow caused by a slow-moving, low-pressure system just off the Carolinas could make spotting any mullet difficult for the foreseeable future. Building seas and an increasing northeast wind will make conditions along our beachfront especially difficult this weekend as northeast winds are forecast to reach 20 to 30 MPH. I have a feeling this coastal storm will end the 2015 mullet run a little prematurely. I hope I'm wrong, but slow-moving, poorly timed coastal storms have a way of killing even the best of runs.
While I'm a little disappointed with the weekend forecast, I'm sure glad I spent the last few days chasing mullet in the surf. I don't know what it is about cast netting bait that I find so enjoyable, but I always feel like a little kid when I'm catching bait – at least until the next day when knee and shoulder pain bring me back to reality.
On a recent trip up to IBSP, balls of small bay anchovies, also known as rain bait, greeted us as soon as we made our way over the dunes. Diving gulls and balls of baitfish under attack really get the blood pumping. I spent a few hours casting into the melee, but only found snapper bluefish, mostly between 8 and 12 inches. The action and environment were great, but I had hopes for some bigger fish.
After playing with the tiny bluefish, we drove south to the inlet jetty. As expected the jetty looked like a small parking lot as cast netters were lined up in search of mullet. I watched as men threw their nets into the jetty pocket and along the inside of the inlet jetty with varied results. I decided to keep my net in the truck, as the amount of netters seemed to outnumber the amount of mullet. A few cast netters filled up while others came back empty time and time again. We fished our way back up the beach and caught a few more snappers before we packed it up for the day. It wasn't a great catching day, but it was a start.
Inlet Jetty Parking Lot
I decided to look for mullet again on Tuesday, September 22. Conditions were far from perfect, but the forecast seemed to be going downhill right through the upcoming weekend. With flood tides and a brisk 15 to 20 MPH northeast wind, I figured Cape May Point would offer the best conditions for fishing and cast netting mullet. As soon as I made my way over the dune, I felt the wind at my back and saw schools of mullet along the beach. I ran down to the beach and loaded up on mullet. The surf was a little higher than normal, but the mullet schools were packed between what's left of the small groins.
When conditions are right, it doesn't take long to fill the bait bucket.
After a few successful tosses of the cast net, I decided to live line a few mullet. Snapper bluefish, skates and tiny sea bass quickly attacked my baits. The snappers would bite the tail off and then the skates and sea bass would finish off the rest. A lone 16-inch summer flounder was my "catch of the day." I had hopes for a possible redfish, weakfish, striped bass or doormat fluke, but I didn't see or hear of much other than snapper blues. With my fill of small blues, I decided to put the rods down and go have some more fun with the cast net.
As high tide approached, the mullet were a little more difficult to spot in the big water, but they were thick – even my blind throws were coming back with a dozen or more mullet per throw. It didn't take long to fill a bait bucket with lively, 3 to 7-inch mullet. My bycatch consisted of mole and calico crabs, a couple snapper blues and a bunch of small 10 to 12-inch striped bass.
Cast Net Striper
With my fill of snapper bluefish and a bucketful of mullet, I headed for home. After the hour ride home, I took the bucket of mullet out back to my fish-cleaning table to sort and package for the freezer. The sizes of mullet varied a little more than I'm used to, about 3 to 7 inches. Usually, the mullet are a little more uniformed in size - between 4 and 6 inches. For live or frozen bait, I prefer fishing whole 4 to 5-inch mullet, but the 3-inch mullet should be perfect for the backwaters. I cut the 6-inch and larger baits into chunks for later use. In total, I bagged about twelve dozen, which should get me through most of the fall.
Rinsed and Ready to Pack for Freezing
In closing, I'd like to note that Cape May Point should not be overlooked when searching for mullet. Years ago, Hereford Inlet was my go-to mullet stop, but Cape May has provided a much more consistent catch over the last few seasons. If you think about it, it makes sense that the mullet would stage at the southernmost portion of our state before heading south for the colder months. If you plan on fishing this weekend, the west side of Cape May Point should offer an escape from the wind. I'd also like to take a moment to remind fellow cast netters to be responsible and only take what you need for bait. Let's hope this coastal storm doesn't hang around too long so we can get back on track.