Each winter, a community of local fishermen anxiously awaits the running of the mullet. As cold fronts move through the area, anglers begin the search for mullet that can lead to a nice payday.
One angler who has been chasing mullet for many years is Ricky Gullett. Gullet began mullet-fishing when he was 8 years old. As a high school student in the 1980s, Gullet joined his dad in catching and selling mullet commercially. With years of experience, Gullet now knows the yearly pattern that brings hundreds of boats together when the mullet start running, timing his vacation from his full-time job to join the fleet in chasing mullet.
"Most boats work together," Gullett said. "When the price is high, fishermen get along great out there. There is nothing like catching a net full of mullet!"
When cold fronts approach in December and early January, gigantic schools of mullet head for the passes and offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. Their eggs are highly sought in foreign markets, and a red roe mullet can pay more than $1 a pound per whole fish. In search of big paydays, mullet fishermen follow the fish into the gulf with heavy cast nets, hoping the next throw will bring in a few hundred pounds of fish.
This past Wednesday, upwards of 100 boats followed a school of mullet as it headed through Longboat Pass and offshore into the Gulf of Mexico, ending around 7 miles offshore. It was a local mullet fisherman's dream, and as a result most boats were bringing in thousands of pounds by the day's end.
"It was a lot of local fishermen, so most guys were being cautious and taking turns. We know each other and how to act. It works well when people idle around, and everyone will catch fish," Gullet said.
There was so many fish that four boats allegedly sank because they tried putting too many mullet on their boat. "The tide changed and the wind picked up. Some boats were so full guys couldn't move around, and they weren't being smart about it. When it got rougher you could see what was going to happen," Gullett said.
Gullet's day ended with 3,000 pounds, and one of his mates was too exhausted to go on. Not hard to believe with the amount of work required in throwing huge cast nets in deep water.
When the mullet are running, there's no stopping. It could be the middle of the night, with cold winds and high seas but when the fishing is good, it's time for catching. If you're lucky, the boat will fill quickly, before your body and muscles seize from backbreaking work. The mullet are brought to market, sold, and then you're back out for more. The best days mean multiple trips back and forth for delivery.
If you're interested in seeing the mullet run, head to Longboat Pass after the next cold front. Chances are, boats will be there as they stalk the next large school of mullet heading into the Gulf of Mexico.