Mullets are a family of fish which are members of the Mugilidae family. There are three species of true mullet commonly found in British waters: the thick lipped grey, thin lipped grey and the golden grey. There is also the red mullet which despite its name is only distantly related to these species and therefore has a separate entry on this website.
Note on scientific names: Recent years have seen scientific classification of mullet species change. Thick lipped grey mullet and thin lipped grey mullet have been reclassified from the genus Liza to Chelon. The scientific names of the species below have been updated to reflect this, but a lot of sea angling literature has not been updated and still lists this species as being in the Liza genus.
Mullet have no connection to the hairstyle popular in the 1980s.
Mullet are predominantly a European species, with their range extending throughout the continent’s waters. They are common in the Mediterranean Sea and present in smaller numbers in the Black Sea, and can also be found along the Atlantic coast of Spain, France and Portugal. They are also found in Icelandic waters and the Nordic waters around the Baltic Sea and they can be found southwards as far as the African coast of Senegal and The Gambia.
In terms of UK distribution mullet can be found throughout most of the British Isles, but are definitely more common in the south and west than in the north. However, there is evidence that the range of mullet is spreading, and they are becoming increasingly common around the northern parts of the British Isles.
Mullet are a fish which lives in calm, still water. They are therefore often found in harbours, marinas, estuaries and sheltered natural coves and bays. When the sea is still they can often be seen slowly swimming just below the surface of the water in small groups. Mullet are highly tolerant of brackish and stagnant water and will swim along rivers until they are very far inland. Mullet inside harbours and marinas will often be spotted swimming between moored boats or other structures.
Feeding, Spawning and Habitat
Mullet are unusual in the range of food that makes up their diet. They feed primarily on organic matter which they take from the seabed. They will scoop seabed sediment and mud into their mouths and consume the small invertebrates and tiny benthic crustaceans and filter out the inedible items through their gills. They will also eat seaweed and algae, and other forms of marine vegetation. Sometimes at low tide grooves and marks can be seen in algae on metal and smooth stone walls where mullet have nibbled away at the vegetation. Mullet will also feed on solid food matter but they are scavengers rather than hunters and will eat worms which have been dislodged from the seabed and small pieces of dead fish and other animal matter which is found on the seabed.
Spawning takes place in the middle of winter and continues into spring, with the small immature mullet spending the early part of their lives living in inshore waters. Mature mullet are seen as a summer species to anglers as they only spend the warmer months in shallow water and retreat to deeper water in winter.
Mullet are a slow-growing, long-living and late-maturing fish, which means they are vulnerable to being overfished. This applies to both recreational anglers and commercial fishing operations. The official minimum sizes are quoted in the profiles below. Many organisations (such as the Angling Trust) believe that grey mullet at the minimum size are still too small to have reproduced and need to be around 18 inches (47cm) in length and nine to twelve years old before they are fully mature. This is something which anglers should bear in mind when taking mullet from the sea. Mullet are thought to be able to live for around twenty-five years.
The mullet’s nickname of grey ghost is well deserved. They are a fish which is extremely difficult to catch. This is because of the unusual way in which they feed and the fact that they are easily spooked. Mullet will flee from noise and even the silhouette of an angler standing over the water is enough to frighted mullet away. Many anglers fishing for this species wear dull coloured clothes to avoid scaring off mullet and act quietly around the area where they are fishing. Sometimes mullet simply do not feed and will ignore a bait placed right in front of them, leading to great confusion and frustration from anglers trying to catch them.
Thick Lipped Grey Mullet
- Scientific name: Chelon labrosus
- UK minimum size: 13ins/33cm (but fish this size may still be immature – see above)
- UK shore caught record: 14lb 2oz
Thin Lipped Grey Mullet
- Scientific name: Chelon ramada
- UK minimum size:13ins/33cm (but fish this size may still be immature – see above)
- UK shore caught record: 8lb 8oz
Thin lipped mullet look remarkably similar to their thick lipped relatives, but the differences are there and fairly easy to spot once anglers know what to look for. The clue is in the name and obviously the lips of this species are thinner than those of the thick lipped. The colouration is also different with the thin lipped being lighter, sometimes with a bluish tinge, and the lines running along the body are also much lighter. Again there is no visible lateral line. Furthermore, there is usually (but not always) a black or dark spot at the base of the pectoral fin in the thin lipped mullet. Finally, the gill covers of the thin lipped come very close to meeting under the throat, whereas there is a clear gap in the thick lipped.
This species grows to smaller average sizes than the thick lipped mullet. A new UK shore caught record of 8lb 3oz was set in 2017, beating the previous record of 7lb which had stood since 1991. However, this was in turn beaten by an 8lb 8oz specimen caught by Gary Marquis off the coast of Guernsey. This new record was ratified in 2019. Thin lipped mullet is classed as one of Least Concern both in Europe and globally by the IUCN.
Golden Grey Mullet
- Scientific name: Chelon aurata
- UK minimum size: 13ins/33cm (but fish this size may still be immature – see above)
- UK shore caught record: 3lb 8oz
The smallest of the true mullet species, the golden grey is the rarest catch from the shore. Although it looks similar to the thin and thick lipped variants it is clearly identifiable by the golden mark on each gill cover, which is sometimes surrounded by further golden scales. Another identifying factor are the pectoral fins which are longer than in the above two species and will reach the eyes if they are folded forward. This species grows to the smallest size of the three species. Like the other two species, the golden grey mullet is classed as a species of Least Concern both in European waters and on a global basis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Commercial Value of Mullet
Although mullet are edible they are not popular as a food fish in Britain. Some anglers keep their catch for the table, but the vast majority return this species to allow it to respawn and maintain stocks. Commercial fishing vessels do not generally target mullet in UK waters, although they are caught as bycatch and often end up as bait in crab and lobster pots, so low is the domestic demand for this species and the value they command. However, there are some commercial vessels which will catch mullet for the export market. In other parts of Europe mullet is much more popular as a food fish.
All three species of mullet featured on this page are classed as species of Least Concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Due to the late maturing age and slow growth rate of this species it would take only moderate commercial pressure to cause great damage to numbers, and stocks would be difficult to rebuild from any damage which is done. Mullet are particularly vulnerable to being netted when they gather to spawn, with unscrupulous seine netters working from the shore able to net many tons of mullet during the breeding season. While this activity is massively damaging to mullet stocks as it removes huge numbers of spawning fish from the sea it is – under current UK law – perfectly legal, and defended by its proponents as being a traditional form of fishing. The public outcry to such large-scale slaughter of fish means that hopefully legislation will soon be put in place to stop this type of destructive fishing. As previously stated it is believed that the minimum size limits for mullet have been set too low, and mullet reaching the UK minimum size will still be too small to have reproduced.
Methods and Techniques to Catch Mullet
Mullet are a difficult fish to catch and many anglers are committed to spending a great deal of time and effort in order to capture this species. Mullet really are a shy and cautious fish that will quickly clear out of an area if anything spooks them. Mullet usually move in small shoals and can often be spotted swimming just underneath the surface in still and calm conditions. For this reason bays, estuaries and coves are great places to find mullet, as are marinas and harbours, especially if there are boats moored as mullet will seek out the shelter they offer. Overhangs, bridges and creeks which offer still water are also places where mullet may congregate.
Since mullet feed on algae, detritus and marine vegetation they will sometimes come very close to structures – for example eating the algae which grow on the metal and wooden supports of a pier. Mullet will feed in some unusual places such as sewage pipes (they can filter out anything inedible), under busy piers (where they have grown adjusted to eating bread and other food which people drop into the water), and estuaries which trawlers travel through can hold mullet as the fish will adapt to feeding on the pieces of fish and waste products that the commercial vessels release into the sea. Mullet often move in and back out with the tide as they prefer to feed around structures when there is a decent depth of water, meaning the best mullet fishing often coincides with high tide.
Once a suitable location which may hold mullet has been found then the sea must be still and calm. Choppy or rough seas will see the mullet move away into deeper water and fishing for this species will be pointless. If conditions are right anglers begin by looking for mullet feeding or swimming. Wearing a pair of polarised sunglasses will reduce the glare of the sun from the water and make spotting the mullet easier. When it comes to fishing for mullet light tackle is favoured. Some anglers use bass and flattie rods, but anglers specifically going for mullet step down even lighter and use freshwater carp rods and 6 – 8lb line.
Mullet fishing requires stealth and has a lot more in common with freshwater fishing than sea angling. Since mullet are only found in calm seas this ties in perfectly with using lighter fishing gear. The fishing position must be approached slowly and carefully, and the angler should avoid silhouetting him or herself against the sky, as even this can be enough to scare away any mullet which are present. Mullet will feed at all levels of the water and so the following techniques are all worth trying:
- Ledgering a bait on the seabed is an effective technique. Go as light as possible with the weight to minimise splashing and disturbance. The hook snood should be around three feet in length and made of flurocarbon line under 10lb breaking strain.
- Float fishing can be effective. The float should be completely transparent and there will be much more choice of suitable floats from the freshwater section of the tackle shop, rather than the sea fishing section. Again flurocarbon line is needed for the hooklength and a small split shot can be used. Experiment with the depth the bait is presented at to find the feeding fish, and it can be a good idea to cast away from the location where the fish are and allow the float to drift past naturally.
- Free lining a bait into an area where mullet are feeding is an excellent technique if the venue and conditions allow this. Simply allowing a baited hook to drift down into the water ensures that the bait behaves naturally and increases the likelihood of it being taken by a mullet. Small split shot can be added to create weight for casting, although this will affect the natural presentation of the bait to a certain extent.
- Floating a bait such as bread (see below) on the surface of the water can also be a good technique to catch this species.
There is an urban myth that mullet are uncatchable because their mouth is too soft and hooks will simply pull out before they can be reeled in. This is nonsense – although the mullet’s mouth is fairly soft it is tough enough to hold a hook. However, hooks do have to be very small. Size 6 or 8 are generally recommended for mullet fishing, but some anglers step all the way down to size 10 in order to to ensure that mullet take the hook all of the way into their small mouth. Be aware that mullet are strong fighters and will put up a good battle, especially on the light tackle which is likely to be used. Think about how a hooked mullet will be landed – many anglers use some form of landing net to aid getting this species onto land.
Mullet will take some of the conventional sea angling baits but they must be presented in tiny sizes on the small hook. A very small section of mackerel, bluey or herring (without the skin) can be used, as can small pieces of king ragworm, blow lugworm or harbour ragworm (maddies). Small sections of mussel are also an underrated mullet bait. Mullet will also take a wide range of other baits not normally associated with sea fishing. Bread is a top mullet bait, and a small flake of white bread accounts for a large number of mullet being caught around the UK. Bread can be fished on the surface or allowed to float or drift down through the water. Other freshwater baits such as earthworms and maggots can also be effective. Some anglers have had success with even more unconventional baits such as ham, chicken or other types of meat and even cheese, all of which have been known to produce results when fishing for mullet.
Groundbaiting is also very useful when fishing for mullet. If conditions are good but no mullet are present then groundbaiting can often attract them to the area. Rather than throwing bait into the water (and scaring the fish away) a different technique is needed. Anglers make groundbait by placing a mix of mackerel or herring guts and bread (to add bulk) into a mesh bag and then lowering this into the water near to where they are fishing. The scent and oils will leak out, along with particles of bread, and attract mullet to the area. Some anglers even go so far as to groundbait the area for a few days in the time leading up to their fishing session as the mullet will learn that this area contains food and chances of catching will be greatly improved.
Whichever technique is chosen mullet fishing needs baits to be presented in a natural manner. It does not take much to scare away mullet which is why the flurocarbon lines and clear floats are essential. Be warned that mullet are the most selective feeders of all sea fish and will turn their noses up at the finest baits presented by an expert angler for no apparent reason. Sometimes anglers can be driven to frustration when they can actively see mullet feeding on weed and algae but then see them repeatedly refuse baits put right in front of them. This is all part of the challenge of catching this unique species of fish.