The new moon cast darkness like a thick blanket over Sebastian Inlet State Park. The sunset rain thinned out the crowd of would-be anglers. Only the diehards were there, nearly all wearing LED head lamps.
From the deck of the catwalk under the A1A bridge, the incoming tide was flat out screaming. Where the water parted around the bridge pilings, it looked like whitewater rapids in a western mountain river. It was huffing from the Atlantic Ocean into the Indian River Lagoon at close to 5 knots.
Hanging in the humid air was the feeling that a seasonal change was afoot. The mullet were here, and everything was about to go off.
Florida is a little different than the rest of the country. Our unofficial state mascot, Florida man, has taught us all that.
Transplants have always told me they wish Florida had seasons like (fill in the blank of the state they came here from). I always tell them Florida has seven seasons. They are, in no particular order:
- Football season
- Spring football season
- Jan. 17 (or what we call “winter”)
- Hurricane season (which never ends)
- Mosquito season (which also never ends)
- Tourist season (which pretty much never ends)
- Fall mullet run
For anglers, the last season is the one they really get excited for. It takes place along Florida’s coastlines through the months of September and October.
More: Snook: Season opens for most of Florida Sept. 1, 2020; SW Florida still catch and release
It always starts the same way: rumor fueled by wishful thinking. The mullet sightings begin sometime around the third week of August. They usually start off with phrases like “A friend of mine in Jacksonville said …” or “They’re at the Georgia state line …”
Usually, neither of these is true, but I get why it happens. Late July into August can be the slowest time for fishing along Florida’s coastline. Snook season is closed to harvest, so they are strictly catch and release. They also are about the only reliable fishing target during that stretch.
Sometimes tarpon, redfish and snapper offer a little variety. But little else is going on, and there are virtually no bait to be had, not even shrimp.
So the mirage begins. Every angler near the water’s edge in late August who sees a splash in a coastal estuary thinks it’s the beginning of one of the greatest annual migrations on Planet Earth. In reality, it’s probably just a little fish trying to shed a parasite.
For the next two weeks, the rumor mill begins to pick up a little speed, and with a little bit of truth to it. Some mullet schools — what Joey Antonelli of Indiatlantic calls “pre-pods” — begin pushing down the coast north to south.
The first ones are the silver mullet and they tend to be a little off the beach, or even in deeper water, Antonelli explained. The finger mullet come later. These are the mullet every living thing in the water are after.
More: Ed Killer: Why it’s a terrible time to be a tiny glass minnow on a Florida beach
They are no longer than a person’s finger, and have shiny silver scales. They are yearling mullet and they are following a great pre-programmed instinct to head south for the winter. They wind up in Florida Bay, the Florida Keys and Everglades, eventually.
Some of the silvers head as far south as Central America, crossing the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
I started getting tagged in social media posts about three weeks ago. The emails began about two weeks ago. Anglers claimed they were here.
I was skeptical, so I checked my sources. Sure enough, the action was light, at best. On scouting and fishing trips recently, I classified the mullet schools I saw as being mostly resident fish being harassed by jack crevalles, snook, tarpon and sharks.
But Wednesday, I decided to travel to Sebastian Inlet as research for this column. The tide took me a little by surprise, but the new moon fall tide is like that here. When I swung over the T-Dock on the south side of the inlet, a half-mile west of the bridge, that’s when I realized no matter whether prior reports were correct or false, my own observation was clear.
It was on.
This was definitely part of the largest biomass of just about anything other than humans that will make its way south this year. Even in the complete darkness, with nothing but the light from my cellphone to help me see, my other senses told me Florida’s greatest season had officially begun.
I could hear the mullet. It sounded like the pitter-patter of a light rain on the water’s surface. I could smell the fishiness of the scene a few yards off the dock.
The school measured well over an acre in size. It was holding position in the current as it tried to employ a safety-in-numbers approach to survival.
Around me, the exultations of excited anglers told of the fun being enjoyed by dozens. A man on the dock next to me hooked and hauled over the rail a top-of-the-slot sized snook. A fisher on a boat drifting nearby did the same with a hoot and a holler.
It was truly like an episode of Wild Kingdom or Blue Planet taking place.
All at once, the surface of the water erupted. The sound of 500 mullet scrambling skyward to evade a predator made it sound like someone sprayed a fire hose across the inlet.
No doubt tarpon, snook, redfish, big jacks, sharks and more were in the midst of a great feed. Soon, this biomass of fish will be commonplace from Melbourne to Jupiter.
It will be found along beaches, around inlets, along causeways, under bridges and at the end of docks. For the next six weeks, or until a tropical storm hits us directly, the mullet run will be underway.
Florida’s finest season is finally here.
Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Become a valued customer by subscribing to TCPalm. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at [email protected]