Meet Colin Macleod, raised on fishing for the wild trout of Caithness and Sutherland, Colin now lives on the south coast near Portsmouth, where his passion lies with the equally wild fish inhabiting our shores and the constant development of flies and tactics to catch them. Whilst never tiring of the thrill of doing battle with belligerent bass, mercurial mackerel, gyrating garfish, plunging Pollack and the occasional thornback ray, Colin particularly relishes the challenge presented by UK mullet species on fly.
Colin was interviewed as part of the #OrvisMayflyFestival and here are some of his tips:
1. What is your earliest fly fishing memory?
My earliest fly fishing memory is fishing for trout on a warm summers evening with my father and grandfather on the banks of the River Thurso in the north of Scotland, aged 9. I cannot think of a more beautiful place to first pick up a fly rod.
2. Tell us about what you look for in changes in fish behaviour when you’re watching a group of fish in the shallows.
Detecting changes in fish behaviour can make the difference between a blank session and a successful outing. There are occasions when a shoal of mullet gather in the shallows and commence to feed rather cautiously. The intensity with which mullet feed correlates to the ease with which they will take a fly. Fish which show half-hearted feeding behaviour have a tendency to become wary of flies introduced to their midst and can visibly shy away from their presence. But all is not lost. By carefully observing the shoal as a collective, it is often possible to detect small, localised outbreaks of activity, which I call ‘hot spots’. These fish appear animated in relation to other members of the shoal and demonstrate full on feeding behaviour, having possibly come across an area of concentrated food, such as a group of shrimp. This heightened activity may only last for 10 seconds or so and it is vital to quickly introduce the flies to the commotion. In this type of situation a hook-up is practically guaranteed.
3. I have a small estuary near me, often the fish are packed in there feeding at a bend in the river with very little flow, I never know what to do with the flies, a dead drift mean they won’t move and just sink. What retrieves can I try with the flies in your Selectafly selection please? By the way in the middle, the river is up to 6ft deep.
It would be worth observing the entire period during which the fish are feeding to see if the current increases at any point, which would help in drifting the flies. If the mullet are thick-lips then a drifting fly is the most effective technique. If the mullet are thin-lips then they will not accept a purely drifting fly. For thins it is necessary to drift the flies amongst them then commence a short, quick strip to gain a response. If the current proves to be weak throughout the tidal cycle then as you suggest, retrieving the flies is an option. The most successful patterns for retrieving are the Spectra Shrimp, Red Tag, Mullet Bach, Flexi-shrimp and Romy’s Sand Shrimp. Start with a slow, short retrieve, speeding up as necessary to gain the mullet’s attention. Although the centre of the river is relatively deep, mullet tend to feed mainly near the surface.
4. Describe the first time that you landed a mullet and what species was it?
I landed my first mullet in June 2009, on a flexi-floss worm type fly. I had fished the same area the previous evening, looking for bass and sea trout and came across a shoal of large thick-lipped mullet. I returned home that evening to research online which flies may tempt a mullet and discovered that a flexi-floss worm might do the trick. I returned to the same spot to catch low tide the following morning and caught a 4lb thick-lipped mullet on the very first cast.
5. I fish the Humber Estuary and it can be very murky, there are a lot of thick lipped mullet, is it still possible to target them in the murky conditions and what flies please?
As long as water clarity allows the mullet to see the fly then a catch is possible. Dark flies and a very slow retrieve should help. If the mullet are feeding on the surface then a Ghostbuster, which is a buoyant fly, slowly moved across the surface could work.
6. Can you cast ahead or directly over a shoal of mullet like upstream nymphing, or can you hook them this way? I have found mullet in an estuary that can be 4ft deep in places.
Best approach is to position yourself 10-15 yards upstream from the head of the shoal and cast across the current. Dead drift the flies through the shoal and watch the end of the fly line for any sign of interest from the fish. A mullet can mouth a fly and release it without the angler being any the wiser. If you suspect that a mullet is showing interest then gently strip strike before raising the rod.
7. What do you prefer – estuary or open shore/ surf?
Estuaries generally provide more consistent sport but I have been fortunate to enjoy excellent sport at both types of location. Fishing for mullet in the crashing surf is a wonderful experience and quite dramatic. Sight casting to large golden greys feeding over sand in a few inches of water is equally memorable. However, if I could choose only one location it would be an estuary.
8. What is the season for mullet fishing?
Generally, thin-lipped mullet are the first species to arrive around our shores and tidal rivers from March onwards, followed by thick-lipped mullet in May and golden grey mullet in June. However, mullet do not become a viable target for the fly fisher until the inshore food chain becomes sufficiently established to offer mullet a sustainable diet of small invertebrates, crustaceans, Idotea and shrimp. This normally occurs around late April for thin-lips, May for thick-lips and July for golden greys. A warm, settled autumn will maintain sea temperatures and provide sport with mullet until late October or November.
9. Where are the best places to find each species of mullet?
The three species of UK mullet tend to inhabit their own unique environments. Thick-lips are normally encountered around estuaries where they come and go with the tide. Look for shoals feeding in the river current. Thin-lips prefer muddy or silty environments where they feed on mud shrimps as the tide floods, with fish commonly seen hunting shrimp on the edge of the flooding tide in water so shallow that their backs are exposed. Thin-lips also enter tidal rivers and shoals can be found many miles upstream. Golden greys are the beach bums of the group and frequent the long sandy surf beaches of Cornwall, Devon and Wales. Small sandy bays in Hampshire and Sussex will often attract small populations of golden greys.
10. What is your favourite set-up for mullet?
A 6 weight rod is a good all-rounder. For the past three seasons I have fished with an Orvis Recon 6 weight saltwater model and it is quite simply the best rod I have fished with. It is a mid-priced rod but provides top end performance. Paired with a Hydros reel, I have my perfect outfit.
11. What type of leader do you use and is it tapered?
I use fluorocarbon for my leader material, for a number of reasons. When stalking fish credited with excellent eye sight in clear, shallow water, the angler needs every advantage available. Fluorocarbon achieves this through being practically invisible in water, which also allows higher breaking strains to be used. Fluorocarbon also sinks more readily than nylon or copolymer, an advantage considering that salt water is more buoyant than fresh. Nothing is likely to spook a sharp eyed mullet more than leader material twinkling on the surface as it drifts by! Fluorocarbon of 8-10lb b/s straight though without a taper works perfectly well, as casting distances are short and small shrimp patterns are easy to turn over. Leader length is twelve to fourteen feet. Bonefish style tapered leaders also work well, and are a means of reducing the amount of expensive fluorocarbon used.
12. Do you use droppers on the leader?
I like to use one dropper on the leader, which allows me to fish two different patterns, with the dropper positioned three feet from the point fly. For many years I fished with two droppers but rarely if ever caught mullet on the top dropper and find that tangles occur more frequently with two droppers.
13. What are you ‘go to’ flies?
I select the flies to suit the different species and conditions to be fished. For thin-lips feeding over mud my starting line-up would be a Romy’s Mud Shrimp on the point and a Spectra Shrimp on the dropper. For thin-lips feeding in a tidal river my choice would be a Silica Shrimp with a Mullet Bach on the dropper. For thin-lips chasing sand shrimp, the cast would feature a Romy’s Sand Shrimp on the dropper and a Mullet Bach on the point. For golden greys feeding in the breakers on a surf beach I would use a Flexi-worm on the point with a Mullet Bach on the dropper. My ‘go-to’ cast for thick-lips would definitely be a Spectra Shrimp with a Romy’s Sand Shrimp on the dropper.
14. Is it possible to catch individual mullet which are not feeding in shoals?
Tempting a lone mullet to take a fly is virtually impossible until the latter part of the season. Between June and the end of August it is vitally important to focus on shoals of feeding fish to get results but once September arrives, lone thick-lipped mullet become a viable target. Falling water temperatures herald the on-set of winter and act as a trigger for large individuals to increase their feeding for leaner times ahead. The fish which steadfastly ignored our offerings in July and August will now show determined interest in a passing fly. Pulling the flies slowly across the mullet’s path is the preferred method, with Ghostbusters, Spectra Shrimps, Red Tags and Mullet Bachs the main culprits.
15. What was last season’s best fly?
Unquestionably the tagged Romy’s Sand Shrimp. It produced eight thin-lipped mullet and three bass on my second outing of the season.
16. Which species is easiest to catch?
This really depends on conditions at the time of fishing. Assuming that all three mullet species were present in equal numbers and feeding with equal intensity then golden greys are the most likely to take a fly, closely followed by thin-lips. I put this down to these species showing a slightly more developed predatory instinct than thick-lips. This is also reflected in the aggression with which each species strikes a fly.
17. Can you describe the ‘perfect picture’ you look for at the start of a session?
Settled weather conditions, good water clarity and copious shrimp in the margins; Light winds and sunshine to facilitate fish spotting; Fish feeding in the current created by the ebbing tide; Warm sunshine, to bake the exposed sand and silt at low tide which rapidly heats the flooding tide. The shallows become incredibly warm, sending the food chain in to overdrive. Mullet love warm water.