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Fall 'mullet run' makes finger mullet best Carolina saltwater bait

Kyle Warren with a nice over-the-slot redfish caught on a live finger mullet.
Kyle Warren

The end of summer and beginning of fall marks the peak of the annual mullet run in the Carolinas, exciting both predator fish and anglers alike. There are always mullet in our waters, but in the early fall finger mullet become the best live bait and the most easily obtainable, the top choice for redfish (red drum), flounder, and bluefish and the best choice behind live shrimp for catching speckled trout.

Called by many locals the ‘mullet blow’ this season is marked by mullet of all size running south or west down the surf, through the inlets, and in and out of the inshore creeks.

Mullet stay near the surface and you can see the schools as dark pods rippling through the water. Mullet of all size frequently jump out of the water, especially as they are spooked by fish, crabs, birds or man.

You can gather live finger mullet in our local sounds, waterways and creeks easily using a cast net. They are far are easier to spot as they skim the surface than mud minnows (killifish) and small pinfish which swim lower in the water.

The size called finger mullet are, of course, named because they are about the size of an adult man’s index finger. Larger mullet are sometimes called corncob mullet or hardheads. Mullet themselves do not hit angler’s rigs but feed off of plankton and other small organisms found in the mud and vegetation they swim through.

When using finger mullet as bait you want to present it as naturally as possible. Your rig should be simple, using a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader, never wire unless large bluefish or sharks are your only target.

Egg sinkers work very well with finger mullet, since on a fishfinder rig (also called a Carolina rig) mullet are among the most active baitfish and will flash and circle around trying to reach as high in the water as they can due to fear of crabs, which draws fish to your bait. Backwater Rigs are a popular local choice for flounder, and Sea Striker makes several nice drum and bluefish rigs.

Finger mullet will work at all levels of the water column, since although they are most often seen on the surface mullet schools also go deep, particularly in areas where predatory birds are working.

Finger mullet live longer if you hook them through the eyes or just above the eye sockets. You can hook them through the lips if you want but they won't live as long or be quite as lively on the hook. If bluefish are biting your finger mullet in half you may need to try hooking them just behind the little spiny ridge on the back.

Keep a light drag when fishing with finger mullet since almost anything will hit them, even surprisingly large fish. Redfish smash them very hard and if they are around you should keep your rod in your hand and not in a rod holder.

Unlike redfish or bluefish, if you are fishing finger mullet on the bottom for flounder you should be aware that flounder will hit your bait and then hold it in their mouths, rolling it around and often scaling it with their small teeth. Instead of jerking the hook immediately when flounder fishing feel for the initial hit (a thump that makes the line go slack) and give the fish at least 30 seconds to take the bait. If you jerk on the first hit you'll pull the finger mullet out of the flounder's mouth and just get back a mangled mullet.

Finger mullet are also a fine live bait for anglers and guides who use circle hooks. Of course, if you are using a circle hook don’t even set the hook; no matter what your target the fish will be there. Setting the hook with a circle hook will just pull it out of a fish’s mouth.

When you cast your finger mullet into likely gamefish spots- around pilings, rocks, under big mullet schools, or around points and creek mouths -don't jerk the rig around too much. Give it a little hop up off the bottom so the finger mullet flashes to attract bites. Let the rig sit for a few minutes in likely spots and let the finger mullet do the work.

For many more fishing tips see my book Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas

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