NEWPORT RIVER — Not glamorous, but Carolina’s jumpin’ mullet is, and always has been, our most deliciously romantic summer and autumn inhabitant.
Tradition insists that every October the Carteret Wildlife Club will celebrate its mullet roast in the Stephenson’s yard, fronting on the Newport River. We arrived about the time the twinkling of awakening stars began to fade as soft mingling mists of fog and rain began moving across the sound, blanking out the fire red glow of sunset fading in the western sky. The red and green of channel markers, reflecting on calm mirroring waters, warned of wandering channels and hidden shoals. Closer aboard, the orange fire glow mingling with rising smoke, illuminated faces of assembling friends as they awaited their turn with the smoking racks of roasting mullet. A case of Carolina coastlands in the autumn and living as folks were meant to do.
If you question the choice of mullet, ask any long-time coastal Carolina resident which of the dozens of varieties of fish landed along its beaches and offshore is the most popular. They would, without hesitation, list the jumpin’ mullet as top. Witness in late summer, the waters come alive with leaping fish, as if celebrating life as a grand reunion, peaking October through November. It is not most popular in the sense the mighty blue marlin generates millions of tourist, tournament dollars most every summer. Or the blue finned tuna, which can sell for up to $15 in the Japanese market.
Such big game fishing might be loosely compared with big or “muscle” fish. A pan or so of smaller fish” are tastier, abundant and easier to handle. Obviously the word “pan fish” suggests a fish that fits in a fry-pan. For this reason I’m a strong advocate of the abundant mullet, shad, hogfish, croakers, blue fish and similar more common species, of which the autumn’s jumpin’ mullet is a prime example.
Smoked or roasted mullet is a fisherman’s delight, full of flavor, and rich in all those things that are good for us. Asian markets consider mullet roe (eggs) as equivalent to caviar. Before the days of refrigeration, salted and dried mullet sustained many a family during lean times.
Historically, the onset of fall always involved mulleting. When the first of the cool Canadian air masses push further and further south, the falling temperatures soon put the fish on the move, known all along the Carolina Coast as “mullet blows.”
The beach fisheries traditionally began at this time, as the bulk of summer tourists depart, and the seas are favorable for working nets from the beaches. Following the passage of the rough weather, local fishermen would launch boats in the surf paying out lengthy gill nets, seeking to intercept the autumnal migrations of schooling fish. Those days are gone.
Very few hook and line anglers ever are clever enough to outsmart a mullet, not understanding the young are plankton feeders, as are oysters and various shellfish. However, full adults do switch to vegetation, which offers a baffling, but not impossible challenge to the more skillful and cunning fishing rod artist.
It was appropriate that the mullet roast concluded with Eagle Scout Peter Pitman of Sleepy Creek reporting that he erected six osprey (fish hawk) nesting sites, enhancing the future of true, native mullet fishing experts.